The San Andrés Tango

Leo and Patricia sat at a table in the open air bar of the San Andrés Yacht Club, on San Andrés Island, Colombia. The Island was closer to Nicaragua and Panama than Colombia, on the Caribbean side. The island was destination party central for Colombians. A little slice of paradise for the affluent and the backpack bum and slum crowd alike.

Patricia sipped delicately from a large, icy glass holding a frozen concoction and festooned with umbrellas and little plastic swords spearing a variety of tropical fruits. Leo just drank a Club Colombia beer, though the edge of his glass was rimed with salt and there was a chunk of lemon in his beer. They languished like leisurely vacationers, watching the boats come in and out of the yacht club. The scenery was absolutely stunning. No green water off the beach; the water was a pure brilliant blue.

Patricia was watching a large luxury yacht/sportsman’s boat approach the yacht club slips. “Do you think that is him?” she asked.

Leo squinted into the sun behind his shades. “Welp, it surely does look like a 52-foot Silverton, white and aquamarine, and that thrumming I can feel in my chest from here surely does sound like a trio of MTU 8000 engines, frustrated at being throttled down, so yeah, I think it’s him.”

The Silverton hit the no wake zone and throttled way down. The boat gracefully did a J-turn and began to back into its assigned slip that the harbor master had given the pilot (channel 18 for the San Andrés Yacht Club). Two rather fulsome, bikini-clad ladies came up from below decks. I heard a man’s voice sound off with “Uno! Dos! Tres!” Both the bikini girls threw bumpers over the port side of the boat. Then they cheered and clapped for themselves like they had just solved for cold fusion. The 1-2-3 count went off again and bumpers went off the starboard side. After a final countdown, bumpers went off the stern, just as the boat reached the terminal end of the slip and, bumper protected, gently kissed the jetty at slip’s end.

The pilot, a wildman named Coker, jumped down from the cockpit and helped the ladies tie off the lines around the slip’s cleats, securing the vessel to the slip. Coker jumped up on the jetty, and with a theatrical wheeling of arms, that left both fingers pointing at the main clubhouse, hollered, “All right, ladies, grab your bags and get your booties off my boat!”

The girls sped below decks and reappeared a couple seconds later, toting one bag each. The honey blonde wearing the black bikini carried a backpack. The dark, short haired brunette in the white bikini with a full sleeve of ink on her left arm and a lot of tats on her right leg carried a sports duffle. They both leapt up on the jetty and, well, sorta smothered Coker. Jeez, thought Leo, Coker sandwich. That cat’s going to be insufferable.

Patricia said to Leo, “Our brave francotirador must have had a nice voyage traveling with such beautiful ladies.”

“Yeah,” said Leo, “I’m sure he had a grand time. Still, he wants to equal the fun we have, he’d need three, maybe four more chicas.

Patricia laid her hand on Leo’s gnarled forearm. “You are ver’ kind, mi amour.”

Then she looked at him archly over her glass. “And ver’ correct.”

As the ladies left, Leo and Patricia watched them go. No reason to rush the boat and let the bikini babes get a look at them. After a decent interval, they stood, Leo threw enough pesos down to cover the tab, and walked down the jetty to the boat. Leo couldn’t help but lamp every boat on each side as they strolled, looking for anything out of place or of concern. As they clambered off the jetty and onto the stern, Leo crouched and thumped the deck. Three times, fast and hard. Pause. One more thump. When they approached the door leading below decks, he issued the same series of knocks.

Coker met them coming down the stairs. Bro hug for Leo. Big (but not overenthusiastic, Coker had seen Leo flip the homicidal switch too many times) “you my sister” hug for Patricia, with her kissing each of his cheeks multiple times. They all sat in the great room; Coker provided beverages.

Patricia said,”Coker, I have never seen you with a beard. It looks ver’ nice on you.”

Coker grinned, and said, “Yeah, well, I was only back from The Box for two days before I got tasked to support this mission, so I figured I’d just trim the beard up a little instead of just shaving it all off.”

Patricia punched Leo in the arm. “He was only home two days!? How can you do this to him? How can you not take care of our brave francotirador?”

Leo deadpanned it. “Yeah, you’re right. If only someone had given him three weeks in Miami to get the boat reconfigured and refitted. If only someone had given him explicit guidance to spend enough time lounging in sun to even out his tan, so that he didn’t look like a farmer or a soldier. If only someone had had the first leg of his cruise be to Santa Marta to shake down the boat, and then a week to repair any damages. If only someone had arranged for a coupla hotties to make the transit with him. If only…”

Leo and Coker both leaned forward and clinked beer bottles.

Patricia snuggled into Leo, “See, I tol’ you. You do love him!”

Leo and Coker both squirmed.

“Yeah, maybe a little bit–“

“In a, you know, brother–“

“Brother-in-arms kind of way.”

“Totally not gay though,” they said in unison, and then clinked beer bottles again.

Patricia furrowed her brow, “But Coker, I am thinking, in this moment, that it was very unsafe for you to go from Miami to Santa Marta to here. Especially with those beautiful chicas on board. Who was there to cover you? To stand watch when you were sleeping…or otherwise engaged?”

Coker inclined the top of his beer bottle toward Leo. “This one’s yours, boss.”

Leo grunted and said, “Mi corazon, both of those young bikini beauties were Master Mariners. What? You think I’d leave a boat this expensive in this idiot’s hands?”

Coker laughed, “Yeah, I’m feeling the love now.”

Patricia snuggled up even harder to Leo.

“And, now that I think about it,” said Leo, “If you knocked either one of those ladies up, I gotta do a whole lot of paperwork.”

Leo grinned. “C’mon, boss. I’m a pro.”

“Uh-huh.”

A horn that sounded like a freighter’s went off, so close that the whole boat seemed to vibrate.

“What. The. Heck. Was. That?” asked Coker.

Leo shrugged. “They got a horn attached to a chain at the club. Every evening, right at sundown, they pick a tourist to sound the horn. It’s an attraction, or something.”

“Cool,” said Coker.

Coker gave them a tour of the boat. He pointed out the upgraded comms and anti-intrusion systems, the hidden holding compartments and all the upgrades the boat had undergone. Finally, he showed them the smaller, port-side stateroom that had been re-worked to unobtrusively be a full up Faraday cage stateroom; bottom line, no EMS signals were going in or getting out.

After the tour, the three repaired to the great room.

“Okay, boss. The boat is ship-shape. Heh. Now what’n heck are we doing?”

Leo reached down to his modest backpack, and pulled out a stack of folders. “Awright, hermano. I’m sure you know that the Administration has declared the IRGC a terrorist organization.” The Iranian Republican Guards Corps ran a not-so-subtle shadow government within Iran. Not only were they a big piece of keeping the Supreme Leader and his religious regime in place, they were the primary enabler for exporting Iranian terrorist activities worldwide.

“What you might not have heard, is that with the defection of IRGC General Ali Nasiri, we’ve had some targeting possibilities open up. You probably got some of the benefits of this intel in Syria, but the documents he defected with are definitely paying off in this region of the world. With the IRGC now a terrorist organization, our authorities to act against them have greatly expanded.

“In Venezuela, the Iranians are desperate to help Maduro hold on. Other than civil unrest, no effort to dislodge Maduro has caught any type of traction. The Iranians are desperate to help Maduro hang on. He’s one of the few world leaders that will overtly flaunt US sanctions against Iran, as they are subject to the same sanctions. So, we have intel provided by Nasiri, that we’ve been able to corroborate, that the Quds Force is sending over a heavy hitter to help the locals plan a way to support Maduro staying in power.

“Bottom line, we think the Quds Force are sending this cat, ” Leo flipped open one of the folders and pointed to a surveillance picture, “Pezhman Piranshahri, a full-up Colonel in the Quds Force, to lead a planning effort here in Colombia, off-site from Venezuela, to coordinate operations and activities that’ll help Maduro stay in power.”

Coker began quickly flipping through the files. “Holy Schmoley, we got a full up meeting of the axis of evil, showing up here.”

“Yeah,” said Leo. “But what they don’t know, is with the designation of IRGC as a terrorist entity, if they make any plans to conduct any actions that might come close to possibly looking something like a terrorist act, they are complicit, and suffer the same designation. They all become legitimate targets.”

“We hittin’ ’em, boss?”

Leo smiled, “We’re putting some teeth back into the Monroe Doctrine.”

Coker whistled. “I’m so in. What are my priorities of work?”

“Spend some time with the target packets. Get to know all these knuckleheads. We’re pretty sure the top Hezbollah clan on the island–and large in Venezuela–the Habkouk clan, is going to host the meet. We’re trying to refine when and where. Pay special attention to the Cuban and the Russian. They’re both bad news on steroids. I’ll have some second story work for you to do tomorrow night to help us refine the target.”

Leo handed over a cell phone. “Take this. It’s local and it won’t raise any eyebrows. Keep your cell on the boat. I’ll hand over a mission phone to you at the hotel tonight.” Leo handed over a little cardboard folder with a key in it. “Meet us in our suite in three hours. We’re at the Playa Bonita. Knock first. It’d be a shame if Patricia shot you coming through the door.”

Patricia pouted, “I would be ver’ sad if I shot you, Coker.”

“Got it. Don’t come through the door like Kramer. What’re you guys doing?”

“To make your life easier, I gotta go out and be a jerkface.”

Patricia cupped Leo’s face in her hands, “Mi amour, you are a very cute jerkface.”

*

Eli Faiyad sat behind the counter at Caballeros Grande Electronics. The young 24-year old was miserable. He had come from Lebanon, up the pipeline: Brazil-to-Ecuador-to-Colombia. The Habkouk clan had placed him in San Andrés, and he’d known he’d have to work for a couple years doing vanilla stuff and staying under the radar. Still, he hadn’t known that preparing to serve the Party Of God would be so…mercantile. He was made for better things. He could do more for the Party, and for Jihad, than he was doing now. Still, San Andrés was not so bad. And the Habkouks were not so bad. He knew if he worked hard, stayed pious and honest and kept his nose clean, he would rise up through the ranks. He also knew that as the Habkouks gained confidence in him, he would be able to do more and more work on the illicit side of the Habkouk businesses. Then, he knew, he’d be well remunerated for his efforts.

The bells over the door rang, and the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen flowed into the store. Sure, she was a whore, as all non-Muslim Colombian women were, but she was graceful and smiling and Eli wanted to move mountains for her, despite the whore that she was. She wore an open-shoulder sundress, and her smile was brilliant and bright and made Eli want to see that smile turned on him.

Before the door could fully close, it crashed open and the bells jangled angrily. A brute stalked in behind the beauty.

The brute said in English, “You happy now? Can you get what you want, here?”

She cast her eyes down, “Yes, I think so.”

“Good. Ima look around. Hurry up. We got stuff to do.”

Her smile seemed fragile and long-suffering. “Of course.”

She turned to Eli and said, “We will have some people over to the apartment we rented to entertain. I am thinking, in this moment, we need a better sound system, and a way to run streaming and CD music, can you help me?”

Of course. Eli about threw his back out rushing out from behind the counter to help her find what she wanted. He walked her up the aisle, pointing out the pros and cons of each different system available. He carefully tried to nudge her to get the DJ master mix system, the most expensive option. She seemed game.

Halfway through his pitch on the DJ master mix, the brute barreled around the corner, hollering “Are we done, yet? We been here maybe fifteen minutes already. Let’s go!”

“Almost done.”

She bent over to look at a boom box on the bottom shelf. Eli was captivated by her butt. She turned to look up at him, and Eli had a straight shot look down the front of her sundress. It about took his breath away. “Is this one any good?” she asked, batting her eyes. “Yes, very good.”

The beauty cast her eyes in the general direction of the brute. “Can I come back and pick up my items later? He is very impatient. I do not want to cause a scene.” Eli said, “Of course.”

“May I have the number here, so that I can call before I come to pick up?”

Eli jumped at the opportunity to give her his own personal cell number. “And could I get an email from you? I made need to get a written quote so that he doesn’t throw a fit or accuse me of wasting money.” Eli quickly provided his personal email.

“This email is your own, yes?” At Eli’s nod, she continued, “when we get back to the apartment I will send you an email requesting a quote.” She put her hand on his arm, “And you have been so nice, maybe there will be a special gift just for you attached to it.”

Leo and Patricia left the store, Leo with tight, rigid posture, storm clouds brewing on his brow, and his fists very nearly clinched. Leo held that affect for a couple of blocks, then sighed and let the tension evaporate.

“I hate having to perform in jerkface mode.”

“I know, mi amour. But it made me sympathetic, a little, to that clerk. He was very forthcoming.”

*

Patricia had just finished emailing the clerk when she heard, at the door, three hard, rapid knocks, a pause and a final knock. She checked her smartphone and punched up the view to the pin camera in the hall, confirming the knocker was Coker. She heard the key card hit the lock.

Coker was impressed with the setup for mission control. Because Patricia was a foreign national, there was no way The Powers That Be were going to let her be in even close proximity to their usual comms and tech. Leo had compensated by getting some of the best commercial equipment available.

Leo said, “This job, we’re going with minimum personnel and maximum tech. I got two guys in another suite down the hall. One’s a comms guy, the other’s a network guy. If any of this stuff goes down while Patricia is pulling Mission Control, they’ll be available to get her spun back up. They’re both used to handling crypto, so they’ve also got M4s and multiple cameras through the hotel and this hallway. If anything or anyone threatens Mission Control, they’ll handle it.”

“Okay, what about Mission Support?” asked Coker.

“Mission Support is back stateside. They’re fully connected to our comms suite here.” Leo dug two smartphones from a gear bag. “These are our mission phones. I’ve got them loaded up for everything I think we’ll need, but I want your review and input before we go final.”

Coker fired up the smartphone, and used the PIN that Leo gave him. He opened his DayTradR app, selected Nuveau Tekk to buy stock from, and entered a trade for $57.43. On that a whole new interface opened up. Coker began to flip through his options. Imagery for possible targets came up. Commercial imagery for the whole island opened up. Full frontal photographs of the personnel that might be targets (the app would apply facial recognition software to anyone whose face came up in the phone’s camera app; helped with positive identification (PID)). There were live feeds from numerous spycams that Leo had already emplaced on roofs, in alleys, and on streets that had a view of possible target sites. The mission phone looked good to go.

“Outstanding” said Coker. “Only thing I would add is a topographic map of the island. If I got to dive out the back of a warehouse, I want to know whether the drop will be three feet or thirty meters.” Leo nodded and made a note.

Coker looked at some of the unfilled options on the phone. “Why you got the empty expansion slots in here, boss?”

“We can’t go hot until we’ve got confirmation that the meeting participants are overtly planning terrorist actions or activities. We need ears in, so that Mission Support can confirm that they’ve crossed the line. Also, mission support will provide real-time translation on this line, so that whatever language they’re making their plans in, we’ll know.”

Coker nodded.

“Also, you’re installing the on-site ears in all the possible meet locations. You can knock that out tomorrow night, while we monitor Jaafir and Hasim Habkouk’s computers and phones to try to drill down on where the meet will be. Best as Mission Support can determine, the Habkouks have three warehouses on the island. We assess the meets will take place in one of those.”

Just then Patricia, who had been on her laptop the entire time Leo and Coker were huddling up, broke in, “Leo, the clerk has opened my email requesting a quote and downloaded the attachments. The IP address shows that he was using the store computer, not a personal.” The two attachments were photos of Patricia in her bikini, that Leo had taken the day before.

“Okay. Now we own Cabellero Grande’s computer, and the clerk’s phone, and it’s all also slaved to Mission Support. So tomorrow night, while you are playing ninja, we’ll be ransacking everything they’ve got in their boxes and refining possible target sets.”

Coker sat back, “Okay, sounds like everything is good to go. Let’s talk about actions after the tripwire’s crossed. Let’s talk about the assault.”

“Yeah.” Leo scrubbed his face–a stress reaction Coker had never seen Leo display.

“You know how I said we were going light on personnel, heavy on tech?”

Coker nodded.

“Me ‘n you are the ground assault force. That’s it.”

Coker sat back, closed his eyes, and thought about it. Then he leaned forward and placed his hand on the folders that had all the possible targets in them. He said, “we got at least three Habkouks we think will be at the meet, the IRGC turd Piranshahri, the Russian Borodin and the Cuban Abrantes–both of whom, if I remember correctly, you described as ‘bad news on steroids,’ have I got that right?”

“Yup.”

“We got no one outside, no QRF, no cordon, no sniper providing eyes on target, no air. Have I got that right?”

“Yup.”

Coker sat back again, closed his eyes and massaged the bridge of his nose–a stress reaction that he was pretty sure Leo had never seen out of him.

“I’m in, on one condition.”

“What’s that?”

“I’m first through the door.”

“You got it.”

*

Coker was in the rafters of the third and final warehouse that he had to prong. First, he’d gone into the back of Caballeros Grande and hooked them up with sound, as well as bugging their landlines. While the clerk had been fixated on Patricia and her…assets, Leo had installed two pin cameras, which had given him two different angles on the security system’s control panel, enabling them to get the on/off code for the alarms. Coker had recovered the cameras, installed a more robust, better hidden observation suite, then checked the tech with Patricia to make sure they were good to go.

Coker hooked his legs over the rafter and hung upside down. He carefully pulled out small piece of rectangular black plastic and removed a piece of plastic over the adhesive strip on one side. He then affixed the strip to the small water pipe that ran down to the fire sprinkler. Removing the plastic not only activated the listening device in the rectangle, it also started the chemical reaction that would power the device for about 72 hours. When the power ran out, the same chemical reaction would quickly reduce the device to a small dollop of black, tarry sludge. At/about another 18 hours after that, the device would be almost indistinguishable from a stripe of black mold. It would take a forensic specialist with a mass spectrometer to determine that it had ever been anything else.

Coker’s mission phone was in a clear acetate gauntlet strapped to his forearm. He tapped a one-word message that would go to mission control and mission support–Patricia in the hotel suite and the brainiacs back stateside–“check.”

He then reached up to the rafter he was hanging upside down on and softly wrapped on the metal three times fast, pause, then one more wrap.

MC: Bueno.

MS: 5×5.

He was done. That was the final installment. He pulled himself upright on the rafter and began his slow, steady exfil from the warehouse.

*

Coker returned to the boat, showered and put on some comfortable clothes, and walked to the Hotel Playa Bonita in the soft pre-dawn light. The Army called it Begin Morning Nautical Twilight–BMNT. Coker thought that the Army just couldn’t leave well enough alone. At the door to Leo and Patricia’s suite, he knocked; standard three fast, pause, one more knock. He thought about mooning the pin camera that he knew Leo would’ve put in the hall. Then he thought better of it. If one of Leo’s “guys” down the hall were a female, he could get a sexual harassment complaint. Heck, thought Coker, the way things are now, it could be two dudes and I’d still get a sexual harassment complaint. The door opened just in the amount of time Coker figured it would take to check the pin cam and pull the door stop out (Coker knew that if Leo were in a hotel room, you could guaran-damn-tee that the door would be blocked by a little rubber wedge) and Coker smiled at Patricia, “Good morning, Beautiful.”

Patricia smiled back and said, “Good morning.” Coker looked at her and made a note to himself to demand Leo count his blessings.

Coker found Leo seated at the monitor station. He had a chat session going with the brainiacs. “All right, here’s the deal. Right now mission support assesses–and I concur–that the meet will be tomorrow night, we think about 2200 hours, and we think at warehouse two. We’ve confirmed that Piranshahri flew into Panama City last night. We lost track of him after that, but he’s either headed this way or already here. More than likely, he’ll eschew hotels and stay with a Habkouk family or at one of their safe houses.”

Coker looked at Leo. “Eschew?”

“Eschew.”

“Okay. Let’s say we get the time or the location or both wrong and we hit a dry hole? Do we go into manhunting mode?”

“Negative, for two reasons. First, we are only authorized to hit all the other targets if they’re with Piranshahri and planning or doing nefarious stuff. Second, we can’t control or isolate the area if we manage to track him down and then we go dynamic. Piranshahri is a badass and he’ll fight. Too much potential for collateral damage, too much of a chance we’ll get compromised. Last thing we need to do is blow rapport with the Colombians, especially if we have to work together on overt stuff in Venezuela.”

“So if we’re wrong, we’re done.”

“If we’re wrong we’re done.”

Coker said, “Alright. Let’s put our loose course of action on warehouse two and tighten it up. Then let’s look at warehouses one and three and make some notes on how we have to adapt the plan if we’re wrong but figure out it’s one of them on time. Then let’s do a talk-through rehearsal back on two.”

“Let’s do it.”

“Patricia, my darling and the love of Leo’s life, could you please pull up all the photos I took when I was inside warehouse two?”

“Of course, my brave francotirador.”

“All right, this is what I’m thinking…”

*

Coker sat at a little cafe across the street and a little way down the road from Grande Caballero Electronics. He sipped an espresso and toggled through the comms they’d intercepted from the store, both telephonic and computer. He had carried both his mission phone and his local, Leo-supplied burner. This was Colombia; carrying two phones would raise no eyebrows. He was beginning to agree with the assessment of warehouse two. There were a lot of vague references, and a lot of idiom that were locally inspired, Arabic/Spanish hybrid words and phrases. But yeah, it looked like warehouse two was the meet site. Coker wasn’t pulling surveillance per se, but he’d wanted to digest all the Habkouk intell and figured there was no place better to do it than when being able to put eyes on Grande Caballero Electronics.

*

Vasily Borodin moved easily through the street, heading toward Grande Caballero Electronics. He had been noncommittal toward attending the meeting. The Hez were notoriously bad with their operational security. They thought they were smart and thorough, but in reality they were just too small to come under scrutiny. If IRGC was showing up, though, he didn’t trust the Hez in being able to obscure themselves or their physical, communications, or digital footprints. However, Vasily had been given the address and phone numbers of the Grande Caballero Electronics as a place he could make contact and obtain the location and date time group of the meet. Attending the meet wasn’t imperative to his country’s objectives. They were confident that the forces they had on the ground in Venezuela now with an advise and assist portfolio in counterinsurgency, population control, propaganda–basically Tyrant Power Retention 101 would suffice. But, Borodin also knew it would be a good idea to to have a sense of what the Hez and Iran would be doing. They didn’t need to collaborate so much as coordinate, to prevent redundancy and duplication of effort. Borodin also knew the Cuban, Teniente Colonel Carlos Abrantes, would be there. The Russians coordinated closely with Cuba, but Borodin didn’t trust Abrantes at all. That guy was clinically insane, and would pass on only that information that forward his personal agenda or maybe, maybe that of Cuba. There were pros and cons to attending this meet.

Borodin saw a guy sitting at a cafe, bearded with sunglasses on, idly sipping coffee and noodling on his smartphone. He immediately turned into the surf shop that was right there. He breathed a couple times, then looked out the window of the store, between the Huk fishing shirts hanging in the window. Da. He didn’t need the photo to confirm his worst suspicions but pulled up his enhanced camera app on his mission phone anyway.

He knew that guy. That guy was a veritable angel of death. Borodin had never gotten a name, a hint, or a clue as to the bearded man’s true identity during his entire time in Syria. His file just labeled him The Killer. The man was responsible for dozens of direct kills on Russian troops, advisors and Spetznaz. That was direct killing. No telling how many air strikes and mechanical ambushes this man was responsible for. The Russians had been fond of IEDs, EFPs, and VIEDs. They had trained up the loyalist Syrian forces on improving their production and employment of those devices. The Killer had shown up and employed the same explosive devices on the Russians, to devastating effect. He always hit the Russians in the places they felt the most secure in that God forsaken, war torn country. Borodin had dedicated a considerable percentage of his assets and capabilities to finding, fixing and finishing that son of a bitch, with no joy. Borodin caught a decent profile pic of the killer. The beard and shades would skew the facial recognition software, but even the best of the haphazard pics they had gleaned of The Killer had him wearing a beard and sunglasses. Many times, they only suspected it was him; times when he was wearing a kaffiyah or shemagh wrapped around his lower face.

Borodin uploaded and sent out his clandestine pic, then pulled up another app on his mission phone and set it to vacuum up every cell phone number within 100 metres of his current position, and pushed it to his mission support, with instructions to track every one of them. Vasily Borodin walked back out of the shop and walked away from the electronics shop and The Killer. He’d miss the meet, but he’d bag The Killer.

*

Coker, Leo and Patricia had had a long and tortured discussion. When they hit warehouse two, there would only be the two operators. They needed carbines. But, carbines would make getting in and out more difficult. They were going to have a hard time making an innocuous approach to the target building as it was. 2200 hours was about the time that night life in San Andrés was just getting kick-started. The island had no real concept of zoning, so there would be clubs and restaurants and bars and fast food joints and food carts all over every approach route. Leo and Coker couldn’t go in fully kitted up. Sure, they were both experienced in fighting wearing civilian gear. Still, less than optimal. Trying to stay low profile and carry rifles in would be difficult.

But, the only reason to employ a pistol in a gunfight was to gain time and space to get to a long gun. To abjure the use of rifles in an upcoming fight was antithetical to both of them.

Coker leaned back and said, “You know, this would be a whole lot easier if you weren’t built like the troll that lives under the bridge.”

“So says Mr. Spindly. What’re you coming in at after slacking off these last four weeks? 230?”

“We need smaller guys for this. Where’s Little Wilbur? We could send him up through the sewers and have him preposition our gack just inside the door.”

“He’s doing a thing over in PACOM.”

“Dang. Look, mission support should be able to tell us how many targets are actually in the building before the hit. Our camera situation, while not great, should be able to tell us how much physical security is outside the warehouse. It’s doable, it’s just if anything goes wrong, we’re bathing in weak sauce.”

“I know.”

Patricia cleared her throat, “If only you had a vehicle parked in the street next to the street near the back alley. And if only it had those M4s that you use, with extra magazines, hidden in the spare tire wheel well.”

“Yeah,” said Leo. “But parking is going to be a pain, and we got three hours til hit time. We were both scrambling all afternoon on intel and nailing down the target.”

“Yes, mi amour, you were. And what was I doing?”

“Uh, you said you were shopping…?”

“Yes, I went shopping. First, I shopped for a rental car.” She held up a set of keys, dangled them for a second, and threw them to Leo. “Then, I shopped on that magnificent boat of yours, where the brave francotirador showed us all those lovely hiding places with guns hidden in them. Then I put the guns in a duffle, put the duffle in the car, then I went shopping for a parking space on the street near the back alley.” She shot a brilliant grin at them.

“That’s it,” said Coker. “If you don’t marry her, I will.”

Patricia looked at Leo. “I remember in Machu Picchu, you had the extra car stashed away, and we escaped. I thought that was ver’ smart. I like smart. I thought an extra vehicle stashed near the alley, with guns, would be smart.”

Leo asked, “but what if the target wasn’t warehouse two?”

Patricia shrugged. “So? It costs us nothing to place the car there. If it was a different target, you could have this discussion again. The guns in the car wouldn’t be missed. Coker has enough guns hidden on the boat to…to…”

“To take over Nicaragua,” said Coker.

“Yes!”

Leo looked at Patricia and said, “Could you please pull up the imagery and cameras on warehouse two? And mark where the car is at?” Patricia nodded and moved to the monitors.

Leo looked at Coker. “Let’s get to it.”

*

Leo and Coker stood on the street corner weaving slightly. Each had a bottle of beer in one hand and a bottle of aguardiente in the other. They drank alternately from each hand, and weaved and smoked cigarettes. Two overgrown gringos, overwhelmed by the pleasures of San Andrés.

Each heard, in the blue tooth device plugged in their ears, mission support state: Targets present. Targets identified by voiceprint: Pezhman Piranshahri, Jaafir Habkouk, Hasim Habkouk, Hussein Habkouk, Carlos Abrantes.

Leo staggered and sat heavily on the brick sill of the store they were in front of. He put his head down, and mopped his brow, still weaving as he sat, looking to the casual observer like he was about to puke. He whispered “any sign of the Russian?”

“Negative.”

“All right. Doesn’t matter. Give us a go when they hit tripwire.”

Leo staggered back to his feet and swayed into Coker, both bro-hugging each other and breaking into raucous song. Then they quieted a little bit and both lit up smokes. Passers-by avoided them since they were obviously blotto. Leo began lecturing Coker on some sort of sports inanity, along the lines of “the Patriots will keep winning because they have a bench. You can have great coaching, great talent, great strategy, but if you don’t have a bench it doesn’t mean squat. Not goin’ win.”

A couple minutes into his lecture on the virtue of benches, mission support chimed in, “targets have effectively begun discussing a kill chain, and the order of assassinations most beneficial to the Venezuelan regime. Tripwire triggered. I say again, tripwire triggered.”

Leo and Coker both knew that a simple “go” would be sufficient, but every mission support comm was being recorded, and the geeks back in CONUS were stating the obvious for posterity. Coker bent over and started laughing, hands on his knees, and whispered, “Status of physical security?”

Patricia’s voice came over, “Lo mismo. Two personnel.”

Coker turned and staggered away, heading for the ally which was the approach to warehouse two’s back door. Leo seemed to sober up a little bit and walked over to a small Toyota SUV parked close to where they’d been, to all eyes that cared to watch, getting their drunk on. Leo lifted the tailgate door, upended the cover of the spare tire well, and lifted out a large gym bag. He closed the tailgate and turned to follow Coker, going slow.

Coker turned into the alley and began singing and slurring Cancion del Mariachi at the top of his lungs. He lurched down the ally, bumping, falling and leaning against the far wall of the ally from the warehouse. Two thugs were in the ally already, centered on the warehouse’s rear door. They both looked at Coker with disgust. Coker noted that they were both looking at him. The far side guy should have been looking down the other side of the ally, but no. Good. Poorly trained. The near side guy approached Coker and put his hand up, Yelling at Coker to stop and turn around and go away. Coker drew the suppressed High Standard .22 and drilled the guard twice in the chest and once in the face. The guy was dead but didn’t know that meant he should fall down. Coker pushed through him and hit the far side guy the same way. That guy knew how to die proper, and immediately sagged to the street. Immediately Leo came around the corner bearing a sports duffle on one shoulder. He stopped, opened the bag, and extracted two suppressed M4 carbines. Both pulled night vision monoculars from the bag and strapped them on. Coker pulled up his mission phone in the same gauntlet before and sent “1.” It would take two to four minutes to shut down the lights; Coker and Leo spent the time grabbing and stowing magazines for their carbines. They were already wearing their pistols under their lightweight jackets. Both had their Glock 21s with the suppressors already screwed on, so they were wearing them in shoulder holsters. Neither operators were fans of shoulder holsters, but with the cans on, what’re you going to do?

The power went off in a two block radius. Leo pulled up the sleeve of his jacket, exposing a plastic, mission-phone holding gauntlet like unto Coker’s, and sent “2.” One minute to firecrackers. Meanwhile, Coker had slapped a thin sheet of explosive over the door knob of the warehouse’s back door. They both stepped to either side of the door.

Leo pulled two flash-bangs out, one in each hand. He held out his hands and Coker adroitly pulled the pins out of each grenade. The one minute clock set by Leo’s text ran out, and in two places nearby, fire crackers started crackin’ off. Not unusual in party-central. As soon as the firecrackers started firing off, Coker blew the door. Leo stepped forward and threw the flash-bangs and rotated back away from the door. Because of the size of the warehouse, they knew the flash-bangs wouldn’t have their usual devastating effect. The sound and concussion might–might–not incapacitate every one in the place, but the blinding flash should give them the moment’s edge they need.

As soon as the flash-bangs detonated, Coker went in. Carbine up, IR light on, night vision tracking his IR laser pointing a straight line from the barrel to whatever target he came across. Leo followed immediately behind Coker. Coker broke left, Leo broke right. There was a cheap card table in the center of the warehouse, with pallets crowding all the walls. The individuals around the table were in definite disarray. Two had pulled pistols. One of the pistoleers was firing wildly toward the door. The Cuban guessed Leo. Leo put a controlled pair into the Cuban’s chest, traversed up and put one in his head. Cuban down. The other that was up with a pistol was probably the Iranian. Leo tracked over to him, but saw him go down under Coker’s fire. The rest were a mess, discombobulated and lost. Coker and Leo ended them.

Coker provided overwatch while Leo photographed each corpse. There were a couple laptops and a tablet on the table. There were three cell phones on the table; two of the corpses had their cells on them. Leo scooped them all into a canvas bag he’d had tucked into his belt. They exited, and stuffed their carbines into the gym duffle that they’d left outside by the door. Total time of engagement: 37 seconds. Total time inside the warehouse: 3 minutes, 52 seconds. The firecrackers were just tapering off as they threw the bag into Patricia’s rental vehicle. As they drove off, the lights in the neighborhood began flickering and turning back on.

*

Back at the hotel, Leo and Coker each cracked a bottle of water and guzzletld. Patricia had a look of profound relief on her face. Mission support, monitoring comms on the island, had not discerned any alerts or BOLOs. So far so good.

“If we scarper tonight,” said Leo, “it’ll be too big a signature. I’ve already pushed the pics of the targets to mission support. So tomorrow we’ll have a leisurely brunch, then I’ll go out and ditch our local phones. Coker, you start cracking the tech we picked up on the objective. We’ll pull out in the boat just after sunset. Good?”

“Good,” said Coker. “See you at brunch.” He hesitated and said, “So, are those Master Mariners still on the island?”

“They are.”

“You got their contact information?”

“I do.”

“Flip it to my local phone?”

“Done and done.”

Coker got up, fist bumped Leo, hugged Patricia, and left.

“He will be okay?” asked Patricia.

“Sure. He just needs some happy-to-be-alive sex right now, is all. This went off way better than it should have.”

Patricia moved up to Leo, “And what about you?”

Leo considered, “Well, I’m pretty happy to be alive, too.”

Patricia straddled him and kissed him gently on the forehead, then the lips. “I am thinking, in this moment, you need some happy-to-be-alive sex, too.”

Leo theatrically considered it, and said, “Yeah, baby. Yeah, I do believe I do.”

*

Borodin had his mission support screen all the phone numbers he’d sucked up the day before. He had tried calling his Habkouk clan contacts, but they were frantic and unintelligible. Borodin did the math.

Mission support had three tracks of interest. He immediately knew which one was key. He pulled up his map app and found a route to the San Andrés Yacht Club. That is where The Killer would be.

*

Leo was off cleaning all the support personnel that had no idea why they were on San Andrés island, but were on call should he have needed them. His “comms guys” down the hall from his suite were to break down the whole communications package, pack it up and ship it out. Then they were to change hotels–in order to “reduce signature”–and hang out for three days. Leo figured that life would suck enough for these kids on down the road. Hey, they were military and the military prided itself on the suck factor. So, he moved their hotel, gave them three days off, and then promised doom and the Four Horsemen upon them if they screwed up. They’d be a’ight.

Patricia walked the bag of tech from the targets down to Coker. Coker and Leo wanted to exploit as much as they could in the Faraday state room. She got to the boat, and knocked out the three-pause-four beat that she had realized was an informal near recognition signal between Leo and Coker. Coker took the bag and put it in the Faraday room, then they chatted for a little while. Patricia understood immediately that Coker was stringing her along, and acting like a shallow, self-absorbed person. This disturbed her, a little, because Coker was anything but shallow. She found him, though, impenetrable, and so after some chitchat left to go do some shopping while Coker tried to prong the tech in the Faraday stateroom.

Patricia walked up the jetty, toward the club house. As she did, she passed a man that gave her pause. Patricia had been in the game more than a while, so it didn’t literally give her pause. But as she strolled by him, her mind raced and she realized that he was the Russian that was a no-show at the meet. He had to be heading to Coker’s boat. Patricia couldn’t break stride, couldn’t show that anything was amiss. She kept up her stroll. Coker was in the Faraday room, she couldn’t call him on her cell. There were no cables running into the Faraday room; calling the boat on the harbor master’s radio was useless. Patricia thought about pulling her pistol out of her purse and shooting the Russian in the back, but that course of action had no good outcomes. Then, an idea bloomed in her mind. She increased her pace and stride a little without appearing to speed up; that would give the game away.

When Patricia got to the bar, she arrowed straight to the chain to the freighter horn that they blew every night. She dropped her purse on a nearby table, grabbed the chain, and blew three short blasts out the horn, paused, then pulled the chain for a slightly longer blast. Then she did it again. And then again. One of the waiters rushed up to get her off the chain; that was only for sundown. That was okay, after three reps, Coker either got the message or he didn’t. Patricia let go the chain and gave a brilliant smile to the exacerbated waiter. “That was so fun!” she cried. She started walking back toward the jetty and the boat. She pulled her small pistol from her voluminous purse and used the purse to cover the fact that she had a gun in her hand. Coker either got the message or he didn’t. Either way, the Russian was dead.

Coker sat in the Faraday room working on cracking the tech they’d gleaned from the objective. Any intelligence they pulled could be actionable in the near term. He was absorbed in the task, trying to ensure he used the right tool to get a righteous crack on the IT devices that he had. He noted in the background that the bar freighter horn was sounding off. Jeez, that thing was loud. The horn went off again, and alarms went off in Coker’s head. That was the three-beat-one rhythm that he and Leo used, like, all the time. Naw. The horn went off a third time and Coker moved fast. That’s not a coincidence. He exploded out of the Faraday room and swiped his Glock of the table in the great room. As he did, he saw the door begin to open and a silenced pistol emerge, pointing into the room.

Coker hit the below decks door with his shoulder, pinning the silenced weapon and the forearm behind it in the door. He pinioned the arm inside the door as hard as he could, put the suppressed muzzle of his pistol at waist height a couple inches from the door and drilled three shots into the door. The bullets hitting the door made a weirdly subdued “thunk” sound, and Coker didn’t notice any reduction in piss and vigor from the cat on the other side. Oh, yeah, I bulletproofed this door. How did I not know that? What a dumbass.

Coker dropped his pistol and grabbed the wrist attached to the gun that was trying to put rounds into him. He applied pressure and stripped the pistol out the guy’s hand. Then he pulled the wrist, let go his pressure on the door, and threw the guy into the boat’s great room. The guy immediately bounced up and came at Coker. For a few frantic seconds, the two exchanged egregious blows with knees and elbows and open palm strikes. Coker landed a vertical elbow on the crown of the guys head and dropped him. The guy immediately, from the ground, grabbed Cokers ankle and sucked it into his armpit while he tried to writhe his legs up Coker’s. Heel hook, Sambo, this guy must be the Russian, thought Coker as he dropped his knee into the guy’s face, and then stood and knee dropped again. The Russian let up, and Coker next dropped his knee into the Russian’s stomach. The Russian’s upper body spasmed up, and Coker grabbed the Rooskie’s inside arm and levered him over to his stomach. Then he sank his choke. Then he held his choke. Then the Russian died.

Coker sighed, and rolled over–to see Patricia pointing a gun in his face. “Uh, bad guy dead. Good guy won. Put the gun away?” She lowered the gun.

*

As the boat pulled out of San Andrés, Leo, Patricia, and Coker were all in the cockpit.

Coker said, “We can do a burial at sea in about 40 minutes. Do either of you want to say any words over him before we sink ‘im?”

Patricia shook her head, and Leo said, “No. I start talking about this guy, it’ll get really profane really quick.”

Coker nodded. “So, we work our way up to Miami, then what’s next boss?”

Leo said, “You go back to your unit, I take some time off. Patricia has never been anywhere in the US but Miami, so Ima give her a tour of the real US, with her looking at it from the back of my Harley.”

“Girl, you ain’t seen nothin’ but the 305? You definitely need to spread your wings.”

“Yes,” said Patricia, “I think that would be a good idea.”

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The Machu Picchu Boogie

Fair warning, this post gets a little racy.  PG-13 racy, but still, you should know.

Shadows and smoke. There are many men and women who fight to keep this nation safe outside the bright lights of declared combat zones.

Leo looked up at the undulating woman and thought Now I know the reason women get boob jobs, they want them to look like these. She was the total package. Voluptuous, sexy and sensuous. And smart. Super smart in a world where the not-smart-enough die off pretty fast. Leo, a confirmed bachelor, figured he might be falling for her. Too bad she’s an assassin.

The liaison hadn’t been planned. It was an unanticipated by-product of the job. Leo was charged to meet with the Peruvian “expediter” that had been involved in a couple of kidnappings of some American kids while they hiked the Machu Picchu trail. Carlos Garcia Menendez was not the actual kidnapper, though he was key and essential to enabling the kidnappers, not just with the abduction, but for providing sustainment and support to the kidnappers during the ransom negotiation process. American kids had suffered, Garcia needed to be…dissuaded.

Patricia Avilar Cortez was a known freelance killer of men. She had popped corrupt politicians, cartel minions, and (intelligence assessed, corrupt) security forces personnel in Peru, Colombia and Ecuador. Originally from Medellin, Colombia, she used her pursuit of a Ph.D. in Anthropology and early Meso-American studies as a cover to travel the region; oft times the travel was truly for academic reasons, sometimes for more nefarious purposes. Intell reports assessed that Cortez’ raw beauty was one of her biggest assets in facilitating her operations, gaining her access to her targets; Leo believed it.

Although Cortez and Menendez had never met, she had used Menendez’ services to support some of her operations, and the two had a congenial professional relationship, even if it was just online and telephonically. She had been a logical asset for Leo to leverage to broker a meet with Menendez. She was being handsomely remunerated for her efforts. The US Government was paying her more to set up a meet than she would usually get for wet work. Not that she knew it was USG paying for her services. Theoretically.

Leo had made the hour flight from Lima to Cusco, then made the two-hour drive to Ollantaytambo, near the Sacred Valley. There, he linked up with Cortez (please, call me Patricia), where they had confirmed their plans and left the ville together, though in separate rental vehicles. Leo had spent some time selecting and setting up the cottage he would use to launch to the Menendez meet, which would take about an hour and a half of travel over rough terrain from the launch point. Menendez had a finca out in the boonies; A little getaway that was perfect for a long weekend—or for staging men, weapons, equipment and cash in support of his many and varied illicit activities.

The cottage Leo had selected was tucked into a gentle little draw that backed up to a steep ridgeline to the rear of the house, while the front had a long, slightly sloping meadow that ran down about 250 meters to the “main road” in front of the house. “Main road” was dirt, pitted and pocked by erosion and runnels. The gravel driveway that ran up to the house was in much better condition. The house was stone and heavy timber, with a front porch that looked out over the little valley and up into the jagged hills on the far side. Rustic but with natural gas and good plumbing. Leo had rented the place for a week on either side of the meet.

Leo and Patricia had arrived a little before noon the day before. The plan was to “remain overnight” (RON in military parlance) then move to the rendezvous and subsequently the meet late the next morning. Plenty of slack time built into the schedule to overcome contingencies and still get to Menendez on schedule. The beautiful view, the romantic cottage, the lack of cable or satellite television, and maybe just a little bit the bottle of vino tinto that Leo had had in his rental vehicle had led to the unanticipated congress with the sultry Patricia. Leo thought how his SITREP would read (“Uh, well, y’see, one thing led to another, and…”). Actually, even though higher knew he’d be working with Cortez, reporting this particular activity with a foreign national was required. He wouldn’t be sanctioned; the act itself only reinforced his cover. Leo needed to report just to ensure that he couldn’t be accused of divided loyalties or improprieties later. Leo just wasn’t a kiss and tell kind of guy. Dang, there’d be chick intel analysts reading his reports. It was worth it though, even if Patricia’s chosen profession contraindicated a post-coital nap.

Despite the elevation, the light of dawn warmed the cabin as the sun rose over the mountains. Patricia got up from their spoon session, naked, and raised the dawn-side front window and opened the shutters. She then moved to the low slung table, shook a cigarette loose from the pack of Marlboro reds there and lit up. Leo had brought the cigarettes; not a regular smoker, the reds just seemed to fit with the rustic setting. She tucked her legs under her, tilted her head up, and blew a soft plume toward the rafters. Leo stayed on the bed, basking in her beauty as much as the sunlight.

“That was a lovely evening,” she said. “In this moment, I am hoping that today goes as well as last night, eh, Leo?” She smiled at him brightly.

Leo tried not to clinch up, or drop his jaw, or just groan and bury his face in the pillow. Leo. That wasn’t his cover name. It wasn’t even close to his cover name. It was his real name. In an effectiveness review of the cover he was using for this op, even if the cover was penetrated, it was guaranteed not to reveal his true name, just another cover. And on. His current cover had five degrees of separation from his real name. Unbreakable to any adversary, they said. Technology couldn’t beat the layers of deception and authentication, they said. Leo gave up and groaned into his pillow. Patricia ground out her cigarette and walked over to the bed. She straddled his back and began kneading the now-balled up muscles of his neck and shoulders.

“I’m sorry, my love. I have upset you.”

“Nah. I guess. Never been busted before. Not like this. You mind telling me how you cracked it? I want to know who to choke to death whenever I get back.”

“Well,” she said, working on his overdeveloped trapezius muscles, “you are aware, are you not, that you look nothing like a consultant, yes? Even a clean coal energy consultant that spends time outside and at construction sites. I look at your muscles, and”—she ran a hand over the hard, shiny ridge of tissue on his right shoulder—“your scars, and consultant does not come to mind.”

“Okay. That’s verisimilitude. The verisimilitude was weak. Great. I learned all that stuff about clean coal power generation for nothing. Still doesn’t tell me how you got to Leo, though. Whoever that guy is.”

Her burst of musical laughter and the light, honeyed air that it blew over his back almost made up for his shredded pride and abject horror at having been sussed out. Almost.

“Verisimilitude. I like that word, Leo.” Though her English was perfect, her slight accent made it “ver’similitude.” Between that and the warmth of her butt on his, while she did some world-class massage work made Leo suspect their morning timeline might not have as much slack built into it as he’d intended.

“And?”

“And I have a young friend at one of the universities I visit. He is a computer expert. Very good. Best data-miner I’ve ever met. He does much of the research for my work and on many of the people I…interact with. He discovered your identity for me. I am not sure how. But you should know, he said discovering who you really were was very, very difficult.”

“You think it was that difficult or was he just trying for a higher payoff?”

“Mmm. Since his only ‘price’ is dinner with me every month or so, I think he was being truthful.”

Leo rolled over and Patricia let him, still keeping her straddle. She arched her eyebrow at him but maintained her devilish grin.

“And what comes with the dinner, Reina de mi corazón?”

She laughed, and replied in a conspiratorial whisper, “Nothing. He is very, very gay.”

“So a gay guy busts one of the most airtight covers I’ve ever had, and all he wants is an occasional dinner? I’m guessing this guy wants to be you.”

“This statement may well be true.” Then she wiggled a little bit, and bent down and kissed him softly.

Later, Leo drifted off to the mental mantra “Do not fall asleep next to the assassin. Do not fall asleep next to the assassin…

Leo woke to see Patricia staring at him, still smiling. Either this chick really digs me, or she deserves an Academy Award. Given her day job, it’s probably Oscar, not Leo. Leo reached out and gently moved a wayward length of India ink hair away from her cheek and tucked it behind her ear. Leo stared back. Then again, I am pretty darn diggable. He realized that he hadn’t woken from anything Patricia had done. Instead, he could hear, very faintly, a distant hum. Engines.

Patricia said, softly, “I am thinking, in this moment, that we will be having company.” Faintly ‘I am theenking, een thees moment.’ Leo had taken a hard fall over that verbal tic of hers. Her smile was gone, but he could see it peeking out from her eyes and her dimples, wondering if it were time to come out and play again.

“Nobody was supposed to meet us here. We were supposed to rendezvous with Menendez’ boys at an intersection about an hour north of here.”

“I know, my love.”

“And you don’t have any side plans for us to receive unexpected guests?”

“No, my love.”

“You keep calling me ‘my love,’ I might fall for you. Then you’d be stuck with me.”

“I know, my love.”

Leo sighed. Freaking hot Latina assassins. Be the death of him.

Leo started to dress. Cargo pants. Tactical-ish hiking shoes. Performance tee and then flannel shirt. Lightweight jacket with lots of handy pockets.

Patricia pulled on her thong, then, holding her jeans in one hand, she raised an eyebrow at him as if to say, “A little privacy, please?”

Leo snorted. “After the last day and a half, there’s no way I’m not watching those jeans go over that butt.” She shot him that devilish grin, and finished getting dressed. The jeans must’ve been part Lycra, to fit like that, and her donning them was every bit as enervating as he’d expected it would be. Watching the rest of her dressing was a delight, too.

Leo started to make a bawdy comment on how maybe they need to be getting undressed again when she stepped up, lightly placed her fingers on his chest, and imperiously pushed him away. “In this moment, you should be thinking about work.”

Leo grinned at her, and stepped out on the porch. She followed. Leo’s gaze took in their two rental 4×4’s, the meadow of the valley, and the peaks all around them. His ears took in the sound of what he took to be an approaching motorcade. Patricia’s gaze took in Leo, assessing.

“Okay. Menendez’ finca is that way,” he pointed down the road in the direction opposite the sounds of engines, “And when I reconned the route a couple days ago, there are lots of ambush points just between us and the rendezvous, let alone the finca.”

“We are in the mountains,” she said. “It is difficult to find a piece of road that is not a good ambush site.”

“A-yup. I don’t think a bunch of trucks that could drive to this location would just accidentally happen to drive by.”

“No.” Patricia seemed relaxed, and Leo couldn’t identify any stress indicators emanating from her voice, posture, or face. He also noticed that the “my loves” had gone adios. Good. Time for game face.

“Given that, they could be drovers, meant to herd us into pushing for the finca. Right into an ambush or blocking position. They could be innocent passers-by, but chances of that are slim to none, and Slim didn’t come to town. Now, we can scarper, which means we run right into whatever they have set up for us out there. We can move toward them and find out what they want on whatever ground we happen to meet at. Or we can stay here, and see what they want.”

“If what they want is no good, then we are stuck here. I have a weapon. You must have a weapon. Still, we are not in a position to win a fight, Leo.”

“We don’t fight. We run. There’s a trail out back leading up over that ridgeline at the back of the house. On the other side, I’ve got a vehicle stashed. Even if Menendez sent guys to cover the back trail on the other side of the mountain in case we run—which I doubt—we’ll still be able to get out. That’s a job for one, maybe two.”

She lamped her smile at him. “You have a plan.”

He grinned at her. “I got a plan. In case everything went south.” No point in telling her that there was also an extra vehicle stashed a terrain feature from the rendezvous point, too. Leo’s mama didn’t raise no fools. Except the one that trusted the goniffs that built his cover.

By way of explaining the contingency vehicle, he said, “Don’t trust Menendez.” She frowned at him. “I have never known the word of any smoking hot Colombian contract killer chick to be anything less than sterling. But I hadn’t met you yet.”

She smiled. “That is why you did not sleep, mi amor?”

“Uh, maybe. Partly.”

“Until this morning. You are very cute when you snore. ‘S a good snore. Very soft. Like your kisses.” 5000 lumen smile.

“Aaand I’m thinking it’s time to get ready to roll.” Leo went to his backpack and pulled out a canvas envelope. Unzipping it, he pulled the upper and lower receivers of an M4 SBR out, married them up, and pinned the little rifle together. Then he got it locked and loaded. Given that this was not (officially) combat and he was not (emphatically) to use a weapon except for in dire straits, the weapon was not festooned with all the doodads and extras he’d have on it were he in a combat zone. Then, his carbine would look like a rail gun out of an updated Buck Rogers film. Instead, he had only a simple red-dot Trijicon sight. The precision of the Trijicon went a long way toward compensating for the 12” barrel of his li’l carbine.

He looked over at Patricia, and saw that she had pulled a mini AK-47 from her bag, and rocked in a mag. She only had iron sights, but she definitely looked like she knew what she was about.

Leo affixed a holstered Glock to his belt and pulled his shirt and jacket over the top. He saw Patricia also putting on a sidearm.

“Is that a Makarov?” he asked.

Si.”

“Cool. What are you looking at for ammo status?”

“I have a magazine in the pistol and the AK. I have three extra magazines for each.”

“Okay, I’ve got one in each, and four extra mags for each. None of our weapons have interchangeable ammo, so if you have to harvest, take the mags, too.”

“I will not have to harvest from you, mi amor.”

Insha’Allah. The house is solid timber and masonry, so we’ve got pretty good cover if we need to fight. If they bring any heavy weapons, rounds could penetrate, so stay low.” He moved over to the window that Patricia had opened, pulled the shutters in and closed the window. A foot to the left of the window, Leo took out his folding knife and began working the plaster. In moments, he had a two-inch by eight-inch lozenge carved out that looked out into the meadow. He crossed to the window on the other side of the door, and bored out another lozenge. Loose plaster littered the floor.

“I cut out these firing ports earlier. Stay away from the windows and shoot through this. If it comes to shooting.”

“If it comes to shooting.”

Leo leaned his SBR against the wall and walked outside and sat on the porch, his feet just able to touch the ground beneath it. Patricia came out and sat next to him. Her feet couldn’t reach the ground, so she swung them playfully. Her hands went to her face, and she lit two of the Marlboro reds, passing one to Leo.

The engines were getting louder, but sound bounced around in the mountains so much, Leo couldn’t even guess at an ETA.

“I have worked with Menendez for years. It has been profitable for him. I do not know why he would do this.”

“No telling. It’s probably not even you. He’s probably not digging the big, ugly gringo that showed up on his turf to read him the riot act.”

She elbowed him lightly in ribs, then contentedly leaned on his shoulder while she drew on her cigarette. “You are not ugly, mi amor, you are rugged. But I am thinking, in this moment, that maybe a doctor should look at your nose sometime. It has been very abused.” She looked up at him and shot that killer grin (Leo thought this chick adds a whole new dimension to ‘killer grin’) “It might help with the snoring.

“Still, I do not understand this. If Menendez fears you, or suspects who your jefe is, why accept a meet at all? If he trusts me enough to set up the meet, why send men in early? This does not make sense.”

“I’m sure he has what he thinks are valid reasons. Is your relationship with him so profitable that he would not see losing you as a customer a simple overhead cost?”

“No. He makes good money from me, but he makes good money from many people. But he must know, if I survive, I will seek retribution. In this moment, he should not be thinking only of money.”

“Eh, maybe he just sent us escorts, to ensure our safety.”

“Then why not put that in the plan? And who would make us two more safe?”

Verdad, baby.”

Finally, some dust appeared on the approach road. Vehicles were close, and they were throwing a lot of dust into the thin mountain air.

Leo said, “They’ll be here soon. Why don’t you go inside and cover me? Be ready to shoot anyone that shoots at me? That’d be great.”

“Since I have worked with Menendez, should I not stay out here and talk to these men?”

“No. This is man work. Let me stay outside. It’s for the best. No toxic masculinity here.”

“Toxic? What? I do not understand this.”

“I know, baby. Why I love Latinas. Get on inside now.” Leo pulled out his electric ears from a coat pocket, and inserted them. With active noise enhancement and active noise defeat, he hoped they would help keep him from being one of those old guys with a huge ear-horn toothlessly gumming out “speak up, young feller” when he got old, if he had the chance to get old. Aw, shucks. He turned and stepped back into the doorway, digging around in another coat pocket; he always kept some extra foamies on him. He pulled out the little cardboard envelope and extended it toward Patricia, who was inspecting her firing port. “Hey, you might need these.”

She smiled at him and pulled her jet hair back from her ear. She already had e-ears in; Leo recognized that they were a newer gen than his. This lady

“Uh. Oh.”

“Thank you for thinking of me, Leo. You are ver’ kind.”

Leo stepped back outside.

A beat-up Land Rover with a cargo rack on the top crested the rise into the small valley. Behind that came a Toyota Hilux light diesel 4×4 pickup truck, then another, and another. One SUV and three pickups. All three Hilux’ had two in the front and at least three guys in the back. All the guys that Leo could see were carrying long guns. The vehicles had come in from right to left. The Land Rover stopped at the far-left edge of the little valley. The other vehicles spread out before cottage. Say, one vehicle every fifty meters. The drivers, shotgun riders, and truck bed personnel began to decamp.

Leo stood up on the porch, waved, and sounded off with a loud and thunderous “¡Hola!

They started shooting at him.

Leo dove back inside and slammed and barred the door.

Patricia was already laying down fire. Leo grabbed his SBR and rolled over to his firing port. Looking out to assay the situation, he could see that the gun thugs were spreading out in a vague notion of a skirmish line and moving forward. They were trained, but not well trained. Leo could tell that they knew, sorta/kinda, that they should be bounding forward in teams, and that those not bounding should be providing suppressive fire on the cottage. But the bounds were kind of a hunched over trot. The malitos providing supporting fires were either standing or on a knee. Amateurs. Still, there were enough of them to push through and end him and Patricia, if they had the will. Patricia was reaping men with cool, well-placed headshots.

Leo looked over at her, “No more kills, just wounds.”

She looked at him and threw him an eyebrow.

“The kills are easy, they can just leave the bodies. The wounded will scream and cry and make all the shooters wonder what will happen if they get hit. The wounded will want to pull back, leave, get to a hospital or somewhere they can be treated.”

She just nodded at him and went back to shooting.

Leo threw some rounds into the Land Rover. That’d be where the bossman of this goat rope was, may as well make him sweat a little. He took out some knees and knocked some pelvises inside out (no gut shots; nobody deserved to get gut-shut, unless it was unavoidable), then looked over at Patricia. She was tightening up a little. She was doing the math and the numbers didn’t look good.

“Hey, chica. It’s going to be alright.”

The malitos had clued in that walking straight up (or even bent over at the waist a little bit) was not a good idea. Most of them had hit the dirt. Leo could hear crying and wailing from the wounded. Thing about just wounding them, they’d take it personal. Kill a bunch and you still had a reasonable expectation of a clean kill if you wound up on the short end. Wound a bunch, they were going to take some time putting you down. There was some commotion on the third truck in line.

Leo put out some dispersed fires to encourage everyone to keep their heads down, then oriented on the truck. Large steel plates were being hoisted above the bed. Meant, too, that the inside of the bed was armored and he couldn’t just shoot through. After a couple beats, he saw a large barrel emerge between the plates. Big barrel. Not good. Leo traversed his weapon over in the slot and started pinging the steel plates, the bed of the truck, and maybe the barrel. No reason the gunner should get into the scrum all calm and sedate. From what he could see, he figured the big gun for a Dishka (DShK 1938). Its 12.7 mm rounds were comparable to the US Ma Deuce .50 caliber. The heavy stone and timber construction components of the house would be about as much cover as tissue paper. No bueno. Despite the rounds he was pinging into the truck, he saw the barrel of the Dishka nod up and down. Like someone had just jacked the charging handle. Time to get low.

“Patricia—down now!” he yelled, getting prone on the floor as fast as he could. Without hesitation, Patricia followed suit. The tableau in front of them was not the type of stage on which she played for mortal stakes; she was more than willing to follow Leo’s lead. Her face was a little stressed, but for a non-gunslinger, Leo was proud of her. Well, as proud as one could be of a contract killer that saw the black widow spider as an operating template, not a bug to get squished. The fact that the Dishka was on a slightly lower elevation meant that going prone was a good bet; a proficient gunner could figure out the firing solution to get at people on the floor, but Leo doubted the guy behind the gun was that guy.

The Dishka opened up. Its rounds ripped through the walls and door for about a five-round burst. Leo was right, the rounds were high. After the five rounds, the gun fell silent. All the gun thugs had stopped shooting in order to watch the Dishka. As soon as the gun stopped, Leo sprang up and started putting rounds into gun thugs. Most were not looking at the cottage, but at the truck with the gun. Hey, My Friends, my eyes are up here. Patricia followed his lead. No more looking to wound; it was time to put steel on whatever meat target presented itself. A guy jumped into the back of the gun truck, and bent over like he was heaving something aside. Then he stood and repositioned himself so that he could settle in behind the gun—and fell over, hanging from the plates of the steel armor. Patricia looked over to Leo.

“You have us covered.”

“I do, indeed, Beautiful. Now, I recommend you empty that mag into the crowd, reload, and we’ll get out of Dodge.”

She nodded and went back to careful, aimed shots. Leo did the same. They clicked dry at about the same time and reloaded. Even as they simultaneously reloaded (Bad fire discipline, Leo noted), guys were getting dropped both in the field, and particularly around the gun truck. The shooter was using a suppressed weapon system and subsonic rounds, so while the gun thugs could generally guess at where the rounds might be coming from, they really had no idea how to pinpoint the shooter.

Leo threw his backpack on and looked at Patricia. “You ready?” She nodded. “Okay, stay behind me and step where I step. I left some surprises on the trail for anyone that either tries to sneak in the back door, or who tries to follow us. I’ll point out the hazards, but stay at my back and you’ll be fine.”

Leo went out the back and headed up the game trail that led from the back of the cottage up to the ridgeline, then back down the far side. Not too far away on the other side of the ridge of hills was the stashed vehicle. Leo led out. As they navigated the trail (and off the trail, when it came to the Leo-emplaced hazards) he pointed out where to walk, and why. Punji sticks, claymore, man-trap. Their movement was relatively quick, although the altitude and Leo’s mass made him feel like he was chasing individual oxygen molecules in order to get a breath. Patricia seemed to have no problems at all. Leo was willing to vouch for the fact that she was in shape.

As they neared the bottom of the far-side of the ridgeline, navigating carefully down a scree, they heard a crump on the other side. Leo looked at Patricia and shrugged. “Claymore.” They continued moving. They found Leo’s car, and moved out. They drove straight through Ollantaytambo, and stopped in Cusko. There, Patricia gave Leo a quick peck on the cheek, and took her leave, disappearing into the crowd of tourists, backpackers, and the vendors trying to make a buck off them.

Leo shook his head, put the vehicle in gear, and moved on.

——————–24 Hours Out From Egress———————

Leo, back in Lima, had some kind of madman pounding on his hotel room door. He pulled out his phone and called up the app that showed him what the pin camera he’d placed in the hall could see (those little eye-ports in hotel room doors are for suckers). He grinned, knowing the force of nature he was about to host and moved to the door. He pulled the rubber wedge door stop that he always put in his hotel doors, and swung the door open with an expansive “welcome to my palace” of his other hand. Dave Coker stormed in.

Tall, lean, and what the kids called “jacked,” Coker looked like the model that Hollywood CGI specialists used for werewolves. His shoulders were broad enough, and his waist narrow enough, and he was so light on his feet that he looked like his shoulders were upheld by cables, and his lower body just dangled beneath them. He had dark hair, a sharp chin, and eyes that, on reflection, made Leo think of werewolves.

“Dude! I gotta spend two days in a hide while you do the hibbity-jibbity with Pocahontas? That is so wrong, man. You so owe me.”

“You got some good shots, in, bro. We’re even. How often you been put in a hole, given weapons-free status as soon as big guns come out, and have a target rich environment serve itself up on a platter? Shee-oot. I’m thinking you owe me, brah.”

“That was a great shoot. After you and Pocahontas pulled out, it took them about two hours to police up their wounded and get out.”

“They head for the finca, or back down the road?”

“Toward the finca. They dropped a couple of guys to follow your backtrail. I’m thinking I heard your claymore clean them out?”

“That’s what I’m supposing. I heard it go off, but wasn’t going back to check on it. Speaking of which…”

Coker waved him off. “While you were doing briefings at the Embassy, I made arrangements. I got a team going in to recover all the vehicles, undo and repair as much damage to the cottage as they can, and dismantle and recover all your tricks and treats on the backside. Both of our weapon sets have been recovered, cleaned and put into storage for the next time some US bubbas need to do the Machu Picchu boogie. Still, brother, I was out there getting all kinds of ate up by bugs and snakes ‘n’ whatnot”—Leo rolled his eyes— “you need to make this right, man.”

“Quit sniveling.”

“It’s not sniveling when it actually sucked.”

“Alright, when we get back to Miami, I’ll buy you dinner or something.”

“Or something? Dude, you owe me dinner and, like, 23 lap dances at the Pink Pony!”

“23? When was your last urinalysis? There’s no way—”

There was a quiet knock at the door. Coker looked at Leo with his eyebrows up and whispered, “we blown?”

Leo sighed. He had a feeling he knew who was knocking. “Probably.”

Coker stood and moved to the little kitchenette table of the suite and picked up one of the chairs by the leg. He stood off to the side of the door while, with his other hand he deployed his tactical folder (neither of them could carry firearms inside the capital city without special permissions, which they hadn’t sought on this op). Leo checked the pin camera via his phone, nodded to himself and said, “We’re blown, but it’s cool.”

He went to the door, pulled his wedge out, and opened it. Patricia stood there, smiling broadly. She was in a nice sundress, no hat, wearing flats. Leo assessed that her legs looked better in flats than the legs of most women wearing the highest of stiletto heels. He stood back from the door and made the same expansive hand gesture he’d made with Coker. “C’mon in. Mi casa es su casa. Apparently.” Patricia breezed into the suite.

She saw Coker standing there, chair in one hand, knife in the other, and walked right up to him. “You are the shooter that saved us. I know this. My brave francotirador. Thank you.” She reached up and softly pulled his face down to hers, and kissed him gently but lushly on each cheek. Leo grinned and had to stop his laugh; Coker, wildman, shooter, human Tasmanian devil, was blushing. Coker looked over at Leo and said, in the worst sotto voce ever, “Dude, two days in the hole was so worth it.”

Leo deadpanned, “So, you gonna put down the chair now?”

Coker looked as if surprised at the chair in his hand and placed it back at the table. The knife seemingly disappeared while he did that.

Patricia approached Leo and hugged him. Leo hugged back, genuinely, and shot daggers with his eyes at Coker, who was silently laughing and making hip gyrations behind the hug.

“Okay, let’s all sit down and”—more daggers at Coker— “relax.”

“I cannot, mi amor. I have many things to do. As I know you must, too. It is just, I am thinking, in this moment, you need to leave Peru tomorrow.”

“Well, baby doll,” piped up Coker, “we got lots of stuff we still need to do here in country.”

“Yes, I know.” Patricia took both his hands in hers. “I am thinking it is very, very necessary for you to leave Peru tomorrow.”

Leo looked over to Coker, who managed to combine wide-eyed wonderment with a nonchalant shrug. Coker said, “Ain’t nothing we need to do, can’t be done remotely, I suppose.” Leo nodded.

“Okay, Patricia. We’re gone tomorrow.”

“Thank you, mi amor.” She gave him a long, slow kiss and walked out.

Coker looked at Leo and said “Dude…”

——————-48 Hours Out After Egress———————————–

Leo and Coker flew out of Lima to Miami. From there, Coker headed back to Bragg, while Leo moved on to DC, where he wanted to have a very engaging and dynamic conversation with some people as to the terms “unbreakable,” “airtight,” and “backstopped” as they applied to cover.

———————72 Hours Out After Egress————————————-
Carlos Garcia Menendez was found dead, floating in the pool behind his mansion on his estate on the outskirts of Lima. There were no signs of foul play and local security forces deemed it death by heart attack.

———————-30 Days Out After Egress————————————-

Leo moved into the Sombras y Humo restaurant, in Bogota. The name was appropriate. Physically and metaphysically thought Leo. The restaurant was outdoors. Only the huge hearth and chimney were permanent, built of brick and mortar and containing the entire cooking capability of the restaurant. The rest of the place was outdoors, with nets strung above to keep random leaves, twigs, and branches from falling on the costumers.

Leo looked across the restaurant and saw her. She was sitting at a table with her back to one of the huge oak trees that formed the perimeter of the restaurant. He looked over the restaurant, and walked toward her. She was dressed el paisa, traditionally, with a white below-the-shoulders blouse, laced in the front with a drawstring that was getting a workout. From what he could see, it looked like she was wearing a peasant skirt. She had a big round wine glass in front of her, with a little dollop of vino tinto spooled at the bottom. There was a box of Marlboro Reds on the table. When Leo reached the table, she languidly extended her hand to him. He took it and kissed it three times gently; two on the back, the last he turned the hand over and kissed her palm. She smiled and maybe blushed a little bit, it was hard to tell in the subdued lighting of Sombras y Humo. Leo took the seat across from her.

With her killer grin—that seemed to have a little “I’ve got a secret” to it—she head chucked one of the waiters. Bemused, Leo watched her settle back, watching him. The waiter came over with a low-ball glass with a cube in it and some amber goodness and set it in front of Leo. Patricia looked like a kid on Christmas morning, waiting to tear into the presents with glee.

Leo shot her his best Bond eyebrow, and took a sip of the drink. Maker’s 46. His drink. He was again horrified, and maybe a little delighted. Not as delighted as Patricia, though. She looked like she might jump into a clapping spree. He smiled at her. “This is a very good drink.”

Her smile caught an edge of sly to it. “I thought you would like it.”

He held the crystal tumbler up and shot questions at her with his eyebrows. No more Bond-international-man-of-mystery arches. This was straight up “what in the wide, wide world of sports is going on?” browing.

Patricia delicately placed her fingertips on her formidable bosom, behind which, at some point, there had to be a heart. “I must confess,” she said, her smile tamping down a little bit, “I think maybe I have become a stalker. A little bit. Your background is costing me many dinners with my university frien’.

“Sorry about the dinners,” said Leo, “But this is a really good drink.” Her smile amped up and she wriggled in her seat, a little bit. Leo sighed. Freaking hot Latina assassins. Be the death of him.

She took a drag on her cigarette, and as she exhaled she lifted her chin. She looked down her nose at him, and her affect became severe. She does a really good severe, thought Leo.

“I am thinking, in this moment, that maybe you have not told me the truth, Leo.”

“Why, whatever do you mean, my love?”

“I am thinking that you wanted Menendez gone. I am thinking that you gave him intelligence that led him to believe I meant to harm him, and thus he sent the bad men. I am thinking you used me as a tool to eliminate someone you couldn’t get permission to eliminate yourself.”

“You got it. Absolutemente. You’re right.”

Patricia tapped the ash of her cigarette authoritatively, as if to say so there.

“But,” Leo grinned at her, “I am thinking, in this moment, that you used me ever bit as much as I used you. You aren’t the only one to know smart data miners, mi hermosa señorita. Since we left the cottage,” he reached out and took one of her hands in both of his, “and the cottage was great. One of the best days of my life, other than all the shooting.”

She beamed at him, “Yes, other than that.”

“Well, I aimed my data miners at you. Bigger than our initial look at you; a deep dive. Seems like best we can determine, your last couple contracts that were supported by Menendez didn’t go so well. The right equipment wasn’t at the cache. The bugout plan wasn’t supported. Security forces seemed to know what you were going to do before you did it. As near as we can tell, you barely made it out of Guayaquil, four months ago.”

She stubbed out her cigarette and brought her hand up to Leo’s two, that were holding her other. “Guayaquil was ver’ difficult. I do not like fights, Leo. I do what I do, but not fighting. You are a fighter. I know. That is not my…style.”

“I know. And you needed to confirm or deny whether Menendez was purposefully targeting you, for failure if not assassination. But you didn’t want to brace Menendez to find out without any backup. Then I show up, looking for someone to broker a meet. You did some checking, too well, I think, and figured I would make a great back up. At least, in all the research we did, seems like an overarching theme is that you don’t and haven’t killed anyone didn’t need killing. That’s a good thing. A man’s lover shouldn’t be a killer of the innocent.”

“Are we lovers, now, Leo?”

“For one great day. Not now. I don’t see how we go forward. I don’t see how we square our differences. I do what I do, you do what you do, and this one time our interests intersected. But in the future? Patricia, in the future what if they send me after you? I can’t do that.”

Patricia disentangled their hands, lit two smokes, and reached forward to place one on Leo’s lips. Again, the drawstring of her blouse defied the laws of physics by not bursting asunder. Again, Leo tried and failed not to stare. Again, he felt his IQ drop at least fifty points at the sight.

Mi amor, I am thinking, in this moment, that the abduction of young Americans walking the Machu Picchu trail was not the only reason you targeted Menendez, and contrived to aim me at him.”

“No?”

“No. Menendez was doing more and more work for Hezbollah. Hezbollah was conducting more operations, and supporting the operations of other…elements of that regime. If I were an Americano operator,” she reached up and gently brushed his face, “with a broken nose, I would be more worried about that than kidnapped children. Kidnapped children fall under the realm of the FBI, verdad?”

Verdad, baby. Though we help out where we can.”

“Our ‘way forward’ is: I aid you with Hezbollah. I do not like those malitos. They are all pinche pendejos. They treat women like basura. I could help you…deal with these bad men.” Her eyes twinkled and her smile amped up. “I am thinking it would take much planning, much coordination. We would have to work together ver’ closely.”

Leo considered. “Yeah, we would. We have to do a lot of administrative stuff before acting. At least in Latin America.”

Por supuesto. And, if the price you paid me to broker a meeting with Menendez is a hint at what you would pay me for an…elimination, then I think we could work very well together.” She stood and took Leo’s face in her hands. “Very well.”

“Sounds good. What now?”

“Now, I am thinking I have another glass of wine, and maybe you have another drink. Then we go to the Zona Rosa and dance and drink some more. Then we go back to your hotel.”

Leo gave a long-suffering sigh. “I suppose you know what hotel I’m staying at?”

Killer grin, “Of course, mi amor, you are at the Santa Fe. You have the clock tower suite.” She leaned toward him. AAGGH! Physics! “I know there is a hot tub that is directly under the stained-glass clock. It is lovely. We should try it.”

“Okay. You order the drinks, I’ll hit the bathroom. And we’ll follow your plan.”

The bathrooms were in a stone building off of one of the corners of the open-air restaurant. Leo walked to the building and stood at the corner watching Patricia. She had her cigarette in her hand, pointed vertically (in Bogota, it’s not just smoking, it’s art), and was taking a sip from her oversize wine glass.

Leo pulled a small earpiece from his pocket and screwed it into his ear.

As soon as he activated the earpiece, he heard Coker’s voice. “Sounds like we’re happy,” said Coker.

“We’re happy. She’s in. It’s all good.”

“Do you ever feel dirty, Leo, knowing you’re just a gigolo for your country?”

“Not at all.”

“Alright. I’m out. See you in Miami tomorrow.”

“Day after tomorrow, brother. See you in Miami day after tomorrow.”

8+

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The Squad Leader

Staff Sergeant Canell, squad leader, finished with inspecting the personnel and moved on to the vehicles. The Staff Sergeant was exacting, two previous tours in Iraq had taught the young leader that there are no second chances, and that if a troop didn’t make his own good luck, ain’t no way luck was going to be a lady.

Pre-Combat Inspections (PCIs) were, in the young staff sergeant’s mind, the most important part of being a leader. Meticulously inspecting everything that would contribute to individuals and the unit’s ability to shoot, move, communicate and survive had to be inspected, assessed and cleared. Troops that had their individual and crew weapons and equipment good to go and ready to rock would perform well. Troops that didn’t would get themselves–or worse, their brothers and sisters in arms–wounded, maimed or killed. In Canell’s mind, there was no excuse for letting subordinates roll out the wire without every bet hedged in their favor. As always, the squad leader’s own vehicle was inspected first, with the two squad team leaders observing.

First, the squad leader inspected the form 5988E on a clipboard by the vehicle commander seat. All preventative maintenance, checks, and services had been performed. For those fixes needing more than just a liberal application of elbow grease, the order number to higher for either parts or service was clearly annotated. The vehicle was, at least as far as the paperwork was concerned, was Full Mission Capable; good to go.

The Staff Sergeant purposefully made PCIs formal affairs; a little bit of pucker factor would help encourage excellence.

“PFC Woodford!”

Yes, Staff Sergeant!”

“Do you, as the driver, have any qualms, reservations or hesitations about taking this vehicle out the wire for a combat patrol today?”

Negative, Staff Sergeant!

And on, through each of the four vehicles of the squad, and each element of “shoot, move, communicate, survive” contained in or on the vehicle.

A/1/1a, the vehicle that always led the squad, had Corporal Stanton as the vehicle commander. The vehicle was better known though, for its dynamic duo driver and gunner, PFC Tavares and SPC4 Taverson. The two knuckleheads were insane. SSG Canell felt like whenever the two could be kept from drifting over to the “spooky” side of the FOB, where the Green Berets and SEALs hung out, just to get into a fight, just to say they got beat up by a SEAL, was a win.

The two had taken to calling themselves “The Terrific Tavar Twins,” based on some ridiculous sci-fi series they were reading. Beautiful knuckleheads.

Looking into A/1/1a, SSG Canell sighed. The squad leader eye-rolled Corporal Stanton, in a “we’ll talk about this later, but I got this” kind of way.

“Private Tavares! Specialist Taverson!”

In unison, “Yes, Staff Sergeant!

“You asked, and I–through the goodness of my sentimental heart–agreed, that you could triple up on the basic load for the ‘240. And I see my munificence hereby shat upon!! Why is this extra ammunition not strapped down?”

Pause. In unison, “No excuse, Staff Sergeant!

“PFC Tavares, if your vehicle is hit, while you are driving, by a well placed, Iranian-made, Jihadi emplaced EFP, what will cause the most damage to you and your crew as the vehicle goes dynamic due to blast effects?”

“Uh, Sar’n’t…”

“I’ll tell you what will do the most damage, Private: All that extra steel in heavy boxes with sharp, pointy corners that you have not tied down! Listen up, ‘Terrific Tavar Twins,’ you fail to secure your load again, the only Fury you’ll need to worry about is that of my boot up your ass! Are we clear?”

Pause. Mutual glance. “Clear Staff Sergeant!

“Good, now tie down your load, before I’m forced to do things to you that make your mothers weep. And, say a prayer for Corporal Stanton. You two have screwed him. Im’a have a piece of his butt and you two are to blame. I’m hopin’ he has no mercy on you, and PTs you til you think your gonna die. But that’s his call.”

And on. The squad leader got through each vehicle. Every thing was mostly squared away. Every radio passed the commo checks. They were ready. Half an hour til they exited the wire.

Staff Sergeant Canell told the squad they were released within the launch area (which had a tent with USO cookies and coffee, big screens with news and sports, and some ping pong tables).

The squad leader went around to the side of the launch rec tent. The smoking area was staked out. To one side, there was a row of cruciform lumber. SSG Canell took the opportunity to remove body armor and head gear and hang it off one of the wooden “crosses.” The dry wind across the deployment shirt was a gift from above. The Staff Sergeant unpinned her hair and shook it loose, then held it up above her neck for some “cooling” breeze. She figured she had about 10 minutes to relax thus before getting back to the launch line before anyone else and prep her squad of misfit children for rolling out the wire.

Krista Canell lit up a Marlboro light and tried to empty her mind. The squad was prepared, the boys were ready to rock. A female squad leader had to be squared away. Her previous tours, and her loss of comrades in arms on those tours, had made her the right leader for the job. She had had to overwhelm the meatheads on the squad with sheer competence. Following her battlefield displays of competence, she’d had to dissuade the “mom” role a lot of the guys wanted her to fulfill. She figured she was now solidly labeled as a “big sister with bad attitude.” She could live with that.

Her Military Police unit had taken some egregious hits. The Infantry guys and Civil Affairs guys and all the others could roll out the wire with varied agendas that kept the jihadis on their toes. The MPs, though, had to man specific security points, both inside and outside the wire, and routs to and from were limited. Which meant that Jihad Johnny didn’t have to do a whole lot of creative planning to bring the hurt. The unit’s second squad had taken an egregious hit just last week. The Platoon Leader had been accompanying that patrol. RIP.

Word was battalion was sending down a stud to replace the KIA platoon leader, but Canell hadn’t seen hide nor hair of a newbie LT walking the grounds.

Canell punched out her Marlboro and lit another. When they hit the gate out the wire, she had a plastic can of Skoal in one of the combat pockets on the sleeve of her shirt. She did a grin/grimace; Ma would be so disappointed. Sure, ol’ man tobacco might kill her, but right now the prime candidates for killin’ her ass were Johnny Jihad and Sammy Sectarian. She’d battle the demons of tobacco later if she had the chance. Right now, keeping her squad alive was the priority. She knew her blond hair, freckles and slightly buck teeth had not aided her assumption of leadership in the squad. But she had won them over. The squad was her charge. She’ll be damned if she’d let anything happen to them.

“I’m guessing you’re Staff Sergeant Canell?”

Canell turned and saw a First Lieutenant standing on the edge of the smoker’s pit. He was tall and lean and hardass, Asian; looked like you could cut diamonds on his cheekbones.

“Yes, sir, I’m Canell. Can I help you with something? Sir?”

“I’m Lieutenant Yazawa, your new PL. I’ve heard good things about you and your squad. Figured I’d strap-hang this patrol and get to know the squad.”

“Oh. That’s awesome. Sir. And will Sergeant First Class Payton be joining us, too?”

“No, the Platoon Sergeant will be hanging with third squad. My understanding is that PCIs are complete and you’ll be rolling out in the next twenty?”

“Ah, yes, sir. I was just about to kit back up and get ready to shove my band of happy retards into their vehicles.”

LT Yazawa didn’t smile, but Canell thought she saw maybe a lip twitch. Lip twitches were good, from an LT. Tics were bad.

“Outstanding. I’ll ride in your vehicle. Just observing. You run the show, I just want to get in the know.”

“Yes, sir, that’s…great. Uh, welcome aboard, or something.”

“Yes, I’m sure you’re so happy you can hardly stand it.”

“Hardly. Sir.”

SSG Canell re-donned her armor and kit. She clipped in the single point release on her M4, and headed back out to the line of her vehicles, idling and ready to step off. She felt the spritz of adrenaline that she always got before they moved outside the wire. Canell headed toward her vehicle, glad that it was only the new LT, and not the Platoon Sergeant accompanying her patrol; she’d gotten enough grief as it was, for something she wasn’t going to compromise on.

The Platoon Sergeant, from guidance down through the First Sergeant and then the exalted Battalion Command Sergeant Major, had been on her ass for carrying a piece of non-standard equipment. Rightly, the Bn CSM had declared that every troop would have all the same gear in all the same places on their load-bearing equipment. Canell knew that made sense. Everyone’s first aid pouch was in the same place. Everyone’s radio, ammo, and explosives were located on each troop in the same place. That made sense. If you need to grab something off a fallen comrade, you shouldn’t be rootin’ around trying to find a troop’s first aid kit to staunch his wound. But. The NCO chain had declared that nothing extra could be added to personal kit.

Canell carried a tomahawk. Years ago, greats-ago, a great-grandaddy captured it as a Texas Ranger during the Commanche wars. Her family had carried it in WWII. Her grandaddy had carried it in Vietnam. Her father had borne the tomahawk into battle during the first Gulf War. Her big brother, an Army Ranger, had carried it into Afghanistan after 911. He had bestowed the hunk of steel with a hickory shaft upon her when she rotated into Iraq on her second tour. Now on her third tour, there wasn’t no way that the tomahawk wasn’t going to be damn well affixed to her kit. First Sergeant and Sergeant Major had a problem with that. Well, they’d get over it. What she didn’t need though, was the new LT getting all obstreperous about it. The tomahawk was slid into a ring that MPs usually carried billy clubs in. LT would get over it. Canell just didn’t need a spat right before they launched.

Canell saw to her squad mates mounting up and getting ready to roll. The new LT, this Yazawa guy, was kitted up and standing by her vehicle. After getting everyone set, she approached her own vehicle, and pointed to the rear door behind her seat as the vehicle commander. “That’s where you go. Sir.”

Yazawa pointed at her kit. “I see you’re carrying some non-standard equipment, there, Staff Sergeant.”

Canell bowed up, just a little bit. “Yes, sir. This ‘Hawk has been in my family about a hundred and fifty years. It’s seen more combat than the two of us ever will. It goes with me. Sir.”

Yazawa’s lip twitched. “As well it should. And, hey, big Sarge, you are not the only one carrying a family heirloom into the fight.” Yazawa turned, and Canell saw what was either a small-ass sword or a big-ass knife hanging at his waist. “This wakizashi has been in my family for over 350 years. I don’t leave home without it.”

Canell grinned. “Roger that, sir.”

They both sat the Humvee, and Canell radioed for the formation to move out the wire.

Two hours later, the security patrol was about a third of the way through its rout. Canell had downed two Ripits and copious amounts of water. Funny how on patrol she never needed to pee.

The patrol was about 800 meters from the next security checkpoint they were to check when they got hit. Canell couldn’t have said whether the shock from the blast of the IED or the plume of smoke and dust registered first. She saw CPL Stanton’s Humvee rock up and around, and then a hail of all kinds of fire was pouring into her squad. Her squad. Canell hit the radio, we need QRF, we need air up and eyes on now, all vehicles status up now. Stanton’s vehicle wasn’t responding by radio but she saw Taverson up on the M240, laying down fires. A second IED went off to the rear of the patrol. Canell could see jihadis massing on the far side of a low wall to the formation’s right, shooting and looking like they were getting ready to assault the squad. Her squad.

“All vehicles, gunner’s fire right, keep eyes left. Watch for friendlies, I’m on the ground.”

Canell bailed the Humvee and moved toward a break in the wall, from which all the small arms fire was coming. She rolled over the break and on the far side saw all kinda jihadis shooting at her squad, her boys. She leveled up her M4 and started shooting as she moved forward in the little trench behind the wall. She got close and, in the press of bodies, aiming wasn’t really necessary. She felt supporting fires coming from behind her, over her right shoulder, but didn’t stop to check who had followed her into the trench.

Her M4 ran dry and she flipped a mag switch without thought or hesitation. She was now walking on the bodies of those she’d shot, without being sure they were done and she was clear. There was still a swarm in front of her. The person supporting her from behind had moved up so that they were virtually shoulder-to-shoulder. Canell’s weapon clicked dry again. As a mere Staff Sergeant, she didn’t rate a sidearm, and because the US Army was so super-duper high tech, neither Canell nor any of her squaddies carried bayonets.

Without a thought, Canell dropped her carbine on its sling and pulled her tomahawk from its ring on her belt and got to cutting. Her (butthead) Ranger big brother hadn’t just handed her the weapon; he’d spent hours training her to use the weapon, burning into muscle memory how to best employ both the ax-head and its tail-end spike, and how with a thumb-stroke to rotate between the two. Canell, if she had a thought, was only thinking of her boys and taking the heat off them. She hit the press and alternated low and high with the swift, savage strokes of the ‘hawk.

The crowd of jihadis was thinning when Canell knew she was dead. One of the last hadjis in the line was bringing his AK-47 up to bear, and Canell knew she wouldn’t reach him in time to stop his killing her. Here’s hoping them thousand dollar plates work. Canell reached forward as far and as fast as she could. Her ‘hawk swept down through the shoulder of the threat and well into his clavicle, keeping the threat’s weapon from coming all the way up. The jihadi reflexively jerked the trigger, and Canell felt her left leg jerk from under her, like she’d been damn mule kicked. She fell forward knowing she couldn’t do anything to stop the next shot. Knowing she was dead.

She saw the jihadi try to lever the muzzle of the AK back up with the arm she hadn’t ruined, when his head seemed to leap from his shoulders. LT Yazawa moved beyond the still-falling corpse and took out the next two jihadis behind him with that skinny, big-ass knife of his. Strangely, weirdly, that seemed to be the end of the line. Canell thought, good, my boys are safe. She managed to rotate onto her back to see the sun, and watched it fade to black.

Krista Canell woke up in what she figured was the CASH (Combat Support Hospital). Her head felt muzzy and she had about the worst case of cotton mouth ever. The lights were dim and she could tell she was hooked up to that machine that went beep. She felt a dull, throbbing ache in her leg. Not painful, but full of bass. She looked around and saw a cup with a straw on the lap table next to her bed. She grabbed it and greedily sucked down the ice water in it. She settled back, content but for that throb in her leg. Then she jerked up. She’d heard all type-a stories of troops feeling aches and throbs in limbs that were no longer there. She reached down and felt her leg. It was there. Her hands walked down her leg as far as she could reach. Her leg was there. She fell back and slept.

When she woke up, she saw the razor-sharp silhouette of LT Yazawa by her bedside. Guy was so erect, he made her spine hurt just lookin’ at him.

“Hey, sir. I screw up the SITREP, or something?”

“No. Your team covered for you. SITREP is good. You got over.”

“Yes, sir.”

“The docs say you only got soft tissue damage. You’re damn lucky that round didn’t break your femur. You have a couple days before they evaluate and either MEDEVAC you to Germany, or see whether you can rehabilitate on site and return to duty.”

“Hey, sir, I’m good, I’ll rehabilitate and go RTD.” Return to duty.

“It’s the doc’s call, based on your condition. If you can RTD, that’s great. But you need to give him the right feedback. If you can muscle up and get back to work, that’s great. But if you can’t look me in the eye and tell me you can hit that trench just as well as before, then you need to bow out. Your squad deserves that.”

That gave Canell pause. “Yes, sir.”

LT Yazawa reached under his chair and pulled out a couple items.

“The boys told me you’d want this.” Yazawa handed her her leather bound bible. Canell felt herself getting a little teary.

“Yes, sir. Thank you. Thank them for me.”

“Absolutely. And we all knew you needed this, to help with the healing.” The LT handed her her tomahawk.

Canell seized up a little bit and held the ‘hawk to her breast. “Thank you. Thank you, sir.”

“You heal up, now, Staff Sergeant. That is a direct verbal order, understand?”

“Yes, sir.”

Yazawa got up to leave.

“Sir? I saw you, in the trench, using that long-ass knife–“

“–It’s a wakizashi–“

“–right, using your whatsits. Did you ever think you would use it? I mean, you carried it, but did you ever think it would be a weapon you used?”

Yazawa paused. “We both carried the weapons of our forebears. Not because we thought we would need them, but because we wanted to venerate those who had fought so hard, so long ago, to give us what we have today. No. I never thought I would use the weapon of my ancestors, but I’m darn glad I had it.”

“Me, too, sir.”

“Heal well, Staff Sergeant.”

This post was inspired by this incredible young lady. God bless her and those like her.

Also, I needed a Nippon-American name. Thanks to Al Yazawa (USMA, ’89) for letting me use his. ‘Course, he stopped his man-killing ways years ago to become an MD. Quitter.

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