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"So why are we investigating the destruction of a terrorist camp in Syria again?" T.J. Hawkins whispered to Calvin James as the Zodiac boat hummed toward the Lebanese coast. "If you ask me"
"Well, I didn't," James retorted.
"Well, if you did, whoever took them out did us a favor," Hawkins answered.
"Really, mate?" David McCarter asked as he scanned the shore with his field glasses. "A chemical weapons attack on an unfriendly country, using American materials. That's a favor to the U.S.? I'd hate to see what you'd call a slap in the face."
"The PFRLL were some of the sickest bastards in the Lebanese equation, though," Hawkins stated. "They never cared about civilian casualties when they made their attacks. It'd have been our job, sooner or later, to take them out."
"Sooner or later, sure," Rafael Encizo answered as he worked the rudder's till, keeping them on course despite a crosscurrent. "But then, we also need to figure out who has a small automated air force. The drones responsible for the attack could end up in the hands of someone who might turn them against a city."
"Well then, that'd be a whole new mess o' pig shit," Hawkins admitted.
Encizo nodded, returning his attention to guiding the inflatable raft. The muscular little Cuban's steady steering was born of years spent by the sea, either diving or working boats. Between him and Calvin James, Phoenix Force had the training to handle almost anything on the water. The inflatable raft would be collapsed on the shore and buried before they went inland. If necessary, the raft could be dug up and used to exfiltrate from the country, but Mc-Carter had other avenues out of Lebanon, just in case the investigation took them on a new path.
"Welcoming party," Gary Manning announced as he spied the beach through the scope of his Heckler&Koch PSG-1 rifle.
Hawkins's hand tightened on the grip of his G-36, but his trigger finger rested on the receiver.
"Keep your booger hook off the bang switch," he remembered his drill instructor bellowing in basic training. It was second nature for the Southerner, by now. Even as a Ranger, he practiced as a professional, not until he got it right once, but until he never got it wrong. That mentality was pushed even further as a veteran member of Phoenix Force, one of the most elite combat units in the world. The five handpicked Stony Man warriors had been chosen for their experience and ability. All of them were highly trained commandos.
"They spot us yet?" McCarter asked Manning.
"No. They seem to be waiting for someone else," Manning said. "Their attention is more to the north."
McCarter drew his finger across his throat and the Stony Man commandos fell silent. Only the muffled Mercury engine made any sound, and even then, it was a soft hum that was easily swallowed by the lap of waves. Phoenix Force lowered its profile, lying in the bottom of the raft, only Encizo and Manning breaching the tops of the inflated Kevlar pontoons to steer and to observe the mysterious group on the shore.
McCarter pointed to James and patted the grip of his knife. He nodded to Encizo. The stocky Cuban flicked a thumbs-up to the fox-faced Briton and adjusted their course a little farther to the south.
So much for the plan of burying the raft, Hawkins mused. With unknown forces on the shore, they would have to scuttle the inflatable raft, slashing through the rigid nylon pontoons. The weight of the motor would drag it down, and Phoenix Force would swim a hundred yards to shore.
Hawkins fed Encizo's rifle into a water-tight bag, since he was steering. He did the same for Manning's PSG-1, while the powerfully built Canadian switched to McCarter's field glasses to maintain surveillance of the unknown enemy.
"There," Encizo stated softly. He turned off the engine and James slashed the inflated tubes to starboard while McCarter took out the port side. The raft collapsed almost instantly, Mediterranean seawater rushing in and engulfing Hawkins. Within a few kicks, Phoenix Force had swum free of the sinking raft, and Hawkins handed Encizo and Manning their waterproof packs.
So far, their plans had been preempted, but then, an average day of work for Phoenix Force rarely went as they hoped. However, the team had been formed to take care of things when nothing had gone right. Adapt and overcome was their forte.
HERMANN "GADGETS" SCHWARZ was no stranger to Central America, and he was no stranger to the morass of its constant threats and violence. Going over the files that described the evidence of the Panama assault, he tried to gain the measure of who they were up against this time out. In the past, the warriors of Stony Man Farm had battled all manner of threats in the canal nation, from renegade secret policemen who killed for their fascist beliefs to Chinese espionage agents trying to gain control of the canal to drug dealers who had flourished under the former dictator. Often, multiple parties entwined, and even forces theoretically on the same side, like Communist rebels and the Red Chinese government, were at odds against each other. Then again, whenever Able Team went south of the border, it was never simple and easy.
"Never a lack of targets on these operations," Carl Lyons said. "Shoot in any direction and you'll hit a bad guy."
"Just the way you like it," Schwarz replied sardonically, putting the file away. "Simple and bloody."
Lyons grunted. "If I wanted to fuss over geopolitics, I'd have joined Phoenix Force."
Rosario Blancanales, fondly known as Pol, looked back at the pair from the balcony and sighed. "As if a caveman like you could run with that bunch."
"I am a pretty good detective, you know," Lyons responded. He looked at the list of murdered civilians, his heavy brow furrowed. "It could have been an assassination attempt."
"But making it look like the U.S. did it?" Schwarz asked. "Well, the Venezuelan government has no love for our leadership in Washington," Lyons replied.
"Leadership in Wonderland?" Schwarz asked.
"Well, you know what I mean," Lyons returned. "But no one on the list of the dead fits in with people who'd have pissed off the head Communists in Caracas."
"Just women and children," Schwarz said. "Killed to smear America's name across the headlines in innocent blood."
Lyons shrugged. "The papers are already full of the U.S. being bloodthirsty brutes for Iraq. Like we needed any more vilification?"
Blancanales cocked an eyebrow. "Sorry," Lyons said. "That last caveman comment got me breaking out my five-dollar words."
Blancanales grinned, but the smile didn't last long. "But why UAVs?"
"It has to be linked to the mess Phoenix is investigating over in Lebanon," Schwarz said. "And don't forget, we've had our own encounters with rogue drones in the past."
"The Farm never did figure out who supplied that Egyptian general with so many Predators," Blancanales answered. "This might be more of the same."
Lyons frowned, "Then we can find out who's behind it and shut it all down."
"Before they start a global war," Schwarz mentioned. He looked at the files on the attack. "We just need to figure out where the drones launched from. Maybe then we could learn who made them and work our way up the food chain."
He pored over detailed photographs of the wrecked unmanned drones that had hit the crowd at the consulate.
Nothing identifiable had survived the crash of the second, and the AT-4 rocket had blasted everything to garbage.
"Nothing on the technology front?" Blancanales asked.
"Bulk, cheap Chinese electronics, rewired to handle the demands of duplicating Predator UAV technology. Some brilliant improvisation, but no evidence of who put it together," Schwarz said. He shook his head. "Untraceable."
"Nothing is untraceable," Lyons retorted. "We'll find a handle. And when we do, we'll twist until we get some answers."
There was a knock at the door and all three Able warriors' hands fell to the grips of their holstered handguns. Lyons answered the door and admitted their contact, Su-sana Arquillo. She was a CIA field agent assigned to Panama. Her skin was darkened and bronzed by the near equatorial sun. Her hair had been long and dark in her file photograph, but in person, it was trimmed short and pulled back into a tight bun. A few strands of white feathered through it to make it seem lighter. Arquillo's full, lush lips parted in a smile.
"Carl Ryder?" she asked.
"That's me," Lyons said.
"And you can confirm who I am?" Arquillo asked.
"Gadgets, run her prints," Lyons told Schwarz. "If you're not who you're supposed to be "
Arquillo's eyes dropped to the rubber Pachmayer grips poking out of Lyons's waistband. "I won't be walking out of here. But what if I'm packing explosives?"
Lyons looked her over, hard blue eyes scanning the way her jeans hugged her curvaceous hips. Her blouse hung, un-buttoned and tied together at the bottom, a dark red tank top constraining her full breasts. His hand patted around her waist and found her compact 9 mm Glock on one side and a tiny .38 Special tucked away on the other. "I don't think you could be hiding too much under there."
Arquillo was relatively tall, five foot nine, and athletically built. She cocked an eyebrow as she pressed her fingertips to the flat scan plate Schwarz held out for her. "Ever hear of a charger?"
"You don't strike me as the kind of woman who'd want to go out with an eighth of a stick of C-4 detonating in her ass," Lyons said.
"Besides," Blancanales added, holding up a portable
"This thing would have smelled explosive residue on you."
"Thorough," Arquillo noted.
"She's clean," Schwarz declared.