Marc Portman, codename Watchman, is in Russia providing covert back-up to wealthy Russian businessman Leonid Tzorekov. A former KGB officer sympathetic to the West, Tzorekov has close links with Vladimir Putin and is planning to use his influence with the President to improve relations between Russia, the USA and the European Union.
However, there are those with vested interests in maintaining hostilities: powerful men who will go to any lengths to ensure the proposed meeting does not take place. The Watchman’s role is to run security, evaluate risks and, where necessary, provide hard cover by taking more direct action and fighting back. When the assignment takes an unexpected turn, Portman has no choice but to take the hard cover option …
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A Marc Portman Thriller
By Adrian Magson
Severn House Publishers LimitedCopyright © 2016 Adrian Magson
All rights reserved.
Ciudad Madero – Gulf Coast of Mexico
Competence. It's a sure-fire way to get yourself noticed by a suspicious security professional.
Most people on the street look unassuming, engrossed in their own brand of the everyday. They don't have what's called 'presence' – at least not the threatening kind. Many professionals on the other hand, if they're not mindful, look anything but. Something in their training and motivation gives them an indefinable aura that sets them apart from those around them.
To a watchful eye, it's the heads-up, can-do attitude that spells potential trouble. Like a wolf in a woolly coat, it might look like a sheep and smell like a sheep; but if it walks like something hairy, it's time to take a closer look.
Which was why I was shuffling along with my head down, hiding beneath a grubby two-sizes-up faded and beat-up camo jacket and hood with make-do patches on the elbows. I was stopping every now and then to change hands with the box I was carrying, an old television carton which looked a lot heavier than it actually was. But that was part of the plan. Looking vulnerable, which I did by stopping every few yards and flexing my fingers, means you don't appear to be a threat.
The man standing outside the gates of the workshop yard didn't look the sympathetic type. The bulge under his coat told me and anybody who cared to look that he was armed, and he worked hard on living the image; he was big and shaven-headed, and sneered every time I stopped. When he spat on the ground and it landed too close to my foot to be an accident, I figured it was his way of passing the time and intimidating people he didn't like the look of.
I dropped my shoulders and wrapped a piece of my sleeve around my hand, then grabbed the string again and went to shuffle past him. By then he'd lost interest and turned his head to check the street the other way.
Just before I drew level with him I pushed my fist through a slit in the cardboard and pulled out a piece of four-by-two hardwood timber I'd found in a dumpster back down the street. It was eighteen inches long and had a nicely balanced feel to it, although I doubt the guard would have agreed. When I swung it at the back of his head he went down and out without a sound.
I dragged him off the street and through the pedestrian door set in one of the gates, and rolled him behind an old car body that was slowly rotting into the ground. I slapped a length of heavy tape across his mouth and did the same on his wrists and ankles, and just for luck used a further length to secure both ankles and wrists together so he couldn't kick out when he woke up.
Inside his coat I found a Czech-made Browning semi- automatic in a nylon holster. It was a nice piece but hadn't been cleaned in a while. In his side pocket was an unopened packet of condoms and a fat silencer the size of a small beer bottle. It looked professionally made but unbranded. It didn't smell used, so I figured he probably got it out when he wanted to impress the ladies, with the condoms on stand-by in case he got lucky.
I stripped out the magazine and tossed it out of sight behind the car, and threw the gun through the window into the rotting interior. I pocketed the silencer and went back outside for the box. I'd already scanned for cameras on an earlier pass when a couple of cars had driven through the gates, and it had given me a brief glimpse inside before the guard had slammed them shut. I hadn't spotted any obvious lenses, but that meant the place I was about to hit was either innocent of any wrongdoing or the owners didn't feel the need because they had a tight control on the entire area.
I figured the second option.
I dropped the box out of sight inside the gates and closed the pedestrian door behind me. I took a semi-automatic out of my coat pocket and tried the silencer for size. It had a rubber insert which fitted tightly around the barrel, and the silencer was probably good for one-time use only. But since I wasn't planning on starting a long shooting war, it would do fine.
The building had once been a metal workshop, evidenced by a rack of rusting metal sheets at the back of the yard and the remains of an overhead pulley system for hauling heavy loads through a set of sliding doors at the front. These were shut tight with a heavy coating of grime over the inspection glass set in one side. There were no windows overlooking the yard, although I figured there had to be an office of some kind on the first floor – a further indication that the people here didn't concern themselves with snap inspections by the local police or on anybody else busting in uninvited.
It told me everything I needed to know about them and this part of the city.
A set of metal stairs in one corner led up to the first floor and a walkway running out of sight on the side of the building. It would be the obvious way in but I gave it a miss. In old buildings the vibration set up on metal stairs the moment you step on them is a clear give-away.
Instead I walked down the side of the building, stepping past a pile of twisted metal and ancient car parts, following a concrete path that looked like it had been recently swept of rubbish.
I came to a window and ducked beneath it. A conversation was going on inside, but it was just a rumble of voices and I couldn't understand the words enough to follow the subject. I counted three different speakers, all male. One of them sounded pissed off and kept interrupting the others, who shut up the moment he began speaking. He was either the boss man or the biggest and meanest; it didn't make much difference to me.
I crept along to the rear of the building and found another door and a path leading to an outside toilet. It smelled awful and hadn't been cleaned in years. No surprise there.
I turned back and tried the door handle. It felt smooth and well-used, and moved without a sound.
The door opened outwards, and brought with it a smell of mould, damp and oil – and cigarette smoke. I slipped inside and found myself in a tiny lobby with a wooden door facing me. A flight of concrete stairs to one side led up to the first floor.
The voices were coming from the other side of the door.
I took the stairs on my toes, careful to avoid a layer of grit where the plaster had crumbled off the rotting walls, and reached a single door on a small landing. It was open a crack and I edged it back until I could see inside.
The room had once been an office. All it held now was an armchair, a wooden table and a camp-style bed. The air seeping out from inside smelled of stale bodies, ditto food and quiet desperation.
The armchair was currently filled with a reclining twin of the gate guard downstairs, dressed in creased pants and a filthy shirt. He had a three-day growth of beard and a big gut and was snoring softly, and sporting a pistol on his chest with one hand resting on the butt.
The bed held the slim form of a teenage girl, her hands tied with rope. Her name was Katarina, and she was the thirteen-year-old daughter of local federal judge Antonio da Costa. Just weeks before, the judge had declared war on the cartels in the region and vowed to bring them to justice for their murderous, racketeering activities.
Kidnapping Katarina had undoubtedly been intended to ensure that particular war got stopped in its tracks. The message was simple: Judge da Costa either pulled his head in or he never saw his daughter alive again. The tactic had worked before in other parts of Mexico, and the kidnappers were probably counting on a satisfactory repeat outcome.
The grim truth, however, was that the judge would probably never see his daughter again, whatever he did. The cartels didn't take prisoners for fun and rarely returned them even when they'd got what they wanted. To them, violence of a kind that would have made I S look almost restrained was the only thing that mattered, and they performed it with chainsaws, just so everybody got the message.
I'd been called in on this job by a local security contractor working for da Costa. He'd quickly found he and his colleagues were too well-known, so he needed an outsider. He told me that the kidnap gang had been identified as a small spin-off cell from the Los Zetas cartel centred on Mexico's Gulf Coast. Formed after the arrest of the cartel leader, Alejandro Morales, or 'Z-42' as he was known, this particular cell was taking a huge risk, not least from the Los Zetas, who were still a ruthless force throughout the country, but from the northern-based Sinaloa Federation who were looking for a way of taking over the Los Zetas business and would deal ruthlessly with any competition.
The security firm had discovered through a local mouthpiece that Katarina was being held on a little-used industrial area on the south-eastern edge of Ciudad Madero, where the sprawl of low-cost housing began to leech into the surrounding hills. The infrastructure here was poor and the area almost abandoned by the local politicians, and the only people remaining on the industrial site, which was gradually being cleared by heavy-handed developers, were a few die-hard businesses and homeless families with nowhere else to go. It made a police or army raid virtually impossible to carry out successfully as these hangers-on had no choice but to do the bidding of the cartel.
Thus it had to be a one-man mission and pray for good luck.
Katarina looked okay to me. It was hard to tell, but her clothes were still clean and she didn't look in pain, so I was guessing the men hadn't touched her. What her state of mind might be was a different thing altogether. Right now, though, she was looking straight at me, eyes bulging imploringly over the gag that had been stuffed into her mouth and secured by wire looped around her head and cutting into her cheeks.
I held a finger to my lips and signalled for her to turn her head away. If the guard woke up and saw her face, he'd know instantly what was about to happen. I also didn't want her to see what would go down if things went wrong.
I checked the wooden floor in front of me; it was bad news. The planks looked thin and unstable, warped by time, heat and decay. The moment I stepped through the door, unless the men downstairs figured it was Mr Sleepy up and about, I'd be on a twenty-second countdown to get the girl off the bed and out of here.
And our only way out was back down the stairs.CHAPTER 2
The rumble of voices was still going on, with the main man still holding forth. I had no idea what they were discussing but it had to be what they were planning to do with the money. There had been a ransom demand of $3 million, along with the judge's promised silence against the cartels, but that was pretty much standard; in the end, unless the judge openly gave up his daughter's life for the sake of his job, they'd get what they wanted.
Getting the girl back in one piece still wouldn't happen.
That was why I'd been called in; the judge knew perfectly well the kind of people he was dealing with, and whatever their demands he was well aware of the likely outcome. His daughter would be found, like so many previous kidnap victims, in a storm drain somewhere, and it wouldn't be pretty.
I took a deep breath. These men were highly dangerous and would be ready to start shooting at the slightest provocation. If the ones downstairs realized I was up here, they wouldn't bother coming up to find me first; they'd start shooting through the floor.
I stepped carefully across to the man in the armchair, testing the boards for give. As I did so he stirred, alerted by a sixth sense to danger. He came up out of the chair in a rush, lifting the gun off his chest towards the girl on the bed, and I knew his instructions had been simple: at the first signs of a rescue attempt, waste the hostage.
Holding the silencer in place I shot him twice. The gunshots were muffled, no more than a snapping sound. But his body tipping over the arm of the chair wasn't. He hit the floor hard, his gun skidding out of his hand and bouncing across the boards like a drum roll.
Instantly I heard a volley of shouts from downstairs demanding to know what was going on and what Carlos was doing.
The girl turned when she heard the shouting and looked to see what had happened, her eyes growing wider as she saw the dead guard with his head covered in blood. I bent and hauled her off the bed and tucked her behind the door where she would be most protected. Then I cut the ropes around her wrists and signalled to her not to move and to put her fingers in her ears. A split second later a volley of wild shots were fired through the ceiling downstairs, ripping up through the planks and filling the air with splinters and making Carlos's body jump.
Showed how much these guys cared about their colleagues. He should have joined a friendlier gang.
I fired back, spacing out my shots across the floor with a concentration around the door. I heard a scream which told me I'd been lucky, but no more shots.
They were on their way up.
I reloaded and grabbed the table, hurling it through the doorway onto the landing. I was counting on the element of shock and surprise as it hit the wall of the stairwell and crashed down the stairs. Somebody got the message and began yelling and firing like it was the fourth of July, and I heard the vicious spit and whine of shells taking pieces out of the walls and ceiling, and the clatter of brick and plaster rubble falling into the well. I waited for the shooting to stop, then stepped out and fired back, using the walls to bounce shells around the small lobby like shrapnel. There was more shouting, and I recognized the boss man's voice telling somebody to call for backup.
I had to get down there before that could happen, and there was only one way to do it. I ran down the first set of six stairs, my feet skidding in the dirt, and rounded the corner to face the door where the men had been talking. As I did so a chunk of plaster and brick dust exploded near my head and I saw a man in grubby jeans and shirt lying in the corner of the lobby, firing up the stairs. He had blood on his shoulder and was screaming something I didn't understand.
I shot him once and scooped up his gun as I ran past, and hit the door running, rolling across the concrete floor into what had once been the workshop. One man was lying on the floor, eyes wide open, my lucky shot from upstairs. Another was frantically stabbing a cell phone with his thumb while juggling a pistol with his other hand and trying to bring it to bear on me.
I pointed my gun at him and shook my head. He didn't look like a pro, more a talker than a fighter. But even talkers can be dangerous.
He dropped the phone and bent to put the gun on the floor, shaking his head at me and imploring me not to shoot, his jowls quivering like jello. He was quite a surprise. He was dressed in a smart suit and white shirt, with flashy-looking brown loafers polished to a high shine. All in it would probably have cost him a couple of thousand dollars. He was short and fat and had more of the sleek look of a businessman or politician than a kidnapper.
Maybe the local grab-and-ransom business was moving upmarket.
As I got to my feet I heard a noise behind me.
I spun round, finger tightening on the trigger.
It was Katarina. She'd followed me downstairs and was holding onto the door frame and doing her best not to fall over. She looked ghostly pale and ready to throw up, but had clearly got the guts to drag herself down here, ready to face whatever was waiting. But the look on her face wasn't just the expression of a traumatized kidnap victim; she looked genuinely appalled and was staring past me at the fat man as if she couldn't believe her eyes.
'Tio?' She whispered. Uncle. Then she held out her hand and screamed, 'Non!'
I turned in time to see the fat man going for his gun. In his haste he fumbled it, juggling with both hands to turn it the right way and pull the trigger. He looked terrified and I realized why: for whatever insane reason – undoubtedly money – he'd arranged via this group of misfits for the kidnap of his own niece. It wouldn't be the first time family had turned on family for profit. It also explained why the goons he'd used were low-level quality and not cartel guns. But one thing was certain: he might have stayed in the background so far, only now the game was truly up.
Excerpted from Hard Cover by Adrian Magson. Copyright © 2016 Adrian Magson. Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
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