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Cesar Calderon stepped outside to light a cigarette. It was a gorgeous night, unseasonably warm for December, even in Mexico. He took a deep drag and tilted his head back, aiming the smoke toward a waning moon.
"Quieres?" he asked, turning to his bodyguard. Moreno had stationed himself a few feet back, just outside the restaurant door. For this trip Cesar had selected one of his less imposing employees, determined to maintain a low profile despite the circumstances.
"No, gracias," Moreno said.
Calderon nodded, then inhaled. Thalia would be apoplectic if she knew he'd taken up smoking againeven if it was only socially, on business trips like this one. Before returning home he'd have to make sure his clothes were laundered or he'd catch hell for it. Out of habit, he kept a close monitor on the surrounding area. The dinner was being held around the corner from their hotel in the Zona Rosa. It was one of the most exclusive sections of Mexico City, although in his opinion these past few years it had slid into tackiness, upscale antique stores ceding to kitschy tourist traps. Shame that they had booked the St. Regis instead of the Four Seasons.
A couple strolled arm in arm, the woman tilting her head back to release a giggle as her companion guided her into a bar down the street. A few storefronts away, a pair of feet jutted out of a doorway. Cesar's eyes narrowed at the sight of them. He turned back to Moreno and raised an eyebrow. Taking the cue, Moreno went to investigate. Grumbles from the doorway, a tirade delivered with the slurred speech of an addict.
"It's nothing, sir," Moreno said in a low voice before falling back into position.
Heroin, Calderon thought, shaking his head. It used to be that the drug only passed through Mexico, but in recent years addiction levels had spiked. The latest law decriminalizing small amounts of heroin and cocaine hadn't helped matters, in his opinion. An already poor country was now being ravaged by the same disease as its wealthier neighbor to the north. A decade ago, the sight of a stoned man collapsed in a Mexico City doorway would have been an oddity. Today it was rapidly becoming the norm.
Back inside the restaurant, someone laughed loudlyprobably Leonard. Bastard always got drunk and inappropriate at these conferences. The other night he'd actually asked Cesar to share a hooker; he shuddered at the memory. The sad truth was that his field attracted people from a wide range of backgrounds, some shadier than others. After recent events, Calderon had decided this was the last time he'd appear as the public face of the company. These business trips were draining, dangerous and put too much of a strain on his already fragile marriage. From here on out he'd leave the heavy lifting to Linus.
Calderon turned at the sound of screeching tires. A white van careened toward him. He frowned and automatically panned right, to the opposite end of the street where he discovered a garbage truck blocking the intersection. Calderon's eyes widened as he realized what was about to happen. He spun on his heels, braced to dash into the restaurant. Saw Moreno's head tilted back at an odd angle, hands clutching his throat as blood jetted from between his fingers. The addict stood behind him, brandishing a knife.
Clearly no escape that way. Calderon tossed his cigarette, scattering a trail of embers as he swiveled and bolted across the street, hoping the sudden move would throw them off.
Too late. Hands gripped him from behind, dragging him toward the van's open door. His calves smacked the metal frame as they pulled him inside. The last thing he saw was the shocked expression on the maitre d's face, frozen behind the host stand. Then a hood was yanked over his head, the van door slammed shut and a voice barked in Spanish, "Wall one, wall one, we have him! Wall two, move in behind us."
Calderon let out a yelp at the sudden, sharp pain in his thigh. Mierda, he thought, they're drugging me
Then everything went black.
Riley adjusted his grip on the MP-5. It was almost dawn. Aside from the sound of an occasional car, the streets below were silent. Almost eerily so, considering Mexico City had more than eight million residents. Riley looked down the line of men in the hall. Four of them pressed against the wall in tight formation, wearing urban camouflage and night-vision goggles. Outside he had Decker manning the wheel of their getaway van, and a sniper and observer in the building opposite. Eight total: more than enough to overwhelm the team holding Cesar Calderon. Still, despite the weeks of planning to set this operation in motion, it was hard for Riley to shake the sense that something was off.
Just nerves, Riley told himself. He had good intel that they were only dealing with three kidnappers. Monroe and Kaplan, his sniper/observer team, would create a distraction, taking out at least one of the bad guys at the window. The rest of his unit would swarm the apartment using a five-man cross-button entry strategy, eliminating the other two kidnappers and egressing with their hostage. All told, the operation should be over in less than five minutes. An airfield ten miles away had a plane waiting, and they'd be stateside by noon. Easy, just like Smiley had promised.
Riley's earpiece buzzed. "Target confirmed. Are we green?" Kaplan asked in a low voice.
"Confirm green, we are in position," Riley replied.
"Roger that. Sighting in."
Riley glanced at his watch. Despite the early hour, he worried that one of the other apartment doors might open, ruining the element of surprise. They were in a run-down tenement building in Iztapalapa, one of the worst slums in Mexico City, which was saying something. The walls were riddled with holes, they'd sent rats scurrying in the stairwell as they ascended, and the whole place stank of piss and rotten meat. All things considered, there were sections of Baghdad he'd feel safer in.
Plus, the kidnappers they were about to engage were no ordinary hacks. Los Zetas was an elite paramilitary organization, former Mexican army soldiers who defected to work for a drug cartel. The men he was about to confront had been through the same training as his unit. They had attended the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation in Fort Benning, Georgia, learning firsthand from the best in the business the very techniques he was about to employ. All of which made this one of the most dangerous rescue attempts he'd ever participated in. And, officially at least, it was the first he was solely in charge of.
The hostage was something of a unique case, too. Cesar Calderon was the CEO of the Tyr Group, the world's premier Kidnap and Ransom organization. Calderon had personally negotiated the release of hundreds of people over the course of his career. Then, five weeks ago, he'd been snatched from a security symposium where he was the keynote speaker. He walked out of a restaurant, disappeared into the back of a white van and hadn't been heard from since. The rescuer became the victimironic, Riley thought. He'd never met Calderon personally, but in addition to being his boss, the man was a legend in K&R circles.
From inside the apartment, Narcocorridos music blared at top volume. Riley guessed that the neighbors were either Zetas sympathizers or too frightened to complain. The music provided good cover for the kidnappers, and had the additional benefit of disorienting and demoralizing their hostage. On the plus side for Riley, it meant his team didn't have to worry about a stealthy approach. Hell, they could be escorted by a ten-piece band and still not be heard over the racket emanating from the apartment. Amazing that anyone could sleep through that, but after a while they probably tuned it out.
His earpiece buzzed: "Request permission to engage," Kaplan asked. The spotter was probably itching to get this over with. He and Monroe, the sniper, had to keep their focus on the apartment from across the street, without any backup, putting them in the most vulnerable position. Especially in this barrio, where each building was more dangerous than the next.
"Permission granted. Fire, fire." Riley turned and gave the rest of his team the Go signal. Two of them moved forward to flank the door, a compact battering ram between them. He'd act as point manfirst through the door and ready to take out whatever lay on the other side. The clearing man would follow, covering his back. The rest of the team would split up to sweep each room, securing the hostage and eliminating any hostiles with extreme prejudice.
Over the din inside the apartment, he heard the distinct sound of shattering glass. Monroe must have shot out the window, hopefully eliminating one of the hostiles at the same time. Riley nodded. The ram swung back, and the door burst inward with a splintering of wood.
"What the fuck was that?" asked Monroe.
Kaplan refocused the Elcan scope on his M-16 rifle, most spotters' weapon of choice because it provided the best night vision. He was spotting for Monroe, arguably one of the world's best snipers. Monroe had come up through the ranks of the Army's elite Olympic sharpshoot-ing team, racking up medals until he got tired of firing at bull's-eyes and joined the private sector. The two of them were ensconced in an apartment across the street from their target. They'd built their nest a few feet back in the room so the gun muzzle wouldn't be spotted, and covered most of the window with strips of burlap. The figure they'd zeroed in on had vanished, the window he'd been standing in front of now completely shattered.
"You got him."
"Bullshit, I didn't get anyone," Monroe said. "I haven't fired yet."
"I was about to, when the window blew."
"So what the"
The door behind them suddenly exploded. Kaplan's hands jerked instinctively to cover his head, before he regained himself and swung the M-16 around.
A sharp pain in his shoulder, followed by one in his chest. Something wet smacked into his face, and he jerked sideways away from it. Men swarmed the room, faces covered by masks attached to black helmets, giving them a wasplike appearance. They all carried machine guns. Kaplan slowly raised his hands in the air, gasping slightly from the pain in his chest where the second bullet had hit.