Read an Excerpt
A Blaine McCracken Novel
By Jon Land
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA Copyright © 2012 Jon Land
All rights reserved.
Juárez, Mexico: The present
The black Mercedes SUV slid up to the entrance of the walled compound, chickens skittering from its path in the shimmering heat as it squealed to a halt. Dust hung in the air like a light curtain, adding a dull sheen to everything it touched. A pair of armed guards approached the SUV from either side of the closed gate and tapped on the blacked-out window on both the driver and passenger sides.
"I'm here to see Señor Morales," said the driver, his face cloaked in the darkness of the interior.
"You're early," said the guard, hands closed over the door frame so his fingers were curled inside the cab. A thin layer of dust lifted by the breeze coated both his uniform and face.
"By a full day."
The driver feigned surprise. "Really? Guess I messed up with my day planner."
"Then we will see you tomorrow," the guard said, backing away from the SUV as if expecting the driver to take his leave.
"Sorry, I'm not available then. But if Señor Morales would prefer I take my business elsewhere, I'm sure his competition will be most interested in that business when I visit them tomorrow instead."
The lead guard moved up against the door again, two others with almost identical black hair and mustaches inching closer as well. "You will honor the terms of your deal."
"Just what I came here to do, amigo. Now go check with your boss and let's get on with it," said the driver.
He was wearing a cream-colored suit and T-shirt that was only slightly darker. The T-shirt fit him snugly, revealing a taut torso and chest expansive enough to strain the fabric. His face was ruddy, his complexion that of a man who'd spent many hours outside, though not necessarily in the sun. His thin beard was so tightly trimmed to his skin that it could have been confused for a trick of the SUV interior's dark shading. Other than a scar that ran through his right eyebrow and thick black hair sprinkled with a powdering of gray, his only real distinguishing feature was a pair of dark, deep-set eyes that looked like twin black holes spiraling through either side of his face.
"If Señor Morales and I have a deal, then the day shouldn't matter," he told the guard at his window.
"I'll tell him you'll be returning tomorrow."
"In which case, I'll be returning without this," the driver said, turning toward the passenger seat where a smaller man who looked ten years his senior held up a briefcase that was handcuffed to his wrist.
The older man's face was pocked with tiny scars all seeming to point toward a bent and bulbous nose that had been broken on more than one occasion. His eyes didn't seem to blink because when they did the motion was so rapid that it might as well have not happened at all.
"Señor Morales does not like to be threatened," the guard said, taking a step back from the vehicle. "It ruins his day."
"Then it's a good thing I'm not threatening anyone. Now open the gate," the man in the driver's seat said, gazing up at the unmanned watchtowers left over from Spanish colonial times when the compound had been an active fort and these walls had proved to be the staging ground for all manner of attacks launched against native Mexicans.
The guard backed farther away from the vehicle, raising a walkie-talkie to his lips. The window slid back up, quickly vanquishing the heat in favor of the soft cool of the air-conditioning.
"This ain't good, boss," said Sal Belamo from the passenger seat.
"Hope you didn't expect otherwise," Blaine McCracken said to him, smiling ever so slightly as he opened the sunroof, the cabin flooded immediately by light. "Otherwise, somebody else would've taken the job."
With a half-dozen assault rifles trained upon him, McCracken spent the next few moments carefully studying the exterior of the compound belonging to Arturo Nieves Morales, head of the Juárez drug cartel, the largest in a country dominated by them. He could see more guards armed with assault rifles posted strategically atop the walls amid the dust swirl.
"Those college kids Morales is holding should never have been down here in the first place, Sal."
"Spring break, boss. They thought they'd be safe in some resort in Cabo."
McCracken laid his hands on the steering wheel and leaned back. "They got taken outside a nightclub, lured into a van by some girls we now know were Morales's plants. Not exactly what you'd expect from honor students."
"Booze will do that to you."
"I wouldn't know, Sal. These are honor students who seem to lead the world in community service efforts. Their fraternity built a house for those Habitat for Humanity folks—a whole damn house, for God's sake."
"Sounds like you're taking this personal, boss."
"They're good kids who didn't deserve getting snatched in this sinkhole of a country."
"Parents couldn't raise the ransom?"
"What's the difference? You pay Morales, he just asks for more. And if you don't keep paying, you start getting your kid back one piece at a time."
"Uh-oh," from Belamo.
"I've heard that tone before."
"Doesn't matter, boss. You're picking up just where you left off, and only one way this goes, you ask me."
"With a lot of bodies left behind."
"So long as none of them belong to the hostages, Sal."CHAPTER 2
Washington: One week earlier
"I thought you were out," Henry Folsom said to Blaine McCracken seven days before.
Folsom had the look of a man born in a button-down shirt. Hair neatly slicked back, horn-rimmed glasses, and youthful features that would make him appear forty forever. There was something in his eyes, though, that unsettled McCracken a bit, a constant shifting of his gaze as if there was something he didn't want McCracken to see lurking there.
"Most people think I'm dead," McCracken said, folding his arms tightly across his chest.
Folsom shifted, as if to widen the space between them at the table. "All the same, I was glad when your name came up in conversation."
"Really? What kind of conversation was that?"
"Independent contractors capable of pulling off the impossible."
"I haven't pulled off anything, impossible or otherwise, for a couple years now."
"Are you saying you're not interested?"
"I'm here, aren't I? But my guess is I wouldn't be, if you hadn't pitched this job elsewhere."
"To more traditional authorities, you mean."
"Younger, anyway," said McCracken.
Folsom seemed to smirk. "The hostages are fraternity brothers from Brown University. One of their parents is a top immigration lawyer. That's why this ended up on my desk."
"You know him?"
"Nope, but I know you," Folsom said, folding his arms tightly and flashing another smirk. "I did my master's thesis on the true birth of covert operations, contrasting the work of the World War II–bred OSS with the Vietnam-era Operation Phoenix where CIA-directed assassins plucked off the North Vietnamese cadre one at a time." Folsom leaned forward, canting his shoulders forward as if he were about to bow. "I've been reading about you for twenty years now."
"There's nothing written about me."
Folsom came up just short of a wink. "I know."
McCracken had met him in the F Street Bistro in the State Plaza Hotel, a pleasant enough venue with cheery light and a slate of windows overlooking the street he instinctively avoided. McCracken had arrived first, as was his custom, and staked out a table in as close to a darkened corner as the place had to offer. He'd used this location in the past because of its status as one of Washington's best-kept secrets. Once he sat down, though, the room began to fill up around him, every table occupied within minutes and an army of waiters scurrying between them. McCracken found all the bustle distinctly unsettling and nursed a ginger ale that was almost all water and ice by the time Folsom arrived.
"You don't drink," Folsom noted.
"Never. So who in the special-ops community did you call first?"
"Maybe I've just always wanted to see your work firsthand."
"That's funny, Hank. A sense of humor makes you a rare commodity these days, what with so many ex-operators running around with their hands out. Guys who could be my kids. I turn sixty in a couple weeks, Hank. That puts me a step beyond even father figure."
"Normal channels had to be bypassed here," Folsom told him. "Can't send the Rangers or SEALs into Mexico with a new trade agreement about to be inked."
"And since you always wanted to work with me ..."
"I needed someone who could get the job done, McCracken. That immigration lawyer I just mentioned? He does work for us from time to time."
"Who's 'us,' Hank?"
"The State Department, who else?"
McCracken held Folsom's gaze until the younger man broke it. "If you say so, Hank."
"Name your price. It will be considered nonnegotiable."
McCracken chuckled at the promise. "First time for everything, I guess."
"So how much is it going to take to bring you out of retirement?"
"I wasn't aware I'd retired."
"How much, McCracken?"
McCracken sized the man up, from his perfectly tailored suit to professionally styled hair with not a strand out of place. "You been to the Vietnam Memorial lately, Hank?"
"No, I haven't."
"There are some names missing, the names of many of the men I served with in Vietnam who never came back. That's my fee. I pull this off, I want their names up there on the Wall where they belong. I want you to take care of it."
Folsom's eyes moved to McCracken's ring, simple black letters on gold. "D-S. Stands for Dead Simple, right?"
McCracken didn't respond.
"What's it mean?"
"I think you know."
"Because killing came so easy. You still worthy of the nickname 'McCrackenballs'?"
"You want my services or my autograph, Hank?"
Folsom leaned forward. "How many times did they ask you to go after Bin Laden?"
"Not a one."
"That's not what I heard."
"You heard wrong."
Folsom came up just short of a smile. "I heard there was a reason why the SEALs encountered so little resistance. I heard the bodies of eight pretty bad hombres were hauled out after the fact, all dead before the SEALs dropped in. Word is it was you and that big Indian friend of yours."
"His name is Johnny Wareagle."
Folsom said nothing.
"SEALs got Bin Laden, Hank. It's nice to fantasize about things being bigger than they really were, but that raid was big enough all on its own. Weird thing is that when I was in, I never got or wanted credit for anything. Now that I'm out, I get more than I deserve and still don't want any."
"You're not out," Folsom told him.
"Figure of speech. What they say when nobody calls you in anymore."
Across the table, Folsom suddenly looked older and more confident. "I called. And I'll see what I can do about getting those names added to the Wall."
"Is that what you call nonnegotiable?"
"I'll take care of it."
"Better. Now give me your word."
"Because a man's word means something, even in your world where lying rules the day."
"Used to be your world too."
McCracken's black eyes hardened even more. "It was never mine, Hank." He leaned forward, almost face-to-face with Folsom before the man from the State Department could register he'd moved at all. "Now tell me more about the job."
"Mexico," Folsom nodded. He leaned back in his chair to again lengthen the distance between them. "Gun-loving Juárez, specifically. Place is like the Old West. You'll be going up against a hundred guns in a walled fortress."
McCracken rose, jarring the table just enough to send the rest of his watery ginger ale sloshing around amid the melting ice cubes. "Send me the specs and the satellite recon."
"That's it?" Folsom asked.
"Not quite. I don't like working for somebody I can't trust." Folsom opened his mouth to respond, but McCracken rolled right over his words. "You're not from State. State doesn't work with people like me. It's not in their job description. Too busy covering their own asses. Politics, Hank, something you clearly don't give a shit about."
"All right, you got me. I'm Homeland Security," Folsom told him.
"Ah, the new catchall ..."
"You're right about the tools at State, McCracken. But we, on the other hand, get shit done. Being Homeland gives us a license to do pretty much anything we want."
"Including going outside the system to call in a dinosaur like me?"
Folsom tried to hold McCracken's stare. "Just answer me one question. Your phone doesn't ring until I call, it leaves me wondering."
"That's not a question."
Folsom didn't hesitate. "The question is, do you still have it or not ... McCrackenballs?"
McCracken smiled tightly. "Let me put it this way, Hank: when this is over, you may want to revise that thesis of yours."CHAPTER 3
"What's eating you, boss?" Sal Belamo asked, as McCracken steered the SUV toward the compound's gates after the guards finally waved him through.
"Folsom asked me if I still had it."
"Any doubt in your mind about that?"
"Two years is a long time, Sal."
"You're not saying you're scared."
"Nope, but I was: scared that the call wouldn't come again after the phone stopped ringing two years ago."
Belamo gazed around him. "Well, we can safely say that concern's been put to rest."
The inside of the compound jibed perfectly with the satellite reconnaissance photos Folsom had provided. It reminded McCracken of a typical Spanish mission, not unlike the famed Alamo in San Antonio, with an inner courtyard and a nest of buildings located beyond a walled façade that in olden times would have provided an extra layer of defense from attack. A lavish fountain left over from an earlier era was centered in the courtyard, beautifully restored but no longer functional. The sun burned high in a cloudless sky, flooding the compound with blistering hot light that reflected off the cream-colored array of buildings. The air smelled of scorched dirt mixed with stale perspiration that hung in the air like haze, the combination acrid enough to make McCracken want to hold his breath.
Excerpted from Pandora's Temple by Jon Land. Copyright © 2012 Jon Land. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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