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Five hundred feet above northern Mexico
Thoughts of the old, failed mission in Colombia, Operation Cat's Cradle, floated through Bolan's mind as he studied the grim faces of his special ops team. Cat's Cradle had been a debaclea setup turned into a deadly ambush. He'd later found out that they'd been betrayed by the Colombian army colonel who had given them the mission briefing. The man had tipped the De la Noval cartel to the exact time and approach of the raid. The rescue had come courtesy of an Agency team that had been independently dispatched to take out Vincente De la Noval. Bolan never found out who they were or got a chance to thank them, but such was the world of black ops. A person rarely got a look at the whole picture.
In the darkness he could make out the tops of the trees below as the helicopter surged forward. He had the utmost confidence in the pilot, though. He and Jack Grimaldi had been here many times before. The rest of the group was new to him, but the men had seemed professional and competent during the briefing. Hal Brognola had asked Bolan to step in and act as squad leader after the original team leader had unexpectedly fallen ill. It was a rescue mission just south of the border. Bolan and Grimaldi had been in the area wrapping up another mission when the big Fed had called them via satellite phone. Bolan put the call on speaker.
"Striker, you remember Chris Avelia, right?"
"Sure," Bolan said. "Good man. Still with the DEA?"
"Yeah. He's working undercover in Mexico and managed to infiltrate one of the major cartels down there."
"Jesús De la Noval," Brognola said. "Brother of the guy you hit in Colombia a couple of years ago. Remember?"
"I tried my best to forget that one," Bolan said. "Chris was with me on that debacle, as I recall."
"Yeah, well, after Vincente De la Noval's untimely demise, his younger brother, Jesús, moved things north. He set up a pretty good base of operations in northern Mexico."
"And Chris managed to infiltrate it?" Bolan asked. He knew full well the dangers of working undercover, especially in something as brutal as the Mexican drug cartels.
"He did. De la Noval wasn't only moving drugs into the U.S., he's become one of the major weapons dealers for the Mexican mafia. Avelia was working on something big, but missed his check-in, and DEA's worried he's been compromised."
"What was supposed to be going down?" Bolan asked.
"I'm not sure yet, but I'm working on it."
"How long since they heard from him?"
"Forty-eight hours and counting."
The Executioner knew that meant they had to move fast. Brognola gave them the rest of it: the special ops team the government had assembled, the sudden illness of the team leader, the need to act swiftly. "The President asked if Stony Man had anybody in the area, and"
"I'm in." Bolan said. looking at Grimaldi. who nodded. "Jack. too."
"Any chance you could arrange to have Dragon-slayer transported down here?" Grimaldi asked. "Otherwise. I'll settle for a fully outfitted Black Hawk with no markings."
After a moment of silence. Brognola said. "Thanks. guys."
"Thank us when it's over." Bolan replied.
That had been little more than six hours ago. Just time enough for Bolan and Grimaldi to rendezvous with the special ops team and review the plan. Satellite photos of De la Noval's headquarters looked eerily similar to his brother's estateperimeter fence. large house. expansive grounds surrounding the place. one main access road. If the more arid terrain were replaced for the tropical one. it was Colombia all over again. And if he was holding Chris Avelia prisoner. De la Noval had to know someone would be coming sooner or later. Sooner would be better for the mission and for the DEA agent.
The plan this time was more dynamic: sweep over the compound. fast-rope to the ground. then hit the house with a quick assault. They all had body armor. M-4s. extra magazines. night-vision goggles. and enough pre-set C-4 shaped charges that locked doors weren't going to slow them. Hit them hard. In and out. Their main goal was to rescue the hostage.
It bothered Bolan that he hadn't had much time to get to know his team's capabilities. but they had supposedly been practicing for this raid as a backup plan for weeks. in the eventuality that they might have to go in at some point in the future. Now that future had arrived. but at least they were prepared. That was a bit of a plus. All of them had seen combat, he'd been told, in various operations in the sandbox and in Afghanistan, and Bolan felt confident they could get the job done. The fast descent from above would give them a bit of surprise, as well. He heard Grimaldi's voice over his helmet's comm set. "Uh-oh. I don't like the looks of this."
Bolan immediately got up and moved toward the cockpit. Through the windshield the soldier saw something rustling against the darkened sky in the distance. He flipped down the visor for his night-vision goggles. Three helicopters, UH-60s from the looks of them, were leaving the area.
What the hell were birds like that doing down here? Bolan wondered.
Something else caught his eye: a thin trail of dark smoke drifting upward over the trees.
Grimaldi was right. Something was off. He turned back to his team and pressed the button to activate his throat mike.
"Something's up. We saw three helicopters in the vicinity of the target. There's a smoke trail, too. I'll need three volunteers to fast-rope down with me to do a recon."
All the men raised their hands and Bolan grinned. No shortage of motivation in this group. He chose three at random, motioning them forward, and squatted as he unfolded the paper map of the target.
"I'll be Red One," he said, then tapped each man consecutively. "You're Red Two, Three and Four. We'll drop in here." He pointed to a spot near the corner of big house. "Red Two and I will go left, Red Three and Four right. Move and cover. Remember our primary mission is hostage rescue. We take down any hostiles in our way and search. But it looks like the mission's been compromised." He glanced up at the rest of the group. "You all hook up and be ready to deploy should we need help. Be ready. We'll determine the status of the situation and then either proceed or evacuate."
The team members nodded.
Bolan turned back toward Grimaldi. "You getting this?'
"Loud and clear," the pilot said. "Just show me where you want to be dropped off."
The Executioner's uneasiness increased as Grimaldi took the helicopter in for a preliminary fly-by. Normally, they wouldn't have risked announcing their presence, but the smoke and the departing choppers were a game-changer. Besides, Bolan doubted that De la Noval would have the firepower to take out a Black Hawk. The smoke was emanating from what appeared to be several small fires inside the mansion itself. Yellow flames licked at shattered windows and broken doors. The infrared night-vision goggles showed two prone bodies by the front gate. Several more were scattered over the expansive yard leading to the house. From the lack of movement and the twisted positioning, they appeared to be casualties. The place had already been hit by some kind of tactical assault. Bolan told Grimaldi to keep the chopper in a hover, and he and the other three team members hooked the nylon ropes through their D-rings and backed out of the open doors.
Zipping downward, Bolan didn't brake until he was almost to the ground. Once his feet were on solid earth, he unclipped the D-ring and kept his M-4 in the ready position as he advanced. His peripheral vision told him his teammates had made it down safely. They split up, each moving through the darkened yard with practiced ease.
Thoughts of the failed Cat's Cradle mission flitted through Bolan's mind. The similarities of this setup and the one in Colombia screamed for caution. Same general compound design, same trek through an expansive yard, same last name of the bad guy. From what he'd heard, younger brother Jesús was even more treacherous than Vincente had ever been.
The flickering light from the fires made Bolan's night-vision goggles practically useless, but nothing seemed to move in the flat, greenish tincture in front of him. No adversaries presented themselves. He kept an eye out for trip wires, scanning the grounds as he went, but it turned out to be a cakewalk. When he got to the side of the building, he saw why.
Two more bodies were sprawled inside the open patio doors. The interior walls burned with yellow flames, and a slew of bullet-riddled corpses littered the floor. The smell of burning flesh mingled with the scent of burned wood and gunpowder.
Bolan pressed his throat mike. "Red Three and Four, check for survivors outside. Watch out for booby traps. Red Two, you're inside with me."
Three acknowledgments came over the radio. Bolan stepped inside and tried to move forward, but the thick smoke obscured his vision and made it difficult to breathe. He kept moving quickly, scanning the faces of the dead men. Most had numerous body wounds, but each had been dealt at least one shot to the head, as well. Execution style. Whoever did this had a take-no-prisoners mentality.
A large bamboo cage sat in the middle of the big lounge area. The thick bars looked strong enough to house a tiger, but the pair of chain shackles was obviously designed to fit a man. The cage was empty. Bolan saw splashes of blood on the solid metal floor. An assortment of knives, bludgeons and what appeared to be a fireplace poker lay next to the cage. The sharp edge of the poker was blackened, as if it'd been heated in a flame. A lot of unpleasant thoughts flashed through Bolan's mind. He scanned the rest of the room. None of the nearby bodies appeared to be that of Chris Avelia.
Covering as much of the house as they could, Bolan found no one alive. He pushed into what appeared to be the master bedroom, seeing that several of the bodies in there were young, scantily dressed women. Hookers, probably, judging from their clothes. They, too, had been dealt execution-style gunshots to the head. Bolan felt the smoke beginning to gag him. He coughed as he said into his throat mike, "Sitrep. Respond in sequence. Any sign of Avelia?"
"Red One, Red Two." The transmission was punctuated by a cough. "Nothing here. No one alive. No hostage, far as I can tell."
"Red Three here," another voice said. "No survivors out here. Red Four's with me."
"Roger that. Any of them look like Jesús De la Noval?"
"Hard to say."
Bolan could taste the smoke in his mouth and paused to cough again, and then spit. The heat, smoke and stench were nearly unbearable. "Let's get out of here."
He used the muzzle of his M-4 to smash the glass of the nearest window, and climbed through. The cool clarity of the night air seemed like heaven. He took a few tentative breaths as he moved farther from the inferno, then drew in some deeper ones. When his chest felt clear, he pressed the throat mike and told his men to move to the landing zone, adding, "You copy that, Jack?"
"Roger that," Grimaldi's voice said. "One pickup on the way."
Bolan turned and saw his team trotting toward De la Noval's helipad. He told them to check it and secure it before touchdown.
The three men replied in the affirmative.
Bolan turned and took one more look at the mansion, which was now almost fully engulfed in flames. Although he hadn't taken the time to check each body, none appeared to have been Chris Avelia's. That didn't mean that Chris had survived, only that they hadn't found him.
An empty target house and an empty tiger cage. Was this another example of bad intel? Then he remembered those departing choppers.
Maybe somebody else had beaten them to the punch.
South Tucson, Arizona
John Lassiter traced his fingers over his Fu Manchu mustache as he watched the men off-loading the cargo in the dark field next to the road. He took inventory: one beat-to-hell drug cartel informant, ten suitcases filled with portraits of good old Benjamin Franklin, and a couple more filled with Mexican brown heroin. Lassiter didn't care about the drugs, other than they were part of his instructions. The instructions, which had come in their customary fashiona text from "GOD," always from an unknown numberincluded the recovery of the weapons that were supposed to be delivered to De la Noval, as well. Lassiter knew GOD was the code name for Anthony Godfrey, formerly of the Agency and now a civilian go-between.
This wasn't his first transaction with the drug lord. It was, however, supposed to be his last, but somehow De la Noval had slipped away. Lassiter recalled way too many missions where they ended up arming one side in a conflict, only to face down the road the same firepower he'd delivered, and keeping weapons of this level of sophistication out of the cartel's hands seemed like a good idea. But it wasn't his place to set policy or make those kinds of decisions. As always, he only followed orders. He'd been doing that his whole life. Guys like Benedict called the shots, and got rich along with the guys producing the goods, like Godfrey.
One of Lassiter's men was using a forklift to remove the heavy stack of crates from the helicopter for transfer to the trailer. It would be one well-packed semi, that was for sure. He glanced at his watch. Everything was on schedule. Another fifteen minutes and they'd be able to take the copters back.
Not a bad haul, he thought, although a couple things bothered him slightly. Not nailing Jesús De la Noval for one thing. Killing those women for another. He sighed. It wasn't like they were neophytes or anything. Sure, they were hookers, but they were still civilians in a war zone. Collateral damage. Hanging out with scum like De la Noval, they had to know that death was their sorority sister. But Lassiter still felt bad about killing them.
The women had deserved better, even if it was all about the orders. Collateral damage wasn't something new to him. Still, it was beginning to bother him more and more. He knew he'd see their twisted faces and hear their piercing screams in his dreams for many nights to come. They'd have plenty of company there.
And then there was the captive. The idea of turning over the semiconscious, beaten-to-a-pulp, barely alive informant to the Wolves wasn't a pleasant thought, either, although the guy had looked so bad that death would probably be a relief. But he had been involved with the cartel and was getting what he deserved. Just like the Afghan traitors in Afghanistan, the ones who'd tried to play both sides of the fence. Still, Lassiter couldn't help but think about the fate awaiting this poor bastard. Better to put a bullet in the guy's brain now and spare him any further suffering. But his orders had been explicit in that regard, too. Bring the man back alive; turn him over to the Wolves. They were troubling orders, but orders just the same.
A lot of things had begun to bother Lassiter lately. Maybe it was time to get out.
Morris, his second in command, came jogging up to him and saluted. "The cargo's been successfully offloaded, sir."
Lassiter thought about telling him to can the salute, but the kid was new to wetworks and fresh from military service in his last deployment. Lassiter had been right there once, just like him. Loyal to a fault and totally by the book. Before he got officially "killed in action" a few years ago, that was. He grinned. Shit, why should any of this matter to "a dead man"? He told Morris to relax, adding, "Don't call me 'sir' and don't salute me. I work for a living, remember?"
Morris nodded tentatively.
"What's the status of the prisoner?" Lassiter asked.
"He's pretty banged up, si"
Good, Lassiter thought. The kid's learning. "Go on."
"I had Marquis give him some first aid. He's slipping in and out of consciousness." Morris paused, and then added, "Those two motorcycle guys want to take him and the stuff now."
"So give him to them. Our orders are to hold on to the rest until tomorrow."
Morris hesitated again.
"Is there a problem?" Lassiter asked.
"The prisoner." Morris blew out an audible breath. "He mumbled something like 'not part of cartel.' I'm wondering if maybe he's a Mexican Fed. Undercover or something."