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By Seth Coker
River Grove BooksCopyright © 2016 Seth Coker
All rights reserved.
THE THREE MEN exited the side doors before the skids bent the grass. Heads ducked and backpacks jostling, they ran up the hill, ascended the granite steps, and disappeared into the villa.
Alone in the pilot seat, Cale radioed the ship, "This is Flyer. We are on-site. Seeker is on the move. Over."
"This is HQ," the response came. "Roger that. Any surprises? Over."
"This is Flyer. No. Grounds appear empty. Over."
"This is HQ. Roger that. Flyer, power down and keep updates coming. Seeker, do you have radio contact? Over."
"This is Seeker. Roger that. We're inside. No sign of life. Fifteen minutes to objective complete. Over."
"This is HQ. Roger that. We'll stand by for updates. Over."
Cale powered down the bird. He looked west across the Caribbean, toward an unseen Panama. The equatorial sun raced behind the sea. Minutes before, it had been almost directly overhead. Cale took his headgear off and flipped the radio control to the handheld. With the back door open, he listened beyond the tropical soundscape for human sounds while visualizing the start-up procedure and flight path he would use in a few minutes for takeoff.
The radio broke in, "This is Seeker. We'll come out of the west wing on the main level. Five minutes. Over."
Cale checked his watch, then picked up the speaker, "This is Flyer. Roger that. I'll fire up when I see you exit. By the time you cover the 100 yards to me, we'll be ready for liftoff. Over."
The approaching darkness was beaten back as lights flickered on along a low stone wall that stretched out a hundred yards on either side of the helicopter and ran down the driveway. With a jolt of adrenaline, Cale pulled his sidearm. His eyes scanned back and forth. Without looking down, he picked up the handheld. "This is Flyer. Exterior lights have turned on out here. I don't see anyone moving outside. Do you have someone inside? Over."
"This is Seeker. No movement inside. But this is a big place. Over."
"This is HQ. These lights turn on every night — some type of timer or photocell. Over."
Slightly more at ease, Cale set his firearm in the empty copilot seat and resumed rehearsing takeoff, listened for alarming noises, and scanned the area for movement. He checked his watch — two minutes to Seeker's exit. He began to focus on the area of the villa where the men would come out. The glaring lights between him and the doorway blurred his sightline.
The sound of a combustion engine caught Cale's ear. He paused for a second to confirm the sound, then picked the radio back up. "This is Flyer. I hear a car. Over."
"This is Seeker. Roger that. We're done. Heading out now. Over."
"This is Flyer. Roger that. I see moving lights hitting the trees coming up the driveway. Recommend you change exit to lower level. Over."
"This is Seeker. Roger that. We're standing inside the doorway until we identify the bogey. We can see the lights coming into the drive now. Over."
"This is HQ. Roger that. You have permission to go 'weapons live' at your discretion. Over."
"This is Seeker. Roger that. Over."
"This is Flyer. Roger that. Over."
Cale had never heard that particular authorization before, and his fingers trembled slightly as he reset the handheld. He made sure all lights were off in the helicopter. Whoever pulled up might not look toward the field or, at a glance, might not notice the helicopter's dark shape against the darkened field.
A convertible followed by a Range Rover pulled onto the stones in front of the villa's west entrance. Thankfully, the headlights shined at the entrance and neither car cut their lights off. Behind the lights, Cale saw a man in white get out of the driver's seat of the convertible, slide across the hood, and open the passenger door for a woman in a long dress. Four men in black stepped out of the Range Rover. Two of them hurried ahead of the couple, and the other two fell in line behind them.
"This is Seeker. We're going downstairs and will come out below. Over."
"This is Flyer. Roger that. I'll fire up once all six of this party are inside or I see you exit. Over."
Feeling highly visible, Cale watched the party move toward the entrance. The first pair of bodyguards entered the villa and immediately redirected the others back out. They must have either seen Seeker's team or noticed the ordnance wiring. Cale could hear the group's shouts in Spanish as they headed back toward the vehicles. Then one of the guards pointed a hand in his direction. Another one ran to the Range Rover and started it. He drove off the drive and down the stone walkway's entrance through the wall.
No more need for quiet. Cale flipped on the rotors. The blades' whump-whump-whump started up. Cale caught a glimpse of Seeker's team coming out of the lower level as the bouncing SUV accelerated and turned onto the grass toward the helicopter.
When it became apparent that the Range Rover was the weapon Cale needed to worry about, he dove out the back of the helicopter and tumbled onto the grass. When the SUV hit it, the helicopter's cockpit crumbled. The spinning rotors tore open the cabin of the SUV and then lodged into its side. The evil sound of metal grinding on metal overwhelmed the night air.
When the noise stopped, Cale reversed course and made his way to what was previously the belly of the helicopter, now on its side. He reached for his sidearm and found an empty holster. He could still hear the radio chatter coming from the cockpit.
"This is Seeker. We've been spotted. Preparing for a firefight. Flyer's chopper is disabled. Not sure of Flyer's status. Over."
"This is HQ. Roger that. We'll have another bird airborne in five minutes, be there in ten. Over."
"This is Seeker. Roger that. If we see signs of life from Flyer we'll engage. If not, we'll stay hidden until you arrive. Over"
Cale heard the car door open. He reasoned that if the door slammed shut again, the driver would come around the wreck from the left; if it stayed open, the driver would circle around the back and come from the right. Cale looked at his watch. Two seconds passed in the Indiglo light, and no door slammed, so Cale crouched low and moved right. He hoped to keep the wreck between him and the driver. He made it around the side of the SUV in time to see a heel pass the far corner of the helicopter.
He looked into the open doors of the SUV. The keys were in the ignition. He briefly thought about driving off, but he couldn't free the SUV from the wrecked helicopter before being shot. He could see the other four men and the woman crouching behind the stone wall, alternating looks between the villa and the wreck. He couldn't circle around the SUV without being seen. He doubted anyone could hit him with a pistol from that distance, but being in the open would further compromise him.
From behind the wall, he saw a flash of light and then heard the long unmistakable tat-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat of an Uzi. With an Uzi they could hit him from that distance, and they only needed one out of the sixty shots per second to do the job. The gun, at that moment, was directed toward Seeker's team. He heard but couldn't see the return fire pop-pop-break-pop-pop of the semiautomatic pistols the team carried. Cale slid feet first under the SUV, uncertain how the driver would respond to the gunfire. Cale looked out from under the open door.
Tentative feet turned the corner, retreated, and then came back into view. They quickly strode to the SUV. Both feet stopped and spread out to shoulder width just in front of Cale. He heard the thunk of the driver's gun settling on the car's roof as he prepared for a side shot at Seeker's team.
In one motion, Cale pulled both of the shooter's ankles under his chest as he slid out from under the car. He heard a shot and the immediate ricochet as the bullet bounced off the rotors above them and into the SUV.
The driver let out an "Ugh!" as his back hit the ground, the impact knocking the air from his lungs.
Cale's right fist struck the man's face within a second of his head hitting the ground. He hit him three more times quickly. Cale grabbed the pistol from beside the semiconscious man's hand, put a bullet in the man's forehead, then rolled off him.
Cale edged to the car's tail in a crouch. The sound of the gunfire continued. At least six weapons were being fired, but the dominant sound was the Uzi's tat-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat. Cale sprinted away from the gunfight into the shadows, then sprinted to the stone wall and hopped over it, about fifty yards from the enemy. He crept along the curved wall. The man in white held the Uzi. Cale fired on him from behind. Some of the man's hair flew up. Cale thought he'd missed but then saw the gun fall to the ground, followed by the man.
There were more pop-pops, and soon, Cale saw Seeker standing in the open, his team lying unnaturally beside him on the ground. Cale stood up. He saw the bodies of the other three men and the woman along the wall. He walked up to the man in the white shirt and flipped him over with his foot.CHAPTER 2
AS PABLO SET the phone down, a headache began behind Francisco's eyebrows.
Pablo shouted, "¡Y aún así me siguen probando!"
The men lounging around the large room grew smaller, stopped moving, and averted their eyes. The young women quietly left the steaming tub; water dripped from their bare, brown-skinned bodies and puddled on the stone floor as they slipped from the room.
Francisco sat stoically as Pablo repeated the refrain — And yet they still test me! He knew what Pablo meant. Pablo had killed three presidential candidates, seven supreme court justices, scores of magistrates, hundreds of police offers, and thousands of rivals, and his fate was still continually in the balance. Francisco's face tightened as Pablo's flushed with anger at the audacity that they would believe the results would be different this time. Pablo was the world's seventh-richest man, its most infamous criminal, and his country's most popular citizen. If they wanted to test him, Francisco knew they would learn that Pablo maintained his propensity and capacity for bloodshed.
Pablo's eyes closed as he slipped his head under the tub's bubbling waterline. Black hair clung to the surface amid the white bubbles. He counted up to thirty, then down to zero, and surfaced with instructions to provide his men. Except for the location, the instructions would surprise no one — except, perhaps, the targets — who always seemed surprised when the inevitable happened.
Francisco knew Pablo had little education, and excluding himself, his inner circle had less. Yet, successfully and repeatedly, Pablo employed the same two-part plan. Plata o plomo. Silver or lead. Greed or violence. Which did the man on the other side of the table desire? The silver always came first. Since Pablo developed this plan, silver had been abundant.
In this case, the silver had stopped working, so it was time for the lead.
Without haste, Pablo said, "Francisco, General Rodriguez and his staff are dining nearby. Please bring them to me for a discussion."
Francisco was relieved that El Capo's eyes were still closed, because he felt his face betray disagreement with the order. "El Capo, forgive me — did you say bring them here?"
"Sí, Francisco, aquí." Pablo's reply smoldered despite no noticeable change in inflection.
Francisco paused before standing. He silently willed his uncle to reconsider. Better to handle the officers in the street or, better still, in their homes, with their families watching. Witnesses to relay the horror to others' ears. Witnesses whose fear would crush their rage and keep them from plotting revenge. Since Francisco's own brother's death and the destruction of one of their family's seaside villas by unknown enemies weeks before, his thoughts had grown colder, while Pablo's seemed to grow more fervent.
If they were alone, he would have argued reason. But not now. Too many people heard the order. Francisco replied, "Muy bien, Tío," and motioned two of the lounging men to follow him.
Pablo stood now in the giant tub, visually chafing at the challenge. In earlier years, he would have simply handled the challenge and not felt the chafe. But like all men whose lives tip toward having much to lose and little to gain, Pablo feared someone would take what was his. Remaining sequestered in La Catedral, his isolation and his sampling of the product magnified his conflicting emotions of vulnerability and invincibility.
In times past, Pablo said to Francisco, "Ambitious men size up their reach. Their power. They want to know whether I'm the Muhammad Ali who fought Foreman or the one who fought Holmes. If these men sat at my knee, I would tell them, 'Gentlemen, do not make this mistake. Do not dance with the cartel de Cali. Do not look for soft spots in the provinces. Medellín demands your unconditional love. There will be no successful invasion, and there will be no coup.'"
Francisco knew Pablo was warning him as he prepared him.
The last coup occurred when a twenty-five-year-old Pablo killed his boss, Fabio Restrepo. Restrepo was king of a small but bountiful empire, a growing drug refinement and trafficking business. Pablo yearned to be king and knew there was room for only one, so he took the crown for himself. He repeated the mantra "There is only one king" to all who needed to hear it.
Now Pablo was in his twenty-fourth year on the throne of a greatly expanded empire. He protected the empire's borders but had lost the ambition to expand. This loss of ambition conflicted with Francisco's long-held view of Pablo as a minor god.
Loudly, Pablo shouted encouragement to those around the room, "Remember, all empires are created and maintained from fire and blood." As always when he spoke, heads nodded their assent.
Pablo left the tub and dried off. The prison walls in La Catedral grew too close for his kinetic life — a profitable life rooted in money and violence. He started grave robbing at age ten, taking granite headstones, filing off the inscriptions, and selling the blanks back to the distributors. As a teen, he stole cars. By twenty, he moved through mountain passes, carrying coca paste over the borders of Bolivia and Peru.
This was not Pablo's first arrest, but this was the longest he'd chosen to stay in prison — nearly twelve months. His first arrest happened when he was a young narco crossing from Ecuador. When he was released on bail, Pablo first tried to bribe his arresting officer. The noble officer refused the bribe from what he thought was a simple coca paste mule, so Pablo killed him. Plata o plomo. The prosecutor accepted the silver and dropped the smuggling case without a trial.
La Catedral was technically a prison and Pablo could not leave, at least not without the risk of not being able to return. However, he could operate his business from within its walls, and his people could come and go. He built this prison wing for himself — more a personal fortress than a prison — as part of his deal with the Colombian government. The deal gave Pablo two victories: First, it helped the Colombian government avoid deporting its most popular citizen; for ten years, even when Pablo served in parliament, the norteamericanos called for his extradition. Second, it bought his men time to eliminate the Cali cartel's emboldened assassins.
La Catedral's comforts were similar to those of the four hundred villas Pablo owned around the world. The guards were on his payroll. His multiple phone lines were private. He had twelve thousand square feet of housing, a jetted tub, a waterfall, a full bar, and a soccer field. The warden and government officials asked permission to enter his wing.
Pablo went to his room, dressed, poured a drink, and sat on his bed. One of the young women poked her head in to see whether he wanted her. She had been his favorite this past month. He had taken her from a novice to a skilled lover, and her passion for coupling increased with each lesson. Her new black silk negligee alternately hid and exposed her soft curves. Normally, he would pass his time waiting for the general by enjoying the young skin, but tonight, he silently waved her away with the back of his hand.
Excerpted from Salty Sky by Seth Coker. Copyright © 2016 Seth Coker. Excerpted by permission of River Grove Books.
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