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Lost Parish, New Orleans, Louisiana
The men hung from chains.
Gabriel Gonzales turned his blindfolded head and spit blood from his mouth. His lips were swollen and his teeth loose from where the Zetas gunmen had smashed a rifle butt into his face. His nose had been broken, so the act of spitting left him breathless. He quickly sucked in air, trying not to choke on blood. The air was stale and tinged with the harsh chemical smell of spilled oil.
His arms screamed in their sockets, and Gonzales pushed his toes against the concrete floor beneath his feet to give them some relief. Around him he heard the moans and shuffling of the two other men hanging next to him. He didn't know who they were, as they had already been bound and blindfolded in the back of the Lincoln Navigator SUV when he'd been picked up.
Let them have gotten my call, he prayed silently.
The sound of vibrating corrugated metal reached him as a door slammed. The noise echoed in hollow tones and Gonzales realized he had to be inside a large structure, such as an abandoned factory or, more probably, an empty warehouse. He heard the sounds of boot soles striking the floor as a group of men muttering low in Spanish moved closer.
He heard Lagos and his heart sank. The man was speaking rapidly, and after a moment Gonzales realized he had to be on his cell phone because he was talking to his mysterious patron, the Frenchman "Henri."
This is going to hurt, he realized, and felt hopeless tears well up in his eyes behind the filthy cloth that covered them. When Lagos got off the phone with Henri, violent things always followed. There was a snap of hard plastic as a cell phone was shut. Asnarling baritone growled an order and suddenly the blindfold was ripped from his eyes.
Powerful headlights snapped on, burning into his eyes and keeping him blinded. Gonzales tried to turn his head away from the painful, high-intensity beams. He didn't need his eyes to recognize the voice in command: Lagos was here and Gabriel Gonzales realized he was going to die. There was no doubt anymore, he was a dead man. All that remained was the suffering.
Jack Grimaldi banked the Hughes 500MD Scout Defender hard in the darkness. The helicopter settled down into a hover some ten feet above the dark ground. All around the veteran pilot the devastation of Hurricane Katrina spread in a broken tableau of ruin and debris years after the storm had struck.
Behind him acres of swamp stretched toward the tide tables nestled against the sea, while in front of him mud-caked rubble in geometrically spaced piles marked where houses and stores had once stood along roads. It looked like a war zone, even in the yellow moonlight, a ghostly boneyard of destruction and destroyed lives.
Reconstruction had passed this Parish by. The residents had been too poor, the neighborhood too peripheral to the campaign aspirations of politicians. This was an area the hurricane could keep as New Orleans fought its way back from the devastation.
But power abhorred a vacuum. The Zetas—former members of the army who had gone over to the dark side—had come to claim the forgotten place for themselves. The hard-core drug smugglers had found little in the way of opposition when they had first arrived. All of that was about to change.
The three men of Able Team leaped from the hovering helicopter and entered the stifling heat of the Louisiana night.
Lagos snatched Gonzales by the hair and twisted his face around. Ignoring the pain, Gonzales stared dully into the eyes of the former Mexican army special-operations soldier. The eyes stared back at him, black and empty like the dull, lifeless eyes of a shark. Devoid of emotion. What was happening was just business.
Lagos leaned in close to the sweating Gonzales and behind him the bound man could see the hulking forms of Lagos's men, all of them wearing balaclava hoods and holding weapons. Gonzales rolled his eyes around to try to get a better look at the men hanging with him, but Lagos held him firmly. His breath smelled like cigarette smoke.
"Was it you?" Lagos whispered. "Did you betray us?"
"No, I swear—" Gonzales began lying.
Lagos released his hold on the hanging man's hair and stepped back. He lifted his arm and backhanded Gonzales across the face, cutting off his protests. Lagos was a powerful man fuelled by a daily cocaine habit. The blow hurt.
Gonzales's head rocked back and he winced at the sudden, stinging pain. He stumbled backward, toes barely in contact with the ground, to the end of his chain and then was unceremoniously swung back toward his abuser.
Lagos stepped in close as Gonzales stumbled forward, planting his fist in the hanging man's midriff. Gonzales gasped and the muscles of his diaphragm spasmed painfully. He sucked in a breath, and Lagos snapped the top of his hand, extended in a flat blade, into Gonzales's vulnerable groin.
Agony stole Gonzales's sight. He moaned low as the sharp pain was almost instantaneously replaced by a dull, spreading ache.
God help me, he thought. It's just beginning.
Carl Lyons held up an arm and then sank down on one leg, resting on his ballistic armor knee pad. Behind him the other two members of Able Team, Rosario "Politician" Blancanales and Hermann "Gadgets" Schwarz, copied his stance.
Lyons let his automatic shotgun hang from the strap over his shoulder and pointed out toward the team's twelve-o'clock position. Through a break in an acre-size lot of soggy timber, busted concrete and twisted rebar sat the low squat shape of an undamaged warehouse. Parked in front of the building, which spilled brilliant white halogen light through its cracks, were a dark, 1970s Dodge van and an H3 Hummer with a shiny black carapace.
"There they are," Lyons said quietly. The six foot two, two-hundred-pound man turned his attention back to his target.
Clutching a Steyr AUG bullpup-designed assault rifle, Schwarz moved into position closer to team leader Carl Lyons. Behind them Blancanales leaned in to hear their conversation as he covered the periphery with his H&K MP-5 SD-3 submachine gun.
Blancanales put a finger to the communication piece in his ear. "We're on-site and doing initial recon."
"Copy," Barbara Price answered. "Our coverage of local police channels put friendlies way outside your area of operation. Over."
"Roger. Able out," Blancanales murmured.
"Two vehicles," Schwarz muttered, scanning the structure. "But big vehicles. Anywhere from five to ten guys. All former Zetas."
"Sounds about right," Lyons said, nodding.
Their briefing on the last-minute search-and-rescue operation had given them little to go on other than a target—Gabriel Gonzales, CIA confidential informant—and a location gathered by triangulating the man's cell-phone signal. As part of his payment, the CIA had provided Gonzales, a former Mexican border patrol agent turned narcotic trafficker, with a state-of-the-art cell phone. The CIA had also added the location tracer buried in the body of the lightweight device.
As valuable as Gonzales might have been to drug-enforcement agencies, the CIA had turned a blind eye to his narcotics profiteering to concentrate on his anti-terrorism capabilities. It was a Faustian arrangement made common by the necessities of a post-9/11 world.
Gonzales granted the U.S. intelligence community a much-needed window into the realities of the growing, solidifying world of narco-terror. Organizations such as the former Mexican special-forces group turned drug runners, the Zetas and the violent international MS13 gang had begun to overlap with the intelligence agencies of Venezuela and the heroin syndicates of Southeast Asia and the Middle East.
Wherever there was illicit money to be made, there was an opportunity for black funds to flow into the operational coffers of terrorist organizations. It was a situation that Able Team had faced more than once.
"Let's move in closer," Lyons said. "But first scan with your optics. If there are sentries outside, they may well have night-vision gear. We'll exploit the range of your sniper scope."
"I see all," Schwarz whispered as he shuffled forward.
Schwarz raised the Steyr AUG A3 to his shoulder. The A3 was the carbine configuration of the classic bullpup assault rifle with a shortened 16-inch barrel. The standard factory-mounted sighting optics had been replaced by Stony Man armorer John "Cowboy" Kissinger with a Picatinny mounting rail upon which he placed a 1.5X-telescope containing a circle aiming reticle.
A low, full moon hung over the scene, providing enough ambient light for the three-man special-operations team to operate without night-vision equipment.
Schwarz flinched once as the 1.5X magnification qualities of his sniper scope suddenly presented him with vision of a huge rat running lightly along an exposed section of plumbing until it disappeared into the open mouth of an overturned toilet.
He settled back, ignoring the pungent stench of the flood area. The humidity was stifling and the Able Team commando sweated freely under the black smears of his camouflage grease paint. He scanned the target building in vectors, his brain reducing the activity to simplified angles and precise geometric patterns.
"Nothing outside," he said. "At least not from this angle Wow, hold on." A bright set of headlights suddenly appeared out of the ruins on the far side of the building.
Schwarz turned his weapon toward the new threat stimulus and dampened the passive feed on his scope even further.
"Holy crap," he whispered. "It's a McLaren F1!"
"I know I'm going to be sorry I asked, but what's a McLaren F1?" Lyons asked.
Without preamble, and in the hushed tones of a small boy describing a cherished toy, Schwarz rattled off the car's specks. "The F1 was the fastest production car ever made, and they only made one hundred of them. It's got a 6.1-liter BMW S70 V12 engine, and it'll go over 230 mph easy, without turbo or supercharges. Price tag? Well north of a cool million, my man."
"Who the hell would drop that kind of money on such a classic supercar and then drive it into this mess?" Blancanales asked.
Schwarz shook his head as the metallic-silver super-car pulled in next to the SUVs and the bat-wing doors rose like something out of a science-fiction movie. "Anyone who'd do this is a bad, bad person. I think we'll have to kill them all."
"Suits me," Lyons answered. "I freakin' hate Zetas."
Schwarz let out a low whistle. "Does she look like any Zetas you've ever seen?"
A tiny, delicate foot in a wraparound stiletto heel emerged from the darkness of the McLaren F1 and came to rest on the damp gravel. The leg attached to the thousand-dollar shoe seemed to go on for miles. Even in the poor light and across the distance, Able Team could see it was a million-dollar leg.
The young woman emerged from the McLaren F1. A sheer white blouse was knotted below her full breasts just above her red plaid miniskirt. Her hair was raven-wing black and hung in long, loose curls over a heart-shaped face.
"Oh. That's very Britney Spears," Schwarz breathed. "Very 'I'm Not So Innocent.'"
"Please," Lyons said. "It's 'Oops I Did It Again' and it's so 2001 it makes me laugh."
Blancanales's head snapped around to stare at the Able Team leader. Schwarz removed his eye from the sniper scope, his mouth hanging open in shock.
"Um, you into pop princesses?" he asked.
"Shut up. She's been all over the news, that's all," Lyons snapped.
Schwarz turned his head toward Blancanales. He could see the stocky Latino preparing a sarcastic riposte and felt his own laughter bubbling up in his throat.
Then the screaming began.
Gonzales began to shiver in fear.
Lagos moved between the men hanging from the ceiling like slabs of meat at a slaughterhouse. He lit a cigarette. Beyond the lights the hulking figures of his men were reduced to nondescript shadows.
The man hanging on Gonzales's left started to mumble a prayer to the Virgin Mary in rapid Spanish. There was the sudden sharp, acrid smell of urine as one of the men let his bladder go. Lagos chuckled and blew out a blue cloud of cigarette smoke.
"The people," Lagos said, "they don't understand that what we do is hard work. They think moving product is like being a rock star. You bang models and party all the time. Sometime you have to be like, uh, the Tony Soprano and use your gun. Right?"
Lagos moved around to stand in front of Gonzales. He regarded the hanging prisoner like some insect he'd found crushed on the sole of his shoe. He blew smoke into Gonzales's face, then reached up with one hand and snatched the informant by the chin. Lagos locked eyes with his prey.
"But we know the truth, don't we?" Lagos gritted. "We know it is hard goddamn work making our money. And the ladies aren't the only things we bang, eh?"
From behind Lagos his men chuckled. To the terrified Gonzales it sounded like hyenas regarding a wounded gazelle. He was close enough to Lagos to see the black clogged pores of the man's nose. There was a tiny residue of white powder around the edge of one of his cavernous nostrils. The man's eyes blazed as bloodshot as a rabid dog's. Gonzales squeezed his own eyes shut and tried to turn away. Lagos's fingers were like steel bands on his face, and they burned his flesh with his intense body heat.
"One of you bitches knows about Bellicose Dawn." Lagos released Gonzales's face and stepped back. "None of you should know about my Bellicose Dawn. Before I am finished, the one who knows will tell me what he knows. But since I will kill that person, I don't expect anyone to volunteer the information. So we were talking about hard work again, right? Getting the one of you to confess will be hard work. Just as keeping my woman happy can be hard work."
Lagos turned his back on the hanging men and walked past the halogen lamp setup. With his back to the men, his voice rolled across the warehouse away from them, echoed off the thin metal walls then bounced back, ringing evilly in their ears.
"So I What do the gringos say? Yes. I can kill I can kill two birds with one bush. Or get two stones in my palm. Something. Fuck it. My woman, she likes to hurt people who've disappointed me. For her it is not such hard work."
Lagos turned and faced the men, now a faceless shadow behind the lights that blinded them.
"It gets her very worked up, if you understand what I mean." On cue, his thugs laughed. "SoI win. I don't have to do the work. I get my information. My lady is happy. Then she makes me happy. See? Everybody wins, yes?" Lagos paused and his dry chuckle trailed off. "Well, I am guessing not everyone. Not you, eh, bitches?"
From behind Gonzales one of the other two men began to scream.