The sound of pistol shots could only mean that things had just gone very, very bad. Of course, being the East Side, we heard sporadic gunfire all the time. If I had been inclined to wishful thinking, I might have been able to put it down to just another couple of gangbangers removing themselves from the gene pool. But the timing, the direction, and the fact that the explosion we’d been waiting to hear hadn’t gone off yet, disinclined me to such hopes. Bryan was probably dead, and our first diversion was a bust.
Strangely enough, I didn’t feel the surge of rage and frustration that I probably should have. I was in the zone, game face on, and I just did what came naturally anymore when things inevitably fell apart.
“Go, go, go!” I yelled out the window. Derek was close enough that he surged to his feet, though he had the presence of mind to lend the movement a drunken sway. He didn’t rush the gangbangers down the street, either, though they turned toward us, having heard my shout without necessarily understanding what I’d said, or even where the sound had come from.
Nick started slow-rolling the van, keeping us to just under a walking pace, creeping up to our imaginary line of departure. He kept the lights off; we didn’t want to otherwise draw attention to ourselves until either Derek dealt with the pickets or we had to intervene.
Derek was doing a workman’s job of looking and acting like one of the numerous derelicts wandering the streets of Pueblo, keeping his head bowed as he shuffled and swayed like he was crazy, smashed, high, or some combination of the three.
He’d almost made it another block, eliciting only the vaguest interest from the gangbangers, before a bone-rattling explosion rocked the night. A bright flash lit the sky to the north, and all four gangsters suddenly turned to look.
Derek didn’t waste any time. He suddenly abandoned his addled shuffle and sprinted forward, bringing his weapon out of his jacket as he went.
He covered the ground quickly; Derek was no slouch when it came to cardio. Lean and hungry-looking, he ran a lot, and it paid off. Before the confused gangbangers knew it, the bum who had been swaying and staggering along the sidewalk far enough away to not even be worth picking on was right on top of them, pointing what looked like a pipe with a handgrip at them.
In fact, that was, essentially, what it was. Logan hadn’t wasted time or materials making the little subguns aesthetically pleasing. They were essentially mutant crosses between Uzis and Sten guns, only slightly longer to allow for the integral suppressors.
Those suppressors were good, too. Almost good enough to mourn ditching them, though Logan would just look at you funny and say it wouldn’t be that hard to make new ones if you said it.
There was hardly any noise as Derek brought the little bullet hose to bear and opened fire. We just watched the four young men stagger under the impacts of the bullets, dark fluid splashing from exit wounds as they fell to the street beneath the streetlight.
It was a fast, professional shooting, as much as it might have looked at first blush like a gangland spray and pray. Derek had punched the gun out to the end of its sling and held it tightly controlled, sweeping the stream of bullets across the targets’ centers of mass. All four had taken at least two to three fatal hits in a single burst.
Nick didn’t wait to admire Derek’s shooting. He just floored the accelerator, threatening to throw the flanker team in the back against the rear doors, and sent us roaring down the street toward the target house. I heard Ben rack the 60’s charging handle, getting ready to lay the hate, and I brought my rifle to my lap.
We could see the front door of the target house already. There were a couple of people out on the porch, looking in the direction of the explosion. Not only that, but there were several other faces peering through nearby windows and doors, trying to see what had blown up. We might have woken a few people up with our diversion, which meant more witnesses. But it had had the desired effect of drawing attention away from the strike team, at least for the moment. We’d hopefully sowed enough chaos that we could get in and out without too much interference. Nobody was going to know what the hell was going on for a few minutes, anyway.
Nick braked smoothly just short of the house. I didn’t even have to say anything. Larry threw the rear doors open, and he, Eric, and Jack were gone.
Ben had rigged a strap so that he could release the latch on the sliding door and pull it open without having to get up out of his shooting position. I heard the door roll back as we came parallel with the front of the target house.
I’d already had my window down; I didn’t feel like eating a bunch of broken glass if we took any return fire, and it made this part that much easier. I lifted my rifle and pointed it out the open window, even as Ben cut loose.
Even with the door open and the windows down, that 60 in the confines of the van was loud. It wasn’t just the stuttering roar of the gun, either; the muzzle blast was still inside the van. The brake was right behind my seat, so I was getting the brunt of it around the seat back.
I got just enough of a glimpse of the two guys on the porch in the light of the flickering orange streetlamp to recognize at least one of them as one of Fat Boy’s security detachment. Then they went down in a welter of blood as Ben hosed the house down at over five hundred rounds per minute.
I added pairs of shots to the quickly-shattered windows, but there really wasn’t much my rifle could do that the pig wasn’t already doing. The M60E4 was made famous a few years back by an internet video in which eight hundred rounds were linked together and fired off on a single trigger pull. That’s a lot of lead. We didn’t have that long a belt, but I knew that Ben had linked quite a few boxes together; he didn’t want to waste time reloading. The E4’s barrel could take it.
If Larry, Eric, and Jack were engaging anyone on the far side of the house, I couldn’t hear it. I couldn’t hear anything but the ravening, thumping roar of that machine gun behind me. Then, after just over a minute, the pig fell silent.
“I’m out!” Ben yelled, tossing the 60 to one side. I threw my door open and followed my SOCOM 16 out, with Ben following, grabbing his own FAL off the floor.
Even as we vaulted onto the porch, passing the bullet-splintered porch posts and facing the smashed, bullet-riddled door that was now hanging off its hinges, I heard shooting from around back. Most of it was still muted in my rattled hearing, which wasn’t what it used to be anyway, but I could still pick out the heavier booms of our 7.62 rifles opposed by the lighter pops and cracks of smaller caliber carbines and pistols.
I was about to kick the wrecked door in when Eric came around the corner, posted up on the porch, facing back the way he’d come, and bellowed, “SET!”
I hesitated. If the flankers were being engaged badly enough to need to fall back, we didn’t have time to sweep the house. We had precisely enough time to fall back to the van and make ourselves scarce. If this went Blackhawk Down, we were fucked. We couldn’t count on any friendlies in the East Side of Pueblo, and we’d deliberately made sure that law enforcement was a long way away—not that we were going to be seen as law-abiding citizens ourselves at that point.
Jack and Larry came pounding down the side of the house, even as Eric opened fire with a staccato series of controlled pairs. Yep, it was time to go. I rolled away from the door, yanked a frag off my chest rig, donkey-kicked the door in as I pulled the pin, and tossed the frag inside for good measure before slapping Ben on the shoulder and pointing to the van. “Get in!” I roared. “Go!”
Fortunately, I’d chucked that frag in pretty hard. The building wasn’t exactly all that solid to begin with; otherwise hosing it down with machine gun fire would have been pointless. As the explosion blew out the remains of the windows and doors, frag whistled through several of the bullet holes and punched some new ones of its own. I felt a hot sting on the side of my neck, as a bit of notched wire came through the wall and scored me. If I’d had the mental energy or time to think about how close I’d just come to blowing us all to bits, I might have gotten the shakes. That probably hadn’t been a terribly good idea. It had been born of haste, hate, and frustration.
Ben was already flying off the porch toward the open side door of the van, on Jack’s and Larry’s heels. I followed, hoping that I wasn’t bleeding anywhere else, and that I hadn’t fragged Eric with that damned grenade. He seemed to be doing all right. I angled out onto the street behind the van, dropped to a knee where I could shoot past Eric while giving him a clear lane to the van, and lifted my rifle.
There were a few gangbangers back there, mostly spraying and praying around corners, none of them apparently willing to expose themselves more than absolutely necessary. I thought I could see a few dark lumps on the ground that might have explained their reticence. I cranked off three shots at the nearest muzzle flash I could see, then yelled at Eric, “Turn and go!”
He didn’t move right away, and I was drawing a breath to repeat myself when he glanced back, saw me in place, then turned and sprinted for the van. I saw another head and what looked like a weapon appear down the alley, and cranked off another round. The head vanished.
The van rocked as Eric got in, and then Larry was leaning out of the open rear door and yelling at me. “Get in, get in, get in!”
There wasn’t any more fire coming from behind the house by then, so I got up off the asphalt and sprinted for the front. My rifle banged off the door frame as I piled into the passenger seat, and I had to wrestle with it a second to make sure I could close the door, but Nick was already rolling before I even got the door slammed shut.
“That was interesting,” Jack said as we careened away from the target, rapidly leaving the neighborhood behind. “Did one of us toss that frag, or did they have grenades, too?”
“I did,” I replied ruefully. “I wanted to make sure of anybody left in the house, since we weren’t going to be able to sweep it. Should have thought that one through a little more.”
“No, it was good,” he said. “We were taking a lot more fire before that went off. I think you scared ‘em.”
“Hell, it scared the shit out of me,” Eric said. He didn’t sound nearly as ambivalent about it as Jack had. “Dude, it was a stick house!”
“I know, it was stupid,” I replied. “It won’t happen again.”
“It might have to,” Nick said suddenly as he checked the rear-view mirrors again. “Let’s face it, if we’re going to make this work, we’re going to have to be crazier and more dangerous than the sons of bitches that we’re killing. If we want to be safe, we need to head back to Wyoming and dig in. And even then, I don’t think anybody in this van thinks that’s going to work for long.”
His words kind of hung in the air as we rounded another corner and kept going into the dark.
We picked Derek up about half a mile away; he’d made good time once he’d done his bit. Nick pulled over just as Derek shuffled into the shadows of some trees in an overgrown yard, and Ben hauled him in through the side door. I don’t think Nick actually brought the van to a complete stop before the door was sliding shut and we were rolling again.
“Head to Bryan’s RV,” I said quietly. Nick didn’t ask questions, but just nodded. It was still quite possible that we were wasting our time; Bryan’s part obviously had not gone according to plan. It was entirely possible that the gangbangers had shot him, then accidentally set off the backpack while searching his corpse. On the other hand, he might have been shot, crawled away, then detonated the pack. If he was alive, he might not have been able to make it to the RV. But we weren’t going to bail on him. If there was a chance that he was still alive and at large, we were going to be there to pick him up.
It was a winding, roundabout route to get to the next RV. We were steering well clear of the target area; that place was almost guaranteed to be crawling with bad guys by then, and quite possibly cops. There was no way the local PD could ignore the explosions. Or at least, that was what I thought.
Nobody said much. There didn’t seem to be much to talk about. I’d owned up to my own fuckup with the frag, and the rest of the team seemed satisfied. After all, we knew each other, and had trusted each other with our lives in some pretty hairy places for a long time now. “I fucked up, won’t happen again,” was generally accepted, as long as it didn’t happen again.
The silence was also fueled by uncertainty. We’d already lost Jim. Little Bob was in the hospital and in a bad way. None of us wanted to have to either bury Bryan or leave him to be buried by somebody else.
It wasn’t as if we hadn’t lost people before. The list was not short. Of the original team that had gone into Djibouti, what felt like forever ago, Alek, Larry, Nick, and I were just about the only ones left. Several had gone in the ground in East Africa, more in Iraq.
And the butcher’s bill just kept getting longer.
The rendezvous was at a park; it was a good place to loiter if you were trying to look like a bum. There were quite a few huddled lumps of rags and dirty coats at the base of trees and lying on park benches in the light of the van’s headlights, which, by some miracle, hadn’t been broken by gunfire.
One of those lumps moved as Nick turned the turn signal on for exactly three blinks. The lump stood up and strode toward the van. Even before seeing his face, I recognized Bryan with a surge of relief. He was alive, and, judging by the way he was moving, he wasn’t hurt.
Ben hauled the side door open again, and Bryan piled in, his lanky frame only adding to the crowding in the back.
“Well, that sure was fun,” he said sarcastically as the door slid shut and Nick started to roll out of the parking lot. “Holy shit.”
“What the hell happened?” I asked. “The boom was late, then we heard shooting and figured you’d gotten smoked.”
“I almost did,” he answered, reaching out to brace himself against the sides of the van as Nick turned us out of the parking lot. Bryan’s callsign wasn’t “Albatross” for nothing. “Those motherfuckers really didn’t want to play according to the script. They were acting more like guys on security than gangbangers just loitering around the street looking for trouble.
“The first time I went past, they watched me but didn’t say anything. Didn’t yell, didn’t try to stop me, didn’t even act curious. Which, of course, kinda fucked the entire plan. So, I went around the block and tried again, this time getting farther out into the street so I’d pass closer. I figured if worst came to worst, I’d toss the pack at their feet and run. Maybe I could get far enough away and set it off before they came after me.” When I turned around in my seat to raise a skeptical eyebrow, he just shrugged. “Hey, it was a thought. I’m not saying it was a good thought, but it was a thought.”
“Tonight seems to be the night for that,” Eric commented. Bryan shot him a quizzical glance, but then shrugged again and continued his story.
“Anyway, the second time around they must have gotten suspicious, because one of them yelled at me. They all pulled guns and started toward me. I thought this was a good sign, at first; I figured they might rough me up a little, take the pack, then shove me away and tell me to get lost. Instead, they start pointing their guns at me, and telling me to get on my knees.
“Needless to say, I thought that this wasn’t good, but since they were all watching me, I just cowered and did what I was told.
“Fortunately, one of them got kinda impatient. He yelled at me to toss my pack, so I did. I gave it a pretty good swing, too. By then I kind of figured that they were going to search me a little more thoroughly, and since I didn’t want them to find my gun or the detonator, while the pack was in the air, I drew down and started shooting.”
“You mean the shots we heard were yours?” Nick asked.
“Best damned shooting I’ve ever done,” Bryan said. “I’m still not sure how I pulled it off. Four shots, four kills—or at least all four of them were down in the street and not shooting me in the face. I booked it out of there, and hit the detonator once I was far enough away. Then I E&E’d for the rendezvous point and hunkered down until you guys showed up.”
There were some muttered comments, but nothing of real operational significance. I think at that point, it was really starting to sink in to all of us that we were flying by the seat of our pants more than normal on this op. It was somewhat sobering, offering to put a chill dash of reality on the flames of rage and vengeance. We’d dodged a bullet twice that night, and the night wasn’t over. We were going to have to calm down and start stepping more carefully if we wanted to get through this alive.
“All right,” I said, loudly enough to be heard in the back. “I know I don’t really have to go over this, but we’re not going to have a lot of time once we get clear, so I’ll hit it anyway, to make sure we don’t skip anything. Once we stop, the van gets sanitized, weapons and gear gets put out of sight, everybody gets changed over, and we split back into buddy pairs and get out to our surveillance points as quickly as possible. We just kicked the hornet’s nest, and we need to see as much of the reaction as we can before we can properly plan our next moves. Nick and I will handle ditching the van, then we’ll get out to our spot. Any questions?”
There were none. We’d already gone over the details in the initial planning, even before meeting up for the brief earlier that night. Nick pulled up to the old, ramshackle abandoned house that we’d picked out as the refit area, and we piled out and got to work.
Only a few, hectic minutes later, Nick was back behind the wheel of the van, heading southwest on the 78. I was following in the beater Jeep Cherokee that we’d be using for the rest of the night. He kept driving until we were far enough into the desert that ours were the only two pairs of headlights in sight, then he pulled over to the side of the road, parked, and shut off the engine. I pulled up behind him, dousing my headlights as I did, just as he got out of the driver’s seat, chucked the keys off into the desert, and jogged back to the Jeep. He climbed in, shucking the black nitrile gloves off his hands as he did so and tossing them in the back seat.
“We’ll have to dispose of those, too, you know,” I said as I pulled a U-turn and headed back into town.
“I’d be more concerned with the duffel bags full of guns, ammo, and explosives in the back,” Nick pointed out, “than with a pair of black rubber gloves lying on a black carpet.”
“I guess you’ve got a point,” I replied. “Especially in Colorado.” Most of our long guns and all of our mags were illegal in that state, which was part of why we had our base of operations in Wyoming, not Colorado. That alone was a good reason to avoid getting pulled over, though we had a short window of time to get to our position across town.
We’d just offed a cartel rep in the middle of what should have been relatively safe territory. There were two possibilities as to what would happen next. Either they would tighten security and start to watch each other more closely, in which case we would watch and take notes, tailoring our plans to deal with the rest of them accordingly, or they would run like rabbits, in which case we were going to have to move fast to make sure we got a few more of them before they disappeared.
Either way, one thing was certain. One dead Fat Boy was not enough of a message.
You kill Praetorians, you pay the bill, and that price tag is pretty fucking high.