By the time we hit the rally point, it was pretty obvious that things were threatening to spiral out of control.
Gunfire was echoing through the night, more intense than anything we’d unleashed yet, except for maybe the mad minute into Fat Boy’s safe house. Red and blue flashing lights were clearly visible, as were the flames from something having been set on fire not far from them. The local PD was in the middle of one hell of a firefight. Given what I’d seen, I didn’t imagine it was a fight that they were remotely prepared for.
Even though it had been a pretty successful night, we were all pretty subdued as we gathered around the vehicles in a field south of town. Granted, some of our silence was simply professional habit; once you’ve spent as long as we have running around hostile environments, outnumbered and generally outgunned, you don’t get loud and chatty very easily. Some of it was because of fatigue. There hadn’t been a lot of sleep since Jim’s death.
But some of it was because of the glances we kept shooting toward the clusterfuck on the edge of the East Side. Those cops were in deep shit, if I was reading the noise right, and it was at least partially our fault. Now, I would be the first to say that they had also brought some of it on themselves by going along to get along until it was too late. But since they’d been responding to our bombing, I couldn’t help but feel just a little responsible for their predicament.
“Decision time, gents,” I said quietly. “We can use that fight as cover to go after El Presidente, or we can hit the assholes who have those cops pinned down right now. Either way, I expect that come tomorrow, the East Side is going to be far more non-permissive than it has been.”
“I’m pretty sure those are automatic weapons I hear,” Bryan said sarcastically. “Aren’t those supposed to be illegal in Colorado?” He spat. “Fuck ‘em. We came here to kill the shitstains who ordered the hit on The Ranch. Let’s do what we came here to do and get the fuck out.”
“Colorado’s fucked up laws aren’t the cops’ fault,” Larry said. “If it was Brett down there, wouldn’t we feel at least a little obligated to go lend a hand? He would.” Especially with Jim gone, Larry was generally the team’s voice of reason and compassion, such as he was.
“But that ain’t Brett down there,” Jack said. “Jeff’s right. We’ve got a choice between killing El Pres and finishing the mission, or helping the cops. We won’t get a chance at both.”
I was torn. And looking around at several of the faces, those I could see in the dark, I wasn’t the only one.
“If we hit El Pres hard enough and loud enough,” I said after a moment, “it will probably take more of the pressure off the PD than if we went in and tried to intervene directly. There will also be less chance of a blue on blue.” That was a real concern, and there were several nods in the darkness. Let the already beleaguered cops see yet another bunch of armed guys come in and start shooting, and they might think we were just another bunch of bad guys. I had even less desire to get shot or thrown in jail by the Pueblo PD than I did to end up shooting any of them.
I looked at my watch. “Presuming he’s hunkered down like the rest of them, we should be able to get in position to hit El Pres in thirty minutes.”
“What’s the plan?” Eric asked with a bit of a dubious note in his voice.
I grimaced, though he probably couldn’t see it. “No time to get fancy, but we haven’t got the numbers or the firepower for ‘hey-diddle-diddle-straight-up-the-middle, either. Fuck.”
“It will take some more time, but maybe we need to just go a little more old-school,” Larry suggested. “Like we did on some of the hits in Basra.”
That jogged a memory, and though I couldn’t really see his expression in the dark, I nodded, as the gears started turning. It was simple enough, though Larry, Nick, and I were the only ones left of the Basra team, so there would be a little bit of explanation involved. “We don’t have a lot of time to plan, but here’s the gist…”
“El Presidente’s” house was one of the larger residential houses on the East Side, a two-story white-painted bit of Americana with a covered porch and a bay window. The picket fence around the back yard only added to the incongruity of it being used as a safe house for a cartel rep, particularly one that we had tentatively identified as belonging to the CJNG, the Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generacion.
We’d started calling the guy “El Presidente” because of the professionalism of his Personal Security Detachment, which was packing better weapons and gear than anyone else in Pueblo, including us, and most definitely including the Pueblo PD, along with the target’s polished appearance and general air of “better than you.” He usually wore slacks and a nice shirt, with his hair immaculately coiffed. He was definitely more of the “businessman” sort of narco, as opposed to the flashier Sinaloans or the really gleefully savage types, such as the cartel we’d systematically dismantled in Mexico, Los Hijos de la Muerte.
His outer security was still rather low-key, usually consisting of a couple guys in a car out front, and another two on the porch, during the day. They might be there in the wee hours of the morning, too, given everything else that was presently going on.
As I strolled down the street, keeping to the shadows of the trees planted along the narrow, cracked sidewalks, I could still hear the shooting off to the southwest. The cops weren’t giving up, though it did sound like it was getting more distant. I found myself hoping that they hadn’t gotten themselves surrounded, and would just fall back to safer parts of the city. It would get them out of our hair.
The truck was parked three blocks away, locked up, with my rifle and chest rig hidden in a duffel bag beneath a bunch of junk and detritus in the cab. I had one of Logan’s little party favors slung under my jacket, with spare mags shoved into pockets inside the jacket and in my pants. Being seen on the streets at three in the morning was one thing; most people in the East Side were more concerned with keeping their heads down, and wouldn’t ask many questions, even if they thought it was weird. Being seen packing a long gun might alert the wrong people.
I had eyes on the target house, and the low, dark sedan parked out front. I could just make out the shapes of two figures in the car, though they helped a little when one of them lit up a cigarette. I was pretty sure it was a cigarette; every indicator we’d gotten so far suggested that El Pres wasn’t the type to condone drug use in his PSD. So, it probably wasn’t a joint. The loss of night vision due to the flame would be slightly offset by increased alertness thanks to the nicotine.
Keeping to the shadow of the tree, I scanned the streets. I could just make out the shapes of the rest of the team, spread out in a rough L-shape to the east and north. The rest were sticking either to tree trunks or parked vehicles. A quick count confirmed that everybody was in position. Time to do this.
I had taken the role of initiator, so, adopting as shuffling and drunken a gait as I could, I started across the street. There hadn’t been time to change, so I wasn’t in full derelict mufti, like Derek and Bryan had been the night before, but I didn’t have to be. There was certainly enough substance abuse going on in Pueblo for anyone acting drunk or high to be a relatively normal sight.
I shuffled and staggered across the street, tripped over the cracked, weed-grown curb, and almost fell. In fact, I had miscalculated the act, and damn near face-planted for real, though I caught myself before the subgun could swing out of my open jacket. That could have been bad. I knew that if they were on the ball, those two sicarios in the car were watching me carefully. Too much had happened in the last forty-eight hours for them to be too relaxed about anybody.
I kept going, veering off the sidewalk onto the gravel and weeds to either side. The target house had a really shitty front lawn, more dirt, rocks, and weeds than grass. It kind of detracted from the “Leave it to Beaver” look of the house itself.
Swaying, I pretended to almost fall over again, before overcorrecting and staggering toward the car. As I stumbled once more, I let my hand go into my jacket and wrap around the submachine gun’s grip. I heard a sneering comment in Spanish and a laugh.
As I heaved myself upright again, I checked to make sure that I had penetrated far enough that my background was clear, and I wasn’t about to accidentally put a bullet into one of my teammates. There was the chance that something would over-penetrate and hit the house across the street, but there really are only so many angles that can be called “safe” when you’re opening fire in a residential neighborhood.
The subgun came out of my jacket, hitting the end of the sling, the fiber-optic sights gleaming even in the dark. I was only a step away from the car, and while they had been watching me and laughing, neither of the sicarios had gotten out, though their windows were rolled down to let the smoke out. I could see just enough to see the surprise on the closest sicario’s face, just before I obliterated it with a four-round burst of 9mm hollow points.
His companion didn’t even have time to register shock as the contents of the first guy’s skull splattered all over him. The other advantage of my position was that, instead of having to traverse the width of the car, as I would have if I’d opened fire through the windshield, I only had to move the muzzle a little over an inch to give Number Two the same treatment. Dark, glistening liquid splashed out the open window and his cigarette fell to the street as his lifeless corpse sagged against the door column.
The entire assassination had taken about three seconds, and the only sound had been the clicking of the action and the faint tinkle of the brass hitting the rocks.
As soon as I was sure that both were dead, I spun around toward the house. I did not want to get shot in the back because I was facing the wrong way after I’d just presumably alerted anyone looking out the window that they were under attack.
The rest of the team was closing in at the same time, sprinting across the street, even as I ran for the porch. The usual daytime sentries weren’t there, but I wasn’t laying any bets that nobody else besides the two in the car were up and about, even that early in the morning.
Ben beat me to the porch by a half a step, vaulted the steps in a single bound, and hit the door without breaking stride. His boot crashed into the door itself right below the knob, the impact shattering the glass and smashing the latch through the doorjamb. The door slammed open with a crash, and I pushed Ben through the opening, my subgun up over his shoulder to cover him.
The lights were off, and we didn’t have flashlights attached to the subguns, for the simple reason that Logan hadn’t bothered to put rails on them. They were throwaways, after all. But we all had smaller handheld jobs in our pockets, and I’d been fishing mine out on the way up the porch steps.
Brilliant white light blazed in the darkened living room, blinding the two figures that were stumbling through the door to the stairs and the back hall. They didn’t have a chance. One of them tried to lift a pistol to shoot at us, blind or not, and Ben cut him down. I was a fraction of a second behind Ben, from making sure the rest of the living room was clear, and put a five-round burst into the next guy, who was in the middle of tripping over his buddy’s corpse. Between Ben and me, he took ten or twelve rounds to the chest and head. He hit the floor hard, his ruined skull bouncing off the floorboards with an audible clunk, spilling blood and brain matter across the doorway.
There must have been somebody at the top of the steps, because there was a sudden loud, profane shout in Spanish. I had cleared the doorway by then, and had stepped out into the room, closing out the angles on the single door that was now partially blocked by two bodies as the rest of the team poured in behind me. On a hunch, I aimed high and dumped the rest of the mag through the wall and ceiling where I guessed the top of the stairs was.
There was a high-pitched scream of agony and the sound of a body falling down the stairs, even as I ripped the mag out and dropped it to the floor, reaching for another one. Old boy was hurt, but still alive, as he was still making a lot of noise as he got to the bottom of the stairs. Larry silenced him with a short burst.
A rapid series of shots roared down the stairwell, followed by a shotgun blast that did little but turn the already dead bodies further into bloody hamburger. Apparently, whoever was up there hadn’t taken the lesson from the guy I’d shot through the wall, and was trying to dissuade us from coming up by shooting down the stairs.
Jack, Eric, and I lined up, lifted our weapons, and hammered a good twenty rounds apiece through the walls and ceiling. Drywall was blasted to powder and splinters flew, but none of it was slowing the bullets down appreciably. Another sicario came tumbling down the stairs, preceded by his shotgun, which made one hell of a racket bouncing off the walls and the banister.
We still had the advantage of surprise; they were still waking up and wondering just what the fuck was happening, just judging by the responses we’d seen so far. But gunfire has a way of focusing the mind if the enemy has any breathing space. The longer we stayed downstairs, the sooner they were going to come to their senses and start doing the same thing to us we were doing to them—shooting through walls that provided concealment but no cover.
With visions of Bob Fagin’s death in a similar situation in Iraq dancing in my head, I dashed for the stairs. Without plates, I was running one hell of a risk, but it was either possibly die on the stairs, or almost certainly die on the first floor. Speed was our security.
Jack and Eric, seeing what I was doing, poured another pair of long bursts up at the head of the stairs, providing me a little bit of covering fire as I bounded up the steps, two at a time. Bryan was behind me; Larry and Ben had pushed into the kitchen, while Nick and Derek were posted up on the doorway, covering what might have been a bedroom.
Looking up, I could see that there was somebody at the top of the stairs, though they had ducked back from the hail of bullets tearing up through the floor and the wall, so they couldn’t see me, though I could just see their shadow. It wasn’t going to be all that accurate, and in the old days I would have cringed at this sort of shooting, but I punched out the subgun and ripped a burst through the corner. Drywall was pulverized and somebody hit the floor with a scream.
Jack and Eric’s fire ceased at the same time. I went around that corner as I hit the top of the steps. I was breathing hard and my legs were burning, but I never got through a CQB fight without feeling like I’d just run a marathon, so that was nothing out of the ordinary.
The stairs opened up on a hallway going back the other direction. There was a door to the right and another across the landing to the left. I faded right for a heartbeat, covering down on the door across the hall to the left just long enough to make sure I wasn’t about to get shot in the back, then stormed into the right-hand door as soon as I was sure Bryan was going to be on my ass. I could feel the shudder of boots on the stairs as two more started up behind us.
Bryan and I burst into the small room, where a cheap, Walmart floor lamp had been switched on, probably about the same time that Ben kicked the front door in. It looked like the room had been a kid’s bedroom once upon a time; there was colorful wallpaper still up on the walls. Whoever was presently renting the house, however, hadn’t cared, and had just thrown a mattress, a couple of folding chairs, and a lamp into the room.
The room was otherwise empty; I guessed that whoever had been sleeping in there was either lying on the floor across the hall or dead at the base of the stairs. I still crossed to yank open the closet, making sure there weren’t any little vatos waiting in there for us to turn our backs. It was empty.
More gunshots roared across the hall, with softer, almost inaudible clicks sounding in reply. The unsuppressed gunfire was painfully loud inside the house, even through three walls.
Bryan led the way out the door and across the hall, just as Jack and Eric appeared in the doorway we’d bypassed. There was a tense fraction of a second as all four of us quickly IDed the men with guns across the hall, but nobody shot a friendly.
A glance down the stairs as we passed only showed the dead bodies at the bottom. Larry, Ben, Nick, and Derek were otherwise engaged, but as long as there weren’t calls for help or more bullets ripping through walls or floor at us, I figured we were okay. Our focus needed to be on the top floor for the time being.
Bryan led the way to the third room. The door was shut. Bryan rolled past it, turned his back to the wall, and donkey-kicked it just below the doorknob.
The doorjamb splintered. The door cracked, and swung open a whopping three inches before whatever had been stacked against it provided enough friction to grind to a halt.
At the same time, there was a roar of automatic gunfire, and bullets smashed out through the wall and the door, filling the hallway with splinters and dust.
Bryan dropped flat on the floor; I didn’t know if he’d been hit or if he had just sensed the gunfire coming and hit the deck as soon as the door didn’t open all the way. I lifted my subgun and ripped an answering burst through the wall, dumping the magazine as Jack and Eric came up behind me.
There wasn’t time to think, plan, or even to see if Bryan was all right. If we didn’t get in there and kill that son of a bitch, we were all going to die in the hallway. Hesitation was going to be fatal. So, I moved.
I took one step over Bryan’s prone form and aimed a kick as high up the door as I could get, hoping to smash the hinges off the doorjamb and lever the door over whatever obstacle was inside. It was not the first time I’d encountered a barricaded door on a raid.
Naturally, it didn’t work. The jamb cracked a little, but my boot rebounded from the door as the painful shock of the impact traveled up my leg. Eric had shouldered past behind me and was putting another burst through the wall just to give whoever was inside something to think about besides turning me to hamburger.
I could stand there and try to kick that door all day, and only buy the asshole inside more time. So, I changed tactics. I stepped back against the wall over the stairs and bull-rushed the door.
I hit it low enough and hard enough that the barricade slid on the carpet. It still was heavy enough that it stopped me and the door a good two feet inside, but that was enough.
I was low, almost lying on the floor, my submachine gun aimed in the opening to the darkened room, somewhat lightened now by all the bullet holes in the walls. I heard the ping of a spoon flying free as Jack tossed one of our few flashbangs in over my head, and closed my eyes. This was gonna hurt.
A fraction of a second later, the bang went off with a deafening roar, painting an actinic flash on my retinas even through my eyelids. Smoke filled the room, and I was pretty sure that something was on fire. Meanwhile, Jack jumped over me, bulling the door a few inches further open as he went.
I had to stay down for a few more seconds, because Eric was already heading in after Jack, and if I stood up, I was going to trip Eric up. As soon as he was clear, I scrambled to my feet and shoved the door the rest of the way open, even as suppressed gunfire tore through the room.
Something was burning. The flashbang had somehow landed on the bed and set the covers on fire. The rest of the lights were off, and Jack’s and Eric’s flashlights stabbed brilliant white beams through the drifting smoke, making the blood splashes against the drywall look particularly bright.
There had been three men in the room; two sicarios and El Presidente. All three were now rapidly cooling piles of meat and bone. The sicarios had gone down fighting; one had a pistol clenched in his hand, while the other had an AK.
El Presidente had not died well. He was still in his underwear, huddled on the floor on the far side of the smoldering bed, unarmed. If he’d been smart enough to stay down, he might have lived a few moments longer. But he apparently had peeked over the top of the mattress just as Jack and Eric were doing for his bodyguards, and had taken a round right in the T-box. One eye was slightly bulged out from overpressure, just below a gently smoking hole right over his eyebrow. A sizeable chunk of the back of his skull was gone.
“Clear,” Jack said, his voice only slightly louder than normal, probably because of the ringing in the ears we were all experiencing thanks to the opposition’s unsuppressed gunfire. His face was blank as he looked at the corpses crumpled on the far side of the room. For all his sarcastic belligerence, which had earned him the callsign “Anarchy,” most of the time Jack did his damnedest to affect a demeanor of bored cynicism. That extended to combat, as well. The guy never got visibly excited.
Of course, few of us did, anymore. We were all too old, too jaded, and too combat hardened.
I didn’t say anything but, satisfied that I wasn’t going to get burned down as soon as I turned my back, I went back to the door to check on Bryan, hoping and praying that we hadn’t lost him, too.
But he was already levering himself painfully off the floor. He was alive, but I put out a hand to stop him before he moved too much. “You’re bleeding,” I told him.
“I know,” he said with a wince. “I got burned on my right trap as I went down. It hurts like a motherfucker, but I’m all right.”
I ran my hands over him anyway, checking for bleeds or holes that he might not have noticed. Aside from his shoulder, he came up clean.
“I love you, too, Jeff,” he said as I worked.
“Fuck you, Bryan,” I said. I finished, got to my feet, and held out my hand to heave him up. “Let’s get out of here before the hordes come.”
Fortunately, as we cleared out of the bullet-riddled house of corpses, there was no sign of any response, yet. The shooting off to the west had died down; whatever had been going down between MS-13 and the cops appeared to be mostly over. But it also appeared to mean that the Mara hadn’t had a chance to re-orient themselves to the hit going on deeper in the East Side. We scattered to the winds, jogging away singly or in pairs, bombshelling into the fading night even as the first pale light started to grow in the east.
We didn’t link up again in Pueblo itself. As soon as I got back to the truck, I sent a mass text to the whole team giving an RV point way out by the Pueblo Reservoir. Our target deck was clear, at least for the moment. I was reasonably certain that we’d eliminated the major players who had ordered the hit. It should give our enemies pause while we got to work on a more strategic plan.
I knew on some level, even as we drove west, that what I had in mind wasn’t going to work. There was no way to kill everybody who wanted us dead, not least when so many of them were powerful and violent men south of the border. I hoped that we’d sent a message not to fuck with us on our home ground; we’d lost Jim and almost lost Little Bob, but we’d reaped a lot of souls in recompense. But it wouldn’t stop the cartels, or the other assholes who had it out for us.
I didn’t have any answers, not then, aside from building the target deck and taking down enough big boys that they got the message to never fuck with us ever again.
I wasn’t going to have time to complete the plan, never mind put it into action.