As soon as he hung up, I dialed The Ranch. Clyde answered after only three rings. “Get Package Fifty heading to Tucson, Clyde,” I told him. “Most ricky-tick.”

“It’ll be on the way within the hour,” he replied. I hung up and pocketed the phone, walking back toward the overturned box truck. Nick and Jack were standing near the front, shotguns slung in front of them and eyes out.

Nick was another former Marine, though you probably wouldn’t be able to tell looking at him now; burly and shaggy-haired, his beard was down almost to his collar. He looked more like a lumberjack than a clean-cut, poster Marine anymore. Nick and I had never been in the same platoon as Marines, but we’d been to hell and back more than once as Praetorians.

Jack was new to the team, though he’d cut his teeth with Praetorian the year before, on Caleb’s team. He’d gotten shot, rotated home, and cross-decked to my team when we started training up again. He was a skinny, unremarkable-looking former SF dude, sandy-haired and soft-spoken, but he meshed with the team pretty well, and was a hell of a shot.

Harold was still on the phone, looking less and less happy. The sirens were still wailing in the distance, but looking around, I saw no flashing lights or any sign that the cops were getting any closer. That merited a frown.

“What the fuck is taking those boys so long?” I asked.

Jack snorted. “This is No-Man’s Land, dude. Nobody’s going to raise a finger south of Tucson until they know that no cartels are involved.” He spat on the ground, still watching the horizon with a squint. “They’ll make noise to reassure the locals, but that’s where it’ll end if they get a whiff that narcos are within a mile of the shooting. The Gila Bend Massacre made sure of that.”

I grunted. The Gila Bend killings had been gruesome. A celebrity Sheriff had been visiting the little town with his family and sizable entourage. Sicarios had attacked with overwhelming firepower, slaughtering the sheriff, his family, and everybody else nearby. The Sheriff’s head, along with his wife’s and his chief deputies’, had been left on the streets of Phoenix two days later.

It had been meant as a message, and it was received, loud and clear. The cartels owned southern Arizona, and since the Border Patrol had been drawn down to next to nothing after the collapse of the dollar, local law enforcement was on its own trying to combat that fact. After Gila Bend, they quit trying. Better to stay alive.

I walked over to Harold, who was staring at his phone as if it had personally betrayed him. As I did so, Eric came around from the side of the wrecked semi. There was blood on his hands. He met my eyes and just shook his head.

Motherfuckers. I felt a reflexive flash of hatred for the tattooed scumbags who’d kicked this off. The only thing that poor bastard had done was drive down the fucking road ahead of us.

“Harold,” I said. I only had to say it once this time; he broke his reverie and looked up at me. There was something close to panic in his eyes. “Are there recovery vehicles coming from Tucson?”

“What?” He seemed surprised; I don’t think he was expecting the question. He was focused on his previous conversation.

“Recovery vehicles,” I said. “Something to pick up the cargo, replacement trucks or SUVs for the two I’ve got back there shot to shit.”

“Oh, yes,” he said, starting to fiddle with his phone again. “I should get a couple of trucks on the way.” I rolled my eyes. The guy was a nice enough guy, but he was fucking lost most of the damned time.

“What is the cargo, anyway?” I asked. He looked up at me, startled.

“That’s proprietary,” he protested. “You know that.”

I took a step closer to him. “It was proprietary,” I said. “When this was simple business, it wasn’t our business to know what we were escorting.” That wasn’t strictly accurate, but Harold didn’t know that Renton had hired us on the sly for this job; he didn’t even know Renton existed. For all I knew, he had no idea that his bosses were possibly doing business for international criminal organizations. “But now, we’re not even into Mexico yet, and MS-13 has killed a trucker and tried to kill us to get at it. So I’m making it our business.”

His eyes went wide at the mention of MS-13. Their reputation was well-known. “I…I don’t know why they’d be after this,” he stammered. “I mean…I don’t know how they could know what it is…”

“What. Is. It?” I asked, slowly and inexorably.

He dithered. I got the distinct impression he was scared stiff of the consequences of telling somebody he wasn’t authorized to tell. But I can be fairly intimidating when I put my mind to it, and with the collection of smashed cars and corpses behind me, it was working.

“It’s money,” he said, finally. “Money for a deal that Harmon-Dominguez is acting as an intermediary for down in Mazatlan.”

“What, wire transfers don’t do the trick anymore?” I asked. I knew the answer; Harmon-Dominguez, or whoever was employing them for this, didn’t necessarily want any records of the transfer. Which meant Renton’s suspicions were bearing fruit already.

“Get those vehicles down here as quickly as possible,” I said curtly, as I turned aside. “I don’t want to be stuck out here in the open any longer than absolutely necessary.”

The sirens in the distance trailed off. Either the cops had decided discretion was the better part of valor, or somebody had made a phone call. Maybe both. I didn’t like either option; it meant things had deteriorated further than I’d thought. Fear, corruption, or a combination of both don’t bode well for a healthy society.

I’d spent a good deal of my adult life in deteriorating societies overseas. It was even more disheartening to see the same thing happening at home.

Snippet 4

Peter Nealen

Peter Nealen is a former Reconnaissance Marine and veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan. He deployed to Iraq in 2005-2006, and again in 2007, with 1st Platoon, Bravo Company, 1st Recon Bn. After two years of schools and workups, including Scout/Sniper Basic and Team Leader's Courses, he deployed to Afghanistan with 4th Platoon, Force Reconnaissance Company, I MEF. Since he got out, he's been writing, authoring many articles and 24 books, mostly Action/Adventure and Military Thrillers, with some excursions into Paranormal Fantasy and Science Fiction.

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