There was no warning.

Miguel Jurado was a heavy sleeper, especially when he’d eaten well and had downed about half a bottle of aguardiente. So, he didn’t hear the door open, despite the noise outside. He was dead to the world until he found himself shaken roughly. “Mayor Jurado! Mayor Jurado, you need to wake up, Señor!

He cracked one eye, his head already starting to pound. He couldn’t handle the aguardiente as well as he had when he was younger. It took a moment to register that it was Sebastian Casas, his chief of security, who was shaking him.

That can’t be good.

He sat up in bed with a groan, squinting against the light that spilled through the open door. He wasn’t really fat, not yet, but his body was going soft as he got older and balder, and for some reason, that meant that he always hurt when he got up, despite the alcohol.

Maria, his third wife, twenty years his junior, didn’t have that problem. She was sitting up in bed, covering herself with the sheet, staring at Casas with large, dark, frightened eyes.

“What is it?” Jurado peered blearily at the clock beside the massive bed. “What time is it?”

“It is just after one in the morning, Señor.” Casas’ voice was taut. “Please, you have to come with me. We have to get you and the señora to safety.”

That got his attention. Casas was not a man easily frightened. “What has happened?” He was already pulling the sheets aside, casting about the darkened room for his trousers.

“There was a bombing at the rancho, Señor.”

That made Jurado’s blood run cold. Juan Fernando had been throwing a party there. His eldest son and easily a hundred of his friends, many of the scions of the wealthy farmers and businessmen of San Tabal, would have been there. “My son?”

Casas shook his head. “We don’t know yet, Señor. All we know is that there was an explosion next to the house, and that there are casualties. Please, we need to get you to a safe haven.”

The Mayor’s mansion, overlooking the Grand Plaza in the center of San Tabal, was not exactly the most secure building in the city. Left over from the Spanish colonial days, its aging construction meant that another car bomb could very well level half of it, and it had never been built with defense in mind in the first place.

Jurado had always found that odd, given the history of the place.

He dressed quickly, urging Maria to do the same. She was frightened and pale, but quickly dressed. Jurado was no stranger to the threat of violence. While Colombia was much more peaceful than it had been during the days of La Violencia and the cartel wars around Medellin and Cali which had followed, the ever-present narcos and revolutionaries such as the FARC and the various other groups—many of them influenced or supported by neighboring Venezuela—meant that violence never really went away. Maria, however, hadn’t lived through the periods he’d seen. He’d been a child during the very end of La Violencia, and had come of age during Pablo Escobar’s reign of terror. She’d grown up since the peace arrangements with Medellin and Cali, and while Colombia could not have been called peaceful since then, with FARC and ELN waging their perpetual narco-revolutions, it had been nothing like the old days.

Pulling on his shoes, he shooed Maria toward the men in suits standing just outside their door. “We have to go.” He looked up at Casas. “I need to know what happened, and that my son is all right. Get me Manzano.” Carlos Manzano was the San Tabal chief inspector. If he wasn’t already aware, he would need to act quickly.

Jurado didn’t know why someone might have tried to kill him or his son. That could wait.

“Manzano is already heading that way.” Casas ushered the mayor and his young wife toward the stairs and the doors below. “All the police are on alert. They are locking down the city as we speak.”

“Then where are we going?” Maria still sounded like she was on the edge of panic.

Jurado put his arm around her as they descended the richly carpeted stairs toward the grand entryway. “The police can only do so much if the terrorists are truly committed. There is a safer place for us, up in the mountains.” That had been the old Jurado villa, which hadn’t been built for defense, either, but after the last threat—when one of the smaller cartels had wanted to seize several of the farms that were San Tabal’s lifeblood for coca production—Casas had had a bunker put into the mountainside behind the house.

Casas and the other bodyguards formed a box around the two of them and hustled them across the vast hall and toward the massive wooden front doors. Two more security men flanked the doors, Uzi submachineguns in their hands. It was only then that Jurado really registered that Casas had drawn his sidearm, and held it in his right hand, pointed up at the ceiling.

As the mayor and his wife neared the door, one of the men with submachineguns put a hand to his ear and spoke, listening for a moment before he nodded, and the two of them opened the doors and moved out onto the driveway in the mansion’s courtyard, where a pair of Mercedes G-Wagens waited for them, their engines already running and two more security men standing nearby, also carrying Uzis. Casas was taking the threat seriously.

That was why Jurado had always trusted Casas. He wouldn’t have kept him on as chief of security otherwise.

Maria was whimpering a little as Jurado rushed her into the back seat of the rear G-Wagen. He wondered briefly if he should have married her, or just kept her as a mistress. She was stunning, and her physical charms were unmatched, but she wasn’t exactly the most blinding of intellects. He did care for her, but sometimes he wished she was more like Consuela. She had been nearly as tough as Casas.

She’d been a harridan, and he hadn’t been able to avoid a faint pang of relief when she’d died, but she’d been tough. He wouldn’t have needed to practically drag her to safety.

Or maybe he would have. She would have been leading the charge, berating the guards and grabbing a gun.

Jurado climbed into the vehicle and Casas shut the door before hurrying around to the front seat and getting in. The lead G-Wagen was already pulling out the gate and turning left, heading for the mountains.

Jurado patted Maria’s hand, and she seized his and hung on as if it were her only lifeline. But she calmed down. Then he reached into his pocket and cursed.

“I forgot my phone. Casas, give me yours.” He needed to start getting control of this situation. He needed information.

Casas had just handed the phone back to him when the lead vehicle slowed. At first, Jurado couldn’t see what was happening. He just saw the brake lights suddenly blaze red ahead of them as they neared the slums on the edge of the city.

“What…” He never got a chance to finish the question.

He didn’t see the RPG round in flight—the ambush was far too close for that. He just saw the armored Mercedes ahead suddenly disappear for a moment in a bright fireball. Seconds later, the vehicle was burning fiercely.

“Get us out of here!” Casas was looking back over his shoulder as he yelled at the driver. Maria was screaming, and Jurado could only stare at the burning wreck, his mind momentarily frozen. He’d thought himself prepared for anything, given his country’s history, but this was far more immediate and personal than he’d really been ready for.

Casas got all the way around and finally got a good look out the back window, as Maria shrieked and clutched at her ears. He blanched, and yelled at the driver to stop.

Jurado twisted around to look. It took him a moment to realize what had prompted his security chief to stop them.

Another man was standing in the middle of the street behind them, an RPG leveled at the vehicle. Half a dozen more came out of the tumbledown houses on either side, carrying rifles and a machinegun.

“Who are they?” Maria had stopped screaming, but was now staring at the men with guns, her eyes wide with terror.

“I don’t know.” Jurado was suddenly calm. In fact, he could see in the dim light that all of them were dressed the same. He had his suspicions, now that he had a better look at them. There had been rumors floating around the farms in the vicinity of San Tabal for months now. “Just stay calm. I think they want us alive. Otherwise, they would have blown this car up, too.”

He glanced at Casas, who was clearly struggling to maintain his own calm. Even with two Uzis in the front seat, they were no match for the gunmen outside. As soon as anyone showed a weapon, that man with the rocket launcher would kill them all.

Casas kept staring at the gunmen as more of them came out of the shacks to their right. Jurado wondered that there weren’t any on the left. But after a moment, he realized that even if they tried to run for it, the gunmen would probably shoot them down before they even got all the way out.

Finally, Casas met Jurado’s eyes. His expression was lost, helpless. They were trapped, and he knew it. He’d failed.

There was no point in berating his security chief, even though a spiteful part of Jurado wanted to. He didn’t want to die. He desperately wanted to live. He could feel the panic bubbling up in his chest as the gunmen closed in on the vehicles. “Do something!”

But Casas just shook his head as he unloaded his Uzi and laid it on the floorboards. “Don’t resist. Like you said, if they wanted to kill you, they already would have. If you’re alive and in captivity, something can be done.”

Jurado wasn’t sure about that. But if Casas wasn’t going to fight, what could he do?

“Lock the doors.” He wasn’t just going to go out there and let these people take him prisoner. He surely didn’t want to let them have Maria. She might not be the brightest young woman, and she might occasionally be tiresome outside of the bedroom, but he still cared for her. He didn’t want to see what might happen to her if she fell into these men’s hands.

But Casas shook his head and started to open his own door. “Then they will kill us all.” He swung the door open and called out, “We surrender!”

Jurado lunged across the seat and tried to grab him, cursing, but it was too late. Casas stepped out of the vehicle with his hands raised.

A burst of gunfire cut him down, slamming him into the open door. He left a bright smear of red on the inside of the armored glass as he slid lifelessly to the ground.

Maria screamed again, and the driver, a wiry little man named Escudero, cursed and grabbed for his Uzi. But he was too slow. A figure appeared in the open door, standing above Casas’ corpse, and shot him through the head. Blood and brains spattered off the window and the ruin of Escudero’s skull bounced off the steering wheel before resting between the dash and the door, dripping gore onto the floor.

Jurado froze, staring at the rifle muzzle pointed at his face from a mere three feet away. Maria was shrieking in sheer panic, made worse when an arm reached in around the other gunman and unlocked her door. She was suddenly and roughly dragged out, still screaming until a hard blow knocked her to the ground, where she huddled, whimpering in pain and fear.

Another man lunged into the back of the vehicle and grabbed Jurado. The mayor of San Tabal tried to struggle, but he’d never been much of a fighter, even in his younger days. A hard punch to his jaw drained all the fight out of him.

The gunmen dragged him out onto the ground and one of them shone a light in his eyes. He squinted against the glare and tried to lift a hand to shield his eyes. A boot slammed down on his arm, pinning it to the roadway.

“It’s him. Bring him.” The voice was cold and emotionless.

“What about the girl?” Jurado thought he could hear a leer in the other voice, but right then he couldn’t do anything about it.

“Bring her, too. Maybe he’ll be more cooperative if the alternative is watching his whore gutted in front of him.”

Rough hands grabbed him under the armpits and dragged him to his feet. A savage blow to his solar plexus finished off any vague idea he might have had to fight back. Then he was dragged toward an old five-ton truck.

Just before they threw him in the back, they pulled a sack over his head. The last thing he saw before darkness descended was one of the gunmen, grinning from ear to ear, dragging Maria by one arm toward the truck.

***

Dawn had only been a few hours away when they’d been ambushed, but it felt like far longer while Jurado waited, his hands tied with zip-ties, the bag still over his head and leaving him in complete darkness. As near as he could tell, he’d been imprisoned in a room by himself. There was no other sound after the door slammed. He waited in darkness and silence, as his imagination started to run away with him, painting increasingly gruesome and vivid pictures in his mind of what these savages might have in store for him and his wife.

Finally, the door slammed open, and he heard boots on the concrete floor. Hands grabbed him under the arms and yanked him to his feet.

“What is happening? Who are you people? Where are you taking me?” Another punch to the stomach shut him up. He wheezed in pain as they dragged him out of the room.

He was in too much pain to keep track of direction and distance as they hauled him through several turns. He was fairly sure he was still inside, but he couldn’t tell much beyond that.

They dragged him up a couple of flights of steps, and he stumbled repeatedly, since he couldn’t see the steps. The next stretch was on carpet, and then doors opened ahead, they went through, and he was forced to his knees. The bag was yanked off his head, and he squinted, though the room was not particularly brightly-lit.

He was in the entertainment room, which opened onto the balcony that faced the Grand Plaza. And he was not alone.

Three men stood by the balcony, watching him. The small one in the center he recognized at once.

Ramon Clemente had been a general in the Ejército Nacional de Colombia, the Colombian National Army, before he’d been forced to resign in disgrace two years before. Increasingly credible accusations of corruption and drug trafficking had finally become too loud for the government to ignore, and he’d been offered the option of resignation or prison. He’d resigned, but not gracefully. The last anyone had seen of the small, unassuming, mustachioed man standing in front of him now, he’d been cursing every member of the government and vowing bloody revenge.

Now he was standing in Jurado’s house, dressed in camouflage trousers and a dark green shirt, a pistol belted around his middle. And the stare he leveled at Jurado was as cold and dead as a shark’s.

Jurado looked at the two men who flanked Clemente, but found no comfort there. One of them he knew. Julio Ballesteros had been a local rancher who had always had just a bit too much money to throw around—and he’d used it to buy influence for himself wherever possible. No one had ever produced proof that the fat, sleepy-looking man had worked with the narcos or the FARC, but it had been common knowledge, nevertheless.

Somehow, Jurado did not find it surprising that Ballesteros was here.

The other he didn’t know. Whip-lean and rangy, he had sunken cheeks, sharp indio cheekbones, and burning eyes. A single glance at those hard, feverish eyes was enough. Jurado looked away hastily.

Clemente and Ballesteros might be thugs, but this man was a predator, of a class far beyond them. This man was to be feared.

“Get him on his feet.” Clemente had a slight speech impediment; his voice was thick and faintly slurred.

The men to either side of him seized him and hauled him up until he was standing unsteadily in front of Clemente. He towered over the little man, but right then, the difference in size really didn’t matter.

His guards were dressed in simple trousers and dark green shirts. In fact, everyone was wearing some variation on the same green shirt. It appeared to be these terrorists’ uniform.

“Come to the balcony, Señor Jurado.” Clemente’s tone was vaguely polite, but he couldn’t quite manage to completely conceal the vicious, underlying malice to the words. Jurado’s knees shook and he wanted to vomit. If he’d had anything in his stomach or his bladder, he probably would have voided them some time ago.

The Green Shirts dragged him toward the balcony. The doors were already open. He staggered out as they shoved him through, and he stumbled against the railing and looked down.

The sun was coming up over the Grand Plaza. Ordinarily, there was some little traffic around the Plaza in the morning, mostly the early risers, those business owners who opened their doors for breakfast. The fountain at the center was usually in the shadow of the forested mountain above until nearly ten in the morning.

Now it was bathed in white light from the headlights of a dozen trucks. And a dozen familiar people knelt in front of that fountain, pinned by those glaring headlights. Some of them wept. Some cowered. Some stared into the light defiantly.

The dark shadows of twenty men stretched out from those headlights toward the kneeling figures. Each man carried a rifle.

More gunmen, backed up by pickup trucks mounting machineguns in their beds or atop their cabs, herded hundreds of the people of San Tabal toward the square. Clearly, Clemente wanted a lot of people to see this.

With a sudden, sickening shock, Jurado realized what was about to happen. But he couldn’t even summon up his voice to protest. He could barely hold himself up against the railing.

Clemente stood next to him. “I want you to see this.” Malevolence dripped from every syllable. Jurado didn’t know why. He’d never met Clemente before this moment. Then Clemente lifted a bullhorn to his lips.

“For too long, these rich farmers and puppets of the American imperialists have oppressed the people of San Tabal! Now, the hour of justice has come! San Tabal is an independent city state as of this moment! And all those who have sucked the blood of the poor who scrape out their living from the cleared jungle, giving the best to these parasites while they live in tumbledown shacks in the slums, will pay the price!” He turned to the wolfish man who stood on Jurado’s right hand and nodded.

“Firing squad! Do your duty! For the revolution and for Ramon Clemente!” The man’s voice was as raw and harsh as his eyes.

The twenty on the square lifted their rifles. With a ragged crash of gunfire that echoed off the mountains, they emptied their magazines into the twelve men and women kneeling by the fountain. Crimson spattered on the stone, while bullets chipped away at the two-hundred-year-old sculpture.

When the gunfire fell silent, a dozen twisted bodies lay leaking their lifeblood out onto the stones of the square. The old fountain was pocked with bullet holes, and one of the spigots had been shot off, dribbling water down into the pool below. Those residents who had been dragged out to witness the atrocity could only stare in shock and fear.

Clemente turned to the wolfish looking man again. “Take him away and finish it.”

The man with the burning eyes stared at Jurado without a word, and jerked a hand at his guards. Rough hands grabbed him by the arms and dragged him away from the railing. He went without resistance, still staring down at the bodies below. Some had been friends. Some had been enemies. Some had been competitors before he’d become the mayor.

Wordless and shaking, Jurado let himself be led away.

***

When the sun finally topped the peak to the east, spilling its rays down onto the bloodied plaza, it illuminated the body of Miguel Jurado, formerly mayor of San Tabal, as it swung gently beneath a lamppost at the edge of the Grand Plaza. Above, a red, black, and yellow flag drifted in the morning breeze, declaring a new order in the city of San Tabal.

***

 

War to the Knife comes out on Kindle and Paperback May 18.

War to the Knife Chapter 1

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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