Praise for Patriot & Assassin:
an excerpt from
Patriot and Assassin
by Robert Cook
The afternoon shadows from the pool house stretched up the gravel path toward the huge, log-framed ranch house. Alex Cuchulain walked beside his friend, Brooks Elliot, talking idly about the travails of the economy and the housing bust. Both men seemed fit, light on their feet and balanced. Their T-shirts were wrinkled and newly dry, with damp circles at the waist of their swim trunks. Behind them walked two women, their dates. One was the owner’s daughter and their host, LuAnn Clemens. The second was Dr. Caitlin O’Connor. The hair on both was slicked back and still wet from the pool. Each carried a bath towel wrapped casually around her neck.
A sharp snap sounded just behind Alex. He turned his head just as a sharp pain hit the seat of his wet bathing suit, accompanied by another snap.
“Ow!” Alex yelled and turned to see LuAnn pulling her towel back, and Caitlin’s towel snapped just past him as she pulled back on its base. They were grinning and giggling.
As LuAnn snaked her damp towel out again at Alex, he snatched the end from the air just before it unraveled and gave it a pull. She sprawled forward and fell on the sharp gravel. She let out a loud yelp.
As Alex opened his mouth to apologize he heard a footfall behind him and immediately felt a slamming force just under his rib cage that drove him into the air. Eh? He felt himself reacting to thousands of hours of training. This happened to be Form Twenty-Eight of the repetitive martial arts drills the CIA had designed to counteract the seventy-two most common forms of physical attack. For each of those there was a physical response that was drilled, nearly endlessly, into workers who were chosen for the violent work of the Agency. As his mind turned to identify what other dangers lurked, reflex drove his response. Alex threw his legs uphill, using his stomach muscles and twisting his body over the force, drove his assailant under him as they fell. The part that took the longest to master was next: the impact of Alex’s fall must be broken, lessened somehow. His right arm was extended, slightly bent. As the impact of the man hitting the ground was first sensed, Alex drove his right elbow into the mass of the head and neck beneath him, accompanied by a loud exhalation, “Heeyaaa!”
The impact of that blow went through his assailant’s face to the dirt below. Bone could be heard snapping as the force of impact from Alex’s fall was countered. Judo used Newton’s law of motion that for every action there was an equal and opposite reaction. The slowing of his fall allowed his feet to continue to swing over the base of the conflict, then tighten the arc to hit tight to their landing spot. His upper body twisted along in the earlier arc of the feet, the arms of his assailant no longer grasping him tightly. Alex came to his feet in a balanced crouch, looking for an adversary. The flesh on his face was tight and bunching around his eyes. His breath was whistling loudly through his nostrils. Brooks had spun, back to the scene, and was standing with his knees flexed, one foot in front of the other in a crouch, hands raised, looking for others. There were none.
“What the hell was that?” Caitlin yelled, looking at the large cowboy still on the ground, inert. She looked at Alex, crouched and lethal. She thought of a big cat, some kind of nasty cat. His thighs were quivering, his head was up with nostrils flared, but there was no new threat. His lips were drawn back, exposing his incisors. The whole scene was erotic in its ferality, Caitlin thought; she had always been thrilled by violence.
Easy, laddie. It’s apparently over.
Jesus Annie, here I go again, Alex thought. He had just had a brief street fight with an amateur and here he was looking for someone to kill, to maim. As Brooks had once said, “Lose the Cooch look, if you can. It scares the civilians.” Still, that reflexive, preemptive hostility and readiness built over so many years had done Alex more good than harm. He was alive.
Alex dropped to one knee to reach for the man’s neck. He felt a strong pulse and noticed a shard of bone sticking from his jaw. A steady trickle of crimson flowed from the bone to the gravelly soil and was quickly absorbed.
“Darned if I know, Caitlin, but he appears to have hurt himself in the fall,” Alex said with a frown.
As Brooks helped LuAnn to her feet, he brushed the gravel from her. With a pounding of feet, three cowboys rushed around the maintenance shed. They skidded to a stop, and saw their friend, Jeeter, lying motionless on the ground, then looked at LuAnn, unsure what was going on.
“What the heck?” one of them yelled to LuAnn.
“I tripped and skinned my knee,” LuAnn said, pointing at her bloody kneecap. “Jeeter must have thought Alex here was acting up and tried to defend me. He missed the tackle, and there he is.”
After some confusion the ranch hands started to figure out how to move Jeeter. When they first saw the jawbone protruding from his face and blood dripping into the soil, there was some muttering among them and hostile glances at Cuchulain and Elliot, who stood with the women, watching. A ranch hand showed up with a canvas stretcher, and they began to move Jeeter to it.
LuAnn led her three guests toward the ranch house. On its porch, Virgil Clemens, her father, leaned against a tall wooden column with a wooden toothpick dancing at the right corner of his mouth. He watched them approach. As they got to the porch steps, she could see his upper lip twitching in what was Virgil’s idea of a grin.
“Hell, LuAnn, you just got here and there’s trouble already,” he said. “I’d better buy everyone a drink before things get out of hand. Cocktails start now and dinner is in ninety minutes. That should give you time for a few drinks and a change of clothes. I expect my foreman will fill me in on the details of the excitement before then.” Virgil waved his hand in the general direction of a wooden sideboard with wine and whiskey standing on it. There were pretzels and nuts in a big wooden bowl and a refrigerator beneath.
Alex and Caitlin each carried a glass of wine up the wide, wooden stairs and into their bedroom. Caitlin had a bowl of peanuts and popped a few into her mouth as she gazed at the room. She thought of it as upscale cowboy décor. The guest space was longer than wide, with bold Native American print cloth on the walls, and a random-width, planked oak floor with rugs scattered along it. The bath had a sliding paneled door and a floor tiled in alternate light and dark triangles. Beyond the dual sinks and mirrors, on the back wall of the bath, was a long, glass-enclosed shower. Nice shower, she thought. Now that could be interesting.
Caitlin turned to Alex with a frown as she walked to a desk and said, “Well, that was exciting. You could have killed that guy. That would have been a real vacation stopper for me.”
“For all of us, actually,” Alex said, shaking his head at her familiar self-absorption. “A two-inch miss would have put my elbow into his temple and lights out. I’m getting old and slow. I should have heard him coming.”
“It was pretty exciting,” Caitlin said. “It turned me on. I’d like to see it again, in slow motion, and watch your face.
Dawn, the Clemens’ ranch
Cuchulain walked from the ranch house with the ochre light of dawn casting long shadows across the rough grass toward the main corral. He wore a faded pair of Wrangler jeans and a blue cotton button-down shirt. His still-wet hair was slicked back, black and shining, with a few threads of silver showing on the sides. A middle-aged man was sitting on the top rail of the corral, smoking a cigarette, one foot hooked under the second rail. His wide-brimmed hat was pushed back on his head and a steel-gray brush cut showed beneath it. A large rectangular silver belt buckle on his jeans caught an early ray of sun. There was lettering of some sort on it.
“Howdy,” he said, and jumped down from the rail. He stuck his hand out. “I’m the foreman around here.”
“Hello,” Alex said as he reached with his hand to greet him. “How is the cowboy who fell yesterday? Jeeter?”
Cuchulain’s hand was suddenly squeezed hard, and Alex instinctively returned the pressure. He could feel thick calluses against his as the pressure increased. The man was strong. The pressure leveled, then dropped as the foreman gazed into Alex’s eyes; then he nodded almost imperceptibly and let go. He jumped nimbly back up on the rail.
“Well, his jaw hinge is shattered and the jaw’s broken in one place,” the foreman said, as he settled himself. “But I reckon he’ll live.” He flicked his cigarette to the dirt. “How do you pronounce that last name of yours?”
“Coo-HULL-an,” Alex said. “Why?”
He studied Cuchulain. “They ever call you Cooch?”
Alex shrugged. “Seems likely with a name like mine.”
“I was in the marine corps for twenty-some years. Word gets around. You that Cooch? The one who worked for the spooks?”
Alex sighed. “I’d rather not make a fuss about it. That was a long time ago. I’m a businessman now.”
“I figgered. I’ve broken hands with less pressure than that. My name’s Proctor Mikey. They call me Mikey. Took me awhile to figger you out. Then I remembered that your buddy Elliot was a Seal; the boys was all excited about that. They thought maybe they’d have a fight in his honor.”
“It’s not too late,” Alex said.
Mikey dug a small sack from his shirt pocket, unfolded a paper from a small orange packet, and began to roll another cigarette. “I never got to meet your daddy. Never met a man with the Medal of Honor. Wished I had.”
Alex looked at the dawning sky for a long moment and said, “He was a good man.”
“The boys sort of gave up on the fight in Elliot’s honor. They figure you fucked up the ranch’s honor when Jeeter got hurt going after you. Jeeter’s jaw’s wired shut, but he wrote a note at the infirmary. It just said, ‘Protectin LuAnn.’ They’re planning to work on you some. We call it ‘riding for the brand,'” Mikey said quietly. “They like that LuAnn girl.”
“Hell, I like her too. It was an accident, or at least not what it seemed,” Alex said as he sighed and looked away. “Well, does recovering honor for the brand include guns and knives? If not, Elliot and I will deal with it. But you’d better call around and get some more folks for your side. If that guy who jumped me was one of the bad guys, you don’t have nearly enough folks to make it fun.”
Mikey snorted a double laugh and then coughed violently. He hawked a wad of phlegm and spat it on the dirt.
“I reckon the boss would be highly pissed if he had a bunch of hands in the hospital or the hoosegow,” he said. “Anyhow, they’re fixin’ to have you ride a horse that will do the job for them. You ride much?”
“Only a little,” Alex said. “I’ve ridden more camels than horses.”
“We got us a big horse named Cottonmouth. Good name. He’s meaner than a blind fucking snake. They got him in mind for you, for a bumpy little ride across the prairie. And Cottonmouth’s a biter.”
“Hell, the fight’s sounding better all the time. Any advice?”
Mikey sat for awhile, pondering. “My claim to fame around here is that I was national high school rodeo champ a thousand years ago,” he said, and pointed to his belt buckle. “I know horses.”
“And?” Alex said.
“Two things,” Mikey said. “First, if you punch a horse really hard just between his ears, high up, and you can punch right, he’ll go to his knees. Maybe a trained guy like you would kill him, but he’ll behave if you don’t. Second, and sneakier, but you may be able to pull it off if the rumors about your hands are true, and I just seen some evidence that they might be: you just whisper a bit in Cottonmouth’s ear while they are holding him and run your hand up just between his ears and press hard. The place is called the poll; it’s where nerves cross under a horse’s skull plates. The plates don’t quite meet there and there’s a little dip, so there’s room to push a strong finger down in. Horses don’t like pain; it makes them behave.”
“Good to know, I guess,” Alex said. “I don’t suppose you could show me how to do that on a horse.”
Mikey smiled. “I reckon I could, both of us being marines and all. It’s the least I can do to stop a massacree on my ranch.” He eased himself from the rail, stripped the paper from the remaining tobacco, and dropped it into the dirt. He ground it with his heel and walked toward the stables with Alex beside him.
Mikey stopped just as they reached a stable and turned. “I need to ask you something, but it’s really none of my biddness,” he said.
“Sure.” Alex shrugged and smiled. “Asking is free.”
“Do you have any contacts left? Where you can give someone a heads-up to see if something’s funny?”
“Funny, how?” Alex said. “Who would want to know?”
Mikey studied Alex. “There was a different crowd of Mexicans came to town about three, four days ago. Not like most of the coyotes that bring illegals across. They’re a bunch of bad asses, plus a guy who dresses funny and speaks bad Spanish. The locals are scared to death of them.”
“Yeah?” Alex said.
“Yeah. We get a pretty steady stream of illegals coming through this part of Texas. We’re on a good smuggling route from Mexico. It’s been going on for quite awhile, but it’s really none of our biddness, so we stay out of it. The immigration game changed with this crowd that just came in. One of my ranch hands, Gomez, is a former marine. He did his Iraq time, twice. He was in town when those guys came into the cantina. Gomez thinks that a funny-looking guy was speaking Arabic to one guy who translates to Spanish. The bad guys were pissed when they did it in public, but still treated them like royalty.
“So, if they’re bad asses, they’re too expensive to be moving illegals. What are they moving?” Mikey said. “It don’t smell right, and my nose works pretty good for smelling trouble. Gomez took a picture of the guy with his cell phone. Quality’s shitty, but it’s a picture.”
“Did he now? Well done,” Alex said with a tight smile. He dug out his wallet and found a slightly wrinkled business card to hand to Mikey. “Ask him to e-mail me a copy of that photo soon. It could be anything or nothing. Still, it’s a change in behavior for them, isn’t it?”
“Yup,” Mikey said. “And it might be worth looking into, or not. You know anyone to alert? Word was that you were doing spook work for awhile and were good at it. I thought there might be a loose connection or two you could tweak. Immigration is one thing, but they don’t need those guys for that. What worries me is what they are planning to bring across the border.”
“I’ll make a call,” Alex said. “Maybe someone will take a look. Are you available to talk a little more and maybe Gomez too? I might want to go to town to night after dark and get a beer with Gomez. Check things out.”
Mikey glanced up sharply and said, “Hell, we’re marines. You know that.”
“Yeah, sorry. I’ve been a civilian too long. Once a marine, always a marine. Semper fi.”
Mikey snorted, and said with a grin, “Fuckin-ay-tweedie-grunt.”
Breakfast was Texas big: eggs, blueberry pancakes, three kinds of toast, jalapeño cheese grits, home-fried potatoes, two kinds of fresh squeezed juice, and meat galore. When they finally pushed back from the table, Virgil said they should get ready for the day’s trail ride and meet at ten at the corral. On the stairs to their room, Alex quietly asked Caitlin to turn Emilie’s intelligence assessment loose on any West Texas/Arab connection and explained his plans.
LuAnn hurried to catch her father as the guests walked to their rooms.
“Daddy,” she said. “I need to talk to you, now!”
“Sure, honey,” he said. “Come on into my office and set a spell. Hell, I always have time for you. Since your mother passed, there ain’t no one else that matters.”
“Look, Daddy,” LuAnn said. “That thing by the pool where Jeeter got hurt was an accident and it was my fault. The hands are acting like our honor was violated, and I’m afraid Alex is in trouble with them somehow.”
“Honey, don’t you worry too much about that, but I’m glad to see that New Yawk hasn’t screwed up your powers of observation,” Virgil said. “I talked to Mikey a little while ago, and he said that it’s under control, mostly. If it gets out of hand, I’ll have him stop it.”
LuAnn shifted in her chair, looked out the window for a moment at the dry rolling hills, then said, “I really don’t like this, and I don’t know Alex well yet. His date is a barracuda with a foul mouth and an IQ in the stratosphere. If she gets to thinking this is about her somehow, things could get ugly. I like her, but she’s scary smart, tough, and it’s all about her. If she had a lobotomy, she’d make a good lawyer. But I think what they are doing is exciting. I think I want in.”
Clemens chuckled and stood up. “Best-looking barracuda I’ve ever seen. Well, let’s just see how it works out. Mikey thinks that your friend Alex is safe enough. As far as the rest of it goes, if you’re in, I’m in, at least sort of. Let’s just see how things play out.”
A little later, Alex sat in a wooden rocking chair on the broad veranda, uncomfortably wearing a brand new Stetson cowboy hat Caitlin had bought for him. He was nursing a white ceramic mug of coffee in one hand and had his Kphone in the other, reading messages. Caitlin came through the thick double door. She was dressed in skin-tight jeans, a plaid cotton shirt, and a white Stetson. Her high-heeled cowboy boots were hand-tooled black leather, with math symbols carved on them in white. She wiggled her behind and trilled, “Ta-da!”
Alex jumped up, spilling hot coffee on his hand.
As he stood, Brooks and LuAnn walked out the front door, followed by Virgil Clemens. All walked toward the corral, talking idly about breakfast, where four saddled horses waited, one with two ranch hands holding its bridle. Another very large saddled horse was standing by Mikey, looking at him as a favored Labrador retriever might.
Mikey walked over to the group and began to assign horses. Each guest moved to the assigned mount. LuAnn was beside Virgil while her horse stood waiting, patiently. Alex was last.
“Young feller,” Mikey said to Alex, “the boys picked this horse out special for you. They thought he’d be good transportation.”
“Daddy! Cottonmouth?” LuAnn whispered. “Stop it!”
“I’ll stop it later, if it gets nasty,” Clemens said quietly. “Right now, it’s just fun. Let’s see if Mikey is as good as I think he is.”
Alex walked to his horse and stood in front of the left stirrup, just behind his nose. They looked at each other. The horse started to turn his head, and his lips curled from flat, yellow teeth. Alex blocked Cottonmouth’s head from turning with his left forearm and stepped forward, sliding his right hand up and over his thick neck to his ears, then between them, probing. There was indeed a tiny gap between his skull plates. Alex slid a forefinger just above that gap and dug a little. Cottonmouth settled back, unsure. Alex leaned to whisper in his ear. “Look, horse, one of us is liable to get hurt here. I’d rather it was you.” He pushed down with his forefinger between the skull plates. Cottonmouth shifted a bit and Alex pushed harder. The horse became still and Alex eased the pressure slightly.
The cowboys holding the horse looked puzzled and at each other quizzically. This was not the Cottonmouth they knew. One of them said to Alex, “Why don’t you just stick your foot in this here stirrup and mount up, cowboy. Other folks are waiting for you.”
Alex stuck his left foot in the stirrup and swung up and over the horse. He felt the horse’s muscles bunching, ready to explode. He pushed much harder on Cottonmouth’s poll. The horse stilled immediately and Alex felt him beginning to weaken at the fore knees. He eased back on the finger pressure. Cottonmouth turned his head, eyes rolled back, awaiting instruction.
Mikey swung on his horse and snuck a wink at Alex.
“Let’s move out now, folks,” he said.
Alex moved the reins against Cottonmouth’s neck, then gave him a little kick. The horse moved obediently to the rear of the line. Alex took his hand from the top of Cottonmouth’s head after one reminder squeeze.
The horses moved at a brisk walk away from the corrals with the mid-morning sun casting a yellow glow on the field. The light put in sharp contrast the mechanical nodding of steel oil well donkeys, rhythmically pumping money from the ground.
One of the cowboys who had been holding Cottonmouth’s bridle said to the other, “He’s a daggone tenderfoot. How did he get onto Cottonmouth and just ride away like he was on a rental pony?”
“Beats me,” the second man, older, said. “It was spooky. He whispered in Cottonmouth’s ear and that was the end of the horse acting up. I never seen the like.”
“I’d sure like to know what the heck he said to that horse,” the younger man muttered.
It was late afternoon when the riding party came ambling back to the Clemens ranch, horses close and their riders talking casually. Cottonmouth, with Alex aboard, seemed happy and placid while he walked beside LuAnn and her mount. As they entered the yard and turned to the corral, ranch hands came forward to take the horses and help the riders down from their perches. As Alex dismounted and turned to Caitlin, one of the hands, a young man, reached for Cottonmouth’s bridle. In a flash, Cottonmouth spun his head and knocked the man to the ground and then bared his teeth, reaching for him. Alex yelled, “Hey!” and Cottonmouth stopped as he felt Alex’s hand on the top of his head, pressing hard, then faced back to the front, again apparently placid. Alex stuck out his hand and helped the ranch hand to his feet, then brushed a little red dust from his shirt.
“Sorry about that, young fellow,” he said. “He’s sensitive. I whisper nice things to him. He likes that.” Two older hands stood, jaws agape at the horse’s change in behavior, then shook their heads. Just across the yard, Mikey relaxed on his horse with one leg thrown over the saddle horn, grinning and rolling a smoke.
Virgil leaned against a log pillar at the main house, in the shade, watching the four chatting casually, making their way to the house. When Alex and Caitlin came abreast of him, Virgil said, “Alex, could I have a word with you in private?”
“Sure thing, Virgil,” Alex said. “Caitlin, I’ll catch up with you at the bar in a minute.” Caitlin nodded over her shoulder as she walked inside.
Virgil stepped inside the house and said quietly, “I heard from Mikey that he told you about those nasty critters in the village. If there’s anything I can add to the picture to make a believer out of you, let me know. I’d like to make them go away.”
Alex smiled and said, “I e-mailed the photo that your man, Gomez, took in the cantina to a friend in DC this morning, along with a heads-up. I imagine someone is already looking into it. I may drop by there after dinner for a look.”
“Is this likely to be something where you or Elliot gets involved?” Virgil said. “Mikey said you were in that business for awhile. Elliot for sure was in the violence business.”
“We’re out of that business,” Alex said. “If there is something to be done, the pros will do it. Brooks and I are old and tired. We’d just get in the way, but if I hear that something went down, I’ll let you know.”
“Good. I’d rather not have any trouble here, but if it’s coming, I’d like to be ready.”
“I don’t think it will come to that,” Alex said. “You’re too far from the border. Still, I’ll keep my ears open. I’m heading back to DC tomorrow for a few days.”
“Thanks. Brooks and LuAnn are headed back to New York. Caitlin’s going with you, I think.”
“At least for a day or two,” Alex said. “Right now, I think it’s time for me to have a glass of wine.”
“Caitlin may be getting impatient,” Virgil said with a chuckle. “She’s not one that I’d keep waiting. Good information technology managers are hard to find.”
Caitlin handed Alex a glass of red wine as he reached the bar. She picked up a small bowl of peanuts and walked toward the stairs. He was a step behind.
Two hours later Mikey grinned as Alex and Elliot walked down the path from the ranch house to Mikey’s office and quarters beside the bunk house. “You’re a bit scruffy now, aren’t you, Mr. Cuchulain?” Alex was in a dark T-shirt with a bandana tied around his hair. Elliot was quiet beside him, with a dark shirt, dark pants, and dark-leather hiking boots.
Alex said, “Si, Chico.”
“You speak a little Spanish, do you?”
“Yeah, I do,” Alex said. “It’s a secret. All this shit is secret. I was never in the cantina with Gomez.”
“What do you want to wear?”
“I’ll wear my boots and my jeans. I’ll need an old open-necked shirt, an old worn hat, and a crucifix maybe, to give me luck.”
“Can do. One of Jeeter’s shirts will fit you; he doesn’t need them right now. The rest is easy. Listen, Gomez isn’t sure you can pass as a Latino. He’s nervous about it.”
Alex laughed. “Going into a cantina full of bad guys makes one nervous. Let’s get my clothes together, then Gomez and I will talk. You sit by. If he’s still nervous about me, maybe I go in alone.”
Mickey shrugged. “Gomez is a solid guy. It should be fine. It’s not like we have a sand table to plan this mission. It’s a sneak and peek.”
“It is, indeed. And that’s all it is. If trouble starts, I’ll start it.”
Later that evening, just after full darkness fell, Alex and Hector Gomez walked into a small cantina several miles closer to the Mexican border than the Clemens ranch. A quick, casual glance showed two small groups in the room, separated by a number of empty, cheap, wooden tables with flimsy chairs at them. On one side of the room were six men, most dressed in casual clothing. Two of them, with scruffy beards, were seated in the center of the group, dressed a little differently, with coffee mugs in front of them. Two others, who were younger and lean, drank beer from bottles. A very large man sat beside an older Mexican, who seemed by his body language to be in charge.
Alex and Gomez found a table at the edge of the other group, made up of a few locals. As they sat, Gomez studied Alex. If he hadn’t seen him as part of the Clemens riding party, Gomez would have guessed he was a dangerous Mexican, someone to avoid. His Spanish was fluent and now colloquial, with a vague Mexican accent. Alex had done something to darken his face a little and the scars on his face stood out in white. There were many tiny scars on his forehead and the old furrow of a knife scar slid down his left cheek through thick wrinkles around his eye. The wrinkles were beside both eyes and seemed to bunch up in a hood beside them. He wore an old blue denim shirt, tight across the chest, with the sleeves rolled to the elbow and three buttons open at the neck to reveal a thick thatch of black chest hair with an ornate crucifix on a gold chain hanging amidst it. His forearms were huge and tracked with distended veins. Alex had large, lumpy, battered hands.
Gomez could hear Alex breathing fairly heavily through his nose. This is so fucking exciting! Alex said call him Cooch before we left. His Spanish started as pure, upscale Castilian. He listened to me, then asked questions, then listened carefully again. After twenty minutes or so, Cooch said, “I think this language is close enough.” He started talking in an accent that sounded like he was Mexican, from somewhere. For Mexicans that spend a lot of time out of the country, their accents get blurred. Cooch nailed the accent. Who the hell is this guy? Mikey seems to think he walks on water.
A man brought two beers to them, and then spoke to Gomez.
“So, Hector,” he said. “Welcome back. Who’s your big friend? It’s always nice to see a new face.”
“A distant cousin from Baja California, Pedro,” Gomez said. “We were childhood playmates. This is Alejandro. He’s on his way east and stopped in for the evening. We decided to have a beer.”
Pedro stuck out his hand, and Alex took it, standing. He loomed.
“Hola,” Alex said, as he glanced across the room. Everyone in the room was looking at him, the newcomer. Across the room, the older Mexican studied him carefully.
Alex sat down as the bartender walked away and said to Hector, “These are bad guys. I know one of them, so we got what we came for. Let’s finish our beer and get out of here.”
Gomez nodded and tilted his bottle to his lips. He took two big gulps and put it down.
Alex tilted his bottle and took a sip, watching the leader in his peripheral vision. After a few moments, the older man turned and leaned to the large man beside him. He spoke a few words.
The man set his bottle on the floor and stood. He was wide, with no discernible waist. His hair was dirty, pulled back and held with a rubber band. He hitched his pants and began to approach their table, rolling a little as he walked. There was a confident grin on his face.
When he reached the table, Alex stood up from his chair.
“I am Gordo,” he said, belly bumped Alex back into his chair, and smiled. Gordo had a gold rim around one of his front teeth and there was an incisor missing on the left. Alex reached to Gordo’s elbow to catch himself as he was bumped, and again came to his feet, his index finger digging hard into the little elbow hollow where the funny bone is.
“Ngggh!” Gordo grunted. The surprise of the sharp electric pain immobilized him for a moment.
Alex turned the big man to his left after another deep squeeze into the elbow and brought his left hand to grasp Gordo’s neck. His fingers reached under each ear to the point where the soft mastoid bones are most exposed. He squeezed hard with his thumb on one side and two fingers on the other side of the neck and felt the bones there yield slightly to his grip. The man was still, quivering from the pain.
“Senor,” Cooch said to the older Mexican. “Your colleague is impolite. Is there a reason we should be adversaries?”
“Why are you here?” the man asked. He watched curiously as his messenger stood silent. It was out of character for Gordo to be passive.
“I am here to have a beer with my cousin before continuing my journey to the east. I have no reason other than that to be here. Have we met?”
“We have not, but you don’t fit in here.”
“We don’t, it seems. We’re happy to leave. A noisy altercation might draw the attention of the gringo police. I cannot afford that.”
There was a long silence. “Neither, I suppose, can I afford that. But there are just two of you. We could easily kill you and hide your bodies. We plan to be here only a few more days.”
“There are six of you and five of us,” Alex said. “There may be no one left to dig the graves. And there is no profit in it for you or for me. You will be the first to die; your colleague beside me will be the second. I will likely be the third. It may be better if we just leave now.”
“I think you are lying to me, senor. I see but two of you. The man of mine beside you appears to be useless as an enforcer. So kill him now as a gesture that you are not from the police, then convince me there are more of you. Do you need a knife? Your time is short.”
On the drive to the cantina from the Clemens’ ranch, Brooks had been in the passenger seat beside Proctor Mikey. Alex and Hector Gomez sat in the back seat of Mikey’s Crew Cab F250 Ford pickup truck. It was the off-road model, painted a deep red, with big tires and four-wheel drive.
“Nice truck!” Alex had said.
Mikey smiled. “I call her BART, my big-ass red truck. I spend my money on trucks and rifles. I sell a little venison and some boar that I shoot. Since my old lady dumped me ten years ago, life’s been pretty good.”
“OK, let’s keep life good,” Brooks had said. “Here’s the way we do these things, and this is all classified, so no bragging rights back at the ranch. Cooch and Hector will find a table that we can see, that is not in our line of fire, but in our vision. We’ll zero in on the leader, if he is obvious. Cooch will look directly at him when he is standing.
“If it is going to get nasty, Cooch will point at something, like the edge of the bar or a vertical timber. There will be a knife sticking out of it. Shoot the knife at the center of the blade. If he points again, shoot a bottle. If he points at someone, shoot him dead. Then work from right to left and shoot anyone who produces a gun. One shot each. I’ll put the two guys in the corner down and work left to right. At first, I’ll avoid killing anyone who looks like an Arab, because we might want to talk to them. Hector, do not stand up after you sit down. If you have to shoot, drop and shoot from a kneeling position.”
Mikey had grinned. “Fucking Seals,” he said. “You don’t leave much to chance.”
“It sounds like you’ve been there, Mikey,” Brooks had said. “With bad guys we try to leave nothing to chance, but we still manage to get a few buddies killed, from time to time. I’d like to avoid that here.”
“Yeah,” Mikey had said. “I don’t disagree. It’s just nice to work with the A team.”
Cooch and Hector had been dropped short of the cantina, to walk the last fifty yards. Mikey had planned a spot to stop and Gomez had made a rough sketch of the interior of the cantina. The F250 moved quietly past the cantina, then switched off its lights and turned left onto a dirt road that curved back toward the way they had come. Mikey had night-vision goggles pulled down. In a short time, the cantina was visible from the driver’s window and Mikey had turned the truck with its hood away from the open window. The two men got out and lowered the tailgate, then crawled up on the bed of the pickup. Two thick mattress pads were laid out with several small sandbags of dull black nylon stacked at their sides.
Mikey opened a long box mounted against the side wall and picked up a bolt action Remington Model 700 rifle chambered in .308, with a Swarovski Z6i three to eighteen power scope mounted. He had a Leupold range finder dangling from his neck. He reached again and handed Brooks an old M14 semi-automatic rifle that showed signs of loving, professional care. It had a tactical scope mounted. Next came two loaded magazines for it. Mikey had reached again and came out with a small handful of cartridges. He opened the .308’s bolt and began to push them, one at a time, into the ammunition well of his rifle.
“It’s eighty-seven meters to Cooch. Your M14 is zeroed at one hundred yards with 140 grain Nosler bullets. What are we looking at here?” Mikey said a few moments later, as he looked through his range finder.
Elliot looked through his tactical scope, and said, “We can’t see into one corner of the room. I’m going to go twenty-five yards west and find a new spot with a better view. In the meantime, shoot where the man points. Nice M14, by the way. I love this rifle.”
Mikey reached again into the box, brought out two Motorola two-way radios, set the channels, and handed one to Brooks. Brooks dropped it into his shirt pocket and slid to the ground from the extended gate of the truck. He pulled his night-vision goggles down over his eyes. They were not the Generation Four goggles the Seals used, but Generation Two was good enough to see his way on a partially moonlit night.
Cooch reached with his right hand to Gordo’s chin and released his left to hold the palm along his jaw line. Just as Gordo started to move, Cooch gave a hard, twisting snap with his right hand as he held the neckline from yielding with his left. There was a sound like a dry branch cracking. As the man crumpled to the floor, Cooch dropped his right hand behind his neck and in one motion threw a knife from a scabbard that hung there. It stuck, quivering, in a vertical wooden roof support beside the Mexican boss.
“I don’t need a knife to kill him,” Cooch said. “He’s dead. There are now five of you. I could have made it four, but thought I would use the knife as a demonstration of your risk. As I said, I would rather not have noisy trouble.”
“Do you have more than one knife, senor, or is that danger gone with your showmanship? What now? I’ve seen no evidence that there are more of you than I see.”
Cooch pointed at the knife. It disappeared with a loud spang; the sound of a nearby shot followed closely through the open window.
“Now you have evidence,” Cooch said. “May we now leave in peace?”
“You have murdered one of my men.”
Cooch sighed loudly. “He was killed only at your request, senor. He wasn’t much. I imagine he’d have died soon anyway if you are in the violence business. But I suspect violence is just a byproduct of something else you do.”
“You know of the violence business?”
“We are in the violence business, senor. All we do is to sell violence and its enabling tools. It’s usually a good business, but this evening is about to be bad for business. We aren’t getting paid.”
“You may leave, but I will remember you. I hope to kill you slowly someday.”
“And I you, senor,” Cooch said. He pointed at the bar. A bottle broke. He reached in his pocket, pulled a roll of bills from it, and dropped several on the table, then turned his back and walked to the door with Hector close behind, a 9mm Sig Sauer Model 229 pistol dangling from Hector’s shaking hand and a huge grin on his face.
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