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SAN LUIS DE LA PAZ,
THEY WERE BURYING COLONEL Francisco Miguel Castillo of the Mexican Marines today. The funeral was a peculiar affair, because the dark secrets of Mickey Castillo were no secrets at all. His business was known throughout his hometown of San Luis de la Paz, a small city that straddled the old Spanish Silver Road in Central Mexico. The people had eagerly followed the career of the popular local boy who had become a Special Forces hero and his nation’s star operator in the war against the deadly drug trade. He was their champion, descended from the Chichimeca warriors who were never defeated by the Europeans.
The Castillo family owned several homes, including one in the capital and another on the Gulf, but Miguel had chosen to live at a spread of his own within ten miles of the ranch house in which he was born. It was to this place that he had come in later years to escape the pressures of his job, a place where he could be at ease. But more than cattle branding went on out at the old ranch beside the Manzanares River, and strong men other than vaqueros were regular visitors. Neighbors often heard the bap-bap-bap of rapid gunfire and the whumps of explosions out on the private acres where Castillo and his mysterious friends trained and practiced at all hours. Those sounds were comforting lullabies to the townspeople, for they made them feel safe and protected. The crime rate always went down when the colonel and his friends were at the ranch and arrived to check out the restaurants and bars in the evening. It was a mutually beneficial relationship. The residents who provided sanctuary for the colonel didn’t share information about him with outsiders.
The impossible happened. The colonel had been gunned down during a raid against a cartel headquarters belonging to the powerful narcotics kingpin Maxim Guerrera, near Juárez. It was just a lucky shot by a cowardly thug whose submachine gun continued to chatter bullets even as the man holding it fell mortally wounded by marine fire. Two bullets hammered Castillo just above his chest armor and below the helmet, severing his brain stem, and he died. He was thirty-five years old.
* * *
THE INFORMATION WAS INCLUDED high in the morning briefing of Martin Atkins, the director of intelligence for the Central Intelligence Agency. Atkins always approached his office at the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, with a sense of trepidation in the mornings, for his coffee invariably arrived at his desk with a little taste of 2 percent milk and an avalanche of bad news from around the globe.
The Sandbox was usually at the top of the list, with bombings, assassinations, and assorted outrages committed by jihadist organizations ranging from the big boys like Al Qaeda to some loner with a bomb and a car and a death wish. That was a staple.
Then his team would shift focus to the real players—China and Israel, a nuked-up North Korea and Russia—and the stalwart allies, such as the United Kingdom and Western Europe. Things were generally quieter in those channels, although more long-range and serious, for the stakes were so much higher. His briefers had worked throughout the night to prepare his early-morning checklist of horrors. Atkins would help whittle it down to be combined with similar top-secret material from other intelligence agencies that would be given to the director of National Intelligence, who, in turn, would brief President Christopher Thompson.
The gruesome menu seemed fine, overall. Routine. Atkins winnowed out a few items, then approved it to be passed up the chain. It was the item from Mexico that disturbed him most on this fine April morning when the cherry trees were blossoming all over Washington. Others would brief the president. Atkins had the more onerous task of informing his best field operative that Mickey Castillo was dead. Even as he dialed the number, he understood that he was unleashing a whirlwind.
* * *
A FEW DAYS LATER, the small cathedral of San Luis de la Paz was crowded as the shocked citizens gathered to say farewell to their hero. A sturdy wind blew out of the mountains and through the forests and along the valleys, and after the proper words were said by the priests the coffin was loaded into a hearse by six strong marines. The funeral procession wound through narrow streets filled with people who believed the unusual wind on this day heralded a gloomy change for their quiet world. For with the colonel gone, who would be their shield?
The drug-cartel lords everywhere in Mexico were glad to see him go, none more than Maxim Guerrera. Castillo was called Big Poison by the criminal giants, because when Mickey and his boys appeared at some processing plant, shipping point, or hidden house, they brought death and disruption with them. He was poison to their business, and they could not touch him in return. They tried, even posting a healthy bounty on him, but always failed, and his retribution for any such attempt had been so fast and furious and certain that it was best not to anger him as long as the overall profit picture remained strong. It had taken what was little more than an accident to finally bring down Miguel Castillo. Now Guerrera sought to make it a death that would be remembered.
Police officers and marines escorted the small procession past the colonial-era buildings and out to the cemetery, where an honor guard stood ready among the tombstones and crosses and stone statues of the Virgin and the sorrowful angels. Generations of San Luis de la Paz families had been laid to rest in that garden of marble headstones.
From the black Mercedes that had stopped behind the hearse stepped Castillo’s mother, in midnight mourning from head to toe, a dark veil covering a swollen face tracked with tears. The marine who had opened the door took her gently by the arm and led her to the gravesite, where several rows of chairs had been arranged. She sat in the front row, staring across the open grave, still in shock.
Then a man emerged from the car. He was wiry, with brownish fair hair, and wore an expensive black suit. Some mourners recognized him as the colonel’s close friend, an Anglo named Kyle Swanson, who was often at the ranch. He was always polite and deferential to the locals, never said much, and it was obvious that he and the colonel were in the same line of work. The man had the deep and restless eyes of a wolf, and those suspicious eyes swept around the limousine like a slash of radar. Then he leaned back in, offering his hand.
Finally, out came the colonel’s lady, the señora, and the respectful crowd quieted even more. She also was an American, petite and beautiful and caring and funny. She threw great parties at the ranch and moved among the poor in the slums of San Luis with confidence, bringing help and understanding. Her blond hair glowed in the sun around the edges of a small black hat and veil. It was said that Elizabeth Castillo had once also been a soldier, but that was never confirmed, and the couple didn’t talk about it outside the family. What was discussed openly, by those who had seen her do it, was that the tiny woman was a mago—a magician—with firearms. She had won money from many men in impromptu shooting matches at the ranch, and they loved her for it. It was sad that she had not yet been blessed with children, the women said.
“You okay, Coastie?” Kyle Swanson whispered as she rose and took his arm. “Hang on. Not much longer.”
“I will kill the bastards who did this, Kyle,” she whispered. “I will personally send them to hell.”
“Focus, girl,” he ordered. “Let’s put Mickey to rest.” He took her to the front row, where she sat beside her mother-in-law. The women held hands. Swanson went to a chair in the second row, directly behind them. Swanson wasn’t grieving for Mickey, and hadn’t shed a tear from the moment he received the awful news from Marty Atkins. By the time he ended that call, Swanson was already in a zone of resolve. A lifetime as a top U.S. Marine Corps sniper and his status as a CIA operator had prepared him well for such moments, and personal feelings only got in the way. His day job and cover story was being the executive vice president of a global company called Excalibur Enterprises. After the call from Marty Atkins, he had immediately arranged for the corporate jet to fly to Mexico. As everyone else mourned, he watched the crowd.
The police had established an outer perimeter, and all roads into the cemetery area were blocked. Mexican marines in combat gear were in strategic positions. They all knew that an attack was unlikely, but with the drug thugs no one could be sure. Terrible things happened in modern Mexico, and it was best to bury Big Poison as soon as possible and retreat to the ranch.
The polished coffin of handcrafted cherry wood was placed on the webbed straps of a lowering device that straddled the grave. The hole had been prepared the night before, and a small pyramid of dirt was covered by a mat of green artificial turf a hundred feet away, beside a yellow back-loader that would finish the burial after everyone had gone. The heavy vault that would hold the casket was in place below, ready to accept its eternal burden.
A priest said some more words, and in the distance a somber mariachi group sang of loss and rebirth. The honor guard dipped its flags, and the marines saluted as Colonel Castillo was lowered into the waiting grave.
A glint of gold in the bright sunlight drew Swanson’s attention, his subconscious tactical mind grinding at its own work even while his friend was leaving forever. The blink had come from some object worn by a man standing beside the little tractor at the dirt pile. An earring? He appeared tall for a Mexican, and was clean-shaven but for a sharp, pointed goatee, which indicated that he cared about his appearance. His jeans were clean, as was the long-sleeved Western-style checked shirt. Gravediggers normally didn’t look so clean or wear jewelry while on the job. A straw cowboy hat was tilted forward, shading his face.
The colonel’s mother began to shake with another spasm of emotion. The widow wrapped an arm around the older woman, but kept her head up proudly, her attention fixed on the disappearing coffin. “I’m going to miss you so much, Mickey,” Beth Castillo whispered.
In the row behind them, Kyle Swanson was suddenly alert. Nothing had happened, but after so many years in dangerous spots around the world he had a sixth sense that he obeyed without question. As the coffin of his pal kissed the cement of the vault, Swanson once again saw the distant blink. The man was on the move, walking away. Fast. Why would a gravedigger leave his machine only minutes before he had to do his job? Swanson grabbed the backs of the pair of folding chairs directly in front of him and gave a mighty pull as he shouted a warning: “Bomb!”
Both Castillo women screamed as they spilled backward, and Swanson dived to cover them with his own body an instant before a device planted beneath the vault detonated with thunder and a dazzling flash of light. The explosion erupted from the hole with a roar and was followed by a fireball that seemed to rise from the depths of hell. People toppled like tin cans as the explosive beast ravaged the area. Swanson covered his head but felt the air being sucked from his lungs, and then debris began to rain down on his back.
The rectangular shape of the grave had saved them, by channeling the main power of the blast straight up into the sky. Still, the strike was awful. People were down all around, stunned and shaken or wounded or dead. Swanson coughed for air and wiped his eyes, then rolled away, a sharp pain at his back.
He knelt and checked the women. Mickey’s mother was unconscious. Elizabeth had scrabbled to her knees on the littered ground, and they stared at each other for a moment as the stunned silence gave way to a commotion.
They concentrated on helping the older woman, checking her air passages and making sure there were no broken bones. Sirens were sounding. People were yelling. “Mama will be okay,” Beth declared. “How could they do this?” Looking at Kyle, her face filled with a mixture of sorrow, rage, and hate, she swore, “I will make whoever did it pay! I want back in!”
Copyright © 2017 by Jack Coughlin with Donald A. Davis