“We’ve picked up a tail,” Larry announced.

I didn’t have a good shot at the rear-view mirror from the passenger side, so I twisted around in my seat to get a look behind us. Unfortunately, from the middle of the pack of SUVs and box trucks, it was hard to see much behind us on the freeway. “Where?”

He glanced at the rearview again. “About two car-lengths back from the rear vehicle. White F-150. He’s been there since about half a mile from the warehouse.”

I craned my neck, and finally spotted him, as Larry drifted us closer to the shoulder to give me a better view. There wasn’t much to see; it was a white F-150 keeping pace behind us. That was a little strange; we were doing about fifteen under the regular speed limit, on account of the two box trucks we were escorting. Still, that wasn’t enough to go on yet. “You sure? This is the main road to Mexico.”

“He’s been staying close,” Larry said. “Changing lanes when we do. I don’t know, man. I’d say about seventy-five percent certain. My spidey sense is tingling.”

I can’t really say just what was so funny about a six-foot-five, two hundred seventy-five pound bald man with a huge, bristling “scary murder hobo” beard covering half his face talking about his “spidey sense,” but I couldn’t help but crack a grin as I continued to watch the truck behind us. That was when I noticed another one hanging back behind it. I glanced over at the speedometer again; yeah, we were doing about sixty. A guy in a pickup truck pacing us at that speed was definitely suspicious, especially considering that just about everybody else we’d seen since leaving Tucson had blown past us like we were standing still.

Of course, if Larry was getting the heebie-jeebies, I was generally inclined to listen. I’d known Larry off and on for the better part of a decade; we’d been teammates as Marines, working with Filipino Recon Marines way back when, and then founding members of Praetorian Security. (Though the name had been changed a few months ago to Praetorian Solutions for marketing reasons that were completely opaque to me.) I’d been through the hairiest parts of my life so far with the big, bald galoot, and I trusted him with my life.

So far the trucks trailing us weren’t really doing anything squirrelly, aside from following us. It could be explained as just going the same way and not being in much of a hurry. But we were escorting this cargo for a reason, and I wasn’t going to dismiss a possible threat.

I studied them for a few more moments, then faced forward again, settling in my seat and keying my radio. “Security halt, one hundred meters.”

Nick was driving the lead vehicle, and replied with a terse “Roger.” There wasn’t really a turnout to use, but the shoulder on this part of I-19 was plenty wide enough. I wasn’t planning on anybody getting out who didn’t need to, anyway.

Nick steered his black Yukon off the road, followed by the front box truck. The truck’s driver obviously didn’t want to pull off the road; he kept driving straight as long as he could without passing Nick’s vehicle, but finally swerved off, bumping over the rumble strips to stop just behind Nick’s bumper. The rest of the convoy eased off the freeway and rolled to a stop.

The two pickups didn’t stop, but they did slow down as they passed us. The lead truck had its windows rolled down, and the guy in the passenger seat mean-mugged us as they drove by. He was Hispanic, shaved bald, and wearing a white wife-beater, with tattoos covering every inch of his arm and crawling up his neck. He stared at us with that machismo sort of challenging stare until he was past. Once they got ahead of Nick’s SUV, the trucks accelerated, and were out of view in moments, going around a curve and getting lost in the scrub on either side of the interstate.

“Well, that was about as subtle as a brick through a plate-glass window,” I observed. “Looks like you called it, brother.” Larry nodded as he kept his hands on the wheel and his eyes on the two trucks. Keying the radio again, I called, “Give it a couple minutes, then we’ll get back on the road. Keep your eyes peeled, gents. Looks like those two trucks that just passed us were taking an unhealthy interest.”

I got acknowledgements from the other two security vehicles. I avoided sneering at the term “security vehicles.” They were nice SUVs, sure—two Expeditions and a Yukon. But they were unarmored and we weren’t carrying anything heavier than 12-gauges, and that had taken some serious politicking (and, I was sure, backdoor palm-greasing) to get us permission to make the run in to Mexico with that much. We’d even had to violate our company policy and carry 9mms—Mexico doesn’t like any pistols bigger than that. I had an old and well-worn Browning HiPower on my hip, under my cover shirt.

If circumstances had been different, I would have turned down a contract to escort two box trucks into Mexico flat. Mexico wasn’t a good place for PMSCs, particularly ones with our reputation and operating procedures. But we’d been asked to take the job by very…persuasive people.

The Devil You Don’t Know Chapter 4

Read Next: The Devil You Don’t Know Chapter 4

I waited for two more semis to blow past us before I signalled Nick. “Let’s go,” was all I said. He didn’t reply, but pulled out onto the freeway and accelerated. Behind us, Jim had pulled out as well, but was taking his time getting up to speed, blocking traffic so the rest of us could get moving.

I was keyed up, now. I hadn’t been comfortable with the job in the first place; assurances aside, I hadn’t been sure we wouldn’t wind up in a Mexican prison for the weapons. But now there was a credible threat that wasn’t the Mexican authorities, and we weren’t even over the damned border yet.

We got back to our earlier road speed and continued south. The sun was blazing in a perfectly blue sky, and dust was blowing out of the scrub and across the road. Arizona reminded me of parts of Iraq. I’d gotten comfortable in Wyoming over the last year, and being back in the desert was reminding me why.

My team, about half of which was still left and in this little convoy, had left Iraqi Kurdistan a year before, after one of the hairiest missions I’d ever been on. It had taken us up against the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham, now merged with the Caliphate of the Arabian Peninsula and calling itself simply The Caliphate, but also it had put us at odds with some who might once have been considered our own.

A group of rogue, former Special Operations contractors, known only as The Project, had been supporting and advising ISIS, ostensibly as a proxy weapon against Iran. We’d been hired, under the table, to shut the partnership down.

We had. We drove a wedge between ISIS and their infidel supporters, and let them do most of the dirty work. But the survivors we’d eventually had to deal with ourselves. After getting out of a brutal siege in an abandoned Iraqi factory, our Ops chief, and my old friend, Alek Mahoe, had sent us home for a year on The Ranch, to recover.

“Recovery” had turned into training, at least after about two months of drinking, lounging, drinking, hobbies, drinking, and fishing had gotten stale. We got back to being ready to work a few months before we were supposed to get off the bench, and so this job had come up.

Of course, it hadn’t been Harmon-Dominguez International that contacted us. We wouldn’t have taken the job, looking at the restrictions, if they had. No, some contacts we’d made during the Iraq mission against the Project had gotten involved. That had gotten our attention. As soon as I was told I was going into Mexico with nothing but a 12 gauge shotgun and a 9mm, I’d regretted it, but we were committed by then.

Green Valley’s cookie-cutter subdivisions loomed up on either side of us as we drove. I didn’t really expect an ambush there; too much likelihood of local law enforcement getting involved. Of course, I wasn’t all that impressed with the tactical acumen of gang-bangers, and those two in the lead truck had all but had a neon sign overhead saying, “I’m a gangster.” I still didn’t relax as we drove through the little municipality. My hand stayed on the jacket-draped 870 between my leg and the center console, and my eyes kept sweeping the houses and the scrub.

The hit came only a few miles outside of Green Valley. We’d been hanging back behind a pair of Old Dominion semis, pacing them. As the semis rolled past the rest area outside of Green Valley, one of the two pickups we’d seen earlier darted out and T-boned the trailing truck.

The truck jack-knifed across the road, the trailer swinging around to block both lanes as the driver struggled to maintain control, doubtless rattled by the impact. Smoke rose from sqealing tires, and it looked for a second like he was going to be able to hold it, but then the right side tires came off the pavement and the truck rolled on its side, the trailer skidding on the asphalt a little farther before coming to a halt.

Nick reacted immediately, swerving toward the median, aiming to get around the stricken tractor-trailer and out of the kill zone. It was exactly what he should have done, and it would have worked if the driver of the box truck behind him hadn’t panicked.

He didn’t lose control right away, but he swerved so hard, while stomping on the brakes, that when his tires hit the gravel of the median, he lost it. He’d slowed down enough that the wreck wasn’t that catastrophic, but the box truck tipped over and slammed on its side. And just like that, we were stuck.

Even as the dust cloud billowed up from the impact of the box truck spilling over, more pickups and a couple of Crown Victorias of all things came tearing out of the rest area. They didn’t do a drive-by, but swerved to line up side-on with the convoy. Windows down, the thugs inside the vehicles opened fire.

I’d had about five seconds to take in what was happening. So had Larry. It was enough.

Larry cranked the wheel and mashed his foot on the accelerator, turning our Expedition to face the storm of gunfire. In the unarmored SUV, the only hope we had to survive was to put the engine block between us and the bullets. Both of us were wearing low-profile plates under our shirts, but there are plenty of ways to get shot around plates, especially when you’ve got a bunch of Uzis, Tec-9s, and a couple of AKs blasting at you.

The SUV almost tipped over, but Larry was good enough to keep it under control. I had the jacket off my 870 and was bringing it up even as I ducked down below the dash to avoid the slashing fragments of metal and window glass as the windshield shattered under the hail of bullets. I could hear the engine screaming as more rounds tore up the radiator, but that engine was keeping us from getting perforated with it, so I didn’t mind. I got my head just high enough over the dash to point the shotgun, and opened fire myself.

I’d loaded with rifled slugs. It still wasn’t going to reach out as well as a rifle at this range, but it was better than buckshot. I got the front bead in the vicinity of one of the windows that was spitting flame and fired. It wasn’t a good shot; it was more of a “get something heading downrange at those assholes” shot, but it got the message across. I don’t think they’d been expecting to get shot at. The fire slackened a bit as they ducked for cover.

Larry had his own shotgun up and resting on the steering wheel now. He cranked three shots as fast as he could pump the SuperNova. Fortunately, there wasn’t much of a windshield left to hinder the slugs.

More thunder announced the guys in Jim’s Expedition opening fire. I glanced out of the side window to get a picture of where Jim’s guys and the rear box truck were. The box truck was halted halfway on the median, in a still-settling cloud of dust. That driver, at least, hadn’t tipped his truck over. Jim’s SUV was pointed at the bad guys, just like ours, and Jim and Little Bob were leaning partway out of the side windows, blasting away with their shotguns. I caught a glimpse of Ben and Derek piling out of the back, staying low, cradling their own weapons.

“Push!” I yelled to Larry, who still had his foot on the accelerator. He complied, rolling our increasingly shot-up Expedition toward the ambushers. We were only a few feet away now.

The abused, wounded engine screamed and smoked as we surged forward and slammed into the Crown Vic in front of us. I rocked forward with the impact, recovered, and shot the dazed, tattooed gang-banger across the crumpled hood from me in the face. I shifted fire to his buddy, who was blinking blood, hair, and bits of brain and shattered bone out of his eyes, and gave him the same treatment. Larry extinguished the car’s driver and passenger with a pair of shots so close together they almost sounded like they made a single noise.

The pickup in front of the Crown Vic suddenly surged ahead, as the shooters in it apparently decided that they had bitten off more than they could chew. Larry thumbed four more slugs into his shotgun faster than I could load two, and cranked off another pair of shots, shattering the pickup’s rear window even as it fishtailed away from us, its rear tires spinning on the gravel. I concentrated on the third pickup behind the car full of rapidly cooling corpses, smashing the rest of my shotgun’s tube through the windshield and into the driver and passenger, both of whom were trying to get a shot at me while taking shelter from the fire coming from Jim’s truck.

A few more shots, and then everything went quiet, aside from the Crown Vic’s horn blaring from the ruined head of the driver lying on it.

“ACE reports,” I croaked over the radio, as I laid my shotgun on the dash and started checking Larry for wounds. He kept his shotgun trained outward until I was satisfied he hadn’t been shot, then returned the favor. None of us ever trusted ourselves to know for sure that we hadn’t been shot; we always had a teammate check. Once Larry took his hands off me and nodded, I kicked open my door and swung out onto the asphalt.

A look around revealed three shot-up hostile vehicles, not counting the pickup that had sacrificed itself to wreck the semi and create a blocking position to hold us in the ambush kill zone. There was no sign of the driver at first, until I noticed a bloody body lying face-down on the road, only a couple paces from the wreck. He hadn’t made it back to his homies.

The three rear vehicles of the ambush force weren’t in much better shape. Riddled with holes, their glass was shattered and splashed with blood. Larry stepped out of the Expedition, reached in, and levered the dead thug off the steering wheel of the Crown Vic, silencing the horn.

Both Expeditions were probably not going anywhere anytime soon. I counted about twenty bullet holes in the hood of ours before I gave up. Smoke and steam were billowing out of the engine compartment; the gunfire had done plenty of damage before we’d used the vehicle as a weapon. Jim’s truck didn’t look like it was much better; the radiator at least was leaking visibly.

“Vic One, up and up,” Nick announced over the radio. A split second later, Jim rogered up with the same call, except that his vehicle was down. Nobody was hit. That was good. Now to check on our cargo.

I topped off my 870’s tube as I walked toward the lead box truck, where it was lying on its side in the median. Harold Juarez, the senior Harmon-Dominguez rep on this little convoy, had crawled out once the shooting stopped, and was already on his phone. The driver was shakily pulling himself out.

I went to help the driver get down off the sideways cab. Harold was standing in front of the truck, talking earnestly and quickly. I’ll admit I took the opportunity to listen in, as I helped the driver down to the ground. The poor guy was shaking, and looked a little sick. Good thing he’d had the transmission between him and the shooting; he really wouldn’t have liked what had happened only two lanes away. I steered him away from the carnage as I got him down.

“I know,” Harold was saying. “What you don’t understand is that it isn’t just the office that’s going to be pissed if this shipment’s late. We’re talking about Alonzo Reyes here.”

That made me take notice. Alonzo Reyes. This job just got a hell of a lot more interesting. Renton hadn’t been blowing smoke, after all.

I got the driver sitting down against the truck and checked him for injuries. He was shaken up, that was all. Harold was still talking, urgently demanding a replacement truck be brought down from Tucson as soon as possible. In the short time I’d dealt with him, Harold had been a friendly, personable sort, but had always seemed nervous, especially when anything threatened to disrupt the schedule. Now I had some idea why.

“Harold,” I called. He didn’t notice, but kept talking. “Harold!” He looked up. “Are you all right?” I asked. “Are you hurt?”

He stared at me for a second, as if it took a moment for the question to sink in. “Yes, yes, I’m fine,” he said. “I’m trying to get a replacement truck down here so we can get back on the road.”

“Not going to be that easy,” I said. The sirens were already starting to sound in the distance. “Local law’s on the way, and I’ve got two security vehicles totaled. We won’t be back on the road for a little while. At least a day, maybe two, depending on how the sheriff’s feeling.”

He didn’t like that. But I didn’t give him a chance to retort, as I walked back to my Expedition, pulling my own phone out. Before I dialed, I joined Larry, who was examining the bodies in the Crown Vic.

“Look at that,” he said, pointing to the tattoos adorning a limp arm. “Seen those before?”

I nodded. “Mara Salvatrucha.” MS-13. One of the most vicious street gangs in the Western Hemisphere, the gang had been founded by refugees from the El Salvadoran civil war living in Los Angeles. They’d gone from a vicious street gang to a trans-national criminal syndicate in their own right, with a reputation for ferocity that came near to rivaling the paramilitary Los Zetas in Mexico. We’d crossed paths with them briefly the last time we’d worked the border. “Question is, are they here on their own initiative, or are they hiring out again?” MS-13 had acted as mercenaries for other cartels off and on through the years.

“What were they doing here in the first place, and why were they after us?” Larry asked.

“We’ll find out pretty soon,” I replied, as I hit speed dial and raised the phone to my ear. “Harold just invoked the name of Alonzo Reyes.”

The phone rang once. Renton’s voice was complete deadpan as he said, “Talk to me.”

“Alonzo Reyes,” I said. Alonzo Reyes was one of the names we’d been instructed to keep an ear open for before we started this job. In the military we would have called him a Person of Interest.

I filled Renton in on the ambush and Harold’s phone conversation. He didn’t interrupt, but just listened.

Renton was a spook, and not in a “works for Langley” sort of way. He did, once upon a time, but those days were past, and he pretty much lived “in the cold” anymore. He’d gone underground years ago, only cropping up, to my knowledge, the year before, when he contacted us about The Project. He worked for a quiet network of military and intelligence professionals that was, apparently, trying to act to stem the tide of chaos and terrorism from outside and inside the system.

We were an instrument to generally be used outside the system.

When I finished, he was quiet for a short moment, as if thinking over what I’d told him. He wasn’t terribly forthcoming when he did speak, however. “Where are you now?”

“About three miles south of Green Valley,” I said.

“Don’t go far,” he said. “Juarez will probably want to push as soon as possible, but I need you to stall him. I’m on my way.”

“Do I need to get a mission package coming south?” I asked.

No hesitation. “Yes. Expedite it. I’ll see you in a few hours.”

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.