The sun was just starting to turn the eastern horizon gray when Jim and I went through rousting everybody out. My guys were pretty well ready for it, though none of us were getting up with the alacrity we might have even a few years ago. Joints protested, backs stiffened. Men get old fast in this business.

Harold and his people, on the other hand, weren’t so sanguine about rising before the sun was up.

I shook Harold’s shoulder. He was pretty well buried under the blankets. He mumbled and tried to roll over. I tossed his covers and flicked on the bedside lamp. He flinched and squinted, trying to shield his eyes with his hand. He was wearing a wife-beater and his skivvies. “What the hell?” he mumbled. “What time is it?”

“It’s time to go,” I replied. “Get dressed.”

He looked around the spare, if clean, hotel room. “Is it still dark?”

I sighed. “Yes, it’s still dark. The sun will be up in about a half hour. You were the one bitching about being behind schedule when we pulled in here last night.”

He groaned and flopped over on his back. There weren’t any covers to pull over his head; I’d tossed them on the floor, but he gave the distinct impression of wanting to do just that. This was getting ridiculous. I wasn’t his mother, and he wasn’t a kid who didn’t want to get up to go to school.

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“We’re rolling in an hour,” I told him. “If you don’t want to be left here, I suggest you get your ass up and get ready to move.” My guys were already ready to move. But if I gave him any less than an hour, I’d likely wring his neck to stop the whining. And I didn’t even have to share a vehicle with him.

I walked out into the pre-dawn dimness. A few lights were lit around the parking lot, and between the arched windows in the brick hotel. It wasn’t a bad place. It had a country, rancho sort of look to it, it was clean, and the staff was friendly enough. I don’t think they’d noticed the guard rotations we’d been running on the vehicles all night.

Ben was sitting in the passenger seat of the Yukon, his FAL across his knees, covered by a jacket. He rolled the window down as I walked over. “We leaving soon?” he asked.

“Hopefully,” I replied, leaning against the fender and scanning the parking lot and the surrounding buildings. The hotel might have had a hacienda look on the inside, but past the trees in the parking lot, it was in the middle of a mall. There were plenty of cars and pickups parked around, and there were a few people moving around one of them, a white Cadillac that looked like it had had some serious custom work done on it. “The client is being a bunch of whiny bitches because it’s early.”

“Best if they hurry,” he said, with a nod toward the Cadillac. “I’m pretty sure those fuckers have been eyeballing us for the last hour.”

Trying not to be too obvious, I gave the two young men hanging out by the expensive car another once-over. It was still to dark to see if they had tattoos, but they were wearing the t-shirts and baggy pants that suggest “gangbanger.” And they were, in fact, watching us. They weren’t being subtle about it, either.

“Somebody wants this cargo pretty bad,” I commented.

“I’m starting to think that there’s more than just the cargo at stake here,” Ben said. “If it was just a robbery, they’d have backed off after the bloody nose we gave ’em outside of Green Valley. Gangbangers looking for a score would look for easier pickings. Whoever these guys are, they’re not giving up.”

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“Or maybe they’re out for revenge,” I offered. “MS-13 hasn’t built the reputation it has by backing down when some of its boys get smoked. They might just be out to send a message about killing their homeboys.”

He glanced at me skeptically. “When El Duque’s involved? You really believe that?”

“El Duque’s not necessarily involved with this cargo. One of his connections is. Just because we’re using it to get to him doesn’t mean they know that.”

He grunted and shook his head. “This shit’s as bad as Iraq.”

“At least,” I replied. “I did a little reading when it looked like we were going to be heading down this way.” I’d spent most of my entire professional life focused on the Middle East and North Africa. Latin America hadn’t merited much notice. But the more I researched, the more it looked like Mexico was in at least as bad shape as Iraq was. “It’s just as tribal here, and the government’s either corrupt or suspected of being corrupt. A lot of the people trust the gangs more than they trust the cops or the federales.”

“That’s a fucking sad state of affairs,” he said, “when the gangs are rolling severed heads into dance clubs but people trust them more than the cops.”

With a shrug, I pointed out, “A lot of these narcos are spreading around money like it’s water. They’re rich as fuck, so they can be as philanthropic as they want to be. Maybe some of them think that being charitable will wipe away some of the guilt for all the torture and murder. Some of them see it as a revolutionary thing.”

“What, like they’re Robin Hood or some shit?”

I nodded. “Exactly. The parallel’s been made before.”

“Fucking hell.”

I went back to watching the gangbangers smoking by the Cadillac, making sure not to make eye contact. I’d been around the type before; they might very well decide that they didn’t like the gringo looking at them, and decide to pick a fight right there. I wasn’t afraid of the outcome; I just didn’t want the slaughter going down in a fucking hotel parking lot. There was too much chance of bystanders getting scragged when those clowns started spraying bullets all over the place. It was how a lot of people had wound up dead in Mexico already.

Doors started to open behind me, and I could hear Harold and his drivers muttering as they got into the box trucks. A glance at my watch surprised me a little; they hadn’t taken nearly as long as I’d expected.

“Can we get some coffee?” Harold asked when he walked over to us. He still looked bleary and not at all happy about being awake. The eastern sky was turning pale blue, but it was still dark in the west.

Ben reached back and handed up a thermos. “It’s a couple hours old, but it’s still hot,” he said.

Harold grimaced, but took the coffee, and headed back to his truck. “Motherfucker,” Ben said quietly. “I didn’t mean take the whole fucking thing for yourself, asshole.”

“We’ll grab some more before we roll,” I assured him, starting back to my Expedition.

“That’s my good thermos,” he snarled. “I’d better fucking get that shit back.”

“I’ll make sure you do,” I said. Ben could get a little pissy about his kit.

It took almost another half an hour before Harold and his people were ready to move. I was able to get Ben’s thermos back and refill it before the first box truck even fired up. Even as I moved around the vehicles with Jim, making sure Harold’s people were ready and alert, and that we were all ready to throw down, I kept an eye on the gangbangers watching us. As soon as it was abundantly obvious that we were getting ready to leave, they got in their car. The windows were tinted, and it was still mostly dark, though dawn was well on the way, so I couldn’t see inside, but after a couple more minutes they pulled out of the parking space and slowly rolled out of the parking lot, heading down the road in the direction we were planning to go. I traded glances with Jim. That was ominous.

Of course, we’d been expecting it. It was going to be an interesting day, and the sun wasn’t even up yet.

There was no sign of the Caddy when we finally pulled out of the parking lot and onto Cinco de Mayo street. If they had any idea what they were doing, they’d passed surveillance off to another vehicle. Granted, I wasn’t terribly impressed with their fieldcraft so far, but within less than a mile, I saw another car, this one a low-slung Buick, swing out onto the road behind us. There wasn’t a lot of traffic at that hour, so it kind of stuck out. It was, however, a much less conspicuous vehicle than the Cadillac had been. It stayed with us as we got back on Highway 2, but it stayed well back.

“Motherfucker,” I muttered. “We cannot shake this fucking surveillance, can we?”

“Goes with the territory,” Larry pointed out. “This ain’t like the good old days in Iraq, where we could roll around in sterile vehicles when and where we chose. We’re tied to these big fucking targets with ‘Harmon-Dominguez’ emblazoned on the sides for everybody to see.”

“But where did it pick us up in the first place?” I asked. “As much as I hate to say it, Ben’s got a point. This is awfully focused and professional for a robbery.”

“You think that somebody in Harmon-Dominguez talked?” he asked, splitting his attention between the road and the rear-view mirror, keeping tabs on our tail.

“I think it’s entirely likely,” I replied. “A lot of money can get stuffed into two box trucks. That’s got to be a temptation.”

We both fell silent as we continued to drive around Magdalena. The town looked like just about every other Southwestern town; there was a lot of whitewashed plaster and red tile roofs, along with more industrial cinder-block and corrugated metal. The skyline—what we could see of it in the early morning twilight, through the trees, and over the hilly terrain—was dominated by a tall, Spanish church with twin steeples.

It didn’t take long to go around the town; Magdalena’s not that big. We had to stop at the toll station and pay to continue just short of the south end of town. As we pulled up to the green-painted overhang, I noticed the dark Buick turn off onto one of the dirt roads that came right up to the highway and disappear behind a rise.

The toll booth wasn’t automated. The bored senora in the green-painted booth took our cash without a word, handed us our receipts, and let us through. Once we were past the taquieros and the fast-food joint just on the other side of the toll booth, I started scanning for the Buick again. It didn’t reappear. We kept going down the highway, catching glimpses of the town on the other side of the reddish dirt cuts the road had been blasted through.

They hit us just before we got clear of Magdalena.

Nick suddenly stomped on the brakes, hard enough that he locked up the Yukon’s wheels. Rubber squealed and smoke poured out from under the vehicle’s tires as he tried to bring the vehicle to a stop in less than a car-length. Harold’s box truck almost rear-ended the Yukon, slewing to one side and threatening to tip over just like its predecessor had just the day before.

I didn’t know what was in the road that Nick didn’t want to drive over, but I didn’t waste time wondering about it. We hadn’t rehearsed our reaction to contact drills as thoroughly as we might have otherwise before starting this job, but we’d gone over them by force of habit. If the way forward was blocked, we had to either back up or assault the ambush.

Backing up was out of the question. We had just passed one of the dirt roads that came right up to the highway (Mexico didn’t have the entry/exit structure that the US interstate system did, at least not on Highway 2). As soon as we passed, the Cadillac from the hotel parking lot, the Buick that had followed us, and a Suburban roared up onto the road behind us, blocking all lanes. We’d just entered another cut; there was nowhere to go.

That left fighting. That we could handle.

It took me bare heartbeats to analyze the situation, then I was shoving my door open, rifle in my hand, and bailing out. I’d already had my low-profile chest rig on under a cover-shirt. I slung my go bag over my shoulder as I rotated out of the door, then I was rushing to the side of the road and dropping to the ground, rifle already in my shoulder and my eye seeking the sights.

Through the corner of my eye, I could see Larry’s boots pounding the pavement in the other direction. We were canalized as fuck, but we’d just have to deal with it. Ahead of me, Jim, Derek, Ben, and Little Bob were similarly piling out of their Expedition, turning, and opening fire. The driver and assistant in the box truck behind my vehicle just looked scared and confused as gunfire roared through the early morning behind them, echoing off the walls of the cut.

Shooters dressed in white t-shirts, baggy jeans, and black or blue ball caps and headbands were piling out of the three vehicles behind us. I caught a glimpse of an AK before I shot the owner twice. His white wife-beater blossomed with red and he staggered backward into his buddy, who was mowed down by shots from Jim and Little Bob before he could recover.

I was up and moving, charging forward. I wanted to clear these fuckers out before they could spring whatever other surprises they had in store; I was pretty sure that the rear blocking force wasn’t the only group. Also, I had to move up to clear Jim and Little Bob out of my line of fire.

By the time I had sprinted the fifteen yards to get to the Expedition, the shooting had already stopped. There were eight bloodied corpses lying on the pavement, and several bullet holes in the cars and the Suburban.

“Out to the flanks,” I said. “Before the rest of the ambush wakes up.”

That was easier said than done. The walls of the cut were sheer, and they were dirt, not rock. Climbing them, especially with weapons and kit, was a non-starter. We had to jog down the road, past the stricken blocking force, to get to shallower parts we could clamber over.

Shots boomed behind me. Glancing back, I could see that several more shooters were up on top of the cut, even with my Expedition. But they weren’t all that happy about having to face a pair of 7.62 battle rifles; they were shrinking back from the top, trying to get a shot, but flinching back every time one of those rifles spat fire and kicked up a fistful of dirt and rocks in their faces. A couple of bursts rattled unaimed over the lip of the cut, but were quickly answered with more concentrated fire. I turned, pausing just long enough to lay my own rifle on the nearest shooter I could see, and squeezed off a shot. I hadn’t had a lot to shoot at, as he was trying to keep from becoming a target for the guys down by the trucks, but it was enough. He jerked and dropped out of sight.

Then we had a way up, and were scrambling over the crumbling sides of the cut to get onto the higher ground. The loose dirt was slipping away under my boots, threatening to dump me on my face, but I got up into the scrub and bunchgrass, keeping my muzzle high to make sure I didn’t bury it in the dirt. That would have been a bad time to have a barrel blocked.

Once we were up, it was all over. I was closest to the road, while Jim and Little Bob fanned out down the slope toward Magdalena itself. We were almost shoulder-to-shoulder as we dropped to a knee and opened fire. They hadn’t been watching their flanks. I don’t think they even realized that their entire blocking force was gone. They had cover to their front, but from where we were, they were completely exposed. Bullets chopped through unprotected heads and ribcages, each of them getting at least two from each of us. Most dropped where they were. One tried to crawl away, but it turned into an agonized roll into the ditch next to the road on top of the rise. He was wearing white jogging pants, now stained bright red by his own blood.

The sudden silence when the gunfire ended was eerie. We stayed put for a minute, scanning for any new threats. None materialized. The policia didn’t show themselves, either. Hell, there weren’t even any sirens; they weren’t going go even as far as the Arizona cops to stick their necks out.

Leaving Little Bob to cover rear security, Jim and I moved forward to check the bodies. I was actually hoping for a live one; I wanted some information.

But when we moved through, kicking weapons away from clutching fingers, it was obvious that we weren’t going to be so lucky this time. We’d chopped them into hamburger. One had taken what looked like three rounds to the head, somehow. There were three nicely grouped, neat holes just beneath his left eye; there wasn’t much left of the right side of his skull. The rest were just as dead. Old boy who’d tried crawling away had apparently died as soon as he’d stopped moving. He was staring at the brightening sky with a look of agonized surprise on his face. He looked about fifteen, in spite of the big “XIII” tattoo on his cheek.

A quick rifling of pockets gave up cash, cell phones, ammo, and not much else. No flash drives, no notes, nothing. We pocketed the phones and left the rest. Maybe the numbers and text messages would give up something.

I left Little Bob and Ben up on the high ground to hold security while the rest of us headed down to assess the damage. I was pretty sure that at that range, some of those wild bursts had to have hit something.

They had. Two tires were flat, and there was a bullet hole in the hood of my Expedition. Larry popped the hood to make sure the round hadn’t hit anything vital. That was when Simon Canfield, the right-seater on the rear box truck, stumbled out of the cab, clutching his bloody leg. He’d been hit.

I guided him down to sit against the front tire, and carefully cut his pantleg away from the wound. It looked like a through-and-through to the calf, though it wasn’t that clean; the bullet had deformed going through the door, and it looked like it had torn a pretty good chunk of meat out on its way through. He wasn’t squirting blood, though, so it hadn’t hit anything major.

“Where’s your first-aid kit?” I asked, with a sudden sinking suspicion.

Canfield was looking pretty pale; he was slipping into shock. “There’s one in the glove compartment.”

That wasn’t going to be any kind of useful trauma kit for a gunshot wound, but I clambered up and fished it out anyway. I’d been right. It wasn’t much more than a space blanket, some antiseptic, some bandages, and a roll of gauze. The gauze would help, but there wasn’t going to be enough. I looked around as I clambered down, but everybody was either changing a tire, checking engines, or holding security. I jogged over to the Expedition, dug in the back, and pulled out the vehicle trauma kit. These fuckers were going to owe us some med supplies.

I wrapped Canfield in the space blanket from his inadequate first aid kit, then packed his wound with gauze and wrapped it tightly in an ace wrap. “You’ll be fine,” I told him. I was a little worried about the shock. He hadn’t lost much blood, but just getting shot is traumatizing enough to some people to put them in a downward spiral. And this was no place to leave him in a hospital; even with all the violence in Mexico, a gunshot wound showing up in the hospital would probably raise questions. “You’re going to ride in my vehicle for a bit.” That way at least I could keep an eye on him, and intervene if he started circling the drain.

I helped him to his feet and started toward the Expedition. Larry had just finished his examination, and gave me a thumbs-up. Nothing vital appeared to be damaged. He helped me get Canfield in the back seat, then I went forward to Harold’s truck. Nick was finishing pulling aside the makeshift spike strip, made of what looked like nails and white engineer tape, that had provided the obstacle to block us into the ambush.

Harold hadn’t gotten out. That pissed me off. These were his people; we were responsible for protecting them, but he was supposed to be the manager. Sure, he was scared. But he still should have stirred off his ass once the shooting stopped.

I jerked his door open. He looked down at me, a little startled. “Is it safe?” he asked. “Can we get out of here now?”

I squinted at him unhappily. The guy was obviously out of his element. Most logistics companies don’t usually have to deal with being in the middle of firefights. “Simon got hit,” I said flatly. His eyes widened at that.

“Is he…” He gulped.

“He’s all right,” I told him. “It was a through-and-through, didn’t hit anything vital. He’s riding with me so I can make sure he doesn’t go into shock. But right now, you and I need to talk.”

He looked around as if expecting the rest of MS-13, and maybe Barrio Azteca, to jump out of the weeds on either side of the road. “Right now? Right here? Shouldn’t we be moving?”

“I have security set, and we’ll get moving soon enough,” I said. “But right now I’ve got some questions that are not going to wait.”

Harold looked at me for a second, searching my face like he was hoping to see a sign that I was fucking around. I wasn’t. I didn’t glare at him, but just watched him, carefully expressionless. Finally, he reluctantly climbed down out of the truck.

With a jerk of my head, I indicated that we should walk. I didn’t necessarily want any of the rest of the Harmon-Dominguez people to hear, though it was pretty certain that what was said was going to get repeated. I just didn’t want any more argument and bullshit than I was going to get from just him.

I stopped a few paces away from the truck, right on the side of the road. I kept looking at our back-trail; it was only a matter of time before another truck came along. We did need to be gone by then, but this needed to be addressed.

“This is the second ambush in the last twenty-four hours,” I said, my hands on my hips. “Now, what that tells me is that somebody has told these guys where we’re going, and how we’re going to get there. I know the leak’s not from my company.” That went without saying, but it would reinforce the fact in his mind that the guys with guns didn’t trust him. “So it’s got to be coming from your side of the house.” I squinted at him. “Why would some of your people be talking MS-13 in on a regular shipment going into Mexico, Harold? And why would they be interested enough in it to make two tries, especially when the first one was so fucking disastrous for the ambush force?”

The truth was, I was trying to rattle him. There was something fishy about this movement, and the fact that one of the major transnational criminal groups in the Western Hemisphere was after it, I was convinced, had nothing to do with our mission to go after El Duque. I was getting that “standing in a snake-pit” feeling again, and I didn’t like it. If I could get Harold nervous enough to blurt something out, maybe I could learn enough to navigate this particular slippery slope.

But he either wasn’t talking, or he was so determined to “see no evil, hear no evil” that he honestly had no idea. “I don’t know,” he protested, spreading his hands helplessly. “All I know is that we are to take the shipment to a representative of SCC in Mazatlan. We were given the contact protocols and that was all.”

“You didn’t wonder a little bit about why you’d be trucking a few million dollars down into Mexico?” I asked, a little incredulously. I was spitballing the number; I had no idea what all was in those two trucks. “Wire transfers still work down to Mexico, you know. Why ship the cash?”

He started to get defensive. “There are any number of reasons to move cash instead of making wire transfers,” he said. “Just because we didn’t get briefed on it doesn’t mean there’s anything nefarious going on. I’m sure there isn’t; Harmon-Dominguez is a reputable company, and if it wasn’t for the present situation, I’d take your insinuations as a reason to terminate our business partnership.” His voice shook a little bit at that last; he was blustering, knew it, and knew that I knew it. We’d just saved their bacon; he wasn’t about to try to do away with his security because I didn’t trust his company. The same company that hadn’t told him the whole story. He wouldn’t meet my eyes during that little speech, either. He was on shaky ground, and he knew it. It was starting to dawn on him that maybe there really was something squirrelly going on.

I stared at him for a moment, while he shifted and stared at the ground, the road, anywhere but me. Finally, I just nodded curtly. “Fine,” I bit out. “Have it your way. We’ll get moving. But you need to understand something.” I stepped in close and lowered my voice. He flinched back as I moved, but I’d been too quick for him to get much distance. “I am not a trusting man. Neither are my teammates. You might go so far as to call us downright suspicious motherfuckers. This has kept us, and our clients, alive in some very violent, unpleasant places.

“But it has also made us very, very angry when the client fucks with the performance of our job by not telling us what we’re dealing with.” I brushed past him, heading for my Expedition. “Let’s go. There’s going to be more traffic on this road any minute, and I don’t want to be here when it shows up.” I could only assume that the gunfire had kept anyone away from this stretch of highway for a while.

We mounted up and got moving. We were down two spare tires, but I mused that it could have been worse, especially given how close the bad guys had been while they sprayed-and-prayed at us.

Even as we pulled away from the failed ambush, leaving the corpses and their weapons lying in the dirt, the first cars started to appear around the bend. We were leaving none too soon.

The next check didn’t come from MS-13. It came from the Mexican police.

It hadn’t taken long to get from Magdalena to Santa Ana. It was a quick pass through increasingly level farmland, with scrub-forest-covered hills rising to our left. In several places, dirt roads came up to join the highway, and I always got a little tense there, but the ground was open enough that I could see if the road was clear. No new ambushes materialized.

As we came around the bend and through another cut on the way into Santa Ana, we came face-to-face with a roadblock. A serpentine of orange plastic jersey barriers had been set up across the road, with two blue-and-white Ford F-250s with blue-and-white light bars and “Policia Federal” emblazoned on them sitting behind it. There were almost a dozen men in black fatigues, fully kitted out in plate carriers, helmets, and balaclavas, with M-16s held ready, standing around the checkpoint, all watching the road coming from Magdalena. Another helmeted policeman was behind an M-240 set up on the roof of one of the pickups.

“Nice and easy, gents,” I called over the radio. “I don’t want to be trading bullets with the federales if we can avoid it.” It shouldn’t even have been an issue. By any account, for the most part, the Mexican Federal Police were supposed to be the good guys. But between our suspicions about the cargo we were escorting, the connection, albeit separated by several degrees, with El Duque, the firepower we were packing, and the bodies we’d left behind in Magdalena, getting stopped could turn out to be disastrous. We were in something of a gray area. We were finding ourselves in that gray area a lot lately.

Two of the policia stepped forward as we slowed, hands held up to signal us to stop. I twisted around in my seat. “Canfield, if you don’t want to wind up in a Mexican jail, I suggest you sit up and try to look not-shot.”

He was leaning back in the seat, but hadn’t laid down. He straightened when I said that, taking a deep breath. His color looked a little better; he was bouncing back a bit. “Do you think they’d arrest us? We weren’t the ones who attacked anybody, and you said it was MS-13 who did the shooting…”

“We’ve got weapons that it’s illegal for Mexican citizens to carry, let alone gringos,” I explained. “They’d probably throw us in a hole just in case, so let’s not give them a reason to take that precaution.”

Canfield nodded, adjusting himself in his seat to try to look as normal as possible. I didn’t know what he thought of the overall situation, but he definitely didn’t want to go to a Mexican prison. At least he didn’t decide to make an argument out of it, just short of a police checkpoint.

Nick let the Yukon roll to a stop just short of the first Jersey barrier. The two closest policemen walked up to the vehicle, one stopping just in front of it, but at such an angle that he could shoot through the windshield but not be in too much danger of being run over if Nick stomped on the gas, the other walking to the driver’s side window. He tapped on the glass, one hand staying on the firing control of his rifle.

Nick rolled down the window and handed him the same set of papers we had presented at the border in Nogales. The policeman, inscrutable behind his mask, took them, stepped back, and examined them, never taking his hand off his weapon. Then he spoke into his radio. He waited, and I held my breath. The whole damned thing could unravel right here, depending on how closely they decided to look at the trucks full of gringos. I found myself hoping that they’d rather take a bribe. Dirty cops can sometimes be dealt with.

But after a few moments, that seemed to stretch out into an hour, he stepped back to the window, handed the papers back, and waved the Yukon through. When the box truck moved forward, it got waved through without a second glance. The same thing happened with the rest of us.

“There must be something pretty impressive in those papers,” Larry commented, as we left the checkpoint behind and entered the town of Santa Ana. “Nobody wants to stop us except for the gangbangers.”

“Either there’s some high-level cover worded into them,” I mused, “or whoever has an interest in this shipment’s already gone ahead and paid off all the cops on this route.” I wasn’t sure which possibility was more disturbing.