Trouble south of the Border for a group of hard guys, and one pretty lady.
“Afterwards, we’ll be here; don’t get left behind. Plane’s going with you or without you, Tszerkas. Get that mook back here by 0530. We’re going home.”
The man talking was a guy we all knew as Onion, just Onion. He weighed about 140 pounds when he had a 60 pound ruck on his shoulder, but he could hump the bush for days with nothing more to eat and drink than a protein bar and sips of whatever liquid was at hand. His dome was as smooth as the proverbial baby’s butt, and his cadaverous cheeks and deeply cleft chin were stubbly with gray. It was a mystery to all as to how he kept his head shaved, and I was always worried that his head would reflect light like a heliograph at high noon and announce to all the world that these were the coordinates, sure enough. Just lay in all the artillery fire you got right here on that shiny spot.
Onion was in command on this raid, and we were looking for high value targets, ones that the bad boys would spare no exertion to keep safe and sound. If we did manage the snatch, though, the Company was paying top dollar for prime-on-the-hoof like Calinas, the bad-boy we were targeting. He and his band of not-so-merry-men were causing a lot of dust up in the hemisphere, and his takedown was sure to smooth out a lot of wrinkles in the geopolitical landscape. Our four-man team had helo’d in two days before, crept through jungle, then two of us scouted the old town in Valdees on foot in search of the target. I looked the part of an inhabitant, dark-complected (my ex-girlfriend called me swarthy, no less) enough to be just another anybody on the street.
Toroko B. Hawn, a taller version of Odd Job who we nicknamed Benny Hawna, was with me the first night as we searched, bitchin’ as usual. He doesn’t particularly look the part of the indigenous rabble, but he is quiet when he moves.
Benny said, “Where is that guy? He was all over the intel as being right here. What is he, like a spook? Zerk, are you listening?” Nobody could figure out my surname, Tszerkas, so I was Zerk. It worked okay.
Benny never acted like a half-full kind of guy; he always seemed to be worrying at stuff, like a rat terrier on the prowl for prey. Clyde (The Glide) Gautreaux rounded out our little foursome. A weapons-man par excellence, he and Onion had stayed behind in the jungled hills above Valdees, working the radios, doing the over-watch while Benny and I hunted down below.
We were supposed to have a contact in town, a paid-off snitch to give pointers on our target Calinas’ whereabouts. Ordinarily, I don’t like this set-up; too much like being in somebody else’s sights. That this contact was also a woman really caused the antenna masts to quiver. But the Company boys had insisted she had the goods, so we went with it. What else could we do? Everyone in this waste of good geography called Valdees was to be considered armed and dangerous, and getting dead before getting the cat in the bag and getting the bag home safe and sound, seemed anticlimactic.
Onion made it clear that we were to be cool, just keep looking where we had Company-fed clues on Calinas that first night. Throw the net; see what it catches. If we got the guy, good. If not, rendezvous back at the over-watch. Benny and I were back as the sun slipped up beyond the low razor-backed ridges on the valley’s far side, making its way to a sliding perch in heaven.
“Nothing?” Onion said as we came in. No real inflection in his voice; didn’t seem pissed off, or wired either, kind of like he expected as much. Clyde was sitting cross-legged, his uni tee sweated through, his bony, callused hands field-stripping a pistol atop a piece of blanket strewn with the hardware of war.
Benny spoke. “Nada, chief. Zerk and me dragged old town pretty good, but none of the spots turned up anything good.”
I said, “What about the girl? When do we get with her?”
Onion said darkly, “The boys back home sent over that she’ll meet with us here towards dark. Get some sleep. Tonight, we bring home the bacon.”
I didn’t particularly care for that plan. “Here?” I said. “We don’t really want her to know our layup, do we?”
Onion shrugged, looked like his sharp shoulder bones could slice through his tee. He said, “Company plan.”
I kept my eyes light, playful almost; kept staring at Onion, nodded, said, “Company plan, huh? Beautiful.”
Later, when I got to meet the mystery woman, I will say that I was more than a little impressed. She looked like one of those gals at the gym who are not there to do anything but train; no preening, just busting it. She was dressed simply, with a long patterned tunic-style shirt untucked over tan canvas pants, belted with brown woven leather and a heavy silver buckle. Her boots were worn; she hadn’t just come from the mall. She clearly knew what she was about, and got right to the point after Onion made the intros. He simply said, "This is Sofia.” Murmurs of greeting teased the airspace between us and her.
She said, “Calinas is staying out of sight, but we know that he is in one of his two safe houses in the old town. Here or here.” She pointed to an old-time ordnance-style map she held loosely, the contour lines and symbols for buildings on the map probably dating from the 19th century. Her manner wasn’t abrupt, but it was obvious that she was in-it-to-win-it, and was serious about the job. ”I have one other man down there, making inquiries. We will meet him later tonight.”
“What’s your stake, Sofia? Why are you here? Money?” I asked, as if I had every right to know. Onion turned his burnished skull my way, said, “Zip it, Zerk.”
I said, “Just getting to know the lay of the land, chief. That’s all.” I smiled with my mouth when I said it, but maybe not with my eyes, and although I thought I sounded innocent enough, every synapse up and down my nervous system was stuttering, jittering to the danger that lurked here: unknown forces, unknown friends, unknown foes. A matryoshka doll, painted-up pretty on the outside, with ever-smaller dolls nested inside, until the last, the treasure doll, about the size of a bullet, at the center.
Sofia smiled too, and, unlike mine, it went to her eyes. It was a smile that could make a man think of all the places in the world he’d like to be with Sofia. That smile went away then and she softly said, “The man you seek, Calinas, was my sister’s husband. Now, he is her widower. That’s what you become, a widower, even when you are the murderer of your own wife. So the reason I am here? Just to make things balance in this world. I think you can help me with my problem of balance if I help you take Calinas. Is it not so, Mr. . . mmm . . .Zerk?”
I started to say something smart, thought better of it as Onion reached out and laid his hand on my arm, motioned me away from the group. We walked a little way, the rest of our guys following us with their eyes. He crouched to his knees, and started drawing idly in the dirt with a stick. I got down on his level, extended my hands, like, What? I’m listening.
“Zerk, you and Clyde get saddled up. Benny and me are going down with Sofia first. I want you two tucked in tight on our tails. When we put eyes on this guy, I don’t feel like getting one in the back. Just in case.”
Then he said, “Afterwards, we’ll be here; don’t get left behind. We won’t be back this way ‘til that little problem of ours down there in Valdees is over. The bad guys may not want it over, so let them have at it. Plane’s going with you or without you, Tszerka. Get that mook back here by 0530. We’re going home.”
At that, we talked a little more, then broke down everything and stowed it. Onion, Benny, and the woman named Sofia crept away down the trail, and after an interval, Clyde and I did the same. 0530 is an hour for an early riser. We were hoping to be watching the sunrise from above the clouds, riding home through the friendly skies.
By 0510, we were dragging the bloody, but still-game, Calinas, trussed up like a Christmas hog, stumbling and swearing, up a jungle path that paralleled the ridge line where our extract was to take place. Benny was in the lead, Sofia moving along silently in his wake. Clyde was still with me, wounded; shot in the thigh by one of Calinas’ bodyguards. The bullet exited without hitting bone, but the holes made were both bleeding pretty good, and we had belted the upper part of his leg to slow down the flow. Onion was riding drag, keeping a lookout behind as we made our way to the rendezvous point.
The action taking down Calinas and crew below had turned out to be a piece of cake, but unfortunately, a cake made with equal portions of bad luck and bad timing; a lot more rambunctious and noisy and bloody than the plan had called for.
The grab was supposed to be a quiet affair, with Onion and Benny setting up a perimeter around the target, and Clyde and me doing the snatch. Onion and Benny’s part went fine, until somebody saw them moving ever so casually toward the safe house with Sofia, started hollering about Yanquis. That put the piss in the punchbowl, and the whole safe house erupted with sounds like the clatter of a dozen band cymbals thrown down on a concrete floor.
So much for quiet. So much for stealth. So much for Plan A.
At least The Glide and I were in close on the opposite side of the building, almost at a crawl, working our way in when the place went into warp drive. We heard the sound of small arms and auto weapons fire, just shooting up the night. The others weren’t assaulting, just laying back now, looking to head off any reinforcements. The back of the place was lit up, so we went in the side window, breaking glass, and drawing the attention of the Welcome Wagon to our entry.
Clyde’s silenced Beretta kept coughing, and I could hear his spent brass a-tinkling as it bounced on the tiled floors. He and I kept it up, and little-by-little, all the bit players in our crimson drama were offstage, and our star Calinas was in hand, a tad roughed up from the persuasion I’d been forced to apply.
I clicked on the talkie, spoke briefly, and presently Onion came through the hammered front door, gun drawn, followed by Benny and the lovely Sofia. Clyde went to the back to make sure there was no more interference coming from that way.
Onion wasn’t one for a lot of flowery speeches, but he grinned that death’s head look of his, like Long John Silver watching some swab walk the plank. “Nice. Let’s move it,” he said.
“Wait.” Sofia came over to where I was holding onto Calinas’ arm, looked him up and down, and said, “Remember me?” Pulling back her fist, she punched the guy right over his left ear. He grunted and flinched, his face screwing up in a grimace. Must have hurt her as bad as it did him, the skull being what it is, but she didn’t let it show. Calinas’ discomfort drew a laugh from us rubber-neckers, but then, Sofia reached a hand into the front pocket of her pants, and drew out a wicked-looking little derringer pistol. Before we could react, she lined up the over-and-under barrels on the spot between Calinda’s black-caterpillar brows, looking to take him out with two shots, bam-bam. I thought in the second: there goes the Company bonus payout.
Instead, an empty metallic click-click followed, and Sofia hissed out her sneer: ”Having trouble with your bladder, Calinas? Is that piss running down your leg? Do you need a potty break?” Turning away, she tossed her pistolita underhand toward Onion, who caught it and tucked it away.
Then, a real bam-bam occurred, the fire echoing in the rear hallway where Clyde had gone just a minute before.
“Shit!” I heard him say. Then two quick pops, for sure from that muffled piece that Clyde was hauling. Benny and Onion turned back toward the front door, expecting trouble from that front, and I slipped into the hallway, backing and sliding along the wall, keeping that side-flat profile. No need to be a target if not positively necessary, that’s my motto.
Hallway’s end, I quick-peeked the room and saw Clyde leaning against what looked like a long mahogany bar counter arranged along the far wall, his long-snooted silenced shooter dangling from one hand.
“Hiding behind the bar. Got me good,” Clyde said. I could see the spreading stain on his leg, and as I crossed the room, he slid down to a sitting slump, his back to the bar. I went around behind the bar, saw Clyde’s target, lying facedown, the gun under his hand. Two jagged black holes where bullets had exited from the back of his head.
I knelt beside Clyde. “Let’s see,” I said, poking around a little. “Just the one?”
“Two shots; he missed with one.” Clyde’s face was a tight coil, sweating and slit with a crease of something between scowl and grimace.
“Well, dude,” I said. “You didn’t miss.” I relieved the bad guy of his belt, twisted it tight on a clean bar towel piece I’d torn to cover Clyde’s wound, and got him upright. “We’re going to have to make a run for it, man. You up for it?”
“What, or stick around here? This place is bad ju-ju.” He closed his eyes, took a breath that shuddered him, and shook it off. “Go,” he said.
And we went.
0545. Onion’s bitching again. “You’re late again Tszerkas; I said 0530.”
“Got held up, chief. Them’s the breaks.”
Of course, we’re already airborne, with Valdees in the rearview. We’ve got the bag with the cat Calinas in it and intact, Benny doing the first aid thing on Clyde’s leg. Me, sitting next to Sofia in a web sling seat as we gain altitude, thinking hard about that smile of hers that slips straight from her eyes to my hopeful heart.
You know that song from the Fifties, the one that the Everly Brothers sang, “Wake Up, Little Susie?” That thing used to rattle around in my noggin all the time when I was growing up. I could just see cute Little Susie and her date (me) falling asleep during the movie, then coming awake with a start and knowing that “. . .our goose is cooked, our reputation is shot!”
Funny, how those things just stay with you somehow. I don’t mean funny-ha-ha, I mean funny-strange. Sometimes, more than your reputation gets shot; sometimes it’s you that gets shot, sometimes it’s the other guy.
At the insistence of Sofia’s smile, my own reaches all the way out to her, closing the distance between us with each passing moment; the sun coming up on a brand new day.
And with that look, you know Little Sofie and I are an item, for sure, just like that song.