Only two things moved in the jungle during the predawn hours; predators and their prey in a morbid and deadly game of hide and seek. To the five men with their automatic rifles, machetes and overall vile nature, they thought themselves to be the apex hunter/killers. As a way to prove that, the rebels had killed everyone at the photo shoot near the ancient ruins except for four people; three of the beautiful models were taken as hostages and one crewmember had been left alive to tell the company of the ransom demands. The fools had no way of knowing that one of the ladies they spared had been the daughter of a powerful family and simply by the most opportune of circumstances they’d garnered the attention of Rodney Paulson and his team of recovery agents.
Paulson and his people had been tracking the group for two days as they made their way along the barely there trail to the base camp hidden within the thickness of the rainforest. Contrary to the contra forces assertions; they were not in full control of the very air that the young ladies breathed. During the negotiations the family had been painfully reminded of that assumption by the threats of receiving a body part here or there versus the grainy photos of the sickly models. Several of the anti-government riffraff showed signs of some ailments as well and in addition to the vast sum of money they demanded, they ordered medicine too. It had been so vague of a demand that it provided enough of an incentive that the family decided that rather than risk their daughter’s infection; they’d pay for extra efforts to secure her recovery in case the government forces had ideas of skimming a little off the top of the payment. Trans Am Security had been more than happy to send a team down to Puebla, Mexico to aggressively negotiate the release and return of the young women, so the foolish men that had taken the hostages had eventually and unknowingly found themselves inside the fatal funnel of the recovery crew as they sought to deliver the captives to the encampment.
The point man had passed Mitch Givens several minutes prior followed by two men who had the three hooded figures, bound with rope at the hands and tied together at the waist, in tow via another rope attached to the lead victim. The men had enough sense to have a man immediately behind the last lady to prevent one from working herself loose without their knowledge and even more surprisingly, they employed a trail man that lingered a ways back that had attempted to cover their trail by obscuring their tracks. His mistake had been using both hands on the contraption and making an excessive amount of noise while using it. None of the other targets even noticed when Givens had expertly dispatched him via knife and taken his position in the darkness. Unlike popular belief simply slitting a man’s throat does not guarantee a silent kill because the gurgling sound alone is enough to draw attention from someone close by. To ensure that no one had been aware of their comrade’s demise, Mitch used one hand to cover his mouth as he tilted his head back to expose the neck. Instead of dragging the blade across the Adam’s apple, he roughly punched through behind the windpipe, twisted till the edge of the blade face away from them and pushed with all his strength. As the man’s natural and futile instinct kicked in and he reached up with both hands in order to hold his wound, Givens cut through the canvas sling of his weapon to disarm him. The thrashing of their friend as he died sounded no different than his constant efforts to conceal their trail, so the bandits didn’t break their pace. Once that task had been completed and Mitch flashed his infrared strobe light, two members of his team fell into the column and took out the next man in the same manner. The two others rushed forward with their suppressed weapons raised as Givens pulled on the rope between the hostages and the man dragging them along. He turned just as the recovery team fired their first shots and caught two nine-millimeter bullets to the head. Both of the remaining men heard the guns cycle along with the muted shots and most damning of all the wet sound of the slugs taking their colleague’s head apart. The ladies were dragged to the ground to avoid absorbing any stray rounds that might have been fired, but the skill of the recovery team exponentially outweighed that of the rogues and they went down swiftly. Paulson stepped into the path to confirm what he and the others already knew, but procedures and prudence dictated that they ensure that the had recovered the proper personnel.
“Relax ladies, we’re going to get you out of here. Which of you is Catarina Mendoza?”
Up to that moment the former captives had been in shock, but upon hearing her given name the girl in the middle spoke up with the code phrase she had long ago memorized.
“I am the China Poblana.”
Another spoke up quickly.
“What about the rest of us?”
“Don’t worry, you are all going home now. Is anyone hurt?”
None of them were in particularly good health, but they were reasonably fit despite appearing emaciated; however, they were all models and had had little fat on their frames before the thirty-eight day ordeal had unfolded. The team quickly collected the weapons from the dead men and moved the bodies off of the footpath. The women were cut loose, hoods removed, given a cursory visual exam via infrared flashlight and allowed to drink water from the team’s supply. Immediately they all departed in the opposite direction from the encampment as the sun began to rise. Everyone remained silent with the exception of some sobs of joy from the girls when it finally sank in that they’d been only a short trip from the safety of being with their families again. The models were delighted when they’d heard that they were to be picked up by helicopter instead of risking walking or driving through any possible checkpoints.
A few hours later they arrived at the preplanned exfiltration point and Rodney radioed the pilot to move in. While they awaited the arrival of their ride to freedom, Arturo Delacruz checked the girls a little more intensely than before and determined that other than mild malnutrition and a serious case of dehydration, they had been in otherwise good shape. The only thing that concerned his at the time was the rash they’d all had and what effect it might have had on their work going forward. He felt that a few visits to a decent doctor and they had chances to bounce back better than ever. He forced them to down more water from the team’s supply in spite of their protests, which had been cut short by the chopping sounds of the helicopter blades cutting through the humid air. As soon as both birds landed, the doors slide open and Paulson stepped into the clearing giving an all-clear signal, which had been returned from the crew chief. A member of Catarina’s family stepped out and protocol be damned, the girls burst into dead sprints to the aircraft. The jubilations were cut off when the crew chiefs reminded everyone that they had still been in relative harm’s way, so the recovery team took one helicopter and the ex-detainees were whisked away in the other. Both aircraft headed southeast toward Belize and freedom. When they had been well above the effective range of the known rebel weaponry and on their way to the Regional Office in the Central American country, the team relaxed while patting each other on the backs.
A Mexican Army Colonel tagged along for the ride with Rodney and his crew who were still laughing about getting out without a scratch when the pilot got waved him up front. After an apparently terse conversation, the officer returned to the cargo area and then passed out cigars. The crew chief produced a lighter and began assisting the men with their celebratory ritual in spite of a noticeable change in his demeanor. Mitch Givens was ahead of the game and motioned for Rodney to use his lighter. As Paulson was puffing on the stogie his eyes were naturally attracted to motion through the cockpit window and he witnessed the second body falling from the lead bird. He recognized that it had been one of the girls they had just rescued. Not believing his eyes for the moment, he froze his gaze on the cargo door of the first helicopter, but was shocked into action by the gunshots that rang out in the airframe he had been riding in. Rodney spun around to see the Mexican officer taking aim at Delacruz after having shot Hanson and Rogers already. Mitch at that time was firing a second shot into the crew chief and Paulson managed to kick the colonel hard enough that his shot went wide, which provided Arturo with ample time to double tap him in the chest. The men forced the pilot to break the flight formation and to their horror saw another woman falling from the lead aircraft. Their client, Catarina’s father, was forced to the door at gunpoint where he had been shot then fell as well. Immediately the crew chief from that helicopter produced a machine gun and began firing into the fuselage of the errant aircraft. The pilot of Paulson’s bird took it toward the deck so that it skimmed along the treetops. Mitch ordered the pilot to hover and the other two men leapt from the doors into the jungle canopy. Givens held his pistol on the pilot until he reached the door himself before reaching down to pull the pin on one of the grenades on Hanson’s ballistic gear. He jumped clear of the helicopter and a few seconds later watched from the trees as the chopper went up in the explosion. The second bird hovered near the spot where the foliage burned and appeared to be preparing to deposit men to perform a proper casualty assessment, but was driven away when Delacruz opened up with his heavy machine gun. The dark smoke trail was a testament to the accuracy of his fire and the three men were reasonable assured that the pilot would be returning to a safe area for repair instead of landing anywhere that their targets could retaliate.
“What in the hell was that all about?”
Givens may have been hurt by his decent through the trees, but he still had his crass nature intact.
“I got no idea and I am not hanging out to see if I can figure it out.”
“Do you think the government guys wanted to keep the ransom money and make it look like the rebels got us all?”
Delacruz joined the conversation after returning from his firing position.
“The Colonel on board was known for being a straight up and down guy. Nothing in his past supports your double cross theory, but hey man, we’re in Indian country here and anything is possible.”
“Whatever just happened, we have to make our way out of the jungle and arrange for pickup ASAP. But I am not using the radio here. They might triangulate our signal and send in another kill team.”
The men checked the terrain against their maps and plotted a course to the next major city before departing at an expedited pace. Without stopping for more than enough time to relieve themselves periodically and eating or drinking on the run, the trio arrived on the outskirts of the city where they waited for a chance to get a ride into the area and hopefully a phone. A few hours passed before a suitable vehicle passed, but when it did the men sprang into action and commandeered the large SUV. Not without scruples, they gave the two men more than enough money to pay for the early model vehicle and drove away headed into the city. They made their way into the coastal town and searched for an isolated location to use a telephone, which they found after nearly an hour of riding around. Delacruz had been tapped on the shoulder for making the call, as he would draw the least amount of attention, so he dropped his gear in the backseat before exiting to contact the regional office. He explained as quickly as possible their circumstance and was told that transport could be arranged in about a day if they could lay low. He checked his GPS watch and gave the coordinates before sprinting back to the vehicle.
“How did it go?”
“They will be here tomorrow to pick us up, so we have to bed down for a night.”
“Alright, we can get out of this cesspool and back to civilization.”
Paulson reminded the men that their ordeal had not ended just yet and to stay sharp. They then drove away to find a quiet spot away from the area to await their transport. An abandoned building served as shelter and provided enough protection that they felt comfortable taking shifts to watch over each other. Delacruz took the first shift leaving Mitch and Rodney to talk before drifting off to sleep.
“Rod, what do you think happened back there?”
“Only God knows, but he ain’t telling right now.”
“Well, I haven’t talked to him in a while, but the other day, man I had a deep one on one with him and I think this is my last turn at bat.”
“You going to walk away from all of this.”
“How’re you going to get your adrenaline fix?”
A muted laugh was all that Paulson received in reply. The pause turned to silence and the silence shifted to slumber. The rotation of sleep continued until the sun came up and they made a plan to arrive well ahead of the rendezvous time in order to avoid any surprises. They traversed the narrow streets as they prepared to park in the alley across from the planned meeting spot and just as they rounded the corner to the designated street they came upon a man working on a broken down car half blocking the street. Delacruz rolled down his window and spoke to the man in Spanish.
“Hey friend, do you need some help?”
The man peered from around the hood of the car and looked at the men for a spell before answering.
“I think I just about got it. I’ll be done in a moment.”
He disappeared back around the hood and the men were awaiting him to come around to start the car, but the muted gunshots from the back seat of the SUV along with breaking glass came out of nowhere. Mitch had opened up with his submachine gun on two armed men creeping along the walls along the side of the street. The hood of the car in front of them slammed down and they began taking fire from that direction as well. Rodney took his foot off the brake pedal and gunned the engine to get out of the kill zone. Delacruz opened up with the machine gun as the truck flew past the car and the man’s torso burst from the large bullets. The firing from the back seat had ceased and Paulson could see Givens shaking his head in disbelief as they slalomed their way down to the waterfront. The SUV skidded to a halt and the doors flew open as the men exited with their weapons shouldered on their run to the dock. A man tinkering with small boat had the motor running and the owner didn’t require much motivation to step away from it as the two men approached. Delacruz apologized in Spanish to the man and Paulson untied the front end before turning to ensure that Givens had done the same to the back, but Mitch had not been there. He scanned the dock and found his friend face down on the wooden planks. He leapt back onto the dock and sprinted to his friend’s side to search for a pulse, but it proved a fruitless pursuit. Rodney grasped the loop on the back of the tactical vest and began dragging the body toward the small vessel. He threw his friend’s weapons into the boat and hooked his arms under his buddy’s shoulders in preparations to cast him into the boat as well, but shots rang out and the sound of the bullets impacting the dead man’s body caused him to let go while falling back. Before he even settled on the deck, Delacruz had the two hundred and fifty horsepower engine cranked to the maximum and they were moving along quickly out toward the open water. The men firing at them were standing at the end of the dock as they tried to direct their assault at the fleeing boat. A few seconds passed before the men ceased fire and the two surviving members of the recovery team felt comfortable enough to ease up on the throttle. Delacruz kept the boat pointed toward open water in hopes of having enough fuel to reach international waters, because they feared the involvement of corrupt Mexican military vessels in the conspiracy against them.
“What do you think Rod? Are we screwed or what?”
“Art, this is a first for me. I’m as lost as you on this one.”
“Not quite, boss.”
“What do you mean?”
Arturo shifted his weight and revealed the gunshot wound at his side just below the body armor he wore. Rodney scrambled to change positions with him so that he could rest. Their water had been none existent at that point, but the cooler in the boat had ice and they used that as the sun reached its’ full height. Early in the afternoon the fuel gave out and they found themselves at the mercy of the currents. Swimming was not an option in light of Art’s injury as that would have simply been suicide by shark. So they continued to sip the less than healthy water produced by the ice melting as the sun beat upon them for a second day. A leak in the cooler actually depleted more water than their drinking did, which only served to exacerbate the dire situation they found themselves in.
Rodney felt someone shaking his shoulders and assumed that it had been Art checking on him.
“Man, you must be feeling better than I am right now.”
The stranger’s voice nearly panicked him and he started reaching for one of his weapons, but they were not at his side.
“Relax my friend, we mean you no harm. We found you and your friend, so you are safe now.”
“Where am I?”
“You are on our boat and we are heading back to Campeche, Mexico.”
“Do you have a VHF radio on board?”
“Yes, we do and we have a satellite phone as well.”
“What is your name?”
“I am Manuel Oriza and what do I call you?”
“My name is Rodney Paulson. Can I use your satellite phone?”
Manuel went out to retrieve the phone and came back with a steel cup of water.
“Where is my friend?”
The downcast look on the man’s face and his nonresponse spoke volumes.
“Is his body on board?”
“It is on ice in the catch hold. I am truly sorry my friend.”
When Rodney asked to see him, the man cautioned him against it and explained that neither the elements nor the birds were kind to him. The birds’ dropping into the smaller vessel had prompted them to investigate what drew their attention and the rest had been history. Paulson requested and received some privacy so that he could make his call. The phone only rang twice before being answered.
“Hello, how can I direct your call?”
“This is Rodney Paulson for Heinrich Junge.”
The regional manager for Trans Am Security picked up and listened intently as his agent filled him in on the situation. He assured Rodney that he would arrange for a safe extraction immediately and told him to convince the boat’s crew to remain in open water to prevent another attack from the Mexican government. The monetary figure promised to the boating crew surprised even Paulson, but he knew that his company prized men of his professional pedigree. The crew had been delighted by the news that one more night at sea would bring them more cash than six months of steady fishing. Rodney retired for the evening and awaited his ride to freedom.
Paulson awoke early in the morning and made his way to the cargo area of the boat in order to prepare Art’s body for its voyage. He wished that he could have done the same for Mitch, but he’d been sure that his old friend would have understood his choice at that moment. He searched through the compartment until he found a large plastic tarpaulin to wrap Art’s body in and then went topside to get some air. He used a large window as a makeshift mirror to look himself over and lamented how his face reminded him of the young girls when he saw the blisters around his mouth. The first mate approached him excitedly with the satellite phone to his ear and then shoved it in his direction.
“This is Paulson.”
“Rodney, the bird is about ten minutes from your location. Is everything a go for your pick up?”
“I’ll be ready and so will Art’s body.”
He cut the connection and made his way below where another member of the crew began helping him carry his friend’s body topside. The helicopter made its approach and the captain began waving in the early morning light. The bird continued to circle until a man in a suit at the cargo door had visually confirmed Paulson had been aboard. As soon as that had been done another man stepped forward while taking aim with a missile launcher, which locked onto the thermal signature of the engine compartment before he fired. The missile streaked the short distance so quickly that no one had a chance to react. The warhead did its job and ignited the half full fuel bunker as well causing the vessel to nearly completely disintegrate. The man dropped the launcher over board and reached back for a heavy machine gun in order to ensure that every visible body had been devoid of life. With that task completed the helicopter banked hard and sped away. The man in the suit dialed a number on his satellite phone. When Heinrich Junge answered the man spoke quickly and clearly before dropping the phone out of the door.
“Sir, it is done. The clean up was successful, the last possible carrier has been eliminated and the outbreak has been contained.”