FICTION: Short Change Heroes (Part Two) by Terrence P. McCauley

In Part One, spy James Hicks recruited an old co-worker, Michael Rivas, for a contract job in La Antigua, Guatemala.

CHAPTER 4

Michael Rivas’ device buzzed as soon as he left the club, signaling that the target package Hicks had promised had been downloaded. It had been a long time since he’d gotten anything sent to his phone and the buzz felt good. Like he was part of something again, even if that something was rotten.

He waited until he was back in his car to check his phone. Like many cars in Guatemala, the windows were heavily tinted to discourage car-jackers and other thieves from stealing their cellphones at red lights. But Michael had never been afraid of robbers. He had tinted windows for privacy.

Once inside, the standard Enter Passcode screen came up on his phone. His normal code would open the features common to any smartphone. But the code he entered now led him to a secondary screen that activated his phone’s camera to scan his facial features. Once verified, a second prompt appeared for a longer ten digit code that was unique to him. He entered it and waited.

A second later, Hicks’s target package downloaded. A picture of his target’s face filled the phone’s screen; a doughy, tired looking man in his mid-fifties. Thinning black hair clearly swept back to hide the bald spot at the back of his head. Sad brown eyes set deep and wide apart on a fleshy face. He looked like any other mid-level bureaucrat in any other part of the world.

Except this man wasn’t in any other part of the world. He was right here in Antigua. And tonight would be his last night on earth.

Michael thumbed the picture up to reveal the rest of the target package the University had prepared on the next screen. The information was bare-bones. No fancy logos or official-looking interface. Just everything he’d need to know about how to kill the man.

Name: Antonio Marquez.

Age: 54. Height: 5’7

Weight: 210lbs.

Habits: Smoker; excessive drinker and eater; gambling; philanderer.

Sexual Preference: Hetero.

Female preference: Prostitutes; casual encounters. Prefers: Brunettes (petite).

The report contained other information that could’ve helped set up Marquez for an elaborate kill, but Michael didn’t have time. He had an address, which he found by thumbing the next page into view.

In English, the place Marquez was staying at was called the Bougainvillea Town Houses, a new development on the western edge of Antigua’s historic district. It was like similar housing developments that had sprung up in town over the past decade: high walls, big gates, guards armed with shotguns and nine millimeters. It was in the part of town that was home to the domestics who worked in the hotels and shops of the city. It was only a matter of time before the developers bought up their buildings and pushed them out, too.

Since it was far from the main tourist district, the cobblestones there were paved, which Michael liked. Cobblestones were a bitch to drive over when you were in a hurry and he’d be in one hell of a hurry after killing Marquez.

He had his target’s face and where he lived. All he needed was a means to kill him. Hicks had taken his gun, so now he needed another.

And he had a good idea about where he’d find one.

****

Michael leaned against the courtyard gate of La Compania de Jesus over on Sexta Avenida and lit a cigarette. La Compania was one of several church ruins that tourists loved to visit, making it one of the best places in the city to score marijuana. Street punks of all ages browsed the crowd, quietly asking wide-eyed gringos if they wanted weed as they passed by on the narrow sidewalk.

But Michael wasn’t there to score weed. He needed to convince a pusher to take him to his source. Because sources had guns. Most street-level pushers didn’t have guns because cops frisked them all the time. Low amounts of weed cost them their stash and got them a night in jail. Finding a gun on them came with a severe beating followed by a long prison sentence.

There were other places in Antigua to find guns, of course. Guards at the hotels and nightclubs all had them, but Michael didn’t want to hurt some poor bastard trying to make a buck. He could always take one off a cop, but didn’t want to risk the dragnet they’d throw over the city afterwards.

No, the best place to find a gun fast was by taking it off a source.

Michael knew he if he ghosted some drug buys, he might turn up a gun but that would take time. Neither time nor luck was on his side. He’d need a gun to kill Marquez and he needed it soon.

He was half way through his second cigarette when a pusher ambled over to him. He was a boy not much older than the one he’d killed that morning in the market. He nodded at Michael’s cigarette. “That shit’ll kill you, friend. I got stuff that’ll make you feel real good.”

Michael took a drag. “That so?”

The boy leaned against the gate, casually eyeing the street for the police who watched over the tourists. “I’ve got some real prime stuff, jefe, especially for a big spender like you.”

How quickly these kids could size a man up never ceased to amaze him. “What makes you think I’m a big spender?”

“Gringos come over here looking to score weed, but locals like us can get that shit anywhere. I can tell you’re not a cop, which makes you a local, which means you’re looking for something more. Lucky for you, I got friends.”

Michael made it look like he was thinking it over. He wouldn’t need a cannon to kill Marquez, but he’d want something dependable. A nine-millimeter at least. A weed peddler like this kid probably only had a knife on him, but if his source carried cocaine or heroin, he’d have some good firepower to protect it.

“You got friends that deal in powder?”

“Now you’re talking, jefe. I knew you were a player.” The punk seemed more pleased with his perception of Michael than he was with the money he’d make on the sale. “How much you got on you?”

“Enough. How much you got?”

“As much as you need. Let’s see your money and I’ll go get it for you.”

Michael eased the wad of kill money he’d earned that morning out of his pocket just enough for the punk to get a look at it. His eyes went wide with greed.

But Michael said, “You’re not getting me anything. I buy from your man directly.”

“Nah, jefe. You know it don’t work that way. You give me the money…”

“And I never see you again. What do I look like? Some drunk gringo looking to give away my money? Take me to your source or your source comes here.” He stuffed the money back in his pocket. “Otherwise, I buy from someone else.”

The kid snickered. “That ain’t gonna happen, jefe. He won’t come here.”

Michael shrugged and turned away; scanning for other sellers.

He heard the kid tapping his sneaker nervously against the gate while he thought it over. Michael didn’t blame him. Taking a new buyer to his source was risky, but then there was all that cash Michael had shown him. Was it too much to walk away from?

Michael got his answer when the kid said, “You gonna be here a minute?”

Michael nodded. “Not too long. I get a better offer, I’m gone.”

The kid was already on his way. “If I’m not back in five minutes, I’m not coming back at all.”

Michael watched him head up Sixth, disappearing in the flow of tourists browsing the menus of restaurants across the street. Trying to see where the kid went would be pointless. Many of these old buildings were connected by back doors, so he could be going anywhere.

By the time Michael had almost finished his third cigarette, the kid was back. He noticed the kid was a little out of breath, so he must’ve traveled a few blocks in a short amount of time.

“He said he’ll see you,” the kid told him. “He’s not happy about it, so you better be for real, jefe, or it’ll be both our asses.”

Michael flicked his cigarette into the street. “Lead the way.”

 

CHAPTER 5

 

He followed the kid back up the street about two blocks before they ducked into a dingy farmacia just off Sixth. It was like every other farmacia in Antigua, lined with all the things you’d expect to see in a drug store back in the states, except in a much smaller space. A large bulletproof cage dominated the back wall where the counter was. All of the expensive, easy-to-steal items were behind the glass. A big, handwritten sign above the counter said in English: Smile, You’re On Camera, though Michael figured the camera had probably been turned off for this particular transaction.

The kid hovered off to the side as the man behind the glass beckoned him further into the store. Michael had hoped there’d be more people than just him and the counterman. Even if the counterman had a gun, he’d never get it away from him behind the thick glass. Michael thought about walking away, but decided to let it play out a bit longer.

Then two other men walked into the store behind him. Michael caught their reflection in the bulletproof glass and saw they were squat broad men with big bellies. They looked like they’d been tough once, but those days were long gone. One of them eyed the street while the other stood facing Michael; holding a nine millimeter flat against his right leg. He stood close, but not close enough for Michael to make a grab for the gun. Not yet, anyway.

The counterman said, “What do you want and how much do you want?”

“Depends on what you’re selling.”

The counterman scowled at the boy, who’d begun to shrink against the corner. “Come on, jefe. Quit playing games. You know why you’re here.”

“Who’s playing games?” Michael asked. “I asked him a simple question and he …”

He saw the counterman signal the gunman, who went to grab him.

Michael drove an elbow into his throat and snatched the gun from his right hand. He got behind the gunman and wrapped his arm around the gagging man’s throat; pulling him back against the wall with him as cover.

He had the gun on the man eyeing the street before the man had even turned around. The kid who’d brought him here was too paralyzed to move and the counterman was behind half an inch of bulletproof glass. He couldn’t do shit even if he’d wanted to.

With the gun, Michael beckoned the man watching the street inside the farmacia . “Nice and easy. No need for anyone to get hurt. You got a gun?”

The man did as he was told and stood next to the cringing boy. He raised his hands and turned around slowly. Michael saw a lot of flab, but no gun. Michael told him to raise both pants legs and he did. No gun on his ankle either.

The counterman glared at him, angry and impotent from behind the scratched glass. “What the hell do you want?”

Michael didn’t want conversation. He just wanted to get as far away from there as possible. He aimed the nine at the kid. “Open the door or I shoot the kid. Do it now and do it real slow.”

The counterman quickly reached over and slid the bolt open. Michael motioned for the boy and the other man to go inside and they did. He pushed the gunman against the glass and frisked him. “Any more bullets?”

“No. That’s all I have.”

The pat down proved him right. Michael swore under his breath. Fucking peasants never thought ahead.

“Get in there with the rest of them, then lock the door behind you.”

The man did as he was told. The counterman came back around to the slot near the cash register and yelled: “What the hell are you doing?”

“Stay in there for exactly thirty seconds. After that, you can do whatever the hell you want. But if I see anyone stick their head out that door, I’ll come back here and kill all of you. Understand?”

Everyone nodded except the counterman. “You mean all you wanted was the gun? Hell, I could’ve sold you a goddamned gun!”

But Michael didn’t stop to answer.

 

CHAPTER 6

 

Dawn was still more than an hour away when Michael parked his car alongside the wall of the Bougainvillea Town Houses.

Like most developments in Antigua, the wall had been built fifteen feet high with broken glass set into the concrete atop the wall. Three strands of barbed wire strung along the top drove the message home: stay out.

Even though Michael had walked away from the Life the year before, his training had never left him. That was why he always kept an extra thick, heavy blanket in his trunk for just such occasions.

He lugged the heavy blanket down the dark alley and tossed one end high over the wall. The blanket covered the barbed wire and broken glass; snagging on the sharp edges. He tugged on the blanket and knew it would hold his weight just long enough for him to get over the wall.

He took as much of a running start as he could in the narrow street and ran at the wall; digging the sole of his sneaker against the painted cinderblocks and propelled himself upward.

He grabbed the blanket high, close to the top of the wall and pulled himself up. He carefully straddled the top of the wall, knowing he was silhouetting himself against the brightening sky, but he was more fearful of a guard or a passing cop spotting the blanket hanging over the wall.

Careful not to slip, he pulled the other side of the blanket up with him as he dropped inside the compound. The blanket snagged on the wire and broken glass, but tore clean and fell with him.

Michael quickly draped the blanket over his head and shoulders to confuse his outline in the weak pre-dawn light. If this had been a normal operation, he would’ve been provided with the times when the guards went on patrols. Or he would’ve had time to observe them long enough to figure it out for himself. But this wasn’t an operation. This was a quick and dirty op for an asset looking to get back in. He’d been trained to make due.

The townhouses were like the other, newer development projects in Antigua: built to look older than they really were. Cracked facades with faded paint and windows with Spaniard-styled cages bolted over them. While ornamental, they were also effective at keeping people out. People like Michael.

He’d thought of other ways of killing Marquez. Taking a shot at him on the street or in his car was risky and civilians could get hurt. Michael didn’t particularly care if innocents got hurt – collateral damage was part of the job – but a bunch of frightened people calling cops and taking pictures with their cellphones made a clean getaway much more difficult.

That’s why he’d decided to hit Marquez so early; well before the noon deadline. More people asleep meant fewer witnesses.

But he had to find a way inside first.

The antiqued bars on the windows made climbing in a window impossible, so he moved around to the front of the house. The front door was locked and solid. But the twin doors on the side looked like they led to a garden or patio area. That was good news. The high walls and armed guards in housing developments often gave residents a false sense of security. They often forgot to lock the garden doors properly.

He pushed the doors slightly and saw they were locked, but not bolted to the ground. There was just enough give to open them with just enough force.

Once inside the garden, he closed the doors behind him and tossed the blanket aside. He’d come back for it after the job was finished. He would need it to get back over the wall.

The area wasn’t really a garden. It was a cracked concrete slab with a patch of green and a gurgling fountain against the far wall.

Michael saw two empty bottles of wine on the metal table on the patio. Even in the twilight of the coming dawn, he could see the remnants of red wine caked in the bottom of two glasses.

Two glasses meant Marquez might have company. If that was the case, he’d deal with it. Collateral damage.

Michael tried the glass door leading from the patio into the house. People were often more careless with interior doors than they were with outside doors. Luckily for him, the door was unlocked and he went inside.

He quietly closed the door behind him and pulled the nine millimeter from his belt. He checked the living room, the dining area and the kitchen. He expected all of them to be empty and they were. That meant the bedrooms must be upstairs.

Marquez clearly liked big leather furniture and modern art because the living room was filled with both. Michael didn’t know what Marquez did for a living, but somewhere along the way he’d acquired expensive tastes. Too expensive for an honest bureaucrat’s salary. Michael wondered if that’s why the Dean wanted Marquez dead. He quickly remembered that ‘why’ didn’t matter in this business.

Michael took an overstuffed pillow from the couch and headed upstairs. The pillow was thick enough to muffle the sound when he shot Marquez and whoever else was with him. True, there’d be pillows in the bedrooms, but since he didn’t know what he’d be walking in on, it was best to come prepared.

The stairs popped under his feet, but not loud enough to wake anyone. The floors at the top of the stairs were stone tiled. No creaking floorboards to give him away.

A door on the left at the top of the stairs was open. He checked it. An empty guest bedroom.

Another door across the hall was also open Marquez’s home office. Also empty.

One door left. And it was closed.

It was the kind of door developers put in places like this. New, but weathered to look old. Instead of a doorknob, there was a Spaniard style metal latch that was more for decoration than security. But latches like that were noisy as hell. They often stuck, only to pop and jangle when opened. If Marquez was a light sleeper, the rattle might wake him. He might go for a gun in the nightstand or try to run. Things could get loud and loud attracted attention this early in the morning. He couldn’t let that happen.

Michael tucked the pillow under his arm and slowly pulled the door closer; easing pressure on the latch as he pushed down on the lock. It rose with a click instead of a rattle.

Knowing the hinges would creak anyway, Michael opened the door quickly and stepped into the bedroom.

He found Marquez alone in bed – on his back – snoring loudly amid a sea of pillows. Glass doors leading out to a balcony facing west were wide open. That would’ve been a much easier way inside than creeping through the entire goddamned house. He cursed Hicks for not giving him that information and for not giving him enough time to set the hit up properly.

He also cursed himself for being in the position where he was forced to take such a rotten assignment.

He set aside that nonsense and brought up his stolen automatic as he approached the bed.

Just as he’d gotten close enough to press the pillow on Marquez’ face to muffle the shot, he heard the front door crash open downstairs. He didn’t know who it was or why they’d just kicked in the door.

It didn’t change anything, either. The crash woke Marquez just as Michael pushed the pillow over his face, jammed the gun into the center of the pillow and fired twice. He didn’t have to lift the pillow to know Marquez was dead.

Whoever had just kicked in the door was already bounding up the stairs in one hell of a hurry. Sounded like two, maybe three men. Michael had no intention of hanging around to find out.

He ran for the balcony and looked over the railing. Nothing was in jumping distance without risking a busted ankle or worse. Dropping to the courtyard below was the safest bet.

He threw one leg, then another over the railing and began to ease himself down just as bullets began pelting the balcony and the railing. He held on for just a second longer before dropping to the ground.

The wall between Marquez’s house and the one next door was too high for him to climb. He was trapped. All the dogs in the development, spooked by the shots, began to bark and yip. He heard the men who’d shot at him running into the bedroom. Time to get the hell out of there.

The right side of the narrow alley was blocked by a tall gate with climbing vines, so he ran to his left, between the rear wall and the house. He’d just about turned the corner when a bullet chipped the concrete façade only inches from his head.

Michael didn’t try returning fire. A gun battle with little ammunition wouldn’t solve anything. Getting away was his only option.

He rounded the far corner and ran back toward the front of the house. The silhouette of a man blocked his path. Even in the weak light of the coming dawn, Michael could see the man had a gun in his hand. Without breaking stride, Michael fired three times, hitting the man in the center of the chest. The man slumped back against the wall separating the properties.

Michael checked the front of the house for the other gunmen, but didn’t see them.

He knew he had only a few seconds before they came after him. But he was low on ammo, so he searched the man he’d just shot for clips. He found three clips on his belt and quickly pocketed them.

He also found something else: a badge from the Guatemalan National Police.

Michael Rivas had just killed a federal cop in a very small town.

He was already running toward the main gate when the other cops began firing at him from the doorway.

 

CHAPTER 7

 

At that same moment about a mile away, James Hicks had just finished packing when his cell phone began to buzz. This was odd because no one should’ve needed to speak to him this early in the day. He didn’t have any active ops going on, except for the Marquez job halfway across town. Despite the tough time he’d given Michael in the bar, he knew Rivas wouldn’t have a problem dusting some potbellied bureaucrat.

He saw the call was from an international cover used by The University, so he answered using University protocol. “This is Andersson.” That specific alias meant he was alone and he was clear to speak freely. The phone didn’t operate on a standard cellular network, so concerns about eavesdroppers was negligible.

“Professor Anderson, please hold for the Dean.”

Hicks froze. The Dean never spoke directly to personnel – even Faculty like him – unless someone had done an exemplary job or something had gone terribly wrong. Given the hour, Hicks’ gut told him this call was the latter, not the former.

The Dean’s clear voice came on the line a moment later. “You’ve got one hell of a problem on your hands, son.”

Hicks knew there was only one answer the Dean ever wanted to hear in situations like this. “Whatever it is, sir, I’ll handle it.”

“You’d better. Because we’ve picked up chatter from the Guatemalan national police that says Antonio Marquez just got hit.”

Hicks relaxed a little, but wondered if the Dean was slipping. “Yes sir. You told me to assign that to Mike Rivas yesterday afternoon. But why would the national police care about Marquez?”

“Because they had him under surveillance and we didn’t know about it. They detected Rivas in Marquez’s house and tried to protect Marquez. Fortunately, Marquez was already dead by the time the team got to the room.”

Hicks cringed. This was what happened when an op got rushed. He kept the anger out of his voice. “Did Rivas get away, sir?”

“Yes, but he shot one of the detectives who cornered him. Hit him three times in the chest, but the cop had a vest on. He’ll probably live, but the federals are still out for blood.”

Hicks knew what he had to do next, but he also knew the Dean would have to give him permission first. The Dean was a firm believer in The Book and enforced protocol above all. He always said that moving too fast killed more people than moving slow in this business. And, as usual, The Dean was right. “What do you want me to do, sir?”

“How solid is Rivas, James. Don’t sugar coat it. I need to know in case they catch him.”

“He’s a rock, sir. A little rusty, maybe, but he’s still Mike Rivas.”

“This coming from the same man who didn’t know Marquez was under surveillance by the feds,” the Dean said.

Hicks wanted to remind the smug bastard that he was the one who ordered the rush job in the first place. But arguing with the Dean was a good way to end your career, so once again, he held his tongue. “What do you want me to do, sir?”

“I know you think he’s solid, but he’s been out of the fridge too long to know for sure. If he’s been arrested, eliminate him. If he’s alive, bring him in. We owe him at least that much. A helicopter is en route as we speak. I’ll have the coordinates sent to you in a few minutes.”

Hicks breathed again. “Thank you, sir. That’s very kind of you, sir.”

“I hate obvious extractions like this, but given the circumstances, I don’t see as we have any choice.”

Hicks already had his bag in hand and was on his way out the door. “I’m on it, sir.”

“And Hicks? No more screw ups.” And with that, the line went dead.

Hicks pocketed the phone and opened the door. Speak for yourself you old bastard.

 

Next Monday in Part Three: Can Michael Rivas escape the Federales? Will Hicks let him?

* * *

Terrence McCauley is a multi-award winning writer of crime and pulp fiction. His short fiction has appeared in THUGLIT, SHOTGUN HONEY, BIG PULP and several other publications. He recently signed a three book deal with Polis Books to relaunch two previous novels and publish a brand new work: SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL, featuring protagonist James Hicks. Terrence is represented by Doug Grad of the Doug Grad Literary Agency. Terrence’s website is www.terrencepmccauley.com

 

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