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

Previously, agent Michael Rivas was trapped in Guatemala after carrying out a mission for the mysterious University.

CHAPTER 8

Michael sprinted toward the main gate of the development. Stealth be damned. He just had to get the hell out of there.

He knew there’d be at least one armed guard at the gate, maybe two. Those boys usually had shotguns bigger than they were and weren’t afraid to use them. They weren’t as well trained as cops, but a shotgun didn’t need a lot of training.

Michael slowed when he heard someone running toward him from the gate. The jangle of keys told him it was a guard. Rivas threw himself against the wall and a moment later, a short, lean man in a starched uniform came around the corner. Shotgun in hand.

In one swift motion, Michael came from around the corner, grabbed the shotgun and elbowed the guard in the jaw.

As the guard staggered back, Michael yanked the shotgun from him and jerked the guard to his feet. He shoved the guard back toward the gate and yelled, “Is anyone else in the guard booth?”

The guard shook his head too quickly and Michael jammed the barrel of the shotgun into the back of his neck as he pushed him back to the gate. “Don’t lie to me.”

“He just showed up for his shift,” the guard cried. “He’s on the phone now, calling the police.”

Michael shoved him along faster; keeping him between him and the gate. “He got a shotgun in there?”

“Yes and a .9 millimeter, same as me.”

At least he knew what was ahead of him. And the cops from the house would be on him any second. “Will your friend open the gate?”

“Probably. He’s new.”

Michael hoped he was right, for both their sakes.

****

The second guard was crouched in the gatehouse, aiming a shotgun at Michael and the guard. Even from that distance, Michael could see the barrel shaking.

The guard didn’t need any prompting from Michael to say, “Joel, open the gate. This bastard will kill us if we don’t.”

But Joel didn’t move. “The police are on their way.”

“Damn it! Open the goddamned gate before this bastard shoots me!”

The guard swatted at the buzzer and the gates swung open. Michael kept the guard as cover as they passed through the gate and into the street.

Although the sun hadn’t risen yet, the street was already full of trucks, cars and buses. They leaned on their horns as Michael pulled the guard with him into traffic until they saw the shotgun. He could hear the police shouting as they ran toward the gate.

Michael had to get as far away from them as possible, but a car was useless in this mess.

“Please,” the guard said, “don’t kill me. I…”

Michael drove the butt of the shotgun down into the side of his neck and let him fall to the cobblestones. By the time drivers got out of their vehicles to aid the guard, Michael was already running down the narrow street across from the development. Since the shotgun would only slow him down, he tossed it in an old alley.

When he reached the corner, he saw the two detectives who’d chased him trying to thread their way through the tangle of cars and busses and people in the middle of the street.

He started running again.

 CHAPTER 9

Hicks cruised; waiting for his handheld to get a fix on Michael’s phone. As advanced as the University’s technology was, it still took a minute or two to locate a signal, especially in places like Guatemala. Normally, that wasn’t much time, but with Guatemalan federal cops on his ass, he knew Michael Rivas didn’t have a minute or two.

He wondered where he should start looking for Michael. Was he in a car on his way out of town? Had the police killed or wounded him? Any of the above was possible. Most Americans bought the notion of the lazy, crooked South American cop they saw in the movies. Hicks knew Guatemalan cops were probably the toughest and most capable cops in the Americas. And they’d caught Michael by surprise.

Hicks knew looking for Michael at the Marquez house would be a waste of time. He’d be long gone by now and the place would be swarming with cops.

He’d personally trained Michael to avoid capture. But he’d also trained him to plan out several escape routes in advance. The Dean’s tight timeframe hadn’t allowed time for that level of planning. And any escape route would’ve been compromised the second the cops started shooting at him anyway.

That meant Michael would do the next best thing — find some place crowded. Blend in. Unfortunately, Antigua wasn’t London or Paris or New York. It was tough to find crowds so early in the morning. It would be a good hour or more before the crowds that filed the tiny city from dawn until dusk grew large enough for Michael to disappear. There were no shortage of places to hide in the old city, but the police knew every one of them. And they’d search every one of them until they found the man who’d killed their informant and shot one of their own.

Even with all that against him, Hicks was still betting on Michael. He’d find somewhere to hide. Somewhere…

His handheld beeped and a detailed satellite image of Antigua opened. It looked like any other GPS application on any other phone, only this was designed to track specific targets, not just find gas stations or Starbucks. The blue dot showed Hicks’ position.

The red dot showed Michael’s. He was moving north away from Marquez’s house; through the haphazard network of back yards and alleys that ran parallel to Alameda Santa Lucia.

Back into the heart of the city; away from the closest ways out of town.

Why? It didn’t make sense.

Hicks thumbed the map down to see where Michael might be headed. When he saw it, Hicks smiled and meant it. The irony was that rich.

He tucked the phone in his jacket pocket and put the car in gear. He was on his way to pick up his man.

****

Michael ran faster when he hit the corner of Alemeda Santa Lucia and bolted straight into heavy traffic. He wasn’t worried about raising attention because running was the only way to cross Santa Luce.

Foot traffic on the street was already thick with workers getting off buses from nearby towns. Most of them were heading to work at hotels and stores and the open-aired Municipal Market that catered to the gringo trade.

The same market where Michael planned to hide.

He slowed down within the crowd and controlled his breathing. His adrenaline was high and he needed to calm down. He didn’t want any locals remembering him and pointing him out once the police began canvassing the area.

He made sure his gray t-shirt was loose and the shirt he had over it was un-tucked and unbuttoned; hiding the pistol and the three magazines tucked in his belt.

He heard the wail of sirens approaching fast, so he followed a crowd down a side street. He spotted a large grocery store that he’d shopped at a couple of times before. He knew it stretched from the south side of the street all the way to the north. He’d be able to blend in much easier in the store on his way to the Municipal Market. There, maybe he’d steal a car or get hired on a work crew that would take him out of Antigua before the roadblocks went up – if they weren’t up already.

Michael went unnoticed through the grocery and came out the north entrance. Grocery workers had already piled up bags of garbage on the street to be hauled away.

He made sure no one was paying much attention before quickly dumping the gun and magazines in one of the bags. He stripped to the waist and put the shirts in the bag, too, then hoisted the bag onto his shoulder. He walked toward back to Santa Lucia; looking like any other poor bastard trudging off to the market to make a buck.

Back on Santa Luce, he moved the bag to his left shoulder; making it harder for the police to see his face. He didn’t think the detectives who’d shot at him had gotten a good look at him, but the guards at the gate sure as hell did. He didn’t know how reliable their description would be, but he didn’t want to take any chances.

With the bulging bag of guns and garbage on his back, Michael slogged his way across the street, through traffic toward the market. Police cars with full lights and sirens sped by in both directions. None of them slowed down and he didn’t bother looking at them, either.

He was careful to avoid the stares he drew from the Policia Tourista – Tourist Police – who watched everyone entering the Market. They weren’t state or federal cops, but they still had guns and – even worse – radios. The market was a good place to blend in, but a bad place to get trapped if they spotted him.

The market where he worked in Guatemala City was used only by merchants and vendors. This market drew tourists looking for good deals on everything from bags to clothes and other things. Tourists meant a heavy police presence.

He’d just passed through the main entrance when he heard the police radios squawk his description and what he’d been wearing. He was glad he’d stripped down to the waist, since that was the only accurate part of their description. Another bare-chested peasant carrying a garbage bag is the last person they were looking for in a cop shooting.

He also heard they were immediately setting up roadblocks at all the exits to the city. He knew that gave him about fifteen minutes to half an hour to find a way out of town.

Tough, but not impossible. Not for him.

Michael limped along with his bundle; past the stalls that were slowly opening up for the day’s business. They sold trinkets and clothes and CDs and food and traditional Guatemalan clothing to the hundreds of gringos who strolled through each day.

The locals always went to the back of the market, where the fruits and vegetables and other items were sold wholesale and cheaper than in other parts of the market. That’s where Michael would look for a way to get out of town. Now that they were looking for him, stealing a car would be risky. His best bet was hiring on a work crew heading out of town.

Michael heard a car horn honk close by and saw Hicks sitting behind the wheel of a rented Ford parked a few feet away. His white skin and gray suit, he would’ve stuck out like a sore thumb in the market at that time of the morning. He was smart to stay in the car.

Michael slowly took the bag off his shoulder as he ambled over to the car, careful not draw attention.

“Get in,” Hicks said, “and let’s get the hell out of here.”

Michael slid his hand into the bag and grabbed hold of the gun. “I ought to kill you for setting me up like that.”

“If I’d set you up, I sure as hell wouldn’t be here now. The op went sideways as ops will sometimes do. We didn’t know that asshole was being watched by the feds. The Dean fouled up and he knows it, so he’s sending a chopper to get us out here.”

Michael knew the Dean didn’t apologize. This was just Hicks’s way of getting him into the car. “Bullshit.”

“If I’d wanted you dead, I would’ve shot you instead of honking the goddamned horn.” Hicks held up his phone so he could see the map application on the screen. It showed where the helicopter would land and its estimated time of arrival. “The bird lands in twenty minutes and takes us to Belize. You can either be on that helicopter with me or you can stick here and slug it out with the federals on your own. Your choice.”

Michael saw the map, saw the approaching black dot that was the helicopter. And saw that it headed toward a landing site at a new resort being built on top of a large hill about ten minutes away. Everything about Hicks’ story checked out.

“Looks like we don’t have much time,” he said.

Hicks tucked the phone back into the pocket of his jacket. “You know where it is?”

“Yeah.” Michael dug his buttoned shirt out of the bag and shrugged it on. “Get in the back like you’re a passenger. I’ll drive.”

CHAPTER 10

Michael eased the Ford through the growing crowd of merchants and locals entering the market. They looked like any other cab heading into traffic. There were more police at the entrance now than there had been when Michael had walked in. They didn’t pay the car much mind, but he heard their radios crackling with details about the roadblocks going up all around the small city.

Hicks spoke Spanish fluently and heard it, too. “Sounds like we’re in deep shit, ace.”

Michael saw a rare gap in traffic along Santa Lucia and hit the gas.

He looked in the rearview mirror and saw Hicks being Hicks — alert, but calm. Michael hated to admit it, but he felt rusty. Having a man like Hicks along made him feel better. The movies and books always got it wrong. Killing a mark was easy. Training and skill made all the difference in getting away alive when time got tight.

The Ford rumbled along the cobblestones, making the ride not only bumpy, but slow. “Any other way to get up to the helipad?” Hicks asked.

“We could hike it up there if we had a day and a half. Other than that, only way we’ll up get there in time is the main road out of town.”

Hicks rolled down his window in the back. “Roll up your window and I’ll roll down mine. That way, any cops will focus more on me than you.”

Michael did it. He also took his gun from his belt and tucked it in between the seat next to him.

Hicks caught the motion. “Only if we have to, Michael. The Dean doesn’t want bloodshed, especially dead cops. It won’t take long for the federals to blame us for Marquez. No need to make it worse by killing one of them in the bargain. You got lucky that cop was wearing a vest. Let’s not push our luck.”

Michael knew he should’ve felt something at hearing that the cop had been wearing a vest. Happiness. Relief. Something. But at that moment, all he cared about was reaching the helicopter.

****

Michael and Hicks tensed as they rumbled toward Parque Central and the municipal buildings that surrounded it, including police headquarters. The park was deserted at that time of the morning, save for the federal, state and local police that usually mustered there before heading out on patrol.

Michael didn’t know if there were more or less cops than usual in the park on that particular morning, but there were a lot of them. About thirty.

And every one of them eyeballed the Ford as it rumbled past.

Hicks saw one of them – a sergeant – take special interest; breaking off from the group and approach them.

“Keep looking straight ahead and keep going like you don’t see him,” Hicks said. “You’re a taxi taking another gringo to the airport.”

Michael slowly fed it some gas as the sergeant began waving at them to stop. It was a minor defiance that obviously annoyed the sergeant, but not enough for him to go for his weapon. But from the side view mirror, Michael saw him reach for the walkie mic clipped to his shirt pocket.

“Shit. He’s calling us in.”

“Nothing we can do about that,” Hicks said. “Just concentrate on getting us to that helipad and we’re home free.”

As soon as Michael swung the Ford onto Calle de Capuchinas – the main road out of town, he saw two state squad cars were setting up a roadblock for outbound traffic. Four cops were dropping orange cones to narrow traffic down to one lane so cops could inspect each vehicle. Another state car had just pulled up behind that. Traffic was starting to pile up and showed no signs of letting up.

“How’re we doing on time?” Michael asked.

Hicks was already sitting forward on the seat. “Not good enough to be able to ride this out.”

Michael hadn’t thought so. “Can you contact the pilot to tell him to back off?”

Hicks shook his head. “The Dean didn’t exactly send me the pilot’s cell phone number. That bird lands in ten minutes. Takes off in eleven with or without us.”

Michael was more worried about the roadblock. Even if they missed the chopper, they could find another way out of the country. After all, Hicks was a valuable Faculty member of the University. He’d get Hicks got out of the country. And Michael knew Hicks would take him with him.

And then Michael saw the doors of the third police car open. And he saw the guards from Marquez’s housing development step outside. The one he’d knocked out was woozy, but the other one was fine. He’d gotten a good look at Michael and wouldn’t hesitate to point him out at the checkpoint.

Michael threw the Ford into gear. “You might want to buckle up, boss. Shit’s about to get heavy.”

CHAPTER 11

Michael nosed the Ford out of his line in traffic and drove over an orange cone. The cops had been too busy beginning to inspect cars to notice he’d broken out of the line until the cars behind him began honking.

The second they looked up, Michael floored it, glad to finally be on asphalt instead of the damned cobblestones of Antigua. The Ford bolted forward like a dog suddenly off its leash, unsure of its freedom. He shot between a policemen and a squad car blocking the roadway. It was a sloppy roadblock, but Michael didn’t blame them. No one ran roadblocks in Guatemala unless they had a death wish.

Michael didn’t have a death wish. He just didn’t have a lot of time.

Hicks kept an eye out the back window as Michael floored it up the hill. “I’ll keep an eye on them. Just drive.”

Neither of them needed to state the obvious. The cops drove souped up Suburbans that handled these roads faster than their sedan.

The road out of town gradually inclined, curving upward around the mountains that surrounded the ancient city. The view was breathtaking that time of the morning, but neither Michael nor Hicks had time for sightseeing.

****

Hicks heard the siren before he saw the police SUV coming up behind them. It was still a good distance away, but growing louder by the second.

“How far now?” Hicks asked.

Michael spotted the dirt road turnoff up to the construction site just around the next bend. “Five minutes. Plenty of time.”

The Ford darted around the bend just as the police Suburban sped around the distant corner. Michael sank the gas pedal to the floor and took the dirt road turnoff leading to the development. “We’re kicking up a hell of a lot of dust. They’ll see where we went, but hopefully we can stay ahead of them.”

Hicks hoped so, too.

The dirt road was steeper and narrower than the main road had been. It was little more than a construction path for equipment and crews who were building the resort on top of the mountain. When finished, it would offer an incredible view of Antigua and the three volcanoes around it. But for Michael and Hicks, it was their ticket out of the country.

Michael pushed the Ford as hard as he could, the engine whining as the sedan sped up the mountain. The hazy sunlight of dawn made it difficult for him to see, so he stayed to his right. He’d rather smack the rock face than tumble off the mountain.

Hicks didn’t like what he saw from the rear window. “They’ve just cleared the switchback at the base of the mountain.”

Michael swung the Ford around the numerous hairpin turns of the road that snaked up the mountain until the road leveled off. They came to a chain-link fence that spanned across the roadway. Now level, the Ford lurched forward and rammed through the fence. The gate fell easily, but got caught under the vehicle, shredding one of the tires.

Neither Michael nor Hicks hesitated. Michael threw the gear in park before he followed Hicks as he bolted from the car.

Hicks looked at his handheld. “We’re in good shape. The bird is just over that ridge.”

They could hear the siren grow louder as the police Suburban tore up the mountain. Michael knew they’d make better time than he had.

Michael and Hicks ran toward the LZ. “I don’t see it or hear it, Hicks.”

“It’s a small chopper, not a Huey, for Christ’s sake,” Hicks said; running at a better clip than Michael. “It’ll probably …” He pointed up at a small speck in the distance, just over the ridge. “There it is! Heading straight for us.”

But Michael looked back and saw the police Suburban had just rattled over the busted fence; heading their way.

Both men took cover behind shrubbery on either side of the road. “Aim for their tires!” Hicks yelled as the sound of the helicopter’s rotor grew louder. “Don’t kill them unless necessary.”

“I’m not dying on this goddamned hilltop.” Michael pulled his gun and aimed at the approaching Suburban. He realized he didn’t know if Hicks had a gun until his boss opened fire on the SUV. Rounds struck the Suburban dead center in the engine block as Michael fired at the tires. He squeezed off only three shots, preferring to save his ammo for the cops if necessary.

The Suburban skidded to a crooked stop as Hicks’ rounds caused the hood to fly open; smacking off the windshield. Now both cops would have to get out on the driver’s side if they wanted to use the Suburban for cover.

Michael felt the dust and gravel kick up behind him as the helicopter came in for its landing. He saw the cop on the driver’s side lean across the ruined hood as he fired. Hicks shot close, but well over their heads. Michael’s shots hit the hood and sent the cops scrambling.

Hicks yelled over the rotor noise. “Ride’s here! Come on!”

The helicopter had no sooner touched down when the two men ran toward it at a crouch. Michael went for the near door while Hicks ran around to the other side.

Bullets began pelting the helicopter as Hicks climbed in the back. Michael was halfway in as the helicopter lifted off the ground. The glass in Michael’s open door began to web from the impact of the rounds.

Hicks grabbed Michael by the collar and pulled him inside as the pilot pulled back on the stick; taking to the air. He banked left, the motion shutting Michael’s door as Hicks tried to get a better look at his man.

He saw the blood spreading out on Michael’s shirt and knew it was a chest wound. A bad one. The rattling helicopter made it difficult to get a pulse, but with that wound, Michael was either dead or damned close to it. At least he he’d been a man of his word. He hadn’t died on that goddamned mountain.

And if he was dying, he died well. Doing what he’d been trained to do the best way he’d known how.

Then Hicks remembered what he’d taught Michael. Don’t panic. Don’t guess. Work the situation until you’re sure. He took a bandage from the first-aid pack above the back seat and held it on Michael’s chest wound. He pulled his agent to him, facing east so he – or maybe his soul – could see the rising sun.

Hicks had been in the Life too long to believe in romantic notions like souls, but he knew Michael did. And right then and there, Hicks wanted to believe in them too.

“Your friend ok?” the pilot shouted over the sound of the spinning rotors.

Hicks watched the edge of the sun rising over the mountains and volcanoes, burning off the haze; bathing his friend’s face in light. Yes, Hicks desperately wanted to believe in a soul. Not for his sake. But for Michael’s.

“Better off than either of us.”

Or, at least, he hoped so.

 #

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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