"If Baza even touches Gina, it'll take the jaws of life to remove my size thirteen boot from his rear end," Charlie Henry muttered. His eyes were constantly in motion, but kept returning to the red Passat. Gina Sinclair, his old high school girlfriend and current attorney, was in that car, parked beside the curb one block down on Commercial Avenue.
Charlie was seated behind the wheel of his Charger, a car that comfortably accommodated his broad shoulders and six-foot-one frame. His much shorter army buddy and business partner Gordon Sweeney, who swore his blond hair was a product of his Irish ancestry, was riding shotgun. They'd had each other's backs for years in the unit, and habits learned in special-ops missions remained sharp despite the fact both had been civilians since last December.
"Easy, Charles, you've said that Gina's a hard-ass lawyer used to moving among the cockroaches. She can take care of herself. All she has to do is hand him the three hundred dollars and we'll finally have the key and combination to that antique Detroit Safe Company safe," Gordo said, his gaze shifting constantly from storefront, to sidewalk, to passing car. "He said that's where he kept the computer backups, and we need those files."
"Yeah, well, I still don't trust the bastard. It took a week to track him down, and then he tried to screw us," Charlie said. "He could still be lying, just to raise the price."
"Hey, if he'd have just kept his mouth shut and taken the fifty bucks in exchange for the combo and key, I wouldn't have had to bounce him off the wall," Gordo said.
"That bounce is gonna cost us $250 more. Was it worth it?"
"Damn straight, if it'll help us straighten out the bookkeeping and inventory. Besides, nobody refers to my best friend as 'a dumb Indian.'"
"In case you haven't noticed, I'm the Navajo here. I should have had the honor of roughing him up."
"And spoil my reputation as a violent street punk? No way," Gordon said, grinning. He looked down at his watch. "Once this is over, you wanna get lunch?"
"Yeah. Wait, there's our guy." Charlie pointed with his lips, Navajo style, toward a tired-looking apartment building. A tall, muscular man in sunglasses, wearing a blue windbreaker and matching baseball cap, had stepped out the front entrance and was standing on the stoop, looking around casually.
He looked in their direction, and Charlie felt a chill go up his spine.
Baza turned away, apparently disinterested.
"Damn, is this ever going to go away? Every time a target looks in my direction, instinct tells me to duck, no matter how good the cover," Charlie said, angry at his reaction.
"Me too. But if you react and they see movement, all it does is create more attention. You'd have never made it through sniper school, bro."
Out of the corner of his eye, Charlie noticed that his pal's hand had gone to the familiar 9 mm Beretta at his waist. He'd been tempted to do the same with his own weapon in the shoulder holster under his left arm. Having been married to the similar M9 for their years of deployment, the Beretta 92 had been their choice for concealed-carry permits here in New Mexico.
Gina climbed out of the shiny new Passat after an older-model red Chevy passed by, waved her hand to catch Baza's attention, then crossed the street. "It's going down," Charlie muttered. "Be careful, girl."
"Hey, dude, we're not in 'stan anymore, and she's an attorney, not an asset," Gordon said. "Obviously the guy's hurting for money and on the run from creditors, or we wouldn't have had such a hard time finding him the first time. If we don't learn how to make a profit with our little pawnshop, before long we'll be the ones hustling for bucks."
"Except we won't be assholes, like Baza."
"No, we'll be much bigger — ass craters, ass canyons?"
Charlie chuckled, then grew quiet and leaned forward slightly as Gina strode confidently up to the lowlife. Gina was slender and only five feet tall, and Baza was built like a linebacker, towering over her. If Charlie hadn't known that Gina was a longtime student of Krav Maga, he'd have never let her make the meet.
"Maybe we should have wired her or at least had her leave her cell phone on," Gordo said, bringing up his Leica binoculars. "I'm glad we bought this little puppy. I can make out Gina's shade of lipstick from fifty yards away. She's a beautiful little thing. Why'd you two ever break up?"
"We weren't right for each other. And speaking of not right, since when do you know about lipstick?"
"Shit. Baza's packing. Check his right waistband." Gordon handed him the binoculars.
Charlie quickly focused on the target and recognized the butt of a small autoloader. Compared to the AKs and RPGs he'd spotted tucked beneath a man's chapan, the equivalent of a coat in Afghanistan, Baza was almost unarmed. "Looks like a thirty-two. He's new at this. It's jammed in so far, he's likely to blow off his junk if he tries for a quick draw."
"Small hands, so his loss will be minimal. You think we should move in a little closer?"
Charlie shrugged, trying to read the man's expression. "Whoever he's looking out for, it can't be Gina, but as long as she's over there, I'm worried. From what we've heard about the guy, he's been ripping off his creditors for months. He's gonna have enemies."
Baza took her hand in an unnecessary handshake, then hung on to it a little too long before letting go. "He's trying to flirt with her. Good luck with that. Come on, numb-nuts, just make the exchange," Charlie mumbled, now watching Baza's eyes, which roamed up and down Gina's frame.
Charlie switched the Leica's magnification from fifteen back to ten, giving himself a larger field of view. He watched Gina reach into her pocket and bring out the "letter" containing the three hundred.
Baza held out his hand, but Gina shook her head, withdrawing the envelope, then holding out her other hand. Baza smiled, maybe even chuckling a bit, then reached into his jacket pocket and brought out a small manila envelope. He handed it to Gina as she gave him the letter, then both took a step back.
Baza stuck the money into his pocket, but she opened the envelope and looked inside.
A blue shape, a vehicle passing in front of the lens, broke up the image. Charlie lowered the optics, noting the vehicle was an old Ford Taurus. The Taurus stopped in the street right behind Gina just as she nodded, the signal she had a combination and key — hopefully the right ones.
"Who the hell is that?" Gordo said.
"Gun!" Charlie yelled, seeing a barrel poked out the driver's side window. He reached for the door handle and his feet touched pavement as his Beretta came up, but by then a volley of shots had been fired from the blue sedan.
"No!" Charlie yelled as Gina and Baza collapsed onto the sidewalk.
Charlie stepped clear of the door, ignored the horn and skidding tires behind him, and snapped off a round at the driver's side rear window. He was tracking for another shot when the car accelerated and raced past a woman on the sidewalk. He held fire.
The Taurus burned rubber, fishtailing away. Charlie jumped back into the Dodge, jammed his pistol into the holster, and brought the Charger to life. "Keep Gina alive, Gordo," he yelled, still watching the Taurus. "I'm capping this bastard!"
"God's ears!" Gordon responded instantly, jumping out onto the sidewalk. "Go!" he yelled, slamming the door and pounding the rooftop. "I've got Gina."
Charlie whipped out into the street, holding out his left hand to ward off the silver pickup that had screamed to a stop after nearly running him down a few seconds ago.
"Stay back, buddy," Charlie yelled, his heart beating through his chest. He hit the gas and raced down the block, honking his horn to keep the foot traffic out of his way. He passed two people already crouched down by Gina and Barza, one an old black woman with a cell phone at her ear.
Charlie knew that Gordon would be closing in on Gina now — and he had experience dealing with gunshot wounds. No time to think of his best girl now, she was in good hands.
The shooter's car swerved right at the end of the block, taking the corner hard, sideswiping a sedan, leaving a five-foot groove in the driver's door and front end. Two elderly civilians on the sidewalk jumped back, one of them dropping a bag of groceries.
Charlie took the corner without losing speed, shifting gears by instinct, then accelerated toward the Ford, which was throwing rancid blue smoke into the air as the shooter pushed the old car to the limits. Charlie knew he could outrun and out-corner the Taurus, but this was Albuquerque, not Daytona, and they were headed into the metro area.
Ahead were the six lanes of Second Street. The Taurus slowed as it approached the stop sign. The driver signaled right, then took a left, crossed the median, and cut left again into oncoming traffic, now headed south. Brakes squealed, but the Taurus forced himself in between a pickup and a van from a paint company.
Charlie hadn't been faked out. He approached the stop sign, praying for clearance, then his heart skipped a beat. He slammed on the brakes, finally seeing the oncoming monster, a northbound cab-over semi.
His Dodge tracked true, and the shoulder belt kept him off the windshield, but the car slid a foot into the street before stopping. The truck driver leaned on his horn, whipping by at forty miles an hour, its big tires nearly scraping Charlie's front bumper.
Charlie leaned back, nearly out of breath. Four deployments in Afghanistan mostly doing dirty work for the CIA, earning two commendations, then he gets creamed by a Walmart eighteen-wheeler on an Albuquerque street? Hell no, he wasn't going out like this.
Gritting his teeth, he leaned forward, checked traffic south, then saw an opening. He raced to the median, stopped, then jumped into the southbound inside lane behind a fast-moving SUV loaded with a soccer mom and about five hundred kids.
He whipped left and passed the SUV. The mom, cell phone to her ear, probably never even saw him. Charlie scanned ahead, then spotted a blue vehicle ahead in the same lane, smoking like a chimney. It slowed, turned right onto a side street, and disappeared.
Charlie floored the Charger, the engine in a low, throaty growl as he put it through its paces, passing three slower cars by the time he reached the spot. Braking hard, he slid through the turn and found himself on a dead-end street. Ahead was a line of warehouses and behind the long brick structures were train tracks. He drove slowly, checking out the alley on both sides as he cruised west. All he could see on the two-lane road was a city trash hauler lowering a commercial bin and a couple of big rental delivery vans.
At the stop sign ahead, he had two choices, left or right along the line of warehouses. If he'd been making a run for it, he'd have taken the right, so that's what he did. Easing down the street, he looked at the vehicles parked along the street in front of the warehouses. Most of them were different makes and models of trucks and a few sedans. There was no blue Taurus.
Picking up speed and fighting frustration, he took the next right, then headed back toward Second Street. Reaching the alley, he turned into the narrow passage, wanting to check it from this end. Ahead were several vehicles parked beside the loading dock of a four-story brick warehouse. He'd seen these cars from a few blocks down as he'd passed by. Now there was something new — the blue Taurus, complete with bullet hole and the jagged cubes of a shattered rear window still on the back shelf. It was blocking the alley.
Thinking ambush, Charlie pulled left, putting the Hemi engine between him and the Taurus. He turned off the Dodge, grabbed the keys, then jumped out and circled around to his right, pistol in hand as he flanked the Taurus. Using a black Lexus as cover, he stepped out and looked at the far side of the shooter's car. Nobody — no ambush.
Pistol casually down by his side, he walked toward the loading dock, searching for the shooter or anyone who might be around the cars. His gut told him the shooter was close — maybe inside, maybe taking hostages. He walked up two steps of the loading dock, then stopped, checking the alley from his height advantage. He was exposing himself now, so he'd better keep watch. Gordo wasn't there to cover his six.
Several vehicles down to his right, a car door opened. Charlie jumped off the dock, crouching low and listening, trying to find the right car. Out of the corner of his eye he saw a moving shadow against the building wall, arm raised.
Charlie stepped back and sank to his knees just as a gun fired. A bullet struck the bricks just where his head had been a second ago. The blast reverberated down the alley.
From the angle of the sun and the shadow, he knew approximately where the shooter had been, and the low-gear grind of a car backing up cinched it.
"Gotcha now," Charlie said, running west toward the back end of a puke-green Silverado. He dove to the ground, rolled, and brought up his pistol.
A homeless man in a bulky jacket, pushing a shopping cart stacked high with junk, inched out into the middle of the alley. Just then a white sedan raced by the bum, inches away. The man cursed loudly, shaking his fist. The car, a Camry or look-alike, took the corner in a hurry and disappeared, headed east toward Second Street.
Charlie jumped up and raced back to the Charger, afraid that he'd never catch up now. He'd give it a try, but it was now time to call in the cavalry — and pray that Gina was still alive.
Charlie reached Second Street within twenty seconds, looked in both directions, but couldn't confirm where the white sedan had gone — north, south, or east. At least three white cars were on the busy street, moving away from his position at the moment. He had no idea which one to follow. He didn't even have an ID on the shooter. Maybe one of the pedestrians across the street back on Commercial had gotten eyes on the shooter.
Nobody was behind him, so he quickly backed up away from the intersection, did a one-eighty, and drove back toward the warehouse. Cruising up the street, he called 911 to report the warehouse incident and his meager description of the second car.
He ended the call and turned up the alley, shaking now from the anger and adrenaline. Charlie kept watch, not wanting to collide with the transient he'd seen with the grocery cart.
Halfway down the alley was an empty lot and off to his left the railroad tracks — a spur line. There was the guy, pulling and tugging the top-heavy shopping cart over the rails, clearly trying to put some distance between himself and the excitement.
Charlie thought about stopping and walking over, but the guy probably hadn't seen the shooter's face anyway and would just run for it. All he'd do was scare him away from the only thing he had left of value, his cart of stuff. For some reason it seemed odd seeing the US equivalent of a refugee, here at home. Odd, and sad.
When Charlie reached the warehouse parking area, several people in blue-collar clothes and two guys in white shirts and ties were milling around the Taurus. Charlie brought the Charger to a stop. He wanted a look at the car as well. Maybe the shooter had left something behind.
* * *
Ten minutes later, all he'd found besides broken glass was the hole where his 9 mm slug was lodged deep in the center dashboard. He was forced to spend most of his time explaining to the excited workers at the book depository what had happened. After warning everyone for the third time not to touch anything, Charlie gave up waiting for a patrol car to arrive and handed his business card to the warehouse manager. Then he climbed into the Charger and drove away.
Once down the alley and out onto the street, he reached into his jacket pocket and brought out his cell phone, activating the voice-command mode. The cops needed to follow up on the Taurus and the other car, but he knew most of the activity at the moment was going to be at the location where people had been shot. "Call Gordon," he said, pulling out into traffic and heading south.
Not more than five seconds passed until Gordon answered. "Get that SOB?" he asked, his voice subdued.
"Not yet, but he left a trail. His hours are numbered. How badly was Gina hit?" Charlie responded, pulling into a turning lane, signaling to make a left. He planned to go east, hit the next street over, then work his way toward Commercial and the crime scene.