Drone
An Excerpt From
Drone

CHAPTER 1

El Paso, Texas

Cinco de Mayo was cooler than usual in the sprawling border city of El Paso, one of the poorest in America. In one of its grimmest barrios, a pink stucco house thrummed with life on a dark, narrow street. A crowd of teenagers from the nearby arts academy high school danced to throbbing music in the frame of its big picture window, their faces all smiles and laughter. The first graduation party of the year.

Out on the front porch, a knot of young men in hoodies and drooping pants stood guard, drinking beer out of Solo cups and smoking cigarettes, trying to look tough in a brutal part of town. To anybody passing by, they looked like somebody’s crew, but they were just teenagers like the kids inside, their young bodies rocking unconsciously to the beat of the music behind them.

An obsidian-black Hummer on big custom wheels slowed as it passed the house. The windows were blacked out. Death-metal music roared inside. No plates on the bumpers.

The hoodies out front pretended not to notice, playing it cool but keeping careful watch out of the sides of their bloodshot eyes.

Four houses up, the Hummer’s red brake lights flared as it slowed to a stop, then its white back-up lights lit up. The big black box of steel rolled backward. The gear box whined until it stopped in front of the pink stucco house.

It just sat there, idling.

The death-metal music still thundered behind the Hummer’s blackened glass, muffled by the steel doors.

Now the boys turned in unison, stared at it, starting to freak out. The oldest kid nodded at the tallest.

“Yo. Go check it out.”

“Me? You check it out.”

No need.

The Hummer’s doors burst open, death metal exploding into the night, drowning out the music inside the house.

Two men leaped out, strapped with shoulder-harnessed machine guns. Balaclavas hid their faces. They wore black tactical gear and Kevlar vests stitched with three letters: ICE.

The ICE men advanced in lockstep as they raised their weapons in one swift, synchronous motion, snapping the stocks to their cheeks, picking their targets through their iron sights.

The boys bolted toward the back of the house.

Too late.

Machine-gun barrels flashed like strobe lights in the dark. The air split with the roar of their gunfire.

The first rounds tore into the lead runner, then raked into the backs of the guys right behind him. They tumbled to the pavement in a heap like broken marionettes.

The gunmen advanced toward the porch, firing at the big picture window. The plate glass exploded. Panicked shouts inside.

In sync, the shooters loaded new fifty-round drum mags and fired at the house. Steel-jacketed bullets sliced through the walls, throwing big chunks of soft pink stucco into the air. One of the rounds smashed the party stereo, killing the music inside.

The shooters dropped their empty mags again and loaded two more. They advanced shoulder to shoulder onto the porch, the machine gun stocks still tight to their faces. Gloved hands tossed flash bangs through the shattered picture window. The concussion grenades cracked like lightning.

Bodies on the floor writhed in blood and glass. The killers jammed their machine guns through the window frame and cut loose until the ammo gave out and the barrels smoked with heat.

Three hundred rounds. Eighteen seconds. Not bad.

Grinning behind their masks, the two shooters high-fived each other, then scrambled back into the Hummer. They slammed the doors shut as the vehicle rocketed away, tires screeching. The roar of the machine guns and the shrieking death-metal music disappeared with it. The night was finally quiet around the little pink house.

Except for the screaming inside.


CHAPTER 2

Mogadishu, Somalia

Colonel Joseph Moi took his daily afternoon nap from exactly 3:15 p.m. to 3:45 p.m. It kept him sharp late into the evening when he usually did his whoring. It also gave him a reason to stay out of the withering sunlight boiling his troops in the compound outside.

The colonel’s sleep was abruptly interrupted when his silenced cell phone vibrated on the nightstand like a coping saw on a piece of tin. His conscious mind rose though the thick waves of REM sleep just enough to guide his hand to the phone and shut it off. Gratefully, the practiced maneuver spared him any significant mental effort and he was able to slip back down into the depths of perfect slumber, noting the faint breeze beating gently on his face from an overhead fan.

Then his cell phone rang.

Pain furrowed his angular face. Once again, his mind had been dragged into semiconsciousness, but now it was attended by a splitting headache. He’d been robbed of precious sleep. Rage flooded over him.

Who the hell is calling?

He forced his heavy eyes open.

It suddenly occurred to him that it wasn’t possible for the phone to be ringing like this. He’d put it on silent, as always, just moments before he lay down, and when it vibrated earlier, he’d silenced it again.

Strange.

Moi rolled over and snagged the phone off of the nightstand. The number read UNKNOWN.

That was stranger still. Only two people had the number to this particular phone and they were both well-known to him.

The first was General Muwanga, the overbearing Ugandan army officer in charge of the African Union military district to which Moi’s command theoretically reported. That was a phone call he would have to take despite its inevitable unpleasantness.

The other was Sir Reginald Harris, the English lord and bleeding-heart administrator of a charitable family trust, but that would have been a very enjoyable phone call to receive. Harris would have rung him up only if he was ready to pay the additional “security fees” Colonel Moi demanded in order to release the shipment of corn soya blend (CSB) the trust had shipped to Mogadishu two weeks ago. Harris’s CSB shipment was intended for three thousand starving Somali children at a refugee camp one hundred kilometers toward the northwest.

Colonel Moi’s compound was strategically located in one of the least inhabited suburbs of Somalia’s capital city. As the commander of a unit of Kenyan troops assigned to AMISOM (the African Union Mission in Somalia), Colonel Moi’s responsibility was to ensure the safe transport of much needed food stuffs from Somalia’s only deep water port to the hinterland where famine had once again displaced over one million starving Somalis.

The Islamist al-Shabaab militia had reinfiltrated Mogadishu recently despite the best efforts of the African Union forces that battled against them in an attempt to give the Somali Transitional Federal Government time to reestablish functioning democratic institutions in the world’s most infamous failed state. At the moment, the Shabaab militia posed the greatest threat to the safe delivery of food.

But not in Moi’s sector. His command had completely cowed the Shabaab, thanks to Moi’s aggressive tactics. Or at least that’s what Colonel Moi reported to the Western aid organizations that coordinated deliveries through him. Moi cultivated the extremely profitable fiction for naive outsiders. The Shabaab left Moi alone because he paid them in hard currency, not because they were afraid of him.

Since it was likely neither Muwanga nor Harris calling him, Moi snapped off the phone again, but now he was wide awake.

Damn it. It was only 3:22 p.m. He decided to fetch a cold beer from his refrigerator. He padded barefoot across the silken, handwoven carpet toward the tiled kitchen area. The cold marble felt good on his aching feet. He flung open the stainless-steel Bosch refrigerator and yanked out a frosty cold Stella Artois. As he was twisting off the bottle cap, the phone rang again. He took a long swig and marched back over to the phone, slamming the glass bottle down on the nightstand. With any luck, he’d have the fool on the other end of the line in chains before nightfall and a twelve-volt car battery clamped on to his balls.

Moi snatched up the ringing phone.

“Who is this?” As an educated Kenyan, Moi spoke excellent though heavily accented English. Like many Africans, he was conversant, if not fluent, in several tribal languages, but in the polyglot world of Mogadishu, the English tongue was the most commonly employed, particularly among African troops. “This is an unlisted number.”

“Colonel Moi, turn on your television set.”

Moi cursed under his breath. The voice was a white man’s. An American, he guessed. Moi stared incredulously at the phone. “My television set?”

“Yes, the big eighty-inch LCD hanging there on the wall in front of you.”

Moi glanced at his eighty-inch Samsung LCD television, a gift from a local Somali government official in his debt.

“How in the blazes do you know about my television?”

“I know a lot of things about you, Colonel Moi. Why don’t you turn it on, and I’ll tell you all about yourself.”

“When I get my hands on you, you shall learn things about me you wish you did not know.”

“Keep yammering and it’s gonna cost you one million pounds sterling.”

That caught Moi’s attention. “What are you talking about?”

“I’m talking about your bank account in the Cayman Islands. Do you want me to tell you the account number?”

Moi frowned. How could he possibly know about that? “Fine. I will turn it on.”

Moi picked up the remote control and snapped on his television. It was linked to a satellite service. What he saw made him nearly crap his camouflaged pants. It was a crystal-clear infrared image of his compound from several thousand feet above.

The colonel quickly pulled on his combat boots and laced them up without taking his eyes off of the screen. When he finished, he approached the television and studied the image closely from just inches away. It was a live feed and he could make out each of his twenty soldiers at their various stations around the compound, even the ones loafing in the barracks. There was even a glowing gray image of him located in his second-story penthouse.

“Satellite imagery. Impressive,” Moi acknowledged. Obviously, the white man had some sort of satellite reconnaissance capability at his disposal. That likely meant he was with the American government.

“What does the CIA want with me? And what is your name?” Moi asked again, but in a less threatening tone.

“I’m not with the CIA. I’m a private citizen. A businessman, to be specific. As far as you’re concerned, my nationality is money, and my name isn’t important.” This time the American’s voice boomed out of the television’s surround-sound system. “And you can turn your phone off now. No point in running up your bill.”

Moi shut his phone and pocketed it. “Then what do you want, Private Citizen?”

“I’ve had my eye on you for a while, Colonel,” the voice on the phone said. “You’re a man of routine, like most military men are. Routine makes men predictable. It also makes them targetable.”

Red target reticles suddenly appeared on each of the men visible in the high-definition video image and tracked them as they sauntered through the compound. Fortunately for Moi, no reticle appeared over his image, at least not yet.

“Not satellite. Predator,” Moi confidently concluded with a smile. Satellites couldn’t target men on the ground like that.

“Bingo. And what I want from you is to deliver the CSB shipment to the refugee camp as you promised, and I want you to do it right now.”

“Oh, so you are a Good Samaritan as well?”

The American laughed. “Me? Hardly. The Good Samaritan gave his money away.”

“It sounds to me like you want the CSB for yourself, Private Citizen. It is worth quite a bit of cash.”

“I was hired to make sure you fulfilled your contract, nothing more. One way or another, the CSB will be delivered today.”

“That is not possible. The Shabaab militia would like nothing more than for me to expose this shipment to one of their terror squads who would either steal it or burn it.”

“There hasn’t been a Shabaab militia unit in Mog in over six months. You know that better than I do.”

“African politics are quite complicated. Since you are a foreigner, I can hardly expect you to understand,” Moi insisted. He kept his eyes glued to the television set. He was glad that his image still wasn’t targeted.

“To tell you the truth, I hate politics, African or otherwise. I’ve lost way too many friends because of it. And we both know you’re stalling. You’re holding the CSB shipment hostage. My employer wants to know why. He’s already paid you to ensure safe delivery of each shipment.”

“I have broken no agreement. The food is safe here with me and will be shipped out when the conditions warrant.”

“What conditions? And don’t hand me any Shabaab bullshit either.”

Moi quickly weighed his options. He could bolt out of the room, but then what would he do? His unit didn’t have any antiaircraft weapons to speak of. If he entered the compound, there was a chance he’d be targeted and taken out by a Predator. But if he could get to his Land Rover, he might be able to escape, but then again, a Predator could easily track that, too.

“Colonel, you’re pissing me off. The clock’s ticking.”

“My apologies.” Moi swallowed hard. He hadn’t apologized to any man in over twenty years, even when he was in the wrong. “My expenses have gone up. There are more government officials to bribe. And the roads are increasingly dangerous. Not from Shabaab, of course, but from street gangs and even those filthy Djiboutis.” He was referring to one of the other AU peacekeeper nations with forces stationed in the sprawling city.

“So you want more money? Jeezus. How much is enough?”

“A question for the ages, Private Citizen. But I might ask you the same. What is Harris paying you? I shall double it.”

“With what?”

“With the money I have in the Caymans account.”

“You mean the one million?” the American asked.

“Yes, of course.”

“Or did you mean the three million? There are three accounts in three separate Cayman banks, each worth just over a million. Look.”

Moi gulped when his three separate account statements were displayed on the big plasma screen.

“The only problem, Colonel Moi, is that you don’t have any money. At least not anymore.”

Moi watched the balances of each account zero out.

“You are no businessman. You are a thief!”

“I only returned the money to my employer for your failure to abide by the terms of your contract. He’ll use it to buy more food supplies, which will probably be stolen by some other petty tyrant.”

“Tell Lord Harris that if my money is not returned immediately, I shall order my men to dump the CSB into the ocean, and I shall not let one grain of food pass on to the camps in the future.”

“You drive a hard bargain, Colonel.”

Moi smiled. “Thank you. I take that as a compliment.”

“You shouldn’t.”

Muffled thunder boomed overhead. Moi instinctively flinched. He recognized the sound of large-caliber rifle fire and the whir of rotor blades. Moi watched in horror as the plasma screen switched to multiple live video images from several overhead cameras, all of them at much lower altitudes, swooping and careening over the compound.

One by one, Moi watched his men fall, each dropped by a single shot fired from a laser-targeted sniper rifle mounted on one of several Autonomous Rotorcraft Sniper Systems (ARSS)—small, unmanned helicopters. Within moments, all of his men were dead, down, or fleeing for cover.

“Not Predators. ARSS. Impressive,” Moi admitted. He was, after all, a military man. Sniper rounds continued to fire.

“Hellfire II missiles cost a hundred thousand dollars apiece. Lots of collateral damage, too, which is also expensive. I took out each of your men with a single .338 Lapua Magnum cartridge at a cost of just four dollars apiece. It’s important to control costs in business operations, don’t you think?”

Moi stared at the plasma television. He was numb with disbelief. His entire command had been effortlessly destroyed by remote control. Chopper blades beat in the humid air outside of his penthouse. He glanced over just in time to watch a gray-skinned ARSS lower to the level of his balcony. The hovering unmanned helicopter was the size of a pickup truck and it pointed a suppressed RND 2000 sniper rifle directly at him from a turret fixed to the starboard runner. The sound of the rotor blades was muted by the thick double-paned glass of the penthouse’s sliding glass doors.

Another image suddenly appeared on the television. Moi watched himself being watched by the ARSS targeting camera. It almost amused him.

“And now it is the paid assassin’s turn to kill me,” Moi lamented.

“I told you, I wasn’t hired to kill you.”

Moi shook his head. “What is to become of me then?”

Another overhead image popped up on the big screen: a convoy of AU vehicles racing through the streets of Mogadishu.

“General Muwanga will be here shortly to take you into custody. I don’t need to tell you what kind of reception you’re likely to receive in his interrogation facility. He’ll also supervise the delivery of the CSB.”

“That fat meddler. Why did he not have the guts to assault me himself?”

“The AU can’t afford another fiasco. Neither can the Western aid agencies. Their donors are getting fed up with all of the corruption. And a pitched gun battle between African peacekeepers over stolen food would only embolden Shabaab and their al-Qaeda masters. So I was hired to clean up the mess.”

“I may yet be able to afford General Muwanga a surprise or two,” Moi boasted. He stormed over to a nearby closet and pulled out his personal weapon, an Israeli-built TAR-21 bullpup assault rifle. He favored the futuristic compact design over the dated but reliable Heckler & Koch G3 weapon system that was standard issue in the poorly funded Kenyan Defence Forces.

The ARSS yawed a few degrees. Moi froze. The giant sniper rifle’s suppressed barrel seemed to be pointed at his head.

BAM! The sliding glass door shattered as the sniper rifle fired. Chunks of glass rained down on Moi as he dropped to the ground with a thud.

“Sorry about that,” the American said. “Had to clean up one last item.”

Moi was confused. He turned around. A splintered bullet hole was carved in the door. Thick red blood oozed beneath it and seeped into the fringes of the handwoven silk carpet. Moi’s last surviving soldier had crept up into the stairwell to hide—and die.

Moi scrambled to his feet, embarrassed, and snatched up his rifle. He detached the magazine from the butt stock and checked it to make sure it was fully loaded.

“How long until the general arrives?” Moi asked.

“Six minutes, judging by his current speed. But there’s an alternative.”

“I look forward to putting a bullet in his fat, ugly face.” Moi racked a round into the chamber.

“If General Muwanga takes you alive, the Ugandan government will humiliate your prime minister, and your uncle will no doubt be dismissed from his cabinet position and will most likely be arrested and executed after a show trial, along with several other members of your family, all of whom have profited from your misadventures. Your name will live in infamy, your family will bear unforgivable shame, and your nation will suffer a loss of prestige it can ill afford.”

Moi frowned with despair.

“However,” the disembodied voice continued, “an arrangement has been negotiated. If General Muwanga finds you and your entire command killed, it will be reported that you and your soldiers bravely died to a man defending a humanitarian food shipment from a Shabaab assault. You’ll be buried with full military honors, and the surviving members of your family will enjoy the everlasting fame of your exploits.”

“My uncle will see through this charade. He will demand retribution,” Moi insisted.

The voice laughed. “Your uncle is the one who suggested it.”

Moi’s shoulders slumped with resignation. He glanced at the ARSS still hovering outside of the shattered glass door. He calculated that a headshot from this range should be easy for the American. Moi’s back stiffened, as if he were suddenly on parade.

“I should be grateful if you would do the honor, Private Citizen. I prefer to die as a soldier.”

“Then you should have lived like one, Colonel.”

Moi wilted again.

“Yes, I suppose I should have.”

He crossed over to his bed. He was tired now. He wished he’d been allowed to have his nap. “You have thought of everything, Private Citizen. I commend you on your efficiency. Your employer should be satisfied with the services you have rendered today.”

“We aim to please.”

And with that, Moi lifted the short barrel of the TAR-21 and placed it in his mouth. He began taking deep breaths to gather his courage. On the fourth inhalation, he found it. The rifle cracked and the top of his skull exploded, spattering blood and brain tissue onto the spinning fan blades above his bed.

Near the Snake River, Wyoming

Troy Pearce was still lean and cut like a cage fighter despite the strands of silver in his jet-black hair. His careworn face and weary blue eyes belonged to a combat veteran who’d seen too much trouble in the world.

“Satisfied, Sir Harris?” Pearce asked.

Sir Harris had watched the entire Somali operation unfold in a live feed while sitting in his country manor outside of London. They spoke via an encrypted satellite channel.

“Perfectly, Mr. Pearce. I trust you had no casualties on your end?”

“That’s why I use drones, sir. The safety of my people is my top priority. Accomplishing the mission is second.”

“Outstanding. Your team has accomplished the mission brilliantly, as expected. I don’t suppose you’d be kind enough to upload that final footage to my intranet server?”

“Did you get that, Ian?” Pearce asked.

A thick Scottish brogue rumbled in Pearce’s earpiece. “On its way now.” Ian McTavish was Pearce’s IT administrator and a certified computer genius.

“Of course.” Pearce was running this mission out of a specially equipped luxury motor home he used on occasion. It was parked on one hundred acres of secluded woodlands next to a rough-hewn cabin hand-built by his grandfather sixty years ago.

Pearce added, “The CSB is scheduled to arrive at the camp by midnight, local time. General Muwanga will contact you directly when it’s delivered. I assume you’ve already made the financial arrangements with him?”

“Yes. I just hope we won’t be employing your services again, Mr. Pearce. Heaven knows the Western powers committed their share of crimes in the past, but it seems that the greatest challenges too many Africans face these days come from the hands of other Africans.”

“I wouldn’t worry about Muwanga. When he finds Moi’s command torn to pieces, he’ll understand the true cost of breaking his contract with you. With any luck, the word will get around to the other pirates and pissants and they’ll leave you alone.”

“Yes, quite.” Sir Harris chuckled.

“My people will be providing top cover for the relief convoy, and then our contract is fulfilled.”

“Splendid. Thanks again for your service, Mr. Pearce, and your discretion. And please congratulate your team on my behalf.”

“I’ll pass it along. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have another matter to attend to.”

Pearce broke the satellite connection and shut down his computer. His highly trained team of professionals on the ground in Somalia already had their orders and didn’t require any further supervision from him. Pearce had other fish to fry.

Literally.

It was just after sunrise. The trout would already be biting., It was time to break in his brand-new fly rod.


CHAPTER 3

Onboard Air Force One

It was nearly midnight and they were still an hour away from landing in Denver. Despite objections by the Secret Service over the enormous security risks, President Margaret Myers had attended the memorial service for Ryan Martinez and the Cinco de Mayo massacre victims and their families in El Paso earlier that day.

The galley steward had just cleared away her half-eaten Cobb salad and remained below deck to give her privacy. Her closest advisors were gathered in the West Wing conference center back in Washington. She was currently linked to them on a live video feed.

Myers stood, her glass empty. She had just finished two fingers of Buffalo Trace, her favorite Kentucky bourbon. She was fifty and tired, but didn’t look much of either, even tonight, still dressed in black. Years of swimming and Pilates had kept her frame strong and lean like she’d been as a young girl growing up on a cattle ranch. She still hardly needed make-up, and her dark bobbed hair was colored perfectly.

“Anybody need to freshen up their drinks?” Myers asked as she crossed to the bar.

“I think we’re all fine here, Madame President,” Sandy Jeffers said with a tired smile. Despite his obvious fatigue, his salt-and-pepper hair was still perfectly coiffed, and his hand-tailored suit as crisp as the day he’d bought it. As chief of staff, he answered for the group.

Myers poured herself another bourbon.

“I want to thank each of you for picking up the slack in my absence. And, Bill, I’m also grateful for the security arrangements you and your team put together on such short notice.”

Secretary Bill Donovan ran the Department of Homeland Security. He nodded in reply, stifling a yawn behind a beefy hand. He hadn’t slept in three days. “We owe a great deal to our friends at Fort Bliss and the governor of Texas. We couldn’t have done it on such short notice without them.”

Myers smiled a little. “From where I sat, El Paso looked like the Green Zone with all of the tanks and helicopters you moved in there. I’m sure the press will make a lot of hay with those photos.”

“Better safe than sorry,” Donovan offered. Despite his morbid obesity, he’d proven to be an effective and energetic DHS secretary.

Myers nodded. “Of course. Now, for the business at hand.” Myers returned to her chair.

The media had jumped on the first witness’s statement that ICE agents had perpetrated the massacre. The witness had seen black military uniforms, military-style machine guns and “ICE” emblazoned on their tactical vests, which accurately described ICE combat teams.

The idea that rogue ICE agents had perpetrated the crime fit the mainstream media metanarrative perfectly—Myers’s ruthless budget cutting was causing chaos across the government. Only in Washington, D.C., could freezing future increases in spending be counted as a “cut.”

But within a few hours it became apparent that the killers had merely impersonated ICE officers. All of the gear they wore was available for purchase on a hundred websites. The Hummer they’d used had been stolen two hours before the attack and later found abandoned and burned up in a vacant lot just across the Mexican border. Most important, every ICE agent’s location and activity that night had been accounted for.

Responsible media began reporting the new facts as soon as they became available, but Myers’s staunchest opponents resorted to a variety of conspiracy theories and began alleging a cover-up.

“Faye, why haven’t we made any progress on the shooters?” Myers asked. Faye Lancet was the attorney general of the United States and thus the head of the Department of Justice and one of its subsidiary agencies, the FBI.

“Our most reliable informants on the street are suddenly either deceased or irreparably mute. Snitches have an extremely short life expectancy in that part of the world.”

“You make it sound as if South Texas is a Third World country,” Myers said.

“In some ways, it is,” Lancet replied. “The border is still pretty porous these days.”

“Maybe this was just a local neighborhood gang,” Myers said.

Mike Early, Myers’s special assistant for security affairs, spoke up. “Possibly, but not likely. According to witnesses, they were firing machine guns, probably German HK21s.”

“How do you know that?” Myers asked.

“We found six proprietary HK ammo drums on site, each with a fifty-round capacity. The Mexican army uses HK21s. They even manufacture their own under an HK license.”

“You think the Mexican army is connected to this?” Lancet asked.

“No. But Mexican army guns have a funny way of turning up on the streets, whether stolen or sold.” Early scratched his five o’clock shadow. “Hell, the Mexican army itself has had over a hundred thousand desertions in the last decade. God only knows how many weapons they take with them.”

“The forensics point to two weapons used that night, which is corroborated by at least three survivors who thought they saw or heard two machine guns being fired,” Donovan said.

Myers frowned. “Why couldn’t local gangs purchase some of those weapons?”

“Possible, but highly unlikely. Mexican guns don’t usually travel north. It’s American guns moving south that causes problems down there. Even if a couple of street punks could find a high-end gun seller that wasn’t a Fed, or a Fed informant, it’s clear to me the shooters knew what they were doing. They weren’t a couple of gangbanger lowlifes hosing down the neighborhood like Tony Montana,” Donovan said.

Early added, “They discharged three hundred large-caliber armor-piercing rounds in less than a minute in controlled bursts—and on target. The bastards were definitely trained.”

“So who wanted to send a message? Why attack a house full of teenagers having a good time? And who’s the message for?” Myers asked.

“Too soon to say who the message was for with certainty,” Donovan said. “Word on the street is that it was a turf issue, and given that El Paso is Castillo Syndicate territory, it’s not too big of a stretch to say that Castillo was the one pulling the trigger.”

Myers fumed. “Castillo territory? El Paso is American territory, damn it. Who does that son of a bitch think he is?” The Castillo Syndicate was the most powerful drug cartel in Mexico, based out of the state of Sinaloa where it originated. Its power was exerted over the western half of Mexico and had extended itself steadily north into the United States and south into Central America for the last decade. Its main competitor was the Bravo Alliance, which controlled the eastern half of Mexico. Both cartels had effectively absorbed all of the other smaller cartels in recent years. It was a classic bipolar system, a vicious stalemate between two equally powerful enemies, like scorpions in a bottle.

“Madame President, if I may.” The deep, resonant voice of Dr. Karl Strasburg chimed in. An old-school cold warrior, Strasburg was the elder statesmen of the group, having served as a security advisor to Ronald Reagan and every other Republican president since then. His voice still exerted a powerful sway on Capitol Hill, and his opinion was deeply respected in the corridors of both power and academia around the world. His impeccable manners and solemn decorum, coupled with his East European accent, gave him an Old World charm that was hard to resist.

“Please, Dr. Strasburg, share your thoughts.”

“I am embarrassed to say this, Madame President, and I certainly do not ascribe to the idea personally, nevertheless I must point out that you are already seen as a weak president because you are a woman. One thing you must consider is this: if you fail to respond to this vicious and unprovoked attack with vigor, you will only strengthen the unfortunate stereotype associated with your gender in the Latin culture.”

“I have never lived my life according to other people’s views of me, and I will certainly not do that as president, either. If I start overcompensating for the expectations of my gender, I’m only playing into their idiotic stereotype.”

From both a moral and fiscal perspective, Myers was adamantly opposed to any suggestion of going to war if it could be at all avoided. But Strasburg’s suggestion threatened to undo everything her administration had accomplished so far.

Myers narrowly won both the Republican primary and the general election on a platform of “pragmatism above ideology.” Her primary campaign issue was to institute an immediate budget freeze once elected, and then to pass a balanced budget amendment. She managed to accomplish both in the first one hundred days of her tenure by promising progressives to keep American boots off of the ground in any new foreign conflicts, to close as many foreign bases as was practical, and to bring as many of the troops home as quickly as possible without endangering American lives left behind. Vice President Greyhill’s establishment credentials had also helped her forge the coalition with right-of-center moderates in both parties who feared new runaway social spending at the expense of defense.

Unlike many of her fellow Republicans, Myers viewed big defense budgets as just another example of out-of-control government spending. She knew that defense was necessary; she was no pie-in-the-sky Pollyanna. But how much defense spending was enough? If one new weapon system makese us safe, then two must make us even safer seemed to be the irrefutable schoolyard logic of the hawks.

As a private-sector CEO, Myers had dealt with the armchair bureaucrats in the Pentagon who were as self-interested as any Wall Street investment firm, and just as guilty of “waste, fraud, and abuse” as any welfare department in the federal government.

America’s economic malaise was being fueled by out of control government spending of all kinds, including the supposedly untouchable “entitlement” spending programs. As a businesswoman, Myers understood that the national debt was a millstone around the nation’s neck. It was drowning the economy and would ultimately lead to America’s systematic decline. Avoiding unnecessary wars and bloated defense budgets would actually make the nation stronger in the long run.

“The bottom line, Dr. Strasburg, is that I’m not interested in bolstering my street cred with Latin tinhorn dictators. What I want is what’s best for the American people.” She leaned forward in her chair. “What I really want is justice, especially for those grieving mothers in that gymnasium tonight. The question I’m putting on the table right now is, how do we get justice without putting American boots on Mexican soil?”

“I suppose that depends entirely upon your definition of justice, Madame President,” Donovan suggested. The dark circles under his eyes were proof that the secretary of DHS hadn’t slept in days while he sweated the details of the El Paso security setup. He fought back a yawn. “I don’t mean to start a midnight dorm-room debate, but in the end, justice for most people means getting what they think they deserve, and they seldom get it unless they have the power to acquire it from the people who stole it from them in the first place. So for the sake of our discussion, what exactly do you want? What does justice look like?”

Myers nodded. “Fair enough. I want the men responsible for the killing arrested, tried, convicted, and punished for their crimes in either an American or Mexican court of law.”

Then Lancet jumped in. “Forget extradition. We have the death penalty, and Mexican courts are reluctant to return Mexican nationals to American courts if there’s the possibility of a death sentence. So you’re definitely talking about a Mexican trial if the suspects are apprehended in Mexico.”

“I can live with that,” Myers countered.

Lancet continued. “It may well be possible for the Mexicans to arrest them and put them on trial. But given the lack of witnesses at the present time, let alone the current political and social crises that Mexico faces, I wouldn’t count on a conviction. And even if the Mexicans do manage to convict on what would have to be circumstantial evidence, there’s no guarantee of a punishment commensurate with their crimes.”

“If you want American justice, you’ll have to snatch them up and haul them here in irons,” Strasburg said. “SEAL Team Six can do the job.”

“And what if things go south? Do we really want American troops burned alive in an oil-drum soup?” Early was referring to the horrific cartel practice of melting people down in oil drums filled with boiling oil and lead. “These guys are batshit crazy. They’re not playing by the Marquess of Queensbury rules down there.”

“Excuse me, but there are other issues to be considered here,” Vice President Greyhill said. He’d served on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for eighteen years before he had been shoehorned onto the Myers ticket. He was seen as a reliable “old hand” to steady her uncertain rudder. He relished the role, partly because he knew how deeply Myers resented it. As one of the Senate’s elder statesmen, the wealthy, patrician Greyhill had been the GOP’s hand-selected candidate in the primary, but the outsider Myers’s populist, commonsense message had killed his one and only chance to be president. “You can’t start invading countries because you don’t like the way their court systems work, Margaret. You’d be in violation of a dozen international laws and treaties.”

Myers bristled at his accusatory tone but chose to ignore it—for now. “It seems to me that breaking the rule of law in order to enforce the rule of law is a moral hazard. I don’t want a war, legal or otherwise; I want justice. Let’s give the Mexicans a chance to give it to us. They have a vested interest, too.” Myers took another sip of bourbon. “Sandy, I want you and Faye to coordinate with Bill on this, and with Tom Eddleston when he gets back from China. When does he return?” Myers rubbed her forehead. A massive headache was coming on fast.

“The secretary of state will be back in town the day after tomorrow. But we can video chat with him before then, of course,” Jeffers gently reminded her. He knew she was at the end of her rope, physically and emotionally.

“Then what I’d like the three of you to do is put together a memo for Ambassador Romero and tell him what he needs to communicate to President Barraza. Something along the lines of affirming our support for his newly elected administration, our desire for swift and certain justice, well, you get the idea. But run it by Tom first. I don’t want to step on his toes.”

“Will do,” Jeffers said.

Myers set her empty glass down. “Let’s give our friends south of the border a chance to do the right thing. We can always step up our game later, if need be. Who knows? They might even surprise us. Are we clear?”

The heads on her video screen nodded in unison. “Good. It’s very late and I have another long day tomorrow. Goodnight.” Myers snapped off the video monitor and rang for the white-coated steward who appeared a few moments later.

“What can I get for you, ma’am?”

“A couple of Excedrin and a club soda would be helpful. Have Sam and Rachel had something to eat?” Myers was referring to the two Secret Service agents who were accompanying her to Denver.

“Yes, they have, and they asked me to thank you.” Normally, Secret Service agents didn’t eat while on duty, but it had been a long day for them as well, and Myers insisted that they order from her kitchen galley.

The steward slipped away to fetch Myers’s club soda and aspirin.

Myers sat alone in the empty cabin, drained. She turned around in her chair and stared at the aft compartment door. She rose and crossed over to it, then stood there for a moment gathering her courage, then went in, careful to shut and lock the door behind her.

Ryan Martinez’s sealed casket lay on the center of the floor, lashed down with half-inch cargo polycord. The casket had been removed from the wheeled transport dolly for fear it might fall off should they experience any turbulence. The room wasn’t designed to carry cargo, and the casket was heavy, posing a possible danger during takeoff and landing if it should start sliding around. Myers hadn’t cared. She’d have flown the damn plane herself if the air force pilot objected. He hadn’t. His own son had been killed in Afghanistan last year. A half hour later, the plane’s chief master sergeant had bolted right-angle flanges into the aluminum floor with a pneumatic drill and secured the load with the cords. It was the best he could do on short notice, but it worked. Myers was grateful.

She kicked off her shoes and sat down on the floor next to the polished aluminum casket. It was just like all of the others. Myers had paid for the funerals of all of the kids killed that night—anonymously, of course, and out of her own personal funds. The El Paso families were mostly working poor. Myers saw no need to add crushing debt to their inconsolable grief.

Ryan’s status as a hero on that fateful night was confirmed by both surviving witnesses and the county coroner’s autopsy. Rather than running away from the gunfire, Ryan had run toward it, and thrown himself on top of two of his students, shielding them from the hail of deadly bullets with his own body. Miraculously, both girls had survived, though badly wounded. They were still in intensive care and unable to attend the memorial service for Ryan and the others.

She laid her hand gently on the lid. It had been three months since she’d spoken to Ryan on the phone. Years since they’d had a real conversation. She hadn’t seen him since the inauguration earlier in the year, but even that reunion had been brief. At least it had been civil. God knows they knew how to push each other’s buttons. She had to hit the ground running on the first day. Hadn’t stopped running since.

Until now.

Myers’s mind replayed a dozen conversations she’d had with the mourners before the memorial service. A pretty young math teacher introduced herself as Ryan’s girlfriend. Her lovely green eyes were red with tears. Myers hadn’t known that Ryan had a girlfriend. But of course he did. That was normal, wasn’t it? Normal people have relationships, she reminded herself.

The girl’s name was Celia. Or was it Celina? Myers couldn’t remember. The girl was nice. Very pretty. No wonder Ryan fell for her. Myers felt sorry for her.

Myers’s hand stroked the brushed-aluminum casket, but she was so lost in thought she wasn’t even aware she was doing it.

The mother of one of the slain students handed her a slip of folded paper scrawled with a recipe for chile rellenos. “Señor Ryan asked me all the time for the recipe, but I never got around to it. He said it was his favorite. Lo siento mucho, señora.

Myers thought Ryan didn’t like chile rellenos. Maybe he still didn’t like them. Maybe he was just being nice to this lady. Or maybe he really did like hers. Or maybe he did like chile rellenos. Maybe it was tamales he didn’t care for. She wasn’t sure now. They hadn’t had a sit-down meal together for quite a while now. Years, actually. Myers was never much of a cook. Never had the time. Too busy building a business, then too busy running a state. She accepted the recipe from the grieving mother. “Thank you,” Myers told her. “I’ll have to try it sometime myself.” But she knew she wouldn’t. She didn’t like Mexican food at all.

Myers sighed. Tomorrow was going to be a long day, indeed. She would bury her son in the family plot outside of Denver next to his father, John Martinez, with no one to stand beside her.

The steward reappeared in the empty conference room with a tray carrying the club soda on ice and a brand-new bottle of aspirin. He set the tray down on a small table and began to leave, but something in him made him pause. He knew she had a terrible headache. And he knew without a shadow of a doubt that she was in the room with her only child. Myers hadn’t told him she wanted to be left alone. And she needed the aspirin. So he stepped over to the aft door.

Just before the steward knocked, he paused. He heard a sound. He leaned his ear as close to the door as he dared and listened.

Myers was weeping.

The steward stepped softly away from the door and headed back down to the galley.

Drone

Drone