Chapter One: So Long, Tubby

 

 

Somewhere over Colombia. . .

 

THE LIGHT over the fuselage doorway turned from red to green, and for the first time in many years, Steve Dane jumped out of a perfectly good airplane.

His insulated jumpsuit blocked the harsh cold of the night, but he felt the icy blast on his neck and most of his face. Goggles with built-in night-vision capability covered his eyes. The goggles gave the ground below a greenish hue. As he fell through space, he scanned for a dot somewhere in the forest below. Dane pulled the rip cord; the parachute billowed out of his pack and jolted him violently as it blossomed. His descent slowed. He grabbed the risers over his shoulders, and continued looking for the dot.

His lady and partner-in-crime, Nina Talikova, was supposed to be down there with the landing beacon. They faced a tense situation in Bogota. If something had happened to her—

He found it.

[Click here to purchase Skills to Kill, the first novel in this series, on Amazon. And click here for book 2, Another Way to Kill.]

The dot appeared off to the right, in a small clearing. Dane pulled on the opposite riser and drifted in that direction. He’d land perhaps twenty yards in front of the beacon, but that was fine. Nina had made the rendezvous. Plenty of other obstacles remained.

Jumping into Bogota, or anywhere in Colombia, wasn’t his idea of a good time. One of Dane’s friends, Devlin Stone, a man who had saved Dane’s life and responded to his calls for help many times without argument, now needed him. It was time to return the favors. Dane did not understand why Stone had been captured by one of the local cartels. All he knew was that his friend needed help, and Dane intended to show up.

Stone ran a smuggling operation in Europe, and perhaps that somehow connected with his capture. Dane didn’t know. He had a list of unanswered questions about this caper, while the cocaine runners seemed to have the upper hand. They knew of Stone’s associates, and his friends – like Dane and Nina and fellow buccaneer Todd McConn. All three had taken individual paths to enter Colombia as a way to avoid detection. Stone’s people had set up a safe house and provided equipment. Dane, Nina, and McConn were going to break Stone free and get to the bottom of everything.

A gust of wind kicked Dane left. He corrected with a pull on the right riser, keeping the beacon in sight. Nina was taking a huge risk. If Dane could see it, so could anybody else.

The beacon cut off as Dane neared the ground. The ground rushed up at a frightening rate. He pulled on the risers to slow descent in the last second and bent his knees on impact. The jolt of landing rattled his bones. He stayed on his feet, quickly detaching the rig. Anybody who later discovered the rig would find it clean of identifying marks.

Dane ran across the hard-packed ground to the Chevy SUV twenty yards ahead. The motor turned over. Dane jumped into the passenger seat and yanked off the goggles. His eyes took a moment to adjust to the sudden low light in the SUV. He grinned at the woman behind the wheel.

Nina Talikova, dressed in black with her long hair tied in a ponytail, didn’t return the smile. “You’re late.”

Dane shook his head. “You are the sunshine of my life,” he said.

She drove without headlights. The terrain looked treacherous without illumination, shadows concealed both dips and bumps.

“Patrols are all over the place,” she said.

Nina inched the vehicle along.

“Army, police, or cartel?” Dane said.

“It doesn’t make much difference.”

She slammed the brakes. The SUV jerked.

The headlights of another vehicle loomed ahead.

Dane put on the night vision goggles and looked around. “To the left there’s a cave.”

Nina spun the wheel. “I got two AKs in the back.”

Dane removed the goggles again and reached onto the rear seat where the automatic rifles lay. He grabbed one. Instead of the usual banana clip, Nina had attached a 100-round circular drum magazine. Dane worked the charging handle and chambered a round.

Nina powered the Chevy up the incline. The dark mouth of the cave opened before them. The SUV barely fit. Part of the back end stuck out. She put the front bumper against the back wall and shut off the motor. Darkness closed around the SUV.

“Too narrow to open the doors,” Dane said. He climbed over the front and back seat to the rear cargo area. Nina followed with the second AK-47.

Dane and Nina scooted to the back window. Dane cursed leaving the night vision goggles up front.

“We’re sitting ducks if they open up on us,” Nina said.

“Try not to be so optimistic.”

The other vehicle finally rolled into view. A military jeep with four soldiers aboard. The jeep slowed. The man in the passenger seat stood up, holding onto the wind screen, and scanned the area. He took out a flashlight and shined the beam around.

“Somebody saw the beacon,” Dane said.

“They’re gonna see your parachute.”

The jeep rolled out of sight. Then they heard yelling.

“Found it,” Nina said.

Dane’s throat felt dry as he touched the trigger.

“I didn’t jump out of a plane,” he said, “to die in a cave.”

Sweat dripped down Dane’s neck. The passing seconds felt like hours. When you live on the fringes of the law, even friendlies can be enemies, and Nina’s remark about the army and police and cartel not being much different resonated in the wrong way. The level of corruption in Colombia was legendary.

Finally, they heard the jeep’s motor rumble to life. The vehicle drove by in the direction it had come, the puffy parachute jammed between soldiers in the back seat.

“They’ll report the landing and come back with a search party,” Nina said.

“Is there another road we can use? They may set up road blocks.”

“Yes, but we gotta move now.” Nina left the AK with Dane and climbed back behind the wheel.

 

 

NINA STEERED through cobble-stone city streets with Dane laying low in the back. The SUV rocked gently as it passed over the stones. The wide sidewalks could accommodate plenty of pedestrians, though at this hour of the morning all the normal people still slept. Getting two motor vehicles to pass comfortably was asking too much. Nina turned up an incline, made the next right, and kept climbing. The short buildings on either side were sandwiched together with virtually no gaps between them, save for narrow alleys here and there.

“Where are we going?” Dane said.

“Top of the hill,” Nina said.

The safe house had been provided by Stone’s people, who also had transportation out of the country standing by, waiting for Dane’s call. When they had contacted Dane to enlist his help, they offered payment; Dane turned it down. His friendship with Stone meant more than money.

Of course, Nina hadn’t liked that, but she knew Dane too well to argue.

She finally pulled into an open car port beneath an upper-level apartment. The outside showed a lot of faded paint with the steps leading to the front door landing rotting in spots. A short deck wound around the front door to a large living room window overlooking the street.

“Spared no expense,” Dane said.

“It’s nicer on the inside, sunshine.”

Nina used a key to get in.

“Honey, we’re home!” she said.

No lights in the living room. A short hallway led to a lighted kitchen. The wooden cabinetry had been painted a gaudy white and the tiled floor had seen better days, but otherwise it looked fine.

Todd McConn lifted a whistling tea kettle off the yellowed stove top. “Just in time,” he said, and poured three mugs. He wore a T-shirt, jeans, and cowboy boots – his usual uniform. His normally close-cropped hair had grown a bit shaggy.

Dane stood by the wobbly kitchen table and stripped off the jumpsuit revealing jeans and a black T-shirt underneath. He left the jumpsuit on the floor, gladly accepting the offered mug. English breakfast, a favorite blend.

Dane and McConn sat while Nina took a moment to get a bottle of vodka from a cabinet; she touched up her tea and returned the bottle.

“So how is the neighborhood?” Dane said.

“Families, working class,” Nina said. “Lots of kids kicking a ball around during the day.”

“We’re in a perfect spot,” McConn said. “Got surveillance set up on the target. Cameras on the roof. Lots of notes and pictures.”

“Any sign of Dev?”

“Not yet.”

“Do we know why the cartel grabbed Dev?”

“I’ve been poking around,” McConn said. “He’s never touched drugs in the past so it’s strange this happened. A fellow named Ramon Coda runs the cartel. He’s been buying up or taking over smuggling operations around the world. Got his hooks in Asia and most of Central America, but nothing in Europe.”

“He wants Dev’s business?” Dane said. “That would never happen.”

Nina said, “Which cartel?”

“South Coast Cartel,” McConn said. “Made up of leftovers from the Celiand Norte del Vallecartels, which no longer exist.” McConn sipped his tea. “One thing we do know is that they’re moving Dev in two days.”

“Where?” Dane said.

“To a camp in the mountains. Their version of ‘enhanced interrogation’ takes place there.”

“There are some good ambush points along the route they’ll take,” Nina said. “Hitting them on the way is the best bet…”

“But?” Dane said.

“We’ll have cartel forces and army on us faster than you can blink if we aren’t quick.”

“I want to see the route tomorrow morning,” Dane said.

“Okay,” McConn said.

Dane finished his tea. “Bathroom?”

“Down the hall,” Nina said.

 

 

DANE JOINED McConn in one of the other bedrooms where McConn had the surveillance equipment set up, a row of monitors showing images from three hidden cameras, along with panels to control the angles.

“Ramon Coda lives in this house on top of the mountain,” McConn said. He opened a picture of the house on a laptop beside the monitors. “House sits at the top, forest on all sides.”

Dane didn’t see a road leading to the house. “How do you get in and out?”

“See this cable car? It goes up and down the hill with entry and exit points at the house and bottom of the hill—which also serves as Coda’s parking lot. He keeps four vehicles there, three SUVs for the troops, and his own armored sedan.”

The monitors didn’t show much because of the dark, but McConn ran back footage from earlier in the day and Dane watched the comings and goings around the house. No sign of Devlin. Where did they have him?

 

 

DANE CLIMBED into bed after a hot shower. Nina had opened the windows, but humidity still hung thickly in the air. Dane eased under the sheet next to the snoring Nina.

As he often thought, she sounded like a chainsaw stuck in a log when she snored. She awoke long enough to roll over and lay against him. She wore nothing under the sheet. The humidity made her sticky skin feel good against his.

Dane didn’t have many friends and the ones he did have he wanted to keep. Too many, over the years, had either gone bad or wound up dead. He didn’t want to add Stone or McConn to the list of the latter. He probably didn’t need to worry about Nina the Indestructible.

She snored into his neck.

Dane took a deep breath and tried to doze off.

 

 

KIDS IN the street kicked a soccer ball and scattered when McConn pulled out of the garage. They took over the street again once he had driven away.

Dane lit an H. Uppman Original and blew smoke out the window as McConn negotiated the narrow streets, pausing often for the crush of pedestrians who owned the roads.

“Rush hour here,” McConn said. “Lots of walking.”

McConn finally made it through town and onto the motorway, where he made a turn-off onto a two-lane road after thirty minutes.

“This is the route they’ll take?” Dane said.

“It’s the only route they cantake,” McConn said.

McConn followed the road as it inclined, the terrain on either side made up of thick forest.

“There’s a downgrade coming up,” McConn said, “and then a flat section before the road ends and you get a dirt path.”

McConn slowed at the top of the incline, eased the Chevy over, and downshifted into 2ndgear as they started down the other side. He tapped the brakes now and then.

Dane scanned both sides of the forest. “Lousy place to set up an ambush,” he said.

McConn up-shifted as the ground flattened out. It went straight ahead for at least two miles. He took the drive slow to give Dane time to examine the roadside some more.

“Stop a second.”

McConn braked.

“This spot might work,” he said. “Mid-section of the road, after they clear the grade. What kind of gear do we have?”

“RPG-7 and assorted small-arms.”

Dane looked through the back window, then forward again. “Pull off and let’s see if we can find a landing zone.”

McConn parked on the shoulder but said: “Let’s have technology do some of the work, you dinosaur. Just sit there and smoke.” He turned on the Chevy’s GPS and tapped a finger on the screen to bring up a map of their immediate area. It wasn’t just a map but a detailed satellite picture.

With his finger dragging the screen, McConn cycled the image and zoomed on potential spots. None looked appropriate enough for a chopper landing until the fourth option, but it was nearly two miles from where they were parked.

Two miles north.

“How close will that landing spot put us to the camp they’re taking Dev to?” Dane said.

“Very close. You can see worn paths here and there that look like they were made by vehicles.”

“It’s probably the cartel’s landing zone.”

“The three of us can’t take the camp. We can get more of Stone’s people here but that will take time.”

“I’m not suggesting we hit the camp. This is a good spot. What we need to do is save the RPGs for the escape, in case cartel troops come at us.”

“Okay.”

McConn made a U-turn and started back along the road.

“Plenty to go wrong,” McConn said. “They’ll use at least two of the SUVs but which one will Dev be in?”

“Another question. Are those SUVs armored like the sedan? Will Dev be in any condition to help when the shooting starts? Will we hit Dev by accident?”

“Whoa, Steve—”

“A lot could happen, Todd. We have to find a way to minimize those risks. Maybe your surveillance could fill in some of those gaps.”

 

 

DEVLIN STONE had long since given up finding a comfortable way to wear chains.

They had placed him in an adobe shed near the edge of the estate, where cartel leader Ramon Coda kept his horses. If the chains were bad, the smell of three horses and the buzzing from the accompanying flies were far worse.

Some of those flies swirled around him as he stood secured to a wall, arms up crucifixion-style, with his legs spread apart like a V. If he slumped, pressure on his hips made that position unbearable. If he stayed upright, pressure on his back. He alternated and tried to make the best of it.

They let him down once a day to eat while two armed guards who looked like they knew their business kept watch at all times.

Those two guards approached through the archway of the shed, a third man holding a tray of food. Stone blinked. The man was Coda.

“Hello, Mr. Stone. How are you today?”

Coda was short and round with close-cropped hair, the opposite of Stone’s shaggy top.

One of the guards slung his rifle and unlocked the chains. Stone collapsed on the ground, gasping.

“We can end this unpleasantness,” Coda said, “if only you give me what I want.”

“No,” Stone rasped.

“You know I’m having you moved tomorrow, to one of our camps from which nobody will ever see you return. After that, I takewhat I want.”

“I have friends who will disagree with that.”

“We’re watching for your friends, those loyal people you speak so highly of. They are not here. They have abandoned you. You are all alone, Mr. Stone. Give me what I want. I offered a fair price. Now I will trade your life for your business. Deal?”

Stone brushed back his hair with a shaking hand. “No.”

Coda sighed. He placed the tray on the ground. “That will be your last meal. Now I must make plans on how best to kill the rest of your people.”

The cartel boss marched out and the guards remained. Eventually Stone began to eat, but he could hardly lift the fork to his mouth. He made it happen, but slowly, and painfully. His whole body agonized with each movement.

Of course, he knew he hadn’t been abandoned. Dane would show up alone, if nothing else. He just had to hold on a little longer. A rescue during transit was a sure bet — if Dane knew about it. That was the only catch.

 

 

DANE AND McConn brought lunch back to the safe house and found Nina in front of McConn’s monitors.

“So?” she said.

Dane handed her a large burrito. McConn cleared space on the table. He sat there while Dane sat next to Nina in front of the TVs. They ate on their laps.

Dane and McConn brought her up-to-date.

“I saw something that will help,” Nina said. She used a joystick to move a camera and then zoomed in to a shot that showed an adobe shed set away from the main house.

“Coda brought a tray of food in there,” Nina said. “He left alone. The two guards left later with the empty tray.”

“How many troops at the estate, Todd?”

“About twenty,” McConn said.

Dane cursed. “And going up and down that mountain will be tough. The cable car is a death trap.”

“They’ll have to bring Dev down in that cable car to the parking lot,” Nina said. “They can’t get down the mountain very fast, especially if we take out the control cables.”

“Unless they have another way down that we don’t know about,” Dane said.

“Then we’ll have to take our chances on the travel route,” Nina said.

Dane sighed. “I think you’re right. Well, we’ve been in worse spots. Good burrito, though.”

Nina and Todd agreed.

 

 

CODA SAT behind his desk lighting a pipe. The window off to his left, the glass extra-thick to shield him from sniper fire, looked out on the mountain, cable car, and part of the city beyond. If he had looked close enough, he might have seen the roof of Dane’s safe house.

Coda puffed on the pipe and dropped the match in an ashtray. He raised his head as the office door opened and his lieutenant, Sergio Varga, entered.

“What is it?”

“A report from an army patrol just came across my desk, Ramon.”

“And?”

“Last night they found a stray parachute outside the city. Prior to that, a spotter saw a landing beacon. That’s what made them go look.”

“What did they find?”

“Just the parachute.”

Coda nodded and let out a stream of smoke scented with rum. “Could be Stone’s friends.”

“One, at least.”

“Either we aren’t looking hard enough, or they are just now arriving,” Coda said. “Send more men to check around. Even the small neighborhoods. They could be anywhere.”

 

 

“HERE’S WHAT we have,” McConn said. He opened a large sea bag and began laying weapons on the living room carpet.

Dane already had his personal pistol, the Detonics Scoremaster .45 auto, and Nina her 9-millimeter Smith & Wesson. The heavy weapons from the sea bag were welcome additions.

McConn set out three AK-47s, along with the RPG-7 shoulder-fired grenade launcher. They spent a half-hour loading magazines to the tune of kids playing soccer outside, their laughter audible through the open windows.

Devlin Stone and Todd McConn had once been under Dane’s command in the 30-30 Battalion, the mercenary company Dane had operated for a few years after leaving the CIA. All three had become close friends. McConn continued working freelance. Dane now worked only for himself, righting wrongs as he found them, funded by a diamond cache in Africa he had once been hired to protect. After exposing the human trafficking ring operated by the original owner, Dane shot the man and took off with as much of the loot as he could carry.

Once the weapons were loaded, they put them back in the sea bag. McConn carried the bag down to the SUV and placed it in the back, covering it with a blanket.

As he shut the tail gate, a black GM SUV stopped at the end of the street and two men climbed out.

The kids noticed them too and began chanting, “El cartel esta’ aqui’!”The cartel is here. The cartel is here. The kids scattered for homes and mothers called to stragglers.

The cartel goons started calling out to some of the mothers, “Donde estam’ los gringos?”but the women closed doors in their faces. One straggling brat kid who probably wanted to join the cartel someday pointed toward the safe house.

“Por alla’, de alla!”

McConn rushed up the steps. He met Dane and Nina in the living room and they already had their pistols ready.

“We heard the kids,” Dane said.

“Two men, no visible weapons, end of the block.”

“Get the rest of the gear and I’ll cover the front,” Dane said.

Nina and McConn grabbed two more sea bags containing clothes and other gear and hustled to the Chevy. Dane stepped out on the outer deck, staying low in the doorway, the stainless Detonics .45 in his right hand.

The two cartel hoods stayed close to the house fronts, one of them holding a pistol.

Dane let them get a little closer.

“Hey, muchachos!” Dane said.

They stopped short. Dane extended the .45 and fired twice. The front thug fell back into his partner, the second falling onto the sidewalk but rolling into the street. Dane fired again and missed, the slug whining off the asphalt. The thug raised his own gun and Dane fired again. The slugs punched through the gunman’s chest and pinned him to the street.

The Chevy SUV screeched out of the garage. Dane swung his legs over the deck railing and leaped onto the roof of the vehicle. Nina pushed open a back door and Dane swung inside.

McConn drove a little faster than normal but still kept the speed low as he went down the hill and made a left turn.

“This is an old man’s getaway,” Dane said.

“Change of plans?” Nina said.

“We can hit the house while they’re looking for us,” McConn said. “They’ll send everybody out.” Another turn. He sped up a little more on the main drag.

Dane considered the idea. The estate had the perfect spot to land a chopper, they knew where Stone was, and McConn had a point.

“I like it,” Dane said. “Let’s go look at the cable car.”

 

 

THEY FOUND a hiding spot in the brush surrounding the cable car station, having taken turns changing into combat gear in the back of the Chevy. They stayed behind the thick forest as the cable car rumbled down the line and stopped at the glass-enclosed switch house where two men operated a control panel. The cable car doors slid open and more troops filed out. Each cartel trooper held an automatic weapon. They piled into waiting SUVs and drove off. Once the motors had faded, only two troopers remained at the switch house, the armored sedan the only car still parked.

“Four guys per car,” Dane said, “three cars. Twelve guys on the street looking for us. How many did you say were at the estate?”

“Twenty.”

“So maybe seven guys left, give or take.”

“Counting those two?”

“Let’s say they’re extra.”

Nina tied back her hair. “I’m tired of talking.”

“Then will my lady do the honors?” Dane said.

Nina placed her AK on the ground, took out her pistol and attached a silencer. She rested the barrel of the 9-millimeter on a log and waved Dane and McConn ahead.

Dane and McConn moved in as Nina fired twice. Glass shattered and the slugs punched through the heads of the troopers. Dane and McConn entered the switch house and threw levers to send the cable car up, McConn holding the brake lever as Dane and Nina jumped in. McConn let the brake go and leaped into the cable car as it began to ascend. The forest enveloped them and they kept eyes ahead. The top of Coda’s mansion appeared in view.

Dane and Nina checked their AK-47s and McConn readied the RPG-7 rocket launcher. He had a satchel of spare rockets on his back. The cable car swayed in the wind, tree branches brushing against the metal side. The topside switch house loomed before them and they dropped low. A trooper at the top gazed curiously at the returning cable car but made no move for his weapon. He approached to investigate and, when he came around the side, Dane blasted him into eternity, the AK popping loudly.

Dane, Nina, and McConn ran out through the switch house and onto the estate property. The dirt courtyard had a large tree in the center. Somebody on an upper level of the house shouted; Dane and Nina sprayed covering fire while McConn raised the RPG. The rocket flashed from the tube and exploded through the window. Flame flashed through the upper level, an alarm blaring. McConn reloaded as three troopers came around one corner.

Dane and Nina broke for the adobe shed, gunfire splitting the air around them. McConn fired the second rocket, the corner of the house exploding. Fire and debris wiped out the three gunmen, the explosion covering their screams. McConn fired a third rocket at the upper window of Coda’s office, but the blast only carved a chunk out of the thick glass. Chunks of the outer wall fell into the courtyard. McConn dropped the RPG and shouldered his AK. Time to finish this the old-fashioned way.

 

 

SERGIO VARGA, Coda’s lieutenant, tossed his boss an Uzi from the wall safe. Coda took cover near his desk. When the RPG hit the window, the blast tore out a portion of the glass and ripped holes in the masonry. Fire from the rocket spread inside and licked at the ceiling. Smoke began filling the room.

Automatic gunfire crackled below. Varga ran to the door and peeked out.

“Clear!” he said. Coda joined him and they slipped into the hallway, avoiding the straight-ahead route to the stairs, where three of his troops waited, and instead taking the section of the hall that branched off to the right.

McConn entered the foyer, dodging left as three more gunmen fired from the top of the stairs. He dived to the floor and slid across the smooth wood to a doorway, crawling into the library to lean out. The troopers started down. McConn held the AK tight as the recoil kicked against him, stitching the troopers through chests and throats, stray slugs tearing up the wall.

McConn stepped over the bodies and took the steps two at a time. At the top landing, he dropped low and stayed close to the banister. Coda and another man broke to the right. McConn triggered a burst and the man with Coda screamed, crashing to the floor. McConn dived as Coda’s Uzi chewed up the banister. The shooting stopped and McConn ran after the cartel boss, clearing the turn as Coda hustled down some steps. Coda tried to turn and fire but doing so on the steps caused him to lose his balance. His shots went wide. He landed on the ground hard.

McConn ran down the steps. Coda screamed and crawled for the Uzi. McConn reached the gun first and kicked it across the floor. Coda looked wide-eyed at McConn.

“So long, tubby,” McConn said, and filled Coda with lead, the bright flash from the muzzle filling the space. McConn reloaded and continued through the house.

 

 

DANE AND NINA, ignoring the gunfire from the house, followed a path to the adobe shed. They heard the horses, their nervous breathing and snorting louder as they approached.

“Don’t shoot the horses,” Dane said.

They reached the entryway, Dane on one side and Nina on the other. A last scan showed no threats but a lot of smoke filled the courtyard. Dane eased around the corner with the AK out in front and Nina followed.

Stone, on the wall, said, “Steve!”

Dane rushed over while Nina swung her weapon left, then right and turned to watch the way they had come.

“I’m alone,” Stone said.

“Who has the key?” Dane said.

“You probably blew him up,” Stone said with a wince.

“Is that a thank you I heard?” Dane said.

“Idiots.” Nina yanked a ring of skeleton keys from her web gear and tried three before she found one that unlocked Stone’s shackles. Stone collapsed again.

“Can you run?”

“I need a minute.”

“We don’t have a minute.”

“Incoming!” Nina said.

Two gunmen converged on the shed.

“Stay down, Dev!”

Nina opened fire on one side of the entry way and Dane took the other. They traded shots with the gunmen, bullets smacking the adobe around them. The horses made more noise and smashed against the gate holding them in their part of the shed. Dane let the AK hammer against his shoulder, cutting through the foliage the gunmen were hiding behind. Dane and Nina fired at movement in the brush, one scream accompanying the shots.

“Here comes Todd!” Nina said.

McConn ran out the front of the house, spotted the last trooper firing on the shed, and aimed the AK while running. His salvo punched through the man’s back. The cartel gunner cried out and fell. McConn reached the shed and frowned.

“Am I doing all the work?”

Dane and Nina supported Stone and carried him out. McConn took over while Dane pulled a satellite phone from his pack. He dialed quickly and spoke to the pilot of the chopper that had been pre-arranged by Stone’s people. Dane told him they were ready for pick-up and put the phone away.

“Who’s flying?” Stone said.

“Sammy.”

McConn and Nina moved forward with Stone between them while Dane covered the rear with the sweeping muzzle of his AK-47.

The cable car shuddered to life and started down the hill.

“They’re back!” Dane said.

“Double-time, come on!” McConn said. They moved out at a quick pace and crossed the edge of the property for the deep forest ahead.

 

 

CODA’S TROOPS unloaded from the cable car and stopped at the sight of the damaged house. The second-floor fire burned steadily, sending black and gray smoke skyward. Somebody entered the switch house to send the cable car back down for the next load while the rest of the squad started running for the landing area.

 

 

MCONN HOISTED Stone over his shoulders in a traditional fireman’s carry so they could move faster. He ran in front of Dane and Nina, who watched the rear, as they tramped through the forest, weaving through the trees, fallen logs and natural debris, snapping twigs and branches and leaving heavy boot prints on the ground.

McConn breathed hard under the extra weight, but Stone couldn’t walk or run.

“Not much further,” Dane said.

“I don’t hear the chopper,” Nina said.

They plowed through the tree line to the clearing used for chopper landings and scoured the sky. No sign of any helicopter.

“Did you call them?” McConn said.

“You heard me call them,” Dane said.

They cut left across the clearing to another tree line and found cover. Stone crawled to a spot near a tree and stayed flat. The others spread out.

Dane took out the satellite phone again and called the chopper but there was no answer.

Nina’s AK chattered as the cartel troops reached the clearing. McConn sprayed a pattern of fire along with her.

Dane dropped on his belly. Return fire hammered their way, the thick brush making target identification tough for both sides. Not that Dane complained. He fired at movement and a mist of blood signaled a hit. He fired again, saw nothing, and then a trooper stuck his rifle out too far. Dane gave him a burst. The trooper dropped backward. He sprayed a line of rounds at random, changed magazines, and shouted, “I’m open to suggestions!”

Flame blasted out the front of McConn’s AK, cutting down two cartel troopers trying to rush the clearing. As they fell, their compatriots shuffled positions, some exposing themselves. Dane fired with Nina and McConn but the brush swallowed up the opposing force once again.

“Try the chopper again!” Stone shouted. “He has to be there now!”

Dane scooted back for more cover and called the pilot again. Still nothing.

Nina shouted, “Last mag!” as she reloaded.

Dane checked his mag pouch. Only one magazine left for him too.

“I’m out!” McConn shouted.

The sat phone beeped. Dane tossed his mag to McConn and answered.

“Where the hell have you been?”

“The police have choppers, too, Dane, and they’re very curious about what’s hap—”

“We’re under fire, get down here!”

“Coming in from the south. Throw smoke so we don’t shoot you.”

Dane moved close to the edge of the tree line. He tossed a smoke grenade that landed a few feet away. Red smoke hissed out and built a cloud in front of him and his team.

Dane dropped back as Nina and McConn ceased fire. The cartel troops responded to the cease fire by breaking through the tree line. As they ran, the whipping rotor blades of the helicopter grew in volume and the chopper appeared over the trees, swinging perpendicular to the cartel troops.

A door gunner behind a .50-cal machine gun opened fire, hosing the line of troops. Some fell and others ran back for cover, only to get cut down on the second salvo.

Dane and Nina broke cover to run for the chopper while McConn carried Stone. Stray fire nicked at their heels but the thumping .50 kept the enemy pinned down.

Dane and Nina jumped aboard and helped McConn and Stone and then the chopper lifted off. A few last bursts from the .50 offered their final goodbye to the cartel and Bogota.

As the chopper rose over the trees, Dane and the gunner slammed the side doors and flopped onto the bench seats lining the front and back of the cabin.

“Where to now?” Stone asked.

Athenajust off the coast,” Dane said. “Full-steam to Crete.”

“You think of everything,” Stone said.

 

 

THE FREIGHTER Athenachugged along the choppy Atlantic, a dull gray working ship with as many dings in the hull as official markings. It was part of Stone’s fleet and had made many smuggling trips around the world with nary a suspicious glance from customs.

Inside, in a cabin, Steve Dane stepped out of the shower and dried off. Nina lay on the bed in a bathrobe.

Dane pulled his clothes on again.

“What are you doing?”

“Checking on Dev.”

“The doctor said he’s fine.”

“I’ll just be a minute.”

“Come to bed.”

Dane shut the cabin door and went aft to the sick bay. The bearded doctor looked up from his desk.

“Can I see him?”

“He’s out cold.”

Dane crossed the room to another doorway where the beds were. Devlin Stone lay with the covers up to his neck, unconscious, tubes plugged into his wrists and a heart monitor beeping steadily.

“What kind of shape is he in?” Dane said.

“Cuts and abrasions. Dehydration. He needs rest.”

“Thanks, doc.”

Dane returned to the cabin. Nina was under the covers with the bathrobe on the floor. He undressed and slid under the covers. It was a tight fit. The bed had not been made for two. And they had to share a pillow.

“Where are we going now that the shooting is over?” she said.

“South of France,” he said. “Maybe Monaco.”

“Why?”

“Why not? I can’t remember the last time we visited.”

“You just want to gamble your money away.”

“Um, usually that’s your job.”

“Why don’t we just relax at home for a change?”

Dane didn’t reply.

“Duh,” she said, scratching nails down his chest. “What a silly question.”

 

 

A WEEK later, with Stone up and around, the Athenadocked at Crete. Dane, Nina, McConn and Stone stood by the starboard railing as the tug boats pushed the ship into port. The wind carried the faint scent of salt water.

“We’re heading for Italy next,” Stone said. “Gonna stick around?”

“I will,” McConn said.

“Not us,” Dane said. “Onto the next adventure.”

“You don’t know when to stop, do you?”

“I’ll stop when I’m dead.”

“Nobody ever asks my opinion,” Nina said.

Customs came aboard to check out the ship and clear Dane and Nina’s entry. Shortly after, Stone and McConn escorted Dane and Nina down the plank to the dock.

“I can’t thank you enough,” Stone said.

“You’re always there when I call,” Dane said.

“We’ll do something again soon, I imagine.”

“Bet on it.”

They shook hands and said good-bye, Stone and McConn getting a hug from Nina. She and Dane started across the busy shipyard. Trucks rumbled here and there; long cranes unloaded ships; loud voices carried with the wind.

“We should go home first,” he said, “and pack a few things.”

“Good idea. Unlike you, I refuse to wear the same underwear every day.”

“I don’t do that.”

“You’re a liar.”

“And you’re a drama queen.”

“That’s as close to true royalty as I’ll ever get.”

****

[Click here to purchase Skills to Kill, the first novel in this series, on Amazon. And click here for book 2, Another Way to Kill.]