Rain hit like breaking waves. Lightning flashes made the black sky white. Winds roared over the forested ridgeline of the mountain. To the west, moments of sundown-red appeared and disappeared in the swirling black clouds.
Following the forms of Ricardo and Blancanales through the semidarkness, Lyons squinted into the storm. Pine branches lashed at his face, the winds swaying the trees around him. They had not yet reached the crest of the mountain. Already, a thousand streams swept mud and forest debris down the steep slope.
Lyons did not want a firefight with the death squad waiting in ambush for the journalists. But he went prepared to kill. He carried the Atchisson, his modified-for-silence Colt Government Model, and his Colt Python. A bandolier of 12-gauge magazines crossed his chest. In the pockets of his black fatigues, he carried grenades and pistol ammunition. Every step taxed his strength, the weight of the weapons driving his boots into the mud.
Lyons calculated they would reach the other side of the mountain after nightfall. Ricardo guided them along the trails switchbacking up the mountain. The teenager had hunted in these mountains with his father. With the guerrillas, the young man had crisscrossed the area in the fight against "class enemies." Now, as the last light of day faded from the storm clouds, Ricardo led two North American soldiers against Salvadoran fascist assassins. For the reward of an airline ticket and a U.S. visa.
Lyons almost laughed at the irony. This morning, Ricardo had been a "Soviet-sponsored Communist insurgent," representing "a threat to Central American security" and "the peace of the hemisphere." Tonight, the teenager hoped for a ticket out of the war.
Ricardo had talked with Blancanales about the trade schools in the barrios of Los Angeles. Lyons still distrusted Lieutenant Lizco, but he knew he could trust Ricardo with his life. Lyons and Blancanales held the key to the boy's dreams. For the promise of a new life, they had his loyalty.
Would that be a way to end Salvador's tragedy? Give all the teenagers tickets to the United States? Let the Communists and fascists fight it out? Let the politicians die for their country?
Never happen, Lyons told himself. Dreams, fantasies, impossible. Politicians talk for their country, politicians ride in limousines for their country, politicians get rich for their country. But teenagers do the dying.
Put your mind on the mission. And maybe teenagers from Los Angeles and Kansas City and Atlanta won't get the glory of dying for El Salvador.
If the action went as Lyons planned, he and Blancanales would warn the journalists, then take a prisoner. They knew where the Quesadas' militiamen waited. Able Team had seen the area earlier in the day when the guerrillas attempted to ambush the Cadillac there. That piece of luck contributed to the odds of success without a firefight.
The storm slowed them now, but later, after they reached the death squad that waited in ambush, the storm would conceal them as they infiltrated the death squad's position.
If they could take the leader silently, the storm could also cover their retreat with the prisoner. The storm would confuse and frustrate the efforts of the fascists to find their "disappeared" officer.
If they took the leader of the death squad — army officer, fascist militiaman, whoever — he would be the link to Quesada.
First, they must warn the journalists. Blancanales had demanded that. To Lyons, the survival of the journalists meant nothing.
Those vampires, Lyons cursed; Jet-setting the world to exploit suffering and dying. Find someone bleeding, take a picture, send it to New York. The editors write the story. Doesn't matter who dies because of the lies. Doesn't matter if their propaganda screws a country's future.
How often did a journalist spend more than an hour at the scene? Get off the jet, study the situation through the viewfinder of a videocamera, send the tape to New York. Edit five videotapes together, put a giggly blonde and a somber father figure on screen to mouth cue-card lines and the network sold three minutes of commercial time.
Need great video to sell cars and soap and designer jeans. Go to Lebanon, find a street of dead children. Ms Blondie Prime-time talks about the irresponsibility of Israeli defense policy.
Send a crew to El Salvador, do a slow pan of the morgue. Father Network pronounces the latest body-count numbers. The numbers tell the story. Four hundred years of racial and class war explained between shampoo and hemorrhoids.
Got a story that takes a week to tell? Cut it down to thirty-five seconds of screen time. Film at eleven.
Lyons had considered the expediency of allowing the trucks transporting the newsmen and cameramen to trigger the ambush. The muzzle-flashes of the death squad's rifles would reveal their positions.
Maybe the press corps could document their annihilation on camera. Whip out the tape recorders. Zoom in on the bullet-shattered skull. Get those screams on tape. Record the sound of slugs slamming flesh. Catch the sound of a sucking chest wound. A slow pan of the sprawled bodies. Then make notes for the oh-so-somber commentary on the terrible incident. Ten seconds of philosophy and regret formatted for a cue card, then instant replay!
Blancanales had refused. Even if they lost the chance to grab the leader of the death squad, Blancanales considered warning the journalists a moral imperative.
What moral imperatives? What morals? After what he had seen and done, Lyons wondered why the word existed. A word for an unreal concept. After what he'd seen...
That's what he had said that last morning of Flor's life, that last time with her. In a motel bed in Malibu, only hours before she had died in the desert, her body reduced to ash and scorched bones, the last morning of laughter and touching and love…
"It's what you see," he had told her. "After that, dying, thinking about dying isn't the same. You recognize the advantages of being dead. No memories. No thinking…"
He'd said it only hours before she'd died — died because of his bravado and macho stupidity...
Blancanales gripped his shoulder. Shaking him, Blancanales whispered through the noise of the wind and beating rain, "You hurt? What happened?"
"You made a noise, you groaned. What's wrong?"
"Nothing's wrong. I'm great. I'm a killing machine. Lead the way. Dead meat is my business."
In the faint light, Blancanales studied Lyons's face for a moment. Then he turned and continued uphill, a shadow moving through the shadows of the trees.
Lyons followed. He concentrated on the warm rain washing over his face and body. He touched the rough bark of the trees. He felt the ooze in his boots. He thought of the mission, only the mission.