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13

From the tree line behind the abandoned cornfields, Lyons and Blancanales observed the squad of assassins. The steep rise of the forested hillside allowed the Stony men to look down on the fields and farmhouse and road.

Lightning flashes illuminated the scene in stark moments of black and arc-light white. A hundred meters of rotting cornstalks and furrows gone to weeds separated Lyons and Blancanales from the flowing mud of the road. They saw forms with bipod-braced auto-weapons sprawled here and there in the tangles of rotting cornstalks. Quesada's militiamen wore black fatigues and black web-gear. Some wore black vinyl raincoats and hats. One man stood on the rise, watching the mountain road for headlights.

Tire tracks cut across the abandoned fields to the farmhouse. A small bus, out of view of the road, parked against the rear of the burned-out house; the overhang of the roof sheltered the passenger door from the downpour. The driver's window viewed the hills. Inside the bus, a cigarette lighter flared.

Lightning flashes revealed a man in a black raincoat walking through the storm. He went from position to position, crouching for a moment with each rifleman. Finally, he disappeared into the darkness of the farmhouse.

"That's the leader," Lyons whispered to his partner. "Checking his squad."

"Perhaps" Blancanales answered. "And perhaps the leader sent out a soldier to check the line."

While Blancanales whispered orders to Ricardo, Lyons checked his weapons and gear. He slung his Atchisson over his back and cinched the sling tight. He tightened his bandolier of 12-gauge mags. Checking the MU-50G controlled-effect grenades in his thigh pockets, he felt the casings click together. He reached out to the ferns around him and pulled off fronds. He shoved them in his thigh pockets as padding to eliminate any chance of the grenades betraying him as he moved.

Blancanales went first, Lyons following. The rain pattered on their backs as they snaked through the furrows. They went down the slope, losing sight of the squad and the bus. Cornstalks blocked their line-of-sight. But the cornstalks also screened them from the vision of Quesada's assassins.

Warm mud coated the fronts of their blacksuits. Lubricated with the black slime, they slid through tangles of rotting cornstalks.

Lyons noticed a detail that would have meant nothing to him before his mission to Guatemala only months before: the corn had not been harvested. He felt the rat-gnawed cobs roll under his hands. The campesino who had sown this field and tended the corn for months had lost the harvest to the war. As he continued toward the bullet-pocked and burned-out house, Lyons wondered if the campesino had also lost his life to the war.

Blancanales stopped Lyons with a muddy hand. They lay side by side in the unrelenting downpour, watching the tiny glow of a cigarette scratch the black of a bus window. Inside the bus, the cigarette flared as the smoker took a drag, then the red point inscribed another arc against the black as the smoker let his arm fall.

The Stony men crept forward, slowly easing through the last rows of cornstalks. The bus and farmhouse leaped from the night as lightning flashed above them, Lyons and Blancanales stopping in midmotion. Thunder came an instant later. They eased forward, had to freeze as lightning flashed again.

Only a few steps from the bus, they stopped to watch and listen. They lay in muddy rainwater and tangled cornstalks. Weeds and debris from the burned farmhouse littered the ground separating them from the bus.

The smoker flicked his cigarette butt into the rain. Moments later, he lit another, the lighter's flare like a spotlight on his face. Blancanales and Lyons memorized the man's features: slash lips, a sharp beak of a nose, a square forehead, his hair combed straight back.

Straining their ears, they listened for voices or movement above the incessant drumming of the rain on the sheet metal of the bus. Lyons reached into the mud in front of his face. Though his black bandana covered most of his features, his eyes and a band of skin inches wide remained uncovered. He had darkened his skin with blacking grease, but he took no chances. As he watched the bus and farmhouse for movement, he daubed the fertile black earth of El Salvador on his face. Then he tapped his partner and pointed to the bus.

Blancanales nodded. He slipped out his silenced Beretta as Lyons crossed the three meters to the bus. Lyons kept his belly and face to the mud, sucking in the rich scent of El Salvador with every slow, measured breath. Easing past a twisted sheet of corrugated-steel roofing, Lyons heard boots splash through mud.

Lyons froze. Sounds of splashes and crunching wood reached him. He waited for the voice of alarm or the slaps of Blancanales's subsonic 9mm slugs punching into the death-squad soldier's body.

The boots passed his outstretched arm. Steel tapped sheet metal. He heard voices.

"Vienen?"

"No. Jefe, porque no llama el capitan..."

"Vayase aca. Esperen en suposicion!"

Splashes and kicked trash sounded the militiaman's path around the farmhouse. Lyons waited to the count of sixty before moving again. He silently wormed under the bus. He waited for lightning.

Above him, the metal floor of the bus squeaked as el jefeshifted in his seat. Lyons waited, watching the darkness, listening for other movements. On the other side of the bus, a boot scraped. Two men.

The night went white with lightning, two long flashes allowing Lyons to scan the area around the bus. He saw no sentries. Taking his hand-radio off his web belt, he keyed a click code to signal Blancanales.

Thunder blasted away the sounds of the rain and the boots above him. Lyons felt rather than heard the clicks answering his signal. He unwound the earphone wire and plugged the phone into his ear. Then he pulled his modified Colt Government Model from its spring-clip shoulder holster, thumbed back the hammer to full-cock and set the ambidextrous safety-fire-selector.

Blancanales snaked through the mud. A lightning flash exposed him in the open ground. Lyons saw the lines of the M-16/M-203 on his partner's back, but the mud and moldy cornstalks clinging to his blacksuit made Blancanales look like a mound of soil and trash. The instant of light gone, Blancanales lunged across the last two meters, thunder covering the splashing of his hands and feet.

"That's our man up there," Lyons whispered. "I heard that goon call him 'hef-fe.' That means boss, right?"

"You're positive? Couldn't have been a name, like Jose? Jorge?"

"Most definitely positive. Then the boss ordered him to go back to his position. He said, 'po-ze-shun.'"

"Position?"

"That's it."

"Then he is our man."

"There's another goon up there with him. We got to wait for one of them to step out. We only want the number-one goon."

"We should confirm that second man," Blancanales suggested.

"On my way. Watch my back."

Lyons crabbed under the bus, his modified and sound-suppressed Colt autopistol cocked and locked in his hand. He went to the right rear wheel. The right side of the bus, only a step from the adobe wall of the ruined farmhouse, remained in darkness even when lightning flashed. Rain poured from the corrugated-steel sheets overhanging the bus, water splashing on the roof of the vehicle then flowing down the windows.

His eyes searching the darkness, Lyons eased from under the bus. A sheet of falling water washed over him as he rose to a crouch. His thumb on the safety of the silenced Colt, he listened to the rain beating on the bus and the corrugated steel. He stood and looked through a bus window.

He saw only darkness. At the front, the cigarette still glowed. Lyons waited. The cigarette flared, then dropped as the smoker's hand moved. Lyons waited for lightning.

Metal rasped on metal. Even as Lyons dropped into the mud, his body flowing under the bus, Blancanales hissed a warning. Lyons inched sideways, the Colt pointed outward.

"In the field," Blancanales whispered.

Lyons switched the Colt from his right to his left hand. He watched as a shadowy form shifted within the darkness. Lightning flashed.

In the instant of brilliance, they saw Ricardo on his hands and knees in the mud. His eyes startling white against his grease-blackened face, he looked around for death-squad sentries. As the thunder rolled, he scurried up to Lyons and Blancanales through the mud and trash to concealment under the bus.

Whispered Spanish invective greeted him. Lyons listened as Blancanales quietly vented his anger at the teenager's disobedience. He had been instructed to stay in place at the tree line. But Ricardo interrupted the North American commando.

Lyons listened as the two whispered back and forth in Spanish.

Thumping on the soaked earth, many booted feet ran to the bus. The amber light of a battery lantern shone on the mud. Shouts came. A voice in the bus answered. Lyons heard the boots of the militiamen splashing around the bus. Blancanales and Ricardo eased over to Lyons. As the death squad crowded around the bus, Blancanales briefed him in an almost inaudible whisper.

"The army's here. Ricardo saw the trucks coming, so he came to warn us. That's the captain and a sergeant and two or three of the Quesada men out there. They don't understand where the two vans of journalists could have gone."

"What are they doing now?"

"El jefesaid he would radio for instructions. We'll have to wait."

"Damn right. Can't go anywhere."

Flashes of white light revealed muddy boots around the bus. Yellow light from the battery lantern glistened on the stock of an M-50. Lyons identified the Salvadoran soldiers by their green-patterned camouflage fatigues, the death squad of Quesada militiamen by their black fatigues.

Lyons studied the black fatigues. He realized they were not black, but gray. The gray cloth appeared black because of the soaking rain and the slime.

Gray, Lyons thought, like the uniforms of the army of Unomundo, the would-be Nazi dictator of Guatemala. As here in Morazan, the assassins loyal to Unomundo operated in the gray uniforms of a private army. The mercenary army of criminals and psycho racists hired and equipped by Unomundo even wore the same black nylon boots and web gear as Quesada's gray-uniformed militiamen.

Lyons remembered the capitol reception where right-wing Salvadorans thought to be linked to Unomundo the Stony Man intelligence sources had found no conclusive proof laughed with United States senators and congressmen. Young Salvadoran soldiers in expensive suits had served as bodyguards for the wealthy Salvadorans at the high-society party. Later that same week, Able Team encountered those young Salvadoran soldiers in California. Mack Bolan had assigned Able Team to protect the Riveras, a family of Salvadoran refugees who had witnessed the murder of a North American journalist in Sonsonate province. Able Team fought death squads dispatched by Roberto Quesada to pursue and execute the Riveras before they could testify. Looking down at the face of a dead Salvadoran soldier sprawled in a Los Angeles street, Lyons had guessed the connection. An investigation spanning months and the uniforms surrounding him now confirmed his suspicions.

Quesada served Unomundo.

But that knowledge meant nothing if he died tonight. Lyons hissed to Blancanales, "What goes?"

"Quiet"

Only two steps away, el jefeand el capitantalked. Blancanales and Ricardo listened. El jefeshouted an order to his squad. Around the bus, the boots scrambled. The Salvadoran army soldiers left. Soldiers shouted out their leader's order to the assassins scattered in the roadside fields. At the road, the engines of the troop carriers roared.

Blancanales gave Lyons a hurried briefing. "Quesada canceled the ambush. He has ordered all the men back to thefinca. Immediately."

Boots banged up the two steps of the passenger entry. Other boots rasped on the cargo ladder at the back of the bus. Men stowed gear on the rooftop rack.

The starter solenoid snapped into the gears to turn over the engine. The engine revved.

"Senors! Nos estamos" Ricardo started to panic, his words coming in a rush. If the militiamen crowding into the bus had not been talking and banging equipment, they would have heard the frightened boy below them.

"He thinks we're trapped," Blancanales said into Lyons's ear. "And we are. What if we just stay where we are, let them drive away. And pray to God they don't back out."

"No way. We're going with them. To Quesada."


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