In the communications room, Colonel Quesada keyed the digital code lock to power the high-tech radio. Machine-gun fire continued outside the family compound. The voices of his personal aides called from office to office as his staff marshaled the militia forces. He heard men rushing through the corridor. Colonel Quesada spoke urgently into the microphone of the secure-band American radio.
"Captain Mendez! Captain Mendez! This is Colonel Quesada. Emergency!"
Boots stopped outside the door. A fist knocked. "Colonel! News from the fighting. We have the identities of the attackers."
"Wait. In a moment…"
The colonel knew who attacked. The warning of the North American "paramilitary agents" had come from Washington only hours before. But his friends in the United States administration had said "paramilitary," not "commandos."
The North Americans had endangered his life with the use of the wrong word. In his country, "paramilitary" meant raping and murdering the family of an unarmed campesino, or the driveby machine-gunning of a student at a bus stop, or the torture and mutilation of a teenage girl. Salvadoran "paramilitary agents" did not assault concrete-and-steel defense positions manned by overwhelming numbers of militiamen.
The voice of his trusted officer over the radio interrupted Quesada's panic. "This is Captain Mendez."
"Are your men mobilized?"
"My squad assembles at the helicopters. We will pursue the Communist..."
"No!" commanded Quesada. "Your duty will be my personal security in Honduras. We will go to La Escuela. Tell the pilots to prepare for the flight to Reitoca. We will take two helicopters. Divide your squad into two groups. I will wait in the gardens for my helicopter."
"Comandante, the attack is over. The guerrillas have fled the property."
"Then what is that I hear?"
"The militia shoots at shadows and trees. Allow my unit to pursue and exterminate..."
"The attack is not over! They killed my men in San Francisco and Los Angeles, California. And they are not guerrillas. They are elite commandos sworn to my assassination. They will come again."
"These commandos have attacked before? In North America? Now here? Comandante, no one informed me of this threat to your security..."
"Ready the helicopters. We leave immediately!"
Colonel Quesada switched off the National Security Agency radio. He pressed an intercom button. "Orderly. Return to your duties."
As the colonel left the communications room, the radio operator ran in from the other office. Colonel Quesada did not allow any of the technicians to remain at the other radios when he used the secure-band radios. The high-tech electronics encoded every transmission to ensure absolute secrecy. But a disloyal radio operator overhearing and repeating a message would negate all the marvels of the North American technology.
A militia officer waited in the corridor, his gray uniform dripping rainwater. He snapped to attention and saluted when he saw his commander. "I have the identities of the attackers, comandante."
"Who are they?"
"North Americans. One blue-eyed, the other Latin. The second one speaks Spanish. There is a third, but he is believed to be Salvadoran."
"Did you see them?"
"No. They took Lieutenant Kohl prisoner, but he fought his way free before the attack..."
"Kohl? Him? Take me to him."
The officer nodded. "He is with the wounded. This way, comandante…"
Hurrying past the command offices, Colonel Quesada saw his officers speaking into telephones and pointing at maps. Some wore dry uniforms, others muddy fatigues. A radio monitored the walkie-talkie chatter between the scattered militia units. Voices announced a confusion of victories and defeats, casualties and men missing, guerrilla corpses and Communist units trapped in ambushes.
But the noise of machine-gun fire and the panicky voices on the radios had only suggested the truth.
As they stepped from the building, the colonel received his first images of the strike by the North Americans.
To the west, flames tongued the night. Orange light glowed on the storm clouds. Black columns rising from the fincamerged with the black sky. Despite the continuing rain, the acrid stink of burning fuel and rubber and flesh seared the colonel's throat.
Everywhere on the vast plantation, the hammering of machine guns continued. Tracers arced through the night like penny skyrockets at a saint's festival. He heard the ripping sound of M-16 rifles.
Colonel Quesada followed the officer along the veranda to a garage near the main gate. Holding the door open, the officer announced the colonel's entry.
"Attention! Our commander!"
Stepping into the dim interior, a smell struck Colonel Quesada, a horrible commingled stench of vomit and blood, scorched hair and burned flesh. Medics turned from a gore-red table and saluted with bloody hands. His eyes scanned the carnage on the floor.
Dead and wounded militiamen sprawled everywhere. A line of dead had been piled against one wall. Wounded men writhed on the garage floor, pouring their blood onto the oily concrete. One man had been totally blackened by fire. His eyes and features and fingers gone, he gasped down breaths through a seared throat, yellow fluid bubbling from the ruin of his face when he exhaled.
"How many men dead?" the colonel asked a medic.
"Eight dead, two dying, five wounded."
"Thank God it was not worse," Colonel Quesada told the officer leading him.
The medic corrected his commander. "But these are only the casualties from the compound and the guard posts. They are taking the other wounded to the hospital. And the fighting continues everywhere."
"There is Lieutenant Kohl," the officer pointed.
Stepping over wounded and dying men, they went to a militia officer wrapped in bandages. Splints immobilized his right shoulder and right arm. Blood seeped through the bandages wrapping his head.
Colonel Quesada went to one knee beside Lieutenant Kohl. "Nephew, what happened?"
Kohl, the death-squad leader whom Lyons and Blancanales had called el jefe, opened eyes glazed from medication. He tried to sit up. A medic held him down.
Finally, the sharp-featured, light-haired young man spoke.
"We returned from the mountains. In the motor yard… as I left the troop bus, they took me. Two were gringos. They spoke gringo English and North American Spanish… There was a Salvadoran traitor…"
The colonel heard rotorthrob approaching.
"When Captain Lopez came in the jeep… to take me to your meeting… they shot him and his men. I knew if they went to the gate to the family compound, the guards would take them. I sounded the alarm and dived from the car… then there was shooting. I know nothing else."
"Three… I saw three."
The colonel heard the helicopter descending in the garden. He hurried his questioning. "Only two gringos?"
"A dark one and a blond one."
"Not Mexican… Puerto Rican… I do not know. They covered their faces. I only guess."
"Comandante!" Captain Mendez called from the door. "There is a development in the battle!"
Colonel Quesada gave Lieutenant Kohl a salute. "Our family is fortunate you survived. Prepare a complete report when your condition permits."
The broken and bleeding officer grasped at his uncle's hand. "Comandante, did you kill them?"
"We will," said Quesada. "Be certain of that. The fighting continues. Soon we will know. Now rest, be strong…" He leaned close to Lieutenant Kohl so that the others would not hear. "Your Fatherland and the New Reich need you."
The lieutenant balled his left fist against his chest, then extended his arm out straight in a variation of the Nazi salute.
Colonel Quesada paced away from the dead and the suffering men. Outside, he saw the helicopter waiting in the center of the garden lawns. Captain Mendez shouted over the roar.
"There is shooting outside the west gate," he reported. "May I delay your departure while I take my squad to the fight?"
"No! We go on to Honduras. I do my duty to the Reich, before I take revenge on the attackers."
The colonel ran across the courtyards and garden walkways to the waiting helicopter. In moments, the Huey lifted away, carrying Colonel Quesada to the safety of the Honduran mountains.