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5

Over the noise of the idling Cessna engine, they heard the small-arms fire. Gadgets went flat in the dust of the airfield. Lieutenant Lizco shouted to Garcia.

"Go! There is fighting!"

"But you? How will you escape?"

"It is already arranged! Go! Now!"

Garcia leaned across the seat and gave the lieutenant and the three "journalists" a salute. Then he jerked the cabin door closed. The engine roared. A sandstorm enveloped the four men as the Cessna pivoted. Bumping across the dirt airfield, the Cessna gained speed and lifted off.

The firing continued, somewhere to the north. Lyons took off his sunglasses and blew dust and grit off the lenses. He scanned the sunlit, forested mountains around them.

"No one's shooting at us," he commented as he stood up. He grabbed his equipment cases. "But things could change. Make distance."

The lieutenant grabbed one of the cases. He pointed to a hillside tangled with dense brush and second-growth pines. "There. I have a car hidden."

"Where are we?" Gadgets asked as they double-timed.

"North of Lolotiquillo."

"Great. Where's that?"

"North of San Francisco Gotera."

Gadgets laughed. "Oh, yeah? And Where's that?"

The army officer did not stop to answer. Pushing through branches, he led them into the shadows of the hillside's trees. He set down the suitcase he carried. When the three North Americans joined him, he put out a hand for silence.

They waited, listening. Insects droned around them. In the distance, the rifle fire continued. The ripping noise of M-16s on full-auto answered the sharp booms of heavy-caliber battle rifles. The roar of an M-60 punctuated the firefight.

"M-60s and M-16s," Lyons guessed.

"Army?" Gadgets whispered.

The lieutenant nodded. "And guerrillas."

Other weapons roared in one disciplined explosion of autofire.

Blancanales glanced to his partners. "Those aren't M-60s. Cyclic rate's too fast."

"Sounds like a squad of G-3s to me," Lyons commented.

Gadgets flicked open the latch of his weapons case. "Don't sound like no brass-band reception. We're here. This is it."

They silently opened their cases. Stripping off their sports coats, Blancanales and Gadgets put on identical shoulder holsters. Both men carried silenced Beretta 93-Rs. The pistols represented the cutting edge of Beretta technology. A selective-fire sear mechanism triggered both single shots and 3-round bursts. An oversized trigger guard and a lever that folded down from under the barrel provided a secure two-hand grip. Slightly underpowered loads in their cartridges propelled steel-cored slugs at subsonic speeds for silent attacks.

From his case, Lyons took out his 4-inch-barreled Colt Python. Undoing his belt, he put a holster at the small of his back.

Then he slipped into standard shoulder-holster rig for a nonstandard weapon: a Colt Government Model reengineered for silence. Redesigned and hand-machined by Andrzej Konzaki to incorporate the innovations of the Beretta autopistols, the interior mechanisms of the Colt no longer resembled what Browning had invented and patented. Like the Berettas, a fold-down lever and oversized trigger guard provided a positive two-hand grip. But it fired full-powered .45-caliber slugs, silent, in semiauto and three-shot burst modes. Lyons jammed in an extended ten-shot magazine, leaving the chamber empty. He checked the Allen screw securing the suppressor before holstering the weapon.

Able Team loaded their assault weapons. Gadgets snapped back the actuator of his CAR-15 to chamber a round. Blancanales loaded and locked his M-16/M-203 over-and-under hybrid assault rifle and grenade launcher. He slipped a 40mm high-explosive fragmentation grenade into the launcher. But he left the launcher tube uncocked. Lyons took out his Atchisson assault shotgun. The lieutenant tapped him on the shoulder.

"What is that rifle?" the Salvadoran asked.

Lyons gave a whispered description of the weapon. "Atchisson selective-fire assault shotgun. Twenty-inch rifled barrel. Slug sights with flip-up rear apertures for fifty and a hundred yards. Magazine holds seven rounds. Thumb fire-selector, safe, one-shot, three-shot, full-auto. And the shells aluminum casings to eliminate the chance of a plastic shell melting in the chamber and fusing solid. Loaded with a mix of double-ought and number-two steel shot. I can put out over four hundred projectiles in less than a second and a half. Starting with a round in the chamber and changing mags, I can put out one thousand projectiles in less than seven seconds. One man fire-superiority, yes?"

Smiling, the lieutenant looked into the weapon cases. "Do you have another?"

"Want one?"

Lieutenant Lizco nodded.

"Could be arranged. But not now." Lyons pulled back the Atchisson's actuator and slipped a round in the chamber. Then he jammed in a magazine. "Where's that truck?"

"It is a car. Come. It is near."

They eased through the brush with their heavy cases. In the distance, the autofire died away to occasional bursts and single shots. The shriek-roar and explosion of an RPG ended the firefight.

"That one's over," Gadgets told Blancanales. "Sounds like the side with the ComBloc weapons won."

"Not your war, Wizard. Nothing you can do."

Lyons heard his partners. "I'll do whatever I can," he said. "Wherever I go, it's my war. Nazis, Commies, pirates I pull the trigger on them all."

"Tough talk, Ironman," Blancanales hissed. "But you can't fight the world."

"What have I been doing for the past few years?"

Gadgets laughed. "That man talks the facts."

"Here is the car." Lieutenant Lizco pointed to a tangle of brush.

They put down their cases and thrashed into the bushes. Living trees and brush had been cleverly bent and twisted to conceal the vehicle in living camouflage. As they pulled aside the branches, they saw camouflage sheeting.

The lieutenant slashed the sheeting with a pocket knife. They saw gleaming paint and a tinted window. Dragging the knife blade through the camou fabric, he cut the sheeting away from the front end of the luxury car.

"A Coupe de Ville?" Lyons asked, staring wide-eyed at the vehicle.

"I could not get a truck," the Salvadoran officer explained. "A rich politician would not risk the roads. It disappeared from the garage and came here."

"We travel in style!" Gadgets jived.

Swinging open the door, the lieutenant tried the engine. It roared. He eased the Cadillac out of its camouflage. He flicked the electric lock switch. Able Team jerked open the doors and threw in their cases.

"Now where?" Lyons asked.

"South." The lieutenant guided the luxury car through the brush. He braked when he reached the airstrip. He took tape and a bundle of paper from the floor of the Cadillac. "Here. Tape these signs to the car. Hurry."

"Sure, sure." Lyons and Blancanales jumped out.

Opening the bundle, they found several bold lettered signs red letters on the white paper stating Periodistas.

"Newsmen," Blancanales translated.

Working fast, they taped the signs to the hood, the roof and the trunk. They jumped back inside.

"You think of everything," Lyons told the lieutenant.

"I have planned this for months."

Accelerating across the airstrip, Lieutenant Lizco fishtailed onto the gravel road. Ruts and bumps made the Cadillac rock like a boat. The Salvadoran drove from side to side on the road, avoiding muddy holes, sometimes steering up onto the bulldozed shoulder to avoid the worst ruts.

In the back seat, Gadgets explored the comforts enjoyed by the rich politician owner. He ran his hands over the leather upholstery and lacquered walnut door panels. From the back of the front seat, a bar folded down.

"Hey, man, no booze."

The lieutenant apologized with a smile. "It seems to have 'disappeared.'"

"Where d'you think that shooting was?" Lyons asked him.

"In the hills. Perhaps higher on the road."

The dirt lane switchbacked across the mountainside. Overarching pines hid the sky. Rivulets of clear water splashed from rocks above the road, causing areas of mud. Lyons motioned to the lieutenant.

"Stop!"

Ahead of them, the road passed over a gentle hillside. Cleared ground on both sides of the road had once been planted with corn; a few withered stalks still stood. A burned-out house overlooked the road. Bullets had pocked the adobe walls. As the Cadillac slowed to a stop, Gadgets leaned forward. Blancanales scanned the upslope hillsides.

"What do you see?" Gadgets asked Lyons.

"Mines!" the lieutenant shouted as he jammed the shift into reverse.

Several round depressions in the road had filled with water. A shovel lay at the side of the road. As the Cadillac's tires spun backward in the sand and gravel of the road, they saw a man step out of the brush.

He wore dark green fatigues and a beret. A red star on the beret identified him as a guerrilla with the Stalinist Popular Liberation Forces. But the four men in the Cadillac ignored the ideological identification. Their eyes fixed on the weapon he held.

An RPG-7 rocket launcher.

Dropping to one knee, the guy shouldered the launcher. He took his hand off the pistol grip and removed the warhead's safety cap. He cocked the hammer.

The Cadillac shuddered and rocked as it hurtled backward. As if in a nightmare, they all saw the man aiming the rocket at the center of the windshield. Lieutenant Lizco had the accelerator to the floor, but it would not save them.

As the guerrilla's finger pulled the trigger, Lyons grabbed the steering wheel and jerked it toward him. The change in direction gave greater traction to the tires. The Cadillac whipped through a two-wheeled backward turn, the rear end bumping uphill, smashing through bushes and pine saplings.

The rocket shrieked over the hood and into the distance. The explosion came an instant later.

"Forward now!"

With the rocking Cadillac tilted backward up the hillside at forty-five degrees, the lieutenant accelerated. He whipped the steering wheel all the way to his left.

For a sickening instant, the out-of-control Coupe de Ville again balanced on two wheels. Then Gadgets and Blancanales threw themselves against the inside of the rear door to shift the weight of the car. With a crash, the Cadillac fell onto all four wheels and fishtailed across the dirt road.

"And I always thought the rebels liked reporters," Gadgets commented.

"Perhaps they can't read," Blancanales said as he took out his M-16/M-203.

"You remember the expression?" Gadgets asked. He held his CAR-15 and scanned the mountainsides. " 'The pen is mightier than the sword'? I tell you, a rocket puts down any typewriter."

"Where now?" Lyons asked the lieutenant as he took his Atchisson from its case.

"There is another road," the grim-faced man at the wheel replied. "Actually only a trail. Perhaps we will take it. It is beyond the landing strip."

"But the firefight we heard..."

"Yes. That is also beyond the landing strip."

Blancanales leaned forward. "The Commies must have set a one-two ambush. The one up ahead, then that one back there. They hit the army up there, and then if a react-force comes up the road, they hit it too. Or if the unit up there broke out, they'll run into the second ambush on the way down. Standard procedure, straight out of the book."

"What's the book say about our situation?" Lyons asked the ex-Green Beret.

"Said to cover your ass," Blancanales answered.

"Hide out," Gadgets added. "Make them find you. And when they do, ambush them."

"Tough to hide a Cadillac Coupe de Ville," Lyons commented. "Lieutenant, how about we ditch this monster and cut overland?"

"That is also very dangerous. The road comes soon. Let us chance it."

"You're the driver." Lyons buckled on a bandolier of Atchisson magazines. "But I'd rather walk than play tag with RPGs."

"Second the motion," Gadgets told his partners. "When the Ironman says he's afraid, it's time to shake."

"Not afraid," Lyons corrected. He kept his eyes on the hillsides as he spoke. "We just don't have time for this nonsense."

They passed the airstrip. Pushing the overweight luxury car to its limit, the lieutenant continued into the hills. Over the rattling of gravel and rocks in the fenders, they heard no more rifle fire.

"The road comes soon," Lieutenant Lizco stressed. "Very soon. All will be okay."

At one hundred kilometers an hour, the Cadillac lurched across the gravel. A straightaway led over the crest of a low hill.

Bouncing over the top, they drove into the wreckage and death of the ambush.


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