In the swirling smoke of the burning vehicles and forest, Lieutenant Lizco and his North American allies searched the captured jeeps. They saw that the Popular Liberation Force jeeps still bore the markings of a Salvadoran army unit — Las Boinas Verdes. Both jeeps had army radios. They found thousands of rounds for the M-60 machine guns in foil-sealed U.S. Army ammo boxes. In one jeep, they found clean uniforms and weapons taken from Salvadoran army troops.
"Las Verdes," the lieutenant commented, tapping the stenciled markings on the jeeps. "The Green Berets. They are stationed in Gotera." He pointed to the Salvadoran soldiers. "They are with the same unit."
"Can't be special forces." Lyons looked at the carnage a single platoon of guerrillas had inflicted on the soldiers.
"It is only a name," the lieutenant told him. "Only words. And paint."
"No red stars," Gadgets wondered. "Commie decals on their beanies and rifles, but not on the jeeps. Why?"
"Perhaps they used the jeeps to lure the trucks into the ambush," Blancanales suggested.
"Save the mystery for later." Lyons glanced toward the Salvadoran soldiers. "They've seen us, they know we're North Americans. What now?"
"Tell them we're just hardcore tourists," Gadgets suggested.
"Lieutenant, how long will we be in this area?" Blancanales asked.
"Until the rain comes." The lieutenant looked up at the gathering clouds. "And Quesada comes."
"So we could be here for days, waiting." Lyons watched the teenage Salvadoran soldiers tending their wounded and gathering their dead. "When they get back, everyone in El Salvador will know we're here."
Blancanales considered the problem. "We may be compromised," he said, "but I don't think so. However, we must guard the lieutenant's identity. If they see him, he cannot remain in his country."
"So what's the scheme?" Lyons demanded.
Blancanales looked to Lieutenant Lizco. "How can we explain ourselves? What would those soldiers believe?"
"They would not believe you are tourists," the lieutenant said, laughing. "And they know you are not journalists. Journalists would not help a soldier. We will say you are mercenaries. Traveling through Salvador to Honduras. Yes?"
Gadgets nodded. "On our way to play zap-zap with the Nicos. Makes sense to me."
"They will believe you are professional soldiers," the lieutenant stressed.
"That's what we'll tell them," Lyons agreed.
The lieutenant tore strips of OD green cloth from a captured uniform. "Cover your faces. They will understand."
"Who were those masked men!" Gadgets took a green strip and covered his face.
"Pol, we've got to question those prisoners." Lyons tied a strip over his face. "Wizard, Lieutenant, if you two can dump all this equipment and get us ready to move…"
The Salvadoran soldiers stood around the three surviving guerrillas. They abused the prisoners, taunting them, kicking their wounds. Some of the soldiers pointed their rifles at the guerrillas' heads. Crossing the clearing in a jog, Lyons called out, "No! No shoot!"
"No dispare!" Blancanales shouted in Spanish.
The two North Americans pushed through the group of Salvadorans. The prisoners lay against the gravel pile. Flies swarmed on their wounds. One had passed out from blood loss, his life draining away from through-and-through buckshot wounds to his legs. Blancanales quickly slipped out his knife and cut away the man's pant legs. He used the cloth to make pressure bandages. The other seriously wounded guerrilla had a bullet-shattered forearm, but had already bandaged it himself. The third prisoner, the panicked teenager Lyons had clubbed with the G-3, stared around at the soldiers like a trapped animal.
One of the Salvadoran soldiers spoke to Blancanales in rapid Spanish. Blancanales answered. Then the soldier spoke again with a sneer.
"He asked me why I help the Communists," Blancanales translated for Lyons. "And I told him they'd die otherwise. He said they're dying no matter what."
The arm-wounded guerrilla spoke to the frightened boy. The boy crossed himself. The wounded guerrilla laughed at the Catholic gesture. He raised his clenched fist in a defiant proletarian salute. Blancanales pushed the man's arm down and spoke to him quickly. The guy laughed again.
Lyons stepped forward and put his foot on the man's good arm. The man shook his head, then glanced around to the crowd of soldiers to emphasize the point.
"Tell this Commie to go easy on the provocations," Lyons told Blancanales. "And tell the soldiers that we took these prisoners. What happens to them is our decision."
"We don't want to tell them that." Blancanales gave the problem a moment of thought. Then he spoke to the soldiers in careful, evenly spoken words as he examined the shattered arm of the second guerrilla.
The soldiers argued with Blancanales. The loudest soldier stepped forward. His G-3, pointed at the wounded prisoners, boomed twice before Blancanales knocked the weapon aside. Lyons grabbed the rifle and pushed the soldier away.
Holding up his clenched fist one last time, his blood fountaining from his heart, the wounded guerrilla died. The corpse thrashed, and in death it gasped air through the hole in its chest. The other wounded prisoner, the unconscious one, also died, but without spasms.
Lyons threw the G-3 aside and unslung his Atchisson in one motion. His face masked, he faced the Salvadorans with the assault shotgun, the fire-selector on full-auto, his finger on the trigger. He heard movement behind him. "Pol! Watch my back..."
"It's me, it's me," said the lieutenant.
Holding up his knife, Blancanales made eye contact with all the Salvadorans. Then he indicated the wounded boy at his feet and spoke calmly to the soldiers. The soldiers, only moments ago enraged, now laughed.
The lieutenant stepped up behind Lyons and whispered a translation. "He said the guerrilla will pray for a bullet before he dies."
Blancanales slowly leaned to the bloody boy and helped him to his feet. He turned the boy around. While all the soldiers watched, Blancanales tore a tourniquet off a dead guerrilla and tied the boy's hands behind him. Then he shoved the boy toward the jeeps.
"Watch my back, Ironman," Blancanales whispered as he passed. "Those punks are crazy."
Keeping his eyes on the soldiers, Lyons backed up, the muzzle of the Atchisson threatening the group with death by high-velocity steel. The loud-mouthed soldier who had killed the two wounded men spat at Lyons, but the other soldiers grabbed him and restrained him.
Another soldier stepped toward Lyons. Lyons swiveled the autoshotgun to point at the teenager's chest. The soldier put up both hands, palms open. Then he reached up and took off his OD green beret. He held it out to Lyons.
"Muchas gracias por su ayuda, guerrero."
Taking his left hand off the foregrip of the Atchisson, Lyons motioned the young soldier forward. The soldier gave him the beret. Lyons flipped it onto his head. He set it at a rakish angle, like a movie-star hero, as he continued backing away.
Behind him, he heard the engines of the jeeps start. Lyons gave the group of soldiers a left-handed salute. But he did not turn his back.
"Come get me," he called out.
A jeep bumped backward to him. Not taking his eyes from the Salvadorans, Lyons stepped into the jeep. He put his knee in the seat and braced the Atchisson on the backrest.
As Able Team left the kill zone behind, the Salvadoran soldiers waved. The jeeps followed the road over the rise and around a bend. Only then did Lyons click up his Atchisson's safety. His hand-radio buzzed. Lyons set down his weapon and searched through his pockets.
"Wiz-a-rado a-qui," Gadgets jived through the electronic encoding circuits of the NSA equipment. Any counterinsurgent operatives monitoring radio communications would intercept only bursts of static as the encrypting circuits of Able Team's hand-radios instantaneously coded and decoded every transmission. "Que pasa? Gonna do any more favors for people?"
"Favors for who?" Lyons watched the forested hillsides above the road as he spoke into his hand-radio. "That Commie? Fighting is one thing, but torturing and murdering fifteen-year-olds is something else."
"Hey, man," Gadgets's voice responded with a laugh. "Ricardo and me are already buddies. I meant those Salvos back there — first we save them, then they want to off us."
"I didn't do anything for them," Lyons answered. "We needed these jeeps. Ricardo's the kid's name?"
"Yeah," replied Gadgets's voice. "And he is fifteen. Jesus, I been here three hours and the Pol said it straight last night. 'Salvador is the asshole of the world.' I want to go home, where teenagers smoke grass and screw their teenybop girlfriends. This scene down here is heavy."
"Do your job, Wizard," muttered Lyons. "Sooner you do it, sooner we go back."
"I'm doing my job. Have you checked out the radios in these jeeps? Ask the lieutenant to look at the frequencies."
Lyons looked over to the lieutenant. He had heard everything Gadgets Schwarz said over the hand-radio. He clenched his jaw with anger. He pointed to the dial of the jeep's radio console.
"That radio. That number is the frequency of the Boinas Verdes. That is the frequency of the army's helicopters. That radio. I do not know about the other radio. I have never seen it before."
After Lyons relayed the information, Gadgets asked, "What other radio?"
"There's another set here. Looks like a civilian unit.
No brand name, no model names or numbers. Only numbers on the dials. A black radio, with a dial and a microphone. Nothing else."
"Stand by to stop," Gadgets told Lyons. "I want to check out that black box. Maybe we could monitor Commie frequencies. The Pol will pull when he sees good cover."
Unable to contain his anger, Lieutenant Lizco spoke suddenly. "To slander my country is easy. We have many troubles. The hatred and the violence of four hundred years make the politics of my country insane. But hear me, norteamericano. Your country makes it worse. One president talks of human rights and the next president talks of making war to make peace. But it is all only noise for the television..."
"Don't talk that shit to me..." Lyons's talents did not include courtesy or diplomatic explanations of United States foreign policy. 'This place is a hellhole of Nazis and psychos. You going to blame the massacre in 1932 on the United States? Did the U.S. bring in the death squads? Can't tell me that..."
The lieutenant cut him off. "I can tell you this. In October 1979, the army took the government away from the generals and the families. My brother and father worked with the Junta, they told me all this. The army created the land reforms. The army sent the corrupt generals and colonels into exile. The army disbanded Orden. The army fought the Communists.
"There were only two thousand or three thousand guerrillas in the mountains," he continued, "not all of them Communists. The Junta hoped the reforms and the justice and human rights would win the war. We hoped the United States would lend us the money to make the reforms. We hoped for weapons to fight the Communists.
"Nothing came from the great democracy in the north. No money, no rifles, no helicopters, nothing. Only politicians and journalists.
"The dreamers and idealists in the Junta promised change. But they had no money for the people, no weapons for the army.
"The idealists could not stop the counterrevolution. They could not stop the death squads. The national guard, the national police, the Orden — they murdered thousands. The families destroyed the Junta.
"To please the new administration in the north, the families formed the Second Junta, the Gang of Death. The gang also promised reforms, but what they gave the people was murder. The gang ruled by the bullet and the machete.
"When the gang stopped the reforms, then it was that your new president sent help. Hundreds of millions of dollars, rifles, helicopters, Special Forces to train our soldiers to find the idealists and campesinos and teachers hiding in the mountains. Now there are ten thousand guerrillas. Now the guerrillas have the mountains and the roads and the villages..."
"Shut up!" Lyons shouted the lieutenant down. "None of that's my problem. That's your problem. You don't like what your government does, why are you in the army?"
"Someone must fight the Communists," the lieutenant seethed. "And after I defeat them, I will fight the others. And soon enough there will be a new American president. Every time you change presidents, it is as if the United States is another country. There may be hope for El Salvador."
Ahead of them, Blancanales swerved off the dirt road. The lieutenant followed the first jeep. Overhanging trees shadowed a fold in the hillsides. No helicopter or patrol could spot the group.
Blancanales left the front jeep. He walked back to the lieutenant. As he spoke quietly with the Salvadoran, he gave Lyons a glance and a shake of his head. Blancanales and the Salvadoran army officer, their weapons in their hands, went to stand sentry at the turn-off. Gadgets explained to Lyons, "We heard it all, man. I turn on that minimike, and what do I hear? The Ironman alienating our liaison."
"I couldn't let him talk that shit without talking back."
"Why not? Can a word make you bleed? Let him unload his lip on you. Let him talk his Yanqui Go Home routine. You want to debate the history of presidential foreign policy? Or do you want to get Quesada? You don't even read the newspapers, how can you talk about anything?"
"It's what yew said that started him off."
"Forget it. Let the Pol do the talking." Gadgets glanced to Blancanales, who talked earnestly with the young Salvadoran officer ten meters away. "He's got the talent for it. Why don't you watch the teenager? He's been praying nonstop. I got to check out this funky radio here."
Gadgets spread out tools and electronics on the seats of the jeep. Lyons went to the other jeep. The boy lay in the back, tied hand and foot, his head pillowed on OD green cans of belted 7.62mm NATO.
"Hey, Ricardo. How you doing?"
The boy looked up with tears and blood streaming down his face. "Senor comandante, por favor. Tengo quinze anos. No soy un comunista. No soy un comunista…"
Lyons glanced at the clotted blood matting the boy's hair. He went to the cases of gear and searched through the equipment for the first-aid kit. With alcohol and a wad of tissue, Lyons cleaned the clots away from the cut on the boy's head. The care indicated to the teenager that the hard-eyed North American did not intend to execute him.
"Gracias, senor. Gracias..."
"Be quiet, kid. Everything'll be okay. If you'll quit the People's Army of Murder, I'll take you to L.A. We got a half million Salvadorans up there already."
"Okay, senor. Okay, okay."
"Okay, okay. Solamente quinze, anos, no soy un soldado…"
Lyons called out to Blancanales. "Hey, Pol. What did this kid tell you?"
Jogging over to Lyons, Blancanales answered in a low voice. "No time to question him yet. You going to bandage his head? Good. Excellent interrogation technique, gaining the confidence and gratitude of a prisoner. I wouldn't have expected it of you."
"Because I'm just an animal, right?" Lyons shot back, angry at his partner. "I don't let junior hotshots badmouth my country and my president, so I'm an animal. I guess I'll just go clean my weapon. Get ready to annihilate another group of Latin American intellectuals and social reformers. Onward Yanqui soldiers…"
A voice blared out. Lyons and Blancanales whipped around to see Gadgets switching on a tape recorder. He set the recorder in front of the unmarked, nonmilitary radio.
Joining his partners, he said, "That voice sounds official. Like he's a commander. Maybe you could fake an answer to throw the Commies off us."
"Perhaps…" Blancanales moved quickly to the jeep. He listened to the transmission.
"It's ComBloc equipment?" Lyons asked.
Gadgets shook his head. "This is good equipment. The black box comes with encoding and screech transmission circuits. It's as good as what we got from the National Security Agency. Even has a digital code switch. If you don't know the code, you can't turn it on."
"Bypassed the ten-key with my pulse generator. The electronics put infinite combinations into the circuit until it clicked."
Lieutenant Lizco left his sentry position at the road. He returned to the jeep and listened carefully to the voice, concentrating on the voice itself and its speech patterns. He slowly looked up to the North Americans, his face slack with disbelief.
"That," he said, "is Quesada…"