Chapter 12 - Deja Vu
The following days brought Vin a steady stream of intelligence through Ronnie. Although she was the only one to speak with him, he knew from the information that it was a collaboration of several sources because she never missed work and she still looked great - Vin blushed and took a step back at that assessment while watching her work the bar. What he meant was, he corrected mentally, she did not look as if she was neglecting sleep and he did notice Ronnie speaking intimately with several different people this week. As he watched her, he felt a dangerous heat in his belly and alarms sounded in his mind.
Vin shook his head and shifted focus to his work. He also knew that since the Carnicero brothers came from this area, they and Ronnie more than likely had the same connections. What this added up to in his mind was that Ronnie could end up one of the decapitated bodies found around here on a regular basis. He appreciated the intelligence, but also knew that their relationship could not go any further. Information burned in both directions.
In addition, Ranger training taught Vin to work alone and that added another spin to the entire partnership. He recognized the uneasy feeling because he worked through the same mindset when he joined Team 7. The pull to work alone was strong and difficult to resolve in this situation. Vin hoped this would be over soon, but part of him wished things would keep on as they were.
He didn’t need this distraction. He could picture Buck’s shit-eating grin at this predicament.
One night five days after their informal declaration of partnership, Ronnie came into the Coyote later than usual, out of breath and her hair slightly disheveled. Behind the bar where he filled her usual spot, Vin ignored the other offerings of cleavage and batting eyes and watched her weave through the crowd with singular purpose until she was at his side.
“I have a date and location.” Ronnie’s eyes, bright with excitement, met his with unwavering directness. “There’s no exact time. Come.” She pulled on his elbow, oblivious to the irritated and angry glares burning her way from the side clientele. Ronnie dragged him from the bar with a surprised expletive from Eddie.
“Hey, I can’t hold this down by myself!” he complained, hands dancing along bottlenecks as he mixed one of his powerful concoctions.
“I’ll be right back,” Ronnie said as she retreated. “He’ll have to work a little instead of building up his next conquest,” she muttered just loud enough for Vin to hear. He chuffed a short laugh.
She pushed open the back door to the alley. A moist, rotten smell reminiscent of vomit greeted them as Ronnie stopped him just outside the door and glanced around.
“There’s a Judge in San Diego that the Carnicero boys want to see gone. He’s pushing for increased Federal funding and manpower in an area the brothers need to stay status quo. They want to send a message beyond Tijuana. They plan on murdering him.”
“That would be the usual way, but I hear that Adrian wants to handle this one himself. There’s some kind of rally scheduled the tomorrow, but this Judge - Conklin? - is coming down earlier in the day to brief the participants. The public rally is scheduled to be in time for the five o’clock news.”
Vin absorbed the information, his brain automatically falling into planning mode as he calculated equipment and travel needs. “Where?”
“The rally organizers are grouping near the Otay Mesa checkpoint on the U.S. side. There’s an unused storage yard near the crossing that can handle the crowd.” She read from a piece of paper. “He arrives at two o’clock. I haven’t been able to confirm the exact speech time but there is an off-site briefing at two-thirty. Then he visits the local courthouse before the live speech in the storage yard around five o’clock.” Ronnie thrust a paper into his hand. On it was a crudely drawn map with an X marking the address. “I've included a contact to cross the border.”
Vin regarded the map. “I need a computer. I need to see the buildings around this area.”
“My place,” she said, pressing a key into his palm. “I’ll hold the fort here so Eddie doesn’t have a meltdown. I’ll tell Jesus you’re sick.”
The mission was finally in motion.
Vin spent the night memorizing the area and its buildings. Although the online, street view feature was a big help, he knew he had to get there as soon as possible to scout the best areas to watch for Adrian’s arrival. He’d hoped to get the brothers together but realized that in reality, the Carnicero family was smarter than that; three separate targets were harder to kill than one. If Adrian was, indeed, the worst of the bunch - and Vin believed that to be true from both Ronnie and information he’d gathered on his own - killing him would be a good first step.
That thought brought Vin up short. First step to what, exactly? Doing this on American soil would make him unredeemable and set him on a path away from Denver and Team 7. Could he - should he - do this? All Vin’s previous enthusiasm evaporated. Knowing he wasn’t getting any more done this night, he shrugged on his coat and locked up Ronnie’s apartment and headed to his own small place.
During the time in her apartment, Vin, focused on getting information and didn't give much notice to the interior. Now, as he walked with fists jammed in his coat pockets and a ribbon of vapor trailing from his breath, he reflected on what he saw there.
Ronnie’s space was colorful and practical, a direct reflection of its owner. There were few pictures on the wall, but plenty scattered about in bright frames. The kitchen counters, which he saw on his way to the office, held labeled containers and bowls of fruit. A small table, covered with a green table cloth, sat in the center of the space with four simple wooden chairs. The living room area was tiny, holding a small couch, colorful lamps and abstract art.
The computer he used was something JD would be proud of and Vin grinned at the thought. It was fast and easy to use. The monitor background was of Ronnie and what Vin thought was her mother - the similarities were obvious. They wore vivid print skirts and yellow blouses, and posed in the middle of a colorful street fair. They both smiled in the picture, looking carefree and happy. He took a moment to wonder about it, fighting to ignore a pang of emotion.
Vin finally reached his place and did not feel like sleep, so he jumped into the cold Jeep seat. The ignition tried to deny his request to turn over but finally gave up and choked to a start. He pulled out of the narrow alley, zigzagging around a collection of corners that led to the main road and stopped at the last intersection before the main thoroughfare where a black and white police unit parked across the street caught his eye. In the poor cast of the remaining streetlight, Vin recognized one of the two officers he’d met on is arrival in the area. Since then, he’d seen them occasionally, watching him from afar. Ronnie told him that she’d made it clear to them that Vin was rightfully employed at the Coyote so they left him alone. Still, he knew they monitored him.
He accelerated around the corner and out of habit, kept an eye on the unit. It did not move from the curb. Satisfied he was safe, he found his way to his storage unit. It was a fast trip to the lot and Vin was impressed that the uniformed security guard at the gate was still awake in these early hours of the new day. Using his keycard to open the main gate, he waved at the guard and got a dark glare in return. Vin arrived at his small unit and separated the lock’s key on his key chain. The chrome 7 clattered against the door.
Once inside, he surveyed the small collection of gun cases. In his spare time, Vin hunted down suitable weapons usually hand guns, because he’d become fond of his one rifle. With surprisingly little practice, he became as accurate with it as he had been with his Team 7 rifle. Now, he lifted the long case and set it aside, stacking two boxes of ammo next to it. He considered another handgun, but the Sig Saur tucked in his waistband felt like enough. He grabbed an additional clip, already loaded, and tucked it in his beltline. He added another knife to the nape of his neck to go with the Denver blade he always carried in his boot.
Vin stuffed the other ammo into his coat pockets and unlatched the rifle case. Satisfied that nothing was amiss about the weapon, he secured the lock and hefted the case. With it in hand, he left the unit and locked the door. He made sure case was out of sight in the Jeep and headed north from the facility and out of the city, stopping once for bottles of water and a few packs of jerky.
Approaching dawn slowly extinguished the stars and the sky was grey when he reached the border crossing area marked on Ronnie’s map. According to Ronnie, crossing the border to get to the other side of the fence was easy here; getting to where you wanted to be on the other side was harder. Vin smiled at the thought, since he’d discovered the same thing as a young boy in Texas.
Vin followed Ronnie’s directions in his head. Not one to write things down, Vin’s skill in remembering directions was one of the things that made him a successful Ranger and U.S. Marshal. He quickly found the area she described, noting that the subtly lit building actually teemed with life even in these wee hours of the morning.
Stopped no less than three times before getting to the front of the building, Vin followed Ronnie’s instructions to not appear stealthy and to use a certain phrase to confirm his trustworthiness. Finally, he waited for the person in charge and recognized him immediately. Vin didn’t know him by name, but by the way he carried himself and directed the others. The portly, older Hispanic gentleman now coming his way was definitely the one in charge.
“Ronnie sent you?” the man said abruptly after scanning Vin top to bottom from his protective circle of guards.
“You need to cross, then. Come.”
The guards eyed Vin with hostility, not giving an inch in their security. No names, either; Vin understood. He also knew to keep his eyes off his host and keep his hands in sight. No one commented on the case slung over his back.
“Go through there,” the man said, turning away right after he pointed. “Tell the man on the other side when you expect to come back. I will not be here.”
Vin nodded and the clump of men moved away. He headed to a smaller building set behind the larger one where he parked his Jeep. There was one door visible, standard size, without any exterior lights. In the pale light, he saw peeling paint and a thick coat of dust made the building look unimportant. At the door, Vin tried the knob and, to his surprise, fount that it turned easily. He stepped inside, closed the door behind him and became shrouded in darkness.
He waited for his eyes to adjust, feeling his heartbeat in every fingertip, and pulled his coat close. It was colder in here and when he shuffled his feet, Vin could hear a slight echo; there was more to this small structure than its appearance indicated. When his eyes finally adjusted to the dark, he noticed a dim, rectangle of light in the floor and slowly moved toward it. His toe felt a dip in the floorboard, framed by the gold light, and reached down to find a cold, metal ring set in the floor. He lifted it, and pulled.
The hatch lifted easily, revealing a short flight of stairs going down to a dimly lit passageway. He descended carefully, pulling the hatch closed behind him, and ignored the flutter of claustrophobia that made his heart race. Once at the bottom, a long, dirt tunnel stretched before him, supported up and over with sturdy wood beams. The footpath was shiny with wear, at least six feet wide and Vin didn’t have to duck to avoid scraping his head. Bare light bulbs dangled at uneven distances from the ceiling. This was a well-used path under the border and Vin chuckled at how his past employers would love to know its location. That idea, and the fond memories about his six friends that followed, kept the close press of earth off his mind as he walked.
Circles of light were like stepping stones as Vin walked. In a few minutes he came to another flight of stairs and ascended, forcing caution in his escape from the tunnel. At the top of the stairs, he pushed against the ceiling and it opened, allowing him to enter a small building similar to the one south of him. As he knelt to close the hatch, Vin realized he was in the United States and that the bounty on his head was up for grabs. Vin stood and paused to collect his wandering thoughts before stepping outside onto his native soil.
With the door closed behind him, Vin cautiously looked around at a neglected storage yard. Old cars, stacks of tires and weathered crates surrounded him and the small building looking like every other dilapidated part of this facility. With the day blooming, Vin moved out, following a worn path in the dirt that lead him to a sagging section of the chain link fence that easily bent aside at Vin’s touch. He slipped through the fence and paused on the other side. Looking back at the small structure, he would never guess what the small shed in the center of the yard contained. He took a moment to orient himself and blinked at a bright edge of rising sun.
“Hey,” a disembodied voice hissed in Spanish. “This way.”
Shifting to full alert, Vin headed toward the voice. All he saw was a broken down car - a lime green Gremlin, to be exact. Vin smirked at the absurd vehicle when he saw a small head poke up through the driver’s side window frame. When he got closer, Vin saw it was a young boy.
“You’re supposed to go that way,” the boy said. His dirt smeared face and long hair shaggy from sleep belied the presence of the pricey iPod in his hand. One ear bud dangling loose and the sleeping bag that drooped from his shoulders was top of the line. This gatekeeper was well paid.
Vin nodded once and set out, anxious to get to the meeting area before full daylight. With that in mind, he set of at a ground eating, yet energy efficient jog, breathing easily. He continuously scanned the area and knew exactly where he was as well as where he wanted to be. He altered his course slightly and soon found the block of buildings he sought.
He’d come up north of the main U.S. roadway that followed the border with Mexico, the same road he shadowed during his drive to Tijuana. Traffic was heavy and Vin saw that the line of cars and trucks headed toward the Otay Mesa border crossing checkpoint. He located a building he wanted to investigate and found his way to the roof, where he walked the perimeter and stopped at the east edge. Vin gently laid his rifle case down and pulled the spotter scope from within. He scanned the area slowly, identifying the compound where the Judge’s meeting was to take place.
Tactically, Vin saw that a sniper shot was limited. The yard in question, which he could see was already bustling with activity this early in the day, was protected by tall structures on one side and impressive solid walls.
Part of being a sniper was knowing your enemy. In this case, Vin knew that Adrian Carnicero was the least patient of the sons, hot tempered and arrogant. He could shoot - he’d proven that bloody point enough - but preferred the close proximity of handguns. His weapon of choice, however, was a knife because he liked blood on his hands. If Adrian was going to take a rifle shot, it would be from the south or east. Vin pinpointed two buildings that could easily cover those areas as well as the other scenarios. He put the scope away and left the building, satisfied he would be in place well in advance of his adversary.
With the next-to-nothing information he had, success was heavily stacked against him. Vin also realized that all of this started with a deal with Zamora, whose track record made the man a poor choice to trust. He wondered what Ezra would think of the odds of the situation. Leaving the building, Vin headed to the sniper nest of his choice and reached it just as the sun topped the mountains and cast the first full shadows of the day. Vin used the spotter’s scope and scanned the area again, satisfied with his choice.
Preparations begin at nine. Trucks unloaded folding chairs and a small stage and people milled within the fenced enclosure, inspecting every square inch of the property. Vin watched hired security teams outside the fenced area checking nearby buildings, post guards at entrances and slowly build a secure perimeter. He hunkered down in the shadows, satisfied that they wouldn’t check this building because it was outside the zone of perceived safety. Vin leaned against the wall and drank a bottle of water. He then ate the jerky for breakfast, pulled his knees up and tucked himself tight. Now was the time to catch some sleep.
He jerked awake when the late morning preparations spilled into the early afternoon. Vin watched every move and had a good feel for the event and the people in charge. There were a several rows of seats in front of a small stage for dignitaries, an open, roped off area behind the chairs for the public, and an area set aside for press. The press section began filling first right after lunchtime. Vin sipped water while he watched.
Vin saw news trucks and vans from all over the County, and as far east as Arizona. Once all the television towers were set, the well-dressed reporters jostled for positions and interesting background for their introductory reports. Vin was glad that he was far off with the sun to his back; it would discourage cameras from swinging his way. Around 3:00, the spectator area began to fill and Vin's work really began.
Using his sniper scope, Vin scanned each and every face as they arrived and was satisfied Adrian was not yet present. Vin figured he'd arrive around the same time as the Judge and guests and use the confused energy of their arrival to cover his work; that's the way he'd done it before – quickly in, quickly out. Vin suspected the hit area would be around the short steps leading up to the stage. From there, it was a clear dash to the cars and escape.
The hours of surveillance took its toll on Vin's neck and shoulders. Frequent stretching breaks kept him loose, and in those times he missed JD. His friend was a good spotter and, amazingly, kept quiet at his post. Vin shut down the thought before feeling any twang of loss and shook his head. I just must be tired, he thought. He downed half of his last bottle of water and tucked the half-empty container into his jacket pocket.
By four-thirty, the spectator areas were full and the rally started with short speeches from lesser known politicians and civic leaders. Vin kept ever-vigilant, his mental list of participants in the "non-threat" column growing very long. The other side was much shorter – although Adrian was not present, some of the security officers' body language made Vin uneasy. His feelings were confirmed on the Judge's arrival.
The black limousine was too obvious for Vin's taste. He watched the Judge appear from the back seat, behind the stage. The gathered crowd, clapping and cheering for the current speaker, kept most everyone's attention from Judge Conklin, and the Judge himself was practically forehead to forehead with another man, so deep in conversation he wasn't aware of the form moving with purpose from the rear of the limo.
Vin recognized Adrian immediately and his focus became absolute. He settled in deeper, setting the rifle butt comfortably against his shoulder as he estimated his path. His mark wore dark glasses and a light grey suit, blending like a chameleon with the crowd around him. Vin saw a metallic flash for a fraction of a second near the man's wrist; Adrian was moving in for the kill from the Judge's rear.
Vin had a clear shot but he wanted Adrian nearer to the Judge. He wanted the danger to be clear to everyone. With each step that moved Adrian closer to the Judge, Vin's existence narrowed. Outside sound faded away: All he heard was his careful breathing and the pulse of blood in his ears as. All he saw was the world within his scope and behind the crosshairs.
Adrian was almost there – Vin held his breath and smoothly tightened his finger of the trigger –
When suddenly Adrian's head disappeared in a red haze. The shot sounded microseconds later and Vin abruptly exhaled, released the trigger, and watched the middle Carnicero brother fall without firing a shot.
Immediately scanning to the Judge, Vin watched as Conklin froze, then moved, pushed by one of the security guards. Conklin twitched and grabbed his shoulder while being shoved into the limo, the second shot sounding fractions of a second later. Then the whole gathering erupted in panic.
Spectators ran as politicians hit the ground under piles of security. The black limo raced away, rubbing two cars in its escape and sending a third spinning. Once clear of the crowd, the rear window shattered and Vin swung around to zero in on the third shot. Heart pounding, Vin managed to keep steady as he scanned the other buildings, mentally chastising himself for not considering another sniper.
As he searched, seconds ticked away in his mind – he had to get out soon or get caught. He could already hear a helicopter somewhere, probably the News, but not something from which he wanted attention.
"Where are you, asshole?" Vin whispered as he scanned. Finally, he saw motion at the rear of a building two blocks over.
A man hurried to a waiting car, tugging the collar of his jacket up to cover his face. Even though his arms were empty, Vin suspected he was the shooter. When the man paused to open the driver's door, Vin's world spun on its axis when he caught the profile, his guess glaringly confirmed.
Instantly, things fell into place - this was the man responsible for Vin's downfall. This was the person that set Vin up, killed Munos, snatched Vin's life away and probably laughed all the way to the bank without raising a hint of suspicion. Vin watched him slip into the car and move off, the license plate gone from the back of the car. He didn't need it, though; Vin already knew his name.
Robby McMillan, ATF Range Master, was the new center of Vin's world.
Approaching sirens snapped Vin to action. Spitting curses, Vin roughly packed his rifle, slung it over his shoulder and ran along his escape path to the tunnel yard. He expected responders would be focused on the building where McMillan made his shot, so he was caught flat footed when a marked Police cruiser rounded the corner ahead of him.
Vin immediately changed directions and dropped his pace to a more casual speed. In his peripheral vision, he saw the unit slow. Then he heard the electronic click of a keyed microphone. "You with the long case! Stop where you are!"
Vin took off. He heard tires squeal and a door slam as he bolted down the first alley which was too narrow for the car. Footfall pounded behind him. "STOP! POLICE!"
Vin sprinted hard and shot from the alley onto a busy street. He ducked and weaved between honking cars, grateful that the vehicles blocked the additional units he could now hear coming his direction. A woman screamed, a man shouted and different an officer's voice to his left demanded that he stop. Vin ducked into another alley and visualized an angled approach to the tunnel yard from the opposite direction.
The sound of pursuit faded and he took the final turn to the yard, swearing when he saw a uniformed officer talking with a pair of kids near the fence line. The officer’s head snapped up and Vin changed directions. He heard a shout and then two shots. Something shoved him hard on one upper arm and he stumbled, but Vin managed to regain balance and disappear between some buildings.
Vin knew his only chance was to keep moving until full dark covered him. He had to be in hiding before the Police helicopter, equipped with FLIR night vision and spotlight, arrived. Tracking dogs were another possibility.
After a few sharp turns and focused sprints, Vin found himself on the outskirts of the industrial area and farther north of the border that he intended. Here, the terrain became hilly and the buildings more spread apart; the benefit being less eyewitnesses, the danger being lack of water. Vin knew dehydration would be his downfall now.
Darkness fell with agonizing slowness. When he finally felt safely blanketed in black, Vin stopped and tended to the deep throb in his upper arm. He tore a sleeve from his light jacket and used it as a binding, and kept moving. Once in the quiet foothills, Vin stopped and looked for signs of pursuit. In the distance, he saw bright white lights and throbbing blue and red lights. A helicopter traced the border with its spotlight - heading to the hills was a good call.
Vin caught his breath and ignored his lightheadedness when he stood. When his heart settled and his breathing eased, Vin turned east and set out, settling into the ground-eating jog from his Ranger days. He could usually maintain this pace for a very, very long time, but the growing burn and painful throb of his wound told him it would soon be an issue. So, he pushed the idea of his injury to the back of his mind, blanked his thoughts and brought his incredible ability of focus to bear on one thing: Putting miles between him and the unfortunate situation where Adrian Carnicero died.
Once safe, he would then shift his deadly focus to rogue Agent Robby McMillan.