Chapter 16 - Backed Up
Chris swung around, visually searching the area as his mind clicked and his eyes eventually fixed on Ezra. The others moved through the shabby grounds looking for Vin in every far corner, but Ezra’s body language screamed at Chris - it lacked the tension the rest of them felt. In addition, he hovered closer to Chris as if debating something.
“Ezra.” Chris’ ice pick tone cut through the morning chill with ease. When Ezra’s cloaked gaze met his, the team leader knew where their answers lay. “Where is Vin?” he asked in a no-arguing-with-me, flat tone.
With a quick glance to confirm the distant locations of Buck and Nathan, Ezra ambled over to stand before the team leader. “Mr. Larabee,” he began lowly, holding a palm up to stop Chris from exploding immediately. “All I ask is that you listen before unleashing your wrath. Will you hear me out first?”
Fury roiled through Chris’ heated veins and his jaw muscled rippled as he clenched his teeth, but the cool sureness of Ezra’s expression enabled him rein back. He focused on relaxing his fists instead. “This better be good,” he growled.
Ezra ducked his head in appreciation and he hung his hands on the lapels of his jacket. “In a nutshell, Mr. Larabee, I have made it possible for our sharpshooter to return to the fold if he so desires. Although the details are classified, I will relate to what I can and leave it to your judgment regarding dissemination.” He paused, and then continued after Chris’ sharp nod of agreement.
“Very good. When Mr. Tanner first informed you of his intention to head south, I made some inquiries and have monitored the activities involving several Mexican drug cartels and active cases within our government. I will not give you the details of my contacts in either direction, sir, in able to maintain your level of ‘plausible deniability’. As a result, I uncovered a strong lead for Mr. Tanner to follow in an ongoing Government investigation in Mexico. Next, I contacted the Central Intelligence Agency and brokered a deal. In essence, Vin Tanner is now under their employ and working out of country.”
Chris blinked in astonishment - the information came so far from left field, it was from the next county. “What?” he sputtered. “How . . ?”
The corner of Ezra’s mouth twitched into a short lived grin. “All I can say is that his Army résumé was closely consulted.”
No more information came forth, but Ezra held Chris’ stare with obvious significance and things fell into place in Chris’ brain: All the redacted pages in Vin’s military records, his knowledge of military black ops and Vin’s remarkable skills. Throw in the CIA and that could only mean . . .
“He’s a mercenary?” Chris breathed in shock.
Ezra nodded once. “I forwarded all the information we gathered in the Munos and San Diego shootings, including our off-record follow up and . . . subsequent information. It was enough to establish a target. Our Government's desire is to stabilize Mexico's illegal drug and gun trade. To calm the violence, so to speak.”
Chris found himself at a crossroad between utter rage and blessed relief and fought to keep his voice low. “Why didn’t you say something? I am your boss! Vin is my best friend! You put me - you put your team -” he ranged an angry sweep of his arm to encompass the others, still searching, and pinned Standish with the full concentration of his glare, “through all this! All this! This is my team!”
Ezra, however, did not cower and stood his toe-to-toe ground where other men would bolt. There was a tick of hot silence before he spoke with a rough voice, lowered to a raw whisper. His eyes were hard. “I beg to differ, Mr. Larabee. These are not my teammates. These are my friends and it saddens me that I am required to address that point; I wished, after all this time, that I would be awarded some benefit in this doubt but it seems as if I have, again, overestimated the nature of our relationship.” He paused, the only shift in his expression being a ripple in his throat as he swallowed - gulped, really. “Have I done that, Mr. Larabee?”
Chris Larabee’s reputation was that of a hard, unwavering, alpha male that demanded, and received, respect. Those that heard of the reputation, and avoided him because of it, never learned that the same respect reflected back when it was earned in Larabee’s eyes. Larabee was, in fact, a fair man that simply did not suffer fools and surrounded himself with only those he respected. Ezra, therefore, hadn’t really gambled; he’d simply forced his friend to review the facts.
Chris backed off and ran Ezra’s words through his mind. Then he took a breath before speaking in a softened voice. “By ‘subsequent information’ you mean the information that could affect my ‘plausible deniability’?”
Chris narrowed his eyes and Ezra held the gaze with a familiar blank expression. Chris had to admire his ability to keep secrets. “Would this information, if exposed, be detrimental to you, too, Ezra?”
Agent Standish’s tell was a nearly unperceivable tightening of his lips. “Very,” he finally breathed. After a moment, he added softly, “I would appreciate discretion in that area, Sir.” Something resembling fear flashed across his emerald eyes, surprising Chris.
“All right,” Chris replied slowly. Secrets are a double-edged sword and Ezra’s dancing’ on the tip, he thought, wondering how his undercover specialist slept at night. “But I do - request - that you give me any details if the situation warrants. I mean it, Ezra. I don’t want any of us to walk into a hazardous situation, blind. Understand?”
“And keep me updated on anything you learn about Vin's whereabouts. What about his injury?”
“The fever was down and he was lucid, and after an inventory of the contents of Mr. Jackson’s medical pack, Mr. Tanner felt it would increase his odds of success if he took it along. Additionally, his new employer has vastly improved his monetary situation. The bills are untraceable, of course.” Ezra paused before adding, “There is only one caveat to the deal. To be considered for reemployment on U.S. soil, Mr. Tanner has to produce any piece of solid evidence in his favor in the Munos case. Along with the questionable money trail we have already uncovered and . . . other things . . . it should be enough for a dismissal of all the charges against him without going to trial.”
Chris rolled that information through his mind and finally released Ezra’s locked gaze. He shifted, bracing his hands on his hips and dropping his chin to nudge a rock with his boot toe.“What you’re saying is that none of the additional evidence you obtained to find this target is admissible in a U.S. court, and that some or all of this information puts you at risk, am I right?”
Chris looked back at this enigma of an undercover agent with added appreciation. “You put yourself on the line to make it possible for Vin to come home, didn’t you? You brokered quite a deal here, Ezra. Especially that last caveat.”
“We both agree that what we can gain in such a deal is well worth the effort, wouldn’t you say?”
“Yeah,” Chris nodded. “I am sure we can all agree on that, although it still pisses me off that Vin’s on his own with this. He's gone dark, hasn't he?”
Ezra shrugged his accord with that assessment. “All we can do is prepare and ensure that his return is as easy as possible. We, too, shall be busy.”
Thick silence hung between them as they turned and watched the others for a moment. Chris then sighed and briefly massaged his temple before calling them in with a sharp whistle and wave, all the while considering what to say. What the hell is Vin walking into? Chris thought worriedly.
Ezra stood back and forced his shoulders to relax, relieved that Larabee did not probe further and ask for the name of the CIA target, because he had deep doubts it was same person that Tanner hunted. Ezra was sure, however, that the two men were connected, and all the intelligence Vin now possessed would get him where he wanted to be. Although his teammate would not tell him the name of the person he sought, Ezra had a good idea who it was – that is, his connection to the cartels, anyway. His real name remained elusive but his moniker, Tiger's Eye, was well known in Mexico and South America as a premier assassin. When Vin admitted he was certain the man he was after was Tiger's Eye, Ezra told him that information alone could earn his return to the States.
Tanner's intention regarding Tiger's Eye, though, was more complex, personal - and permanent, and Ezra added another secret to his load.
On top of everything, if Vin failed, they would never know his fate. Rubbing his chest in an unconscious motion, Ezra held no illusion that neither he nor Larabee would remain ulcer-free through all of this.
Vin found his return into Mexico easier than he had any right to hope for. Using the newly obtained bankroll, he bought a reliable, desert-worthy vehicle and pointed it toward his closest source of information: Mexicali and Zamora.
He lightened his load early on by hydrating with the saline packs and running a course of antibiotics, using all the knowledge he’d gathered from Nathan and Ranger training. Vin’s dark thoughts brightened slightly when he pictured Nathan’s satisfaction that the pain relievers were being used, albeit at a rate slower than the good medic would probably prefer. All Vin cared about at this moment was racking up miles and gathering strength.
The intelligence Ezra gave him was remarkable in both its extent and detail. It was everything he needed to find MacMillan – Tiger's Eye, he was sure. Vin shook his head and chuffed – the fact that the CIA didn't know about MacMillan astonished him. No wonder the man got away with so much.
When he reached the outskirts of Mexicali, Vin parked his vehicle south of the city and out of sight. He broke down the rifle into portable parts, checked his handgun and Denver knife, and tucked everything away. Water, some antibiotic pills and energy bars filled the remaining pockets. Nathan's stitches were clean and secure, so Vin cleaned the wound and wrapped it with a new Ace bandage before layering clothes and heading out.
Since he was still recovering, Vin forced himself to walk slower than he really wanted. The first part of his mission was to extract information. The intell he had on Tiger's Eye said the assassin's targets were Carnicero Brothers' enemies in and around Belize and Mexico City – well out of ATF jurisdiction and probably Vin knew little about him. The skill level, though, sounded like MacMillan – it had to be him. If that was so, then why did he kill Adrian Carnicero, his employer, and why was he hanging around with Zamora, another Carnicero rival? These questions needed answering before Vin stepped into the hostile territory known as Mexico City.
Sunset hovered in pink clouds when Vin finally picked his observation point near Zamora's club and office. A pair of shiny black sedans with dark windows stood in the private parking area in the back. Vin smiled. Zamora was home. Now all he had to do was watch and wait.