Now he wondered again if one of those apparently humble handguns could somehow be converted into a curve-clipped, silenced beauty like the one lying on Angel’s kitchen counter. Hood would bet on it. If he was right, he knew for certain who had built the one thousand silenced machine pistols—a talented young gunmaker named Ron Pace. And if that was true, Hood also had very strong ideas about who had delivered them into the hands of Carlos Herredia’s North Baja Cartel gunmen—a fellow LASD deputy named Bradley Jones. Hood was hot to get his hands on one of those guns. All of ATF was hot to get one. And Hood wanted to send Pace and Jones to the slammer where they belonged.
He ate and watched and opened another soda. Graveyard was hard on sleep and diet. He wondered if the assassins were up early because they had a job to do. Usually they slept until noon. His mind wandered back to Sean Ozburn again, and Hood wondered why Ozburn had gone silent. Almost fifteen months undercover, and once a day Sean would call one of the Blowdown team—usually Hood—even when he had nothing substantial to report. He called it
touching his life raft
. Fifteen months UC was a long run in anyone’s book. Too long, according to many with experience. The calls had been Sean’s established pattern and it had worked for him, and now he had broken it. Six days and no call.
So maybe Sean had been made, Hood thought. He wasn’t sold on the whole idea of the bugged safe house, because of that possibility. One whiff of suspicion or one person who recognized Ozburn, and boom—he was dead, or worse. The Den was supposed to be an ATF jewel but they all knew its potential cost to their man undercover.
And the bugged safe house wasn’t only a risk; it was frustrating, too. Hood understood that they didn’t have enough evidence to arrest any of the four assassins. Most of their murders were committed across the border where ATF was essentially helpless. And the murders they were suspected of committing in the States were quiet and neat: no willing witnesses, no weapons left behind, no written warnings or mutilations or beheadings, just plenty of shots to the head and heart and that was that. Always .32 Automatic Colt Pistol rounds. Nobody heard. Nobody saw. Nobody knew anything.
All this manpower and technology, and not an arrest made
, thought Hood.
But the truth, and he knew it, was that ATF didn’t want to roll up the Den and go to court just yet, because although the four young
were only small-time killers, they were gold mines of information. Since this “safe house” had been activated four weeks ago, their conversations and phone calls had provided ATF hundreds of hours of talk and video, giving the Blowdown team a street-level view of the North Baja Cartel’s blood-soaked battle for Southern California.
Behind Hood, three large, rolling whiteboards were backed against the far wall. Two of them were jammed with writing and one was beginning to fill—names, crimes, suspects, straw buyers, timelines, organizational charts, routes, possible tunnel locations, turf, family relations, feuds, debts—many grouped in circles and linked by solid lines or broken lines or some by strings of small question marks. Certainties were written in black. Suspicions were rendered in red, speculations in blue. It looked like graffiti. And all of it was gathered by ATF eavesdropping on the four baby-faced hit men. Blowdown wasn’t after the likes of these boys. They were after the lieutenants and up, to the top of the food chain—the men who bought the guns and called the shots.
, Hood thought,
the whiteboards are full of intel but the killers are free to roam about the cabin
He looked at monitor two and watched Johnnie and Ray playing Halo on the living room fifty-four-inch TV. Hood lifted an audio headset to his ear and winced: As usual the boys had the volume up loud. The hidden mikes were so good they could pick up both ends of a phone call, and this video combat game blaring through the home theater system sounded like Armageddon itself.
Johnnie and Ray were the two Americans, poor kids recruited from the rough Buenavista streets, kids with voracious desires and stunted notions of self-control. Hood knew their plan for happiness: Get a gun, get a job using it, get some decent clothes, get a better gun, get a car, get a big-screen television, get a truck, get a girl. Then, if you were still alive get a house, somewhere to put your girl and your stuff. They always bought the house last. It was the same for all the young pistoleros along the border. The cartels didn’t care if they were American or Mexican.
, thought Hood. Johnnie was the seventeen-year-old and he had earned a new Dodge Ram 1500 two weeks ago as a bonus for a hit in Tijuana.
Chunks flying out the back of his head
, as he’d bragged to Ray one evening, over and over. Johnnie had washed the gleaming black truck fourteen consecutive nights, up late, inside the garage of the Agate Street safe house so the neighbors wouldn’t see him. He talked to the truck as he polished its coat.
Only Oscar was unaccounted for now. He claimed to have a girl-friend in Buenavista but no matter how much the other assassins teased him, Oscar had so far refused to bring her to his lair.
Hood heard two sharp knocks on the front door of the office, then the buzz from the ID reader. He glanced up at the security camera, then looked at the first light of the October morning just now touching the drawn blinds.
Dyman Morris came into the room with a tall cup of coffee and his war bag, and he set both on the desk, then sat two chairs down from Hood. He looked up at the screens. There were six of them. Dyman smelled of soap and his dark skull was cleanly shaved. “Look at this. The baby killers are stirring.”
“Maybe they’ve got something coming up.”
“Still nothing from Sean?”
Hood shook his head and watched Angel flip his tortilla. “I left him another message. That’s three in six days.”
In the silence that followed, Hood thought of their comrade Jimmy Holdstock, kidnapped last year on U.S. soil and taken to Mexico. Hood knew that Dyman was thinking of Jimmy, too. Jimmy hadn’t even been working UC like Sean. Jimmy wasn’t setting up bugged safe houses for the North Baja Cartel like Sean. Jimmy was just a former divinity student, part of the Blowdown team checking ATF Firearm Transaction forms, keeping an eye on the licensed dealers, trying to stem the flow of the iron river—the guns heading south.
“What I don’t get,” said Hood, “is who tells these boys they can do this.”
“Do what, Charlie.”
“Kill people for money.”
“The cartel recruiters tell them that.”
“But what about the consequences?”
“You’ve seen the consequences, man—a new truck for a bonus, and free prostitutes, like last week. Remember when Ray got that ten grand for a job well done?”
“What I mean is, who tells them it’s okay?”
“Who do they have to tell them different? Their parents either don’t care or don’t know what to do. These boys don’t go to school. Probably haven’t been inside a church their whole life. So who are they gonna listen to except each other, and the actors in the movies they watch, and the cartel dudes with all the cash?”
Hood thought about that. “Still seems like something’s missing. Some kinda horse sense or something.”
“You had advantages you didn’t know you had. I had them, too. Bakersfield is like Beverly Hills compared to these border towns.”
Hood, a Bakersfield boy, nodded. Morris of the South Bronx sipped his coffee.
By six thirty A.M.
agents Janet Bly and Robert Velasquez had arrived. This was the transitional hour, when the graveyard watcher went off duty and the three-agent day team took over for another shift of interviewing firearms dealers, recruiting informants, shadowing suspected buyers and sellers, posing as straw men and illicit buyers, answering the phones and watching the young killers on live feed—all in a day’s work for Blowdown.
“Well, look who’s up bright and early today,” said Bly. “Is that Angel with his
Hood nodded, looking at Angel’s machine pistol again.
“Sean call in?” asked Janet.
Hood shook his head, saw the hardness in her face.
“Then maybe he called Mars or Soriana.”
“He’d call us first if he was in trouble,” said Hood, confident that his good friend Sean Ozburn would call Blowdown well before he’d call the ATF field station in San Diego. Ozburn was a soldier, loyal and focused.
But six days and no calls. So the ghost of Jimmy Holdstock—retired now with long-term disability from injuries suffered in the line of duty; in his case, torture—hovered there in the war room once again.
Then, as if that ghost had cast its long, dark shadow over the room, one of the monitors went white, then black, and the audio died.
Hood’s attention had been drawn to it just a split second before it went blank.
“The hell,” said Bly.
“Don’t worry,” said Velasquez, their techie. “It’ll come back. I’m not sure what’s . . .”
Thirty seconds later the other monitors suddenly all turned bright white, then black. And the audio feeds died with them.
Blowdown was on its feet now. Velasquez looked down at the main control panel, head cocked. The others stared at the dead screens. They had lost camera transmissions before but never all of them at once.
“This is what my son does when the satellite goes out during SpongeBob,” said Morris. “He just stares at the TV like he can make it come back on.”
“It’ll come back,” said Velasquez.
Hood dialed Buenavista police chief Gabe Reyes and asked for an unmarked unit to drive by the Agate Street safe house, and Reyes said the shift was changing right now but consider it done.
Ten long minutes
, thought Hood, ringing off.
“Cops are changing shifts,” he said. “Ten minutes.”
“We can’t lose all six feeds,” said Velasquez. “Even in a power outage, even if someone cuts the line. Those cameras have two hours of battery backup. You have to shut them down from here, or in the control panel on the side of the safe house. But I built that control panel, and I disguised it as a breaker box, and it’s got a lock, and the only people who have keys are us. So what the—”
“I saw something on screen six,” said Hood. “Just before it went out.”
“I was watching Angel make his breakfast,” said Bly.
“I was seeing if Johnnie’s gravity hammer can kill brutes,” said Morris.
“I saw something, too,” said Velasquez. “Then it was gone.”
“The Den is only three miles away,” said Hood.
“Wait,” said Bly, the senior agent.
Velasquez pushed various control buttons but nothing happened. “It’s gotta be at our end. I’m going outside to check the cable.”
“I’m with you,” said Hood.
They emerged through the back door into the young light of morning, Hood first, his hand on the sidearm holstered on his hip. They walked quickly, looking up at the black coaxial cable fastened along the fascia board above the eaves. It entered the field station through a hole low on the eastern wall, and Hood could see the cable and the hole and the nest of gray steel wool crammed in to keep the rats and snakes out. Velasquez knelt down and tugged at the cable, then shrugged and stood.
They checked the circuit breaker panel and the relay boxes and the splitters and the transformers for the coax and the telephone landlines, and all of these Velasquez said were fine.
“The problem is at the Den,” he said. “Unless some fine citizen plowed a car through a phone company switch box between here and there.”
“What did you see on monitor six?”
“I don’t know, Charlie. It happened too fast.”
“It’ll be on the tape.”
“Monitor six is the side yard,” said Velasquez.
“Where the control box is,” said Hood.
They exchanged looks and went back inside.
The screens were still dead. Hood could tell by the forced calm of her voice that Bly was talking to Soriana out in San Diego. Bly was impulsive and Soriana was deliberate, and this tried her patience sorely.
She rang off and lowered her cell phone. “Soriana says give it five.”
“I’d go right now,” said Hood.
“I would, too,” said Bly. She was a stout woman whose sweet round face the years with ATF had started to harden. “He’s afraid the
will make us if we drive by looking like tourists. But we’ll give it five, all right? Because he’s the boss. Yes. Five
, that is
You guys ready?”
Dyman Morris, once a point guard for NYU, made it to the door first, swinging an armored vest off the coatrack like a kid going out to play in the cold.
A few minutes later Hood was guiding his Durango down Agate Street, looking at the little crowd of people standing outside the Den in the dawn’s early light.
The neighbors greeted them
with tales of gunshots and screams and a guy smoking off in a black Range Rover, so the Blowdown team went in through the wide-open front door.
Hood followed his autoloader into the kitchen where Angel lay nearly decapitated by a shotgun. The blasts had also torn the stove hood open and flung a storm of flesh and blood against the wall. The machine pistol was gone and the tortilla lay, shriveled, black and smoking, on the griddle.
In the living room Ray and Johnnie had taken multiple rounds and they lay in ribbons on the floor. Johnnie had gotten his gun up, or at least a gun lay next to him. It was one of the silenced .32 machine pistols that no one at ATF had ever seen until late last year. The Halo game had gone into sleep mode, its Gregorian chant soundtrack swelling across the room.
Hood and Morris moved through the house as a team. Hood had that nobody-alive-here feeling but his stomach and nerves were stretched tight.
Like Anbar, door-to-door
, he thought. Like a drug tunnel he’d once found himself trapped in by unhappy gunmen. They covered the empty house quickly, then backtracked to the living room where Hood shut off the video game and the chanting stopped.