Atlas Warehouse, Hillsdale, Ohio
A soft noise. Almost silent.
A shoe grated against a small pebble on the concrete floor.
He wasn’t alone in the warehouse.
When he’d first arrived in his patrol car, he thought there was a faint suggestion of a light inside. The unlocked door and the sound confirmed it.
Gun drawn, he stepped into the warehouse and away from the door.
Silence. The intruder was frozen in place.
Seth saw it in the shaft of a streetlight shining through the windows. The faint outline of a stub wall jutting perpendicular from the outside wall. Days of fighting house to house with the marines in Fallujah taught him how to locate and identify the source of sound. Someone was standing in the dark, fifty meters ahead, behind the wall in his two o’clock position.
Automatic reflexes from surviving six combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan kicked in. His mind cleared itself of all random thoughts, concentrated on his immediate surroundings. Ears listened for the slightest sounds. Moving the left foot one short step ahead, he balanced on the balls of his feet. Arms extended, both hands on the pistol grip, he traversed his Glock 22, service pistol 180 degrees.
His peripheral vision, better than most, studied the dim outline of the interior wall. The streetlights revealed a floor covered with trash. With each silent step, he advanced by inches toward the hiding place of the person behind the wall.
Seth froze again.
A coat rubbed against the wall. He was in trouble. Someone had moved into a better firing position. Squatting down deep into his calves, he waited. An impatient enemy was often a dead enemy. Seth’s patience paid off. A pencil sword of flame spit out a 9mm jacketed hollow point bullet that passed over his head. His heart would have exploded into unrecognizable pulp if he’d remained standing. Disintegrating into shrapnel when the bullet hit a steel beam, he winced when a fragment bit him in the calf.
He dropped to the floor, yelled in pain, and kicked the broken remains of a pallet. He rose up into a crouched position. Using his left hand to traverse the floor in front of him to avoid obstructions, he duck walked to a fifty-five-gallon barrel. Whoever shot at him was stupid. Seth knew his exact location. He listened for any minute sound of movement by the shooter. Time for patience—then payback.
The silence of the night exploded again with a second round smashing into the floor where Seth had fallen. He didn’t return fire. He had learned surprise was an ally in a gunfight. The shooter probably expected he had killed or wounded him.
“Did you shoot him, Julio?” a voice said from across the warehouse.
“Yeah, I hit him,” the shooter said. “You know I don’t miss, Rodas.”
Two of um.
Then a third voice, without a Hispanic accent, said, “What the hell just happened, Julio?”
“Shut up, Arnie.”
Seth recognized the voice.
Sergeant Arnie Pappas, Hillsdale Police Department.
Pappas’ voice resonated with panic. “You’re supposed to protect me, Julio. This ain’t part of the deal.”
Julio ignored Pappas. “Rodas, come in from the side. Tell me you can see his dead ass. I’ll cover you.”
Jesus Christ, Seth. You got yourself into a drug deal with a dirty cop.
Hillsdale Police Officer Seth Collins had been on his shift for three hours. The dispatcher sent him to investigate an open door at the abandoned warehouse. Most of the warehouse break-ins were vagrants sleeping off a drunk or teenagers ripped on drugs.
Admonishing himself, he squatted behind the barrel, realized he’d made a serious mistake. Combat had taught him never to expect the routine. It’d kill him every time.
Broadmoor Manor Condominium
Sitting in the back seat of the Lincoln MKS limousine, Angel asked, “Your informants have told you Marcus is in the apartment at this hour?”
“Si,” Cesar replied.
“You know what to do. I must not be seen.”
Cesar stepped out of the car, entered the hotel lobby. A moment later, the concierge sat on a toilet seat in a nearby restroom. He had three crisp one hundred dollar bills in his pants pocket.
Entering the lobby, Angel stopped, examined it for hidden threats. Finding none, she studied the lobby’s décor. Remodeled into condominium apartments, the lobby itself had remained unchanged from the roar of the 1920’s. Angel’s quick examination revealed three original art deco, crystal chandeliers hanging on black chains. Arranged in a triangle, the chandeliers illuminated an eclectic mix of faded red velvet cushions on wooden chairs. Two well-worn Chesterfield sofas were close by.
Enough. She had wasted valuable time. There was serious business at hand. Moving toward the elevator, Angel’s stiletto heels clicked on the charcoal gray granite floor interspersed with smoky veins of white and black. Her black leather miniskirt held tight against her silky toned legs. The overhead light reflected on her long black hair wrapped into a French twist. Removing her black, cashmere wrap coat, she draped it over her forearm and extended her arm. Cesar stepped up, gathered the coat into his arms. Her white silk blouse with a boat neckline, kimono sleeves, popped against her black skirt. Angel’s elegant appearance was her signature. She was dressed for work.
She had studied every minute detail of the location. There couldn’t be any surprises. Where to place each step. How to open the door. The dark recesses of a hallway. The quickest escape route. Which weapon to use. So much to know to stay alive.
Angel smiled. It would be a good night. She was the matadoras again in the bullring. She had survived each of the bull’s thundering charges and slashing horns. Now it was time to slay the bull.
Cesar held the elevator door open when Angel stopped in place. A sudden thought crossed her mind and it surprised her. Such an elementary question. One that struck at the core of her being.
She had one life. Where would it lead her? How would she spend it?
What did she want above all else? Was it control and power? Kill Carlos, become the best at selling drugs across the states. Was that what she wanted for herself?
She’d be like no other, invincible. A shadow escaping through the police net. Manuel would step back in awe. The police would roar in frustration. Awash in luxury, all of her needs would be satisfied.
Angel. The best there would be.
Or would the tedium of selling drugs suffocate her?
Stepping into the elevator, it rose up, engulfing her. A rush of adrenaline. Danger. Maybe death. In the next minutes, surprise and the enemy’s fear would keep her alive. Failure, she’d never see another morning sun.
The rush of hunting a new target? Or the target turning on her, and she became the hunted? Would the thrill be greater than selling drugs?
She saw them all around her, heard their chants to join them. They wore headdresses of eagle feathers, carried a wooden blade weapon called the Macuahuitl. They were the Cuāuhocēlōtl. The ancient Aztec Jaguar warriors. She felt their touch pulling her into their circle.
Angel had received her calling.
She was a Cuāuhocēlōtl who must be set free to pursue her destiny of destroying the evil that preyed on the defenseless.
Manuel must know of her decision.
Her step was more purposeful, her imagined life selling drugs evaporated. She saw the clarity of her destiny. She was at peace.
Standing at the door to apartment 302, Cesar returned the coat to Angel while he faced his first obstacle, the deadbolt. Removing a tension wrench from his coat pocket, he inserted it into the lock and turned. Next was the pick lifting the five pins. The deadbolt retreated into the lock mechanism. The door chain was the last roadblock. With the door opened, he wrapped a rubber band around the chain, anchored it to the door handle. The chain dropped with little sound when he closed the door.
Standing inside the living room, Angel accepted a stainless steel Beretta 92FS Inox pistol Cesar had removed from his shoulder holster. Adding a AAC M9-SD suppressor from his coat pocket, Angel snapped it onto the barrel, entered the bedroom. She heard a man breathing through the open door. Cesar laid Angel’s coat down on a chair, waited for instructions.
The time was now.