Burn Zone

It was supposed to be a low-level bust for ATF agent Alex Duarte, with the hope that he could work it up the ladder to someone important. He just didn’t know how important. In New Orleans to check out a mysterious Burn ZonePanamanian named Ortiz who likes to trade guns illegally and import marijuana by the truckload, Duarte suddenly finds himself in the middle of something bigger than he has ever known. Because guns and drugs are bad enough – but there are other things that are much, much worse.

A shadowy colonel who is not what he seems…a white supremacist intent on becoming “the man who changed America”…an attractive FBI agent with a lot of pull and a lot of secrets…Duarte knows he’s in deep with these characters. He just hopes it’s not over his head.

Field of Fire jumps Born into the ranks of the major thriller writers,” says W.E.B. Griffin. “Burn Zone confirms it.”

 


ONE

“You ever think we should write some of this bullshit down and put it in a book?”

Alex Duarte didn’t even cut his eyes to his partner. Chuck had stupid ideas like that all the time. It was better not to encourage him.

The parking lot of the Publix shopping center was too crowded for things to go right. Duarte could see that as soon as they set up surveillance. The drug enforcement guys were used to these kinds of deals, so he figured they knew what they were doing, but he didn’t like the bystanders. He made a quick check of the SIG-Sauer P229 on his right hip under the loose, unbuttoned shirt. He had left his Glock at home and switched to the ATF-issued handgun.

Chuck Stoddard, his partner, slumped in the driver’s seat of the immense Ford Expedition, munching on Cheetos and breathing through his mouth. Duarte thought about lecturing him about his health again, but the gigantic man would only nod in agreement and continue to eat anything that had once been an animal, mineral or vegetable. The Glock on his hip looked like a popgun in comparison to his gut.

Duarte kept the radio on low to discourage conversation. He also liked the comfort of the radio show he listened to most mornings, the conversation between the hosts and their producer. He had to admit reluctantly that he knew more about them than about most people.

During a commercial, Chuck said, “You know the DEA invited us along just so we could lay paper on the suspect.”

Duarte mumbled, “Uh-hum.”

“Doesn’t that ever bother you? They get all the fun and we get to do is write up additional charges for the guns the dealers have on them.”

“You know, Chuck, we do work for the ATF. Last I checked, guns were our main jurisdiction.”

“I know, but I’m just saying, why can’t they come on our deals sometimes?”

“Because if a guy is selling illegal guns, he doesn’t have any cocaine or pot. If he did, he’d be selling the drugs instead. Much greater profit margin.”

“DEA has got a lot more guys than us, too. Ever notice how they bring out ten guys on a deal like this?”

Duarte shrugged, keeping his eye on the lot. He had heard enough of Chuck’s whining for the day. Now he just wanted to be involved in some police work. He liked being out of the office on a simple case: if the guy showed up and sold dope to the DEA undercover agent, then he’d be arrested; if he didn’t, then he probably wasn’t a serious dope dealer in the first place. Simple. After his last case he didn’t need anything complex.

The parking lot was alive with activity: people pushing shopping carts, kids tagging along, couples talking. Most people never noticed, but on surveillance, when you were pulled out of the daily rat race and had a chance to watch, it could be pretty interesting to observe a place as simple as this. Like it was another universe but not quite parallel to the outside world.

Duarte was glad his friend at the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, Félix Baez, had called him in on this deal. The target was a local shlub named B. L. Gastlin, who was believed to be hooked into some Panamanian named Ortíz who traded guns illegally and imported marijuana by the truckload. That was why Duarte had jumped on the case so quickly: the possibility of working the investigation up the ladder to someone really important. He felt satisfaction when an insignificant dope dealer got an extra five years because of one of his “Armed Trafficking” charges, but to really make an impact he wanted to nail a big importer or exporter. That would also help him get a promotion. He’d passed up an opportunity for one a few months earlier, but now he wanted to try again.

Duarte checked the lot. He could see the various DEA cars, all Chevys and Fords parked near the entrances and exits. He knew that once the target drove in, they would contain him. No federal agency wanted to get involved in any kind of car chase; it was against policy and bad for the vehicles. At the end of the lot he noticed a Florida Power & Light truck with an extendable bucket parked next to a pole, a man standing in the bucket. That’d be a great surveillance ploy, he thought. No one would notice you, and you’d have a great view of the area. He still looked at situations like this from a military perspective, searching for optimum terrain and hazards once the action started. Unlike his time in Bosnia, though, there wasn’t a lot of action in these kinds of deals. . . .

A blue Jaguar convertible cruised east on Southern Boulevard, and by the way the driver slowed and looked carefully toward the lot, Duarte believed this might be their man. At almost the same time, he heard someone on the radio say, “The target is in a blue Jaguar and just drove past on Southern. Stand by.”

Félix, who was leaning on his car, a nice Corvette they had seized from a cocaine smuggler last year, straightened up, gave a quick nod to the two DEA cars closest to him and adjusted his shirt. Duarte was pretty sure he was checking the gun in his waistband.

Duarte had done very little undercover work and appreciated Félix’s ability to remain calm and cheerful doing something so unnatural, but that was just his personality. Félix liked to talk to people—one of the differences between him and Duarte.

The radio crackled, “The target is in the east end of the lot, slowly weaving in and out. He’s checking for us.”

This was the hard part. Making sure you didn’t look too much like a cop when a suspect conducted counter-surveillance. The cars were spread out, though, and the DEA guys were smart enough to look like they belonged. The other thing in their favor was that suspects always thought they were smarter than the cops. He had never met a drug or gun dealer who didn’t think he could outwit them all, bless their hearts. Arrogance was their downfall.

The Jaguar slowed to a stop near Félix and his Corvette. Although he couldn’t hear anything, he knew that Félix had a transmitter somewhere on his body and that someone was listening to a receiver. His trouble signal was, “This don’t look good.”

Chuck wheezed and said, “Looks like it’s showtime.”

The man from the Jaguar, Gastlin, stepped out of the low car, his eyes still scanning the parking lot. Dressed in shorts and a loud, untucked shirt with a photo of Jimmy Buffet covering his wide stomach, he looked like a bowling pin compared to Félix’s lean body. He leaned casually against the Jag, chatting.

The two men were about four rows away and ten spots back. When the arrest signal came, Duarte and Chuck would close the distance in the yacht-sized Expedition, then spring out with five or six DEA agents to secure the target and make sure Félix was safe.

Chuck said, “I know the DEA wants that Jag. You watch, they’ll treat

that car like a crystal egg. No matter what happens they won’t hurt that car.”

Duarte nodded, concentrating. Once Félix gave the arrest signal, Duarte knew he expected to have the cavalry rush in right that minute.

Cops always claim the slowest time in the world is between when you give the arrest signal and when your buddies rush in. Your heart pounds, and adrenaline courses through your body. The visual arrest signal was when Félix opened his trunk. That was the sign that he had seen the pot.

The DEA supervisor came over the radio and said, “Looks like it’s going smooth. Don’t move until I call it over the radio. And don’t ding the Jaguar.”

Chuck perked up. “See, I told you, I told you.”

Duarte nodded silently, involuntarily checking his pistol. He preferred to use his hands or feet in a fight, but only an idiot tried to punch someone with a gun. He watched as the two men continued to talk, then walk to the side of the Jaguar. The target leaned in and motioned for Félix to look, too.

Then Duarte saw Félix jump. It looked like a whole body twitch, then the DEA man jumped away from the car and shouted at Gastlin. The pot dealer looked like he was trying to explain something when Félix shoved him. Duarte sat up in the Expedition. “Chuck, something’s up. Get ready.”

The radio crackled on. “Let’s move in. I can’t tell what happened. Go,

go, go.”

All at once, four cars started to move.

Duarte felt his pulse increase; this was the stuff he loved about his job. Keeping his right hand on his hip, he reached across to the door handle with his left. What had happened to cause the arrest to go early? He saw Gastlin look up and notice the vehicles as they closed on him, notice, too, that, like any good undercover agent, Félix had stepped away so the arrest team had free access.

Duarte saw the target reach into the Jaguar and thought he might be going for a gun, but before the big Expedition could come to a stop, the target sprinted away across the lot with a satchel in his hand. He had grabbed the pot sample. For a chubby guy, he could really move.

The man had timed his run perfectly as the front vehicles stopped and the drivers were getting out of the cars. They also blocked the other approaching cars. The man darted toward Southern Boulevard just as Duarte jumped from the ATF Expedition and started sprinting after him. He knew big, lumbering Chuck would be behind him somewhere. The pot dealer was obviously panicked, his head swiveling, looking for an escape, and then he saw the Florida Power & Light bucket truck in front of him and bounded up to the cab.

Duarte yelled, “Stop, police,” and drawing his Sig, he raised it in the direction of the fleeing man, the DEA agents closing in from the other side.

The truck had had the engine running to provide power to the bucket, and now it lurched forward as the dealer tried to drive it away, the supports for the extended bucket scraping on the asphalt as the truck started to move. The man in the bucket shouted something, then hung on as the truck picked up speed, passing the DEA agents. Duarte heard a car horn and turned to see Chuck in the Expedition right next to him. This was a pleasant surprise. Duarte yanked the door open and leaped into the seat. Chuck hit the gas, and they were in the chase. Alone for the moment.

The FPL truck sped up as the dope dealer apparently figured out how to raise the supports, while the man in the bucket worked the controls to lower the extended workstation as quickly as possible. The truck tilted to one side, then the other, as the pot dealer tried to negotiate the parking lot, and then suddenly the man in the bucket leaped into the low branches of a black olive tree planted in the swale.

Chuck said, “Did you see that?”

Duarte looked out over his shoulder and saw the man clinging to the tree branches. “Now he can speed up. Catch him, catch him.”

The truck turned onto the side street heading south and continued to accelerate as a DEA vehicle fell in with Duarte and Chuck’s Expedition.

The street was empty of traffic in both directions. Thank God, thought Duarte.

Chuck brought the big Ford SUV up behind the lumbering bucket truck in a matter of blocks, then said, “Know what?”

“What?” asked Duarte, still watching the truck.

“If I got next to this thing, you could jump into the back.”

Duarte had to look to see if his partner was kidding. He looked serious. “Let’s see what happens in the next few minutes.”

“If you say so.” Chuck didn’t have any plan except to follow the big truck.

Two DEA surveillance cars screamed up next to them, obviously in the same dilemma. The truck took a hard left, causing the lowered bucket to swing wide to the right side. At the next corner, the pot dealer tried to take a sharp right, and as he turned, the arm to the bucket, which was sticking out from the truck since the last turn, caught a telephone pole and swung the truck violently in a tight arc until the arm was free from the pole. The truck kept running—only now it was pointed directly at a house’s yard. The heavy FPL truck thumped over bushes, glanced off a tree, and then struck the side of the one-story, dark green, old Florida house, the sound of the impact shocking. It reminded him of the explosions he had caused in Bosnia. The effect on the house wasn’t all that different from those of his C-4 concoctions. The wall to the house collapsed around the cab of the truck, and the destruction continued in a domino effect because the exterior roof began to sink until the entire peak of the roof dropped into the center.

Duarte sprang from the Expedition before Chuck had even brought it to a complete stop and raced to the front door, thinking about what might have happened to the residents of the house. The front door was unlocked, causing Duarte to fear that the residents were home. He shot through the wrecked house, noticing debris scattered across the furniture, a TV lying smashed by a falling beam, bright sunshine streaming through the wide swath now exposed to the elements.

“Hello, police!” shouted Duarte. “Where are you?” He no longer cared about the arrest, fearing only for the safety of the people who might be in the house.

He heard a voice and froze: “In here.” It was faint and female.

He followed the sound and pushed at the only closed door, on the east side of the house where the truck would’ve struck. He turned the doorknob and tried to open it, but it was hopelessly jammed by something low. He shoved and felt little give. The upper half of the door bent slightly inward.

He yelled, “Stand clear of the door!” Then he stepped back and launched the hardest, highest sidekick of his fifteen-year martial arts career. The door cracked at the site of his foot’s impact. He repeated this twice more until the door split in half and he could scurry over the broken lower section. The truck’s cab had come all the way inside the wrecked room, but he stole a glance and the cab was empty. A DEA agent was crawling over the wreckage into the house.

Duarte twisted his head, searching for the source of the cry.

He yelled, “Where are you?”

“In here,” came the voice, and he noticed one more closed door, which had been blocked by a chunk of wall thrown by the truck.

He leaped over some wreckage, content to let the DEA guys and Chuck find the missing pot dealer. He bent down and lifted the piece of wall which had tipped down and didn’t weigh that much. When he pulled the door open, an attractive woman in her early sixties stood in the middle of a large closet, wearing panties and a bra that covered very little of her breasts.

Duarte froze for a moment, staring at her. She didn’t seem at all self-conscious.

Finally she said, “Are you done?”

Despite his Latin coloring and dark hair, he felt himself blush.

“Sorry,” he said, looking down. “Are you all right?”

She mumbled something.

“Excuse me?”

She mumbled and then said, “Look at me again.”

He slowly raised his eyes, but the woman was still unclothed. Now he noticed her eyes kept shifting to the shelf next to her. Then she cocked her head that way and he realized what she was trying to say. He pushed her out of the closet, then knocked out the shelf ’s support beam in a smooth motion, heard a yell and saw the tubby shape of B. L. Gastlin, former drug dealer, plop hard onto the ground.

Duarte dropped to his knee and threw a quick elbow into the dealer’s face to incapacitate him for a second, then quickly patted him down for weapons. As he was about to call for help, the woman appeared again in the closet doorway.

Still nearly naked, she said, “Look what this asshole did to my house,” and delivered a vicious stomp to the dazed man’s face. If Duarte hadn’t stopped her, she would’ve done it again.

She stepped back and said, “He shoved me in the closet and then balanced that roof beam so he could come in and let it hit the door behind him. He didn’t think you’d check a room that was already blocked in from the outside.”

Duarte nodded and pulled the now bloody man to a sitting position.

The woman threw in another kick to the man’s ribs.

“Ma’am,” Duarte said in a clear loud voice. “You’ll have to stop that.”

He looked up at her and added, “Please tell the others where I am.”

She disappeared, and a few seconds later Chuck and a DEA guy appeared at the closet.

Chuck looked down and said, “Man, Rocket, you really fucked that guy up.” He looked at the DEA agent next to him and added. “Did you hear what the problem at the deal was?”

Duarte shook his head.

Chuck smiled. “He tried to play with Félix’s dick.”

Duarte could tell by the way the prisoner moaned it was true.

Chuck laughed and said, “Félix is old-school Cuban. It didn’t go over too well.”

Duarte shook his head. Some people were too stupid to live.

The DEA guy smiled. “He tell you anything?”

Duarte helped the stunned man to his feet. “Yeah. He said the Jaguar is a rental.”

 

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