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An Acceptable Sacrifice

Jeffery Deaver

  An Acceptable Sacrifice

  Jeffery Deaver


  Open Road Integrated Media Ebook







  I have always imagined that Paradise

  will be a kind of library.

  -- Jorge Luis Borges


  THEY'D MET LAST NIGHT for the first time and now, mid-morning, they were finally starting to let go a bit, to relax, to trust each other. Almost to trust each other.

  Such is the way it works when you're partnered with a stranger on a mission to kill.

  "Is it always this hot?" P.Z. Evans asked, squinting painfully against the fierce glare. The dense lenses of his Ray-Bans were useless.


  "Thank God."

  "Usually is hotter," Alejo Diaz replied, his English enriched by a luscious accent.

  "You're shitting me."

  The month was May and the temperature was around 97. They were in Zaragoza Plaza, the picturesque square dominated by a statue of two stern men Evans had learned were generals. A cathedral, too.

  And then there was the sun ... like burning gasoline.

  Evans had flown to Hermosillo from outside D.C., where he lived when he wasn't on the road. In the nation's capital--the nation to the north, that is--the temperature had been a pleasant 75.

  "Summer can be warm," Diaz admitted.

  "Warm?" Evans echoed wryly.

  "But then ... You go to Arizona?"

  "I played golf in Scottsdale once."

  "Well, Scottsdale is hundreds of miles north of here. Think about that. We are in the middle of a desert. It has to be hot. What you expect?"

  "I only played six rounds," Evans said.


  "In Arizona. For me to only play six rounds ... I thought I'd die. And we started at seven in the morning. You golf?"

  "Me? You crazy? Too hot here." Diaz smiled.

  Evans was sipping a Coke from a bottle whose neck he'd religiously cleaned with a Handi-wipe before drinking. Supposedly Hermosillo, the capital of Sonora, was the only city in Mexico that treated its water, which meant that the ice the bottles nestled in was probably safe.


  He wiped the neck and mouth again. Wished he'd brought a miniature of Jack Daniels to use as purifier. Handi-wipe tasted like crap.

  Diaz was drinking coffee, to which he'd added three or four sugars. Hot coffee, not iced. Evans couldn't get his head around that. A Starbucks addict at home and a coffee drinker in any number of the third-world places he traveled to (you didn't get dysentery from boiled water), he hadn't touched the stuff in Hermosillo. He didn't care if he never had a hot beverage again. Sweat tickled under his arms and down his temple and in his crotch. He believed his ears were sweating.

  The men looked around them, at the students on the way to school, the businessmen meandering to offices or meetings. No shoppers; it was too early for that, but there were some mothers about, pushing carriages. The men not in suits were wearing blue jeans and boots and embroidered shirts. The cowboy culture, Evans had learned, was popular in Sonora. Pickup trucks were everywhere, as numerous as old American cars.

  These two men vaguely resembled each other. Thirties, compact, athletic, with round faces--Diaz's pocked but not detracting from his craggy good looks, reflecting some Pima Indian in his ancestry. Dark hair both. Evans's face was smoother and paler, of course, and a little off kilter, eyes not quite plumb. Handsome too, though, in a way that might appeal to risk-taking women.

  They were in jeans, running shoes and short-sleeved shirts, untucked, which would have concealed their weapons but they weren't carrying today.

  So far there was no reason for anyone to wish them harm.

  That would change.

  Some tourists walked by. Hermosillo was a way station for people traveling from the U.S. to the west coast of Sonora. Lots of people driving, lots of buses.

  Buses ...

  Evans lowered his voice, though there was no one near. "You talked to your contact this morning, Al?"

  Evans had tried out shortening the Mexican agent's name when they first met--to see how he'd react, if he'd be pissed, defensive, hostile. But the man had laughed. "You can call me Al," he'd said, the line from a Paul Simon song. So the test became a joke and Evans had decided then that he could like this guy. The humor also added to the infrastructure of trust. A lot of people working undercover think that saying "fuck" and making jokes about women creates trust. No. It's humor.

  "Si. And from what he say ... I think our job, it will not be easy." He took the lid off his coffee and blew to cool it, which Evans thought was hilarious. "His security, very tight. Always his security man, a good one, Jos, is with him. And word is they know something's planned."

  "What?" Evans's face curled up tight. "A leak?"

  And this, Diaz seemed to find funny, "Oh, is always a leak. Every egg in Mexico has a crack. They won't know about us exactly but he has heard somebody is in town to kill him. Oh, si, he has heard."

  The "he" they were speaking of was Alonso Maria Carillo, better known as Cuchillo--in Spanish: "Knife." There was some debate about where the nickname came from. It probably wasn't because he used that weapon to kill rivals--he'd never been arrested for a violent crime ... or any crime, for that matter. More likely the name was bestowed because he was brilliant. Cuchillo, as in sharp as a. He was supposedly the man behind one of the cartels in Sonora, the Mexican state that, in addition to neighboring Sinaloa, was home to the major drug gangs. But, though it was small, the Hermosillo Cartel was one of the most deadly, responsible for a thousand or more deaths ... and the production of many tons of drugs--not only cocaine but insidious meth, which was the hot new profit center in the narcotics trade.

  And yet Cuchillo was wily enough to avoid prosecution. The cartel was run by other men--who were, the Federales were sure, figureheads. To the world, Cuchillo was an innovative businessman and philanthropist. Educated at UCLA, a degree in business and one in English literature. He'd made his fortune, it appeared, through legitimate companies that were known for being good to workers and were environmentally and financially responsible.

  So due process wasn't an option to bring him to justice. Hence the joint operation of Alejo Diaz and P.Z. Evans--an operation that didn't exist, by the way, if you happened to bring up the topic to anyone in Washington, D.C., or Mexico City.

  "So," Evans said, "he suspects someone is after him. That means we'll need a diversion, you know. Misdirection. Keep him focused on that, so he doesn't figure out what we're really up to."

  "Yes, yes, that is right. At least one diversion. Maybe two. But we have another problem: We can't get him into the open."

  "Why not?"

  "My contact say he's staying in the compound for the next week. Maybe more. Until he think it's safe."

  "Shit," Evans muttered.

  Their mission was enwrapped with a tight deadline. Intelligence had been received that Cuchillo was planning an attack on a tourist bus. The vehicle would be stopped, the doors wired shut and then the bus set on fire. The attack would occur on Friday, two days from now, the anniversary of the day the Mexican president had announced his most recent war on the cartels. But there the report ended--as had, presumably, the life of the informant. It was therefore impossible to tell which bus would be targeted; there were hundreds of them daily driving many different routes and run by dozens of companies, most of whom didn't want to scare off passengers by suspending service or cooperating with law enforcement. (In his groundwork for the mission, Evans had researched the bus ope
rators and noted one thing their ads all had in common: they began with variations on Mexico Is Safe!!)

  Even without knowing the specific bus, however, Diaz and Evans had found a way to stop the attack. The biggest cartels in Sinaloa and Sonora were pulling back from violence. It was very bad publicity--not to mention dangerous to one's health--to kill tourists, even accidentally. An intentional attack on innocents, especially Americans, could make the drug barons' lives pure hell. No rivals or anyone within his organization would challenge Cuchillo directly but the agents had learned that if he, say, met with an accident his lieutenants would not follow through with the attack.

  However, if Cuchillo would be hiding in his compound until after the bus burned down to a scorched shell, then Diaz's contact was right; their job would not be easy. Drone surveillance had revealed that the house was on five acres, surrounded by a tall wall crowned with electric wire, the yard filled with sensors and scanned by cameras. Sniping wouldn't work because all the buildings--the large house, the separate library and detached garage--had thick bulletproof windows. And the walkways between those structures were out of sight of any vantage points where a shooter could set up.

  As they sat bathed in the searing sun, Evans wondered if your mind slowed down the hotter it got. Oatmeal came to mind, steaming sludge.

  He wiped his forehead, sipped Coke and asked for more details about Cuchillo's professional and personal life. Diaz had quite a bit of information; the man had been under investigation for the past year. Nodding, Evans took it all in. He'd been a good tactician in the Special Forces; he was a good tactician in his present job. He drained the Coke. His third of the day.

  Nine fucking forty-five in the morning.

  "Tell me about his weaknesses."

  "Cuchillo? He has no weaknesses."

  "Whatta you mean? Everybody has weaknesses. Drugs, women, men? Liquor? Gambling?"

  Weakness was a very effective tool of the trade in Evans's business, as useful as bullets and C4. Usually, in fact, more so.

  Diaz added yet one more sugar to his cup, though there was only a small amount of coffee remaining. He stirred elaborately. Figure eight. He sipped and then looked up. "There is maybe one thing."


  "Books," the Mexican agent said. "Books might be his weakness."

  The weather in Washington, D.C. was pleasant this May evening so he picked a Starbucks with an outdoor patio ... because, why not?

  This was in a yuppie area of the district, if yuppies still existed. Peter Billings's father had been a yuppie. Shit, that was a long time ago.

  Billings was drinking regular coffee, black, and no extra shots or foamed milk or fancy additives, which he secretly believed that people asked for sometimes simply because they liked the sound of ordering them.

  He'd also bought a scone, which was loaded with calories, but he didn't care. Besides, he'd only eat half of it. At home in Bethesda, his wife would feed him a Lean Cuisine tonight.

  Billings liked Starbucks because you could count on being invisible. Business people typing resumes they didn't want their bosses to see, husbands and wives typing emails to their lovers.

  And government operatives meeting about issues that were, shall we say, sensitive.

  Starbucks was also good because the steam machine made a shitload of noise and covered up the conversation if you were inside and the traffic covered up the conversation if you were outside. At least here on the streets of the District.

  He ate some scone and launched the crumbs off his dark blue suit and light blue tie.

  A moment later a man sat down across from him. He had a Starbuck's coffee, too, but it'd been doctored up big time--almond or hazelnut, whipped cream, sprinkles. The man was weasely, Billings reflected. When you're in your forties and somebody looks at you and the word weasel is the first thing that comes to mind, you might want to start thinking about image. Gain some weight.

  Have a scone.

  Billings now said to Harris, "Evening."

  Harris nodded then licked whipped cream from the top of his coffee carton.

  Billings found it repulsive, the darting, weasely tongue. "We're at the go/no-go point."


  "Your man down south."


  As good a code as any for Harris's contracting agent in Hermosillo, presently dogging Alonso Maria Carillo, AKA Cuchillo. Harris, of course, wasn't going to name him. Loud traffic on the streets of D.C. is like cappuccino machines, only loud. It masks, it doesn't obliterate, and both Harris and Billings knew there were sound engineers who could extract incriminating words from cacophony with the precision of a hummingbird sipping nectar in a hover.

  "Communication is good?" A near whisper by Billings.

  No response. Of course communication would be good. Harris and his people were the best. No need for a nod, either.

  Billings wanted to take a bite of scone but was, for some reason, reluctant to do so in front of a man who'd killed at least a dozen people, or so the unwritten resume went. Billings had killed a number of people indirectly but, one on one? Only a squirrel. Accidentally. His voice now dropped lower yet. "Has he been in contact with the PIQ?"

  Person in Question.


  "No. He's doing the prep work. From a distance."

  "So he hasn't seen, for instance, weapons or product at the compound?"

  "No. They're staying clear. Both Adam and his counterpart from the D.F." Harris continued, "All the surveillance is by drone."

  Which Billings had seen. And it wasn't helpful.

  They fell silent as a couple at a table nearby stood and gathered their shopping bags.

  Billings told himself to be a bit subtler with his questions. Harris was on the cusp of becoming curious. And that would not be good. Billings was not prepared to share what had been troubling him for the past several hours, since the new intelligence assessment came in: that he and his department might have subcontracted out a job to assassinate the wrong man.

  There was now some doubt that Cuchillo was in fact head of the Hermosillo Cartel.

  The intercepts Billings's people had interpreted as referring to drug shipments by the cartel in fact referred to legitimate products from Cuchillo's manufacturing factories, destined for U.S. companies. A huge deposit into one of his Cayman accounts was perfectly legal--not a laundering scam, as originally thought--and was from the sale of a ranch he had owned in Texas. And the death of a nearby drug supplier they were sure was a hit ordered by Cuchillo turned out to be a real traffic accident involving a drunk driver. Much of the other data on which they'd based the terminate order remained ambiguous.

  Billings had hoped that Adam, on the ground in Sonora, might have seen something to confirm their belief that Cuchillo ran the cartel.

  But apparently not.

  Harris licked the whipped cream again. Caught a few sprinkles in the process.

  Billings looked him over again. Yes, weasely, but this wasn't necessarily an insult. After all, a sneaky weasel and a noble wolf weren't a lot different, at least not when they were sniffing after prey.

  Harris asked bluntly, "So, do I tell Adam to go forward?"

  Billings took a bite of scone. He had the lives of the passengers of the bus to save ... and he had his career to think of, too. He considered the question as he brushed crumbs. He'd studied law at the University of Chicago, where the theory of cost-benefit analysis had largely been developed. The theory was this: you balanced the cost of preventing a mishap versus the odds of it occurring and the severity of the consequences if it does.

  In the Cuchillo assassination, Billings had considered two options: Scenario One: Adam kills Cuchillo. If he's not the head of the cartel and is innocent, then the bus attack happens, because somebody else is behind it. If he's guilty, then the bus incident doesn't happen and there'd be no bus incidents in the future. Scenario Two: Adam stands down. Now, if Cuchillo's innocent, the bus incident happens. If he's guilty, the bus
incident happens and there'll be more incidents like it in the future.

  In other words, the hard and cold numbers favored going forward, even if Cuchillo was innocent.

  But the obvious downside was that Billings could be crucified if that was the case ... and if he and Harris and Adam were discovered.

  An obvious solution occurred to him.

  Oh, this was good. He finished the scone. "Yeah, Adam's green-lighted. But there's just one thing."

  "What's that?"

  "Tell him however he does it, all the evidence has to be obliterated. Completely. Nothing can trace the incident back here. Nothing at all."

  And looking very much like a crossbreed, a weasel-wolf, Harris nodded and sucked up the last of the whipped cream. "I have no problem with that whatsoever."

  Diaz and Evans were back in the apartment in a nice section of Hermosillo, an apartment that was paid for by a company owned by a company owned by a company whose headquarters was a post office box in Northern Virginia. Evans was providing not only the technical expertise but most of the money as well. It was the least he could do, he'd joked, considering that it was America that supplied most of the weapons to the cartels; in Mexico it is virtually impossible to buy or possess weapons legally.

  The time was now nearly five p.m. and Evans was reading an encrypted email from the U.S. that he'd just received.

  He looked up. "That's it. We're green-lighted."

  Diaz smiled. "Good. I want that son of a bitch to go to hell."

  And they got back to work, poring over data-mined information about Cuchillo's life: his businesses and associates and employees, household staff, his friends and mistresses, the restaurants and bars where he spent many evenings, what he bought, what he downloaded, what computer programs he used, what he enjoyed listening to, what he ate and drank. The information was voluminous; security forces here and in the U.S. had been compiling it for months.

  And, yes, much of this information had to do with books.

  Weaknesses ...

  "Listen to this, Al. Last year he bought more than a million dollars' worth of books."

  "You mean pesos."

  "I mean dollars. Hey, you turn the A.C. down?"

  Evans had noticed that the late afternoon heat was flowing into the apartment like a slow, oppressive tide.