Border Crossed - Cover

Border Crossed

Copyright© 2023 by Lumpy

Chapter 13

Taylor stepped over Matthews’ body, a dark stain still slowly spreading across the man’s shirt, and looked out the window. Ruiz and the military seemed to have things well in hand. The firefight had ended, and the Mexican soldiers were rounding up the few cartel members that remained alive, cuffing them and shoving them to the ground as they waited for transport.

Whitaker, who apparently finished with the guys she’d been exchanging bullets with, burst through the door behind him, weapon raised, only to pull up short as she saw Taylor and no hostiles. Looking down at Matthews, she grimaced.

“There goes our lead,” she said.

“Yeah, I know. He didn’t leave me a lot of choices.”

“Yeah, I figured. Still, it leaves us in a tight place.”

Downstairs, they could hear the thudding of boots as Ruiz and the soldiers burst into the main house, probably looking for anyone else they might be able to capture and any information they could gather on the cartel. They didn’t care about stolen classified material, but they cared a lot about the cartels and the violence of their operations.

Watching out the window, Taylor saw two soldiers escorting the man in the fancy suit who’d climbed out of the helicopter, throwing him to his knees alongside the rest of the survivors. That would be a feather in Ruiz’s cap.

Behind him, Whitaker started digging through drawers, under the bed, and anywhere else she might find something useful. Taylor wasn’t confident that Matthews would just leave a slip of paper lying around that said ‘Mole’ and give them the name they needed.

For the next twenty minutes, Taylor, Whitaker, and a handful of officers Ruiz loaned them dug through half the rooms in the upstairs wing where they found Matthews. While there was obvious contraband and even intel that Ruiz found interesting, so far, there was nothing helpful for Taylor and Whitaker.

In a side bedroom, smaller than the rest, two doors from where he found Matthews, Taylor spotted a nondescript black backpack tucked inside a closet, with clothes and a larger suitcase. Over the last twenty minutes, and watching the cartel guys walking around, including the fancy-dressed man from the chopper, Taylor had gotten a sense of their style. These guys were fancy; even their gunmen wore khakis, loafers, and silk shirts. This ... this wasn’t flash. He’d seen its like before, though. In a dozen colors and a dozen styles, but all sharing the same qualities. Sturdy, light, and portable. Guys in the teams, guys in his ODA, and Taylor himself had carried bags just like them when they weren’t in the field. Go bags they could grab and dash out the door with.

This was Matthews’ bag. Taylor was sure of it.

“Got something,” he called out as he set the bag on the dresser in the room.

Whitaker and Ruiz came into the room just as Taylor unzipped it and pulled out a rugged laptop, the laptop was the type designed to withstand being thrown around and treated roughly. Ruiz’s leg was bandaged and he was limping along using a crutch.

“Shouldn’t you be in an ambulance headed to a hospital somewhere?” Taylor said.

“And let someone else get the credit for this? Are you out of your mind?” Ruiz said, still sounding a bit pained, but not too much. “Besides, it was a through and through, just got meat. They want me to go get it cleaned out and stitched, but it can wait for a few hours. I want to make sure we get everything we can and no one screws this up. If we play this right, I might be able to shut Vargas down not just here, but in Sonora too. You guys might have done me a big favor. This is going to get me promoted.”

“It’s your life,” Taylor said, turning, setting the laptop on the dresser next to the backpack and booting it up.

For a moment, he hoped it would just open to the desktop, maybe with a document opened on it saying, ‘Here’s my evil plan,’ but he wasn’t that lucky. Matthews was far from a tech guy, and Taylor doubted he’d put any serious encryption on it, but he knew enough that the password field blinked at Taylor after it finished booting up.

“We’re going to have to haul this back to the techs in El Paso, aren’t we?” Taylor asked.

It wasn’t a long way away, but the raid wouldn’t be a secret for long, and eventually, the mole would learn that Matthews was dead. As soon as that happened, they’d lose him. The guy would shut everything down and play by the book for a while, maybe even a long while, until he felt safe enough that any investigation was over. Then he’d go right back to finding someone else to buy whatever he could push out the back door.

“The rest of my team should be arriving now to tear this place apart, and I have a few computer guys, just in case we found any here. I could have them take a look at it for you,” Ruiz said.

“Sure,” Taylor said.

Technically, this was their scene and anything found here was theirs. Taylor and Whitaker were there as guests and had no ability to do anything on Mexican soil. If Ruiz wanted to just keep the laptop, he could. But, they had a lot of goodwill with the captain right now, and he’d been stand-up so far, so Taylor decided to trust him.

Ruiz yelled something out the door in Spanish and a minute later one of his officers came into the room. More Spanish sent the laptop off with the new arrival to, Taylor assumed, wherever his techs were squirreled away.

With their part of the search over, Taylor, Whitaker, and a crutch-bound Ruiz headed outside. Ruiz found a chair on the patio in front of the villa with the least number of bullet holes, and carefully lowered himself into it, presumably satisfied with directing the investigation from there.

Outside, there were three vans, four or five police cruisers, and even an armored car jammed in the compound courtyard and out the wide driveway gates. They made it outside just in time to see most of the survivors being loaded into one of the vans with metal mesh over the windows, although Taylor couldn’t help but notice that the Vargas lieutenant was being loaded into a squad car.

“Keeping that one for yourself,” Taylor said, pointing at the car.

“Hell, yes. If anyone gets anything out of him, it’s going to be me.”

That was a difference Taylor could appreciate between the Mexican and US ways of handling cases. He knew Whitaker wouldn’t agree, citing all kinds of studies and reasons why a more systematized and professional process was better, allowing agents, interrogators, and whatever else to specialize and become good at their job, but he’d seen too many things slip through the cracks to believe the US system was some paragon of efficiency.

There was something to be said for a man taking personal charge of a case and walking it through the system to make sure what needed to happen, happened. They shot the shit with Ruiz for maybe thirty more minutes as bodies were rolled into a larger freezer truck to head to whatever Juarez had for a coroner, with the occasional interruption for Ruiz to yell at one of his men who seemed about ready to overlook some fine point or another.

Eventually, a man in a grey jumpsuit came wandering up to the patio, holding Matthews’ laptop under his arm.

“Anything?” Taylor asked.

The man looked to Ruiz and, when the captain nodded, said, “Yes.”

Taylor didn’t know if the guy was a jerk, or just didn’t speak much English, but either way, he handed the laptop to Taylor, who took it and handed it to Whitaker. She was better at this than he was.

Balancing it on a railing, she opened it up and, as promised, it was on the desktop, no lock screen in sight.

“Here’s hoping that was his only security,” Whitaker said as she started moving her finger along the touchpad, opening folders and windows.

“Probably is. Matthews was never a computer guy.”

After digging through files and not seeing much, she opened an application Taylor wasn’t familiar with and confirmed Taylor’s assertion that Matthews wasn’t a computer guy.

“Why would you have a secure, end-to-end encrypted mail program and just leave it logged in?”

“I told you,” Taylor said. “This is good for us, though, right?”

“Yep,” she said, and got quiet for a moment, other than the odd ‘hmm.’ “Well, our inside man is smarter than Matthews. Looking at these headers, he’s covering his tracks well. There’s still a chance our computer guy can track him down using what we have here, but I’m not seeing anything obvious.”

“How about any new information that helps us now?” Taylor prodded.

“Patience. Patience. We do this step by step, or stuff gets missed,” she said, pointedly ignoring the eye roll Taylor gave her in response. “Yep, Matthews has all his messages on here. Our mystery guy is very straight to the point and I’m not seeing much to ID him in the messages, but I do see a problem. Matthews got a response this morning about a new shipment. It’s scheduled to ship out of Galveston and destined for Vera Cruz. I guess the border got a little too hot for anything else.”

“More stealth parts?” Taylor asked.

“Ummm ... no. He isn’t super specific, really dances around the point, but this sounds like a weapons system of some kind.”

Taylor moved to look over her shoulder. She wasn’t wrong about the inside man. Every response from him was as few words as possible, and often just times, dates, yes or no. Matthews’ side of the conversation was, at least, more verbose. Taylor didn’t follow it completely, but he did recognize a few abbreviations.

“Yeah, I think so. That looks Navy, I think, but I seem to remember something like that,” he said, pointing at one of the acronyms. “A tracking system, if I remember correctly. There was a girl I knew who worked in intel who would talk when she drank. I never paid much attention, but it rings a bell.”

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