Authors: Ross Sidor
“This might be a stupid question, but how we do know
Canastilla is still on site?” Aguilar asked.
“I suppose we don’t for sure,” Avery acknowledged. “But
we do know his phone’s there. Plus NSA’s been sifting through the hotel’s
security cameras, and they identified Canastilla entering the hotel yesterday,
and heading to the elevators. Facial recognition software confirms it’s him,
and they haven’t seen him leave, not even through non-public service or
maintenance doors, all of which are covered by camera.”
“Maybe he walked out, but nobody caught it,” Castillo
said. “He could have put a fucking hat on or something. Maybe one of your NSA
guys blinked and missed him.”
“Maybe,” Avery said. “Either way, we know he’s been
there. It looks like he entered alone, but cameras don’t show you everything.
Several hundred people have come through that entrance. Any one of them could
be a FARC or cartel hit man. My support at Palanquero is monitoring the live
feed from the front entrance. The facial recognition software will spike if
Canastilla shows up, and Palanquero will alert me immediately.”
“So what’s the plan?” Aguilar asked.
“We don’t know the name Canastilla has used to
check-in, so we can’t learn anything from the front desk,” said Avery. “We’ll
go to his room and see if he’s there. If he’s not, we’ll break in and do a
sweep, try to pick up his trail. Or we might go in and find a corpse.”
“Sounds simple enough,” Aguilar said.
But all three men knew from experience that in reality
these things rarely went as smoothly as on paper. Cars or aircraft broke down. Local
police interfered for entirely unrelated reasons. Innocent bystanders stumbled
in the way in a case of wrong place, wrong time. The defector became difficult
or had a last minute change of heart. Assets were delayed and missed the
rendezvous time. Someone in an office in Washington or Bogotá decided to abort
mid-operation, often due to bullshit political considerations, or received an
urgent bit of intelligence that changed everything. Some politician or
bureaucrat with a dueling agenda caught wind of an active op and leaked it to
the media. There was penetration by a hostile intelligence service.
The FUBAR potential was nearly limitless.
7:30PM, after checking the cameras again to make sure there’d been no sighting
of Canastilla leaving the hotel, Aguilar entered the Trump Ocean Club and took
up position in the lobby, while Avery and Castillo swept the exterior perimeter
streets, looking for signs of surveillance or an ambush. They dressed in
loose-fitting layers to conceal their weapons, vests, and radios.
At seventy stories, over nine hundred feet tall, the
Trump Ocean Club International Hotel and Tower is the tallest building in
Panama, and, at almost half a billion dollars, the most expensive. The hotel’s
predominant features are its two parallel, sail-shaped structures. Each of
these extended from a narrow tower jutting out of the low, square-shaped base
of the main building, and they were each connected by a glass skywalk corridor.
The entire complex occupies two and a half million square feet on Panama Bay,
and includes private beach and yacht clubs with piers, a casino, rooftop swimming
pools, and numerous retail outlets. Perfectly manicured grass and swaying palm
trees decorated the exterior grounds, with sailboats, yachts, and tour boats
floating in the bay.
At 7:47PM, Avery and Castillo linked up outside, after
finding no indicators of surveillance or anything else to raise alarm. They
strode through the wide entrance of the Trump tower, receiving no attention
from the doormen and valets, who were preoccupied with hotel guests.
The hotel’s interior was as ornately and prestigiously
furnished as one would expect from the opulent exterior, with impressive and
elegant visual aesthetics, enhanced by carefully crafted lighting, and adorned
with high end chairs and sofas. Soft music played in the main concourse. Scents
of freshly brewed coffee, along with perfume and a subtle, pleasant vanilla
aroma that was perpetually pumped into the public spaces, wafted in the cool,
climate controlled air.
In addition to the lines of guests waiting to check in
or out, there were shoppers pouring in and out of the assorted shops, plus
diners packing the restaurants. Everyone was here; businessmen, travelers,
tourists, and families.
As Avery and Castillo walked across the lobby to the
elevators, neither man looked at or acknowledged Aguilar, who was seated in a
plush armchair with a coffee on the table in front of him, pretending to read a
Aguilar was to remain stationary until he received
word that Avery and Castillo were coming down, at which point he’d head outside
and get in the car parked outside. Then, they’d run an SDR and switch vehicles
twenty blocks away at Objective November. Despite the time efficiency of the
exit plan, if something went wrong inside the hotel, it could take Aguilar up
to ten minutes to reach his teammates on the thirty-third floor.
Avery and Castillo shared the elevator in silence with
a Western couple who looked like they’d just come from doing laps around the bay
in their yacht. The man even wore a captain’s hat, which Avery thought didn’t
match the bulging fanny pack and flip-flops with socks rolled up to his knees,
but the woman, a third his age and with inflated breasts pressed up through the
low neck of her tank top, was all over him. They got off on the fourteenth floor.
As the doors slid shut, Castillo observed. “It must be
nice to be a rich asshole.”
Avery recalled his mud-soaked hide in Venezuela, and
“I didn’t tell you, but Cynthia walked out on me a few
Annoyed, Avery frowned slightly at Castillo’s abrupt
“Five months later, she’s married to an American
lawyer in Miami. She left me with the kids. They stay with my sister while I’m
“Save it for later. Keep your mind in the game,” Avery
warned. “If they’re going to make a move against us, it’ll be on the streets. They
won’t hit us inside; too risky.”
Once they grabbed Canastilla/Muňoz, they’d split
up, taking different elevators down. Avery would exit the hotel with Canastilla
through a service door, where Aguilar would be waiting to pick them up in the
team’s rented Ford Explorer, while Castillo went out through the main entrance
in the front, sweeping the lobby and exterior once more for opposition.
Castillo would then make his way to his own vehicle—a Toyota Hilux—and then
link up with the others at Objective November.
Avery got off on the thirtieth-second floor. Castillo
stayed behind to ride the elevator the rest of the way up.
Avery walked swiftly down the long, quiet hallway,
turned a bend, passed two European businessmen, and pushed open the door
leading into the stairwell, where he reached a hand beneath his jacket and withdrew
the Glock. He craned his neck out over the railing to check the landing below
and then glanced up to scope out the one above. Then he started working his way
up the stairs.
If there was a hit team waiting to ambush them, the
stairwell was a perfect place to hide and from which to deploy.
At the thirty-third floor, Avery slid his hand with
the Glock into his jacket pocket, and entered the hallway, where he re-joined
Castillo, who now filled a lounge chair at the end of the hallway. Castillo’s
right hand rested on his lap, over his left thigh, with the mini-Uzi quickly
accessible cross-draw style beneath his jacket. From here, Castillo could see
down the length of the hallway to where it connected to the adjoining tower
structure, and he had eyes on the elevators, too.
“Stairwell’s clear,” Avery reported to Castillo, looking
straight ahead as he strode past. “I’ll get our friend.”
“Roger. I’ll be right here.”
Avery slowed his pace and stepped aside to allow a young
couple with two small children to pass him. He stopped outside suite 3314. The
“do not disturb” sign was inserted into the slot for the card key.
Avery withdrew his Glock and held it along the outside
of his leg, with his finger indexed over the trigger guard. He gave three hard
knocks against the side of the door. He heard movement on the other side, and
envisioned someone coming up to the door and gazing at him through the
peephole. Then he heard the deadbolt disengaging and the undoing of the latch.
The instant the door began to swing inward on its
hinges Avery stepped in, planted his weight firmly on his left foot, raised his
right, and kicked the door in, knocking over the man on the other side.
Avery snapped up the Glock two handed and followed it through
the threshold into the one thousand square foot suite. His eyes swept the room left-to-right,
right-to-left. He stood in the combined kitchen-dining room space, beyond which
was the living room and, on the far end, sliding glass balcony doors through
which starlight and the building’s reflective exterior lights shimmered. Immediately
to his left were a small, open laundry room and the bathroom.
A short, lean, compact, and fit Latino man stood
before Avery, visibly on edge and tense, his eyes locked on the gun pointed at
Avery examined the face.
Pablo Muňoz had noticeably aged since the time of
the photo Daniel had showed Avery. His face carried a vacant, weary look, with
a faraway emptiness to his eyes, and he looked almost gaunt, like he hadn’t
eaten in days, like there was little life left in him.
With shortly cut black hair and a beard of equal
length, Agent Canastilla wore blue jeans and a white shirt with the sleeves
rolled to his elbows and open collar with the top three buttons undone. He
sweated rivulets and radiated fear, and Avery knew it wasn’t just because the man
now faced the business end of a Glock. No, something else was the source of Muňoz’s
unease, which in turn gave Avery cause for concern.
Avery kicked the door shut behind him and kept the
Glock level with the Colombian agent while maintaining a five foot gap from
“Get down on your knees and cross your ankles and put
your hands behind your head!” Avery shouted, needing to gain dominance.
The Colombian did as instructed.
Keeping his eyes locked on Muňoz’s hands, Avery came
in closer and patted him down with one hand, checking for weapons or wires and
“Stay right there. Don’t fucking move!”
“I have to tell you something. We’re running out of
Holding the Glock in front of him with both hands,
Avery threaded a path along the perimeter of the suite, going through the
living room, coming around and making a right into the large bedroom, where he
checked the closet and under the queen size bed. The bed looked untouched. The
covers were spread taught over the mattress, without a single wrinkle, but
Avery saw the tracks in the carpet from where Muňoz must have spent a good
chunk of time pacing. At the desk, there was a half empty bottle of rum sitting
in a bucket of melting ice next to a single glass, as well as a tiny,
square-shaped plastic bag, the kind used to package a hit of cocaine.
Stepping back into the living room, Avery’s eyes
lingered for a second over the terrace, looking through his partial reflection
on the glass. Any intelligence professional worth his salt would have kept the
drapes closed, he thought. The view through the sliding glass doors, past the
terrace, was of the twin sail-shaped tower across the way.
Avery came back over to Muňoz, who remained on
his knees with his hands behind his head.
“Are you Carnivore?”
“I’ll take you to him, if I decide you’re not fucking
with me. In the meantime, let’s get out of here. Get up. Grab your stuff. If
you’re taking anything, I’ll have to check it first.”
Muňoz stood up in a hurry and lowered his hands
as Avery started for the door.
The Colombian stopped, reached out and started to grab
for Avery, but Avery spun and re-acquired him from behind the Glock. Muňoz
realized his mistake and he put his hands up, palms out.
“No! Wait,” Muňoz pleaded. “There’s something you
need to know.”
“Tell me later. We’re leaving
“No, you don’t understand. I’m already a dead man, but
if I go with you, and disobey their instructions, they’ll kill my family, too. They’re
watching us. They’re already on their way here.”
Avery’s eyes narrowed as his mind processed a half
dozen things at once.
He threw all of the locks on the door, and hit the
push-to-talk clipped beneath his jacket and said into the throat mike,
“Carnivore to all units, I have the package, but we’re held up at Objective
Charlie. We’re going to have company. Blueshift hold your position. Stalker,
you got my six? Acknowledge.”
Avery heard Aguilar’s voice in his earpiece.
“Blueshift for Carnivore, copy that, holding position.”
“Stalker, do you copy?” Avery said.
“You have to listen to me!” Muňoz shouted.
Without looking at him, Avery held up a hand to silence him, but the Colombian
kept yelling. “This information needs to reach Daniel.”
“I said, shut up.” Avery tilted his chin toward the
throat mike. “Stalker, are you there!”
No response from Castillo.
Avery swore and stepped back, away from the door,
weighing his options. He wanted to grab the package and split, but if the
opposition already hit Castillo, that meant they were real close and getting
closer by the second.
He tapped the push-to-talk again. “Carnivore for
Blueshift, belay last message. Get your ass up here now and watch your back!”
“Hold tight. I’m my on my way, Carnivore.”
Avery holstered the Glock. He grabbed onto the
medium-sized refrigerator and tugged on it, dragged it inch by inch across the
floor, scratching floor tiles and rattling its contents. He left the fridge in front
of the door. Then he took four steps back and moved behind the thick granite
island in the center of the kitchen.
Avery drew the Glock once more and held the weapon
firmly in the isosceles stance over the top of the island, aiming toward the
entry way to the suite.
Christ, he thought. This could be a fucking massacre.
he voiced his response to Avery’s last transmission, Aguilar was already in the
process of jumping up from his seat and taking wide strides across the foyer. Seeing
his urgency and the expression on his face, people hurried out of his way, and
a doorman yelled after him. At first Aguilar maneuvered around people, but as
his patience wore out, he simply pushed them aside, ignoring their protests. There
were at least two dozen people, many with luggage, waiting for the elevators.
As one elevator opened, Aguilar pushed ahead through the line, shouldering
people out of the way. He shoved over a tanned blonde, prompting an outraged
man in a Hawaiian shirt with sunglasses and gelled hair to yell something out
and start after Aguilar in an effort to play hero. As Aguilar reached the
elevator, he felt a hand grab onto his shoulder from behind. Aguilar, sighed,
turned, and delivered a right hook to the man’s jaw and shoved the slack body
back out of the elevator as the doors shut.