Hot Iron: Part 1

1.

Coffee tainted the air with its rich scent through the steam from two-dozen Styrofoam cups. Most were held by uniformed officers, but plain-clothes cops, and suited detectives and admins didn’t escape the fold. Between the coffee, donuts, and field of blue, the room might as well have been a coffee-lover’s convention, or Donuts Anonymous. It hardly seemed like a serious, morning briefing. In fact, only one man appeared to be taking it seriously; he was clothed in pre-vest swat uniform, with “Torres” slapped across the left breast.

Juan Torres was built like a brick shit-house, some might say. Hell, Torres might agree in proper company, but here was no proper company for brevity. Everyone present was his subordinate, at least for this mission. Given he’d learned first-hand the folly coddling those below you, he found himself at odds with an entire room of gun-toting boys. The few men he didn’t include in his pointed, sweeping gazes knew their jobs, and they’d do them to the letter, just like Torres.

He mounted a small lectern at the front of the room, hands behind his back as though still “at-ease” a world away. He began with, “Good morning.” Then with another glancing sweep, he continued, “Some of you know why you’re here. The rest have some clue. I’m going to do this as quickly and painlessly as possible. If you have questions, direct them to your department heads after the brief.”

He nodded to someone and the lights went dark. A 3D projection between Torres and his audience splayed upward, then unfurled. It swiped right from an Neo-Chicago PD logo to large words that read “Operation: Hot Iron.” The words fizzled away, and a man in his late-fifties appeared. His short-cut, graying hair framed vaguely English features. He held a cell-phone to his ear, other hand on the door of a modest sports car meant more to blend in, rather than standing out.

Torres continued behind the image, “Approximately thirty-six hours ago, our undercover officers observed a deal between the local street gang Eighteen-Seven and this man, Kieran Walters. After being identified, the deal was allowed to proceed so our officers might tail Walters while a group of uniforms made the Eighteen-Seven bust.” Torres digressed for a moment. “Some of you are here today, and I want to say congratulations.”

There was a murmur and nodding from heads in the crowd. It was good to show appreciation for a job well done, but a lone sentence and nothing more or you risked inflating egos. Torres knew that folly too, and he wouldn’t repeat past mistakes.

He refocused and the projection shifted again, “What they found was this;” A car’s trunk appeared, loaded with wrapped, white bricks. “Three hundred kilos of pure-white heroin, likely freshly produced. We believed the shipment had come from Colombia, however, we now know differently.”

The projection slid sideways. A fish market appeared in a two-dimensional image. Around it, various harbors and piers made a jig-saw cut of the land that framed the darkened blue of Lake Michigan behind them; a usual scene for Neo-Chicago’s Chinatown.

The image fizzled to a narrower angle, and a warehouse focused. Rusted sheet-metal glared in contrast to the peeling paint of an aluminum sign that bore a large, pink salmon. Chinese script was plastered above the fish, a line of English reading, “Happy Fish Imports.”

“We’ve known for some time of illicit elements operating within Chinatown. However, the local gangs’ hydra-like operations has made going after any, one group a waste of resources. It has always been the policy of NCPD’s Narcotics division to seek the larger fish, if you forgive the pun.” There were a few, muffled chuckles. Torres wasn’t amused. He continued as such, “We know now that the source of drugs, and thus the gangs’ funding, is not local and headed by Walters.”

The projection changed again; this time to a three-quarter view of a 3-D blueprint of the warehouse, pier, and a curious, rectangular structure beneath the water outside them. “At our request, both State and Federal governments ran U-A-V thermal and topographical scans. Combined with satellite readings and local surveillance, we have a general layout of the warehouse and its surroundings. Due to the clandestine nature of this new addition below the water, we’re unable to gain a clear reading on its interior.”

He focused on the freshman, obvious from their clean-shaven faces and spotless uniforms. They were so green they still bore the factory-polish on their dress-shoes. They were utterly useless for anything outside parades.

“SWAT will position to breach while the U-Cs watch entrances from six points around the building. A three-man contingent will be stationed on a cutter off-shore with a SWAT sharpshooter for cover while uniformed officers will patrol the perimeter for any external threats.” Torres now addressed the entire room, heads of departments included, “You will follow SWAT’s lead on this one. We believe the under-water addition is a volatile heroin refinery, which means a probable civilian presence. Check your fire, and make your arrests, but don’t play hero. I want everyone coming back on this one, understood?”

A unanimous din affirmed his words. Then, with a quick dispersal of patrol-men orders, Torres ended the brief. The room cleared out in nearly half the time it had taken to fill, everyone freshly caffeinated and ready for the day ahead. Hot Iron wouldn’t commence for another eight hours, but by then everyone had to be ready.

A department head approached Torres as he keyed off the projection and gathered papers into a leather briefcase. Roberts was nearing retirement, and an asshole to boot. He’d gained more than a paunch over the years, and somehow managed to stuff it into the polyester rags he liberally called a suit every morning. Torres had seen his type a million times over. They were as much burn-outs as the pot-head teens he used to bring in before the M-R-A made pot legal again.

Roberts waddled more than anything, and right up to Torres, “You gotta’ lotta’ nerve pullin’ rank on this one, Torres.”

Juan zipped a pocket on his briefcase closed, “How long you run SWAT again? Twenty-five years? Then they stuck you behind a desk and fattened you up with benefits?”

“The balls on you.”

Torres lifted his case, swiveled to meet Roberts face-to-face, “How many men’d you lose in those twenty-five years? Fifteen? Sixteen? Most in the first ten years, right? ‘Til you got smart, cautious?”

A corner of Roberts’ mouth lifted in a snarl. “What’s your point?”

“Twelve years,” Torres said stiffly. “And not a man lost yet.” Roberts’ face hardened, his eyes ablaze. Torres readied to leave, “Next time you wanna’ blow smoke up someone’s ass, get a hose. I don’t have time for this shit.”

Torres turned and strolled from the room. Roberts’ eyes followed him, “Sonuvabitch.”

2.

Torres laced his boot tight and double-knotted it. He rolled a balaclava down over his face, and slipped on his AR glasses. A HUD flickered on with a boot screen, then splayed along the sides of his vision. He zipped his tac-vest shut over his dragon-skin armor, and rose to face his team from the front of the box-truck. Their call-signs and names appeared over their heads that he minimized with an flitting eye.

He steadied himself on a loop hung from the cargo-area’s ceiling, an MP5 slung across his chest. His free hand rested atop it as the truck lumbered forward, jostled its passengers to and fro. The self-contained driver-section held two undercover officers in Happy Fish jumpsuits. Their gray-blue cotton hid just as much body armor and firepower as Torres sported.

The truck rolled to a stop outside the warehouse, settled into a diesel idle that lasted all of thirty-seconds before Torres keyed his glasses’ in-built comm, “Alpha team at position-one, waiting for Charlie’s confirmation.”

A quarter-mile offshore, SWAT’s sharpshooter swept the building’s exterior with his bolt-action L96. Its digital scope called out a series of markers. He shuffled through them eye-movements, minimized all but the faintest ticks above the other officers. Its view shifted to infrared, outlined the hundred or so bodies shuffling about the pier and warehouse interior. With another eye-movement, he flicked away the officers, focused only on those unidentified bodies carrying weapons. He found none on the building’s exterior.

Charlie’s call-outs appeared in Torres’ glasses as the sharpshooter radioed in, “Charlie team copies, Alpha. You are go for advance to position two.”

Torres was at the van’s doors, his team behind him. He pushed out, followed by a line of fatigue-clad men and women whose only identity was the white “SWAT” across their backs. Torres and another man stuck a breaching charge to a door, stacked up against sheet-metal. A command was shouted.

The door exploded inward. Debris and dust belched from the hole. Torres’ HUD flashed. In a blink, the smoke was nullified. Skeletal lines of bodies rushing about appeared, highlighted, processed those armed and unarmed, minimized those that weren’t.

The team advanced, a dozen voices all shouting at once. The wire-frame bodies dispersed, the warehouse’s innards wide-open. Low-tables covered in fish and chum made for sparse cover across the expanse. Workers fled, screaming. Torres ignored them, powered through the stink of dead-fish. He surged through the crowd like a locomotive, MP5 the cow-pusher.

“Move! Move!” He yelled to his team, “Keep formation. Push through. Don’t break ranks!”

Halfway through the warehouse, Brittany Mendez, shouted, “Contact!”

A second later she was in cover on the near-side tables with the others. Torres’ glasses called out red warnings. A reticle appeared. Muzzle flashes sparked beyond it. The chatter of Russian Kalashnikovs and Toporevs mingled with Sig Sauers and Glocks over workers’ screams. Blood splattered the air from errant rounds, cut down fleeing bodies, mated metal-on-metal behind the SWAT team.

“Charlie team, covering fire!”

The sharpshooter radioed back a “Roger.” He shuffled his digital scope to zero in on red targets carrying weapons. SWAT MP5s and Sig 551s joined the chatter across the warehouse. The last of the workers fled through a door while Gunmen moved in. Suits and military fatigues mingled with muzzle flashes, as if some mercenary-business meeting had been interrupted. New call-outs took cover behind pillars, tables, wall-corners and stacks of ice and fish-filled boxes to spray hopeful gunfire.

A man’s head exploded from a hole in the back wall.

Charlie team called in, “Tag one tango.”

“Bravo team, move in!” Torres ordered.

A double-wide pair of doors split open at the front of the warehouse. A grenade soared inward. The AR lenses blackened. Their comms screeched a painless frequency to muffle external sounds. The grenade hit, erupted with a shock-wave and lightning strike’s flash to anyone sans glasses. Several men across the room scrambled, blind and deaf from the grenade.

Bravo team filtered in from the far-side of the warehouse. Call-signs and names minimized with a blink as Torres and his people rushed the downed aggressors. One tried scurried to aim at Torres. His AR reticle went hot, and his MP5 barked off a round. Other bodies fell, cut down with identical, pinpoint accuracy and another explosive tag by Charlie.

In a moment, the fire fight was over and Bravo team were zip-tying incapacitated gunmen, their call-outs now blue. Torres and Alpha were already down an interior hall, headed for an access shaft and a ladder leading down. Torres advanced along a second hallway beneath the first. It was obvious they were underwater; concrete walls and floors were lined with heavy rubber to seal cracks between pieced-together sections.

The place felt like walking an underwater tomb before being filled, Torres thought. Somehow, he knew, things were about to go completely fucking sideways.

He pushed forward, sickness growing in his gut. No one down here seemed to know of the fire-fight upstairs– or rather, if there was anyone here. The AR lenses were idle, a desolate eeriness in them that tainted the air of the empty hallways. It only strengthened when they stacked up outside the place’s lone door that would lead to the refinery room.

Torres and another member readied a battering ram in place of a breaching charge.

Torres whispered beyond his comm, “Check your fire. There’ll be a lot of explosives in this room. A stray round will bury us all.”

He gave a quiet three-count, and the battering ram collapsed the door inward. It dangled half-off its hinges. The team filed in shouting orders and brandishing weapons. Red, explosive warning call-outs cluttered their vision across an empty room. The team went silent. A hundred or more barrels and industrial chemistry sets formed makeshift divisions of the refinement process across the room, but there was not a person to be found.

Torres’ stomach churned. Bile curdled, forced its way up his throat. He fanned the team out through the room, filed them through to search every nook and cranny. They all came up empty. The team regrouped in the room’s center, Torres ready to call the op a bust.

Their comms screeched. HUDS flickered and flashed with blinding images that Torres couldn’t decipher. The frequencies forced the team to their knees, then the ground, writhing. Torres’ temples throbbed as if about to explode. He jerked away his glasses, yanked out their connected comm, pulled Mendez’s away beside him.

A voice boomed from the air all around them. It shook Torres’ body, stabbed at his chest, “Checkmate, pigs!”

The voice apexed with a shock-wave that sent them rolling like rag dolls. Something bit the air with ozone. Torres’ gut lurched. He threw himself atop Mendez.

Off-shore, the sharpshooter’s lens met the underwater facility. The thermal view flared red-orange. A geyser of water and flame sprayed upward. Debris and water rained along the docks, chatter streaming from the radios. The boat came about, jetted toward the explosion to seek survivors. The sharpshooter had doubts they’d find any.

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