If the cartel forces laying siege to the Unidad military base discovered El Camadante’s true identity, the war would escalate to a level far beyond Gaz’s and my pay-grade, and would likely constitute a rather unfavorable end to our deployment. Leaving our heavy party-poppers behind for the sake of speed, we advanced with only our service pistols and combat knives. I wouldn’t be able to count on Gaz’s covering sniper fire and she wouldn’t benefit from my shotgun making clearing rooms a breeze. This time, both of us were getting up close and personal.

The cartel trucks filled with murderous and revenge-fueled hombres provided a fair amount of distraction, drawing off most of the soldiers stationed at the base, but we weren’t going to take any chances with our approach. Using the rocky terrain to our advantage, we found an unmanned break in the fence we could both squeeze through. I’m glad we didn’t have to climb the fourteen-foot perimeter, particularly with the spools of razorwire bundled at its top. Stealthing between supply crates and behind semi-permanent tent buildings, our focus was the command post near the center of the base.

The sounds of an escalating firefight near the front gate gave us pause – apparently more Unidad soldiers had returned from patrol and joined the fray against the cartel gunmen. It seemed like everyone on the base had large-caliber automatic weapons, ourselves notably excluded. If we caught any unwanted attention, the odds would turn from bad to far worse. Even with stealth on our side, we needed to hit that HQ fast – it was a toss-up whether or not the military would come out on top over the cartel, and we didn’t want to be caught here by either side.

All eyes focused on the central parade ground, Gaz and I made our approach to the rear of our target building. If the lone guard stationed there had been more perceptive – and not craning his head to try and see the main firefight out front – he could have been problematic for us. “Luck is where preparation meets opportunity” Gaz was fond of saying; something she picked up from an old CO of hers. Luckily we were able to enter the building unmolested and unnoticed.

Most of the Unidad bases we had opportunity to explore during this operation had a similar layout, inside and out. The door we used lead directly to the rear stairwell, where resistance was apt to be lightest. Once inside we could still hear the unrelenting skirmish out front, and we hastened, taking the stairs two at a time. It had been a sound tactical choice, using the back entrance – we heard the base commander order most of his administrative staff out the front to bolster the troops already engaged.

On the third floor landing, we paused and reconfirmed our orders. Control came back five-by-five – verify the commander’s identity and make sure the cartel wouldn’t be able to positively ID him, should they take the base. A bad day for El Comadante, but far better than what the cartel would have done. We cracked the door ajar and listened – he was on the phone, yelling. Probably demanding support or evac or other aid. I don’t know for sure, since as I said, my Spanish is terrible. Either way, he sounded excited and was gesticulating wildly. Gaz and I made our entry, confirming he was alone in the reinforced office, watching the battle below.

A silenced shot killed his desk phone, leaving him with a dead receiver in hand. Momentarily stunned, his training quickly took over and he cautiously, deliberately raised both hands, turning to face us. After all, if we were there to kill him, he must have reasoned, wouldn’t we have done so with the first shot? I kept my pistol trained on him as Gaz snapped a picture of his confused expression, sending it up the chain for confirmation. “The Americans?” he asked, in genuine surprise. Apparently word had gotten around that we were still in business.

Instead of answering I glanced at Gaz, keeping my aim steady. Her phone buzzed and she gave me the nod. The next shot left a small hole just over his left eye, his unanswered question lingering in the air even as he slumped unceremoniously to the floor. With Gaz watching the doors I carefully set a frag grenade right next to his cooling and blood-rimmed face. In about five seconds he wouldn’t be recognizable to anyone, just as ordered. If the soldiers won the day they’d question how anyone got up here, and if the cartel came out on top they’d be denied positive identification of their prize.

In the movies there’s always a moment before the kill shot, maybe some sort of final banter between the good and bad guys. Like I keep reminding you, this isn’t some Hollywood screenplay. Heck, there aren’t even any real “good guys” in this story at all. In the real world most questions don’t get answered, and pretty much nobody knows why or how the end comes. It’s not glamorous, it’s  nothing you’d put on a greeting card, it’s nothing kids will ever learn at school. Life just is, and then it isn’t, and usually you don’t get to choose.

I want to go back to talking about the kind of people, the right mentality, that makes for a good long-term operator. Having an average level of compassion or wanting endings wrapped up nice and sensibly aren’t in the job description. Like I’ve said – by and large this job has to be taken at face value; clock in, do what you’re told, and have an opinion on your own time.

No matter how stressful the firefight was, or how cold the execution ended up being, neither Gaz nor I had trouble sleeping that night. It was just another day working for Uncle Sam.