Dan Tackett heard the phone vibrating on the workbench, even over the faint strains of Charley Crockett coming from the small speaker on the shelf above, but he ignored it. One thing at a time. He wasn’t going to leave the job half-finished just to answer the phone.
He finished tightening down the housing and stepped back from the bike appreciatively. Hondas weren’t his favorite to work on, but he was good at it, and he had to admit that this Shadow Phantom was a nice-looking bike.
Looking around the shop, he nodded. It never quite ceased to amaze him, even after five years, how much he’d managed to build. He knew he couldn’t have done it without Mitchell Price’s payoff after the Anambas mission had gone horribly awry, but all the same, there’d been a time when he’d wondered if he’d ever be good for anything but packing a gun in dangerous and far distant places.
It had been that wonder, as he’d been working a dead-end job and trying to maintain the lifestyle he’d had before his first wife had died, that had led him to that ill-fated contract. After the hell he’d gone through on those islands, cut off, hunted, sure they’d been left out to dry, he’d promised that he’d find another way.
And he had. This shop was all his, and he was doing a hell of a booming business. He glanced at the three other bikes lined up against the far wall for repair, knowing that there were about twelve more after that on the waiting list. He was good at this, and while it meant long hours, he returned the repairs fast, and he was rapidly building a name for himself in the local community and beyond.
He heard the car in the driveway outside. Cassie was back with the kids. He swiped a rag off the bench and started getting the oil and grime off his hands as he looked down at the phone, activating the lock screen with a knuckle.
He frowned. He didn’t recognize the number. It didn’t look like a US number at all. But whoever was calling, they’d left a voicemail.
Probably another scammer. But he was curious. Satisfied that he had most of the grease off his hands, he lifted the phone, unlocked it, and listened to the message.
He felt himself go very still, as a voice out of the past, scratchy and distorted but unmistakable, nevertheless, begged him for help. Cassie, with Tom in tow, eager to see what his dad had been working on, found him like that, the phone in his hand, his eyes far away.
“Dan?” Cassie Tackett knew that look. She’d worn it herself, more than once. She and Dan had gotten together about a year after the mission to the Anambas, a mission where they’d both nearly been killed. They’d been married less than six months after they’d started dating, and fortunately, Tom, at least, had taken to his stepmother eagerly. Amy had been a bit of a harder sell, but Dan and Cassie had developed a bond that was a rarity, and Amy was a good kid. She’d come around. “What’s wrong?”
Dan forced his eyes over to her, then just wordlessly handed her the phone. She looked down at the number next to the voicemail, frowning. “Who is it?”
“It’s Vernon.” Dan was frankly surprised at how even and steady his voice was, after what he’d just heard.
Cassie looked up and searched her husband’s face. “He’s not coming over to visit, is he?” Vernon and Max had both been by a few times over the years, though they had rarely talked about what they were doing for work. They both knew that both men had agreed to keep working for Price after the PMC magnate had pulled them off the island just ahead of the PLAN’s commandos. Neither had asked, and neither man had volunteered. But they knew that it wasn’t tame, whatever they were doing. It couldn’t be.
“He needs help.” Dan met his wife’s eyes, almost afraid of what he’d see there, but he saw only Cassie. Only the compassion and the certainty that had been the only thing to get her through that nightmare on the Anambas, when most of the other female “operators” had folded, panicked, or been killed out of hand.
Cassie nodded, and listened to the message. “Do you know anything about this Brannigan guy? Or Chavez?”
Dan shook his head. “Never heard of either of ‘em. But I’ve been out of the game for a while, and if Vernon says to get in touch with them…”
Cassie nodded. “Tom, go inside with your sister for a minute. I need to talk to your father.”
As soon as Tom had shut the door behind him, though the eight-year-old boy had been watching his dad with some amount of trepidation on his face, she took both of Dan’s hands in hers. “I know that look. I know what you’re worried about. I know we both promised that we were done with all that. But it’s Vernon. For all we know, it’s Max, too. We both owe them our lives. As much as all of us owe you our lives.” She squeezed his hands. “This is different.”
Dan nodded. It was going to suck, leaving the kids behind, after promising he’d never leave again, but his wife was right. There was an obligation there.
He couldn’t help but wonder if Vernon had known that he’d place that on his shoulders when he’d called him. But he knew the big man too well, after those days and nights in the jungle. That wasn’t Vernon’s way. He wasn’t manipulative that way. If it had been Jenny, now…
It had been a long time since he’d thought of that cold-hearted, vicious woman. She’d disappeared into the jungle, never to be seen again, all her Machiavellian schemes and tough chick attitude swallowed up by the harsh realities of combat.
He squeezed Cassie’s hands in return. “I’ll go look up this Chavez guy, see what I can find. We might be on a short timeline.” He looked down at her. “You’re not going this time. I’ve got to, but I need you to stay here with Amy and Tom. They could stay with Roger and Darlene, but…”
She nodded, though she started to tear up a little. “That might be a little too much like last time. I understand.” She dashed a tear away from her eye. “I’m not up to another tramp through the jungle, anyway.” She hugged him suddenly, squeezing tightly. “Just be careful, okay?”
It was a good thing, John Brannigan reflected, that he was a regular at the Rocking K diner as it was, and had met numerous old buddies, Marines and otherwise, there over the last few years since he’d built the cabin up the mountain. Otherwise, people might start to ask questions about his regular meetings there, usually followed by his absence for several weeks.
Hector Chavez was sitting at the usual back table, which Ginger and Mama Taft had practically made his private reserve. Hector was looking a little healthier than the first time he’d come out here. He’d lost weight, and he was dressing more like a local these days, as opposed to an outsider in a suit. Hector had been a hell of a Marine Officer, and would have made a decent general, if his heart hadn’t prompted an early retirement.
Just as well for everyone involved that he hadn’t pinned on that star. His own maritime security concern was relatively lucrative, but more importantly, he’d turned into one hell of a facilitator for the much more covert mercenary band who called themselves Brannigan’s Blackhearts.
The man sitting next to him was younger than either of them, probably in his late thirties, early forties. Brown haired, clean shaven, he was fit, without a paunch under his t-shirt. His hands, folded on the tabletop, were a working man’s hands, scarred and calloused.
But his eyes were different. He was watching everything in the room, checking movement, and his assessment as Brannigan approached betrayed an alertness that Brannigan had usually only seen in seasoned gunfighters. This guy was a meat-eater.
He shook Hector’s hand as he slid into the seat, Ginger already right behind him with his usual cup of coffee. “How’s the family, Hector? This one of your new proteges?”
“Family’s fine.” Chavez waited until Ginger had left with a smile, after patting him on the shoulder. “And Mr. Tackett here isn’t one of mine. He’s the client.”
Brannigan just looked over at the younger man, his eyebrow raised. “Really.”
Tackett was studying him, too. Brannigan knew what he saw. An older man but still hard-muscled, six foot four with broad shoulders that strained the shoulders of any shirt that fit him otherwise. He’d gotten a haircut recently, so his gray hair was cropped neatly short, his thick handlebar mustache a matching silver.
Tackett leaned forward, clasping his hands in front of him. “A friend of mine is in trouble. He gave me your name, said that you could help me go get him out. His name is Vernon White.”
Brannigan’s eyes narrowed. Something about that name rang a bell.
“He’s been working for Mitchell Price for the last several years.” Tackett chuckled wryly and ran a hand over his face, so he didn’t notice the recognition in Brannigan’s eyes. “Hell, I worked for Price for a while, too, before we knew he was actually running that show.” He took a deep breath. “I don’t know a lot of details. He was clearly under fire when he called me on a sat phone and left a voicemail message. He said they were in trouble, they were in Kyrgyzstan, and to get in touch with you.” He looked up at Brannigan, a pensive look in his eyes. “He said to tell you that it was ‘our old friends from Chad.’”
Brannigan felt a shock go through him at that. He glanced at Chavez, who just nodded. Tackett had already told him, but from the look on Tackett’s face, he hadn’t told him exactly what that meant.
If the Humanity Front had come out of whatever hole they’d crawled into after Argentina, then it was damned near a certainty that the Blackhearts would take this job. Especially if it meant helping the guys who’d helped them take down the Front’s biological weapons experiments in Chad.
“Do you know where in Kyrgyzstan?”
Tackett nodded. “He sent me a grid. It’s supposed to be an old, abandoned Soviet base.”
“Sounds like someplace those assholes would set up,” Chavez noted as he took a sip of his own coffee.
“What assholes?” Tackett looked from man to man, frowning. He took a deep breath. “Look, it’s obvious that you guys know more about what’s going on than I do. I’ve been out of the game for a while. I swore I’d stay home after we got back from… well, from the last job I did. We went through hell out there, and I was going to stay home with my kids. But Vernon and I… Like I said. We went through hell. I owe him my life.”
Brannigan leaned back in his seat, cradling his coffee cup in his hands. “What do you know about the Humanity Front?”
Tackett’s eyes narrowed. “They’re a big shot NGO, I know that much. Everybody wants to cozy up to them, establish their philanthropist cred.” His eyes widened slightly. “Wait. You mean…”
“Yeah, their philanthropy’s a front. We met up with your boy Vernon, along with Mitchell Price and a few others, in Chad a while back, looking into the disappearance of some doctors from the WHO. Turned out they’d gotten in the way of a Humanity Front biological weapons test.” He sipped the coffee. “That was when we found out that they were also the ones behind the attacks in the Southwest a few years back.”
Tackett’s eyebrows climbed toward his hairline. “Holy shit. Never heard about any of that.”
“That tends to happen when the terrorist group has bottomless pockets and most of the elites of the world are eating out of its hand,” Chavez observed dryly.
“So, I’ve got a question.” Brannigan pinned Tackett with a stare. “If this Vernon White is working for Mitchell Price—which he was the last time we saw him—why call you? I would imagine that Price has some pretty considerable resources of his own. Why would he call you and ask you to find us?”
Tackett spread his hands. “Hell if I know. And believe me, I’ve been trying to figure it out, myself. Sure, Vernon and I trust each other. Hard not to, after what we went through. The only possible explanation I can think of is that Vernon thinks that Price’s organization is compromised. Hell, I don’t even know what kind of resources you’ve got.”
“More than you’d think, but fewer than you’re probably expecting or hoping for.” Brannigan ran a hand over his mustache, thinking. This was a thorny problem. If the Humanity Front really was stirring again, he wanted a piece. But he seriously doubted that Tackett had the resources to even begin to pay for this kind of op. “We tend to operate on the down-low, doing deniable jobs in shadowy, unpleasant places.”
“Sounds about right.” Tackett winced a little. “I can’t pay you. I’m sure Price can, but I’m hardly in a position to access any of his accounts.”
“Don’t worry.” Chavez grinned. “We’ve had some dealings with Price before. And I’ve got some really good lawyers. We’ll take it out of his hide.”
“So, you’ll do it?” Tackett still looked tense, even though Brannigan had already essentially said yes.
Brannigan nodded. “Provided enough of the team are on board. We’ll need you to provide whatever intel he gave you. The message itself would be good. We might be able to figure some things out from it. I’ve got a couple nerds on the team who can tease all sorts of things out from recordings, and even the sat phone number.”
Tackett nodded, though now he was looking at the table. When he looked up, his jaw was set and his eyes were hard. “You’ve got it. There’s just one condition. I’m coming with you.”
Brannigan didn’t react, except to raise an eyebrow. It wasn’t usual to bring a client along, but Tackett wasn’t their usual client. He also remembered Vernon talking about someone named Dan, whom he’d credited with saving his life. He suspected this was the very man. He clearly wasn’t soft, clearly had a history as a gunfighter, and they’d taken new Blackhearts on based on almost as slim a recommendation. Hell, he’d hired Herc Javakhishvili purely on Ben Drake’s say-so.
“Fair enough.” He waved Ginger over to take his order. He was hungry. “It’s going to take a couple days to get the team together. Keep in touch, and I’ll give you the time and place where we’ll do our planning and knock the rust off with some drills.”
Tackett looked relieved as he nodded. Brannigan glanced at Chavez, who nodded slightly as Ginger came up, smiling, her pad already in her hand. He’d get started on the logistics as soon as possible.
So, the utopian psychopaths are at it again, huh?
I wonder what nightmares they’re cooking up this time.