I need to get up. Joe Flanagan looked up at the sunlight streaming through the window with some bemusement. With rare exceptions, he was usually up a good hour before the sun, this time of year.
But as he turned to see Rachel—now Rachel Flanagan—lying next to him, breathing softly, he took a deep breath and settled back on the pillow. It’s not every day that a man has his honeymoon, and while there were chores that still had to happen that day, he was going to relax a little.
After a while, though, he started to get restless, and carefully slipped out from under the covers, swinging his feet down to the floor before quietly getting dressed and padding into the kitchen, starting the water boiling for coffee. He turned as movement caught his eye, to see Rachel, wrapped in her bathrobe, her hair disheveled but lovely, smiling at him from the doorway.
“You’re not quite as sneaky as you think, hon.”
While Flanagan was ordinarily something of a stoic, his wife drew a grin. She’d had that effect on him ever since Kevin Curtis had introduced them, unwittingly setting events in motion that had led to this point.
She joined him at the stove, and he folded her into his arms, marveling that he, of all people, was now a married man, with a wife who’d been happy to join him on his little backwoods homestead. Sure, the Blackhearts paychecks were still necessary, but the place was almost self-sufficient already. He was still working on getting the garden producing sufficiently, but Rachel was just as excited about that as he was, probably more.
The pot started to hiss, and he disengaged himself to get the coffee started. Rachel, meanwhile, though not without letting her hand linger on his back for a moment, set about getting breakfast ready.
They were about halfway through when an engine rumbled outside, and tires crunched on the gravel driveway. Flanagan looked up, his face clouded. They weren’t expecting visitors.
“I’m sure it’s fine.” Rachel sounded more hopeful than convinced, though, and Flanagan slipped his 1911 into his belt at the small of his back as he stood up and moved to the front door.
He relaxed slightly when he saw that it was Brannigan’s truck, but only slightly. It was entirely possible that the Colonel was coming by to have some coffee and shoot the breeze for a little bit. They didn’t live that far apart, and he and Rachel had been up to see Brannigan at least once since the wedding. But something in his gut suspected that wasn’t it.
He glanced back at Rachel. “It’s John.” He saw the same combination of relief and concern cross her face. Rachel knew what he did for a living. She had accepted it from the beginning, but like all women, she worried about him when he was gone, and the anticipation wasn’t exactly fun, either.
Brannigan parked and got out, wearing his big sheepskin against the early spring chill. There was still snow under the trees not far up the mountain from Flanagan’s cabin, and he was sure that Brannigan still had some on the ground at his place. The Colonel lived even higher up.
He opened the door before Brannigan could knock. “Morning, John. Come on in. Coffee’s still hot.”
From the look on Brannigan’s face, he knew immediately that this wasn’t just a social call. A part of him felt a twinge of anger. Couldn’t the next job wait two damned weeks? He and Rachel were still getting settled in together.
“Thanks, Joe. Rachel.” Brannigan stepped inside, shedding his coat and hanging it on the rack next to the door as Flanagan shut the door and moved to the table, slipping the pistol out of his belt and putting it back in the drawer where he’d kept it, still within easy reach from the table. Brannigan noticed, an amused glint in his eye, as he sat down.
Brannigan leaned on the table. “I’m not going to beat around the bush, because this might be time sensitive.” He looked up. “Rachel, I think you should stay and listen. This affects you, too. You’re part of the family now.” She nodded, her face tight and a little pale, and made no move to stand up.
He looked at Flanagan, who was still on his feet, leaning against the counter, his arms folded. “Hector got a call from a fella by the name of Dan Tackett. Said he needed to talk to me. It seems that Mitchell Price’s special team of operators has gotten into some trouble in Kyrgyzstan.”
“Doesn’t Price effectively have bottomless pockets? What’s he need us for?” Even as he asked the question, Flanagan started to suspect he knew.
“Seems that Vernon guy we worked with in Chad—who is one of the operators who needs rescue—believes that Price’s operation in that region is compromised. Thinks they were sold out. Which is why he called Tackett, who’s been retired from the PMC business since the little mission in the Anambas that Vernon told us about.” Brannigan watched Flanagan closely. “Which is where the clincher comes in. He told Tackett to tell me that ‘our friends from Chad’ were involved.”
Flanagan felt himself tense as his expression went hard. “Are they really?”
Brannigan nodded. “It sure sounds like it. Abandoned Soviet base in the Tian Shan mountains, a non-governmental force that can buy off not only the local government, but even Price’s outfit. Kind of narrows things down, doesn’t it?”
The Colonel looked over at Rachel, but she didn’t ask the obvious question. When he looked over at Flanagan, the bearded man only shrugged. There were some things he’d figured she needed to know, and it wasn’t like they were necessarily operating under government secrecy rules anymore.
“So, we’re going?” Flanagan asked.
“We’re going. Got an extra shooter, too. Tackett’s coming along.” When Flanagan raised an eyebrow, Brannigan shrugged. “He said it was a condition of giving us the coordinates, he still seems to be in good shape, and if he’s the ‘Dan’ Vernon talked about in Chad, he might well be an asset. I wasn’t going to turn down another gun.”
Flanagan glanced at Rachel. “I thought Vernon said that Dan retired from the PMC business to be with his kids.”
“That’s what he said, too. Apparently, Vernon being in trouble is enough to bring him out of retirement.”
Rachel didn’t wait for the question. She just nodded. “I know. Just…make sure you come back.”
With what might have been a faint sigh of resignation, Flanagan nodded. “Split the calls again?”
Brannigan stood. “Split the calls. And let’s tighten up the timeline, if we can. If our Humanity Front buddies are coming out of their holes again, we might not have time to dawdle.”
Carlo Santelli answered the phone immediately. He was home alone for a change, having just gotten back from delivering his latest restoration, a 1957 Chevrolet 3100, to its owner. That one had been a lot of work, but he’d been proud of the result. Stopping by to see Sam Childress on the way back had been a bonus. Their paralyzed teammate was doing better that week.
“Yessir.” While he knew that Brannigan had only grudgingly gotten a phone at all, let alone a cell phone, Santelli was glad of it. Living in Boston, it meant that he heard from his old CO far more often than he had before the Khadarkh mission. Brannigan had showed up on his doorstep out of the blue just before that one, the first time he’d seen or heard from the man in a couple of years.
How things have changed since then. Back then, Santelli had been pining away for a mission, more than happy to get a sense of purpose again, working for the best officer he’d ever known, even as his relationship felt like it was falling apart. Now he was a family man, relatively financially secure thanks to the ops they’d run, and increasingly torn between home and the mission.
“We’ve got a job, Carlo. Looks like it might entail some pretty creative logistics this time. The client can’t pay up front.” Santelli had gone from the senior NCO of the Blackhearts to primarily their logistics and support guy the last couple of missions. He was still getting used to it, and after the Colombia job, he wasn’t entirely sure how comfortable he was with it. Again, he was a man torn between two sets of responsibilities.
The wheels were already turning, though, as he heard that. They had some reserves they could draw on for this sort of scenario, but it could get tight. “We got an AO, sir?”
“Kyrgyzstan.” Brannigan paused for a moment. “And Carlo? It looks like the opposition might be our ‘old friends.’”
That brought Santelli’s eyes all the way open. He didn’t need Brannigan to explain what “old friends” meant. There was one organization that Brannigan’s Blackhearts had come up against repeatedly. The Humanity Front. The biggest, most popular philanthropic NGO in the world was also a ruthless terrorist organization with their own twisted view of a “perfect world.”
“I’m in, sir. Sam’s being well taken care of, so I can leave tonight.” He was already thinking, and not just about the logistics of the mission.
He’d agreed to stay back last time, in no small part due to his worries about his family, and what it would mean to Melissa and Carlo Jr. if he never came back. If the Humanity Front was involved, though…
He had a grudge against those bastards. In no small part because of the state Sam Childress was currently in.
“How’s Sam?” Brannigan knew that Santelli was checking on Childress on almost a daily basis.
“He’s good. Pretty sure he’s smitten with one of his caregivers. She’s pretty cute.” There was something bittersweet in saying that. Childress was paralyzed from the waist down, and had sustained severe brain damage from his torture at the hands of Humanity Front operatives several years before. He’d never be the man he’d been before, and Santelli remembered that man from years ago, when Sergeant Major Santelli had had Corporal Childress standing tall in front of his desk more than once.
“Will he be okay for a couple days?”
“Sir, he’s in good hands. He’ll be fine.” Santelli wasn’t going to say right then that he wasn’t inclined to make this only a couple of days. He’d kicked himself too hard after finding out what the boys had gone through in Colombia, and if the Humanity Front was involved, he wasn’t staying back for this one.
“Great. See you soon.”
“Yes, sir.” Santelli pocketed the phone and headed upstairs to pack.
The door cracked open at a knock, and an eye peered out through the opening. With a sigh of relief, Glenn Radner pulled the door open and ushered Hank Brannigan inside. They clasped in a brief bear hug. “Damn, it’s good to see you, brother.”
“I got here as fast as I could.” Hank Brannigan looked an awful lot like a younger, slightly smaller version of his father. He’d let his hair grow a bit, and he now sported a short, dark brown beard. He was a long way from the Marine Corps grooming standards that his old friend still maintained, but he’d put some serious mileage, physically and otherwise, behind him since leaving the Marine Corps.
Radner stepped away, turning toward the kitchen table, where his wife, younger than either of them by about a year, sat wringing her hands. Sheila wasn’t a particularly handsome woman to start with, but the fear on her face aged her by about ten years.
He took a deep breath. “Look, brother, I don’t know how to say this. What I asked you here for…” He hung his head. “I don’t have anything to go to the cops with. Not yet. And I’m afraid that by the time I do, she’s gonna be dead.”
Hank just nodded. “Where are they?”
A part of him shared Radner’s surprise. A couple years before, he’d been a Marine officer, and a good one. He’d bent the rules a time or two, but going outside the chain, outside the framework of how things are done would have still been something he would have hesitated over. Not that they were necessarily contemplating breaking the law here, but he understood why Radner had called him.
He saw things a little differently after being a Blackheart for a couple of missions.
“As far as we know, she’s at his apartment. She hasn’t been home in three nights.” Radner sounded like a beaten man already.
Hank frowned. “And the cops won’t do anything?”
Radner spread his hands helplessly. “She’s seventeen. He hasn’t seriously injured her, and she’s wrapped around his little finger. She won’t talk to them any more than she’ll talk to us. They’ve got nothing.”
“And you’re sure he’s abusing her?” Hank had known Alice Radner since she’d been ten years old. He had to force himself to step back and think calmly about this. Think tactically and strategically.
Think like his father would.
John Brannigan would be thinking about all the repercussions and contingencies. If they hit the boyfriend’s place and he wasn’t abusing Alice, and it was all just Radner’s fears, there could be some serious consequences. On the other hand, if the cops had already dusted their hands of the situation, and Alice really was in danger, inaction could see her dead before sunrise.
“We’ve seen the bruises, Hank. She tries to hide them, but we’ve seen them. The fact that she hasn’t been home in days…”
“Isn’t a good sign,” Hank finished for him. “How far’s the apartment?”
“About three miles from here.” Radner looked a little shell shocked at how fast Hank was taking charge.
“Let’s go.” Hank stepped toward the door, not bothering to check the P365 in his waistband. That could get him in trouble, given where they were, but he’d learned to subscribe to the age-old adage, “Better to beg forgiveness than ask permission.”
As well as, “Better tried by twelve than carried by six.”
He wasn’t sure, as Radner quickly threw on a jacket and followed him, if his father would really approve. This was somewhat impulsive, but if Alice was in danger, he didn’t want to wait on the cops, especially if the cops had already found no reason to get involved, and might dismiss a call as a scared father who didn’t actually have any evidence.
The neighborhood got steadily worse as they moved away from the Radner house. The houses got more run down, and soon it was just row on row of government housing, along with the associated decay. The dark hid some of it, but a lot of it simply couldn’t be hidden.
The loud music coming from the apartment as they approached couldn’t drown out the yelling and screaming, or the crash as something was thrown against the wall.
“Call the cops. Now.” Hank was already moving to the door. He hoped it wasn’t locked, but figured it probably was.
This could get nasty in a hurry, especially since he was carrying a concealed firearm, but they had to get Alice out of there.
The door wasn’t locked, somewhat to his surprise, and as another shouted curse was punctuated by a crash that shook the whole building, he kicked the door in.
The main room was dimly lit, mainly because the floor lamp was on the floor, having been flung there along with what looked like about half the furniture and a whole lot of other detritus. Alice was huddled in the fetal position, bloodied and bruised. The boyfriend, long-haired, skinny-fat, wearing a stained wifebeater and too-large cargo shorts, stood over her, his fists clenched. He looked up in surprise as Hank filled the doorway, and from the look in his eyes, Hank could see that he wasn’t quite all there. Definitely chemically enhanced. Awesome. This could totally go sideways in the next two seconds. Still, he didn’t draw his weapon, not yet.
“Alice, it’s Hank Brannigan. I need you to come with me.” He used his command voice, which he owed to his father and his platoon sergeants.
“She’s not going anywhere!” Discount Kid Rock took a step forward, and then Hank drew.
He’d always been good with a pistol. His dad had made sure of that. His time with the Blackhearts had forced him to hone every combat skill he’d ever learned, not only because of the realities of violence far from support with a very small team, but also just so that he didn’t get completely outclassed by the older, more experienced mercs. He snatched his shirt out of the way and a split second later, the boyfriend was staring down the barrel of a SIG P365 9mm.
“Back up.” If he’d been at work, he probably would have shot the younger man without hesitation, but this was a different situation. “Nobody needs to die tonight.”
The boyfriend seemed to suddenly get much more sober. His eyes cleared a little as they got wide and scared. He hadn’t even seen that draw coming.
“Alice, come to me.” Hank stayed where he was, the pistol trained, unmoving, on the bridge of the boyfriend’s nose.
With a sniffle and a faint moan of pain, she got up, moving haltingly toward him. He steered her past him and out the door, to her father’s waiting arms. Hank backed out the door, keeping the boyfriend covered until he was out of sight.
“Are the cops coming?” He honestly wasn’t sure, given what he’d seen of the neighborhood so far.
“Maybe.” Radner was holding his daughter close as she sobbed. “It could be half an hour. Could be an hour.”
Hank thought about it for a second. He could hear the boyfriend raging inside the apartment, and knew that he was going to be in the middle of a gunfight in the next few seconds. “Let’s go, then. Before this gets worse.”
They beat a hasty retreat for the street and Radner’s car. Hank kept the pistol in hand but under his jacket as they moved under the handful of still-functioning streetlights and got in the car. He could hear the boyfriend yelling, and a gunshot echoed through the neighborhood, louder than even the thumping music that hadn’t paused for a moment during the confrontation.
The fact that the music still didn’t pause, and no one seemed to react to the gunshot, spoke volumes about this neighborhood.
With Alice in the back seat, Radner slipped behind the wheel while Hank got in the passenger seat, rolling down the window so that he could engage if the boyfriend came out after them.
He was coming. Hank got a glimpse of the white wife beater in the glow of the flickering light above the apartment building’s entrance, but Radner was already pulling away. The young thug took a couple of shots at them, but they were already moving, and Hank decided, despite himself, that returning fire would be counterproductive at that point.
He’d turned back forward as they rounded the corner and Radner sped up on the way toward the highway, and his phone vibrated. He pulled it out of his pocket to see that he’d missed a call, and there was a voicemail message.
It was from his dad. He didn’t need to listen to it right away. In fact, he didn’t dare, because as sketchy as tonight had been, he didn’t need Radner asking questions if he overheard what the message was, presuming it was a job.
“Are you going to be all right?” he asked as he tucked the phone away.
“I think so. He hasn’t dared come to the house yet.” Radner glanced over his shoulder. “I hope he doesn’t know for sure where it is. I’ve got a 12-gauge, anyway.”
“Good. I’m going to need to go. Something’s come up.”
Fortunately, Radner didn’t ask questions, too focused on his gratitude and taking care of his daughter.
“Shooter ready! Stand by!” John Wade took another breath, then bellowed, “THREAT!”
The dozen shooters on the line snapped their carbines up and opened fire on the row of steel targets at twenty yards. It wasn’t what Wade would have considered a challenging range, but this was a beginner’s course, and for most of the students, their first time shooting under low light conditions. The ragged volley of gunfire echoed across the valley, punctuated by the ring of bullets disintegrating against reactive steel.
“Threat!” The drill was repeated, the noise thundering out over the hills. Fortunately, what had once been Don Hart’s farm, left to the Blackhearts’ training company when he’d been killed in Chad, was a long way from any of the neighbors, so they didn’t really have to worry about noise complaints.
John Wade being himself, such complaints would not have gone especially well for the complainers.
“Threat!” The students opened fire a third time, and Wade was grudgingly gratified to see that nobody missed. The steel plates weren’t large, making for at least some challenge, even with long guns at twenty yards.
“Safe, let ‘em hang!” George Jenkins was standing off to the left end of the firing line, keeping a close eye on the students. Wade watched him carefully for a moment, then nodded with some satisfaction.
Jenkins had been something of the black sheep of Brannigan’s Blackhearts, at least ever since Aziz had been killed on the Tourmaline Delta GOPLAT, relinquishing the “That Guy” title. A former SEAL—which already put him somewhat on the retired Ranger’s bad side—Jenkins had been the perennial screwup, getting in all sorts of trouble when off the job, and being slightly less reliable than any of the senior Blackhearts would have liked on the job. But he seemed to be really making an effort to walk the straight and narrow lately, especially since Wade had grudgingly given him a second chance when he’d restarted the training company they’d put together with Hart, several years before.
Would it last? Wade didn’t know. His angry, cynical outlook told him that it probably wouldn’t. But he was an honest enough man to appreciate it for what it was while it lasted.
His phone vibrated in his pocket. He waved at Jenkins to take over, and walked back behind the square bay, pulling the phone out. Signal on Hart’s farm was sketchy at best. He was surprised that a call or message had gotten through at all.
It was a text from Flanagan. Wade felt a grin start to spread across his face. It had been a while since Colombia. It was getting time for a job again, and now they had one.
He glanced over his shoulder again, then tucked the phone in his pocket. He’d tell Jenkins after they finished up for the day. They were committed for this class, but they might have to cancel next week’s.
There was no way Wade was going to trade the chance to get paid to kill people for a civilian carbine class. And for all his faults, Jenkins wouldn’t, either.