Well, there’s less than a week until Burmese Crossfire comes out. One last peek before it’s go time.
Joe Flanagan was not a man given to many words or noticeable outbursts of emotion. He was often best described as “laconic,” and he took some pride in that fact. He was a quiet man, often a gray man, passing unnoticed through the crowd, and he liked it that way. He and Brannigan were of similar temperaments in that respect, as both preferred the wilderness to the hustle and bustle of the city.
Right at the moment, though, Flanagan’s eyes were smoldering, and his jaw was tight under his thick, black beard. He was not a happy man.
He checked his watch again. He knew he was in the right place. The Vegas apartment complex hadn’t been hard to find. It had been a long drive to get there, and now Curtis was late. He would have let the man make his own way, but he’d been hiking in Utah, so he’d been close enough to swing through Vegas and pick the other man up on the way up to Colonel Brannigan’s place in Idaho. But they still had a long way to go, and here he was, sitting at the curb, and there was no sign of the little man.
He pulled his phone out of his pocket. “Where the hell are you?” he typed.
Joe! Just in time! I need extract! I’m in the Blue Lagoon! Hurry!
“Son of a…” Flanagan had to fight the temptation to punch the steering wheel. “Leave it to him to go to a damned bar and get into trouble now of all times,” he muttered, as he put the truck in gear and headed down the street. Only having something of a working knowledge of Curtis’ favorite hangouts in Las Vegas gave him a general idea of where he was going, without looking at a map.
Ordinarily, it would seem to be too early for anyone to be in a bar, but it was Vegas, it was mid-afternoon, it was a weekend, and it was Curtis. The man had never seen a bar that he hadn’t wanted to go into, and Flanagan was pretty sure he knew just why the little man was in trouble, too.
He was fuming and ready for a fight when he stalked through the doors of the Blue Lagoon.
The place was dim, lit by blue neon lights set above the bar and in abstract patterns on the ceiling. The walls, ceiling, and most of the floor were black, except for the mirrors behind the bar, which just reflected the blue light even more. The atmosphere was somewhat relieved by the Nevada sunlight coming in the tinted windows at the front, but not by much.
It was easy enough to pick out where Curtis was, even though he couldn’t see the little man behind the knot of belligerents gathered around him. He could hear the gambler and erstwhile machinegunner’s slightly high-pitched voice clearly enough.
Say what he will about Kevin Curtis’ judgement, he could never accuse his old friend of being a coward.
“Oh, look at you, big man!” Curtis was saying. “Bow up all you want, it don’t matter to me. Or to her, apparently!”
The other man said something, probably intended to sound threatening.
“Oh, look at me, I’m so tough, in my Hard Rock Café t-shirt with the sleeves cut off,” Curtis mocked. Even without seeing him, Flanagan could picture Curtis puffing his chest out and pulling his chin in to ridicule the man. “Man, get outta here with that noise! If you were half the tough guy you think you are, she wouldn’t have needed to get to know me, now would she?’
Flanagan was halfway across the floor when the man raised a fist. “Try it, bitch!” Curtis called. “See what happens!”
The man let the punch fly. At the same moment, his half-dozen buddies also converged, fists flying.
Flanagan waded in.
Flanagan was not a fancy fighter. If asked what his preferred martial art was, he’d answer, “Brawling.” He made up for a lack of finesse with sheer ferocity and blunt-force trauma. He had said once, “I’m not a great grappler. But I can hit people.”
He grabbed the first man by the shoulder, spun him around, and landed a vicious uppercut to his chin, following it up with a fast one-two to his face, rocking his already rattled brains with the powerful punches. He kept his elbows in, putting his full weight behind each punch, driving his fists through the other man’s face. His opponent, already nearly unconscious from the first blow, crumpled.
A second man, realizing that they were suddenly under attack from a different quarter, turned and tried to grab him. Flanagan stomped down on the arch of the man’s foot at the same time he wrenched an arm free and smashed an elbow into his face. The man let go and reeled away, bleeding.
Curtis was giving as good as he was getting, too. He might have been short, but Curtis was a solid, rippling mass of ebony muscle, and he knew how to use it. Out of the corner of his eye, Flanagan saw the smaller man hammer a rapid series of punches into an attacker’s midsection, then rear back and hammer a headbutt into the face of another man who’d grabbed him from behind.
Another man, taller and leaner than either of the two that Flanagan had already laid out, stepped in, throwing a quick jab that got past his guard to strike his nose, making his eyes water. Two follow-up punches rocked him further, one of them opening up his cheekbone, and he felt blood trickling into his beard. He swung in reply, and the man blocked it with a forearm and hit him again.
It wasn’t the first time Flanagan had gotten hit. It hurt, and his head was starting to pound, but it just made him mad. Since he’d already been angry when he’d walked in the door, that was saying something.
Now, a lot of men get sloppy in a fight when they get mad. Flanagan didn’t. He just got more focused, more intent on hurting the guy who’d just pissed him off.
Shrugging off any further blows, Flanagan walked straight into the man, swinging. Haymakers weren’t his style; they were short, vicious, hooking punches. The man fended off the first two, then missed the right to his solar plexus. He bent nearly double, and couldn’t even try to block the left hook to his ear. His head snapped over and he stumbled, falling into the man who was presently trying to get away from Curtis’ hammering fists.
Suddenly, the fight was all but over. The attackers were staggering back, a girl was screaming, and the bartender was yelling about calling the cops. Flanagan grabbed Curtis by the shirt, caught a wild punch in a vise-like grip, and yelled in the smaller man’s face. “You wanted extract, it’s here!” he bellowed. “Let’s go, before your dumb ass lands us in jail!”
With a strength unsuspected by anyone looking at his wiry build, he propelled his old friend and teammate inexorably toward the door, his jaw set, one eye already starting to show the beginnings of a good shiner, blood running into his beard and down his neck. He shoved the door open with an energy that suggested he’d much rather kick it open, and hurtled Curtis out into the sunlight before following.
He didn’t say anything at first, but just jabbed a pointing finger at his truck as he stalked toward it, climbed in, and slammed the door. Curtis jumped into the passenger’s seat, already crowing.
“Now that was a bar fight!” he said, pumping a fist. “Ow.” He shook his hand. “I must have landed one of those punches wrong.”
Flanagan was furious as he started the truck and threw it into gear, pulling away from the curb. “Middle of the damned day,” he snarled, “we’ve got a meet with the Colonel tomorrow morning, and hours of driving to go before then, and you’ve got to go to a damned bar and get in a fight over a girl.” He spared his attention from the road just long enough to give Curtis a withering glare. “Let me guess; you just met her last night, or maybe the night before, but had to go ‘say your goodbyes?’”
“Brother, if you had seen this girl, or better yet, spent the quality time with her that I did, you’d risk being a little late to say goodbye to her, too,” Curtis countered. “She’s mind-blowing!”
“And apparently somebody else’s girlfriend,” Flanagan growled.
“Not my fault he can’t keep her interested,” Curtis replied.
Flanagan shook his head. “You can’t keep doing this, Kevin,” he said. “Sooner or later, you’re going to end up dead in a ditch, either shot by a jealous boyfriend—or husband—or stabbed by a Latina chick who finds out about your philandering.”
“I can think of worse ways to go than stabbed by a jealous Latina chick,” Curtis mused. “The sex beforehand would have been crazy wild.” He snapped his head around to stare accusingly at Flanagan. “Besides, who are you to give me advice about women? Mister ‘I’ve been single for I don’t remember how many months, because I let the greatest chick who would put up with my morose ass slip through my fingers and won’t let my good friend and buddy Kevin hook me up with a ravishing nymphomaniac?’”
“I’m the guy who just bailed you out of a six-on-one brawl, dumbass,” Flanagan growled in reply.
“And that is what friends do,” Curtis said. “Which is why I’ve been trying to hook you up for months, but noooo, you have to be Quiet Joe, Who Is No Fun.”
Flanagan, still fuming, just glared down the Nevada road as he turned north, toward Idaho and a meeting with Brannigan.
Brannigan watched the knot of screaming cars come around the second to last turn, tires squealing and engines roaring. From his vantage point on the top of the hill, he could see almost the last mile of the track, which twisted and turned through the hills for two and a half miles.
The blue car was in the lead, but the cherry-red one was close behind, hovering only inches from the left rear quarter-panel, pushing hard for the turn. The green and yellow cars were still hanging back, almost a full car length behind the red.
The blue car leaned into the curve, sticking close to the inside of the turn, taking it tight enough that the red car had to downshift and ease back to avoid a collision.
The driver of the red car wasn’t staying in second place, though. He suddenly swerved hard, going wide and cutting the turn as tightly as he could, throttling up with a roar to charge toward the spot just ahead of the blue. Tires squealed and smoke billowed from the track as he barely maintained control, plunging toward the last turn with every bit of speed he could squeeze out of the engine.
The red and blue cars were neck and neck as they hit the last turn, the red car still just barely on the outside, so close to the blue that Brannigan imagined they were almost touching. The turn was coming up fast, and the driver of the red car didn’t back off as they went into it.
As they hit the apex of the curve, both cars suddenly started to skid, their back wheels breaking free of the tarmac with the tightness of the turn. For a moment, it looked like they were both about to lose control and spin off into the embankment on the side of the track.
It apparently looked that way to the blue car’s driver, as well. He held on for a second, then abruptly slowed, fishtailing as he got his car back under control and ceding the lead to the driver of the red car.
That car almost spun out, and for a split second it was going around the curve sideways. But the driver compensated without losing more than a fraction of his speed, swung his rear back around, and gunned it for the finish line.
The green car had almost caught up in that moment’s hesitation as the red driver had gotten his car back under control, but was still half a length behind when the red car zoomed across the finish.
His face pensive, Brannigan started down the hill toward where the red car had finally slowed and stopped. The driver was climbing out, pulling his helmet off.
It took a couple of minutes to get down to the side of the track, but when Roger Hancock looked up to see Brannigan coming down toward the side of the track, a wide grin split his lean, sweat-sheened features. He left the congratulatory crowd behind and strode to meet the taller man, holding out his hand.
Hancock, like most of the rest of the team that had dubbed itself “Brannigan’s Blackhearts,” stood almost a head shorter than their towering commander. Still lean and hard, his thinning hair close-cropped, Hancock kept himself in shape through extreme sports in the same way that Brannigan did by trekking, hunting, and working around his cabin. He clasped Brannigan’s big, calloused hand, turning the handshake into a one-armed bear hug. “Good to see you, John,” he said, still a little out of breath from the adrenaline dump of the race’s finish. “Didn’t expect you to come down here. We got a job?”
“We might have a job,” Brannigan told him. “It’s not a done deal yet; I want to run it by the whole team first. It’s…complicated.” He looked down at the former Gunnery Sergeant. “I really came down here because Tammy told me that you’d be down here this morning when I called the house yesterday, and, well, I think you and I need to have a chat.”
Hancock sobered, and then nodded, running a hand over his stubbled scalp. Together, the two men moved up the hill, farther from the crowd and the track.
Brannigan took a deep breath. “Look, Roger,” he said, “I understand why you’ve got your little hobbies. I do. But I just watched you almost wipe out back there. Sure, you recovered. You got it back under control. But it ain’t always going to work out that way.
“I can’t tell you what to do with your free time. But you’re not going to be any use to me, or to the team, if you’re either in the hospital with a flayed chest and a dozen broken bones, or worse, dead.” He sighed. “You’re the second most senior man I’ve got. And Santelli’s a good right-hand man, but he’s not a leader. You are. If I go down, the boys are going to need you. I’m not telling you to quit. I’m just telling you that if you want to stay on the recall roster, you need to throttle back a little. You got me?”
There might have been a flicker of resentment in Hancock’s eyes, and Brannigan would fully understand if there was. Both of them were grown men, both retirees from the military. No man likes to be lectured. And Brannigan had no desire to lecture. But what he’d seen on that track worried him.
If Hancock’s features had tightened at Brannigan’s words, he didn’t otherwise react, except to nod. “Okay, John. Message received.” He ran a hand over his face and sighed. “You really think I’m going to be your replacement if things go south?”
“I could always pick Curtis…” Brannigan said with a raised eyebrow.
Hancock chuckled, the tension broken. “I’d almost pay money just to see Joe’s reaction,” he said. “Again, message received. Where and when?”
“Same place as we debriefed, tomorrow morning,” Brannigan said. “I don’t want a lot of listening ears around for this one.”
“I’ll be there,” Hancock said. “Just let me get finished up here and I’ll be on my way.”
Sam Childress lunged for the phone as soon as it started ringing. He was sitting in his aunt’s trailer, and he nearly barked his long shins on the furniture getting to the phone.
Childress was a long-limbed, gangly-looking young man, with a flyaway shock of dark hair, a slightly receding chin, and a beak of a nose. He’d never be called handsome, and he tended to look awkward and clumsy, even though anyone who really knew him knew better.
He looked at the number on the phone and let out a loud sigh of relief before answering. “Yes, Sergeant Major,” he said.
“I told you to stop calling me that, Sam,” Santelli said on the other end of the line. “Besides, getting all formal ain’t gonna make me forget the way you mouthed off to First Sergeant Morris.”
“Morris had it coming,” Childress said as he sat back down on the loveseat. “He was a tool.”
“That he was,” Santelli agreed. “And telling him that still wasn’t your job. It was mine.”
“Have we got a job?” Childress asked, unable to keep the note of hope out of his voice.
“We have a meeting,” Santelli said. “Brannigan wants to talk to the team about something. He wouldn’t say what, not over the phone.”
“Oh,” Childress said, feeling something close to a moment of panic. “Okay. Uh…” He took the phone away from his ear again and glanced at it, as if to make sure someone else wasn’t calling.
“Sam,” Santelli said, his voice with that low note of warning in it that Childress was all too familiar with. “You’re not broke again, are you?”
“Uh, not exactly,” Childress replied.
“Define ‘not exactly,’” Santelli pressed him.
“I’ve still got a couple hundred left,” Childress said, nervously running his hand through his hair, glad for a moment that Santelli couldn’t see him doing it.
“What the hell did you buy?” Santelli exploded. “You’re not a private anymore, Sam! You should know better than to blow your paychecks on cars and strippers!”
“It wasn’t that!” Childress protested. “My aunt’s been sick. She’s had bills piling up. I, uh…I might have paid all her bills for her.” He swallowed. “I hadn’t thought there were that many. There wasn’t much left of the pay from the…uh…the other job…when everything was said and done.” He’d almost said, “the Khadarkh job,” but caught himself at the last instant. He realized that saying that name over the phone might not be the best idea. “I was actually waiting on a call from Julie Keating at the temp work office when you called,” he admitted.
Santelli didn’t say anything at first, and Childress started to get nervous again. “Well, that’s certainly a noble enough reason to go broke, Sam,” Santelli said finally. “Where’s the nearest airport? I’ll get your tickets for you.”
“I, uh,” Childress started to protest. He was torn. He needed work soon, and he didn’t like the fact that this was just a “meeting.” He needed a job, not a “maybe.”
“We’ll take care of you, Sam,” Santelli said. “If this doesn’t pan out, I’ll get you some money for a couple days until you can work something out with the gorgeous Miss Keating, okay?”
“She’s engaged, SMaj,” Childress pointed out.
“Holy hell, Childress!” Santelli exploded. “Just get me the name of the damned airport, and get your ass over there!”
Somewhat chastened, Childress told him. After a moment’s arrangement of final details, Santelli hung up. Childress got up and went looking for his gear.
He hoped that it was a job. He’d been dreading dragging back into that office and facing Julie Keating again, asking the woman who was miles out of his league if she could find him another job moving parts or whatever at $10 per hour.
Juan Villareal was dragging as he walked out into the hospital parking lot. It was late afternoon, but he’d been inside since the first call at 0230 that morning. A multi-car pileup on the freeway, followed by a bad house fire, had kept him and the other ER doctors hopping for hours. One of the victims of the vehicle accident hadn’t made it. The rest would be okay, provided everything went smoothly.
He stopped at his car and stared down at the door for a moment. Now that he was out of the hospital, all the adrenaline-fueled energy was draining away, and he was seriously considering just climbing into the back seat and going to sleep. That was when his phone rang.
At first, he just stared uncomprehendingly at the screen. He’d been expecting it to be another emergency call, and when it wasn’t, it was taking his mind a moment to register what exactly he was looking at. Then he recognized the contact, and almost wished it was another emergency call. He answered it and brought the phone to his ear. “Yeah.”
“You all right, Doc?” Brannigan asked. “You sound like hell.”
“Long night, long day,” Villareal said. “Let me guess, you’ve got more work.”
“I might,” Brannigan corrected. “It’s tricky. I’d like all hands on deck to discuss it.”
Villareal said nothing for a moment, but just sat there staring into space, at an infinite nothing somewhere past his car.
“Doc?” Brannigan asked. “You still there?”
“I’m here,” Villareal answered.
“Look, I know you’re not entirely on board with this little operation,” Brannigan said. “I’d at least like you to come out; if you’re not in, I’d like your input on who to get to replace you as medic. Fair enough?”
Villareal checked his watch. What day was it? Thursday. That was right. He had Friday and Saturday off this week. “Okay, fair enough,” he said. “Let me get my shit together, and I’ll be out late tonight or early tomorrow.”
“Sounds good, Doc,” Brannigan said. “See you then. Give me a call when you land; if you can’t get me, call Carlo.”
“Roger,” Villareal said. He unlocked his car and got in as he hung up.
He still sat there for a moment, still just staring at nothing. He was conflicted. He’d developed a strong loyalty to John Brannigan a decade before, and he’d developed a bond with the rest of “Brannigan’s Blackhearts,” as well. It’s hard not to, when you’ve survived a high-risk mission like the hostage rescue on Khadarkh. But the thought of going back out…
Many years before, in Afghanistan, Doc Villareal had returned fire to cover a wounded Marine in a firefight near a little village called Zarghun. In the aftermath, they’d found three dead Pashtun children, none older than maybe eight years old, in the reeds where he’d dumped half a mag. There had been no weapons or ammunition anywhere near the corpses, though there’d been empty shell casings in the mud.
The sight of those dead kids had haunted Villareal ever since. It had driven him to try to turn his back on the battlefield, to pursue a career in medicine, earning his MD in near-record time and swearing he would never pick up a weapon again.
He’d been on Khadarkh as a non-combatant, carrying only his medical supplies, and coming along with the rest of the mercenaries as a doctor, and only a doctor.
He’d also very nearly gotten them all killed. One of the Iranian commandos that they’d shot getting into the Citadel had still been alive, and Villareal had felt duty-bound to try to treat him. He’d been hauled off and the Iranian shot dead before the wounded man could get the pin out of the grenade he’d been carrying. That had rattled Villareal almost as much as the dead Afghan kids had. More than ever, he doubted that he belonged anywhere near a battlefield.
But he owed Brannigan, he knew that. And he owed the rest something, too. He couldn’t just turn his back on them. At the very least, he’d talk to Brannigan and find them a new doc. One not quite as scarred and emotionally damaged as he was.
David Aziz was restless. He’d never have expected it, and certainly never would admit it, but sitting at his desk grading papers was not what he wanted to be doing. Not even remotely.
He was staring at the screen in front of him, but he wasn’t seeing the banal, overly-academic, long-winded paper that some faceless, pompous nineteen-year-old had sent him. He was seeing burning AMX-10P armored personnel carriers, seeing the titanic explosion of twelve ballistic missiles detonating in a chain, the fireball boiling up from the walls of the Citadel on Khadarkh. He was seeing the last moments of the terrorist named Abu Sayf, as he had gunned the man down in the skeleton of an incomplete building, even as Khadarkh City descended into fire and violence below them.
He pushed back from the desk. “Fuck!” Standing, he started to pace his office.
If David Aziz had one outstanding character flaw—and he had many—it was that he always had to see himself—and, by extension, try to get everyone else to see him—as simply “too cool.” He approached everything in life with a certain disdain, though his reasons for such disdain tended to change fluidly. His disdain for academia stemmed from his veteran status and his time as an infantryman. His disdain for mercenary work stemmed from his credentials in academia. David Aziz had to see himself as better than other people, so he did, even though he had to be a bit hypocritical in order to do so.
He didn’t want to admit to himself that he missed the action. Hell, he’d come within a hair’s breadth of abandoning his teammates on Khadarkh and making a run back to Dubai. Faced with having to go back into Khadarkh City alone, knowing that Abu Sayf had been in there, he’d nearly lost his nerve.
He tried to focus on that, to convince himself that he couldn’t be distracted from his work as a professor by something so knuckle-dragger-ish as wishing he was back in combat. He was above such things, or so he told himself. He didn’t really miss the imminent danger of violent, painful death. A man would have to be crazy to miss that.
But he did miss it, and he couldn’t get his mind off it. Hadn’t been able to since returning from Khadarkh, months before.
It was something else that he’d never admit to himself, but he knew that he hadn’t been the best performer on that mission. He’d almost broken and fled, and he’d cut corners and seen to his own needs at the expense of the rest of the team a few times. He’d never been selfish all that consciously; he’d been thoughtless more than anything else. Deep down, he knew it. And, equally deep down, he knew that he wanted another chance. He wanted a chance to do better. To show Flanagan and Curtis, and even Brannigan, that he was just as good as they were.
His phone ringing broke him out of his reverie. He stepped to the desk and looked down. It was Santelli.
He scooped it up. “Professor Aziz,” he answered. He couldn’t help that bit of pomposity.
“Aziz, Santelli,” the former Sergeant Major said, his voice entirely businesslike. None of the rest of the Blackhearts were all that chummy with Aziz. He could be somewhat off-putting at times. “We’ve got a meeting about a possible job. Same place as the debrief last time, tomorrow morning.”
“I don’t know,” Aziz said, affecting boredom even as his heart turned over and a strange feeling worked its way into his stomach. “I’ve got a lot on my plate here.”
“I’m just passing the word, Aziz,” Santelli said, sounding like he couldn’t be less interested in trying to talk the other man into coming. “Either you’re there or you’re not. Big boy rules.”
That stated indifference decided Aziz right away. He’d be there, if only because Santelli didn’t think enough of him to try to convince him. “I’ll be there,” he said.
“Fine. See you then.” Santelli hung up.
Aziz slapped his laptop shut and headed for the door. He could be at the airport in an hour.