“You’ve been rather elusive lately, John.”
John Brannigan cupped his hands around his coffee mug and looked across the table levelly at Mark Van Zandt. General, USMC, Retired Mark Van Zandt.
“I live in the mountains, Mark,” he said. “It’s not like cell service is all that regular up there.”
Van Zandt didn’t react, at least not by much. He’d gotten better at that, but Brannigan could still read him like a book. He was pissed. It was written in every faint line of his movie-poster Marine face, above his usual polo shirt and khakis.
Unlike Van Zandt, Brannigan had shed most of the Marine Corps’ appearance upon his forcible retirement several years before. A forcible retirement, he remembered all over again, that had been enforced by the very man sitting across from him at the table in the Rocking K diner.
Still big and powerfully built, Brannigan had let his hair get shaggy and grown a thick, graying handlebar mustache. He looked more like a mountain man than a retired Marine Colonel, while Van Zandt looked like he’d just taken his uniform off to come to the diner.
“We’ve heard some…faintly disturbing things lately, John,” Hector Chavez said carefully. Brannigan’s old friend had been medically retired for heart problems, and his body had gone soft in the years since, though his mind was still keen. He was dressed down from when he’d first showed up in the Rocking K in a suit for the Khadarkh assignment, but not by that much.
“It’s a disturbing world, Hector,” Brannigan said. “You’re going to have to be more specific.”
“Let’s quit beating around the bush, John,” Van Zandt said sharply, leaning forward and putting his elbows on the table. The entire thing rocked, coffee sloshing a little in cups as it took his weight. “Mario Gomez’ family gets murdered. Next thing anyone knows, a whole bunch of Mexican gang-bangers get slaughtered, to include what has been reported as a balls-out firefight in the hills just over the Mexican border. Now, that sounds awfully coincidental to me. Especially when a bunch of you disappeared from Childress’ bedside at just about the same time.”
Brannigan sipped his coffee. “That does sound like an interesting coincidence,” he said mildly.
If you think I’m going to give you an inch, you’re sadly mistaken, Mark. I’ve been crucified by your type before, remember?
“Cut the crap, John,” Van Zandt all but exploded. “You know as well as I do that you went full vigilante on those assholes. I’ll admit, they probably deserved it.” When Brannigan’s face hardened, he amended, “Okay, they definitely deserved it. If the reports are true, the Espino-Gallo gang was as vicious as they come. The world’s better off without them. But dammit, you went way off the reservation on this one.”
“Oh, come off it, Mark,” Brannigan snarled, finally losing his patience. “Everything we’ve done since I agreed to go into Khadarkh has been off the reservation. You show me the Congressional authorization for any of these little operations, and then we can talk about staying on the reservation.” He all but slammed the mug on the table. “We do this because it has to be done, red tape be damned.” He stabbed a finger at Van Zandt. “And don’t try to fob this off on me alone. You knew we were going to do something, or else you wouldn’t have promised legal top cover when we talked before things kicked off. Now that the bodies are on the ground, you’re getting squeamish.” He snorted. “Not that I really should have expected anything else.”
Van Zandt actually sat back a little at that. He took a deep breath, looking down at the table. Brannigan knew he was right, and he knew that Van Zandt knew it, too. Whatever kind of legal trouble they could potentially be in if anyone went digging too deeply, he knew that the Espino-Gallos had needed killing, and that Sheriff Thomas wouldn’t be pressing charges anytime soon, either.
Having the men whom you had tried to drive off suddenly deliver your kidnapped daughter to your door with a curt, “You’re welcome,” could tend to make a man rethink his position a bit.
“Look me in the eye and tell me it was a righteous killing,” Van Zandt said.
Brannigan’s eyes narrowed at that. He didn’t need to justify his actions to Van Zandt. But he looked the former General in the eye and said, “They had it coming. They had a lot worse coming than we dished out. And if the local sheriff had done his job, we would have stood by and let him do it. You’ve got my word on that.”
His lips pressed tightly together, Van Zandt nodded, breathing a long sigh through his nose.
“Well,” Chavez said, “now that that’s out of the way, can we get down to the main reason we came here?”
Brannigan took another drink of his coffee. “I assumed it was so Mark could chew my ass over the New Mexico incident,” he said.
“Not quite,” Van Zandt said, reaching down to his briefcase. He pulled a tablet out, unlocked it, and slid it across the table.
“Apparently, there have been at least three outbreaks of some new kind of hemorrhagic fever in several of the refugee camps in Chad, just over the Sudanese border from Darfur,” he explained, as Brannigan started sifting through the open file. Gruesome images of men, women, and children, their bodies marred by horrific lesions, flipped past. A map marked the affected refugee camps. “It’s apparently an odd place for a hemorrhagic fever outbreak,” Van Zandt continued.
“Sounds like a job for Doctors Without Borders,” Brannigan commented, “not a bunch of off-the-books mercs.”
“Well, that’s the thing,” Chavez put in, leaning back in his chair a little. “There are already a bunch of NGO doctors in the area. The most recent additions were from the World Health Organization. You’ll find the full list a few files down.”
Brannigan found the marked file and brought up the list. An American, a Frenchman, an Italian, and a Basque. “So, what does this have to do with my Blackhearts?” he asked.
“Somebody disappeared the WHO doctors three days ago,” Van Zandt said flatly. “They had just left Abeche, heading east. There are reports of a helicopter in the vicinity, but their motorcade was found only ten miles outside of town, shot to shit. No bodies found, but there was apparently enough blood to suggest that they’d all been murdered.”
“From what I remember—which admittedly, isn’t much,” Brannigan said, “Chad isn’t exactly stable. Could have been just about anybody. That close to Darfur, the Janjaweed are probably a good bet.”
“Except for the helo,” Chavez pointed out. “Nobody’s ever reported the Janjaweed using anything so advanced as helicopters. Those bandits usually don’t ride anything more advanced than horses.”
“Assuming the attackers were actually on the helo,” Brannigan pointed out. “And your information’s outdated; they’ve used whatever the Sudanese government has given them, up to and including helicopter gunships.”
“The Janjaweed wouldn’t have taken the bodies,” Van Zandt said. “They’d have raped and mutilated them, and left them scattered around the trucks.” He shook his head. “No, I think this is something else.
“And a recent report from Biltine, northwest of Abeche, sheds some more light on the situation. It seems that Mitchell Price has cropped up in Chad.”
“Now, there’s a name I know,” Brannigan said. “He’s rather notorious.”
“He’s also been a Person of Interest for the last few years,” Chavez said. “Ever since that incident in the South China Sea a couple years ago.”
“I vaguely remember hearing a little bit about it,” Brannigan said. He stared at Van Zandt. “I was getting drummed out of the Marine Corps at the time, so some of the details rather escaped me.”
“No one was ever able to prove anything, at least not enough to get criminal proceedings started,” Van Zandt said, looking distinctly uncomfortable. The two men had learned to work with each other over the last year, but there was definitely still plenty of friction. And Brannigan wasn’t likely to forget that Van Zandt had presided over his forced retirement, and then come looking for him to solve problems. “But it appeared that Price put together a sizeable private army, based out of a resort on the Desaru peninsula in Malaysia, and sent them after a group of pirates based in the Anambas Islands, right next to the Straits of Malacca. The dicey part is, those pirates were being led by a Chinese frigate captain, who had deserted with his ship. The Chinese weren’t too happy about any of it, least of all having a bunch of Americans running around on their turf.”
Brannigan frowned. “I never heard about Americans,” he said, “but I remember hearing about some of the shooting going on down there. There were people losing their minds about World War Three in the Pacific kicking off, once the Chinese started throwing anti-ship missiles around, with the US Navy not too far away.”
“Things got plenty tense,” Van Zandt confirmed. “And while, again, nobody could confirm it, Price was right in the middle of it. There were standing orders for his arrest if he showed up anywhere in the South China Sea, but if he was there, he managed to elude everyone.”
“What about the contractors?” Brannigan asked.
“Nobody knows for sure,” Chavez said. “The Chinese displayed several bodies and made a big stink about it, but nobody but Price knows how many there were, or if they were all killed, or some managed to get off the islands. The islands themselves have been occupied by the People’s Liberation Army ever since.”
“Price has still been at large, mostly thumbing his nose at the people who want him in Leavenworth,” Van Zandt continued. “There are whispers that he’s had a couple more run-ins with the Chinese since, though that’s only RUMINT at the moment.”
“So, you think that Price might have something to do with these disappearances?” Brannigan asked, frowning. “That seems to be a bit of a stretch. Going from pirate hunting to kidnapping or murdering UN doctors?”
“Nobody knows for sure,” Van Zandt said. “Price is playing his own game, and it’s making a lot of people nervous, especially since he’s done a damned good job of staying ahead of anyone trying to get in his way. Nobody knows what his endgame is, and given some of his history, there isn’t much that most people in the National Security community would put past him to get there. He’s a loose cannon, and nobody thinks that his presence in Chad when this stuff is happening is entirely a coincidence.”
“Is Price the target?” Brannigan asked. “Not entirely sure how I feel about that.”
“Would it really matter?” Van Zandt asked.
“Yeah, it would,” Brannigan said flatly. “I thought I made this abundantly clear before. I have ultimate veto on these missions. If I smell a rat, me and my boys are out. We’re not some mindless death squad you can point at your bad guy of the moment and trust not to ask questions.”
Of course, Wade probably wouldn’t object to being part of a death squad, but he’s kind of the exception, and he’s one of mine. If I say no, he’ll back off. I can trust him that far.
Van Zandt sighed and ran a hand over his face. “Sorry, John,” he said. “I shouldn’t have said that. There’s a lot of weirdness involved with this situation, and there are some severe pressures to figure it out. When somebody whacks a bunch of UN doctors, people get upset.
“Anyway, no. Price is not the target. At least, not yet. As things stand now, I don’t have a target for you; this isn’t a kill or capture or a rescue mission. This is strictly reconnaissance. Should you accept the mission, you and your boys will go into Abeche, take a good look around, and see if you can find out what happened to the WHO team.”
“Might not be that simple,” Brannigan pointed out. “Depending on what kind of bad actors we’re dealing with, getting in and getting out without somebody pinging to the fact that we’re there on recon might be more easily said than done.”
“You have your usual leeway,” Van Zandt said tiredly. “Not that you need my say-so. Just try not to start World War Three while you’re there?”
Brannigan stood up. “I doubt that World War Three is going to start in Central Africa,” he said, “though I’ve been wrong before. We’ll try not to bite off more than we can chew.” He looked down at Van Zandt. “I’ll call the boys in. Those we can spare.”
Van Zandt raised his eyebrows. “Childress is in the hospital and off the operational roster,” Brannigan explained. “I’m not even calling Gomez; his sister needs him close for now. That’s whittling us down a bit. Don’t worry, I’ll get it covered. So long as you’ve got the logistics covered.”
Van Zandt nodded. “Just call me with what you need.”
“Oh, I will,” Brannigan said. “And Mark?” Van Zandt looked up at him as if not sure he wanted to hear what came next. “The fee will be the usual. No matter how many of us go.”
The retired general just nodded tiredly. Brannigan smiled tightly and turned to go.
Sometimes it was just satisfying to be a pain in Mark Van Zandt’s ass.
The smile faded as he neared the door. Africa might not be quite as bad as Mexico, but it still wasn’t going to be a picnic. And if there were other actors besides the usual jihadists and tribal militias…
This could be a rough one.