“Dad, we need to talk.”
John Brannigan looked up from his coffee cup and stared levelly at his son across the table. He wasn’t particularly surprised or perturbed by the words; he’d known they were coming for a while.
Hank Brannigan had been out of the Marine Corps for about two months. He’d spent most of it up here, at his father’s cabin, helping out where he could. He’d chopped wood, taken his turn at the cooking, and helped with several projects that Brannigan hadn’t been able to get to, mostly on account of their needing a second pair of hands. Brannigan had welcomed his son and asked few questions. He knew what it was like, taking his first steps into the civilian world after the Marine Corps, and also knew that Hank hadn’t parted with the military on necessarily the best of terms.
The younger man, lean and rangy, didn’t look much like the Marine officer he’d been only a few months before. He’d let his hair and his beard both grow, though the latter was considerably scruffier. The elder Brannigan could easily have grown a bristling spade of a beard, but Hank had gotten his hair from his mother’s side, and his maternal grandfather had gone clean shaven all his life for a reason.
Brannigan had a good idea that he knew what Hank wanted to talk about. It was a conversation that had been in abeyance since he’d gotten shot up on the Tourmaline-Delta platform. Hank had been a commissioned officer then, and while he’d guessed a few things, he hadn’t wanted to put himself into the position of knowing that his old man was quite possibly running highly illegal mercenary operations in his retirement.
But Hank didn’t work for Uncle Sam anymore, and from what Brannigan knew about his son’s last tour, there was no putting off the conversation anymore.
“About what?” He cradled his coffee cup in his hands as he leaned on the hand-made table in the middle of the cabin’s main room. The fire behind him crackled, though it wasn’t that necessary, given the time of year.
Hank looked up at him with a furrowed brow, but Brannigan just watched him levelly. He had a pretty good idea where this was going, but he wasn’t going to make it easy. He’d been in the business for too long.
Hank sighed when Brannigan didn’t say anything more. “About work.”
“Young man with your qualifications should be able to get all sorts of work.” Brannigan took another sip of the scalding coffee. “Or are you asking about mine?”
Brannigan had to nod. At least Hank hadn’t tried beating around the bush. That was good. John Brannigan had spent twenty-three years in the Marine Corps, a good chunk of that as an officer. He’d seen good officers and bad, and he’d seen the Marine Corps turn from emphasizing “leadership” to “management,” resulting in an officer corps that he increasingly thought of as little more than politicians in uniform. He was glad that Hank hadn’t picked up too many bad habits along those lines, though he was sure that there were some that had been unavoidable.
“What about it?”
“I know what you’re doing.” When Brannigan raised an eyebrow, Hank shrugged a little. “Okay, I don’t know details. You’ve been too damned tight-lipped for that, and so has everyone else I know who might have any idea about where you’re disappearing to every few months. But I’ve known the broad strokes ever since you wound up shot to shit a while back. I’m not blind. I can put two and two together. You’re doing gunfighter work, somewhere. And I want in.”
Brannigan just studied him coldly as he took another drink. “And why should I read you in?”
Hank blinked. “Why not? I’m a combat vet, I’ve been a platoon commander and a company XO. You said yourself that I could get all kinds of work with my background and credentials.”
“You’re still wet behind the ears to the crew I work with,” Brannigan said bluntly. “Especially with all your experience being with shiny stuff on your collar.”
“You were an officer,” Hank protested. But when Brannigan just raised a sardonic eyebrow, he grimaced. “Yeah, I know.”
He looked down at the table. “Truth is, I’ve been regretting taking that route for the last three years. Ever since my first platoon.” At his father’s sarcastic snort, he nodded, hanging his head a little. “I know, I know; you warned me. But I still hoped I could do better. I thought that I could leave the bullshit aside and actually lead like you taught me an officer is supposed to. But it doesn’t really work that way, does it?”
“Not anymore.” Brannigan kept his voice level, though some of the old resentment flared in his chest. He’d been where Hank was. Only he’d been fighting that uphill fight for a lot longer, until he’d finally lost.
Hank nodded again, tight-lipped. “Hell, they didn’t even need me that much. My platoon sergeant could have run the platoon without me.”
“Which is the whole point, and always has been.” His father leaned back in his chair. “The platoon commander isn’t there to command, son. He’s there to learn from the squad leaders and platoon sergeant, so that he’s not completely useless when he really does need to make decisions later on. Which is why I told you to enlist, first.”
Hank slumped a little. He couldn’t deny it; that had been something of a heated conversation at the time, with Rebecca trying to play peacemaker. Hank had finally insisted on going straight to OCS, and he had been quietly eating crow ever since.
“Fine. You’re right. I’m not asking for a leadership position, anyway. I’m not stupid. I’ll be a private, or whatever your equivalent is.” He spread his hands. “What the hell else am I going to do, Dad? I got out because I was facing a three-year desk job if I stayed in. They were going to send me to a staff billet.”
“As per.” Brannigan was remorseless. “They aren’t interested in what you want to do. They are concerned with the needs of the Corps, both kinetic and bureaucratic.” He put the cup down and leaned back in his chair, folding his arms and staring his son down. “You weren’t planning on joining up with my crew when you got out, were you?”
“Not precisely…okay, it was first on the list.” Hank couldn’t quite meet his father’s eyes. “There were other possibilities, but I was really hoping…”
Brannigan sighed deeply. The truth was the small team of mercenaries that called itself Brannigan’s Blackhearts probably could use another hand. They’d taken a beating over the last few missions. Don Hart had been killed in Chad, Sam Childress was still alive after being rescued from the Humanity Front, but would never fight again, Roger Hancock had been killed in Argentina, and he had no idea if Ignatius Kirk would be back after recovering from the sucking chest wound he’d taken on the same op. The team was getting a bit thin again.
And he knew that, despite their disagreement on OCS—which Hank seemed to have conceded, finally—he’d raised Hank well enough that he should at least be a dependable new guy. He might have picked up some bad habits that needed correcting, but Brannigan was confident that Santelli and Wade, at the least, would gladly square him away.
On the other hand, he had to face the fact that he really wasn’t entirely comfortable with having his own flesh and blood going out with them. Not that he was worried about favoritism; he knew that Hank wasn’t, either. He’d be harder on Hank than on any of the others, and not just because he was his son. Hank had more to prove and less experience, which made him something of a liability. A relative liability, perhaps, but a liability, nonetheless.
No, it was something much more primal than that. John Brannigan wasn’t worried about risking his own hide out there. It was something he’d been doing for the better part of three decades by then. And with Rebecca gone and Hank full-grown, if he bought the farm, he wasn’t too worried about it.
But Hank was his son, his only remaining family. Yes, he’d been in combat. Yes, he was a grown man and could make his own decisions. But if he went down on a mission with the Blackhearts, if Brannigan had to bury his own son because he’d led him to his death…
Before he could make a decision either way, the phone rang.
He turned a baleful eye on the infernal device. He’d moved up into the hills after Rebecca’s death because he really didn’t feel the desire to be a part of the modern world any longer. Only Hector Chavez’s appeal, which had led to the job on Khadarkh, had brought him back in any capacity. Unfortunately, that had included getting a cell phone again. It didn’t work all that well that far back into the boondocks, but his “business partners” had ensured that a repeater had been installed that meant he got signal. Only a handful of people had the number, but that was enough.
He scooped it up. “Yeah.”
“We need to meet.” Mark Van Zandt didn’t comment on Brannigan’s brusqueness. Van Zandt was used to it; neither man could be said to really like the other, though they had managed to put bygones in the past and develop a solid professional relationship. Van Zandt had been Brannigan’s superior officer once upon a time, and had, in fact, been the one to supervise his forcible retirement. Now both of them were technically in the “private sector,” though still doing much the same thing, if in a much more shadowy and riskier sort of way.
“Understood.” It was just about that time, anyway. Brannigan had developed something of a sixth sense for when work was going to be coming their way. This had been one of the longest stretches yet between missions, but there was enough chaos out in the world that the Blackhearts particular services were usually in some demand. “The usual place?”
“Negative,” Van Zandt replied. “We’ve got some other factors in play. Meet us at Kowacs’ Bar and Grill in Alexandria, Thursday night at seven.”
Brannigan grimaced. Alexandria, Virginia was not exactly his favorite stomping ground. For one thing, it was far, far too close to the Beltway. But the job was the job, and he’d been enjoying life in the mountains for several months. It was time to pay his dues.
Someday I’ll actually retire.
“Understood. I’ll be there.”
“See you then.” Without any further pleasantries, Van Zandt hung up.
“That sounded like a job.” Hank made the observation quietly, almost hesitantly. At least he wasn’t too eager or wheedling. Not that his father would have ever tolerated wheedling when he’d been a kid, never mind as a grown man and a former Marine officer.
“Maybe.” Brannigan dropped the phone back on the table. He took a deep breath, eyeing his son. “I’m not going to make a decision on this right now. I’ve got to go get on a plane. I’ll run it past Carlo and Joe. We’ll make the decision together, before you go anywhere with us.”
“What about Roger?” The question alone told Brannigan that Hank had figured out a lot. But not everything.
“Roger’s dead, Hank.”
The words were like a bomb dropping on the room. Hank stared at him for a moment, then swallowed, hard. He’d known Hancock as a kid; Roger Hancock had been one of Brannigan’s platoon sergeants when he’d been a company commander, and they’d been friends even back then. To hear that one of his heroes had been killed, and he had never heard a word about it, was a shock.
“That’s the life, son,” Brannigan said quietly. “No big funeral, no obituary, sometimes no grave for family and friends to put flowers on. Just one day you’re there, the next, you just don’t come back. You disappear into a shallow grave in some foreign hellhole, where nobody except us will ever know. Roger wasn’t the first, either.”
Hank stared down at the table for a moment, processing it. “Who else?”
Brannigan stood up. “If Carlo and Joe decide you should come on board, then we’ll talk about it. Right now, I’ve got to get a flight east.”
Kowacs’ Bar and Grill was about what he’d expected. Being in Alexandria, it was quite a bit more upscale than he would have considered standard for a “bar and grill,” but there weren’t many country sort of places in northern Virginia, and those that were tended to be kitschy and forced. He was just as glad that Van Zandt hadn’t wanted to meet in what he’d consider a high-class restaurant. Booths and tables were softly lit by hanging frosted chandeliers, the shadows made somewhat darker by the dark walnut and the even darker rugs underfoot.
He was dressed in simple business casual, but he still stood out. At six foot four and well over two hundred pounds of muscle, not to mention his salt-and-pepper hair and handlebar mustache, he filled the button-up shirt in a way that most men in the area didn’t. He could feel the glances from men and women alike as he walked toward the back, where Van Zandt was waiting.
Four people were already waiting in the booth at the back. Van Zandt and Chavez were familiar faces, Van Zandt still trim, clean-shaven, and wearing a jacket and tie. Chavez was a little more rotund, his hairline still receding, and dressed similarly. Chavez had been a hell of a Marine officer before his heart had betrayed him, and he would have made a better general than Van Zandt, in Brannigan’s opinion.
Behind Van Zandt, Brannigan saw a face less familiar, but one he’d met before. Clayton Abernathy was somewhere in his seventies, if he was gauging the man’s age right, though his steely eyes were still bright and missed nothing. He didn’t know exactly what Abernathy’s deal was; he clearly had resources and his finger on the pulse of global events. Whether he was working within the intelligence community or on more of a “private” basis, Brannigan had not been able to figure out, and Abernathy himself had been remarkably close-mouthed about it on the few times they’d met.
The fourth man was considerably younger than the other three. Brannigan had never seen him before. He was dressed in similar business casual but was considerably softer in appearance than the other three. He also didn’t look particularly comfortable.
Brannigan pulled a chair away from a nearby table and swung it around to the end of the booth before sitting down. He didn’t exactly have his back to the wall, but he was sideways to the door, and could see most of the rest of one side of the restaurant. And he trusted Hector, at least, to be watching the rest.
“Okay, Mark,” he said, with a nod to Abernathy and Chavez, who both returned it gravely, “what’s the job?”
“You need to see this first.” Van Zandt motioned to the younger man across the table. The newcomer looked uncertain, sizing Brannigan up, but when Abernathy shot him a hard look, he pulled a tablet out of the attaché case next to him, unlocked it, tapped a couple of icons, and slid it across to Brannigan.
Brannigan picked it up, seeing that the young man had brought up a video. With a glance at Abernathy and Van Zandt, who were both watching him with stony faces, he shrugged and pressed “Play.”
The sound was turned down, and he didn’t recognize the emblem that came up on the screen, but it clearly belonged to some Islamist group. A crossed sword and Kalashnikov were cradled in a crescent moon, with Arabic writing around them. Then the picture shifted to a night-vision image of what looked an awful lot like a Coalition FOB under assault.
Tracers zipped across the screen and muzzle flashes flickered in the dark. A series of explosions lit the night, noticeably inside the FOB’s perimeter. Something was burning fiercely, lighting up the walls from within under a billowing plume of smoke.
Subtitles appeared underneath. Brannigan only skimmed them. He already knew the rough outline of what they would say. Punishing the infidels…Allah’s will…blah, blah, etc., etc.
He looked up at Van Zandt and Abernathy. “Where and how bad?”
“Paktika,” Abernathy said flatly. “And it was pretty bad. Not as bad as Aswad al Islam is trying to make it sound, but they still managed to kill about sixty men and women before they were driven off by danger close airstrikes out of Bagram. They still did enough damage that the FOB had to be abandoned. Which was the whole point, anyway, if we’re taking Chechen Islamist propaganda at face value.”
“These were Chechens?” Brannigan asked, looking down at the screen. He squinted. One of the assaulters looked awfully well-equipped.
“Most of Aswad al Islam is.” The young man’s voice was high-pitched and nasal. Brannigan couldn’t help but think that it fit his appearance. “They’re followers of Abu Mokhtar al Shishani.”
“You said that name as if I’m supposed to know who it is.” Brannigan fixed him with an icy stare. “I have a hard time keeping track of all the kunyahs floating around the jihadi world.”
“He’s the newest up-and-coming Chechen Salafist warlord.” Van Zandt stepped in before the young man could get over his hesitation. “He came out of nowhere a couple of years ago, and since then, he’s led some of the nastiest attacks against Russian interests inside and outside of Chechnya. He’s on the edge of becoming the next Osama Bin Laden, and rumor has it that that’s exactly his goal.
“Nobody knows for sure how large Aswad al Islam really is. What we do know is that they’ve got some serious resources, and that nothing recruits like success. If the indicators we’ve been getting are accurate, it looks like they could supplant Al Qaeda like ISIS never managed to. And now they’ve openly declared war on the US.” He pointed to the tablet. “That was the opening salvo. I know you skimmed the propaganda, but at the end, they promise more to come.”
“And that’s what has Washington and Moscow talking.” The young man leaned forward on his elbows on the table, apparently getting over some of his trepidation at being surrounded by so many older, more experienced men. “This group has spread like wildfire, and now the Russians are desperate enough that they’re willing to work with us to try to counter them.”
“They must be almighty desperate for that to happen,” Brannigan muttered.
“They are,” Abernathy said. “And if our intel is accurate, we know why.”
“We have reliable reports that there are anywhere from four to five Russian ‘suitcase nukes’ in the wind somewhere in Central Asia. And the same reporting suggests that they are heading for Chechnya and Abu Mokhtar al Shishani’s people.” Brannigan had already pegged the younger man as an intel weenie, and the way he said it only confirmed his assessment.
“Great.” Brannigan looked from Van Zandt to Chavez. “So, this is a nuke hunt?”
“Not quite.” Van Zandt’s face was immobile, but he was clearly a bit uncomfortable.
As Brannigan turned narrowed eyes on his former superior, now facilitator, Abernathy spoke up. “My boys are going after the nukes. If you’re up to it, you guys get the dicier mission.”
“What dicier mission?”
“As Mr. Grundy said,” Van Zandt said, “Abu Mokhtar is unusually well-funded. He’s been able to buy a lot of success lately. Word is that he’s got a lot of the local authorities in the Caucasus and most of his other operational areas bought and paid for. Furthermore, as you probably saw in the video, his fighters are extremely well-equipped for jihadis. Nobody knows for sure how much he’s worth, but he’s got very deep pockets.
“The Russians have fingered one of his cash stores, in Azerbaijan. And they want our help to go get it.”
“Why?” Brannigan leaned back in his chair. It creaked as he folded his arms across his chest. “It’s in their backyard. Or are they finally admitting that their military is barely on the level of the US National Guard?”
“They’re selling it as a gesture of détente.” Abernathy’s tone said just what he thought about that. “Though I think they want to bring us in mainly so that the finger isn’t pointed at them if a Russian nuke goes off. ‘Hey, we tried, and you know we tried.’” He spread his hands. “Certain people think this is an opportunity, not only to put the hurt on some terrorists, but also to get some inside information on Russian ops.
“However, some of those same people really don’t like the idea of US SOF working in Azerbaijan with only Russian support.”
“Which is where we come in.” Brannigan let his voice turn grim, his expression getting slightly thunderous. “We’re deniable, and therefore expendable.”
“Not so much,” Abernathy said, before Van Zandt could interject. “There will be assets in Georgia on alert, ready to pull you out if things get too pear-shaped.”
Brannigan stroked his mustache as he thought about it. It wasn’t quite the longest odds he’d ever faced; after all, they’d had zero backup on Khadarkh. But it was still one hell of a risk.
On the other hand, risk was what the Blackhearts thrived on, and there hadn’t been work for months. The Humanity Front had gone quiet; even their ‘legitimate’ business was scaled back, and from what he’d been hearing, they’d done a fantastic job of compartmentalizing their terror campaign from the rest of it. Money laundering works, sometimes.
“Let me run this by the boys,” he said. “I think we’ve been on the bench long enough that we’ll probably go for it, as long as we’ve got a way out. Hurting terrorists is hurting terrorists, even if we’ve got to be buddy-buddy with some Russki thugs to do it. But I’ll warn you; the bill’s going to be steep.”
Van Zandt looked slightly pained. The kid Abernathy had called Grundy frowned, as if just then realizing that this was mercenary work he was involved with. Abernathy’s eyes crinkled knowingly. And Hector Chavez, who hadn’t said a word, just looked at Van Zandt and smiled tightly as if to say, I told you.
Brannigan looked over as Abernathy waved the waiter over. He was hungry. The call could wait until after dinner.
Enemy of My Enemy is currently up for Kindle Preorder. It goes live on Dec. 18.