Carlo Santelli straightened up, wiping his hands on a rag, and eyed his handiwork with some satisfaction.
It had taken a lot to get this particular specimen finished. Finding parts for a ’67 Fury III had proved to be more difficult than he’d expected, but it had been worth it, especially since he already had a buyer for this particular car. And the man was eager enough for it that the price tag was going to more than pay for the parts, never mind the paint job.
He nodded with a sigh. This little side business had been working out better than he’d ever expected.
He’d needed to do something. It had been months since the Argentina mission, and while he and Melissa weren’t exactly hurting for money yet, he’d needed to keep his hands and his mind occupied. And not just because he missed the action.
If he was being honest, he wasn’t sure how much he really did miss the action, right then. He missed Roger Hancock more.
Roger had been short-tempered and volatile, but he’d been one hell of a professional soldier. He’d been one of the pillars of Brannigan’s Blackhearts. And only after his death did Carlo Santelli realize just how much they’d all depended on him.
Because now that Roger was dead, Carlo was the next in the chain of command. And he wasn’t sure he was up to the task.
It wasn’t that he doubted his capabilities. He’d made Sergeant Major in the Marine Corps and had done the job well for several years. He’d been Brannigan’s Sergeant Major, once upon a time, and that was why he’d been brought in in the first place. He had been one of the few men of his rank that the Colonel had trusted implicitly.
But command was another matter. He was getting older, and he was comfortable with the Sgt Major role. It was a support role. He had to worry about the men, their welfare, supply, and discipline. He didn’t have to make the big decisions. He didn’t have to be the one who made a call that might get another Blackheart killed. He just had to expedite and execute.
But if he was the second in command, he knew that that time when he was in charge of the whole team might come. It had already come for Roger once, when Brannigan had gotten shot up on the Tourmaline Delta platform. It was almost less a matter of “if” and more a matter of “when.”
He didn’t want a command. And he was dreading the call to go back out. Because if there was any lesson to be taken from the last several jobs the Blackhearts had taken, it was that any one of them could get his ticket punched at any time.
The door opened and Melissa stepped out into the garage, with Carlo Jr. on her hip. The little guy was growing fast, and he was already crawling around as fast as he could go, but she didn’t want him scrambling all over his father’s garage. “All done, baby?” she asked.
“All done,” he said. “Now I’ve gotta give Kramer a call.” He finished wiping his hands and tossed the rag on the workbench.
He was reaching for the phone when it rang. He hesitated, just for a moment, a bolt of adrenaline going through him. He could feel Melissa’s eyes on him as he picked up the phone.
It was Brannigan. He hesitated a moment more, then hit “Accept” and lifted the phone to his ear.
“Yes, sir.” He was proud that while his Boston accent might be as thick as ever, his voice was steady.
“We’ve got a potential job, Carlo,” Brannigan said. “No details over the phone, as per, but start getting the word out.”
Santelli didn’t think he’d hesitated that much, but Brannigan caught something. Maybe he’d let out a breath a little louder than he’d intended.
“What is it, Carlo?” When he didn’t answer right away, Brannigan pressed. “If something’s wrong, you need to let me know. I need you, Carlo.”
Santelli did sigh, then. He looked up at Melissa, who was watching him with concern in her eyes. But at the same time, he could see that she’d stand by him. How far they had come since just before Khadarkh, when he’d thought that their relationship was almost over. And he realized that he had Brannigan and the Blackhearts, in no small measure, to thank for that.
And those words are my kryptonite. I need you, Carlo. He’s got to know that I can’t walk away now. A lesser man would resent Brannigan for it. Santelli had known the Colonel for too long, though; he knew that that kind of petty manipulation was beneath him. He hadn’t said that to pluck at Santelli’s heartstrings and drag him along. He’d said it because he valued Santelli’s work, as well as his friendship, and he was worried that something was wrong.
“No, I’m fine, sir. I’ll start making calls.”
Joe Flanagan wasn’t comfortable. Social occasions were not comfortable places for him, and so he was leaning against the wall, a cup of coffee in his hand, watching the gathering.
Tall, rangy, with black hair and a thick but neatly-trimmed beard to match, he didn’t exactly fit in with a lot of the people there. Most of them were Rachel’s friends, after all. Few of his own, few as they were, would be coming to a pre-wedding party. He was only there because Rachel had begged him to come; she hadn’t been the one to put it on, and she hadn’t wanted to be there by herself.
Of course, she’d also had an ulterior motive, which was why she’d insisted that he had to invite Kevin Curtis.
Curtis was ordinarily the kind of man who would have been ecstatic at a gathering like this. A party with a three-to-one female-to-male ratio would be prime hunting territory to a tomcat like Curtis. But given that most of the women were, in fact, Rachel’s friends, and therefore not particularly interested in…short-term liaisons…
Curtis walked over, a beer in his hand, and found a spot next to Flanagan. The two of them could not have looked more different. Flanagan was tall, rangy, and tanned, with dark hair and beard and piercing gray eyes. Curtis was over a foot shorter, with close-cropped hair and ebony skin. Flanagan was muscular, in a country boy, fighter sort of way, but Curtis was a bodybuilder, and probably weighed close to what his much taller friend did. “Man, this is not my usual play. You’re lucky I like you, Joe.”
Flanagan glanced at the beer. “Where did you even find that? There’s no bar here.”
“And that’s another problem,” Curtis said, waving the bottle to encompass the room. “Why is there no bar? What kind of social occasion doesn’t have a bar?”
“In this case, a pre-wedding party,” Flanagan said dryly, “intended to give the families a chance to get acquainted before the wedding.”
Curtis frowned as he looked around. “Where’s your family?”
Flanagan didn’t look at him, but just took a sip of his coffee. “Don’t have much anymore, Kev.”
Curtis leaned back slightly and stared at him. “You mean I’m it? That’s kinda sad, Joe.”
Flanagan snorted. “You’re telling me.”
“Now wait a minute…” But a slow smile was starting to spread across Flanagan’s bearded features. Curtis shook a finger at Flanagan. “Don’t you turn that around on me like that! I am the best friend you ever had!”
“That’s debatable.” Flanagan still didn’t look at Curtis, but he could still see his friend getting heated. His faint grin made his eyes crinkle as he took another drink. “I seem to recall all sorts of bar fights, late night rescues, and even almost getting stabbed by an irate Latina chick…”
“Details!” Curtis shot back. “Good friends go through tough things together!”
Flanagan looked down at him with a raised eyebrow. “Except that I don’t recall ever being the cause of any of those tough times.”
Curtis looked away, his face screwed up into a grimace, with a harrumph. “Well, you’re sure the cause of this particular tough time,” he muttered.
Flanagan openly chuckled at that. “You’re in a room that’s got way more women than men. Explain to me how that constitutes ‘tough times,’ oh Great Ladies’ Man.”
Curtis looked around the room with what might have been a look of discomfort and trepidation. “These aren’t my kind of ladies, man.” His voice was hushed. “Every one I’ve talked to has been…”
“Strangely wholesome?” Flanagan struggled to keep his expression bland and innocent. “Interested in something long-term, maybe marriage?”
Curtis stared at him in horror. “You knew about this?”
“Of course I friggin’ knew about it, dumbass. It was Rachel’s idea.”
“You…you’d do this to me?!” Curtis’ voice was starting to rise.
Flanagan leaned in, his grin turning wolfish. “Rachel thought that introducing you to some women who might be better for you than stabby Latina chicks might start you on the road to growing up and keeping out of trouble. Me?” He chuckled. “I just wanted to watch what happened.”
Curtis huffed, taking a long swig of his beer. “You are a bad friend, Joseph.”
Flanagan glared down at him with a raised eyebrow, and he winced. “Okay, I deserved that.”
“What is this? Humility from Kevin Curtis?” Flanagan’s glower eased and he downed the last of his coffee. “There might be hope for you yet.”
He had to admit, though, that right then he felt more kinship with his shorter companion than he might have thought, in that environment. Rachel’s family had pulled out all the stops, and there were probably a couple of hundred relations and friends of the family there. Far more people than he was usually used to or comfortable being around. And as he looked at the generally well-dressed, fresh-faced, slightly soft people chatting and mingling, all but ignoring him and Curtis where they leaned against the wall in the corner, he couldn’t help but compare them to his teammates. There was a gulf between him and these people that he wasn’t sure could ever be bridged.
Yes, his friends were rough men, and not always all that emotionally mature, as exemplified by his gambling, womanizing “brother from another mother” next to him. But they had seen things, gone through hardships together, that most of these people could barely imagine.
He caught Rachel watching the two of them, concern on her face. He gave her a faint smile, trying to reassure her that everything was fine. She returned it, with a touch of sadness. They’d talked about this, and she’d been so hopeful that he could mix with the rest of her family, not to mention her idea about trying to introduce Curtis to a woman who would be better for him than the booty calls he usually hung out with.
But sometimes the gulf is simply too wide to cross all at once. And Flanagan and Curtis had been on the other side of that gulf for a long time.
His phone suddenly vibrated in his pocket. Setting down his coffee cup, he pulled it out.
Curtis was looking over at him, his demeanor suddenly changed. “Who is it?” He sounded almost hopeful.
“It’s the Colonel,” Flanagan confirmed, as he started toward the exit.
“We’re saved!” Curtis exclaimed, looking up at the ceiling. “Thank you!”
Rachel watched the two men leave, her fiancé with his phone to his ear. Her eyes might have misted briefly, but then she turned back to her cousin, forcing a smile onto her face.
John Wade wasn’t sure whether he should be annoyed at the crowd of fat, useless people he was weaving his way through, or thoroughly appreciative of the cosplayer girls who were, in many cases, wearing next to nothing.
In the interests of not losing his mind and going completely postal, he decided that ogling the almost-naked girls was a much better option.
Besides, I’ve got a hell of a good chance of getting laid, given the quality of the opposition here.
Of course, he wasn’t at Max-Con for the people. Nor was Vincent Bianco, who had talked him into coming. Not that he’d had to talk too hard, after he’d shown Wade the score of Silver Age comics that he’d gotten there the year prior for a steal.
John Wade was a retired Ranger, and, anyone would agree, a hardass and intimidating as hell. Tall, fit, clean-shaven and with an icy blue stare that most people—even in the profession of applied violence—often found disconcerting. He was also a huge comic book nerd and collector, among other things.
He was pretty sure his collection was sitting at well over a million dollars’ worth. But there were still a lot of issues he wanted to get.
And that was just the comics. Action figures were a whole different ballgame.
Vinnie Bianco didn’t stand out quite as much in the con-goer crowd as Wade did, though that was really a relative sort of thing. Bianco stood even taller than Wade, and while he just looked big without being jacked, he was still packing a lot more muscle than most of the weebs and neckbeards that Wade was watching with distaste. His considerably younger-looking baby face and friendly manner, however, was far less stark than Wade’s bristling demeanor and “fuck off” glare.
Bianco had found something; Wade saw him stop, towering over most of the people around him, bending down over a booth about another hundred yards ahead. Wade started working his way over, weaving between a pair of young men arguing over what he could only assume were anime characters—the names sounded Japanese, but Wade couldn’t care less about most anime—and almost ran into one of the scantily-dressed cosplayers, who was getting a picture taken with a doughy, pale young man who looked like he wasn’t sure whether to be excited or to faint at being that close to an attractive young woman in a state of undress.
The woman looked up at him in momentary annoyance, but that changed as she got a better look. The pudgy fan momentarily forgotten, she swiveled her head to follow him as he went by. He locked eyes with her and smiled, getting a dazzlingly sexy smile in return. The pale kid who was trying to put an arm around her without getting smacked looked like he was about to object until Wade pinned him with a basilisk stare that had given superior officers pause. The kid might have been living in a fantasy world most of the time, but he was still grounded enough to know not to fuck with the big guy giving him that look.
He winked at the cosplay girl, and turned back to join Bianco, who hadn’t seen any of the byplay. Sure, he could have pushed things, probably even scored with her, but Wade was experienced enough with women not to press his luck under those circumstances. He’d planted the seed; if she was interested, he’d see her again. Most women he’d seen doing that sort of cosplay had been understandably standoffish, which was the other reason he wasn’t going to overtly hit on her. Got to play the right game.
“What’d you find, Vinnie?” He didn’t like raising his voice to be heard, but the dull roar of the crowds at the convention made it necessary.
Bianco grimaced, eyeing the plastic-wrapped issues laid out on the table. “Not what I was hoping for. This is all late 2010s stuff. It’s crap.”
Wade scanned the table. “Yeah, I don’t see anything I’d even be interested in, much less anything I’m looking for.”
“And what are you looking for?” Wade turned to find the girl he’d almost collided with at his elbow. She was looking up at him with her arms folded under her barely-covered breasts, her mouth quirked in a smile.
Jackpot. That was even quicker than I expected.
But before he could take advantage of the opening, he felt his phone vibrate in his pocket.
Not many people had his number. And those who did weren’t likely to be calling him just to chat.
He held up a finger for the girl to give him a moment and dug the phone out. It was Brannigan.
He thumped Bianco on the shoulder and showed him the phone, then turned to the girl. “Sorry,” he said. “As much as I’d love to continue this conversation, work just called. But I’d be more than happy to call you when I get back…”
She smiled again and reached for his phone. He handed it over. He’d call Brannigan back.
Enemy of My Enemy is up for Kindle preorder. It goes live on December 18.