“How’d you even find out about this?” Santelli eyed the small studio from across the street warily.
“The dumbass tried to recruit me.” There was wry contempt in Mario Gomez’s voice. Which was more than Gomez usually expressed; he was a quiet man, and rarely spoke, much less showed much emotion. “I guess he thought the quiet guy would make a good wingman, or something.”
Santelli shook his head, frustrated. Even so, this was more the kind of problem he was used to as a Senior NCO. This was the sort of thing he’d wrestled with for years as a First Sergeant, and later as a Sergeant Major.
“Well, let’s go corral our wayward prodigal.” He wasn’t sure if he was using that combination of words right, but it sounded right. Santelli knew he wasn’t the most eloquent or well-read of the Blackhearts, but like most men of his background, he tried.
At least he had never flubbed things to the level of one First Sergeant he’d known, back when he’d been a Corporal himself, who had tended to say, “It would be the who of you,” when he’d meant to say, “It would behoove you.”
Of course, if he’d messed it up, Gomez wouldn’t say. Which was simultaneously a comfort and a source of irritation. Santelli could never quite read Gomez. The most he’d ever seen the man open up had been when most of his immediate family had been murdered, and even then, it had been a mostly quiet, cold rage.
That quiet, cold rage had led the Blackhearts south of the border, where they’d slaughtered most of an entire upstart cartel in the process of rescuing Gomez’s sister. The half-Apache former Recon Marine had been grateful, but as always in his wordless, cool way, his black eyes as unreadable as ever.
What bugged Santelli about him was that he’d known Marines who acted much like him, who had been perennial discipline problems, mainly because they held pretty much everyone around them in contempt. Many of them had been Hispanic, too. It was part of the machismo that suffused the Hispanic culture, especially the Mexican one. Now, Gomez wasn’t Mexican. He was half Tex-Mex, half Mescalero Apache. And he’d never been a discipline problem, so far as Santelli knew.
Maybe it was the Apache part that raised Santelli’s hackles. He didn’t know. Joe Flanagan was almost as quiet as Gomez, most of the time, and didn’t have the same effect. But Joe didn’t have that air of a predator lying in wait all the time. Gomez did.
Santelli shook his reverie off as he got out of the rental car. He hadn’t wanted to use a taxi for this, and Gomez had been entirely willing to throw in for the rental when he flew up from New Mexico. After their phone call, Gomez had been more than willing to come along.
Together, the two men, Gomez standing a head taller than the slightly rotund, balding former Sergeant Major, walked across the street to the studio.
George Jenkins had pulled out all the stops. The sign for “Dynamic Defense Concepts” had been professionally painted on the glass doors, along with the SEAL trident right below it. As they walked in, the lobby looked professional enough, with a reception desk—currently unoccupied—plants tastefully arranged on the counter and the floor, and all sorts of the kind of posters and notices one might expect from a professional dojo.
He’d dropped a pretty penny on this operation. Unfortunately, if what Gomez had said was true, all with ulterior motives that were getting Santelli pissed off all over again.
The two of them walked right past the reception desk and pushed through the doors that led back into the dojo proper. The single large room was equipped with a full-coverage martial arts mat, several striking dummies, stacks of kick pads and foam and rubber weapons, and a full wall of mirrors. Two doors on the far side bore men’s and women’s locker room signs.
The mats were currently occupied by about a dozen women, ranging from their early twenties to a couple who looked to be very fit fifty-somethings. Jenkins was at the front, running them through some very, very basic defensive moves. He was dressed in track pants and a skintight brown t-shirt, his sandy hair longer than the last time Santelli had seen him.
He saw the two men come in and faltered for just a moment. Santelli’s lips thinned. Jenkins had never been good at disguising his emotions. He’d been caught, and he knew it.
Gomez took up station by the door, leaning against the wall with his arms folded. Being Gomez, he was almost guaranteed to be strapped, probably with that CZ P01 he tended to favor, regardless of the fact that they were in Colorado Springs, and there was no way that Gomez had a Colorado concealed carry permit. Again, being Gomez, he wouldn’t give a damn.
He wouldn’t need a weapon for this. But Gomez was always prepared.
Santelli planted himself in front of the door, his meaty arms folded, watching Jenkins. The younger man was noticeably more self-conscious as he continued to run the women through the drills, and several of his students were also distracted, casting glances over their shoulders at the two men standing silently and ominously by the door. The fact that Jenkins was obviously trying to ignore them only made the discomfort of the situation that much more acute.
Finally, as it neared the bottom of the hour, Jenkins stopped, looking at the clock. More of the women seemed puzzled; he hadn’t moved from his position at the head of the dojo since the two Blackhearts had come in. Santelli was pretty sure he knew why, based on what Gomez had told him.
“Okay,” Jenkins said. “I’m afraid I’m going to have to cut it a few minutes short this week, but we’ll try to make up for it next week. I’ll see you then; I’ve got to go here soon.”
Gomez didn’t make a sound, but Santelli snorted, drawing several curious glances. Most of the older women in the crowd could obviously tell something was wrong; the one with undyed, salt-and-pepper hair was watching carefully, her gaze moving from Santelli to Jenkins, her brow furrowed. She was evidently putting some pieces together.
Of course, she might be putting the wrong pieces together. Santelli knew he often resembled a Mafia goon more than a professional soldier. His callsign was “Guido,” after all.
The rest of the class started packing up and heading for the exits. Santelli was tempted to call Jenkins out right then and there, but he refrained. “Praise in public, correct in private” had long been a mantra of his, and he wasn’t going to put that aside now, no matter how much Jenkins’ attitude often made him want to put the man on blast in front of the whole world.
Jenkins wasn’t a bad soldier, not really. He just wasn’t nearly as good as he thought he was, and his status as a former SEAL didn’t mean he could get away with as much as he thought he could, either.
The women in the class filed out past Santelli, who didn’t move, casting curious glances at him. A few tried to approach Jenkins, but he waved them off, as he was obviously simultaneously trying to watch Santelli and Gomez while avoiding eye contact.
They waited until after the last of the women had left. That happened to be the graying older woman, who had paused as she passed Santelli, studying him long enough that Santelli had greeted her politely. Only after the door shut behind her did the two of them start to cross the floor to where Jenkins was fiddling with a stack of kick pads, trying to look busy.
“Have we got a job?” he asked, still not looking either man in the eye.
“Yeah, we do,” Santelli said. “Which is the only reason I’m not conducting some wall-to-wall counseling right now.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about, Carlo.” Jenkins stood up and turned to face him, clearly trying to get some of his bluster back.
“Sure, you don’t,” Santelli sneered. “Which is why you got nervous as soon as we walked in, dismissed the class early, and didn’t try to keep any of the hotter young chickies back for some ‘special training.’ Am I about on course?”
Jenkins tried to look surprised and offended, but Santelli had faced enough junior enlisted in trouble to know when he’d scored. “Drop the act, George. I know what you’ve been up to with this little studio. Gomez told me. Now, as long as you’re actually training them, I suppose it’s not technically illegal to be using your martial arts/self-defense classes as your own personal dating service, but it’s sure unethical as hell. And if we didn’t need you for a job, I’d break both your legs and let you try to pay the rent on this place from a fucking wheelchair.”
Jenkins didn’t seem to have an answer to that. He knew Santelli well enough to know that there would be no good answer, and that the thickening of an already thick Bostonian accent was not a good sign. In a previous life, Santelli probably would have just thrashed him, taking him out to the woodline and making him do pushups, jumping jacks, flutter kicks, and eight-count bodybuilders over and over and over until he puked or just collapsed in a puddle of his own sweat. Now?
These days, Jenkins could have no doubt that Santelli would follow through on his threat of grievous bodily harm.
“Now, pack your shit and be out to the usual place by tomorrow evening,” Santelli snapped. “I’d suggest you close this place up and get on it, before I decide we don’t need you that bad.” He turned on his heel and started to leave. Gomez stayed where he was, his arms still folded, watching Jenkins with those cold, black eyes of his.
Santelli paused at the door. “Oh, and Jenkins?” He looked back over his shoulder to see the former SEAL still standing there, looking a bit shell-shocked. He was not the best-liked of the Blackhearts, and this wasn’t going to help anything. Oh, Curtis might give him a high-five, and Javakhishvili would probably just shrug. Even Wade might, except Wade already detested Jenkins. “I’m not going to make you close this place down, but let me find out that you’re picking up your students again and I’ll fly out here from Boston and kick your ass. Capisce?”
Jenkins just nodded jerkily. Another man in his position, and with his demonstrated attitude, might have gotten pissed and tried to bow up or otherwise get defiant. Jenkins, however, had seen Santelli in action, and knew where he stood with the Blackhearts. He’d overstepped himself, he knew it, and he was regretting it.
If he hadn’t been so pissed, Santelli could almost have pitied him. Jenkins was That Guy. He was the guy who never could quite seem to do the right thing.
But right then, as he left “Dynamic Defense Concepts” behind, he couldn’t quite find it in him to feel pity for the little scumbag.
Tom Burgess was playing cards with a skinny, sour-faced old man named Barry in the front room when Brannigan came up the steps. Burgess, tall and rangy, with his long, still-dark hair drawn back in a ponytail behind his neck, stood up as Brannigan walked in. Barry started to do the same.
“Sit down, Master Guns.” Brannigan waved him back down. “You shouldn’t be standing up for me.”
“Force of habit, Colonel.” Barry gave him a wrinkled grin. “After all, it ain’t every squad leader who gets to see one of his boots become a battalion commander.”
Burgess’ eyebrows rose. Even having been a part of Brannigan’s Blackhearts for a little while, he’d still only been on two jobs, only one of them overseas, so he was still getting to know all there was to know about his new teammates. And Barry hadn’t been all that forthcoming about the past, being far more interested in playing Spades.
In retrospect, it made some sense that Brannigan and several of the Old Fogies would know each other. After all, the Old Fogies were Ben Drake’s network, and Brannigan had known Ben Drake from his early days in the Marine Corps. They were all retirees, most of them old Staff and Senior NCOs, too old to go running and gunning—much, anyway; several of them had reaped their share of souls when Burgess had gone along with Roger Hancock, Mario Gomez, Carlo Santelli, “Herc” Javakhishvili, and Ignatius Kirk to rescue Sam Childress from the mercenaries who had snatched him out of the hospital on behalf of the Humanity Front.
The fact that he was there playing cards with Barry was a direct result of that rescue mission. And the state of several of those involved was a sobering thought.
Roger Hancock was dead. Kirk had just gotten out of his third surgery for the sucking chest wound he’d taken in the Argentina job. And Sam…
Burgess hadn’t known Childress before the rescue. And it was looking more and more like he never would; at least, he’d never know the man he’d been before he’d been shot in the spine in Transnistria.
“Is Sam awake?” Brannigan asked quietly.
Burgess nodded. “Herc’s with him. Barry and I were on front door duty.”
Brannigan nodded, visibly steeling himself before walking into the back rooms.
The house looked like a regular farmhouse on the outside, and even in the living room and kitchen. Only once a visitor got into the back rooms did its real purpose become evident—the farm had been converted into a secret hospital, well-equipped and staffed, effectively a black site for certain men who had been wounded in combat somewhere that American combatants weren’t supposed to be.
Burgess followed Brannigan toward the back as another of the Old Fogies, a burly man named Fred, who had been on the rescue op, came in from outside to join Barry. The Old Fogies had been running pretty continuous security on the hospital since Childress had been brought in, in no small part due to the fact that their guardianship in the civilian hospital where he’d been after Transnistria had been penetrated by the killers who had been sent after the stricken Blackheart. These old men were the kind who took such things personally.
Childress was sitting up a little, propped up by pillows and the tilt of the bed itself, when they came in. Paralyzed from the waist down, he couldn’t easily sit up under his own power. He’d briefly taken over as the Blackhearts remote intel specialist, rapidly teaching himself a lot of the cyber stuff on the fly. But that had been before he’d been snatched.
He looked over toward the door as Brannigan and Burgess entered, his face strangely vacant. His gawky beak of a nose was still a little crooked; it had been all but smashed flat when the Humanity Front’s mercs had worked him over. But that was far from the worst damage.
He frowned as he forced his eyes to focus, looking from Brannigan to Burgess. Burgess could almost see the gears struggling to turn as he tried to remember who he was looking at. Javakhishvili, long-haired, blunt-featured, and scruffy-looking as always, had looked away for a moment. He’d known Childress for longer; he’d been there when he’d taken the bullet that denied him the use of his legs, and he had tried his damnedest to help him along the long road of suffering that had followed.
Recognition finally dawned in Childress’ eyes. “Sir.” He started to stir, like he was about to try to stand up. “You came.” His words were slightly slurred, and they came slowly.
Brannigan was a professional; he kept most of the pain off his features as he took Childress’ hand. The two of them had been through a lot; Childress had been on the Khadarkh job and every mission since until Transnistria. He was an original Blackheart, and he had been one of Santelli’s problem children in the Marine Corps before that. He’d been a bit of an impulsive loudmouth; he’d rarely been wrong, but he’d lacked the judgement to know when to just keep his mouth shut, even when he had been right. He’d been a good man to have along, and he’d been taking care of his aunt with the money he’d earned with the Blackhearts.
Burgess knew enough of the story, having been guarding Childress off and on for months. He also knew that Brannigan had taken over making sure that Anna Childress was well taken care of, since Sam had been hit.
“How are you doing, Sam?” Brannigan asked gently.
“I’m…I’m all right sir. Getting a…a little stir-crazy in here. I…” He trailed off. “I do get headaches sometimes.”
That was an understatement. The brutal beating that he’d received at the mercs’ hands had cracked his skull, and he definitely had permanent brain damage because of it. It was clearly deeply painful for Javakhishvili to watch, and Burgess could see that it was bothering Brannigan a lot. The big man’s jaw worked, and he blinked a couple of times. He’d been by several times since Childress had woken up, but it never really got any easier.
“I wondered when you’d come.” Despite his slow and halting speech, there was hope in Childress’s voice. “When are we going to go back to work, sir?”
That was the worst part. Brannigan had come by only a couple weeks before, but Childress evidently didn’t remember it. His short-term memory was in bad shape. He’d even struggled to recognize Brannigan when he’d come in. It had been the same last time.
“Soon, Sam.” Brannigan’s voice had gotten a little thick. “Real soon. Now, I need to borrow Tom and Herc for a bit. That all right with you?”
Childress blinked a little, and he looked over as if just noticing Javakhishvili sitting there. He frowned a little again. It was clearly causing him a lot of effort to put things together in his head. “Yes, sir. Sure. Just…just don’t be too long before you come and see me again? I…” His voice faded away again, as if he’d lost his train of thought.
“I’ll be back soon, Sam,” Brannigan said. “I promise.” He caught Javakhishvili’s eye and tilted his head toward the door. He clearly didn’t want to make things harder for Childress by talking about another mission in front of him.
Javakhishvili patted Childress on the arm. “Take it easy, Sam.” Even after years in the Navy and as an American PMC contractor, he still retained a little bit of his Georgian accent from his formative years on the Baltic Sea coast. “We’ll be back soon.”
The three of them stepped out of the room and headed back to the front of the house, as one of the nurses slipped into Childress’ room behind them. Brannigan stopped just inside the living room, looking at the ceiling and taking a deep breath.
“At least he’s alive, Colonel,” Javakhishvili said. “He’s better off than Don, or Roger.”
“Yeah,” Brannigan said. “Yeah, you’re right. It’s still…damn, I hate to see him this way.”
“It’s rough,” Burgess said. “Hell, it hurts me, and I didn’t even know him before.”
Brannigan took another deep breath, then looked at each of them in turn. “Okay. Back to business. We’ve got a mission. Briefing is at the usual place, in…” He checked his watch. “Eighteen hours or so. You boys able to make that?”
Javakhishvili nodded, turning to Barry. “Hey, Barry. Are you guys going to be okay if Tom and I take off for a while?”
“Finally get some peace and quiet around here,” Barry grumbled, without looking up from his cards. Fred had joined the Spades game. “Though I’m going to have to step up my Spades game; Fred’s harder to beat than Tom.”
“They’ll be fine,” Javakhishvili said. “Barry tries to be a hardass, but he’s a big teddy bear, and acts like Sam’s his son. We’ll see you there, Colonel.”
Enemy of My Enemy is out on December 18th on Kindle and Paperback.