Brannigan’s Blackhearts #3 – Enemy Unidentified is up for Kindle pre-order, due out the 15th. So, here’s the first preview chapter.
Officer Lou Hall had been on the San Diego PD for about a year. He’d just gotten off night shift, and frankly wasn’t sure whether the tradeoff had been worth it. Sure, he got to see the sun a lot more, and with the sun, in San Diego in the summertime—the winter tended to be pretty gray and damp—usually came the California girls, dressed in as little clothing as they could get away with.
But his partner, Fred Dobbs, was a surly, balding cynic, he wasn’t getting paid that much more, and most of those same attractive California girls turned up their noses as soon as they saw his badge. He’d even gotten berated by one for, “just wanting to shoot minorities.” He was half Mexican, himself, so he didn’t know where the hell that had come from.
Then he looked on social media, and didn’t have any more questions.
Dobbs was grumbling, as usual, and Hall had tuned him out after about the first five minutes, as usual. It was always the same thing. Dobbs was in the process of a nasty divorce, and couldn’t talk about anything besides what a bitch his soon-to-be ex-wife was. So, Hall was scanning the sidewalks and trying not to think too hard about how much he hated his life, and really should have applied to El Cajon, or somewhere that actually paid their cops well.
Something caught his attention, and Dobbs’ incessant bitching faded even farther into the background noise. At first he wasn’t sure why he was looking at the parked taxi so intently, then he saw that it was unoccupied.
Taxis parked in Horton Plaza were nothing new. There was always far more traffic than there was available parking, and most people didn’t try to drive to Horton Plaza. But an unattended cab?
Maybe the driver just went to take a piss. Yeah, that was probably it. He knew full well what a full day sitting in a car was like.
He didn’t notice the second cab parked just around the corner; there was no reason to. It wasn’t out of place. But the man sitting behind the wheel certainly noticed the San Diego PD car cruising past the abandoned taxi. He toyed with waiting, but there was a crowd coming out of the Lyceum Theater at the same time. Perfect.
The man ducked down below the dash and touched a remote. The unoccupied taxi exploded, the detonation shattering every window within sight, including the windshield of his own cab. He was showered with fragments of safety glass, as the vehicle rocked on its shocks. He’d parked a little too close; the concussion hammered him into the floor of the cab, and he blacked out for a moment.
When he came to, he had to kick the door open. The Plaza was a nightmare hellscape. Where the taxi had been parked, only a crater filled with twisted, fiercely burning wreckage remained. The cop car was burning, the windows shattered and the side panel crushed in and peppered with shrapnel, both men inside obviously dead. The sidewalk was littered with bodies and parts of bodies. People were screaming, the noise only then managing to register to his deadened hearing. His ears were ringing from the explosion. A young woman staggered away from the crater, bleeding, half of her face flayed away by the blast.
The man staggered out of the cab and joined the mass of screaming, panicking humanity fleeing the blast zone. Wounded were being trampled. The panicked mob was going to seriously impede the first responders; it was just too cramped in downtown San Diego.
The man felt no particular satisfaction in what he’d done. He’d been well paid for it. It had been a job, nothing more. He blended into the crowd and disappeared.
Ann Sumner was bored. And hot. Directing traffic at Phoenix Airport hadn’t been what she’d been expecting when she’d pinned on a badge. Sure, she was there to “protect against terrorism,” but what she mainly ended up doing was either breaking up traffic jams outside the terminal or escorting overly excited passengers away from the desk agents they were berating.
And that was when she wasn’t just standing there somewhere in the terminal, her hands crossed in front of her duty belt, watching people and counting down the seconds until her shift was over. Which was what she was doing right at that moment.
She glanced over as an airport shuttle pulled up to the glass doors. She couldn’t see the hotel logo, but it looked just like any other van full of airline passengers disgorging its human cargo so that they could go stand in line and get treated like cattle.
This assignment is making me way too cynical. She almost had to laugh at the thought; what cop wasn’t cynical about people, at least after the first year or so?
She had dismissed the van as just another part of the scenery even before the side door slid back and the two M240Gs were swung up and opened fire.
The muzzle flashes would have been almost invisible in the Arizona sun, had they not been shielded by the darkness of the inside of the shuttle. The roar of gunfire, the shattering glass, and the screams of people either hit or suddenly panicking as they realized they were unarmed, defenseless, and under machinegun fire, however, was unmissable.
Sumner was mowed down in the first couple of seconds, though not because she’d been targeted. There had been too much glare for the gunners to see who was on the other side of the glass clearly enough to pick out any one figure for their attention. She’d just been near the left-hand limit as the gunner swept his muzzle across the terminal.
Both guns kept up the fire, pouring bullets into the “Arrivals” doors until their belts ran out. Then they hauled the doors shut and yelled at the driver, who floored the pedal and pulled away from the curb.
The shuttle was heavy and sluggish, and took some time to accelerate. A pair of police vehicles were already closing in, lights flashing and sirens wailing, and one of the men, still wearing his balaclava, hastily reloaded, turned his smoking M240 toward the rear, and settled in behind it as the other one kicked the back door open.
The door swung wide, hitting the end of its hinge and then smacking against another car. It came most of the way closed again before the gunner could open fire, and he swore as his buddy kicked at the door again. This time it stayed mostly open, and he opened up on the two police vehicles.
A line of bullets stitched across the hood and the lower corner of the windshield of the lead car, and the cop suddenly swerved to try to avoid the fire. In so doing, he swung out in front of the second car, and they piled up against the concrete barrier on the side of the road.
Then the shuttle was racing away, the rear door still flapping. The men inside weren’t too worried about it. They’d ditch the van down by the Salt River in a few minutes and be gone.
With what they’d been paid for this one, they could live be living the high life a long, long way away from Phoenix for months.
“What the hell is that?”
Border Patrol Agent Jorge Tarrasco looked up, squinting into the West Texas sun. He couldn’t immediately see what the new guy, Ottoman, was looking at.
“What the hell is what?” It was hot, he was getting close to the end of his shift, and he was ready to go home. It was never pleasant, there on the border, with Cuidad Juarez within spitting distance. The violence over there had been overtaken by other cities in Mexico, but that wasn’t saying much, since Mexico had topped even the Syrian Civil War for body count lately. And being Border Patrol, right there in El Paso, meant hours upon hours of just waiting for all hell to break loose. There was enough traffic through the border crossing that somebody was bound to be trying to get across illegally, and quite possibly have enough firepower to object rather…strenuously to being denied.
Ottoman pointed. Tarrasco squinted behind his sunglasses. So help me, if the new guy’s going on about some desert bird or something…
That wasn’t a bird. He wished he had binos, or an RCO optic on his patrol rifle, but he could only shade his eyes and squint. The sun was definitely glinting off of some kind of aircraft. It looked about the size of a small private job, but it was getting way too close to the border crossing, and it was flying low.
He realized that it was even smaller than a crop duster about the time the twin rockets roared off the rails under the wings, arrowing toward the border checkpoint.
There wasn’t time to yell, to duck, or to do anything but stare. The drone had been far closer than Tarrasco had realized, and it took less than a second for the two rockets to hit.
They weren’t Hellfires, not quite. But they were still packing a fifteen-pound warhead apiece, and it was enough. The first rocket hit a truck that was just pulling across the line, coming out from under the overhang that sheltered the Customs and Border Patrol officers from the sun. The truck exploded, fire, smoke and shrapnel rocking the vehicles to either side. The CBP officer who had just waved the truck through was knocked senseless, possibly dead.
The second rocket hit within a yard of Tarrasco himself, punching through the overhang above before detonating, sending fragmentation sleeting through metal and flesh alike. Tarrasco was hammered on his face on the pavement, bleeding profusely from several shrapnel wounds.
The rockets were only the precursors, though. With the muted buzz of its propeller, the drone plunged into the middle of the border crossing before anyone could even react to the rocket impacts.
Loaded with one hundred pounds of high explosives, the drone detonated as soon as it hit the ground. The border crossing, and most of the people within a dozen meters, disappeared in a flash and a billowing cloud of dust and smoke, as the resounding boom rolled off the Franklin Mountains and the Sierra de Juarez.
“Time now,” Flint said, checking his watch. “Hit it.”
Beside him, the man known to Flint and the rest of the team only as “Scrap” touched the dial key on his phone. It was a crude, ad hoc way of triggering an IED, but it worked, it wouldn’t point to anyone in particular, and there was exactly zero chance that anyone had phone jammers working in Matamoros, of all places.
Matamoros seemed like a weird place to have a meeting like this, but if Flint had given it thought, he would have figured that the nearness to some of the newly constructed oil platforms off Point Isabel might have something to do with it. He knew that the targets were discussing new exploration and security concerns with the increasing violence in and around Mexico. Beyond that, he really didn’t care. He had his mission, and that was that.
The bomb had been carefully placed well ahead of time. The meeting was going down on the El Saucito Golf Course, just south of Matamoros, and Flint and his team had posed as contract workers to get the charges planted the previous week. It always helped having good intel, and employers who weren’t shy about sharing it. So, there had been nearly twenty pounds of PETN stuffed in a planter just inside the elevators leading into the conference room long before the various VIPs had showed up.
The big glass windows facing the golf course blew out with a shower of shattered glass and ugly black smoke. Fire alarms started going off, and faint screams could be heard from inside.
The security personnel were on point; Flint had to give them that. A dozen vehicles in the parking lot fired up at once, and men started piling out of their cars and running inside, trying to get their charges out. Most of them, thanks to Mexico’s strict gun laws and regulations regarding foreign contractors, were unarmed; their entire job was simply to grab their principal and run away.
Wrong day for that. With Scrap and Gibbet beside him, Flint pulled the van’s door open and piled out, making sure his balaclava was up before the door was all the way open. He brought his MDR to his shoulder and double-tapped the man closest to the resort doors on the run.
The .300 Blackout rounds weren’t suppressed or subsonic. They took the man in the armpit as he reached for the doors, and he dropped like a stone, his heart and lungs destroyed. Flint was already tracking in on the next, even as Scrap dropped the guy right behind the first one, and then Gibbet just started dumping rounds into the security men as fast as he could pull the trigger.
A ripping burst of machinegun fire roared from behind them, as Lunatic and Funnyman opened fire on the vehicles themselves with a pair of MAG 58s. The Belgian machineguns were still some of the best in the world, and Flint had insisted on getting at least a couple of them. His employers hadn’t been happy with the expense, but they’d come through. Hundreds of 7.62 rounds tore through the thin-skinned vehicles, puncturing tires and shattering glass, and Flint shook his head. They hadn’t even bothered with up-armors.
The last of the unarmed and helpless security men had figured out that they were under fire and dove for cover. Unfortunately for them, the only cover in the parking lot was more thin-skinned vehicles, and they didn’t have any way of laying down their own covering fire.
Flint pointed Scrap and Gibbet toward the doors. Their “guests” would be coming out shortly. Villain and Chopper followed, while Psycho and Reaper ran for the far side to make sure none of their targets squirted out through the golf course. They had another team on the far side, just in case, but Flint wanted to have everything tied up in a nice little package, right there in the building.
Letting his MDR hang, he drew his FK BRNO Field Pistol from its holster high on his thigh. The 7.5mm pistol was hideously expensive, and the ammo wasn’t cheap, either, but Flint enjoyed the finer things, and he didn’t want to go through this mission without having had a chance to kill someone with his new toy.
The nearest security guard was flat on the ground, trying to get a call through on his phone. Flint’s first shot went through the tire and punched into the man’s collarbone. The phone clattered to the asphalt as the man screamed. Flint’s double-tap silenced him as he hooked around the hood of the vehicle and scanned for the next target.
He liked the FK BRNO. It felt like shooting a .40, but was packing as much muzzle energy as a .44 Magnum. The workings were smooth and tight. He blasted the next guard, a blond kid in a cheap black suit, in the face. The kid jerked as the bullet punched through his brain, and his head bounced off the pavement as he dropped.
There were only four left, and they were scrambling for the trees, trying to stay low and move from vehicle to vehicle. Flint grinned tightly behind his balaclava, lifted his pistol, and shot each one as they showed themselves. The first one went sprawling, keening in pain, while the second one vaulted his body and dashed for a limousine that had already been thoroughly ventilated by either Lunatic or Funnyman. The hood was full of holes and smoking. The fleeing security guard was smashed off his feet by another burst of 7.62.
The last two did not show themselves again, though the bursts of machinegun fire continued for several seconds. Flint reloaded and holstered his FK pistol with a grunt of dissatisfaction. He’d wanted to account for all of them himself, and either Funnyman, Lunatic, or both had robbed him of his score.
Oh well. He turned back toward the doors.
They burst open in almost the same instant, a knot of suited security men leading a clump of obvious VIPs out of the building. The security men stopped dead at the sight of the bodies and the smoking vehicles, but they were too late.
Scrap, Gibbet, Villain, and Chopper opened fire before any of them could react. Hidden from the door, they caught the security guards by surprise, and in moments, the leading elements were dead. The screaming had started anew, and the VIPs were trying desperately to shove their way back inside, against the press of people trying to get out, away from the blast site.
Flint and his team were right on top of them, however, and the security personnel were starting to understand just how badly outmatched they were. Flint cranked three 7.5mm rounds into the ceiling as he advanced on the milling crowd in the lobby.
“Listen up!” he yelled. “You’ve got two choices. You shut up, do what you’re told, and come with us, or we just go ahead and skullfuck all of you, right here, right now. It’s really no nevermind to me, either way. But it’s up to you. Come along with us, or die right here.” He leveled his Field Pistol at the nearest woman’s head. She shrank away from the muzzle, huddling on the floor. Flint smirked, even though his face was covered, and she couldn’t see the expression.
Nobody tried to play hero, nobody offered any resistance. He found he was slightly disappointed. Oh, well, maybe the Mexican authorities would come out to play. He recognized at least one Pemex board member, a high-ranking Mexican Policia Federal officer, and what had to be several staffers from the Congreso de la Uniòn.
Inmate came in the doors from the van. “Birds are inbound,” he reported. “Five mikes.”
“Good to go,” Flint replied. “Everybody on your feet!” he yelled. “Get moving out onto the green! Let’s go! Nice and orderly! I’d hate to have to just shoot all of you and leave. Actually, you know what? That might be fun. So, go ahead, take your pick!”
Once again, nobody decided to test him. Of course, the smoking vehicles and bullet-shredded bodies out in the parking lot were a good incentive to play along. The team herded the crowd out onto the golf course, pushing and prodding with rifle muzzles where needed, or even just where a stumble or half-panicked flinch was going to be amusing.
Flint didn’t bat an eye as Scrap shoved a woman in a too-tight skirt and three-inch heels. She fell against the man in front of her, who didn’t dare try to help her, and stumbled onto the ground. Even with his balaclava in place, Flint could see Scrap’s leer. “Come on, senorita,” he said. “No time for that now. You can lie down for me later.” He reached down and grabbed her cruelly by the upper arm, wrenching her to her feet. He shoved her, and she stumbled again. “Let’s go.”
The helos were already getting closer. They weren’t overtly military; that would have been a bad idea. They were brightly-painted blue-and-green Eurocopter EC225s. They weren’t armed, either; they wouldn’t have raised any red flags on takeoff, in fact not until they’d suddenly diverted from their respective flight plans when Inmate had called them in.
The three transport helos came in close together, their rotors beating at the humid air and whipping the smoke from the bomb and the damaged vehicles into fantastical whorls, landing where there were clear and reasonably level spots on the golf course. Flint and his boys had already surveyed the landing zones previously, during the initial recon and prep for this hit.
No sooner had the first helo touched down, flattening the nearby vegetation with its rotor wash, than Flint was splitting the hostages and his team of shooters into three groups, pointing Villain with one group and Psycho with another toward the helos off to either side. He let Scrap herd the remaining hostages toward the center bird, following and turning back to check for incoming security forces.
He wasn’t expecting much. Matamoros had been relatively quiet for the last few months—though with places like Acapulco and Cabo San Lucas becoming war zones, it was clear that there was no place in Mexico that could be counted as safe—so most of the Federales were probably otherwise occupied, even the ones on the take to the cartels. And they were far enough out from the city itself that it would take any response force a few minutes to get there.
Scrap and Gibbet were shoving and kicking the hostages onto the bird. They weren’t getting any resistance, but it paid to let the cargo know who was in charge. Flint glanced over at the other two helos, got thumbs-up from both Villain and Psycho, and climbed up the ramp himself. “Let’s go!” he yelled forward, though the pilot couldn’t possibly hear him over the scream of the EC225’s engines. Reaper was up front, though, and leaned into the cockpit to pass the word. A moment later, the helo was rocking into the sky and turning east, toward the coast.
Flint was one of the first to step off the ramp onto the helideck of the Tourmaline-Delta platform. The two skeletal derricks of Rigs One and Two rose into the brilliant blue sky over the Gulf of Mexico, but Flint didn’t spare them a glance.
“Get the hostages below!” he bellowed to Dingo, who had come jogging up from the ladder with several more of the group. “Then get the defenses ready! I think that we’re going to have company soon!”
“We are!” Dingo yelled back, his voice straining to be heard over the roar of the helicopters. “There are four helos about thirty minutes behind you! Looks like Mi-17s!”
Flint nodded. Mexican Marines. Had to be. Well, he was about to show them that these weren’t cartel bully-boys they were going up against. He slung his MDR across his back and started for the edge of the helideck, facing back toward land. There were several munitions cases set along the side, and he hastily cracked one open.
The lean tube of a Mistral Surface to Air Missile launcher was nestled inside, and Flint drew it out and prepped it. Behind him, the hostages were being hastily—and none-too-gently—chivvied down the stairs into the depths of the oil platform. The helos were already pulling away; their task was done, and they’d be carefully sanitized once they got to their final destinations. There wouldn’t be any loose ends for this job.
As the third helicopter growled away into the distance, Flint sat on the side of the helideck, his boots dangling above the forest of girders leading down to the blue waters of the Gulf, scanning the sky for the telltale specks of the incoming Mexican helicopters. Dingo came and joined him, pulling another Mistral out of another case.
“We’ve had a snag,” Dingo said.
“I don’t want to hear about ‘snags,’” Flint warned him.
“Not our fault,” Dingo replied. “The sub’s not here yet.”
“Any word as to why not?” Flint asked. He was still watching the horizon. Their way out being delayed was bad enough news, but it would be worse if they didn’t deal with these Marines first.
“Nothing,” Dingo answered. “But then, everybody was supposed to be comm-silent once this show kicked off, anyway.”
Flint spat over the edge of the helideck. “Well, I guess we’re going to have to go to Plan B, then,” he said. “Another few hours shouldn’t be too bad. If we can hurt this assault force bad enough, they should leave us alone for a while, until we can get off.” He grinned behind his balaclava. “Besides, with a few of the split-tails in that bunch, some of us could even have some fun before we run out of time.”
“Is that really a good idea?” Dingo asked.
Flint glanced at him. He hadn’t picked Dingo, and knew next to nothing about him. But that wasn’t the sort of question he expected from the wolves and meat-eaters that he went looking for. His bunch were warriors, in his mind, the kind who could take what they wanted from those who were too weak and pathetic to stop them. “Right” and “wrong” were concepts for weak people.
“Don’t worry,” he said, even as he caught a faint glint of sunlight on metal in the distance and hefted the Mistral. “Everything’ll be fine.”
The group of four Mi-17 Hips accounted for almost a sixth of the Mexican Navy’s full inventory, and almost all that were available on the east coast. It was quite a response, given the amount of violence wracking the country, and in fact, the attack at the golf course had been relatively small compared to some of the massacres being perpetrated by various narco armies in other parts of Mexico. But there had been enough connected people among the hostages that something had to be done, and so the Marines had been mobilized as quickly as possible.
They were bearing down on the Tourmaline-Delta platform, flying fast and low. The pilots were skilled, and the Marines in the backs of the helicopters were all veterans, having been blooded in the non-stop narco war. The Mexican Marines were still considered one of the last remaining untouchables, the last incorruptible paladins in the forces fighting the narcos. Which meant they got called on to kill a lot of narcos.
And the combat-hardened men in the backs of the helicopters, their P90s between their knees, weren’t always terribly concerned about what it took to accomplish that mission. “Collateral damage” wasn’t high up on their list of priorities.
The Mexican Narco War had gone far past that point, a long time before.
Even so, they were used to pretty much uncontested command of the skies. The Càrtel Jalisco Nuevo Generaciòn had managed to shoot down an Army helicopter back in 2015, but for the most part, the Naval helicopters had been untouched. So, when missile warnings started to go off in the cockpits and the pilots started evasive maneuvers, nobody aboard was ready for it.
Flint, Dingo, and the others, scattered along the western side of the platform and all armed with Mistrals, had waited long enough that the Russian-built helicopters didn’t have a prayer. It took the shoulder-fired SAMs barely a few seconds to streak over the water to their targets, homing in on the blazing heat of the helicopters’ engines.
The lead helo took a direct hit and exploded. Debris spun away from the black-and-orange fireball in the sky, and rained down into the Gulf. The second managed to avoid a direct hit, but the missile detonated barely three feet from its engine housing, and it was soon in a flat spin toward the water, trailing thick, ugly, black smoke.
The third helicopter banked hard to get away from its missile, and flew right into the second one that had been aimed at it. There was a brief puff of the exploding missile, and the helicopter rolled over and plunged into the ocean.
The fourth had managed to avoid being hit, and was diving and banking at the same time, but couldn’t avoid the section of destroyed rotor blade that fell into its own rotor hub. The hub exploded in a shower of grease, smoke, and flying parts, and the helicopter crashed.
Only a few moments after the first missile had been fired, all that was left of the Mexican Marine task force was a bit of blackened debris floating on an oil slick on the surface of the Gulf of Mexico.
Contralmirante Diego Huerta stared at the radio. It had been jammed with little more than screaming and desperate calls for help for about thirty seconds, and then had gone dead.
The radar operator looked up at the Contralmirante. “We have lost all their transponders, Señor,” he reported.
Huerta clenched his fists. He was a beefy man, of middling height and going bald. He’d actually done some time as a Naval Infantry skullcracker in his youth; that was how long this war had been going on. He might have risen as fast and as far as he had thanks to family connections, but he was still a Naval Infantryman at heart regardless.
And those were his men who had gone down on those four helos. He had no doubt that that was what had happened. He didn’t know who these pinche cabrònes were, but they were well-prepared; far better-prepared than the narcos usually were. And it was adding up with everything else he’d seen of this incident so far to make him very, very nervous. These maricònes were far more dangerous than he was used to. And given some of the monsters his Naval Infantry had faced, that was saying something.
Huerta slowly straightened. An officer must be dignified. He couldn’t swear like an enlisted man, or rage at the loss of his men. He had to maintain his decorum.
And he had to consider the consequences of his actions, from a political point of view as well as a tactical and strategic one. And the political consequences were embodied in the form of the young woman standing in the command post, dressed in a white pantsuit.
Olivia Salinas had shown up amazingly quickly after the incident; she said she was a Special Liaison from the office of El Presidente, and she had the credentials to prove it. And her presence therefore carried the full weight of that office, looking over his shoulder.
He turned to her. “Señora,” he said calmly, “I know that our government will not appreciate this suggestion, but I have to make it. My Naval Infantry are spread thin, dealing with the narcos. I just lost two platoons in a few seconds. I don’t have the resources to replace them easily. We need to ask the gringos for help.”
“Absolutely out of the question, Contralmirante,” Salinas replied coldly. Her hair was pulled back severely, and her sharp cheekbones jutted below calculating black eyes. “The Mexican people need no help from the Norteamericanos.”
Which was obviously crap, and both of them knew it. Huerta could deal with narcos; he had been for some time. But whatever had just happened was something bigger than a narco turf battle. And his available assets had just been cut down to almost nothing.
Still, relations between Mexico City and Washington were strained, to say the least. He knew there were still a few American SOF units in Mexico, but they were strictly there in a training capacity for the Mexican armed forces.
“This is a hostage situation,” he pointed out reasonably. “Time is of the essence. The American Delta Force or SEALs can be here to assist more quickly than I can put together another strike force.”
Salinas glared daggers at him. “Was I unclear, Contralmirante?” she asked. “The answer is no. This is a Mexican problem, and will be solved by Mexican forces.” She turned away from him, looking out to sea, toward the distant oil platform and the wreckage floating above the bodies.
Helplessly, Huerta glanced in the same direction, then turned away. He had work to do.
It was late when Huerta finally left the command post. He was trudging through the dark toward the trailer that had been set up as his personal quarters when his cell phone rang abruptly.
He pulled it out and frowned. He didn’t recognize the number, but given his position, that wasn’t unknown. He answered it. “Hola?”
“Hello, Admiral,” a strange voice said in English. “I think we need to talk.”
“Who is this?” Huerta demanded. “How did you get this number?”
“My name is Van Zandt,” the other man replied, “and I have my ways. Now, time is pressing. You have a bad situation on your hands, and I think I might have a solution…”