“No,” John Brannigan said. “Not only no, but hell no.”
“John,” Hector Chavez started to remonstrate with him, “we’re not talking about some half-assed Pemex contract, here.”
The two men were facing each other across a table in the Rocking K, the best—and essentially only—diner in tiny Junction City. It wasn’t the sort of place most people would immediately think of when it came to planning covert operations, but it was the closest meeting place to Brannigan’s mountain hideaway, and so Chavez had pegged it as their contact spot, more often than not.
John Brannigan was a towering, six-foot-four former Marine Colonel, his hair gone shaggy and gray on his head and his face. He shaved his cheeks and his chin, but his handlebar mustache was bushier than ever. He might have had a few more crow’s feet around his gray eyes, especially after his recent turn to mercenary commander. Activities like a hair-raising mission on the island of Khadarkh in the Persian Gulf, followed by a jump into northern Burma to take down a North Korean liaison operation in the Golden Triangle, were not calculated to keep a man young.
Brannigan was dressed in his usual flannel shirt and jeans, his “going to town” clothes. Chavez had dressed down since his first visit; he was wearing a leather jacket and jeans. The third man at the table, however, stood out a bit more.
Mark Van Zandt, his hair still cut in a close military regulation cut, clean shaven and straight-backed, was dressed in his usual khakis and a polo shirt, and leaning back in his chair, wisely keeping out of the conversation.
Van Zandt had been one of Brannigan’s last commanding officers. He’d also been the one to bear the news that Brannigan would be forced to retire from the Marine Corps. There was little love lost between the two of them, even though they had entered each other’s orbits once again when Van Zandt had been looking for a deniable team to send in on the Burma operation.
“You want me to take my boys into Mexico,” Brannigan said, leaning back in his chair and folding his brawny arms across his chest. “Mexico defines ‘non-permissive environment.’ Gringos are not welcome, particularly gringo contractors. I’ve done my homework, Hector. If you think there’s a snowball’s chance in hell that I’m going to go into that killing field unarmed, relying on Mexicans of dubious loyalty for protection, you’ve got another think coming.”
“This isn’t that kind of contract, John,” Van Zandt snorted. “Which should be abundantly obvious, since we’re coming to you. The guys who blew up Khadarkh and jumped into northern Burma aren’t exactly the go-to for a petroleum security operation, now are they?” Acid sarcasm dripped from his voice. Brannigan turned his glare on the retired general.
“Not the point,” Brannigan retorted. “We get spotted down there, there’s gonna be hell to pay.”
“Which is different from your last two jobs how?” Van Zandt pointed out. “Come on, John, now you’re just being difficult.”
“Why us?” Brannigan asked, after taking a deep breath. He really didn’t want to go into Mexico. He knew too much about the horror-show that was the Mexican narco-war. Khadarkh had been a simple in-and-out, on a tiny island, no less. Burma had been different, but for all the atrocities happening in Burma—some of which his crew of mercenaries, the self-styled “Brannigan’s Blackhearts,” had witnessed first-hand—Mexico was an entirely different scale. It had beaten out the Syrian Civil War for body count.
“The same reason I came to you for the Burma job,” Van Zandt said coolly. “You’re deniable. Which, I might add, is a huge selling point for Contralmirante Huerta right now, as well.”
“Who’s Huerta?” Brannigan asked.
“He’s the commander of the Mexican Marines who tried to retake the oil platform where our mysterious terrorists took their hostages,” Chavez said. “He lost most of a company in a few minutes, has been getting stonewalled by Mexico City, and wants payback.”
“So he’ll cover for us?”
“He’s assured me that he will,” Van Zandt said. “He’s under strict orders that no US military forces, including DEVGRU or Delta—who are about the only ones who could handle this otherwise; we don’t exactly have a MEU in the vicinity—are to be called upon. The platform is technically in Mexican waters, and therefore it is a Mexican affair. They don’t want help. Well, the PRI doesn’t want help. Huerta does.”
“And if he sells us down the river as soon as the job’s done?” Brannigan asked quietly.
Van Zandt shook his head. “It’s a possibility, but I’ve talked to the man. I think he’s on the level. And I made it clear that if anything goes wrong that he might have prevented, recordings of all our conversations would somehow reach the President.”
Brannigan nodded. “I expect that’s a pretty good deterrent, all things considered.”
“It should be,” Chavez said. “The PRI’s so damned corrupt, they might not even bother to put him on trial. At least not before they’ve disappeared his entire family.”
Brannigan looked down at the table, frowning. It was true enough that he’d already started feeling the itch for another mission, another fight. And his Blackhearts were the kind of mercenaries who went into impossible situations and managed to kill their way out. They’d done it twice already, and Van Zandt wouldn’t even have considered them for the job if it had been anything else.
But he couldn’t shake the bad feeling that Mexico gave him. He’d been there, many years before, before the narco wars really kicked off and the corpses started piling up. He’d liked the country then. But he’d watched as the violence, corruption, and increasingly brutal and sadistic killing had spread even to the tourist safe havens of the country. Going into Mexico struck him as the equivalent to marching into a Hieronymus Bosch painting.
“With the level of sophistication and preparation the opposition has shown,” Van Zandt said quietly, “I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that you could well be those people’s only hope of getting out alive. Especially with the Mexicans refusing official help.”
Brannigan blew out a sigh. “What do we know about the opposition?” he asked. The decision was made. He’d go. He knew his men would go, too, at least the original team.
Damn, I still haven’t recruited a new medic. He’d avoided it after Doc Villareal had gone down in Burma. Losing Doc already hurt bad enough, in addition to the guilt he felt for having taken the man back into combat, which had been his own personal hell ever since Zarghun.
“Next to nothing,” Van Zandt replied. “In the first half hour or so, several of the attacks were claimed, piecemeal, by various jihadist splinter groups, but we’re pretty sure now that none of them were in on it. It was too coordinated, and none of them had the foresight to wait until the dust settled and claim responsibility for the whole shooting match. Whoever’s behind it still hasn’t uttered a word.
“The guys you’re after are the only lead we’ve got, and they left no witnesses at the golf course,” he continued. “Their faces were covered, and they wore gloves, so we don’t even know what color they are. They are packing some serious hardware, though; bullpup rifles and SAMs at the least.”
“Insert?” Brannigan asked. He was already going over the logistics of the mission in his head. It was his great skill and something of his curse; as soon as he knew he was doing something, he started planning it.
“Don’t know yet,” Van Zandt replied. “Air appears to be out of the question; the Mexicans lost four Hips trying to take the platform back. A surface approach at night might be possible, but if they’ve got night vision and thermals—and I suspect that they do—then that could be suicide, as well. We’ll have to figure that out. Preferably without bringing the Navy into it.” He grimaced.
“The good news,” Hector Chavez put in, “is that Matamoros and the platform are both close enough to the border that you shouldn’t have to stage inside Mexico itself. You should be able to stay in Texas until it’s time to go.”
“Small favors, I suppose,” Brannigan said absently. His mind was working a mile a minute. Then his eyes sharpened, focusing in on Van Zandt. “Unless you’ve got any more intel for me, I need to get moving. If you’re right, time is pressing.”
“Unfortunately,” Van Zandt said, “that’s it. That’s part of the problem.”
“Fine,” Brannigan said, standing up. “I’ll let you know if we find any intel on the platform.”
“Why did I let you talk me into this?” Joe Flanagan asked.
Flanagan was what some might call “ruggedly handsome.” His hair and thick beard were so black as to look almost blue in certain light, his eyes were a light blue in a tanned face starting to show a few lines, and his broad shoulders and narrow waist were in keeping with his previous occupation as a Recon Marine. They were also in keeping with his current occupation as a mercenary, but that wasn’t something most people knew about.
The short, muscular man next to him grinned, pearlescent white teeth showing starkly in an ebony face. “You finally saw sense and agreed that Uncle Kevin has your best interests in mind, Joey boy,” Kevin Curtis said. “It’s been how long since you’ve been out to meet girls?”
“Don’t call me ‘Joey,’ Kev,” Flanagan growled, as Curtis pulled the door open. The shorter man just grinned wider. Curtis was built like a tank; he was a bodybuilder when he wasn’t being a gambler or a mercenary. He even had sponsorships, something that Flanagan had expressed surprise about, given that he was a midget.
That exchange of insults had been epic.
The lights of the bar gleamed off Curtis’ shaven head as he waved Flanagan past him. Flanagan, for his part, stood in the doorway a second, his eyes narrowed.
“You’re blocking the fatal funnel, Joe,” Curtis remonstrated. “It’s not having the dramatic effect that you probably hope it is. The girls will not be impressed.”
“So help me, Kev, if I agreed to this crap just to try to amuse the fat, dumpy friend…” Flanagan muttered as he stepped inside.
“Would I, who have been trying to get you a date for, well, forever, do that to you?” Curtis asked as he stepped inside and let the door close behind them.
“In a heartbeat,” Flanagan said flatly.
The bar actually didn’t look like Curtis’ usual speed. When he could be said to have a home at all, it was in Las Vegas, where he made most of his money when he wasn’t in exotic places, packing a machinegun. His usual bars were Vegas chic, with lots of neon and the kind of sleek décor that Flanagan generally found sterile.
But this place was different. The bar was wood, with wooden-and-brass stools along it and a brass foot rail. The lights were all soft and yellowish, instead of garish, multicolored neon. It actually looked classy.
“You wound me, Joe,” Curtis said, looking around. He nudged Flanagan with an elbow. “Come on. The girls are already here.”
He led the way toward the far end of the bar, where two young women were sipping their drinks. Flanagan’s eyebrow went up.
One was quite obviously Curtis’ type; she was a little bit shorter, with a curvaceous figure that her dress showed off to great effect. Her hair might have actually been blond, but there was enough dark in it that it was impossible to be sure. Curtis went straight to her, slipped a thick arm around her waist, and said something into her ear as she giggled and kissed him on the cheek.
The other woman was definitely not the “fat, dumpy friend.” She sized Flanagan up over the lip of her glass, a glint of approval and amusement in her dark eyes. She was slender and willowy, wearing a dark-blue dress that hung just below her knees, with thick, wavy black hair that fell past her shoulders and framed a flawless, heart-shaped face. She was stunning.
Flanagan realized he was staring at her like an idiot, glanced at Curtis, who was watching him with a huge, shit-eating grin on his face, swallowed, and stepped closer. “Hi,” he managed.
“Hi,” she replied with a smile. “You must be Joe.” She held out her hand, and he shook it, suddenly struck by how warm it was.
Get ahold of yourself, idiot. He was suddenly acutely aware of how long it had been since he and Mary had broken up.
“That would be me,” he answered, having to raise his voice to be heard over the noise of the bar’s clientele. “I’m afraid that Kevin wasn’t particularly forthcoming about you, though.”
“I’m Rachel,” she said, smiling even wider. “It’s nice to meet you, Joe. What are you having?”
Over the next thirty minutes, Flanagan found himself entranced. Rachel was smart, warm, and had a way of drawing him out of his shell that he’d never encountered before. He caught Kevin and the blond girl giving them sly glances from time to time. He realized he’d been set up. But by then, he really didn’t care.
Then his phone rang. And so did Curtis’, at almost the same moment.
Frowning, he pulled it out. He recognized the chime. It could only mean one thing. “Sorry, Rachel, I’ve got to check this.”
“Sure, honey,” she said, taking another sip of her beer. He felt himself get warm around the collar. She noticed, too, and smiled.
He looked down at the phone. It was a message from Brannigan.
Got a job. Get to Corpus Christi ASAP. Time Sensitive.
“Damn it,” Flanagan muttered. The one time he really, really didn’t want to get interrupted…
Curtis, as usual, was a bit louder and a bit more emotional. “Son of a bitch! Not now!” He looked like he was about ready to throw the phone. “No. No, we’re not going on this one! We can sit one out…”
Flanagan was already shoving his phone back in his pocket. “I’m really, really sorry, Rachel,” he said, trying to make himself heard over Curtis’ rantings. “But this is important. We’ve got to go.”
She smiled sadly, and then, to his surprise, leaned forward, kissed him lightly on the lips, and pulled his phone out of his pocket. She held it up. “You’re going to need to unlock this so that I can put my number in,” she said.
He blinked in surprise, then smiled, took the phone from her, and unlocked it as she’d asked. She took it back, put her information in his contacts, and handed it back to him. “Call me when you get back,” she said. “I’m looking forward to finishing our conversation.”
“So am I,” Flanagan said sincerely. Then he was hauling Curtis toward the door. The shorter man was still railing about how unfair it was.
“I’ve been setting this up for weeks!” he exclaimed. “Dammit, dammit, dammit!”
“We can’t let the rest of the boys go without us, and you damned well know it,” Flanagan said, as he dragged Curtis through the door. “I’ll drive; you check if flights are going to be quicker than driving.”
Sam Childress was moving up in the world. He wasn’t living in his aunt’s trailer anymore. He had his own apartment now. And he was paid up for most of the year.
It was an unfamiliar feeling. He hadn’t been this flush for cash in a long time. Certainly not since he’d gotten out of the Marine Corps. But all the same, he was suddenly restless.
The Burma job had meant that he hadn’t needed to go back to the temp agency and beg Julie Keating for work. He’d found that he really didn’t have anything he needed to do. He was flush enough that he could be his own man for once. And he didn’t know what to do with himself.
So, he found himself working out, watching a lot of TV, and searching for the end of the Internet. It was starting to drive him nuts. There really wasn’t that much on TV, and the less said about some of the stuff he found on the Internet, the better.
At least he had plenty of time to work out. He was getting stockier and more muscular than he thought he ever had been in his life. He still looked a little gawky; that was just a fact of his facial features and his beak of a nose.
His eyes were glazing over as the fiftieth commercial for something he’d never use and didn’t care about came on, when a heavy knock pounded at his door.
He shot off the sofa and moved quickly to the door. He wasn’t expecting anyone, but right at that moment, any diversion from his boredom was welcome.
He pulled the door open. Somehow, he was not surprised to see Carlo Santelli standing there.
Santelli had been his Battalion Sergeant Major when he had still been on Active Duty. The short, balding fireplug of a man had had occasion to bawl Childress out with his thick Boston accent quite a few times, and even sign off on his Non-Judicial Punishment that had busted him down a rank. Twice.
But those times were past. Now both men were civilians. They were also both mercenaries working for the one commander both of them would follow into anything: John Brannigan.
“I’m not broke this time, Sergeant Major,” Childress said quickly, remembering the grief that Santelli had given him for spending all the money from the Khadarkh job before they’d gone into Burma.
“Great, Sam, I’m proud of ya,” Santelli said brusquely. “Not why I’m here. Got a situation, and I need another set of hands. Grab ya crap and let’s go.”
Childress had long ago stopped hesitating when Carlo Santelli told him to do something. The fact that, unless they were on a job, Santelli had no more rank than he did didn’t ever quite register to him until later, or until Santelli reminded him of it. But there was no reminder coming this time; the stout Italian had a thunderous frown on his pugnacious face, and was hardly looking at Childress.
Childress grabbed his jacket, checked that he had his key—that was a mistake he’d made far too many times after he’d first moved into the apartment—and then stepped out into the hallway with Santelli.
“What’s up?” he asked, managing to just barely check himself before he added, “Sergeant Major.” For a man who was slightly notorious for having little to no filter on his mouth, Childress was always strictly respectful when he talked to Santelli or Brannigan.
“We’ve got some of the boys who are feeling their oats and getting a bit too loud, if you take my meaning,” Santelli said as he led the way down the hallway, about as fast as his short legs could take him. Childress had to stretch his own stride to keep up.
He didn’t ask any more questions. The hallway of his apartment building wasn’t the time or place, anyway.
Santelli led the way downstairs and out onto the street. His car was clearly a rental; the plates were from Arizona, and living in Boston, Childress didn’t know if Santelli even owned a car, much less a mid-size SUV like the blue Pathfinder sitting on the curb. Santelli swung into the driver’s seat, while Childress folded himself into the passenger’s seat.
“The new guys?” he asked, as Santelli pulled away from the curb.
“Mostly,” Santelli answered. “I got a call from Bianco; seems that a few of them decided to have a get-together.”
“Where?” Childress asked, hanging on for dear life. He hadn’t known that Santelli drove like a maniac.
“Just up the road,” was the reply. “Seems that Jenkins is based around here, too.”
They got to their destination in short order. The “Shirts and Skins” Sports Bar was set just off the highway, and the parking lot wasn’t yet packed at that time of the early evening. Santelli pulled the SUV into a parking space and threw his door open.
“Did you come all the way out here just for this, Serg…Carlo?” Childress asked, as he hurried toward the door in Santelli’s wake.
“Nah, I was already out here,” Santelli replied. He slowed just enough to give Childress a look. “Are you kidding? How fast do you think airline flights move?”
“Never mind, dumb question,” Childress muttered.
Santelli pushed through the doors, into the slightly darkened interior of the sports bar. Flickering light from at least a dozen TVs filled the room. The bar was a square island in the center, surrounded by small, round tables with cheap, black-upholstered chairs.
The Blackhearts group was easy to pick out. They were, by and large, more fit than anyone else in the room, and at that moment, also considerably louder.
Aziz, Jenkins, and Wade were arguing over a war story, specifically who had been where at what time. Childress immediately identified the place as the village in northern Burma where Doc Villareal had been killed, and they had gone into a system of tunnels after the North Korean advisors to the Kokang Communists/drug runners. It sounded like they were avoiding actually getting specific about the place, but this was bad enough.
Santelli stalked toward the table, murder in his eyes. Jenkins looked up as he and Childress approached. The former SEAL looked a little glazed; he’d clearly had a few already.
“Hey, Childress, check it out!” he said, pulling his sleeve back. He’d gotten a new tattoo, still under a wrap of clear cellophane. It was a black heart, with a fighting knife through it and crossed rifles behind it. “We’ve got a logo, dude!”
Santelli was suddenly, despite his height, looming over Jenkins. “And what the fuck made you think that that was a good idea?” he hissed. “Hey, why don’t we do merchandising, maybe get a movie deal? That sound good, too? Then we can have all sorts of government agencies looking at what we’ve been doing lately! Sounds fucking great!” He looked around the inside of the bar. “You been having fun, regaling complete strangers in public with stories that can’t possibly have any repercussions for any of us?”
“We haven’t said anything specific, Carlo,” Wade said quietly. The former Ranger NCO was a big man, clean-shaven and brown haired, with pale blue eyes and an intensity that was coming out in the form of a growing anger at being dressed down this way. “We’re not stupid.”
“Coulda fooled me,” Santelli snarled. “Talkin’ about this shit in public.” He jerked a thumb at the door. “Let’s go. Colonel’s got a job for us, and time’s wasting.” He glared at Jenkins and Aziz. Bianco had been sitting toward the back, his arms folded across his beefy torso, saying nothing. He didn’t look like he’d gotten the Blackhearts tattoo. Aziz, somewhat to Santelli’s surprise, also had cellophane showing beneath the cuff of his sleeve. Aziz had been a soldier and a professor, and hated both alternately. He tended to act like he was above the other Blackhearts, just because, and getting a tattoo like that didn’t seem in character for him.
Childress glanced at Bianco. The big man’s face was blank, and he pointedly wasn’t looking at Aziz, who was glaring daggers at him. Childress thought he understood. Bianco had protested, and Aziz, being Aziz, had done it just to put the “newbie” in his place.
Hell of a stupid reason to get inked. But it wasn’t his hide, so Childress just shrugged.
With Santelli glowering at them, and the other patrons watching the group curiously, the Blackhearts paid their checks and headed for the parking lot.
Alex Tanaka would have had to admit that he’d been a little surprised to get the text from Brannigan. He shouldn’t have been; he’d acquitted himself well in Burma, and Brannigan, Hancock, and Santelli had all said as much. But he couldn’t shake the feeling that, as a former basic leg infantryman, he didn’t belong among these former Special Operators.
He was currently trundling down the dirt road that had led to his first introduction to “Brannigan’s Blackhearts.” He’d been driving past Don Hart’s farm on the way to the airport to fly to Corpus Christi, and figured he’d swing by and see if the other man wanted to ride in with him.
He pulled into the driveway leading up to the white-painted farmhouse. Hart’s truck was still sitting by the barn, so it looked like he hadn’t missed him. He brought the car to a halt and honked.
There was no reply, no movement. He frowned, shut the engine off, and got out.
He thought he heard some sounds from inside, but they were faint. Still frowning, he stepped up onto the porch and knocked.
Was that a mumbled cry? Was Don hurt? The former Marine was an amputee; maybe something had happened. Sure, he’d jumped into Burma with no problems, but you never knew. He knocked again, harder.
“Don?” he called. “It’s Alex! You okay?”
Before he could tell if he’d heard a response or not, the sound of gravel crunching under vehicle tires came from behind him. He turned to see a silver sedan pulling up next to his car, and then Roger Hancock got out.
Roger Hancock had been Hart’s platoon sergeant in the Marine Corps; Tanaka knew that much. He also knew that he was Brannigan’s right hand man, even more so than Santelli. Lean, sharp-featured, and with his head shaved bald, Hancock seemed to see everything, and Tanaka had to admit to himself that he found him a little more intimidating than even Brannigan himself.
“What are you doing here, Alex?” Hancock asked as he mounted the steps onto the porch.
“I was driving by and thought that I’d see if Don wanted to share a ride,” Tanaka explained. “But he’s not answering the door.”
“He’s not answering his phone, either,” Hancock said. He reached past Tanaka and opened the door. It had been unlocked, but Tanaka noticed that Hancock had a key in his other hand.
Hancock pushed inside, and Tanaka realized he may as well follow. He felt a little nervous, just walking into Don’s house without being invited; he knew that most of the Blackhearts probably wouldn’t react well to such an intrusion, and he expected that most of them were well-armed.
He knew he sure was.
But they weren’t greeted by a shotgun blast. As his eyes adjusted to the darkness of the entryway, taking in the open living room leading into the dining room, he heard Hancock say, “Oh, for fuck’s sake, Don.”
Tanaka stepped around where Hancock was standing, his hands on his hips, and saw what had him so pissed off.
Hart was lying on the floor, mumbling, a mostly-empty bottle of Wild Turkey in his hand. There were similar bottles all over the room, most of them empty. Tanaka could smell the booze and acrid sweat from ten feet away.
“Come on,” Hancock snapped. “Help me get him up.”
Tanaka circled around Hart, who yelled something unintelligible and took a swing at him as he tried to take the bottle away. He dodged the punch easily, but looked up at Hancock. “Should we even take him?” he asked.
“Sounds like we’re going to need all hands on deck,” Hancock replied, as he fended off Hart’s flailing and got a hand under his arm. He lifted the burly, bearded drunk easily; Hancock was a strong dude. Given that Tanaka had heard that he did all sorts of extreme sports stuff on his off-time, that probably shouldn’t have been surprising. “And if anybody’s earned a chance to straighten himself out, I think it’s Don. Come on. We’ll put him in my car; it’s a rental, so if he pukes the only one who’s going to have to worry about it’s gonna be the poor bastard getting it ready for the next renter.”
Enemy Unidentified, third in the fast-paced Brannigan’s Blackhearts series, is now available for preorder on Kindle. Coming March 15th.