“Dad? Looks like Uncle Hector’s here.”
John Brannigan looked up from the table. Hank, leaner and shorter than his father by several inches, was peering out the door at the driveway, noticeably staying out of the light, off to one side, where a newcomer shouldn’t be able to see him. The boy had been an officer, but he’d learned. He should have, given the fact that his old man had been something of an infantry legend. Still. He’d learned even more since he’d left the Marine Corps and become a member of the secretive mercenary team that called itself Brannigan’s Blackhearts.
Brannigan shut the ledger in front of him with a faint frown and got up to step around the table and move to the other window. Sure enough, that was Hector Chavez’s car pulling up the driveway. “That’s weird. Usually he calls ahead.”
“Maybe the cell signal’s not working up here again.”
“Wouldn’t that be a shame,” Brannigan growled. The only reason he had the infernal device in the first place was because of the Blackhearts. Otherwise, he would have been perfectly happy to go completely off grid up here.
Thrusting his .45 into the back of his waistband, just in case, he opened the door and stepped out as the dark blue sedan came to a halt and the driver—it was Chavez, he could see clearly enough through the windshield to be sure of that—shut off the engine. Then the only sound was the wind whispering through the tops of the pines all around.
Chavez opened the door and levered himself out, holding up his hands. “I know, I know. I didn’t call ahead.” He looked around at the shadows under the trees. “I think you’ll agree that it was probably better to leave this off the airwaves.”
Brannigan raised an eyebrow at that, but he just waved the smaller man toward the house and turned to go back inside. It was a nice day, but if Chavez was that worried about surveillance, then they probably should head inside, just in case.
Chavez was about a head shorter than Brannigan, but at the former Marine Colonel’s six-foot-five, that wasn’t that difficult. He had slimmed down since his retirement, just shy of getting stars, which had come shortly after Brannigan’s own somewhat unwilling departure from the Marine Corps, but that had also been necessitated by Chavez’s heart problems.
Hank greeted his father’s old friend, then stepped back toward the rear of the cabin, unsure as to whether he should stay or not. “Stay put, Hank. This concerns you, too.” Chavez was slow to sit down, stretching as he looked around the small log house that Brannigan had built for his wife, now in her grave for several years. It was neat, but it was a military neatness, the result of long habit on the part of both father and son, without the homey touch that a woman would have brought. He glanced at Hank, but if he’d thought of something to say about that, he kept it to himself.
Brannigan had been working outside most of the morning, and he and Chavez went way back, so he didn’t stand on ceremony. He went to the cupboard, pulled down a bottle of bourbon, poured two glasses, and shoved one across the table to Chavez as he sat down. It was early, but this was apparently a business visit, so he figured it was appropriate. And while Chavez was a pro, and wasn’t one to wear his feelings on his sleeve, something about his manner told Brannigan that this was going to be a doozy.
“What have you got, Hector?” He leaned back in his chair as Chavez took a sip of the whiskey.
Chavez took a deep breath before he answered. “My company just recently got solicited for a job.” Chavez had been running an aboveboard maritime security concern since his retirement, which often served as a useful front for his side gig of setting up jobs for Brannigan’s Blackhearts. He had contacts throughout the military and security worlds, and he heard a lot, not to mention having logistical connections that often came in handy for transportation and support. “On the surface, it looks like any other maritime security gig.”
Hank stifled a groan. Chavez chuckled slightly. Maritime security, for all its romantic air of fighting pirates, often boiled down to months of unutterable boredom aboard a ship, in cramped quarters with bad food, with bare-bones weapons and equipment. For those who knew the security contracting world, it was decent money but generally undesirable work.
It also wasn’t up the Blackhearts’ usual alley. They were problem solvers, not security guards. They went into dark, dangerous places, killed who needed killing, and got out.
“On the surface, I said.” Chavez finally pulled up a chair. “The more I looked into it, the more I saw that there’s more going on than it appears.
“There’s been a string of pirate attacks over the last several months that have been outside the usual pattern. Ordinarily, pirates tend to congregate near choke points, like the Horn of Africa, the Straits of Malacca, places like that. High-traffic sea lanes where they can dart out, take a freighter or a tanker, hold it for ransom, or, like the West African pirates, just kill the crew and sell the cargo.
“These attacks, though, haven’t gone down near any of the usual hot spots. They’ve all been way out in the open ocean.” He took another sip of the bourbon. “In fact, the whole thing might have been put down to a series of unlikely accidents if not for one ship that managed to get a message out before they were cut off. After that, looking at the pattern of high-value, often secret, cargoes that have gone missing over the last six months, it’s become apparent that there is a highly sophisticated pirate group operating in the Atlantic. To make matters worse, it looks like whoever they are, they’re following the Nigerian pirate model of making the crews disappear and taking the cargo. They might be sinking the ships, or they might be transporting them somewhere else after disabling their transponders. We simply don’t know.
“Insurance companies are starting to quietly panic. So far, the problem isn’t advanced enough that it’s gotten much notice, but it’s only a matter of time.” He chuckled slightly. “There is another reason it hasn’t necessarily been in the news lately, though. Apparently, a Navy counter-piracy task force went out looking for the pirates last month and came up empty. The Pentagon does not want that getting out.”
“So,” Brannigan mused, “the client wants some actual pirate hunters?”
“Not in so many words, but it can be read between the lines. The owner of the Dream Empire wants as elite a maritime security team as he can get for a passage from Charleston, South Carolina to Cyprus.” Chavez took another sip, watching Brannigan closely.
For his part, Brannigan didn’t react except to sample his own drink. “You say that name as if it means something, but I’m not familiar with the ship.”
“It’s a super yacht, sister ship to the Octopus. Four hundred feet, with two helipads and even its own submersible. It’s one of only two such yachts in the world. And Joshua Fontaine is the owner.”
Brannigan did raise an eyebrow at that. Even as far up in the hills as he lived, and as generally disinterested in the world of celebrities and the rich and famous as he might be, he’d still heard of the billionaire playboy and philanthropist. He trusted such people about as far as he could throw his truck.
“So, Fontaine is worried about his toy?” Hank was leaning against the wall near the back door, his arms folded. Shorter than his father by an inch and lighter by about fifty pounds, he took more after his mother, and Chavez could see it.
“So it would seem. Once again, that’s the surface level. Turns out that a cargo that went missing last month belonged to one of Fontaine’s shell companies. From what I’ve been able to ascertain, it’s the first time any of his interests have been targeted. He’s worried.” Chavez turned back to Brannigan, who was thinking things through, his eyes narrowed. “I know that security guard on a ship isn’t exactly your bailiwick, but between the irregularities about this job and the size of the offered paycheck, I thought I’d bring it to you.”
“How big a paycheck?” Brannigan asked.
Chavez named a figure. Hank’s eyebrows shot up. Brannigan just nodded coolly. “It’s a chunk of change. Almost enough to offset the fact that a maritime security gig is going to be a tough sell to these guys. Most of them could probably retire on what we’ve made over the last few years. Except for maybe Curtis.” He leaned his elbows on the table and swirled the whiskey in his glass. “The ‘irregularities,’ as you put it, might be the selling point. We’d have to know more about exactly what Fontaine has in mind, though. Is he just trying to keep his investment safe, or is he really looking for a paramilitary force to cross swords with the pirates?”
“That’s a little hard to say.” Chavez poured the last of the bourbon down his throat. “The job description was necessarily vague. He probably can’t come out and say that he’s looking for private pirate hunters, not legally. Since it is Fontaine, though, and he’s got more money than Midas, I’m sure that it’ll come out sooner or later, probably once you’re twelve nautical miles out to sea.”
Brannigan snorted softly. “Sounds about right.” He ran a hand over his mustache. “I’ll put it to the boys. No guarantees at this point, but if there really is somebody out there disappearing ships, it might be something we should look into. Even if the client just wants nice, quiet security guards.”
Chavez chuckled. “Wouldn’t be the first time.”
Brannigan poured them each a second drink. “Won’t be the last.”
Marque and Reprisal is out on Kindle and Paperback on July 18.