Joe Flanagan scanned the water carefully, considering the angles. There was a good spot just upstream, where a sizeable boulder lay just beneath the surface, visible only as a slightly more noticeable stirring of the water. He saw another spot closer to the bank, though, where a fallen tree and a partially collapsed overhang had formed a sheltered pool.
He stayed where he was, motionless, quiet, set back from the bank so that he wouldn’t cast a shadow on the water, and watched for a while. After a few minutes, he circled around toward the pool formed by the fallen tree. Crouching down by a pine, he watched the water carefully for a few more minutes, before finally casting into the end of the pool.
It took a couple of casts, but finally the line tautened and the tip of the rod bent. He flicked upward, setting the hook, and then started to work the fish in toward the bank.
Even as he reeled in his catch, he heard the crunch of gravel under tires, the sound of a motor stopping, and then a door being shut. Despite the battering his hearing had taken over years of gunfire and helicopters, he could still pick out the footsteps through the woods behind him. He had his back to a tree, and wasn’t easy to see, but he still shifted his position so that he could spot whoever was approaching, even as he continued working to land the fish.
The big German Brown came out of the water, lashing its tail, and he caught it under the gills before removing the hook and putting it on the stringer. Then he turned to where Brannigan stood leaning against another tree.
“You’re a hard man to find, Joe.” Brannigan shoved off the tree trunk and came down to join him. “Nobody at the cabin, no note, and your phone’s turned off.”
Flanagan shrugged as he prepped his line again and went back to studying the water. “Rachel’s friends came to take her into town for the day. Something about shopping for the baby. So, I had the day to fish.” He cast again. “I take it we’ve got a job?”
“Possibly.” Brannigan found a fallen tree, well back from the water so as to avoid disturbing Flanagan’s fishing, and sat down. The Colonel was considerate that way. “It’s not necessarily our usual thing. Maritime security. Pay’s good, though. Better than usual.” He repeated the number he’d gotten from Chavez, which raised Flanagan’s eyebrow, even as the black-bearded man finished reeling in and looked for the right spot for his next cast. “From what we know at the moment, it’s probably just going to be a boring security guard job for the month or two it’ll take to cross the ocean, but it pays well.”
Flanagan looked over at him. “John, you know as well as I do that nobody pays that much just for glorified rent-a-cops. There’s got to be more going on.”
“I’m sure there is.” Brannigan filled him in on the brief he’d gotten from Chavez. “The problem is, I’m not exactly sure what the catch is, and right at the moment, it doesn’t look like we’re going to get any more info before we’re committed.”
“That could be a problem.” Flanagan cast again, but he wasn’t just talking aimlessly while he fished. Flanagan wasn’t the kind of man who ever talked aimlessly. He was thinking it through, just like Brannigan had been for the last day or so. “Good payday or no, it might suck to find ourselves out on the ocean with only a few popguns for months, while somebody’s making entire ships disappear.”
“If Fontaine really is worried about high-end pirates, I doubt that we’ll be underequipped.” When Flanagan turned to him with another raised eyebrow, Brannigan just shrugged. “There are a lot of variables, and if enough of the boys sign on, we’ll do what we can to nail as many of them down as possible before we set sail. Fontaine’s probably not going to be an easy nut to crack, information-wise. Nobody gets as rich as he is by being forthcoming when he doesn’t absolutely have to be.”
“Hmm. How much time do we have?” Flanagan reeled in his line one more time, but this time he kept bringing it in, catching the line and securing the hook to the small loop just above the reel before tightening it down to keep the lure from swinging free.
“About two weeks.” Brannigan levered himself to his feet. Flanagan was in. He hadn’t needed to say much more than that. “We actually got a good amount of forewarning this time.”
Flanagan nodded as he and the Colonel started back toward the vehicles, picking up his stringer as he went. “Well, I think we’ve been on the bench long enough since Kyrgyzstan that most everybody will be up for this one, even if it does turn out to be a snore-fest.” He paused as they threaded their way through the trees. Flanagan hadn’t taken a trail down to the river. That was a good way to find a spot that had already been overfished. “Split the calls again?” Originally, that had been between Brannigan and Santelli, but Flanagan had taken over that side of the operation when he’d taken Roger Hancock’s place as the team’s Number Two.
Flanagan thought for a moment. “Do we call in that Tackett dude? He seemed interested.”
Brannigan mused on it. “No, he seemed pretty set on just going after the Humanity Front. This doesn’t feel like them, somehow. They wouldn’t keep this so quiet. When they come out of the woodwork, they’re trying to sow chaos, to cover for whatever sick game they’ve got in the works this time, to ‘improve the state of the world.’” He shook his head. “If we have a good reason to think it’s the Front, we’ll call him in. Until then, it’s just us.”
“Fair.” Ahead, they could see the faint outlines of their respective trucks. Flanagan didn’t live all that far from Brannigan’s place, which made contact simpler. “I’ll get the usual.”
“One other thing.” Brannigan paused before turning to his own vehicle. “We’re down a medic again, after Herc went down. Have you got any ideas?”
Flanagan stowed his fishing gear in his truck. “Actually, I do. One of our old platoon corpsmen.”
“Which one?” Brannigan frowned. Flanagan glanced over at him, knowing that the Old Man probably knew exactly who he was about to name.
Brannigan frowned. “Haven’t heard that name in a long time. He was a bit of a hothead, wasn’t he?”
“He could be.” Flanagan chuckled. “I still don’t know how you manage to remember every single dude who served under you by name, John.”
“It fills up memory that might otherwise be wasted with movies and random bullshit.” Brannigan pulled his door open. “Okay, give him a shot. I’ll leave it up to your judgement whether or not he’s good.”
“Meet at your place?” Flanagan climbed up on his own running board.
“I’ll let you know. It might be better to go straight to Charleston and put our ears to the ground.” Brannigan slid behind the wheel of his truck. “With the limited amount of information we have, I want as much time to snoop around as we can get.”
Carlo Santelli looked up at the bang and the curse that followed immediately after it. He shook his head. Prado could be a bit high-strung. He was a good mechanic, though.
Santelli returned his attention to the search for parts. Parts for the 1960 Chevelle currently in the garage were getting harder to find, and more expensive as a consequence. He’d found what he was looking for, but he was still hoping to find a better deal.
His little auto restoration business was booming, and that was why he’d brought Don Prado on. The man was a great mechanic and had a passion for old cars, and he and Carlo had known each other for the better part of forty years, anyway. The partnership had been natural.
The phone buzzed. Santelli sighed. They had a full job list for the next six months. There simply wasn’t room for any more projects. Still, he should at least answer it.
It wasn’t a customer looking to get old car fixed up. It was Brannigan.
“What have we got, sir?” If Santelli’s Boston Italian accent had softened a little during his many years in the Marine Corps, moving back to the old neighborhood had only made it thicker.
“On the surface, it’s a maritime security op. Might be more to it. It’ll probably be a couple of months.” As always, Brannigan was pretty terse over the phone. What the Blackhearts did often skated the edge of illegal, where it didn’t throw itself right over that line at a dead sprint. “Can Melissa and the business spare you that long?”
“I’ve got a partner now, and it might slow things down a little, but he’s a good dude. He can handle it. As for Melissa…” He sighed. “I’ll talk to her.”
Brannigan paused. “Anything wrong?”
“No, sir. Nothing’s wrong. We’ve had a long talk about it. Several long talks, as a matter of fact.” He sighed again. “It’s not as hard on her anymore. She understands that I can’t just let you guys go while I stay back. She gets it. I never thought she would, but she does.”
“You’ve got a remarkable wife, Carlo.”
“I know it, sir. When and where?”
“Charleston, as soon as you can get there. There’s a lot of snooping around that needs to get done before we go to sea. A lot of unknowns on this job. Drills can happen once we’re underway.”
Santelli did some reading between the lines. “Understood. Need me to handle any of the calls?”
“Not right now. Flanagan and I have it covered.”
“Roger that, sir. I’ll see you in Charleston.” He hung up the phone and headed into the garage to let Prado know what was going on. The other man didn’t know a lot of details about Santelli’s other career, but he knew enough that he wouldn’t be that surprised.
Another bang was followed by another curse. It was probably going to get a little louder in there in the next few minutes.
“Cease fire! Cease fucking fire!”
John Wade stormed across the range and shouldered between two of the students, snatching the pistol out of the young man’s hands, careful to keep the muzzle pointed up and downrange. “What the fuck was that?”
“What?” The kid looked shocked and angry. “I was just talking to her.”
“You had your fucking muzzle pointed at her leg and your finger on the fucking trigger!” The sheer force of Wade’s rage made the young man, his curly hair not quite long enough to get Wade to call him a hippy, but far longer than he liked, take a step back. “Get off the range!”
“Hey, I paid for this!” The kid apparently didn’t have a great sense of self preservation.
For a long moment, Wade just stared at him, unblinking, his icy blue eyes finally making the kid second-guess his indignation at getting yelled at.
“Yes, you paid. And I’ll make sure you get fully reimbursed.” That almost physically hurt to say. Damn, I hate working with civvies. “You aren’t staying on this range one more minute, though. You’re a threat to yourself and everyone around you. Get moving.”
At first, it looked like the kid was going to argue. Everyone else on the line was looking at him, and anger stirred in his eyes, but as Wade took another step closer, the kid realized that a fight was not going to go his way. John Wade, formerly of the 75th Ranger Regiment, stood half a head taller and easily seventy-five pounds heavier. He hadn’t gone slack at all since his retirement several years before, and he really hadn’t mellowed much, either.
“Hey, I’m a paying customer!”
“Not anymore, you’re not. Get off my range.” He took another step, and the kid finally decided that discretion was the better part of valor. With a bitter curse, the young man spat on the ground and turned to leave, his departure becoming somewhat speedier when Wade took another fast step toward him, murder in his eyes.
As the kid retreated rapidly toward the parking lot, Wade unloaded the pistol, grimacing as he considered that he was going to have to give the weapon back. Not with bullets in it, I’m not. He shucked the rounds out of the magazine. “Everybody take ten, jam mags, get some water, take a bathroom break.” He started after the kid, gritting his teeth at the knowledge of how this was probably going to go.
His phone buzzed in his pocket before he’d gotten halfway to the parking lot. Glad for a moment’s reprieve from having to give the moron’s Glock back, he stopped and looked at it.
“Joe. Tell me we’ve got a job.”
Flanagan sounded slightly nonplused. “How’s the range going, John?”
“Well, the business is actually running slightly more smoothly without Jenkins around to screw it up.” The former SEAL had gone down like a hero, and that had regained him some points in all of their eyes, but Wade was not a sentimental man. “The quality of the customers, however, is wildly variable.”
He wondered if Flanagan could hear him grinding his teeth over the phone.
“It can be that way sometimes.” Flanagan knew Wade well enough to know what his temperament was like. “We do have a job. On the surface, it’s a straight-up maritime security op.”
“Gross.” Wade looked up at the parking lot and grimaced. “Not looking forward to sitting on a ship for a couple of months. What’s the pay?”
Flanagan told him. “That ain’t nothin’.” He sighed. “It can’t be much more frustrating than this. When and where?” That was the matter of moments. “I’ll be there. Now I’ve got to go give this idiot his Glock back and give him another lecture on the importance of gun safety before I finish kicking him off my range.” Technically, it had been Don Hart’s range, but he’d left it to the Blackhearts when he’d been killed in Chad.
“Just don’t kill him. I’ll see you in Charleston.”
Marque and Reprisal is out on Kindle and Paperback July 18.