The Rocking K Diner was quiet, but it was the middle of the afternoon on a weekday. Most people in that neck of the woods had to work. John Brannigan had plenty of chores to do around his cabin up the mountain, but his situation was a little different.

And the message he’d gotten from Mark Van Zandt had been more than a little intriguing.

Brannigan threaded his way between the tables toward the back, trading a friendly wave with Ginger, Mama Taft’s granddaughter and permanent waitress, who would probably inherit the diner whenever Mama passed away. Granted, Mama Taft was hard as nails, and probably wouldn’t die until Death himself came and dragged her away, cussing and punching him in the face. It would be a long time before Ginger inherited, but the cheerful, bouncy young redhead was fine with that.

Van Zandt was sitting in the corner booth, all the way in the back, nursing a cup of coffee. He’d dressed down a bit since the first time he’d come to the Rocking K, wearing jeans and a flannel shirt. The first time, he’d been in slacks and a corporate polo shirt.

Brannigan and Van Zandt had a history. Not a particularly pleasant one at all points, either. It had been Brigadier General Van Zandt who had supervised the unwilling retirement of Colonel John Brannigan from the Marine Corps, because Brannigan had ignored politics while deployed in East Africa, and had done what he’d thought was right. He’d rescued the people he’d set out to rescue, but killing local soldiers to do it had stepped on some toes, and so he’d been sacrificed. And Van Zandt had been the one to wield the knife.

But that was all behind them. Because they were both in the private sector now. And that was why they were meeting in a diner in the middle of nowhere.

Brannigan slid into the booth across from Van Zandt. “Hello, Mark.”

“John.” Van Zandt nodded to him as he glanced toward the door. He seemed almost nervous, which was odd for him. He’d always been a bit of a stuffed shirt, but he’d been a Marine. Flighty wasn’t in his nature.

He held his peace as Ginger came by and slid another cup of coffee in front of Brannigan. “Anything else I can get you?”

“No, thanks, Ginger.” Brannigan cradled the cup in his hands. “It’s still too early in the day.”

She dimpled and patted him on the shoulder. The Tafts had developed a sort of familial attachment to him, since he’d started coming down the mountain to eat, especially since he often brought some venison with him during hunting season. “You have a good meeting, then.”

Van Zandt raised an eyebrow. “She knows this is a meeting?”

Brannigan gave him a long-suffering stare. “You’re not from around here, and Hector’s come to meet me here before you became a part of this operation, Mark. Of course she knows it’s a meeting.”

Van Zandt sighed and looked down at the table. “I guess you’re right.”

Brannigan took a sip. The coffee was good, and scalding hot. “You’re not usually this jumpy. What’s up?”

“I’ve got another job for you.” Van Zandt still wasn’t looking him in the eye. Brannigan’s frown deepened. Something was off. “But it’s… not exactly standard.”

“We’re mercenaries specializing in deniable operations, Mark. Everything we do is ‘non-standard.’”

But Van Zandt was still frowning. “Not like this. This is… weird.”

Brannigan leaned back in his seat and crossed his arms. “Okay, lay it out for me.”

“Have you ever heard of a city called San Tabal?” Van Zandt brought a thin folder out and put it on the table.

Brannigan’s eyes narrowed as he saw just how thin that folder was. Their target packages were usually much more substantial. “Can’t say as I have.”

“It’s a small city in northeastern Colombia, awfully close to the Venezuelan border. Most of its economy is entirely dependent on farming and ranching in the mountains nearby.” Van Zandt pulled a map out of the folder. It didn’t look like there was much else in there. He slid it across to Brannigan, who studied it.

Awfully close to the Venezuelan border is right. It looked like the city was less than ten miles from the line. And there wasn’t much more than mountains and jungle covering that ten miles.

“Two weeks ago, a disgraced Colombian general named Ramon Clemente seized control of the city with a small army. They don’t have a name, but they are generally referred to as the Green Shirts, because that’s the closest they’ve got to a uniform.” Van Zandt ran a hand over his face. “There’s close to zero information on these people aside from a handful of pictures that have gotten out. Pictures of a mass execution in the town square and the mayor getting lynched shortly thereafter.”

“That’s pretty close to FARC territory.” Brannigan looked up at Van Zandt, who was still looking down at the map, his hands folded in front of his face. “Are they FARC? ELN? Or somebody new?”

Van Zandt shrugged. “We don’t know for sure. The one statement that’s made it out sounds really Communist, but like I said, there’s not much information readily available.”

Brannigan turned his eyes back down to the map. It wasn’t much more than a topographic map of the Colombia-Venezuela border region. San Tabal, nestled between two taller mountain ranges, had been circled, but that was about it. The map was about as informative as the rest of Van Zandt’s brief so far.

“So, what’s the mission? I’d suspect something like Khadarkh, where we had to go in and rescue some hostages, but you make it sound like it’s something different.” His expression turned thunderous. “If it’s some half-baked takeover attempt, count us out. I want no part of any Silvercorp nonsense.”

Van Zandt’s mouth thinned. “Yeah.” He pulled a single sheet of paper out of the folder and slid it across the table. “Someone with all the right clearances wants Clemente dead. And he’s already got everything planned out.”

Brannigan didn’t even look at the sheet of paper. “No way in hell.”

Van Zandt sighed. “I know. That’s why I said it’s non-standard. It’s sketchy as hell.” He ran both hands over his face and dropped them to the tabletop, looking around helplessly. “Unfortunately, we’re in a crack.”

“How so?” Brannigan was starting to get that distinct sinking feeling in his gut. His voice took on a dangerous edge. “What have you gotten us into, Mark?”

“It wasn’t my doing.” The protestation of innocence might have sounded petulant under different circumstances, but right then Van Zandt just sounded tired. “Unfortunately, the fact that most of what your little crew has done has been for Uncle Sam means that this little operation can’t be entirely airtight. It was probably inevitable that somebody was going to try to stick their oar in.”

“That doesn’t mean we just have to take every Good Idea Fairy mission that comes along.” Brannigan’s voice was as hard and unforgiving as his stare. “We’re contractors, not employees or sworn agents.”

“And I’d agree with you, if this particular politico wasn’t a very powerful and very unscrupulous asshole.” Van Zandt sighed again. “We don’t have much of a choice on this one, John.”

“Who is it?”

Van Zandt’s glance got suddenly sharp, as he detected the threat implicit in Brannigan’s tone. “Don’t even think about it, John. There’s no scaring this one into line. Not now.”

“Who. Is. It?” Brannigan was relentless.

Another sigh. “It’s a Senator. One with a chair on the Intelligence Committee, who can cause us a lot of difficulties if we give him a reason. And it has been made abundantly clear to me that turning this mission down will be considered that reason. You might have been in the right—we might have been in the right—but that won’t stop him from digging us up and finding something to nail us all to the wall. And given the generally illegal and under-the-table nature of your missions, that isn’t going to be hard.” He sighed. “Hell, all he’s got to do is get wind of that business down in New Mexico, and you’re screwed.”

Brannigan’s silence was thunderous. His knuckles whitened around his coffee cup. He stared at the map, searching it for a way out.

Because he knew that Van Zandt was right. They’d run that risk as soon as they’d taken on the Khadarkh job. Mercenary operations in foreign countries were not something that American politicians liked to go public. They were embarrassing, despite how many other countries did it without even bothering to shrug. That made them a political weapon, never mind how justified they might have been.

And it made Brannigan’s Blackhearts targets.

Van Zandt steepled his fingers and lowered his voice. “Now, before you lose your temper, hear me out. There’s more to this than meets the eye. Like I said, it’s sketchy as hell, and it has me very suspicious. I’ve dealt with this particular Senator before. Calling him an arrogant jackass is an insult to arrogant jackasses the world over. And I say that as one of them.”

Brannigan raised an eyebrow, but otherwise didn’t comment. He’d never heard Van Zandt be self-deprecating before.

“I guaran-damn-tee he’s got some kind of angle going here. I don’t know what it is, yet, but the fact that we got a canned plan—all the way down to the timeline, ambush site, and everything—tells me a lot. He wants Clemente dead, and no questions asked. Well, he apparently thinks that your little hit squad is just that—a no questions asked hit squad. And he’s arrogant enough that he figures that we’ll just go along with the plan because we don’t want to be exposed.”

He jabbed a finger at the paper that Brannigan still hadn’t read. “We’ve got three weeks before this is supposed to go down. That’s a lot of time, if you get moving now. Plenty of time for reconnaissance.” He leaned forward. “Possibly enough time to learn what has the Senator so interested in one man’s death.”

Brannigan’s eyes narrowed, but he held his peace. He could kind of see Van Zandt’s point. If the Senator was on the Intelligence Committee, and therefore had some access to whatever shadowy office Van Zandt worked for, he might be able to blackmail both Van Zandt’s people and the Blackhearts to do this. For certain, not all of their operations had been sanctioned and aboveboard—and even if they had been, Brannigan had enough experience under his belt to know that politicians really didn’t care about such things. If they wanted, they could turn a legit mission into a perceived rogue operation overnight. He’d seen it done before.

Hell, it was why he was retired.

“We might have to take this mission.” Van Zandt was in earnest. “But there’s nothing saying we’ve got to be patsies.” He jabbed a finger at the map. “Get in there and do what you do best. If nothing else, you should be able to find out what the Senator’s interest is, and we can adjust as needed from there.” He grinned like a death’s head. “If we’re really lucky, we’ll be able to use that interest against him. He’s got to have a reason why he doesn’t want you doing anything but flying in, setting charges, blowing up one vehicle, and leaving.”

Brannigan thought about it, finally sipping his coffee. It had cooled, though Mama Taft always served it scalding hot to begin with, so it wasn’t cold.

As much as he hated to admit it, Van Zandt was right. He’d seen it before. The only reason that this Senator—and he had a pretty good idea who it was—might risk something like this would be because he figured that he had the Blackhearts—and Van Zandt’s office—over a barrel. Such people always thought they were untouchable. And if they turned it down, he had no doubt that the FBI would be knocking on their doors within the week.

He wouldn’t apologize for anything they’d done. They’d been on the right side, even if the law could technically be brought to bear against them for any of their past operations. He’d made sure of that. They were warriors, not thugs.

But he had a responsibility to the other Blackhearts. He might be an aging widower who could stand to go to prison if that was the price for doing the right thing. But many of the others weren’t. Flanagan was due to get married before the end of the year. Santelli had saved his own marriage and was now a father. None of them deserved prison for what they’d done. They’d killed terrorists and rescued innocent people, and possibly prevented countless deaths.

He’d never apologize for that.

So, despite searching his mind for an alternative, the best option he could come up with was Van Zandt’s plan. Play along until they could find out what was really going on.

Then cram it down the Senator’s throat.

He sighed. “Why haven’t the Colombians intervened? This is technically a Colombian problem.”

Van Zandt shrugged, even as he visibly relaxed. Brannigan might not have said as much, but the question had already established that he’d taken the job. “Nobody knows for sure. It’s possible that Clemente has something to hold over someone important’s head in Bogota, or he’s got an arrangement with somebody in high places. More likely at the moment, the proximity to Venezuela and the remaining FARC and ELN camps is a deterrent. Apparently, the Venezuelan Army has been running exercises in the mountains on the other side of the line for the last month. Colombia’s got all kinds of problems since their peace deal with the FARC didn’t result in sunshine and rainbows, and we believe that a potential war with Venezuela is more than they’re willing to risk.”

“That suggests that this Clemente has connections in Venezuela.” Brannigan stroked his graying handlebar mustache.

“It would fit with the Communist rhetoric,” Van Zandt agreed.

“What about logistics?” Brannigan finally pulled the plan toward himself and started to skim it.

“We can arrange transport via charter air. I’ll get on it as soon as I get back to the office.” Van Zandt pointed to the page in Brannigan’s hands. “Weapons will have to be procured down there—that’s already in the plan. There’s even a local contact, but I think that you should consider him compromised.”

Brannigan nodded, then folded the page and slid it into his shirt pocket. “I’ll need to start making some arrangements. The less that you know, the less that Senator can pry out of you when he comes sniffing around.”

Van Zandt nodded in turn. “Agreed. Can’t say as I like it, but you’re right.”

Brannigan downed the last of the coffee and stood up.

“John?” Van Zandt was looking up at him, concern in his eyes. It was an expression that Brannigan wouldn’t necessarily have expected to see on the other man’s face even a few years before. “Watch your back.”

“You too, Mark.”

War to the Knife is out on Kindle and Paperback May 18.

War to the Knife Chapter 2

Peter Nealen

Peter Nealen is a former Reconnaissance Marine and veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan. He deployed to Iraq in 2005-2006, and again in 2007, with 1st Platoon, Bravo Company, 1st Recon Bn. After two years of schools and workups, including Scout/Sniper Basic and Team Leader's Courses, he deployed to Afghanistan with 4th Platoon, Force Reconnaissance Company, I MEF. Since he got out, he's been writing, authoring many articles and 24 books, mostly Action/Adventure and Military Thrillers, with some excursions into Paranormal Fantasy and Science Fiction.

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