Burmese Crossfire Chapter 2

The paperback proof is here, the Kindle pre-order is up ($0.99 until Jan 20, when it goes up to $3.99), and here is Chapter 2 to whet more appetites.


The unimaginatively-named “Road-House” lay just off the highway, about twenty miles from the nearest town.  It didn’t get a lot of traffic, except for the occasional motorist stopping in to grab something to eat, either at the gas station attached to the “Road-House” or at the restaurant and bar itself.

John Brannigan nearly filled the doorway as he stepped inside.  Six-foot-four, broad-shouldered, he retained the leanness and power of a man much younger than his nearly fifty years.  His hair was going gray, as was the thick handlebar mustache he’d grown since he’d retired—not entirely willingly—from the Marine Corps, some years before.  Deep lines surrounded his icy eyes as he swept the interior of the restaurant with a practiced, professional gaze.  This was a man who had never stepped into a room without knowing the layout, who was in it, and how to get out.

It wasn’t that he was paranoid.  It was simply a fact that twenty-three years as a Marine, both enlisted and commissioned, had hard-wired certain habits into him.  And his most recent work hadn’t served to dull those habits any, either.

Hector Chavez was waiting by the bar, sitting on a stool with one elbow on the bar and the other hand on his knee, so that he needed only turn his head to see the door.  He grinned a little as he hitched himself off the stool and stepped toward Brannigan, holding out his hand.

“Good to see you again, John.”  Chavez was getting a little heavy, his gray hair thinning.  He still moved well, for a man whose heart didn’t quite work right anymore.

Brannigan shook the other man’s hand.  Chavez’ ticker might need a pacemaker, but his grip was still strong.  “Did you let Mama Taft intimidate you last time, Hector?” he asked, with a half-smile.

Chavez chuckled.  “No, though that is certainly an intimidating woman.”  He sobered.  “I just figured that establishing a pattern of life might not be the best idea.  If we keep meeting in the same diner, with different clients, somebody might start to think that you’re working as some kind of consultant.  And then they might start wondering what kind of consulting a man like you does.”

Brannigan nodded.  The reasoning was sound.  The last job that Chavez had brought him, his first as a mercenary, had been high-risk and highly illegal.  That it had been the right thing to do wouldn’t matter if the wrong people got wind of it.

He looked around for his new client, but Chavez appeared to be alone.  Noticing the look, Chavez inclined his head toward the back of the restaurant and said, “Come on.  And John?  Try to keep an open mind, all right?”

Brannigan frowned at that, but said nothing as he followed Chavez toward the back.  It was the middle of the afternoon, so the restaurant was pretty empty.  An older couple was sitting at one of the polished wooden tables against the front wall, and there was a single man sitting at the opposite end of the bar from where Chavez had been, but otherwise the rustic-looking place was deserted.

They passed through the doorway leading to the back room, which was similarly empty except for more tables, a few booths, and a bussing area.  There was a man sitting alone at a table in the center of the room, who looked up as Chavez and Brannigan walked in.

Brannigan’s mouth thinned as he recognized him.  Aside from the fact that he was presently dressed in a polo shirt and jeans, instead of MARPAT camouflage utilities, General Mark Van Zandt didn’t appear to have changed a bit since Brannigan had last seen him.

He’d last seen Van Zandt via a VTC from the USS Boxer, as the General was informing him that, due to his disregard for the restrictive Rules of Engagement in East Africa, a disregard that had been necessitated by the situation he and his Marines had found on the ground, he would be “allowed” to retire, rather than be court-martialed for getting into a firefight with the local army’s soldiers.  That those soldiers had been actively defending the terrorists that were holding the hostages Brannigan and his Marines had been tasked to rescue hadn’t mattered to the politicians or the Marine Corps.  Needless to say, there was not a little bitterness there.

Van Zandt stood up as they approached, somewhat to Brannigan’s surprise.  He’d long considered the man a typical careerist officer, by which he meant a politician, more than willing to lord his position over subordinates and step on anyone and everyone for the sake of his own advancement.  He hadn’t expected even so much a mark of respect as standing from the man, especially after their last interaction.

“John,” Van Zandt said in greeting, holding out his hand.

Brannigan shot Chavez a brief look that promised words later, then shook the proffered hand.  He might not like Van Zandt, but he’d be damned if he let himself sink to the level of answering discourtesy with discourtesy, and when the man was actually being courteous…

“Mark,” he replied evenly.  “What are you doing here?”

“Please, have a seat,” Van Zandt said.  He was clearly uncomfortable.  Chavez pulled up a chair and sat down, and Brannigan warily followed suit.

“Mark came to me about two days ago,” Chavez said.  “He was specifically looking for you.”

Brannigan hadn’t taken his eyes off Van Zandt.  “And why might that be, Mark?” he asked, his voice low and dangerous.  “I’m sure this isn’t a social call.”

“It isn’t,” Van Zandt replied, “though not for the reasons you might be thinking.  For one thing, I’m retired now, just like you.”  When Brannigan’s eyes narrowed, Van Zandt actually flushed, apparently realizing that it had been the wrong choice of words.  Brannigan took some pride in being a fair man, but he hadn’t quite realized just how raw this particular wound still was.

“Look, I was just the messenger last time, John,” he said.

“Sure you were,” Brannigan rumbled, recognizing the play for what it was.  Van Zandt wanted something.  Otherwise, he wouldn’t have been trying to play nice.  “So, whose messenger boy are you this time?”

“Okay, look,” Van Zandt said, leaning forward and putting his elbows on the table, apparently deciding to go for broke and get his cards on the table, “I know that you led the operation on Khadarkh a few months ago.  Some of my people interviewed the hostages, and some of them described you pretty accurately.  Don’t worry,” he said, putting his hands up as Brannigan tensed, ever so much, “I’m not here to arrest you or press charges or anything like that.  Once again, success is your best defense, and on top of the intel about the Saudi missiles that you passed to Hector, you’re golden.  Even if I wanted to—which I don’t—there are some very important people who would put the kibosh on any attempt to come down on you for that operation.”

“Okay,” Brannigan said, leaning back in his chair and folding his arms, corded with muscle from living and working outside most of the last three years, “then what do you want?”

Van Zandt took a deep breath.  “What do you know about a North Korean desk called ‘Bureau 39?’”

Brannigan frowned, searching his memory.  “Don’t they have something to do with organized crime?” he asked.

Van Zandt and Chavez both nodded.  “Though in their case,” Chavez put in, “’having something to do with’ means that they’re an official, state-sponsored criminal organization.”

“Their mandate appears to be to help fund the DPRK through the global criminal underworld,” Van Zandt elaborated.  “Drugs, smuggling, weapons, shady real-estate deals, money laundering, human trafficking, illegal mining…you name it, Bureau 39 has a hand in it somewhere.  They’ve been very active in Africa, right alongside the Chinese.  It’s estimated that millions upon millions of dollars get funneled to Pyongyang every year by Bureau 39 activities.”

“Figures,” Brannigan said.  “Never was a Communist born who wasn’t also a gangster.”

“As with any underworld operation,” Van Zandt continued as he nodded his agreement, “their precise activities are hard to track.  It’s not like these people make quarterly earnings statements.  But considering how deep in that criminal underworld they are, drugs are pretty high on their list of revenue streams, and being based in Asia, that means we’ve long suspected they have dealings in the Golden Triangle.”

Brannigan nodded.  The Golden Triangle was in the highlands along the borders of Burma, Thailand, and Laos, and was one of the world’s foremost opium poppy producing regions, only possibly surpassed by southern Afghanistan.  “Stands to reason,” he agreed.

“Well, we have reason to believe that their involvement has been stepped up a notch,” Van Zandt said, pulling a tablet out of the briefcase next to his chair.  He tapped it, then swung it around and slid it across the table to Brannigan.  “This happened six days ago, along the Thai/Burmese border, about six miles from Wiang Phang Kham.”

Brannigan took the tablet and studied the photo.  It didn’t take an expert to recognize the aftermath of an ambush.  Two five-ton trucks had been reduced to burned-out skeletons, a third was shot to hell, and there were bloody, motionless bodies strewn around what looked very much like the craters from mortar strikes.  He looked up at Van Zandt.  “What makes you think this was the Norks?” he asked.  “As I recall, there have been all kinds of clashes along that border, between the Thais and the various drug lords and warlords in Burma.”

“There have been,” Van Zandt agreed, “though never quite this intense, not recently.  And we would simply have assumed that it was some of the United Wa State Army having a bit of a dispute with the Thai Rangers over border crossing bribes, except for the next pictures.  Keep scrolling.”

Brannigan did, as Van Zandt continued to explain.  “The Thais had ISR up, but there was a fair bit of low cloud cover that day, so they didn’t see much of the actual ambush.  But the clouds were starting to lift shortly after, and they managed to get those next photos.”

Brannigan zoomed in the image, though that just made the figures more blurred and pixelated.  But whoever those three were, they weren’t wearing the same uniforms as the rest of the fighters around them.  Details were blurry, but the unidentified figures’ clothes and equipment were a different shade of green, and appeared that they might have a camouflage pattern, as opposed to the surrounding Wa fighters’ plain olive drab.

He looked up again.  “You think these are your North Koreans?”

Van Zandt nodded.  “And we’ve got other reasons to think so,” he said.  “Keep scrolling.”

The next images were obviously in a different area.  They showed what looked very much like a forward operating base, though not one built according to the usual Western “Big Box FOB” model.  It looked more like a Special Force camp from Vietnam.  There were definitely bunkers among what looked like tents, and there might be camouflaged fighting positions surrounding the encampment.  Again, the detail was not superb, but the rough outline was there.

There were also figures in the next image, apparently taken outside one of the tents, and zoomed in.  Once again, the imagery was blurry and indistinct, showing little detail, but the color of the uniforms was identical to the figures in the photos taken leaving the ambush site on the Thai border.

“That camp is up north, deep in Shan State in Burma,” Van Zandt explained.  “It’s actually in the Kokang region, a part of Shan State inhabited by the ethnic-Chinese Kokang.  The Kokang Army, which is pretty staunchly Communist, has been fighting the Burmese government off and on for years.  Can’t entirely blame them; the Burmese haven’t exactly been kind to the ethnic minorities in their country.  The Karen are the obvious example.  But the Kokangs are also hip-deep in the opium and heroin trades, sending shipments north into Yunnan Province in China, and, apparently, southeast to Thailand.

“Between that imagery and some of our SIGINT, we are fairly certain that there is a detachment of North Korean Light Infantry Guide Bureau troops in that camp, under the auspices of Bureau 39.  We think that they’re advising the narco-militias in northern Burma on infantry tactics and training, in return for a cut of the drug profits.”

Brannigan sat back again and ran a broad hand over his mustache.  “I think I see where this is going,” he said dryly.

“North Korea is getting to be of considerable concern,” Van Zandt forged ahead.  “Their continued nuclear threats and ballistic missile tests have a lot of people very worried, and for good reason.  Sanctions aren’t doing the trick.  They’re supposed to be the Hermit Kingdom, completely cut off from the rest of the world, but they’ve got enough resources to continue pushing ahead with a nuclear program.  And this kind of operation is why.”  He took a deep breath.  “We want to hire you and your team to go in and eliminate that North Korean contingent.  I know what you’re going to say,” he continued, holding up a hand.  “’Why not send Delta, or DEVGRU?’  I know.  Under the circumstances, I’d agree, except for one thing.  Nobody’s willing to risk the exposure of a US SOF team that deep inside Burma, that close to the Chinese border.  The Chinese would throw a fit, and, like it or not, US SOF has a bigger footprint than we’d like to wish it did.  The op to kill Bin Laden had a lot of greased palms and diplomatic groundwork behind it, and we’d never get the Chinese to sign off on an op that close to their territory.”

“So, you want me and my boys to do it, because we’d be plausibly deniable,” Brannigan said flatly.  “And expendable.”

“Deniable, yes,” Van Zandt sighed.  “Expendable…not if I can help it.”  He sighed again, glancing down at the table in front of him.  Brannigan honestly wasn’t sure if it was an act or not.  “Look, I’m not going to pretend that this is going to be a milk run.  That would be an insult to your intelligence if I even tried.  Hell, if I thought it would be a walk in the park, I probably wouldn’t even have come to you.  But you rather amply demonstrated a few months ago that you still have a knack for wreaking destruction disproportionate to the numbers at your command.”

Brannigan eyed the man with some distaste.  “So what you’re saying is that the same qualities that made you and your fellow generals run me out of the Marine Corps are now what make my services valuable.”

Van Zandt’s lips thinned, and he swallowed.  “Yes, I guess that is what I’m saying,” he replied grudgingly.  “I won’t lie, John.  I think you’re a bull in a china shop.  I think that you made an exceptional NCO, but some of the subtleties of officer-level leadership were always lost on you.  But I don’t need an officer for this.  I need a team leader, and that’s what you’re best at.”

Brannigan said nothing at first, only staring at the other man coldly.  Chavez’ gaze was similarly riveted on Van Zandt, and was no friendlier.  “Well, that’s a hell of a way to convince a man to go clean out a snake pit nobody else wants to go near,” Brannigan said dryly.

He honestly wasn’t sure what to think.  He knew that his dislike for Van Zandt was coloring his judgment regarding the job.  And the all-too fresh memory of the sense of betrayal about the way his Marine Corps career had ended wasn’t helping matters, either.

That didn’t change the very real concerns about the mission itself.  Assaulting the Citadel on Khadarkh, a small island in the middle of the Persian Gulf, had been one thing.  Extract had been a matter of getting back out to sea.  Sure, they’d been outnumbered and outgunned, but they’d fought through with a combination of high explosives and sheer ferocity.  He wondered if any of the Iranian commandos had ever made it back to Iran, particularly after Flanagan had blown up the Saudi Dongfeng-3 ballistic missiles that had been staged in the Citadel’s outer courtyard.

Going into northern Burma was something else altogether.  Insert and extract would both be vastly more complicated than on Khadarkh.  The closest they could consider “friendly” territory would be Thailand, which would be at least a hundred miles away, over steep mountains and thick jungle.

Yet at the same time, the challenge appealed to him.  And after years of fighting Arabs, Afghans, and various poorly-trained, rag-tag Islamic militias in Africa, the North Koreans were an enemy that not a few warriors quietly wished they could test themselves against.  That it would be shutting down a Communist-run criminal enterprise, specializing in trafficking human misery for the sake of aggrandizing a tyrant and funding his nuclear weapons program was another appeal.  There wasn’t a lot of gray area when it came to fighting Communists in Brannigan’s mind, least of all North Koreans.

Of course, that was all assuming that Van Zandt was on the level.  He hadn’t identified who he was working for, but Brannigan had his suspicions.  If this was a setup…but Chavez was apparently confident that the story was real.  Brannigan might not trust Van Zandt an inch, but he trusted Hector Chavez.  The man had earned that trust a long time before.

“I’m not going to say yes,” he said, “not yet.  I’ll have to run this past the boys first.  But if we do decide to take the job, just understand that it’s going to cost.”

“There are going to be certain limits,” Van Zandt began, but Chavez cut him off.

“Don’t even try it, Mark,” Chavez snapped.  “We discussed this.”

“Them’s the terms, Mark,” Brannigan said calmly.  “I’ll take the imagery and what you told me, run it past my men, and if we decide to take the job, then you pay our price, or there’s no job.  Take it or leave it.”

Van Zandt looked like he’d swallowed something sour.  But he finally nodded.  “This is too important to quibble over price tags,” he said.  “Unless it gets really unreasonable.”

“Don’t worry,” Brannigan said as he stood up, blanking the tablet and slipping it under his arm.  “We don’t do fancy parties to tell politicians how important we are.  We just go in, do the killing that needs to get done, and get out.  As long as we get the necessary gear, and we get paid, that’s all we need.”

Without waiting for Van Zandt’s reply to his barb, he turned on his heel and walked out.  Neither man tried to follow him.

***

Carlo Santelli was a happy man.

It might have seemed a little strange to him, at first.  He’d thought, before Khadarkh, that he’d been getting bored, and worse, that Melissa had been getting tired of him.  After all, she was younger than he was, and was still a stunningly pretty woman.  He was a short, stout, pugnacious guy from the old neighborhood in Boston, with a lifetime of soldiering and fighting showing in a downright ugly face with a crooked nose.  He’d expected to return from the Persian Gulf with a fat paycheck to find an empty house.

But she’d stayed, and had welcomed him home with a warmth that he honestly hadn’t expected.  And in the months since, he’d found that both of them had really started making an effort to do more together.

He’d been frankly horrified to discover that she’d never learned to fish, and had immediately taken it upon himself to teach her.  She was only three years younger than he, but she’d been a city girl all her life.  Of course, Santelli had been a city boy, too, but his father had always taken his kids out fishing on weekends during the summer, mostly out on the ocean.  He had a lot of fond—and some not-so-fond—memories of fishing off the pier on Castle Island.

He hadn’t wanted to take Melissa to a crowded pier for her first fishing trip, though.  And since he didn’t own a boat, that had meant a charter.  Fortunately, the money from the Khadarkh job was in no danger of running out just yet; Santelli had been raised to be frugal.  It went along with his generally straightforward manner and work ethic.

Right at the moment, he was leaning over the rail of the boat with a net, getting ready to snare the bluefish that Melissa was almost finished reeling in.  She was almost jumping up and down with excitement, and Santelli couldn’t help but smile at the sight.  She’d been hesitant about the trip in the first place, but as soon as the bluefish had grabbed her hook and started its run, she’d been as hooked as the fish.

“Don’t lose it, baby!” she screamed.

“I’m not gonna lose it,” Carlo told her, even as he scooped the bluefish out of the water.  “He’s hooked good, he ain’t gettin’ away.”  He pulled himself and the net back over the rail, and drew the fish out by the gills.  “Congratulations, baby,” he said.  “Your first bluefish.”

Melissa clapped her hands and hugged him, fish and all, just as the cell phone in his pocket vibrated, and rang with, “Take Me Out To The Ballgame.”

Santelli carefully extricated himself from Melissa’s arms and handed her the fish as he drew the phone out.  Her face clouded a little as she saw it, and the ringtone registered.  “Again?” she whispered.

“Don’t worry, honey, it’ll be fine,” he said.  He answered the call and put the phone to his ear.  “Talk to me, John.”

“I need you to get the boys together, Carlo,” Brannigan said.  A year ago, this conversation wouldn’t have been possible; becoming a mercenary commander had meant that Brannigan had needed to finally get a cell phone again, for the first time in over three years.  “We might have a job.”

“You don’t sound convinced,” Santelli noted.

“I’m not,” Brannigan answered.  “Which is why we’re going to get the boys together and discuss this before I tell Van Zandt yes or no.”

“Van Zandt?” Santelli was almost speechless.  “General Van Zandt?”

“The same,” Brannigan said grimly.  “He says he’s retired; that he’s not a General anymore.”

“You think he’s cross-decked?” Santelli asked carefully.

“He’s cross-decked to somewhere,” Brannigan replied.  “I’ll get Flanagan, Curtis, and Villareal.  Can you contact Childress and Aziz, and get out to our usual spot in thirty-six hours?”

“Consider it done, sir,” Santelli said.

“Thanks, Carlo.  And tell Melissa I’m sorry.”

“We’ll be fine, John,” Santelli assured him, and hung up.

Melissa was holding her catch, trying to admire it, but her eyes had kept straying to Santelli during the entirety of the conversation.  She slipped under his arm as he shoved the phone back in his pocket.

“I’d hoped that the last job was enough,” she said quietly.  “I realized while you were gone how much we were taking things for granted, but wasn’t the pay enough to keep you here, with your retirement?”

Santelli sighed as he gave her a squeeze.  He kissed her.  “It’s not just about the pay, baby,” he admitted.  “John Brannigan won my loyalty a lot of years ago, and those boys need me as much as they need him.  It wouldn’t feel right, letting them go without me.”

She looked down at the deck for a moment, biting her lip.  Then she nodded, brushed a single tear off her cheek, and touched his own, before she kissed him back.  “I guess I always knew that,” she said.  “I just miss you when you’re gone.  I like having you home.”

“I might not even be gone for long, honey,” Santelli assured her.  “John doesn’t sound sure about this job.  It might only be a trip out west to see the boys.”

He wasn’t sure, though.  If he knew one thing about John Brannigan, it was that the man belonged in a fight, and if there was one to be had, he’d probably be heading into it, sooner or later.

And Carlo Santelli would be damned if he let his old CO go running into Hell without him.

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