“Colonel Brannigan, I presume?” Contralmirante Huerta stood up and extended his hand. The Mexican officer was in mufti, a dark suit and shiny blue shirt.
Brannigan shook the proffered hand. He towered over the Mexican admiral, who was showing a bit of gray in his slickly-parted hair and mustache, though not nearly as much as Brannigan was.
Brannigan had dressed up a little for the meeting; he was wearing khakis and a sport coat, in contrast to his usual “retired” outdoor wear. He was still wearing boots, though, and the sport coat hid the Wilson Combat 1911 on his hip. Even with Van Zandt and Gomez in the room, he didn’t trust this Mexican officer very far. He knew too much about how much the bad guys had infiltrated the instruments of the Mexican government.
Van Zandt was in a suit, and was standing back to one side, watching the two men meet. Gomez had posted himself up at the door, watching everything impassively with his hard, black eyes.
Gomez had become a Blackheart in the plus-up that Hancock and Santelli had conducted prior to the Burma job. Nobody knew much about him. He didn’t talk much. In fact, getting more than a handful of words out of him on any particular subject was often an exercise in frustration, if not outright futility. He was lean and hard, with short black hair that was almost as dark as Flanagan’s, and features that made him look like a younger version of Geronimo. If he was an Apache, he never said as much, even when asked, but he sure looked the part.
He’d just shown up in Corpus Christi, unannounced, and had been waiting at the meetup when Brannigan had gotten there. True to form, he hadn’t said much, but had simply taken up a position as Brannigan’s bodyguard. Brannigan had just made out the outline of a pistol butt under his shirt when he’d moved just right at one point.
“I’m kind of surprised to see you up here,” Brannigan said to Huerta, “this far from your command at a time like this.” They were meeting in a suite in the Radisson Hotel. Outside the window, the surf washed the North Beach of Corpus Christi, and clouds were gathering over the Gulf of Mexico.
“My command is doing very little at the moment,” Huerta admitted. “And the farther away from my government’s authorities I am for this conversation, the better. I could get in a great deal of trouble for even talking to you. I have been strictly instructed not to approach the Norteamericanos for anything pertaining to this situation.”
The three men sat down at the table, while Gomez maintained his silent, watchful vigil. Fortunately, they were in Texas, so either Gomez or Brannigan carrying weapons wasn’t likely to raise any eyebrows, even if they were seen.
Huerta was clearly uncomfortable. The room was cool; the air conditioning had been going full blast when they’d gotten there, so the heat and humidity outside should have been negligible, but the Mexican admiral was sweating.
“You don’t seem too happy to be having this meeting at all,” Brannigan observed, leaning his elbows on the tabletop.
Huerta looked him in the eye. “I am not,” he admitted. “I am a Contralmirante of the Mexican Naval Infantry. Terrorists have taken hostages from Mexican soil, including several highly-placed industrialists and politicians, and are holding them aboard a Mexican-owned oil platform in Mexican waters. This is a Mexican affair, and I should be able to deal with it myself, with my forces. That I cannot is an embarrassment, and that I am here in the United States, begging a gringo mercenary for help, is a shame that I do not wish to ever feel again.”
Brannigan supposed he ought to feel insulted, but couldn’t bring himself to. He understood Huerta’s sentiments; he’d probably feel the same in his shoes.
“Well, the plus side is,” he pointed out easily, “if we’re successful, no one should ever know that you had to stoop so low in order to resolve this situation.”
Huerta’s eyes narrowed a little as he observed the American mercenary commander. He hadn’t expected that. Brannigan kept his face carefully neutral, suppressing the faint smirk that threatened to lift the corner of his mouth under his bushy mustache. He found he was getting more comfortable with the idea of being a mercenary, if a mercenary who operated under certain strict rules. And the presumed contempt of his newest client only amused him. After all, what did it say about a merc when he was approached to do a job that regular forces had tried and failed at?
Either that he’s really good, or that he’s just more expendable and crazy enough to willingly go into a situation that is likely to get him killed. Don’t let it go to your head.
“What do you know about the opposition?” he asked.
Huerta shook his head. “Next to nothing.” Which was disappointing, but not unexpected, given what Van Zandt had already told him. “They are well-armed and well-equipped. We have not been able to get an aircraft or a boat near the platform since the first failed assault, thirty-seven hours ago. There has been no communication; they have issued no demands. They have just set in and shot at anything and anyone that comes near.”
“What about the rest of the attacks?” Brannigan asked. “Any leads there?”
But Huerta shook his head again. “Most of those on the Mexican side of the border were executed by cartel sicarios,” he said. “Some are known to us. Some are apparently small-time, for-hire killers. Those are the ones we know about. A few, like those on your side of the border, we have no idea who conducted them. The attackers were gone before anyone could react.”
Brannigan rubbed his chin between the chops of his mustache. “Still no credible claims of responsibility for any of it?”
Both Huerta and Van Zandt shook their heads. “Nothing,” Van Zandt confirmed. “Which is damned peculiar. Al Qaeda claimed 9/11 quickly enough. A major, mass-casualty attack—or attacks—like this should have somebody saying something.”
“Fine,” Brannigan said. No point in belaboring what they didn’t know. “Numbers? Equipment?”
“The security footage from the golf course suggests about ten or twelve,” Huerta said. “They were wearing plate carriers and helmets, and carrying bullpup rifles and pistols, with at least two machineguns. There appear to be more on the platform, from what little information we were able to get from our helicopters before they were shot down. None of our few drones have been able to get close enough to get an accurate count since then, either.”
Brannigan nodded. “We should probably expect at least twenty men, then, possibly as many as thirty,” he said. “Figure ten or twelve for the hit, and another ten or so to secure the GOPLAT in preparation for their exfil.” He looked down at the imagery that Van Zandt had brought, where it was spread on the table. There were photos and diagrams of the Tourmaline-Delta platform. It was big. “Hmm. Maybe as many as fifteen to take the platform,” he mused. “Better to estimate high than to lowball it and find out that we’re facing a bigger force than we thought.”
He looked up at Huerta. “Which brings me to a rather delicate matter,” he said. “Since this is not, and can’t be, a US government operation…”
Huerta’s lips thinned in distaste, but he simply asked, “How much?”
Brannigan named a figure. He saw Huerta’s pupils dilate in shock. He just shrugged. “Military operations aren’t cheap, you should know that, Admiral. And under the circumstances…”
He knew the odds were against Huerta having that kind of funding readily available. On the other hand, he knew something about a lot of the Mexican military leadership’s financial habits. The Mexican Marines might have the reputation of being the Mexican military’s “untouchables,” but there were always exceptions to the rule.
“I do not have that kind of money,” Huerta said flatly.
Brannigan glanced over at Van Zandt, who was impassive, but glaring disapproval at him. Van Zandt had assured him that the Blackhearts would get paid, but Brannigan was playing a different game, and he’d let Van Zandt in on it later. He was doing his former boss a favor. If this really was going to be deniable for whatever back-room agency Van Zandt worked for, US government funds—even black ones—had to be kept out of it.
After a long moment of silence, Huerta sighed. “But I might be able to obtain it,” he said reluctantly. “My family’s company is a long-established economic power in Mexico, and we have considerable resources available to us, including resources that might not be…reported to certain authorities.”
That could mean that they had a hand in the drug business, and were keeping it on the down-low from the government for obvious reasons, or that they were simply cautious, and keeping some of their assets hidden from the well-known, rapacious corruption in Mexico City. After all, the PRI had created the network of corruption, bribery, and kickbacks that had been the governing apparatus of Mexico for over eighty years.
“What does your family’s business do?” Brannigan asked blandly, even as the wheels started turning in his head more quickly.
“Quite a number of things,” Huerta sighed, apparently seeing where Brannigan was going. “Yes, they can provide a certain level of discreet logistical support, including getting men and…items of equipment into otherwise inadmissible places.”
“Good,” Brannigan said, making a mental note to caution the boys to be extra paranoid. Not that his original team was necessarily going to need the reminder; they’d crossed paths with both an Arab organized crime syndicate and the Russian mob in Dubai during the insert into Khadarkh. “Don’t worry about weapons or ammunition; I’ve got some of my people already looking into that.” Santelli was scouring every gun store in Nueces County, looking for what they’d need. “Though we might need some…discreet transport.” By which he meant smuggling. That Huerta didn’t bat an eye when he said it only confirmed a few of his suspicions.
“Insert is going to be the hard part,” he continued, turning his eye back to the imagery on the table. Neither of the other two men sitting there contradicted him. He looked Huerta in the eye. “Does your family company by chance have any sort of maritime ‘discreet transport’ available?”
But Huerta shook his head. “No,” was all he said. “I am afraid not. I do not know how to accomplish it.”
“Are civilian charter boats getting shot at, too?” Brannigan asked.
“Apparently so,” Van Zandt said.
“And we have set in an exclusion zone around the platform, enforced by the ARM Hermenegildo Galeana,” Huerta said. “We cannot allow any further civilian casualties through carelessness.”
“Well, we’ll have to figure that part out,” Brannigan said. He was mentally gauging distances over the water, and didn’t like what he saw.
Huerta had little more to offer in the way of information. Brannigan wasn’t inclined to press him for equipment; they’d source as much of it themselves as possible, in large part because then he knew that they weren’t going to get shoddy crap in the interests of making sure they disappeared after or during the mission. Huerta certainly seemed sincere, but Brannigan hadn’t fallen off the turnip truck the day before. He knew something of the political pressures the man was under, and what it could lead men to do, especially once they’d already gone off the reservation in the first place.
And for a man like Huerta, hiring gringo mercenaries to do a job that his Mexican Marines had failed at would be going way, way off the reservation. Which meant he had to be carefully watched.
He wondered if there weren’t Mexicans watching the hotel, since Huerta had gone in there in the first place. His absence from the trouble zone had to have been noticed.
Their meeting at an end, Huerta saw himself out, Gomez stepping aside to let him out the door, unblinking black eyes following the Mexican Admiral every step of the way. Brannigan saw Huerta look the dark man in the eye for a brief moment, then look away.
He had to hand it to Gomez; the man could be intimidating. And his silence only contributed to the air of menace he radiated.
“What do you think, Gomez?” he asked, after the door shut behind Huerta. He hadn’t had much more success in engaging the quiet mercenary in conversation than most of the rest, but he’d give it a shot.
“Long swim,” Gomez said, stepping to the table and looking down at the imagery. “Might be doable, but it’ll take time, and we’ll be tired by the time we get there.”
Brannigan watched him keenly. “You a diver?” he asked.
Gomez peeled back his t-shirt sleeve to show the Recon Jack tattooed on the inside of his arm. Brannigan grinned tightly. He hadn’t known that Gomez had been a Recondo, but immediately felt a renewed kinship with the taciturn man.
“Been a few years since I’ve been on a Draeger,” Gomez admitted, “but it’ll come back to me. Trouble is, I don’t know that we can run dive school for Tanaka or Wade in a couple of days.”
“We can’t,” Brannigan agreed. “And we may not even have a couple of days. This being a hostage situation, we could have hours, presuming we’re not already too late. And on top of that, Santelli never made it to Combatant Diver, either.”
“Scuba shouldn’t be hard,” Van Zandt pointed out. “Sure, there’s the bubbles issue, but if you stay deep enough until you get to the platform, then any bubbles should be dispersed enough to avoid detection. Especially at night.”
“Except that Gomez’ point about fatigue is a valid one,” Brannigan replied. “That platform’s twenty miles from shore. That’s a long-ass swim. We’d be lucky to make it in a night, especially if not everybody’s used to finning, and I know I’m not used to finning anymore.” He shook his head. “No, we need to get closer. Which means a boat, at the very least.” He stood up. “Let’s head back downstairs; see if the rest have any ideas.”
They could already hear raised voices as they got closer to the suite that was serving as the Blackhearts’ temporary meeting place. Brannigan was already pissed from the bits and pieces he’d heard clearly by the time he pushed the door open.
“We’re not in the mil anymore!” Jenkins was protesting. “I don’t have to put up with this shit!”
“Okay, you’re not in the mil anymore,” Santelli growled, his meaty fists on his hips. “That does not absolve you from getting stupid and talking out of fucking school!”
“Look, maybe the tats were a bad idea,” Wade said. “But we weren’t talking out of school. Sure, we were telling war stories, but it wasn’t like we were openly talking about where we were at the time, or even when it happened.”
“It’s still bullshit,” Jenkins exclaimed. “Who the hell are you to get in my ass, Santelli? You’re not a Sergeant Major anymore.”
“But he’s my right hand, and I run this outfit,” Brannigan snarled, looming behind Santelli. “You want to work? You want to get paid to be a shooter again? Then you do what Carlo Santelli tells you to where it pertains to the job and security about the job, and you keep your damned mouth shut, or one of us is going to shut it for you. Permanently. Get my drift, Jenkins?”
George Jenkins suddenly realized that he was getting none-to-friendly stares from most of the other Blackhearts in the room, most especially from the original Khadarkh crew.
His initial reaction was to get even more pissed. Who the hell did these guys think they were? He had been a SEAL. Sure, some of them had been Recon Marines, but they hadn’t been in JSOC. The fact that he hadn’t been either was something he didn’t particularly think about much. Sure, he hadn’t been up to DEVGRU selection. He’d had an off week. That was all. He was sure that he’d have made it if he’d gotten another chance.
But he’d still been a SEAL, and still had that Trident tattooed on his chest. The SEAL teams were the best and greatest warriors on the planet. Everyone knew it. So who did these Marines think they were, talking down to him?
But the somewhat more common-sense part of his mind was registering that some of those not-so-friendly looks weren’t just pissed. And the implications of Brannigan’s threat to shut his mouth “permanently” were starting to work their way through his mind.
“You wouldn’t,” he started to say, then faltered as Brannigan’s eyes flashed dangerously.
“Wouldn’t what, Jenkins?” Brannigan said softly. “We’ve already invaded two sovereign countries for pay. What do you think we wouldn’t do to maintain our security, and make sure nobody knows about the Blackhearts who shouldn’t?”
For a moment, Jenkins looked into the big Colonel’s eyes, and suddenly felt his blood run cold. Brannigan wasn’t impressed by his Trident, or his resume, and Jenkins suddenly got an idea of just how dangerous the big man really could be. He’d seen Brannigan in combat, of course, but he’d never imagined him to be anything but an officer, until now.
He swallowed, and at the same time, got even more pissed. He didn’t like being afraid. He didn’t like being forced to acknowledge that maybe, just maybe, he wasn’t the best, most dangerous man in the room.
“Fine,” he said, his voice coming out more high-pitched and hoarse than he’d intended. He cleared his throat. “Fine,” he repeated. “I’ll shut up. But this isn’t over.”
“Yes, it is,” Wade suddenly growled. Jenkins looked over at the big Ranger’s pale, pitiless eyes. “I’m with Brannigan on this,” Wade continued. “Sure, I got carried away. I screwed up; we shouldn’t have gotten the tats. But we’re a team, and a team needs to be on the same page. We’re not in high-school. We work for Colonel Brannigan, and he says Santelli’s word goes. So it does. And if you turn on the team for the sake of your fucking ego, I’ll cut your throat in a heartbeat.”
Jenkins saw the truth of his words in Wade’s eyes. The big man’s stare always looked a little too intense, a little crazy. Jenkins suddenly knew that Wade would follow through on his threat without batting an eye.
Fighting back tears of rage and humiliation, he subsided. “Fine,” was all he said. He turned away from the rest and headed for the back corner of the room.
As he did, he caught a glimpse of Aziz watching him. The message in the other man’s eyes was just as clear.
Hey, it ain’t me this time.
It took a few minutes for the tension from the confrontation to die down. Tanaka had been keeping as far back toward the wall as possible; the look on his face was that of a kid watching his parents fight. The original team had mostly been standing behind Santelli, and Bianco and Wade had been flanking Jenkins, only facing him instead of backing him up.
Hart had still been sleeping it off in the other room.
Hancock had gone to retrieve Hart, who was disheveled but somewhat more coherent. He was deeply, almost embarrassingly apologetic for being too drunk to make his own way to the meeting, and promised repeatedly that it wouldn’t happen again. Santelli and Brannigan had simply stared at him and made it clear that it had better not.
Then they got down to the business of planning.
Enemy Unidentified is available for Kindle pre-order now. Coming March 15th. Also, the first two books in the series, Fury in the Gulf and Burmese Crossfire, will be discounted from March 15th through March 20th.