John Brannigan sank the bit of the double-bladed ax into the log round he was using as a chopping block and lowered himself painfully to sit on a bigger log nearby.
His breath was steaming in the cold air, and looking down at his bared forearms, he could see steam rising from the graying hairs there, as well. It was well below freezing, but he was sweating and stripped down to his shirt.
He gulped air, wincing slightly at the stitch in his side, as he critically looked at the woodpile. He might have gotten a quarter of a cord split. It wasn’t bad, given how long he’d been working, but it wasn’t up to snuff in his mind, either.
Stretching, he felt the scar tissue on his side pull. It had been months since he’d been shot out on the Gulf of Mexico, and the wounds were healed, but it felt like it was taking forever to get his conditioning back. His leg and his side were tight, and his leg especially didn’t seem to want to work quite right.
Getting old, John. He was further reminded of the fact as the cabin door swung open and Hank walked out.
“You okay, Dad?” the young Marine Lieutenant asked. Hank had decided to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a Marine officer. Brannigan hadn’t approved of the young man’s decision to pursue a commission right off the bat; he’d been a mustang, and just about every other officer he’d known and served with who’d been worth a damn had been, as well. There were exceptions, but he had always felt that an officer needed to spend time in the dirt as an enlisted man before he could really have the insight and the experience to lead them effectively.
“I’m fine,” he grunted, as he heaved himself off the log. He wanted to rest a bit longer, but his pride wouldn’t let his son see him getting feeble. “Just taking a bit of a breather.”
Hank eyed him skeptically. The young man took after his mother, with thick dark hair and dark eyes, and a fineness to his facial features that always reminded Brannigan of Rebecca. He had his father’s build, though, tall and rangy, broad-shouldered and given to lean muscle. The Marine Corps had only honed what Brannigan had already trained.
“You sure?” he asked. “I’ve seen men shot up a lot less than you were who took longer to get back on their feet.”
Hank had a deployment under his belt, now. His unit hadn’t done a lot in Syria, but they’d seen some action, and Brannigan knew that his son’s platoon had taken a couple of casualties.
He still shot his boy a hard glance. “Listen to the hardened combat veteran,” he said. Hank flushed and looked away for a moment. He didn’t know everything his old man had been through, but he knew that there was a lot worse in his father’s past than he’d ever seen yet. “I’m fine, Hank.”
Stiffer and slower than I’d like, and I’m definitely not bouncing back like I used to, but what do you want for fifty years old?
Hank shrugged out of his sheepskin coat and hung it over a low-hanging tree branch, then grabbed the ax. “Sit down and take a breather, Dad,” he said. “I need to get some work in, too.” He shot his father a sly glance. “Can’t have you grumbling about the younger generation getting soft, can I?”
Brannigan snorted, even as he struggled to keep back a grateful sigh as he sat back down. His thigh ached where the .300 Blackout round had torn a ragged hole through the muscle, and he straightened the leg out to try to ease it.
Hank put a log round down and hefted the ax, bringing it down with a practiced swing that sank the bit deeply into the wood.
The son of John Brannigan had been raised to hard work. Brannigan had been away for most of the boy’s upbringing, but he and Rebecca had always seen eye-to-eye on most things, and if anything, she’d been less forgiving with Hank than he had. She expected the boy to grow into a man, and she set him to the chores that would make that happen. They hadn’t had a woodstove for most of the time they’d been moving back and forth between Camp Pendleton, Camp Lejeune, and Okinawa, but there had always been other work to have him do, and he’d done it, or faced his mother’s wrath.
He handled the ax well, though he wasn’t quite as practiced as Brannigan had gotten over the years since he’d moved up into the woods following Rebecca’s death. He wasn’t as smooth as Brannigan could be at his best, though at the moment he was about equal, given his father’s recovering wounds.
Hank hadn’t known exactly what had happened. He’d suspected that his father was involved in “The Business” again, ever since he’d put Hector Chavez back in touch with him, but he’d never known the details, and had never asked. He probably suspected; the blowup on Khadarkh had happened too soon after Chavez had gone looking for Brannigan. And there was no mistaking the coincidence of his father showing up in the hospital with three bullet wounds in him shortly after the worst terrorist incident since September 11th.
But Hank knew better than to ask, and he’d never even hinted at suspicions. As Brannigan watched his son work, he thought he knew why.
Hank wasn’t happy as a Marine officer. Brannigan had known it would be the case; he hadn’t been particularly happy by the time he’d been forced to retire, either. The bureaucracy that ran the Marine Corps was rapacious, and eager to crush anyone who didn’t color inside the lines. To some extent, that was necessary in a military organization; mavericks often got men killed. But when the lines were all about garrison discipline and paperwork, and less and less about combat effectiveness, it wore on men.
It was wearing on Hank, and he was nearing the end of his first contract. He might pick up Captain within the next year, but that was often the breaking point, in Brannigan’s experience. He’d been fortunate in his superiors and his subordinates. He’d never have made it to Colonel otherwise. By all rights, he should have been forced out long before he was. He’d been a fighter, not a politician.
Something caught his ear, and he turned, his thoughts coming to a halt as he listened. There wasn’t a lot of noise up there; just the wind in the trees, the occasional bird, and the ringing notes of the ax striking the wood. The snow muted most sounds, too, and Brannigan’s hearing had taken a beating over the thirty years he’d been in the profession of arms. But he’d definitely heard something.
Hank must have heard it too, because he stopped, hefting the ax in both hands, and listened, his chest heaving a little. “That’s a vehicle,” he said. He looked at his father. “You expecting somebody else?”
Under normal circumstances, that question could have been taken innocently, or even as a faint ribbing. Brannigan hadn’t shown any particular interest in women since Rebecca had died. Hank had always left it alone; he knew that his father wouldn’t have taken kindly to his son playing matchmaker. Or anyone else, for that matter.
But there was an underlying tension in Hank Brannigan’s voice that had nothing to do with normality. He might not know everything about what his old man was up to, but he knew bullet wounds, and he knew that Chavez hadn’t been looking for Brannigan just to share a few beers.
Brannigan stood, stretching his back, and shook his head. He wasn’t expecting anyone. Hank had a few more days of leave left, and then he’d be alone again. And contact for the little mercenary crew known amongst themselves as “Brannigan’s Blackhearts” wasn’t handled up there at his cabin.
He didn’t ask if Hank was armed. While his son had showed up empty-handed, he’d quickly borrowed Brannigan’s Beretta 92FS, and was even then carrying it on his hip. It wasn’t Brannigan’s favorite gun; he’d never really liked the Beretta. But it had been a gift, so he’d kept it. He would have preferred something that hit a little harder, especially given the big cat tracks he’d seen out back, but he only had the one Redhawk. And that was currently resting in a well-worn leather holster on his own hip.
He looked through the trees toward the road. His “driveway” was about five miles long, and it went over a small ridgeline before it got anywhere near his cabin. There weren’t any other houses within about ten miles, either; he’d made sure of that. There wasn’t much call for anyone to go up there unless they were there to see him.
Or coming after him.
He knew that he, Chavez, and Mark Van Zandt, the former general—who had sacked Brannigan for doing what he’d seen as being necessary in East Africa—who had facilitated both the missions in Burma and most recently in the Gulf of Mexico, had taken steps to ensure security. What the Blackhearts had been up to wasn’t exactly legal in any jurisdiction. Justified, certainly. Brannigan never would have taken the jobs otherwise. But governments frowned on men conducting military operations without state say-so. And that was leaving aside the potential enemies they’d made along the way, to include Iranians, North Koreans, and whoever the hell had executed the attacks leading into the Tourmaline-Delta incident.
That was probably the part that worried him the most. They still had no idea who had been behind it. Hundreds of people had died, and while several terrorist organizations had claimed responsibility after the fact, none of those claims were being given any sort of real credence.
Someone out there had a lot of resources, a lot of intel, and contacts just about everywhere. And they hadn’t hesitated to kill hundreds of civilians, for an objective that was just as obscure as their identity.
Sunlight glinted off auto glass. A green Subaru was coming up the driveway. Brannigan stood motionless, waiting, his hand hanging slack next to the .44 Magnum on his hip. Hank swung the ax to stick it in the chopping block and rested his hand on the butt of the Beretta. After a glance from his father, he tried to relax, hooking his thumb into his belt, only a few inches from the pistol.
The four-wheel-drive station wagon came to a halt just behind Hank’s rental SUV. The driver shut the engine off and got out.
Brannigan relaxed. It was Chavez. His old friend had lost some weight since they’d started this little operation, and there were more lines around his eyes. His graying hair was thinning and going white, too.
Given the heart problem that had led to Chavez’ retirement, that might not be the best sign.
Brannigan walked out of his ax yard, concentrating on making sure he didn’t limp, though his leg was still stiff. He towered over Chavez, at least a head taller, with his own graying hair and mustache still thick and bushy. He held out his hand, and Chavez shook it. “Welcome to the homestead, Hector,” he said. “What brings you all the way up here?” It wasn’t an entirely innocent question.
Chavez, for his part, looked distinctly uncomfortable. “We need to talk, John,” he said. “And I wanted to do it away from any ears.”
“Even mine, Uncle Hector?” Hank asked, stepping closer and leaning against a tree.
“Hi, Hank,” Chavez said, casting a quick glance at Brannigan. The message was clear. “Any” ears meant “any.”
“Why don’t you go put some coffee on, Hank?” Brannigan suggested.
Hank grimaced, knowing a dismissal when he heard one. But he complied without complaint, turning and mounting the steps onto the hewn-plank porch that Brannigan had built with his own two hands and the same ax that Hank had just put down.
He knew better than to dispute an order from his father. Even one so politely phrased as a request.
Brannigan turned back to Chavez. “What’s up?” he asked. He suddenly really wanted to sit down again, but he stayed on his feet. His body needed to get used to doing what it was told again. And he suddenly had a feeling that there was a lot of exertion in his immediate future.
“I got a phone call two nights ago,” Chavez explained, keeping his voice pitched low to make sure it couldn’t be heard at the cabin. Chavez wasn’t an outdoor type, and the quiet up in the woods seemed to unnerve him. Which Brannigan took as a warning sign all by itself. Chavez might have been a city boy, but he had never been jumpy. “On my private cell.”
He hadn’t specified, but Brannigan picked up the subtext. Chavez’ private cell phone number was limited to a handful of people, Brannigan included. And from the way he was talking, it hadn’t been any of that handful of people who had called him. “Who was it?”
“He said his name is Guildenhall,” Chavez said. “He said he was looking for you and knew that I could contact you. He wants to meet in Seattle, as soon as possible.”
Brannigan frowned. That sounded like a leak, and a fairly major one. “Did he say what he wanted to talk about?” he asked.
“No, but that’s not the point!” Chavez replied. He was clearly rattled. This wasn’t like Hector at all.
“I get the point, Hector,” he said. “I do. Have you changed your cell number yet?”
“As soon as I hung up with Guildenhall,” Chavez admitted, calming down a bit. “John, I don’t think this guy got my number from Mark.”
“You might be right,” Brannigan admitted, rubbing his chin. “You’re thinking Dalca?”
Erika Dalca was the CEO of Ciela International, a transnational conglomerate that was headquartered in Bonn, Germany. Ostensibly a shipping and logistics company, both men were convinced that Ciela was a front for a major international crime organization. And that Dalca was the kingpin. Or queen, as the case may be.
Their conviction was largely based on the fact that Dalca had been able to provide considerable under-the-radar support for the Tourmaline-Delta operation. Including smuggling the Blackhearts to the platform via narco-submarine. She’d insisted it had been captured. Brannigan didn’t know that he believed her.
“I’m telling you, John, that chick knows so much it’s scary,” Chavez said by way of reply.
“You don’t have to convince me of that, Hector,” Brannigan said. “I dealt with her more than you did.” He gusted a sigh, blowing a thick cloud of vapor into the air. “You think she’s looking for some payback? A favor for a favor?”
“I hope not, given what she got paid for that last op,” Chavez said. “You’re the one this Guildenhall is looking for. What do you think?”
Brannigan let his gaze drift across the snow-laden firs and pines surrounding his home. He thought about it.
Dalca was the weirdest, most disturbing woman he’d ever met. Granted, he’d spent most of his career surrounded by infantrymen of one stripe or another. There hadn’t been many women around. But Dalca was a strange case any way he looked at it. She came across as a sultry femme fatale, oozing sex appeal and blatantly using it to get what she wanted. But there was a cold, calculating, extremely well-informed and knowledgeable mind behind the sexy façade. The trouble was, he found her impossible to read; he couldn’t tell where the façade ended and the real Erika Dalca—assuming that was her real name; somehow, he doubted it—began.
She’d done more than just support their op for pay. She had personally taken a hand in not only their insertion but also their extract, apparently having kept tabs on the entire thing as it unfolded. She’d even gone down to the Yucatan peninsula herself, taking Brannigan and Hart onto her personal yacht to get them out of there before the Mexican authorities decided to take them into custody.
She was an enigma, and she disturbed him almost as much as she apparently disturbed Chavez. That said, she couldn’t be dismissed out of hand. Nor could her overtures. Until he knew what game she was playing, he had to try to play along, at least to some extent.
“Well, a trip to Seattle’s not that bad, is it?” he said, looking back at Chavez. “We’ll go meet with Mr. Guildenhall, see what he says.”
He looked back at the cabin. He’d been looking forward to the last few days with Hank, but his son would understand. Duty called. Even if Hank had no idea just what “duty” entailed these days.
The Fisherman’s Restaurant was a nice place, if rather unlikely as a clandestine meeting spot. It did provide a suitable level of background noise, between the crowds, the traffic off the end of the pier, and the lapping of the waves at the pilings beneath it. Brannigan still wasn’t particularly impressed with Guildenhall’s tradecraft, though, because there really was only one way in or out; down the pier.
Guildenhall was easy to pick out. He’d said, when Chavez had called—using a different burner phone—that he’d be wearing white. It had seemed amateurish at the time; how many people might be wearing white in a waterfront restaurant in Seattle? But Brannigan picked him out as soon as he stepped through the doors.
Guildenhall had to weigh well over three hundred pounds. He didn’t look soft, though he also didn’t look muscular. He’s an old-school sort of fat. Big gut, with a lot of muscle holding it up. He was sitting quite straight in his chair, and there was a strange sense of solidity to him. He reminded Brannigan of Sidney Greenstreet in The Maltese Falcon.
The white-suited, human hillside rose as they approached, a smile creasing his jowly face. His white hair was combed neatly back from his high forehead, and his eyes were alert and observant, never staying still. For all his obesity, this was a trained and undoubtedly dangerous man.
“Mr. Brannigan, I assume?” Guildenhall asked, extending a hand the size of a dinner plate.
Holy hell, he even sounds like Sidney Greenstreet. “That would be me,” Brannigan said, shaking the big man’s hand. He almost changed his mind about Guildenhall at the handshake. His hand, big as it was, was soft, his grip light and limp, almost a dead fish.
“Please, sit down,” the fat man said, waving expansively at the chairs across the table from him. “I’ve ordered already, I hope you don’t mind.”
Brannigan just shook his head curtly as he sat down. They’d had to be careful going to Seattle; neither he nor Chavez had Washington State concealed weapons permits, and Washington wasn’t particularly good about honoring other states’ permits. He was still carrying, of course; he just had to be somewhat more discreet. In this case, that meant a .357 LCR in his coat pocket.
“I’m told you wanted to talk to me,” he said, as he leaned back in his chair. It creaked a little; he was far leaner than Guildenhall, but Brannigan was still not a small man.
“Yes, yes,” Guildenhall said. “Right to the point. I represent an international consulting company. You probably haven’t heard of us; we don’t tend to advertise.”
“Try me,” Brannigan interrupted.
If he was irritated by the interruption, Guildenhall didn’t show it. He simply smiled, his eyes crinkling. “The official name is Guildenhall & Wayland,” he said. “Also known as GWI.”
Brannigan glanced over at Chavez, who shrugged fractionally. He’d never heard of them, either. “Go on.”
“Certain…associates of ours have alerted us to a problem in Eastern Europe,” Guildenhall continued. “A problem that requires someone of your skills and capability to deal with. A mutual acquaintance of ours put me in touch with Mr. Chavez, who led you to me.”
“What exactly is this problem?” Brannigan asked coolly.
Guildenhall reached inside his voluminous suit jacket. Brannigan tensed, ready to flip the table into Guildenhall’s face and grab at his LCR if the big man produced a weapon. But all that came out in Guildenhall’s large, soft hand was a fat envelope, which he placed on the table. “I believe you will find all the information you require in here,” he said. “The basics are in the top few sheets; if you decide to look further, you will find more in-depth information that should be relevant to a man of your interests.”
Keeping one eye on Guildenhall, who leaned back in his chair as it groaned in protest and smiled, Brannigan reached across the table and took the envelope. It was sealed, and he quickly slit it open with the small pocket knife he palmed from his belt and pulled out the packet.
Letting Chavez watch Guildenhall, he looked down at the papers in front of him. The first page was a letter.
To Whom It May Concern,
A certain Romanian arms dealer, by the name of Eugen Codreanu, is currently in hiding in Transnistria. There are several indicators that point to Mr. Codreanu as the man who sold the Kilo-class submarine you and your team witnessed the terrorists using to escape from the Tourmaline-Delta platform. It is considered likely that he has information pertaining to the organization behind the attacks and the Tourmaline-Delta incident.
Transnistria is a semi-independent, pro-Russia breakaway republic between Moldova and Ukraine. Codreanu has a great many contacts there, which is believed to be why it is one of his bolt-holes. Unfortunately, someone else has apparently found him, and has already staged one attack on his dacha. The attack was repulsed, and Transnistrian and Russian authorities are investigating, but it is only a matter of time before they try again. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to go to Transnistria and extract Mr. Codreanu to a safe haven where he can be interrogated.
I believe that we have a mutual interest in this man. Should you accomplish the mission, any information extracted will be shared with you.
The letter was unsigned. At the bottom of the page was a dollar sign with a number and quite a few zeroes after it. It was a good payday, even taking operational expenses and splitting the pay between eleven men into consideration.
The pay didn’t interest him as much as it might have, though. It was important, certainly, but the possibility of cracking some of the secret of who they had been fighting on the Tourmaline-Delta platform, and later on the Yucatan Peninsula, was enticing as hell. He’d lost two men on that op. He wanted to know who was behind it.
And eventually, he wanted to have a part in nailing them to the wall.
Strictly speaking, as a mercenary, the only thing he should care about was the pay. And going into Eastern Europe, especially some post-Soviet breakaway republic that apparently was under the Russian eye, was going to be easily as hairy as Burma. But maybe he was getting desensitized to such things.
It wasn’t a good sign, if he was. But he thought that this was more about tracking down whoever had blown up the Tourmaline-Delta platform.
After murdering all the hostages that Brannigan’s Blackhearts had gone to rescue.
“All soldiers are romantics,” he’d read somewhere. He couldn’t really dispute the assertion. He wanted a piece of this. He looked up at Guildenhall.
“I’ll have to do some looking into this, and talk to my men,” he said. “Assuming that this is legit.”
Guildenhall only smiled again. “Of course,” he said. “I suggest you not take too long, though. The matter is somewhat time sensitive, as I’m sure you’ve gathered. Your associate here knows how to reach me, should you decide to take the job.” His smile changed ever so little. “I think I can arrange for some corroboration that might help to put your mind at ease, as well.”
There wasn’t anything about that statement, or Guildenhall’s expression, that particularly put Brannigan’s mind at ease. But then, maybe that was simply a side effect of being a mercenary working in the “black” side of the world. His sense of paranoia was being steadily honed to a fine edge.
The waiter was approaching, carrying at least three plates. “Ah!” Guildenhall exclaimed. “Just in time! Would you gentlemen like to order anything?”
Frozen Conflict, the fourth in the Brannigan’s Blackhearts series, is now available for Kindle Preorder. Look for it in release on May 15th.