Doctors of Death Chapter 3

The sound of crying echoed through the house. The place wasn’t even fully furnished yet, and Carlo Santelli had to cringe a little at just how loud Carlo Junior could get, particularly in some of the emptier rooms.

He almost didn’t hear the phone. Part of that was because of Carlo Junior’s wails, part of it was his own deafness in the aftermath of trying to walk the little tyke to quiet again. He’d failed miserably, and Melissa had come and taken the baby, leaving Santelli feeling frustrated and helpless again.

So, he wasn’t in the best frame of mind when he snatched up the phone and answered it without looking at the screen. “What?”

“Rough day, Carlo?” Brannigan asked dryly.

Santelli pressed his lips together and cussed himself silently but thoroughly. He really wasn’t cut out for this family life, and it was taking its toll. Or so he told himself.

“Sorry, sir,” he said. “The baby’s colicky, and he’s being a royal…a handful.”

“You’re even trying to watch your language,” Brannigan said, sounding congratulatory. “You’re truly becoming a family man, Carlo.”

“I’m afraid I’m not doing that great a job at it, sir,” Santelli said.

“Knowing you, you’re doing a lot better than most,” Brannigan said. He paused. “I take it that this is a bad time?”

Santelli glanced toward the other room, where Melissa had disappeared with Carlo Junior. The baby was still crying, but sounded like he was finally starting to quiet down. Maybe he’d just worn himself out. He could hope.

The truth was, he desperately wanted to go on whatever job Brannigan had, even if it was—uncharacteristic for the band of under-the-table mercenaries who called themselves Brannigan’s Blackhearts—just guarding a compound for a couple weeks. He understood that work. He’d been a Marine for twenty-three years, and retired as a Sergeant Major. He was comfortable with it. This…being a husband and a father was turning out to be more than he’d bargained for, especially as his late forties were rapidly approaching. Continue reading “Doctors of Death Chapter 3”

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Doctors of Death Chapter 2

“You’ve been rather elusive lately, John.”

John Brannigan cupped his hands around his coffee mug and looked across the table levelly at Mark Van Zandt. General, USMC, Retired Mark Van Zandt.

“I live in the mountains, Mark,” he said. “It’s not like cell service is all that regular up there.”

Van Zandt didn’t react, at least not by much. He’d gotten better at that, but Brannigan could still read him like a book. He was pissed. It was written in every faint line of his movie-poster Marine face, above his usual polo shirt and khakis.

Unlike Van Zandt, Brannigan had shed most of the Marine Corps’ appearance upon his forcible retirement several years before. A forcible retirement, he remembered all over again, that had been enforced by the very man sitting across from him at the table in the Rocking K diner.

Still big and powerfully built, Brannigan had let his hair get shaggy and grown a thick, graying handlebar mustache. He looked more like a mountain man than a retired Marine Colonel, while Van Zandt looked like he’d just taken his uniform off to come to the diner.

“We’ve heard some…faintly disturbing things lately, John,” Hector Chavez said carefully. Brannigan’s old friend had been medically retired for heart problems, and his body had gone soft in the years since, though his mind was still keen. He was dressed down from when he’d first showed up in the Rocking K in a suit for the Khadarkh assignment, but not by that much.

“It’s a disturbing world, Hector,” Brannigan said. “You’re going to have to be more specific.”

“Let’s quit beating around the bush, John,” Van Zandt said sharply, leaning forward and putting his elbows on the table. The entire thing rocked, coffee sloshing a little in cups as it took his weight. “Mario Gomez’ family gets murdered. Next thing anyone knows, a whole bunch of Mexican gang-bangers get slaughtered, to include what has been reported as a balls-out firefight in the hills just over the Mexican border. Now, that sounds awfully coincidental to me. Especially when a bunch of you disappeared from Childress’ bedside at just about the same time.”

Brannigan sipped his coffee. “That does sound like an interesting coincidence,” he said mildly.

If you think I’m going to give you an inch, you’re sadly mistaken, Mark. I’ve been crucified by your type before, remember?

“Cut the crap, John,” Van Zandt all but exploded. “You know as well as I do that you went full vigilante on those assholes. I’ll admit, they probably deserved it.” When Brannigan’s face hardened, he amended, “Okay, they definitely deserved it. If the reports are true, the Espino-Gallo gang was as vicious as they come. The world’s better off without them. But dammit, you went way off the reservation on this one.”

“Oh, come off it, Mark,” Brannigan snarled, finally losing his patience. “Everything we’ve done since I agreed to go into Khadarkh has been off the reservation. You show me the Congressional authorization for any of these little operations, and then we can talk about staying on the reservation.” He all but slammed the mug on the table. “We do this because it has to be done, red tape be damned.” He stabbed a finger at Van Zandt. “And don’t try to fob this off on me alone. You knew we were going to do something, or else you wouldn’t have promised legal top cover when we talked before things kicked off. Now that the bodies are on the ground, you’re getting squeamish.” He snorted. “Not that I really should have expected anything else.”

Van Zandt actually sat back a little at that. He took a deep breath, looking down at the table. Brannigan knew he was right, and he knew that Van Zandt knew it, too. Whatever kind of legal trouble they could potentially be in if anyone went digging too deeply, he knew that the Espino-Gallos had needed killing, and that Sheriff Thomas wouldn’t be pressing charges anytime soon, either.

Having the men whom you had tried to drive off suddenly deliver your kidnapped daughter to your door with a curt, “You’re welcome,” could tend to make a man rethink his position a bit.

“Look me in the eye and tell me it was a righteous killing,” Van Zandt said.

Brannigan’s eyes narrowed at that. He didn’t need to justify his actions to Van Zandt. But he looked the former General in the eye and said, “They had it coming. They had a lot worse coming than we dished out. And if the local sheriff had done his job, we would have stood by and let him do it. You’ve got my word on that.”

His lips pressed tightly together, Van Zandt nodded, breathing a long sigh through his nose.

“Well,” Chavez said, “now that that’s out of the way, can we get down to the main reason we came here?” Continue reading “Doctors of Death Chapter 2”

Doctors of Death Chapter 1

The Cessna 208 dropped like a stone and hit the runway in Abeche with a hard jolt that almost threw Dr. Elisa King into the back of the seat in front of her, despite the seatbelt.  For a moment, she thought that something must have broken. The pilot immediately slammed on the brakes and reversed the props, further throwing her and everyone and everything in the cramped cabin forward as the engines howled, trying to slow the plane down.

She hadn’t thought that the runway at Abeche was so short that a relatively small plane like the Cessna would need to decelerate that hard, but given what she’d seen of the pilot, maybe she shouldn’t have been surprised.

It wasn’t her first time in Africa, but her first time in Chad.  The World Health Organization had often sent observers to document the almost routine cholera outbreaks, but this was the first time someone with her specialty had been called for in the Sahel.

The plane having finally slowed to a reasonable pace, the pilot taxied toward the low, one-story terminal.  King looked out the window, taking in a part of Africa she hadn’t seen yet.

It looked an awful lot like many other parts.  The landscape was barren and dusty, obscured by heat waves and dotted with scrub.  The flatness of the country was broken only by low, peaked hills that looked like pyramids in the distance.

There were three military jets lined up against the retaining wall to the south of the airport.  Two had mechanics swarming over them, and the third didn’t look like it was in any shape to fly.  Half of one engine appeared to be apart, and there was a dusty tarp draped over the canopy.  King only spared them a brief glance; she wasn’t particularly interested in the Chadian military, or any military, for that matter, as long as they kept out of her way.

The WHO cavalcade didn’t really stand out from the other vehicles gathered at the terminal, because they were all Hiluxes and Land Rovers, just like almost every other vehicle in that part of Africa.  But the tall, spare Frenchman standing next to one of the Land Rovers caught her eye, indicating where they were supposed to go.  She’d recognize Flavien Paquet anywhere.

The plane stopped far short of the terminal, and the engines started to spool down.  King was not amused; she had probably a hundred pounds of baggage, and wasn’t looking forward to lugging it the quarter mile to the rest of the vehicles.  But the pilot, a local Chadian Sara, didn’t look remotely concerned, and showed no signs of starting the engines up to taxi any closer.  He was comfortable where he was.

“Typical,” Gerhart Strasser muttered under his breath.  The German epidemiologist usually spoke English, having spent most of the last ten years jetting between the US, Germany, Switzerland, and the UK.  This was his first trip to Africa in quite some time, and he was already displaying his utter contempt for the Africans and their “dirty little countries.” Continue reading “Doctors of Death Chapter 1”

High Desert Vengeance Chapter 2

With High Desert Vengeance going live tomorrow, here’s another sneak peak.  Things are starting to get tense in the aftermath of the massacre in Chapter 1.


Mario Gomez squinted in the sunlight.  It was cool at the moment, but it still felt warm after Transnistria in the winter.  He’d been home for a month, but most of that month had been spent watching over Sam Childress as he underwent multiple surgeries.  His wounds had been bad, and he still wasn’t ever going to walk again.

He rarely showed it, but Mario worried about his comrade.  He’d prayed every night for him, either for his recovery, or the strength to cope with whatever came next.  It wasn’t something he talked about much.  Mario Gomez wasn’t much of a talker.

He never had been.  He had always been more comfortable watching, listening, and acting than talking.  His tendency to silence had been a source of eternal aggravation to his gregarious younger sister, and his propensity for sudden, apparently impulsive action a matter of often grave concern to his more stolid, hard-working father.  Only his mother, Cocheta, had really understood him, and even that was an often-unspoken understanding.  She had been the only one who hadn’t objected when he’d joined the Marine Corps, simply telling him to keep their people’s honor intact.

His comfort with silence had been why he’d slipped away without telling the rest of his new comrades, the mercenaries who called themselves Brannigan’s Blackhearts when no one else was in earshot, without saying a word.  Nor had he explained what had made him almost miss the Transnistrian job.  His problems were his problems, not theirs.

He knew that his silence had separated him somewhat from the rest of the team, except maybe from Joe Flanagan, who was a quiet man, himself.  But it was just his way, and he was too set in it to change.

It had been a long drive from the airport in Silver City, but he was almost to Lordsburg.  Almost to the mortuary where the remains of his family were waiting. Continue reading “High Desert Vengeance Chapter 2”

High Desert Vengeance Chapter 1

Yes, despite launching a new series last month and all the associated work that’s gone into that, Brannigan’s Blackhearts #5 – High Desert Vengeance is coming soon.  The preorder should be up shortly.

You might remember from Frozen Conflict that Gomez was having some troubles at home.  Well, they got worse…


Juan Gomez was elbow-deep in the old F-100’s wiring bus when a yell from the house startled him.  His head snapped up, cracking his skull on the underside of the hood.

He didn’t swear; it wasn’t his way.  None of his children had ever heard a word of profanity pass Juan Gomez’s lips, and even fully grown, they were often the targets of his dire glare when they indulged in his house.  Even Mario, Marine that he had been.

Rubbing his head, he glanced up toward the house.  Emilio was standing on the porch, shading his eyes as he stared south, pointing with the other hand.  “Dad!” he called again.  “Look!”

Juan almost didn’t have to.  Slowly, heavily, still rubbing the sore spot on the back of his head, he turned and looked.  Sure enough, there were three plumes of dust coming up the valley.  Coming from the south.

Nothing good ever came from the south, these days. Continue reading “High Desert Vengeance Chapter 1”

Frozen Conflict Chapter 2

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. Continue reading “Frozen Conflict Chapter 2”

Frozen Conflict Chapter 1

“You’re imagining things, Eugen,” Cezar Lungu said.  He was leaning back in an overstuffed easy chair with a massy, polished wooden frame, a blond, vacant-eyed Ukrainian hooker on his lap.  He was fully clothed; she was in her underwear.  He picked up the shot of Kvint and tossed it back with a grimace and a loud, “Pah!”  “We have an arrangement!  And with what we’re paying the Russians and the Transnistrians both, we should at least get a warning if anything has changed!”

Eugen Codreanu did not turn away from the window, but continued peering into the night.  He wasn’t looking out toward the Dnieper River below the dacha, either.  He was looking back toward the wrought-iron gates and the guard posts, through the trees.  He was looking back toward the city of Ribnitza, which was throwing its glow against the near-perpetual pall of smoke and steam coming from the steelworks.

When Codreanu still hadn’t replied while he poured more Kvint, Lungu tried again.  “You’ve been jumping at shadows for four months, Eugen,” he ventured. Continue reading “Frozen Conflict Chapter 1”