“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”