Present Day


John Brannigan was not a happy man.

It wasn’t that life was bad. Nor was it the company. His relationship with the man behind the wheel of the SUV currently rolling through Alexandria, Virginia, wasn’t nearly as adversarial as it once had been. Mark Van Zandt, formerly General Van Zandt, USMC, had overseen Brannigan’s precipitous and unwilling retirement from the Marine Corps, many years before. Since entering the private sector himself, however, Van Zandt had worked with Brannigan and his small team of mercenaries, the men who called themselves “Brannigan’s Blackhearts,” enough that he’d changed.

No, the discomfort wasn’t about sharing a ride with Van Zandt, or even the business casual that was pretty far from his usual attire these days. No, it was entirely about where they were.

He’d bent over backwards in uniform and out to avoid Northern Virginia, the Beltway, and DC itself. Now here he was, right in the belly of the beast, and he couldn’t do a thing about it.

Of course, he could just go home. But there hadn’t been a lot of action for the Blackhearts since Prague, and he knew that the other boys would be disappointed if he turned down a job just because it meant going into the swamp.

“Here we are.” Van Zandt took a turn onto a long, winding driveway flanked by a pair of massive oak trees. “I don’t need to brief you on proper etiquette here, do I?”

It was a dig, and Brannigan knew it, but he didn’t rise to the bait. “I’ve briefed the Joint Chiefs and even the President in my day, Mark.”

Van Zandt had the good grace to look a little abashed. He was still more clean-cut than Brannigan, who had let his hair grow longer—though it still wasn’t exactly long—and had added a massive handlebar mustache. There hadn’t been much about Van Zandt’s grooming that had changed since the Marine Corps. “I know. You can just be a little…”


“That’s… better than what I was going to say.”

“Abrasive? Belligerent?”

Van Zandt sighed. “Just take the diplomacy for what it is, John.”

Brannigan subsided, though not without cracking a faint smile. They really had come a long way, him and Van Zandt. Such an exchange only a few years ago would have ended in a fight.

They rolled up to the front of the house, an enormous mansion that looked like it dated back to colonial days, though that might well have been the object when it had been built. Brannigan knew who they were meeting, but he hadn’t researched the house. He had other concerns.

Van Zandt parked out front of the massive stone steps leading up to the front door. “You didn’t come strapped, did you?”

Brannigan sighed and pulled the commander-sized 1911 out of his waistband, still in its holster, pushing it into the center console. “You didn’t think I wouldn’t, did you?”

Van Zandt just shook his head and got out.

There were two men in plainclothes, with the unmistakable air of security about them, waiting at the door. They didn’t search the two former Marine officers, which was a rare courtesy, but ushered them inside. “The Senator is waiting for you, gentlemen.”

With one in the lead and the other trailing, they moved into the house. The entryway looked like a set from Gone with the Wind, with the grand staircase leading to the second floor and a massive chandelier overhead. Brannigan did know enough to know that the Senator came from old money, so this wasn’t all from government graft.

The Senator’s home office was on the second floor of one wing. Paneled in what looked like mahogany—and Brannigan didn’t doubt that it was the real thing—it looked like a classical study, and he was sure that it was maintained that way for appearances alone.

Senator Braxton was sitting behind an enormous wooden desk, thoroughly absorbed in writing something. Brannigan’s eyes narrowed as he studied the balding, white-haired man. He knew enough about Braxton to be sure it was an act. The man was the epitome of the lowest common denominator rising to the top by sheer artifice and bombast.

“Have a seat. Just be a moment.” The “elder statesman” voice sounded just as phony as the writing to Brannigan’s ears. Hell. Is he using a fountain pen?

There wasn’t anything they could do, though, and Van Zandt just shrugged and sank into one of the overstuffed armchairs facing the desk. Brannigan stifled the urge to shake his head and did the same, noting with disgust that he sank deeper into the chair than normal, which would put him below Braxton’s line of sight from the desk. It was a cheap power play, and one he’d seen before, but it was probably to be expected from someone of Braxton’s caliber.

Finally, the Senator put the notepad and the pen aside and looked up at the two of them, leaning his elbows on the desk and clasping his hands. “Well. General Van Zandt. Colonel Brannigan. Thank you for meeting me. I’m afraid we need to have this meeting here in my home because certain forces within the US government have precluded anything more official.”

“We’re listening.” Brannigan kept his face impassive, though he thought he could sense Van Zandt very nearly wince next to him.

His bluntness made Braxton hesitate, and drew an irritated glance from the older man. However, he apparently decided that whatever he’d brought them here for was more important than his senatorial ego.

“I don’t know if you’ve been following the news in the Caribbean?” Braxton raised an eyebrow as he asked the question.

Van Zandt nodded, while Brannigan only shrugged.

Braxton nodded, though with just enough of an air of exasperation that it hardened Brannigan’s already low opinion of the man. The entire meeting already felt forced and scripted, scripted in such a way to make Braxton feel like he was in total control.

He hated it, but if this was how to get the work…

“Well, there’s been an uptick in piracy, particularly in the southern waters, south of Jamaica and north of Colombia.” Braxton leaned back in his chair and folded his arms. “The most recent attack was on the MV Traveling Family.” He said that as if the name should mean something, but it was just another cargo ship to Brannigan. When neither Brannigan nor Van Zandt responded, Braxton sighed again. “The Traveling Family is not only a US-flag ship, but she belongs to the Dorian Family corporation.” Once again, that was probably supposed to mean something, and Brannigan assumed it was a major donor or something. He just nodded, as if he understood. He didn’t want another patronizing explanation that wasn’t necessarily relevant to the mission.

“This was the first US flagged ship to be taken, and it has to be responded to. Unfortunately, we know who is behind these attacks, and that makes things a little difficult.”

The senator pointed to a map of the Americas on the wall. “The pirates are coming from a small country on the north coast of Colombia, right next to the Venezuelan border. Costa de las Joyas. It’s ruled by a small and brutal military junta, that’s been in power since the late seventies. Now, nobody would miss them if they went away, but the reality on the ground makes direct US intervention next to impossible. That close to Venezuela, no one wants to send the Marines or even the SEALs. Especially after that circus of a coup attempt in Venezuela only a few years ago.”

Brannigan wasn’t sure he bought that. Venezuela was an enemy of the US, a generally communist country, but it wasn’t so much of a threat that the US he had grown up in would hesitate to teach them a lesson, even if by proxy. And the description of the military junta that ran Costa de las Joyas didn’t make them sound like they were exactly Venezuelan allies. Or Colombian allies, for that matter.

No, there was something else going on here.

Am I getting paranoid in my old age?

“A certain committee that I am a part of has worked with the State Department to come up with a solution. A full-scale military intervention—which would be the only real way to put a stop to the junta’s active support of piracy—is off the table, but we believe that we have found a better way to accomplish regime change. Which is where you and your little group of contractors comes in.”

He pushed a folder across the desk. Brannigan took it, aware that it was an affectation itself, as much as he might personally prefer paper to electronics. Inside was a photo of a man in his late thirties or early forties. Clean shaven, with a flyaway shock of black hair, there was a burning intensity in his eyes that Brannigan wasn’t sure he liked.

“That is Ernesto Hierro,” Braxton explained. “He has been at the forefront of the reform movement in Costa de las Joyas for a couple of decades now. His father was killed by the junta, back in the eighties. He was captured a few months ago, and is currently being held in the prison wing of the Generalissimo Marto Military Base, right outside Santa Paz, the capital city and the single major city in the entire country.”

Braxton leaned back in his chair again and eyed Brannigan, as if he were uncertain about whether or not to continue, uncertain that Brannigan was the right man for the job. Brannigan just leaned back in his own chair, putting the file on the arm next to him, and returned the senator’s stare levelly.

Finally, with a nod that was every bit as theatrical as the rest of this meeting, Braxton seemed to make up his mind. “We need you to get Hierro out and back to his fellow reformers. There are plans in motion to get them more support, and the Agency believes that they have extensive grassroots support among the populace. The military junta is brutal and corrupt, and the people have just about had enough. It’s time for a reform, and it would be better, in that part of the world, if it came from their own people, not from the US military.”

Brannigan suspected that that last statement had far more to do with the desire to avoid an overt US military intervention than the aforementioned worry about Venezuela. He wasn’t entirely against the idea, either, but there was still something about this that seemed a little off.

“If they’re corrupt, would it be possible to simply bribe someone to let him out?” It wasn’t that he was worried about the Blackhearts’ ability to run a jailbreak, but if they could do it quietly, without gunfire, so much the better.

“It’s possible.” Braxton didn’t seem to like the idea. As if killing a bunch of people to noisily break a dissident out of a military prison was a much preferable concept than bribing a corrupt officer. “We will provide you with some operational funds, but duffel bags full of cash might not be available.”

Brannigan just nodded. It seemed as if the senator and whoever else was backing this operation had a preconceived idea of how it should go. He’d deal with that as it came. “Well, I suppose stopping piracy against American shipping is a noble cause, even if this seems to be an awfully roundabout way to do it. We’re going to need a pretty thorough breakdown of the country, its history, terrain, known factions, etc. Is there any kind of timeline we need to be aware of? Is he slated for execution or anything?”

“Not that we know of, but this does need to be done quickly. We don’t want any more American ships getting seized.” Braxton seemed satisfied that the Blackhearts were going to take the job, and he sat up, shuffling papers on his desk. “My secretary will have a packet of more information for you.”

Clearly, the meeting was over. Brannigan glanced at Van Zandt, who was already getting up, and followed suit. “Thank you for your time, Senator.”

Braxton waved, already apparently absorbed with the papers in front of him. Brannigan and Van Zandt turned and left the room.

Braxton’s secretary—unsurprisingly a young brunette—was waiting with a sealed manila envelope, which she handed over as they came out, barely looking at the two retired officers before going into Braxton’s office and closing the door behind her.

“Looks like the brief’s been given and the job is set.” Van Zandt looked a little uncomfortable, though he was also apparently relieved that Brannigan hadn’t pushed in there. “Let’s get out of here and start planning.”

Brannigan tucked the envelope under his arm and followed Van Zandt toward the car. He would run this past the team, and they’d see.

It wasn’t as if the Blackhearts hadn’t done some sketchy jobs before. Hell, they’d been ostensibly working for a transnational criminal syndicate in Prague, but the target had been the Humanity Front, so that had, at least on some level, been justified.

There was something about this that told him they’d have to move very carefully.

Very carefully, indeed.


Legacy of Terror comes out on Kindle and in Paperback on March 29.

Legacy of Terror Chapter 2

Peter Nealen

Peter Nealen is a former Reconnaissance Marine and veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan. He deployed to Iraq in 2005-2006, and again in 2007, with 1st Platoon, Bravo Company, 1st Recon Bn. After two years of schools and workups, including Scout/Sniper Basic and Team Leader's Courses, he deployed to Afghanistan with 4th Platoon, Force Reconnaissance Company, I MEF. Since he got out, he's been writing, authoring many articles and 24 books, mostly Action/Adventure and Military Thrillers, with some excursions into Paranormal Fantasy and Science Fiction.

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