Part 9: Another Tuesday In Another Coffee Shop

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Facilitating Disaster

Hayward, Wisconsin was one of those places one doesn’t come across by accident. Interstate 35 running between Minneapolis and Duluth was several miles away. US Highway 63 provided the bulk of whatever could be called traffic through town. Most people were there for fishing in Hayward Lake. A few people would people stop by to visit the Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame but even those visitors tended to have a fishing pole or six in the back of their vehicle, looking for a good spot to catch “the big one.”

Tom Russet had lived almost his entire life in Hayward, not so much because he wanted to but because that’s just the way his life had turned out. Nothing about his childhood had stood out as especially remarkable. His mother taught school, his father was a mail carrier. He was an average student who excelled in math but found the lack of practical application boring. In fact, that was his issue with most of the subjects taught in school—a severe lack of practical application. What good was it to know anything if there was not a direct connection with some aspect of life? So, he had muddled through school working hard enough to graduate in the upper portion of his class but not enough to stand out or draw attention to himself in any way.

One of the benefits of growing up in a small town so far removed from the problems of major cities was that Tom had been able to ride through the streets on his bicycle without any significant worries. For a while, when he was 12 years old, he had a weekly paper route that gave him enough spending money for comic books and the candy his mother refused to buy for him. He got to know people and they knew and trusted Tom. He was a good kid who never caused any trouble, was always around to mow a lawn or help carry groceries, or just sit and chat if someone offered him a cold soda. Had life been fair and reasonable, Tom would have lived and died in Hayward without anyone outside the county ever noticing.

Four years at the University of Wisconsin in Madison had been the furthest Tom had ever been from Hayward. The size of the student body alone was several times that of his home town and the atmosphere of intellectual questioning had piqued Tom’s interest. He had gone there to study physics but had also developed a strong interest in environmental issues and their relationship to economic issues. While he had started school thinking he might like to work in a lab somewhere looking for solutions to quantum overheating, by the time he graduated he was more concerned about molecular erosion deriving from increased moisture as a result of global warming. 

When Tom graduated, he was looking at a number of possible positions that would have allowed him to utilize both his physics and environmental knowledge to not only study the planet but perhaps develop a method for either slowing down or, hopefully, reversing the effects that were slowly destroying the planet. That none of the jobs paid all that much was irrelevant. Neither did Tom mind that it would likely take him away from Wisconsin and his family. There was a world to be saved and maybe, if everything went well, Tom might have a part in rescuing the planet.

Tom had temporarily moved back home while he considered two different employment offers when, as too often happens, tragedy struck. His dad, Bill, had been making his mail rounds when a semi tractor-trailer coming through town just a little too fast failed to make a turn and tipped over on top of the mail truck Bill was driving. Trapped in the wreckage, Bill was almost certainly still alive. Members of the largely-volunteer fire department came rushing to the scene claim they heard Bill calling for help. Then, without warning, the contents of the trailer exploded sending a fireball over 100 feet into the sky and leaving a crater seven feet deep. There was nothing left of Bill or his delivery vehicle.

Everyone in town heard and felt the explosion. There was no denying it happened. Tom, like many others, went running to the scene. Since there was no longer any physical evidence of Bill or his mail truck, Tom didn’t realize that his father was dead. Only when a firefighter spotted him and suggested that Tom find his mother and take her home was there any suspicion that something was wrong. Both the fire chief and police chief came by the house with the devastating news. That alone was enough to change Tom’s plans. He instantly knew he would have to delay any out-of-town employment to help his mother recover and get back on her feet.

What happened next was rather surreal. Two men in dark suits arrived at Russet home early the next morning claiming to be from the Postmaster General’s office. Since Bill was a federal employee, they said, there were certain benefits Rachel, his widow, was entitled to receive. They talked about pension and life insurance and everything about that conversation seemed perfectly normal until they pulled out the paperwork for Rachel to sign. Since the whole topic was upsetting, Rachel handed the papers to Tom to look over and there in the indemnity clause he noticed that it was the Department of Defense, not the Postal Service, they were being asked to hold harmless. A dozen questions immediately raced through Tom’s mind. This couldn’t be normal. What did the Department of Defense have to do with mail delivery? Why would they even be involved in his mom receiving death benefits? Nothing else in the paperwork mentioned the DoD at all. Why did they need to be indemnified at all? What possible role had they played? For all his questions, though, Tom handed the papers back and gave his mother the go-ahead to sign them. She was already distraught at losing her husband. He wasn’t going to make matters worse by questioning a seemingly insignificant part of the paperwork. Tom mentioned the clause to no one.

Had anyone known about the inclusion of the Department of Defense in the indemnity clause they might have found it curious that the hole in the street was completely filled and paved over by noon the next day. Someone might have questioned that the contractor who did the job was from Virginia. A more astute observer might have said something about the special liner placed in the crater before it was filled or inquired about the “mosquito repellant” that was only sprayed on the lawns and buildings within a three-block radius of the explosion. 

A few people did find it interesting that nothing about the explosion appeared in the local paper but the editor explained that they had already committed to running the story about a planned addition to the hall of fame and covering the high school graduation. They did run Bill’s obituary on the front page, below the fold with a nice picture, but no mention of the explosion occurred there, either. In less than a week, everything in Hayward appeared to be back to normal. A year later, hardly anyone mentioned the event’s anniversary. 

Tom stayed in town, secured a decent enough job with the state’s Department of Natural Resources, and took care of his mother. The pension checks arrived on time, directly deposited into her bank account. There was no grave to visit but Bill’s picture remained by her bedside and Tom knew that most nights his mom cried herself to sleep. When the doctor diagnosed her with an aggressive form of cancer two years later, Tom wasn’t surprised. He was completely unaware that more than 200 people in town were also diagnosed with various cancers within two years of the blast. Rachel fought cancer for eight years before finally leaving Tom alone in the house where he had grown up. 

Three weeks after his mother’s funeral, Tom finally decided it was time to go through all the family papers, get things organized and perhaps eliminate what he no longer needed. Life wasn’t exactly horrible. His father’s life insurance had paid off the mortgage so he only had to worry about utilities and taxes. He had seniority at work and while he perhaps wasn’t saving the entire planet he was effective in creating local programs that kept the lake from encroaching onto surrounding land and controlling runoff. He had even been dating a girl from Stanbury for the past five years. Perhaps now he could focus a bit on his own life.

Going through his mom’s files, though, Tom noticed several envelopes marked from the Department of Treasury that had never been opened. As he looked at them, he realized they were receipts for additional deposits made to her account marked as “reparations.” What those reparations might be he didn’t know. He knew that by the time her medical bills were paid there wasn’t a lot of money left and these receipts were each for well over $10,000 each. 

When his mother’s final death certificate arrived in the mail, Tom took it to the bank to close his mother’s account. After filling out the necessary paperwork, the bank manager asked if Tom wanted them to simply move the remaining funds into his account or if he wanted it divided into investment accounts as his mother had done. Tom had never realized that his mother had more than one account. By the time everything was totaled the full amount his mother left was over seven million dollars. 

Working for the state of Wisconsin, Tom knew that the government, state or federal, didn’t just hand out millions of dollars without Congress being involved somewhere along the line. He had the money transferred to a separate account, one that he wouldn’t report on his taxes, and quietly started looking into why his mom had received so much money and why she hadn’t said anything or spent any of it.

Another four years would pass before Tom started getting any answers at all and the ones he did get only led him to more questions. What he knew was that the truck that had killed his father was carrying a proprietary explosive the government had been researching. He also knew that the truck was never intended to go through Hayward at all. However, many of the documents he was able to retrieve through the Freedom of Information act were heavily redacted. He didn’t know where the truck should have been or exactly what it had been carrying. He also knew that whatever was in the truck was likely a violation of the Geneva Convention which would explain why the government had tried so hard to cover up its existence. The of the last documents he found claimed that the project had been scrapped because the material proved too volatile. However, there were also indications that the explosion in Hayward hadn’t been the only one and that everywhere there had been an explosion there was also a severe increase in cancer deaths over the next ten years. 

Tom was angry. Not only had government ineptitude caused his father’s death, but it also had contributed to the early and painful deaths of his mother and over two hundred other people in Hayward. The reparations payments came in exchange for avowed silence. Everyone in town, it seemed, had been paid to keep quiet. There were several who even denied the explosion had actually happened.

Frustrated, Tom went to his ten-year college reunion which wasn’t all that big of a deal considering that most of his former classmates were just settling into their careers but big enough that he was able to find a handful of people who were similarly disheartened. One had lost a spouse in an unexplained chemical spill. Another person’s roommate, a federal employee in what seemed to be a nondescript office job, suddenly “disappeared” and had all her personal belongings confiscated by federal agents. One person told the horrific story of how he had been on vacation with his parents in Honduras where his parents were kidnapped. He contacted the US embassy and wrestled with paperwork and delays for over three months. When a military team was finally sent in to “rescue” them, they returned with a story that his parents had “unfortunately been killed in the crossfire.” Both his parents had been federal employees. 

As they left the reunion, the small group that had formed exchanged email addresses and promised to keep in touch. They found others who had similar stories: homes mysteriously flooded, unexplained disappearances, “accidents” that seemed too easily covered up. Each left someone resentful and bitter. As email conversations flew between members of the group, the universal feeling was that the government wasn’t just hiding something, it was hiding many things across many agencies and going to great lengths to keep all those things hidden.

That’s when Tom floated the idea of trying to infiltrate federal government programs as employees, getting inside the top-secret facilities, finding out what was going on, and then broadcasting those findings to the world. Everyone liked the idea and having grown to over 500 members the group found it almost too easy to be hired for jobs deep inside top-secret government facilities. They provided cover stories for those whose background didn’t quite fit and vouched for each other when federal security status was being set. While not everyone in the group was accepted, over 300 were.

What they quickly discovered, however, was that many of the programs to which they were assigned were experimental, easy for the government to deny even existed. The group realized that if they leaked information to the press, the government would simply shut down the operation and either move it somewhere else or kill everyone involved and call it an accident. At the very least they would be dismissed as nut-job conspiracy theorists with a loose grip on reality.

Tom was active in all the conversations. He worked his way into a position at the Bureau of Land Management where he became part of a group looking to extract uranium deposits from under private property in urban locations. As he saw what was being done, the excuses, the elaborate deceptions, the money being spent on covering up flaws and accidents, his anger grew. When finally someone suggested that these programs needed to be stopped and that sabotage was the only way, Tom was quick to volunteer.

The scheme was elaborate and members of the group constantly questioned whether they could ever achieve their goals without being discovered. If they were ever caught they could be tried for treason. More likely, they would be killed and their deaths covered up in the usual manner, explained away by what seemed to be a publicly-witnessed accident. Still, they remained surprisingly committed and when they learned of a special satellite-driven program in Virginia, Tom and seven others managed to get hired as analysts. They were determined to bring down the program no matter what the costs.

Tom and two others were part of the green team, and the group had two members in both the blue and yellow teams. After the initial test of the system, they knew the only way to bring it to a halt was to take control of the satellite’s used to distribute the message and alter it in such a way so that the next test would fail spectacularly, bringing down the nation’s cell service and upsetting international communications. Inserting lines of code into the program, even with all the double-checking that occurred, was almost too easy. Teams were under so much pressure to deliver a product that code inserted late into the process was not as fully tested as was the original code. Falsified explanations embedded into the code were overlooked as being legitimate and never questioned. Even if an analyst had raised an alarm, there were enough team members in each group to challenge any negative opinion. 

Two weeks before the final test at the White House, Tom moved from the green team to Holly’s yellow team. There he discovered that the FBI agent running the test, Tony Briscane, had made some tweaks of his own. The only way Tom’s takeover could work would be if there were a two-second break in the delivery of the message—enough of an interruption to send the system into pause mode. The odds of that happening were practically nill. Tom and the team thought they had been defeated.

But then, the president himself had provided the break they needed. Two seconds, almost exactly, and Tom’s code went into effect. So did all the code the other team members had written, not all of which Tom had seen. No one in the group was aware of everything that was about to happen.

Almost immediately after the interruption took place, Tony sent a text to Claire who forwarded it to her counterparts on the other team: they had a mole, the code had been altered. Claire didn’t know the message on her cell phone reflected onto a monitor behind her where Tom was able to read it. He quickly sent a message to Rodney Hampton, a seven-year veteran of the Secret Service, suggesting that “extreme measures” be taken to preserve their secrecy. Two seconds later, the entire national cell system went dead. 

Tom didn’t know one of his partners had included a line of code that effectively caused 18 major power stations across the country to overload, creating a cascading event that knocked out the nation’s power grid. Even the person who wrote that code did not expect the resulting electromagnetic pulse that momentarily stopped every combustion- and electric-powered engine. 

As the entire bunker went into damage control, Tom knew he had no choice but to take extreme action. Commandeering another satellite, which was easy at this point, he located a fighter jet with a payload that would be effective. Trigger systems that would have allowed the pilot to drop that payload had been disarmed, but Tom knew that everything on the plane could be controlled remotely. As everyone around him appeared to be trying to get systems back online, Tom was feverishly working to control the plane, setting the precise coordinates for dropping the bombs then crashing the aircraft. He didn’t have time to warn the others. 

Now, he sat in the dark, wearing a gas mask, pinned down by falling rubble. The instant he had mentioned the food trucks he knew he had made a mistake. Perry Hawkins was too intelligent. His only hope of survival was to slip away into the darkness. Two other members of the group had survived the initial blast, Harold House on the green team and Sarah Weller on the yellow team. Harold had been lifted out of the bunker badly wounded. Tom knew Harold would be safe. He had no idea whether Sarah had survived the cave-in. He would have to take his chances. As the lights of rescuers approached, he unwedged himself from the concrete and slipped away into the darkness. No one noticed.

The Evil Among Us

From the beginning of time, humans have been easily manipulated by the supernatural. Not that any of them could force a human to take any specific action, good or bad, but they were susceptible to influence on a level unlike any other being in nature. All it ever took was a suggestion given at just the right moment when emotions were set or hormones were sufficiently active. Good or bad, whatever “voice” or “thought” entered the human brain had a high probability of being acted upon. The battle to place the right thought in the right brain at the right time could be fierce. Other times, though, it was exceptionally easy.

Like humans, the supernatural forces were part of what was created out of the Big Bang, though no one had yet developed the technology to record the presence of any spiritual energy in that blast. They had evolved with time, moving from being the grotesque monsters of ancient nightmares to inhabiting other bodies to replicating life forms for themselves, any life form, so as to better manipulate the actions of the humans who laughably thought they controlled the planet. They had developed neural communication networks that allowed them to know what was happening within certain groups anywhere in the world. Both had extremely intricate hierarchies that didn’t fit on anyone’s flow chart and as much rivalry and contest as there was between them, both knew the other side was absolutely necessary.

Of course, the good guys took most the credit even when they had little to do with the matter. When the great books were being written, they latched themselves to the souls of writers to make sure that they were painted as the champions of civilization’s forward progress. Angels had created the concept of inspiration and authors and artists alike happily claimed that as the source of their work, never realizing they were being manipulated the entire time. They had also heavily influenced the concept of religion so they would be seen as messengers of good, even infallible though that was far from the truth. Both sides made their share of mistakes, their efforts having unanticipated results.

The biggest challenge faced by the supernatural was the binary nature of the human mind. First of all, it had taken an incredibly long time for bipedal beings to develop a sense of reason in the first place. Evolution could move incredibly slow and tens of thousands of years had passed before this late-arriving infestation acted on anything beyond their own instincts. Early observers of the species often mistook them for a relative of the great apes who were powerful but frustratingly limited. Only as humans developed specific patterns of speech and communication did the supernatural entities start paying attention. Once they realized the slow-moving intellectual development of these creatures could be more easily manipulated than with other animals, they began being more directly involved. 

Human curiosity was the biggest problem they faced. The development of written language, symbols carved into stone or stained onto papyrus, had come about through an attempt to answer the philosophical questions of “why am I here?” and “what is my purpose?” Supernatural beings quickly realized they needed someone to blame, an entity whose identity they could hide behind so that humans remained largely unaware of the aggressive ways their lives were being shaped by things they could not see or feel. Thus, they created the concept of deity. How that concept developed differed based on culture and intellectual capability but for all of them the concept that there was an unseen force who more or less controlled everything everywhere all the time provided both sides with the cover they needed to continue their work.

At the same time, however, as the concepts of deity and religion eventually merged, it partitioned the supernaturals into distinct camps. Fear and Death began to be considered bad things. Humans lost the ability to see that agents of Fear kept them safe while allies of Death held the ability to reduce or eliminate suffering and prevented the spread of diseases that would have wiped out the entire species before they were millennia old. Agents that encouraged and sometimes facilitated reproduction were rebranded as lust. Influencers that provided the drive to achieve and succeed were given the label “greed,” which the angels deemed a sin. Attendants who pushed for humans to enjoy as much as they could saw their efforts vilified as gluttony while those saw danger in overactivity, encouraging rest and moderation, were referred to as employees of sloth. What began among the tribes as an attempt to ensure equality among everyone was demonized as envy. People who listened to operators encouraging them to share and communicate their achievements were told to sit down as they were being prideful. Supporters of justice were recast as purveyors of wrath. 

As the number of deities and religions slowly consolidated and gained power, humans lost the ability to see how the traits and activities their religions villanized were necessary to achieve the balance of nature. Harmony was not possible without those influences commonly referred to as sins. As humans slowly developed their ability to reason, conflicts began to arise between those who could see outside religious boundaries and those who could not. Pure concepts became polluted and the minds of humans shifted away from the natural order. 

Human reasoning was forever altered, however, when the Archangel Raphael mistakenly implied to a religious leader that there might be something that perpetuated existence beyond the effects of Death. He hadn’t meant for it to come out that way. Raphael was only trying to mitigate the fear associated with the finality of ending life by suggesting that the memory of one’s good deeds and achievements effectually extended the influence of their lives forever. Nuance and subtlety were almost always lost on humans, though. Their underutilized brains couldn’t keep up and as a result, the religious leader took Raphael’s “inspiration” to mean that eternal life could be achieved through good deeds. Nothing anyone did could keep the concept from spreading through all the deities and nearly all the religions. 

Understandably, the forces of Death took the slight personally. This concept of eternal life was a direct afront to their purpose. Life ends. Good deeds or not, regardless of belief systems or ritual acts, the cessation of existence was final and critical to maintaining the balance of the universe. Nothing else could possibly exist beyond that point without upsetting the essence of all matter. Everything that exists is made of energy. When that energy expires or changes its form, the “life” it inhabits dies. Everything dies. Stars die. Planets die. Light dies. There can be no exception for anything on any level of being. To suggest otherwise not only brought chaos to the universe but completely derailed human intellectual development for thousands of years, doing irreparable damage along the way.

Death and its allied forces did not respond well to this change. Mercy, the concept of making the end of life as painless as possible, was thrown out the window. Instead, Death became aggressive and allied with Pain whenever possible. Death vowed it would no longer stand in the way of violence, either natural or of human creation. If humans wanted to believe Raphael’s nonsense, Death would introduce them to reality in the most vivid and unquestionable method at its disposal. 

Raphael, embarrassed that he had been the source of such misunderstanding, doubled down on the concept of an afterlife and encouraged his counterparts to do the same. While they lacked the power to actually create a post-life utopia of any kind, they could, in some cases, ease the effects of death if they arrived early enough, calming one’s last breaths, making the transition into nothingness a bit more gentle. Often, they would show a hint of themselves to the dying person, appearing as bright light, giving the human hope that they were moving onto a better form of existence. Yes, that hope was a lie, but angels considered that matter irrelevant given that without any post-conscious existence the humans would know no better, dying peacefully, possibly even happily. 

Ultimately, this difference set up a great and powerful conflict between the supernaturals aligned with light, the positive energy of the universe, and those aligned with darkness, or negative energy. Both waged wars for the minds and actions of humans, mounting great public relations and marketing campaigns furthering their own power and gaining favor in the minds of humans. At the same time, though, both sides were aware that the universe could tolerate only so much tilt in either direction before it would force a correction. Balance would be maintained at all cost.

Ironically, what often started in the camp of the light ones often ended up exploited by those on the dark side. Exploration, searching for new places to grow food and live in peace almost inevitably led to tribal conflicts, a battle between competing concepts of deity and the ability to control the land. Forces loyal to Pain and Trouble excelled at this maneuver, so much so that they eventually took over the whole concept, leading human leaders to mount expeditions to take over land to which they had no reasonable right of control. Within a matter of a couple of centuries, no exploration was done without the express intent of dominating and controlling whoever or whatever might be found.

Similar transitions occurred in fields of medicine, science, and technology as every advancement achieved through the influence of the light could be countered with tools of the darkness such as addiction, domination, inequality, and restriction. The harnessing of electricity opened the door to power struggles and eventual dependence on artificial power. The natural balance between day and night was lost, humans no longer rested the amount their bodies required. The Industrial Revolution brought many new conveniences to the planet but also furthered the causes of pollution, inequality, racism, sexism, and ultimately weapons of war that were more efficient at killing than entire armies had been previously.

Through everything, a tentative balance was maintained. Sure there was a lot of wobbling back and forth, but it wasn’t until the election of Rudolph Blackstone that the planet experienced an imbalance so severe that the planet was obligated to respond. Blackstone was not only completely under the influence of dark powers, he regularly originated ideas of destruction on his own without any supernatural assistance. He completely disregarded established safety measures and well-supported science and totally ignored the lessons of history. Single-handedly, Rudy Blackstone had made air unbreathable, water undrinkable, international peace unattainable, and severely reduced global food supplies. Agents of Death and Destruction were delighted. Principals of Fear were on the federal payroll. Anxiety attendants were at every Cabinet meeting and influenced the president’s social media outbursts. Within 24 months, the careful balance that had existed for centuries was completely lost despite every effort to keep it in play.

Now, Nature was in control. The instant the artificial power went out, she stepped in. She had seen it coming and was well prepared. Horrific storms and tornadoes plagued the central regions of North America. Shifts in plates well beneath the Pacific ocean set up an overdue realignment of landmass creating massive tsunamis in the process. Extreme temperatures never previously recorded left polar animals with heatstroke while ice melting contributed so dramatically to the desalination of oceans that hundreds of species began to die. Heavy winds displaced snow and sand, completely covering small villages that would never again know life. Not content with incremental change as she had always advocated before, Nature was pissed and determined to clean house. If that meant two billion people had to die, she was okay with that. Restoring balance was more important.

Archbeings on both sides saw Nature’s move as a chance to gain influence among the humans. If death on this level was inevitable, it would be up to them to shape how humans responded. If mass deaths were seen as sudden and painless, humans were more likely to accept the natural acts as their own doing and work toward making corrections. If deaths were perceived as painful and merciless, especially toward those who were weak and defenseless, humans would look for someone to blame and the result conflicts could last for centuries. There was a lot at stake and it would take everyone on both sides to keep the humans from becoming stunned into a state of paralysis.

Caim, as one of Death’s strongest supporters, was not going to willingly let anyone pass unattended, or worse yet, guided by angels. He had given Djali and thousands of his counterparts specific assignments. Death had not readjusted the account. Nature seemed to be taking a breath but there was a second wave coming. Caim reissued orders, sent Djali back to his original coffee shop group. “Wait,” he was told. “Don’t look for the obvious or the weakest.”

Djali didn’t like the order. He had a finely honed sense of when death was imminent and there was nothing about the occupants of that apartment that made him feel that any of them were close to getting anything more than a dry cough. He knew Caim rarely made mistakes, though, and challenging such a powerful entity could have bad results. He lurked at the far side of the building, away from Amber’s watchful gaze. He wasn’t feeling especially aggressive after the tornado. He could wait.

There Is No Normal

A phalanx of the press had gathered outside the Emergency Room doors of Walter Reed Hospital by the time Roger returned. The reporters all recognized his vehicles and immediately started shouting questions the moment he stepped out of the SUV. He waved and rushed in where Ann was waiting. “How’s she doing?” he asked, referring to the First Lady.

“She’s faking distress well,” Ann said. 

Roger looked at her cautiously. “Faking?” he questioned. “Are you sure?”

Ann grabbed Roger’s elbow and led him away from the door to an area where the eyes of the press weren’t persistently trying to read their lips. “Yes, faking,” she answered. “I’ve been her friend since college, Roger. I’ve seen her more upset over getting a B on a final than she was at Dr. Zinky’s news. It’s like she knew this was coming. Her sentences were complete, not broken up by sobbing. She dabbed the tissue at her eyes, being careful to not smear her makeup. She’ll fake cry for a few seconds then look up to see if anyone’s paying attention. I’d swear she had something to do with this, I just don’t know what or how.”

Roger sighed heavily. “Fuck. If this shit gets any deeper we’re all going to drown.”

A look of concern crossed Ann’s face. “What do you mean? Andrew was sworn in okay, right?”

The Chief of Staff looked carefully around before answering. “Sure, he was sworn in, right before he and Lang were shot. Norma’s sitting in the Oval now, too scared to make a move. The shooter is still at large, the entire White House is on lockdown, and neither Congress nor the Pentagon has a clue what’s going on.”

Ann suddenly felt like throwing up. “We’ve got a Constitutional crisis, don’t we?”

“Kruegel says we do. Until we get the Chief Justice back, no one is technically in control. Norma’s been sworn in, of course, but Kruegel says she can’t sign anything that extends beyond the moment and even that has to be an absolute emergency. Everything anyone does is subject to either a legal or Congressional challenge, if not both. I would have thought there was no way anyone could have predicted this absurd chain of events, but if what you’re telling me about the First Lady is true, maybe someone did.” 

Roger ran his hands through his hair then shoved them deep into his pants pockets. He looked at the floor a moment before continuing. “We need the president to not die until the Chief Justice can swear Norma in legally,” he said quietly. “And we need the electricity back on. It’s going to get dark in a couple of hours. Those generators aren’t going to last forever.”

“Ann! Ann, dear! Can you come here for a minute?” the First Lady called from across the waiting room.

Ann walked over, closely followed by Roger. Tasha was still dabbing a tissue at the corner of her eyes, fully aware that the press outside was watching every move. “Andrew has been sworn in as acting President, am I correct?”

Ann looked hesitantly at Roger. “He was, but …”

“He can go back to being Vice President now,” Tasha said before Ann could finish her sentence. “Rudy’s going to be fine. There’s no reason for the American public to know he’s temporarily unavailable. I’ll address the press on his behalf and let everyone know we’ll all be back in the White House soon.” Tasha smiled in a way most frequently ascribed to comic book villains. 

Roger looked at Ann and noticed her fists were clenched and she was almost certainly grinding her teeth. “Mrs. Blackstone, I’m afraid there have been some complications that you’ve not yet been made aware of,” he said, taking some of the pressure off his counterpart. “Andrew was gunned down in the White House shortly after taking the oath of office. General Lang and a member of Andrew’s Secret Service detail were killed as well.”

Roger paused a moment to let that sink in. He had not bothered to lower his voice and the First Lady’s security detail stepped in closer to hear what was going on.

“Norma Watkins is currently acting president, according to the Constitutional line of succession,” Roger continued. “However, until Congress and the Pentagon have both been duly informed of the full situation, no one, including you ma’am, is addressing the press in any way, shape, or form. There will be no lying to the press, no misdirection to try and make anyone think that president Blackstone is still in charge. We are in uncharted territory and the legal implications are severe. No one is doing anything. I’m sorry.”

“Who gave the oath of office,” Gloria Fastbaum spoke up from behind Tasha. “I didn’t think the Chief Justice was available.”

Now it was Roger’s turn to clench his fist. Only a handful of people knew that the Chief Justice wasn’t in town and he was quite sure that Ms. Fastbaum wasn’t on the list of people who should have that information. “Excuse me, who are you, exactly?” he asked in a stern voice that made everyone else in the room shudder.

Gloria seemed unfazed. “I’m Gloria Fastbaum, the First Lady’s personal attorney,” she said.

Roger took a couple of steps closer so as to look Gloria dead in the eyes. “As her personal attorney, you are not privileged to receive confidential or classified information. The location of the Chief Justice, as well as that of the other members of the Supreme Court, is a matter of national security. You may not have been informed when you arrived, but you are, like every member of the White House staff, subject to the rules and protocols we have established and if you violate those rules, in any way, Ms. Fastbaum, you’ll be the one needing an attorney.”

Roger took a couple of steps back and caught smirks on the faces of Mrs. Blackstone’s staff as well as her security detail. “Now, there will be no statements to the press. None. The official position of the White House is that we do not comment on situations that are currently fluid and if this situation were any more fluid we’d all need gallon jugs. I don’t want to see any member of this staff talking to the press directly, sending them notes, making faces at them through the windows, or any other inane form of communication. Any statement you make outside this room is subject to legal action from the Attorney General’s office and possibly Congressional oversight committees. I don’t want to catch any of you being stupid.” 

Tasha dabbed at her eyes again. “I just thought the American people might appreciate hearing …”

“The American people would appreciate having their electricity back,” Roger interrupted. “There is no power. No television. No radio. No internet. Any statement anyone makes under these conditions only fuels speculation and leads to further confusion. It’s not going to happen, ma’am. Not from you, not from anyone else.”

Tasha dropped her head and retreated back to the corner of the waiting room. Ann stood next to Roger and said, “You realize that just put you on her shit list.”

“I thought I was already there,” he replied.

“You were, but you’ve moved up a few places,” Ann confirmed. “How do you suppose Gloria knew about the whole Chief Justice situation?”

“I’m not sure, but he’s due at the White House in less than an hour. I’m going to have some questions about his trip after he swears Norma into office officially.”

Ann nodded. 

Roger walked over to the four Secret Service agents guarding the door to the treatment rooms. “Let Zinky know I need an update on the president’s condition, ASAP,” he said.

The lead agent nodded and slipped through the door. Roger walked back over to where Ann was standing, observing the First Lady and her attorney chatting angrily in hushed tones that weren’t nearly as quiet as they might have wanted. Ann and Roger could hear every word.

“No one told me that they were going to kill Andrew,” Tasha said. “I thought we were supposed to challenge his authority, not kill the man!”

“It wasn’t part of the plan,” Gloria said. “We were only focused on your husband, no one else. This definitely puts a wrinkle in things but I think we can still make a go of it.”

“Roger isn’t going to let me talk, though,” Tasha said, her pout not remotely subtle. “He’s got all the power now.”

Gloria leaned in close, “Listen, we didn’t poison the president for you to just sit here and play the distraught wife. I don’t know who swore in Speaker Watkins, but I know it’s unconstitutional. I made sure the Chief Justice would be speaking at different events throughout the weekend. We won’t even have to be the ones who challenge her. Congress will take care of that for us and we’ll step in to take charge then.”

Tasha looked up at the attorney, “And if Rudy wakes up before then?”

“Don’t worry,” Gloria said, smiling, “I’ve taken care of that as well.”

“You stay here,” Roger told Ann. He looked at the nearest Secret Service agent. The agent nodded. Together, they walked toward the First Lady’s group.

“You know, acoustics are really interesting,” Roger said as he stepped within the First Lady’s circle, looking more at Gloria than Mrs. Blackstone. “You put together the right combination of elements, a hard surface like the marble on these walls, the right tiles on the ceiling, the high polish on the floor, set at just the right angle so that even the softest sounds have the ability to bounce around until they’re magnified, and I’ll be damned if it doesn’t make it impossible to keep secrets.” 

Gloria’s mouth dropped open. Tasha, not quite getting Roger’s reference, looked at Gloria wondering what was going on. Other members of the First Lady’s staff shuffled backward in an attempt to physically distance themselves from what was about to happen.

Adrian Campbell, head of the president’s security detail walked up to Gloria. “Gloria Fastbaum, you are under arrest for conspiracy attempting to kill the president of the United States. You have the right to remain silent …”

As Agent Campbell read Gloria her rights, other agents took and began going through her purse and the attache case she had brought with her. The First Lady stood and covered her mouth in feigned horror, then started walking toward the exit. Ann quickly stepped in her way.

“Mrs. Blackstone, I’m pretty sure the agents are going to want to speak with you as well,” Ann said. “I strongly recommend cooperating to the fullest extent.”

Agent Campbell walked up next to them. “Mrs. Blackstone, I’m afraid I have to place you under arrest as well. We’re not going to handcuff you in sight of the press, but you will need to go with us,” he paused and looked at Ann, “as will all of the First Lady’s staff members who are present. We’ll be going to a secure facility out of public view.”

“What are you talking about?” Tasha protested. “I had nothing to do with whatever scheme Gloria concocted! She did all the dirty work She just told me about it this morning.”

Ann buried her face in her hands not quite believing what the First Lady had just done, essentially admitting to conspiracy.

Agent Campbell motioned for Ann to step off to the side with him. “I suspect none of the First Lady’s staff had anything to do with this,” he said, “but we’ll still need statements from everyone, including you. We’ll want to know about any communication anyone might have overheard or seen between Mrs. Blackstone and Ms. Fastbaum prior to Ms. Fastbaum’s arrival, as well as any conversations staff might have been privy to over the past three days.”

Ann nodded. “I’ll make sure everyone cooperates. Gloria was pretty secretive in her meetings with the First Lady, though. I don’t think anyone had a clue she was coming until she was already here.”

“So we’ve noticed,” Campbell said. “Still, we’ll need to interview everyone and then we can take them back to the White House. They can collect their personal things and agents will escort them home.”

“They’re all fired?” Ann asked, caught by surprise herself. “Effectively, yes ma’am. Technically they’ll be listed as being on unpaid leave until the First Lady is arraigned, then they’ll be formally separated from the White House staff. I’m afraid that includes you, ma’am. None of you will be allowed back into the White House after today unless the First Lady is absolved of all charges.”

Ann took a deep breath. She should have seen this problem coming but her mind had yet to catch up with what had just happened. Arresting the First Lady of the United States was unprecedented. The media would have a field day and anyone connected to Tasha Blackstone or Gloria Fastbaum would be regarded suspiciously without any consideration for the facts. The First Lady would need a good public relations person to handle all the press, someone who was fantastic in dealing with the media. Ann knew that person wasn’t going to be her. Walking back over to the First Lady, Ann said, “Ma’am, I hereby tender my resignation as your Chief of Staff. Please do not contact me or anyone in my family for any reason ever again. I am angered and disgusted by your actions and I want nothing to do with you.”

“Fine, you were never more than an enabler, anyway,” Tasha seethed. “There are people better than you. They will take care of me.”

“I wouldn’t be so sure of that,” Ann countered. “You’re a political pariah in this town now. No one wants to be near you. Any association with you is an instant career killer. Plotting to kill your husband is one thing, but your husband is president of the United States! What kind of maniacal power grab did you think you were making? How insane do you have to be to even start to think your short-sighted plan might work? You’re not a natural-born citizen, so you can’t be president yourself. Congress would never support you anyway, not even as the grieving widow. I know you’re smart, Tasha, but you’ve painted yourself as window dressing for so long no one in their right mind is going to take you seriously now. Once this gets out, all the sympathy falls to the president, not you!”

By the end of her rant, Ann was shouting loud enough to have caught the attention of the press members waiting outside. Cameras were up against the window, clicking away. Roger walked over and stepped between the two women.

“Look,” he said firmly, “this is just the sort of shit the media feeds on. I can’t let you go there. I need the country focused on the president, not the sideshow you two are starting.” He paused for effect then addressed Tasha directly. “ The Secret Service has agreed to not handcuff you in front of the press. We don’t want them knowing what’s going on just yet. They’re going to put you back in your SUV and everyone is going to think you’re going back to the White House, but instead, you’re going to an FBI holding facility. No one in the press will know you’re there. You’ll be allowed to contact an attorney but you are not allowed to contact or attempt to employ any member of the White House staff.”

Tasha slapped the Chief of Staff. Three Secret Service agents immediately stepped between them and restrained the First Lady. She pulled away from their grasp and stomped back to the corner of the waiting room she had been inhabiting and sat down, her arms folded in front of her.

Roger rubbed the stinging side of his face.

“You have no idea how long she’s wanted to do that,” Ann said, smirking. 

“She’s not going to like what’s about to happen to her,” Roger said.

“Especially the strip search,” Ann added.

Roger shook his head. “This has to have been the most abnormal day in US history since Pearl Harbor.”

“What do you mean?” Ann asked wryly. “This is Washington. There is no normal.”

Looking For Hope in the Darkness

Adam was amazed when Amber told him everything that had happened since he passed out at the coffee shop. He was still confused, everything in his brain feeling muddled and blurred to the point he wasn’t completely sure what day it was nor what he had done prior to going to the coffee shop. He was cold, disoriented, and nauseous. He was also embarrassed by his lack of clothing. While the blanket kept him covered, Adam still felt uncomfortably exposed, especially as all these people he didn’t know kept coming into the room to see how he was doing. 

After several minutes, Amber suggested everyone leave the room and let Adam get some genuine rest. He still needed to be connected to the IV, especially since food supplies were low. Shooing everyone from the bedroom as though they were a clowder of cats, Amber closed the door with the promise she would be back to check on him regularly.

Gray skies eliminated the subtlety of sunset. Only the portion of the living room directly in front of the glass patio doors received any of the remaining light. With the rest of the room in darkness, Natalie opened another can of fuel. “I have some more pasta if anyone is hungry,” she offered. “I just don’t have anything left to go with it.”

Murmurs passed around the room with everyone deciding they really weren’t that hungry and would rather save the food for tomorrow. With night coming on quickly, depression hung over the group heavier than the humidity of a hot summer’s day. They each quietly worried about family, jobs, and vehicles but no one ventured too deeply into those conversations. Everyone had lost a lot. Everyone felt alone. Everyone was exhausted.

Amanda, sitting cross-legged on the floor, leaned back against the wall. “What if this is all just one very long and very disturbing dream?” she asked. “What if none of this is real and we’re all going to wake up and discover that it’s still Tuesday morning and we have a chance to do things differently?” 

The question was just interesting enough to cause some stirring, though no one jumped too quickly to provide an answer.

“I would spend another ten minutes in bed with Timora and Ravvi,” Reesie finally said. “And I’d give Reggie a raise. That boy was indispensable and I never told him.”

After another pause of several minutes, Barry said, “I would have worn more comfortable shoes. My feet hurt the entire trip over here. It’s not like anyone ever looks at my feet anyway. Comfort over style.”

Some giggled, others just smiled.

Gloria spoke up. “I would have risked taking Toma to my mom’s house rather than insisting we meet somewhere neutral like the coffee shop,” she said. “I was so afraid that she would be judgmental. She wasn’t. She was great.”

Toma leaned over and squeezed Gloria’s hand.

“I would have stocked up on food,” Natalie said. She smiled as she spoke, but she was still concerned about what would happen when everyone eventually became hungry again.

The bare flame of the fuel can emitted an amber glow, not unlike that of a very small campfire and around the room the damp residents started sitting up, listening to the stories and wondering to themselves whether to say anything.

Carson looked down at his bare feet and admitted, “I should have gone home rather than the coffee shop,” he said. Almost all his swagger was gone, though enough remained that there still wasn’t anyone in the group who would risk getting close and having a conversation with him. “I’ve not seen my wife in over a week, always finding an excuse to spend another night out of town. I should have gone home.”

Amanda looked over at Barry, his face almost completely obscured by shadow. “I would cancel the meeting and stay home,” she said. “I’ve been over-reaching, looking for something I think I need to prove my value and you know what? I’m good, just the way I am. I’ve already proven I’m a good photographer. I’ve not proven I’m a good mother, though. Give me another chance at today and I stay home.”

“Give me another shot at today and I make sure I’ve picked up my laundry off the floor,” Darrell said, causing everyone to laugh just a little.

“I was thinking earlier,” Hannah said, her voice barely above a whisper, “I was wishing that I had never left home this morning.” She looked over at Gloria and Toma. “No offense to you, dear, but it would have been so much easier for me had your mother brought you all over to my house. You loved it there when you were little, and it would have been nice to show Toma where you colored on the walls in the closet and tell her some of the stories I would never tell in a coffee shop.”

Gloria sat forward. “Wait, you never let a stain sit for more than a second. You mean you never washed the walls in that closet? That was my favorite place to hide and read!”

Hannah shook her head. “One doesn’t wash off their grandaughter’s masterpieces,” she said, “especially when they’re hidden in the first place.”

Gloria felt her way through the dark and moved over next to her grandmother and gave her a big hug. Toma followed along behind her and felt a wave of relief when Hannah reached over and hugged her as well.

Wiping a tear from her eye, Toma added to the story. “I almost backed out this morning. I was so scared Rose wasn’t going to like me and that we’d all end up fighting. I’m glad I didn’t. Whether at the coffee shop or at Hannah’s, not everything about today was horrible.”

The emotional story lent a momentary sense of peace for those in the room. As traumatic as the day had been, as frightened of the future as they all were, the possibility that some good had still come from it all was enough encouragement to buoy emotions for a while, reducing a bit of the perpetual anxiety they were all feeling.

After a few minutes of silence, which seemed like half an hour but was considerably shorter, Amber said, “Give me another shot at today and I’m up early, checking on Adam. I’ve sensed for a while that something was off. If I’d caught him at breakfast I could have checked his blood pressure and taken him back home. Even if everything else still happened the way it did, I could have saved him the ordeal he’s been through.”

“But what if this was the way it needed to be?” Gwen asked from her corner. It had been so long since she’d said anything some in the group had forgotten she was there. Roscoe hadn’t even budged from his position in front of the chair throughout the conversations. “We’re here. We survived. A lot of people can’t say that. People you all care about can’t say that, but we can and had we changed our activities this morning, we might have been swept away or caught up in the tornado, or who knows what else?”

Gwen paused for a moment, her dry throat making it difficult to talk loudly enough to be heard. She couldn’t see everyone in the group but could sense that she had everyone’s attention. “Give me this day over and I’m still going to start the day exactly the same. I’m going to fail at doing yoga, I’m going to spill my protein shake, and I’m going to make up for it by binging the cold pizza leftover from last night. But what if Darrell had been somewhere else when the flooding started and hadn’t given me a place to go? What if his laundry hadn’t conveniently been on the floor so I could have something dry to wear? I wouldn’t have known where to go. Yeah, I’d have probably come upstairs and stood on the landing or something, but I’d be cold and wet and probably wouldn’t have survived the tornado. Had any of you changed your plans we might not have met, we wouldn’t be friends, and you can be damn sure I wouldn’t know I am pregnant.” Roscoe chose that moment to sit up. Gwen reached down and scratched behind his ears. “And I probably wouldn’t have found this sweet guy.”

Gwen smiled and that gave those close enough to her to see her smile permission to laugh a little at her last statement. 

Once again, the room grew quiet. No one knew how or had any genuine desire to comment after Gwen. Her perspective on their little game reminded them all that there was a lot they didn’t know. Only Miranda knew the fate of her family. Everyone else was left with the bitter taste of uncertainly lingering like the memory of a meal one wished they hadn’t eaten. As bad as things had been, as difficult and terrifying as events were, they had still managed to survive and the fact that there were fewer of them now than when they left the coffee shop bore witness to that fact. One wrong move and any of them could have been swept away, just like Rose and Reggie and Marti. 

Amber felt a cold chill across her back and instinctively reached for a blanket that wasn’t there. “Djali,” she thought. “That son of a bitch is still out there.” She stood up, walked over to the glass door leading to the balcony and locked it. She looked over at the keyed deadbolt on the front door and looked at Natalie. The message was easy enough to follow. Natalie got up and retrieved the spare key from a hook in the kitchen and locked the front door. 

No one felt the need to say anything. The fact that they were three floors up and hadn’t seen another living soul in several hours was of little comfort. 

Amber checked in on Adam who was now legitimately sleeping peacefully, as evidenced by his light snoring. She checked to make sure his blankets were still dry then slipped back out of the room. Natalie and Reesie were waiting for her in the hallway.

“Think he’ll be okay?” Reesie asked. 

Amber nodded. “He’ll do okay during the night. The challenge is going to come in the morning. He doesn’t have his meds and that’s going to cause a problem. He’s going to need food as well to keep his blood sugar at a reasonable level.”

Natalie sighed. “I’m sorry, I wish I had more food in the house. We just so rarely eat at home.”

Amber put an arm around their host. “Don’t worry about it. It’s not like we all failed to RSVP to a party you were throwing. In the morning we can try to scavenge the other apartments, see what we can find.”

“Assuming no one comes back during the night,” Reesie said. “Doesn’t it seem strange to anyone that all these apartments are here and ya’ll were the only ones at home when the storm hit? All the old people were conveniently gone, the drug dealers are dead, the families with kids all out for the day …”

“Hold it,” Amber interrupted. “What do you mean the drug dealers are dead?”

Reesie winced. She had forgotten that they hadn’t told anyone about the drug dealers when they returned from the apartment with the needles. Everyone had just assumed that the apartment was empty and Reesie and Darrell had let everyone run with that assumption. She sighed before explaining. “There are three mutilated bodies in the apartment below us. It’s not pretty.”

“Shit,” Amber whispered. “That explains all the noise I heard up there a couple of nights ago. Did you happen to see if there was any meth or anything else lying around?”

Ressie shrugged. “Once I saw the bodies, I stopped looking for anything. I just wanted to get the fuck out. Nothing stood out, though. We grabbed the fuel and the needles and split.”

“Do you think we’re in danger?” Natalie asked. “I mean, everyone in the building knew what they were doing down there, we had all complained to management more than once, but I think they were getting a cut of the profits so they didn’t do anything.”

“Darrell and I were going to slip out tonight and dump the bodies in the water,” Reesie confessed. “We figured that would reduce the likelihood that either of us would be charged for the crime. Doesn’t mean whoever killed them won’t come back, though.”

“If they can get back,” Amber said. “I think dumping the bodies is a good idea. No one else is around, the water’s still flowing pretty fast so it will take them downstream quickly, and even when they do wash up somewhere there are going to be so many others that no one’s going to investigate anything too closely.”

Natalie shuddered. “When are you going to do that? Do I need to create some kind of distraction?”

Amber laughed. “Maybe we can just convince everyone to go to sleep. It’s not like everyone isn’t exhausted.”

“We’ll see,” Reesie said. “I know everyone’s exhausted, but everyone’s pretty anxious, too. I’m not sure how well anyone is going to actually sleep.”

Amber nodded. “Yeah, let’s give it a couple more hours. I’m going with you, though. I’m still getting the sense that we’re not completely safe just yet. I can’t put my finger on anything, but you and Darrell aren’t going down there alone.” Before Natalie had a chance to respond, Amber continued, “Natalie, you stay up here and keep a close watch on Gwen and Miranda. At the moment, I think they’re the ones most emotionally vulnerable, though I’m not sure Barry isn’t right there with them. He’s more difficult to read.”

Natalie nodded. “Did anyone else feel a chill down their back a while ago?”

Amber and Reesie both nodded. 

“I thought it rather odd considering no doors or windows are open and there’s obviously no air conditioning,” Reesie said.

Amber sighed. “Like I said, something’s not quite right. We probably shouldn’t all sleep at the same time. Maybe it’s nothing. It’s not like today hasn’t been sufficiently traumatic.”

“Maybe it’s all a dream,” Natalie said, giggling.

“And that would be fine with me,” Ressie said, leaning against the wall. No nightmare could be worse than the reality she had just endured. Tomorrow had to be better.

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