Pt. 18: Another Tuesday In Another Coffee Shop

We’re only two weeks away (I think) from finishing up our story so don’t give up on me now! If you’re just now joining us, though, you’ll want to click here to start from the beginning!

I did have to make an adjustment this week as I realized I left out a critical portion of the story that should have come a week or two earlier in the timeline. So, we’re starting with that and then jumping back to where we left off.

Lost In The Clutter

Long before the storm took its toll on the nation’s capital, Roger Mukaski had resigned himself to the darkest booth in a corner of Old Ebbitt Grill. The Victorian aesthetic with its dark paneling and frescos on the wall made it a perfect place for hiding his disappointment. He had failed. The SUV carrying Rod Hammond had already driven away by the time he reached the portico of the West Wing. He didn’t recognize the special agent in charge but felt no reason to doubt him when he informed Roger that all the Secret Service agents that were on duty that morning were being taken in for additional questioning. That seemed, on the surface, like a perfectly logical response to everything that had happened up to that point.

What Roger knew that the agent didn’t was that Hammond was carrying an extra revolver, one modified to take a noise suppressor. The extra bulge in the back of his suit was visible in the surveillance tapes. He could easily hand in his service weapon without any worry because that was not the gun he had used. If all they tested was the gun he handed in, he would get away with the murders. Roger couldn’t let that happen. At least, he didn’t want to let that happen. At the moment, he didn’t see any way to stop him.

Old Ebbitt Grill was one of the few places still open. They were sufficiently equipped with candles on all the tables so the space had a romantic glow that would have had guests standing in line for tables on any other night of the week. Tonight, though, the place was all but empty. Without power, cooking anything ranged from impossible to dangerous. Gas stoves still worked but without any light cooks and chefs were having to guess at spices and other ingredients. Management had made the decision that they could serve cocktails and if anyone really insisted, day-old bread. 

Roger sat in the corner nursing a glass of bourbon, wondering what he would need to do next. Everything he might need in his office was now off-limits. He officially had no title so he had no real authority to walk into someone else’s office and demand to see Hammond or anything else. Options that had been available to him a few hours ago simply weren’t there now.

He felt a slight tingle in his left elbow followed by a tinge of pain in his left hand. Arthritis. He applied pressure as he rubbed his hand, trying to keep the pain from getting any worse. The weather was about to change, and he reasoned, given the way the day had gone, that it probably wouldn’t be for the better. He could physically feel the pressure dropping. There were storms coming, both the meteorological and political kind and Roger had no place to hide from either. 

Across the room, the sound of wind whipping around an open door momentarily distracted Roger from his thoughts. In the shadows, he couldn’t tell who had entered, but neither could he miss the hostess pointing in his direction. He was momentarily nervous. Was this someone he could trust or was he about to die? Roger instantly chided himself for being so damned dramatic. This was Washington. Chances were higher that it was someone sent to deliver him a message.

As the figure drew closer, Roger could finally see that it was Adrian Campbell. Roger shifted to his left to give the Secret Service agent room to sit down. Standing from the back position in a corner booth was impossible, but by this point, formalities weren’t necessary. “Figured you’d be over at Treasury by now,” Roger said as the agent sat down next to him.

“I was,” Adrian said. “Got there right as the White House team was arriving. I gotta admit, Rod was one cool cucumber. His back holster was customed made so it almost never showed under his jacket …”

“Until he bent over,” Roger said, finishing his sentence. “Like when you get out of a vehicle.”

“Exactly,” Adrian confirmed, then he laughed. “I’m pretty sure everyone else on the team thought I had gone nuts when I tackled him in the doorway. I know I caught Hammond by surprise, which was a good thing. His hand didn’t have a chance to reach and grab his weapon. If he had, I’d be dead and probably four or five other agents.”

“It will make a great scene in that book you get to write now,” Roger said. “With the president dead, there’s nothing to stop you from making millions on a tell-all. As long as you don’t reveal any state secrets”

Adrian shook his head and ordered a dry martini from the waiter who had been standing at a polite distance, waiting for a pause in their hushed conversation. “There are still loose ends,” the agent said. “We took Rod’s phone because events happened quickly enough we assumed he had gotten his orders before service went completely out. We were right. There were two calls before the test this morning. One came from a Virginia-registered number, government facility, though not we anyone immediately recognized. We’re assuming it had something to do with the failed test. Perhaps someone out there knew it was going to fail and was trying to cover their tracks. The second one, though, you’re not going to believe.”

Roger drank the last bit of bourbon in his glass, milking the pause in the conversation. “Goddamnit,” he thought to himself, “I’m a fucking drama queen.” He motioned for the waiter to bring him another then said, “Okay, shock me. Who called? The first lady? Gloria What’s-her-name, the attorney? Justice Kreuger, perhaps, that’d be an unexpected twist, wouldn’t it? Maybe Nancy did it herself, though she’d have to be a helluva magician.”

“Almost. Try Senator Graham Norman,” Adrian said. “Mind you, we have no idea what the content of that call was. I’ve sent a couple of agents over to the Capitol to try and find him. There’s a helluva storm whipping up, though, and more than ample opportunity given the situation for the Senator to dump any evidence that might connect him to the shootings, if there was ever any evidence in the first place.”

Roger shook his head and looked down into his empty glass. “You know, in a way, I’m not too terribly surprised. Norman has always played a little dirty with the politics. I’ve never thought he’d go to this extreme, but if he did, my guess is he was playing some angle to put himself in the White House.”

“He knows the succession path, though,” Adrian said. “Not only would he have to get rid of the president and vice president, but he’d also have to eliminate Nancy as well. What I’m wondering now is did something or someone thwart his plan or is he simply not done yet?”

“That’s a disturbing thought on multiple levels, Adrian. Did he know the test was going to fail and what its consequences would be? Did he know that the First Lady was going to poison the President, and if so, to what extent is he complicit? Just being connected to that incident would likely keep him out of the Oval Office. Or was he the lynchpin in this whole fucking shitload of nonsense today? Did he organize this entire disaster?”

Adrian looked up, saw the waiter standing at a distance, and motioned him over. The waiter set the drinks on the table and then quickly disappeared into the shadows of the restaurant.

“You know,” Agent Campbell said, “This place has always struck me as the kind of place where you guys make deals you don’t want anyone else to know about.”

Roger took a long sip of his bourbon while deciding how to respond to the charge. Sure, Adrian was friendly, but he was still a Secret Service agent. There was no such thing as “off the record” with him. “You are not incorrect,” he said carefully. “There are a handful of places around here. Upstairs at Joe’s Seafood on 15th. Bobby Van’s. Mirabelle. The rookies have taken to The Exchange for some reason. I don’t think they realize just how many people overhear their conversations in that place. There’s a fucking reporter at every other table. Still, more bills are passed over expensive wine and pan-seared halibut than anywhere inside the Capitol. If you want to actually get something done, you have to take someone to dinner. That’s why I’m so fucking fat.”

Adrian absent-mindedly played with the olives in his martini. “We know,” he said. “We play a lot of the same games. There’s always someone out to kill the president, no matter who the president is, and there’s always someone willing to talk. At least, most of the time. The public would be scared shitless if they realized how many assassination attempts we stop each year. We have good people who listen, take people to lunch or a nice dinner, something they wouldn’t be able to afford on their own. Justice is good about working on immunity deals with us so when we make that offer, 98 percent of the time we can back it up. It’s interesting, though, how many times an agent tracking down one attempted crime inadvertently foils another. We overhear something, we see some Representative’s aid where they’re not supposed to be, a server tips us off, and we bag a two for one.”

Roger sipped at his bourbon then rolled the glass between the palms of his hands. “Not unlike what happened in the waiting room this afternoon,” he said. “They might have gotten away with everything had the acoustics in that room not been working against them.”

“Not unlike a meeting that happened early this morning,” Adrian said. “All the way out at Tyson’s Corner, long before the rest of us were aware this wasn’t going to be a normal day.”

“Someone in the hotel staff?” Roger asked.

“Please, Roger, stop and think for a moment. No one in that meeting drove themselves all the way out there, especially the Vice President.” Adrian said. “We didn’t even have to strain to listen. I had the full report before you and Terri were half-way back to the White House.”

“We weren’t trying to kill the President, though,” Roger insisted. “What we talked about in that room was wholly constitutional. The 25th amendment …”

“I know, I know,” Adrian said. “And I don’t think Andrew would have had any difficulty getting the votes he needed. The problem is that short exchange between you and Senator Norman on your way out.”

Roger gave Adrian a bewildered look as he tried to remember what he had said to the Senator who had been oppositional the whole meeting. So much had happened during the day that he was having difficulting recalling the details.

Adrian smiled. “I know, it’s been a helluva day, hasn’t it? Let me help you out. When General Lang informed you of the number of planes down, everyone was rushing back to their vehicles and Graham grabbed you by the elbow. Remember what he said?”

Roger’s face went pale. “ ‘You better watch yourself, son, there’s a natural order to things and it’s our job to keep that order in place. You just stay out of the way and let me handle things.’ “ He gulped hard. He hadn’t considered the senator’s comment as anything more than his usual blustering. “That son of a bitch. He never was going to let Andrew become president, was he?”

Adrian shook his head and drained his martini. “Nor Norma, if he could help it. What bothers me is that he seems to think that you were in on the plan, Roger. Were you?”

Roger felt the muscles in his abdomen clench as he tried to not puke on the spot.
“That’s what I thought,” Adrian said. “You were being played and didn’t realize it any more than the president did. Having a gay Vice President may have been a large part of what got Mr. Blackstone elected, but neither you nor the Senator nor several other members of Congress were shy about voicing your opinions. You hadn’t trusted Andrew on the campaign trail and you didn’t trust him in the Eisenhower Building, either. You and Senator Norman had already tried talking to the President about not including him in the next elections. He shot you down. Graham left that meeting even more angry than he did this morning. He called you later, said he had a plan.”

“But he never revealed that plan, at least not to me,” Roger objected. He looked at Adrian, fearful of what was about to happen. “You’re thinking I’m part of the conspiracy?”

Adrian smiled and ate one of the olives in his glass. “I considered it,” he said. “I think Senator Norman thought you were part of the conspiracy, that’s part of why he was so upset with you this morning. You were getting in his way.”

Roger looked around the dark room. He could count three other people sitting at booths some distance from them. He caught the attention of the waiter and motioned for another round. “You’ve just given me another reason to get drunk, Adrian. I thought I was on the inside of everything that happens in this town. Now I find out I’m a schmuck.”

“That’s not the worst thing to happen to you,” Adrian said quietly. “If you weren’t that schmuck I’d be arresting you about now. You were the planned fall guy all along. And here’s the part where I offer you immunity in exchange for your testimony. We obviously can’t go after President Blackstone now, but Senator Norman and likely a few other members of Congress need to go to jail.”

As if to underscore Adrian’s words, a large clap of thunder shook the building. Both men instinctively looked upward, then toward the nearest exits, just in case they needed to escape. 

“Yeah, no problem,” Roger said nervously, though I’m not sure how you’re piecing all this together.”

“I’m not sure we have an accurate picture yet, either,” Adrian said as another clap of thunder shook the windows so hard they felt the breeze back at the corner booth. “I think the President was in on the test failure today because he wanted to be able to circumvent Congress and essentially become king. The problem there was that the president was incapable of understanding what the consequences would be. He thought the White House would be immune from the outages. I think Senator Norman knew about the test’s failure as well. He was one of the few people on an intelligence subcommittee that authorized funding for the facility in Virginia that funded the lab. If we’re ever able to trace the number on Hammond’s phone, I’m willing to bet it belongs to a plant at that facility and that Senator Norman helped make sure that person was in the position to sabotage the test.”

Roger nodded that the waiter was again a few paces away, holding their drinks. Adrian paused long enough for the drinks to be delivered and both men to indulge themselves before continuing.

“I’m also guessing that the Senator is the one who contacted the First Lady’s friend to get her involved. I don’t know what kind of deal he was offering Mrs. Blackstone, but obviously it was substantial for her to take that risk. Maybe they didn’t intend to kill the president, just get him out of the way long enough to eliminate Andrew without the President being implicated.”

“What About Hammond?” Roger asked. “I’m not sure I understand where he fits into this whole thing.”

Adrian stared into his drink as heavy rain began to lash at the front of the building. The flame on the candles flickered with each clap of thunder. He felt the pressure begin to drop and knew they would soon have to take cover to avoid the wrath of the storm. “I don’t think Rod was the spy he thought he was. There are a number of calls and texts on his personal phone that implicate him with the facility in Virginia. We’re still investigating those. I’ll send someone out there in the morning after this storm blows over. I don’t think he knew about the Vice President until he got the call, though. He would have tried harder to not have to kill anyone other than Andrew. Every additional bullet he fired risked identifying him. Rod wasn’t someone who wasted ammunition, not even at the range.”

Roger stared into the bourbon swirling in his glass. He was at that point where if he stopped drinking now, he would still be functional. If he kept drinking, he was going to need a ride home—and there were no rides available. He listened to the storm and decided to keep drinking. “So, what do you do now?” he asked.

“Try to put the pieces of this fucking puzzle together and then make a report to President Watkins,” the agent replied. “I need to find this person in Virginia, see how they plug into everything without arousing too much suspicion from Senator Norman. And I need records of any conversations you’ve had with the Senator since the President took office.”

“I think the Chief Justice has all those under lock and key,” Roger said.

Adrian waved him off. “We’re doing that investigation anyway. That will be another thing to negotiate, the whole Supreme Court involvement. I’m pretty sure the Senator didn’t see that coming. It may spook him.”

Roger looked up to see a figure standing a short distance from the table, waiting to interrupt. Roger motioned him over and quickly recognized him as the owner of the restaurant. 

“I’m sorry Mr. Mukaski,” the man said, “But the storm is getting considerably worse. We have a basement downstairs. Perhaps you both would like to join us?”

As if to underscore the urgency of the invitation,  lightning hit a tree directly across the street, momentarily brightening the room and it shook with the thunder.

Roger looked at Adrian. Adrian nodded. “Thank you. We’d be happy to join you.”

A Basement Full Of Surprise

The SitRoom at the White House wasn’t the only intensely secure location in Washington. Almost every federal building constructed since 1948 had one, sometimes two. None of them were regularly portrayed in movies as was the SitRoom, though, so their whereabouts were less well known, even by the staff working in those buildings. At the moment people began to realize that the storms represented a serious danger to everyone above ground, those who did know about the secure facilities began sending people toward them as quickly as possible. This alone ensured that there would be survivors to tell the harrowing tale of all that had happened this day. Their stories would eventually become books that would become movies that would serve as stern reminders of all the mistakes made leading up to this situation.

At the moment, however, no one was thinking of writing anything other than perhaps their last will and testament. Nowhere was that more the case than in the lowest level of the Treasury Building. Those occupying offices had long heard rumors about the third subbasement and its impossible-to-breach security. Just being able to push that button on the elevator had required a level of authority only a handful of people had, including the Secretary. With power out, they had taken the long trek downward through darkened stairwells not lit by the generators covering the rest of the building. They knew everyone in the building wouldn’t fit which led to no small amount of pushing and shoving in the initial burst, but that was quickly halted as Secret Service agents up and down the stairwell enforced a more orderly progression. 

What surprised the few hundred people who crammed into the tight space was that the subbasement was a jail. 40 nearly-bare cells held presumed criminals waiting to be interviewed by Treasury agents before being handed over to whichever law enforcement agency could best address their crimes. No one down here had gone to trial. No one down here ever would.

Before letting the building’s staff into the secure basement, however, they had made the decision to group the alleged fraudsters, counterfeiters, currency manipulators, and others into only two of the 40 cells—men in one, women in the other. While agents didn’t particularly like the situation, they admitted that their immediate need was to save as many lives as possible. Freeing up the other 38 cells meant that approximately 150 more people would survive. 

Not knowing where they were going nor what they were walking into created some confusion as Treasury staff entered the secure facility and were immediately escorted to cells. The three-inch thick plexiglass walls that facilitated better security also allowed them to see out. Doors were jammed open to help reduce any feeling of claustrophobia but the press of people trying to get in was so great that the prisoners had more room to move than did any of the staff. 

Former First Lady Tasha Blackstone and her attorney, Gloria Fastbaum were pleased to finally be back in the same room together. The Secret Service had been very adept at not only keeping them in separate cells but out of sight of each other, preventing them from being able to coordinate their stories. The results had been helpful as each quickly turned on the other, attempting to minimize their own roll in the President’s attempted murder. They anxiously huddled together in the back corner of the cell, hidden by the other women in the cell who all-too-happily ignored them. Being held in a secret federal facility meant no one there had yet spoken with an attorney. There were no alliances, no watching out for each other. Everyone was worried about their own situation and trying to watch their own back.

As Tasha and Gloria stood together in a corner of the cell, another member of the First Lady’s former staff was led in: Ann Morrow, her former Chief of Staff. Ann had still been giving her statement to Secret Service agents when the order was given to evacuate everyone to the subbasement. Thinking ahead, Ann requested that she be placed in the cell with the prisoners to “save on extra life.” Agents saw an opportunity and not only agreed to put Ann in the cell but also a couple of female agents who were wired with battery-operated recording devices. Knowing that people tend to talk more freely when they feel their lives are threatened, the agents were hoping someone might open up and confess, saving everyone time later. 

The fluorescent bulbs routinely flickered as the generators varied in their support. Unlike the SitRoom, which operated on its own independent power source as equally secure as the room itself, the secure rooms at Treasury relied on external diesel-powered generators, located in a ventilated room a floor above them. As the storm grew in intensity and the crowd in the basement felt the building shake above them, speculation grew as to whether they were in a truly safe place or if they were merely standing in their own mass grave. Managers and supervisors in the crowd, as well as Secret Service agents scattered throughout, did their best to keep the group calm. Panic in such a tight space would inevitably result in the space being breached as some tried to escape. Any break in the security of the space would threaten the safety of everyone there.

Ann moved closer toward Tasha and Gloria, still undetected as the two women were fully engaged in their own conversation. Neither had considered for a moment that other members of the First Lady’s staff might be present. In fact, there were three, Ann, Tracy Holloway, Mrs. Blackstone’s secretary, and Charlotte McGuigan, Mrs. Blackstone’s social advisor. Ann had taken the opportunity upstairs to speak with them both and was convinced that not only had neither of them been part of the First Lady’s plan, they all felt betrayed and blindsided by what had happened that day. She had no trouble convincing them to help her and the Secret Service to expose the First Lady’s treachery.

With all the accumulated chatter throughout the subbasement, listening in on the whispered conversation was more difficult than it had been in the more acoustically live setting at the hospital. Still, the duo was so convinced that they were alone, their voices gradually grew louder than they realized. Ann was standing, still unrecognized, directly behind Gloria when she finally began to hear enough of the conversation to make sense of what they were saying. 

“We can still get out of this, and possibly still gain the control we are wanting,” Tasha was saying. “At this point, no one outside Washington even knows that Rudy or anyone else is dead. Everyone is focused on themselves. By the time this storm thing blows over, they’ll be in a hurry to get rid of us. All we have to do is keep our story straight.”

“You shouldn’t have been so fast to order Andrew’s hit,” Gloria said. “We should have waited at least a couple more hours. You were a bit wreckless back at the hospital. I don’t think your staff was buying your act.”

“My staff is a bunch of idiots,” she said. “I’ve known most of them since college, handpicked them because of their willingness to go along with whatever I say. They are blindly loyal. If we play our cards right we can probably pin Rudy’s poisoning on one of them. I did not order the hit on Andrew, though. I assumed you did.” 

Gloria looked up for a brief moment before continuing. “Wasn’t me,” she said, “But I’m not complaining about the outcome. That totally works in our favor and there’s no way they can pin it on us. Don’t let that be a distraction. The fact that they’ve moved so many people down here tells us something is wrong. We play it cool, fade into the background for the moment, and maybe no one will remember we’re here when it’s all over.”

All conversation paused and everyone in the subbasement looked upward as the walls shook around them. They had no way of knowing the top floors of the building had just been obliterated as though a bomb had gone off. Years’ worth of critical financial information was lost in an instant. There were backups for most of it, of course, but assuming that the building housing the backups, based in California, was still operational was more dangerous than anyone knew at this point. It had, in fact, been completely swept into the Pacific. 

Ann looked over at Tracy and Charlotte. The expressions on their faces echoed the same panic being felt by every other person in the room. None of them had asked to be here and they all worried whether they would survive and see their families again. Given the opportunity, any of them would have rather taken their chances with the storm. They would have died, of course, but at the moment that seemed preferable to the uncertainty and drama playing out around them.

A couple of minutes passed before anyone in the subbasement said anything. Only after the building stopped shaking completely and the lights stopped blinking did anyone say anything and that was someone questioning whether the storm was over. The negative response resulted in groans and cries throughout the cramped space. Had they realized the severity of what was going on above them, of course, they would have been thankful to be in that subbasement. They had no way of knowing, though and as is often the case, ignorance leads to acts of stupidity as one group attempted to storm the door only to be immediately turned back by Secret Service agents whose own anxiety made punching the aggressors almost enjoyable. 

People accustomed to persistent and pervasive access to information don’t respond well to being completely cut off. Everyone in the subbasement wanted to know what was going on above them. They yelled at the Secret Service. They yelled at each other. At one point, the lead Secret Service agent complained that Treasury employees were behaving worse than the criminals being detained. 

In both of the cells, those charged with crimes were carefully watching the increasing tensions outside their enclosures. One didn’t have to be a seasoned convict to understand that were conditions to continue to erode, they would likely be able to escape without anyone noticing. After all, they hadn’t been fitted with orange jumpsuits just yet. Other than being placed in less-crowded cells, they looked much like everyone else around them. They could blend in and ride a wave of unrest all the way to freedom. All the needed was that one opportunity.

Several more minutes of relative quiet passed before conversation finally resumed its calm level of babble, just loud enough to be heard by the person standing next to you, not enough to capture the attention of anyone else in the room. Not that anyone else in the room was trying to listen. Everyone was too concerned with their own situation, their own fears, to care what anyone else around them was saying.

When Tasha and Gloria felt it safe to continue talking, it was Tracy who was standing closest to the couple. Her recording device was able to capture every word.

“I’m not feeling especially safe here,” Tasha confided to her friend. “These wretched people in their cheap suits and bad shoes are more dangerous than terrorists. They will only continue for a while before they completely revolt. Perhaps then we escape.”

Gloria shook her head. “No matter what anyone else does, you and I stay right here. We’re telling everyone we’re not guilty, right? We rush out of here like the rest of these morons and the immediate assumption is that we have something to hide. We are better off staying here. Who knows, if Secret Service gets distracted long enough, they may completely forget that we’re down here.”

Tasha sat quietly for a while. She hadn’t felt the need to hide like this since she was a little girl running from the abusive Uncle that had raised her. She was more accustomed to being the center of attention and for a moment considered that all she would have to do is stand up, straighten her suit jacket, and begin speaking. She would immediately have the attention of everyone in the subbasement. She knew of no one who could counter any statement she might make. She could rally them behind her. 

Tasha had learned the danger of speaking extemporaneously, though. Her gaffes during Rudy’s campaign had been severe enough that he had nearly ordered her to shut up. Any questions the press might direct toward her were handled by her own press secretary, someone who was not currently present. She would have to wait and Tasha was not good at waiting.

“Too bad there’s not a punch bowl I could spike,” Tasha whispered. “It wouldn’t take that much to put everyone here to sleep for a few minutes.”

Gloria glared at her. “Are you kidding? Do you realize how dangerous that could be? Besides, I left all the poison at the White House. I slipped it into Rudy’s nightstand in one of his empty blood pressure medicine bottles. If it’s ever found, it won’t be traced back to us.”

“Not all of it, you didn’t,” Tasha said. “I kept a small vial with me, just in case Rudy needed a booster.”

Gloria grabbed Tasha by the lapel of her jacket and turned them both toward the concrete wall, not realizing that only made the conversation easier to hear. “How the fuck did you get that past the pat-down? What the fuck were you thinking? You should have ditched that in the ride over here!” 

It was taking all of Gloria’s effort to not yell at Tasha. Being caught with anything, especially the drug that had possibly killed the president, was enough to assure them both a trip to federal prison. She needed to get Tasha under control.

“Listen, give me the poison. I’ll slip it into someone else’s pocket. I don’t think they’re going to search everyone when we finally get out of this fucking hell hole but even if they do, we don’t want that shit on either of us. Give it to me!”

Tasha shook her head. “It is my emergency backup. I am not going to prison. If they try to take me, I just put a little under my tongue. I get sick with the same poison that Rudy had. It looks like someone tried to silence me. I’m presumed innocent, no?”

“And what if you take too much, Tasha? You’re not exactly adept at dosing that shit. You were only supposed to put a little in his soda and look how that turned out!” 

“The Secret Service agent bumped my arm,” she said. “I couldn’t let him see what I was doing. Besides, it was Rudy. It’s not like half the people in the country don’t want him dead. When all is said and done, people will thank me. They’ll thank you. I know what I’m doing more than you think I know.”

“You’re going to get yourself killed,” Gloria warned. “You’re playing much too dangerous a game.”

Tracy looked at Ann who looked at Charlotte. They have more than enough evidence to convict Tasha. No matter what else she might say later, the First Lady had poisoned the President.

Harsh Winds Of A Lonely Reality

Perry laid in the dark wondering what might happen next. While the immediate danger of the tornado had passed, high winds still whipped across the now-exposed Virginia valley. Rain showers coming through would beat mercilessly for two minutes, soften, then dissolve into nothing. The pattern repeated itself over and over through the night. In the distance, he could still hear the thunder. If he propped himself up on his elbows, he could see the lightning. His elbows couldn’t handle holding his weight for long, though. Everything hurt. There were splinters of wood and plastic all over his body. He considered that if he were going to die out here that he would rather go ahead and get it over with rather than lying there and suffering, but fate didn’t seem to want to cooperate with that desire.

In the howling of the wind, as wayward pieces of tin rattled against what was left of concrete walls and steel girders groaned without support, Perry repeatedly thought he heard other voices. “Help!” he would yell. “Is anyone else out there?” Each time, there would be no answer save more wind, then more rain.

Perry wasn’t sure if the tears in his eyes were from his own physical pain or the emotional torment of realizing everyone around him, all his friends, everyone he had worked with for the past 15 years, was now dead. Their work had failed. Their effort was meaningless. When everything was pieced back together, the weather would get the blame, not the project. No one else would know that they had been the victims of sabotage at the highest levels. There seemed to be no one left who could corroborate his story, this seemingly impossible story how that a line of code, maybe two at the most, had shut off the world’s satellites leading to the elimination of the entire communications system and global power grind. All the witnesses were dead. All the evidence was scattered across this Virginia valley. When they found him, if they found him, he would be treated as a trauma victim. No one would ever believe the story. More likely, he would live out the rest of his days is a psych ward somewhere, talking with a therapist about the nightmares that were surely coming.

“Help!” he yelled again. “This is Lieutenant Colonel Perry Hawkins! Can anyone hear me?” 

Still, there was no answer. In the darkness, he had almost no sense of direction. Only the lightning gave him hints as to which was direction was East or West and Perry wasn’t entirely sure about that. Pieces of debris would blow across his body, mostly paper or light plastic, but he couldn’t see what any of it was to know whether there was any value in the scraps that were left.

Had Perry been able to see, the scene around him would have been all the more devastating. The tornado had cut a path more than two miles wide. Only the extreme anchors of the hangar’s concrete pad had allowed any of it to stay intact. The administration and operations buildings were completely gone, only a hint of their foundations remaining. Asphalt from the tarmac had been dug up and turned into gravel that scattered across the valley. Perhaps, hundreds of years from now, some archeologists might come across the site and assume that a great war had taken place here. What else could account for such a complete ruination of the entire area, such tremendous and sudden loss of life? 

With the wind came strange fragrances. Diesel. Excrement. A woman’s perfume. Strawberries. Rubber. Rust. Each would come through and assault Perry’s senses for a moment, sometimes to the point of stinging before moving on with the next round of rain.

Perry hated rain now. He would hate rain for the rest of his life, however long that might be. Rain represented not only defeat but the insult of being continually beaten down, not allowed a chance to recover, perpetually stepped upon by nature in her quest for total dominance of the planet. The soothing sense that came with rain falling on a roof in the spring was lost to him now. Every drop that fell from the heavens represented a new drubbing, for it was not enough to have been defeated. His soul had to be crushed, his will to create, to try again, had to be driven far from his mind. No matter what the task might be, he would not, could not, participate. His will and his drive were gone. The rain had washed it all out of him.

Lightning. Close enough this time that Perry could feel the ground shake beneath him. He worried for a moment that another storm might be moving in his direction but the wind assured him it would remain distant. That storm was meant to annihilate someone else’s life. Perhaps it would wreak its havoc on the small towns along Interstate 66. Perhaps it would run along the opposite side of the mountain, turning towns like Sperryville and Graves Mill into mud. 

Perry had been to each of those small towns. Early in the project, they had considered tunneling under the mountains, setting up communities for analysts and their families. In the end, the security risks were considered too great. It was better for everyone to stay concealed in the valley. Of course, the folks at Stony Man and Whitehouse Landing knew they were there, but they didn’t know what really went on. Conspiracy theorists had a field day guessing, but none of them were ever close enough for Perry’s security team to worry.

“Did anyone in those towns survive?” Perry wondered. He knew it wasn’t likely. Even in a place where strength and security were built into the construction, nothing was left. Small towns composed mostly of clapboard houses and 80-year-old brick storefronts had no defense against a storm of this magnitude. Whole families were likely slaughtered as they struggled to hold on to each other against the winds, just like Major Davis had attempted to protect Perry. 

“Someone out there answer me!” Perry screamed into the darkness. As if in direct response, the wind through a handful of rain directly into his face. How dare he challenge nature in this way? She had spoken strongly and sufficiently. She wasn’t going to suffer the babbling of this lone human.

Perry momentarily considered attempting to crawl on his stomach toward someplace safer. The darkness was prohibitive, though. Debris was scattered everywhere and much of it was sharp. Perry could spend hours carefully crawling through the dark only to discover at dawn that he had done nothing but maneuver himself in a circle. Every survival lesson he’d ever had told him his best move was to stay put, let rescuers come to him. The problem was, no one knew he was there. No one knew the base nor the lab was there. How could anyone go looking for a place they didn’t know existed?

“Hello? Is anyone out there?” he yelled one more time. He tried with everything in him to hear a response. A groan. A murmur. Anything that might lead him to the assurance that he wasn’t the only one alive in all this mess. 

Perry leaned back on the ground, exhausted, wondering why he hadn’t been ripped apart as well. Surviving the storm only to be left out here in the darkness, unable to move, unable to secure any form of help, was a worse fate. Mercy had shined on those who died in an instant, who had the very breath sucked out of them as their bodies were snatched skyward. A moment of fear and then blackness was all they had experienced. That end would have been preferable.

Now, here he was, alone, with no one knowing that he even existed, unable to move, left to starve to death in the middle of the wreckage that represented his entire life’s work. Over 2,500 people had died in this valley today. Most of them had families. None of them had any reason to think that working here would put their lives in danger. Perry was sure that, traitor or not, he was the one who had let everyone down. He had failed to provide a secure environment for them.

Of course, it seemed to go without saying that if the bunker had not been attacked, they all would have survived the storm. In fact, the bunker had been large enough they could have evacuated everyone’s families into the underground space and kept them safe as well. Had the bunker not been breached, everyone would have lived. Sure, the test failure was bad, but the test wasn’t what had put everyone in danger. 

Perry realized that, if he wasn’t hearing any other survivors, that likely meant Tom was dead as well. Or escaped. He had no way at the moment of knowing. What if he was still out there, running for his life, looking for other ways to bring down the government? That seemed doubtful, though. 

The wind picked back up. Splatters of rain fell in small patches that seemed almost as though nature was throwing water balls at him. Rain was nothing at this point. He couldn’t be any wetter. Wind, though, could be rough. Perry looked through the darkness as though perhaps this time he might see some form of a nearby shelter. Then, he realized, the wind had changed direction. This was coming from the East. Perry felt a chill that wasn’t from the rain.

Never Have I Ever

Amanda and Reesie explored the contents of the cabinets in the new apartments looking for food. They found rice and pasta, a few cans of tomatoes and green beans, and a bag of dried beans, all of which could come in handy if they could preserve enough fuel to actually cook. 

Darrell, Carlson, and Adam carefully navigated their way through the dark bedrooms, looking for anything that might help, though they didn’t really know what that might be at this point. 

“Seems pretty ordinary,” Darrell said. “I was hoping to maybe find a flashlight or something along that line, though.”

Carlson looked through the closet in the master bedroom. “Surprisingly neat and reasonably organized,” he said. “Even the drawers with the sex toys are labeled.”

Darrell looked up so quickly he bumped his head on a shelf. “What? Sex toys?” he asked.

Carlson and Adam laughed.

“Don’t act so shocked,” Adam said. “I’d be surprised to find a bedroom that doesn’t have a toy of some kind.”

“Toys?” Natalie asked as she entered the room. “Do I even want to know what you guys are into back here?”

The two older men laughed again. “Your boyfriend seems surprised that we found sex toys,” Carlson said.

“That’s because he’s scared of them,” Natalie said, giggling. “He leaves the room when I pull mine out to clean them.”

“It’s not normal,” Darrell said. “And it’s not like I ever turn you down for sex. I don’t get why you need them”

“It’s not like you’re always around when I get horny in the middle of the afternoon,” Natalie shot back, still giggling. “I don’t suppose you found anything that lights up, did you?”

“Not yet,” Carlson said from inside the closet. “Though, given the luck we’re having, I’m probably right next to one and don’t know it.”

“If there’s nothing obvious then you might as well come back to the living room with the rest of us,” Natalie said. “But leave the toys. I don’t want to have to explain them to Cam … or Gwen.” She giggled again and left the room.

The men followed her back down the hallway to the living room. There was more furniture here than there had been in Natalie and Darrell’s apartment. Everyone was able to find a seat somewhere that didn’t involve sitting on the floor in some fashion. Between a sofa, a love seat, two overstuffed chairs, and nicely upholstered chairs from the kitchen, even Barry had a comfortable place to sit.

“We should play a game to pass the time,” Gloria said, a bit too happy, as though they were on some kind of urban camping adventure.

Amber walked over from the kitchen and sat at the end of the sofa. “We should probably try and get some rest. Who knows what we’re going to discover once its light.”

Reesie was at the other end of the couch with Cam snuggled in her lap. “I think this poor child already took the hint. This baby is exhausted.”
“I’m not surprised,” Toma said. “Just think of everything she’s been through today, and she’s so young.”

Gwen shuffled in one of the overstuffed chairs as Roscoe laid across her lap. “I’m not sure I can sleep now, though. Every time I start to relax a little bit, something happens.”

“You’re not alone,” Hannah chimed in. “As long as this day has been, I’m afraid to let my guard down even for a minute. A game might be a nice distraction.”

Miranda giggled as she sat backward in a kitchen chair facing the group. “How about ‘Never Have I Ever?’ “ she suggested. “We play it at work when things are dead. It’s fun.”

“Isn’t that more of a drinking game?” Darrell asked. “Alcohol is one thing we’ve not come across, though I certainly wouldn’t mind if we did.”

“We can do the sober version,” Gloria said. “Just raise your hand if you’ve never done whatever they’re asking and give yourself a point. Whoever has the most points at the end wins.”

Barry shifted in his seat. “I’m with Darrell, this would be a lot more fun with alcohol. Did we check the fridge? Are sure there’s not some vodka in the freezer or something?”

“Trust me, first thing I looked for,” Amanda said. “I didn’t even find wine glasses. These must be really boring people who live here.”

“Let’s go then,” Natalie said, excited to be doing something different. “Whose going to ask the questions?”

“Miranda sounds like she’s played in the most,” Toma suggested. She leaned forward to look over at her. “You think you can keep us entertained?”

Miranda laughed. “If that doesn’t work, we can make the guys strip.”

There was a chorus of groans and general objections from the guys as the women laughed and warned that such an event would surely lead to blindness. For the first time all day, everyone was smiling, the horrors and trials and losses not gone but momentarily set aside.

“Okay, first one, Miranda said, pausing for the group to calm back down. “Never have I ever smacked my face pulling on a push door.”

They all looked around at each other as no one raised their hand and then laughed.

“Wow, we’re all a bunch of klutzes,” Amanda said. “This could be a close game.”

Laughter filled the room again, loud enough that Cam stirred in Reesie’s lap but not enough to wake. 

“Okay, let’s try this one,” Miranda said. “Never have I ever …” She paused, looking carefully around the room. “… been invited to a threesome.”

Barry and Hannah were the first to raise their hands, followed by Gwen and Amanda. Everyone else looked around the room and laughed.

“So, we’re all just a little bit kinky?” Gloria asked.

“Invited doesn’t mean participated, “ Carlson responded to another round of laughter. 

As the chuckles and side jokes died down, Gwen lowered her hand and asked, “Okay, I’ve never been asked, but I’m curious, are we talking two girls and a guy or two guys and a girl, and does it mean the two people of the same gender are gay or bi or how does that work?”

“All of the above,” Toma answered. “It really depends on the people involved, and honestly, it doesn’t always work. There are times it can be a real cluster fuck. When it works well, though … wow! Amazing.”

Gwen leaned back in the chair and scratched Roscoe’s muzzle. “That sounds interesting.”

Miranda bounced on her chair, excited. “Okay, now that we know who’s out, never have I ever driven a car naked.

Again, Barry’s hand was the first up, followed by Darrell, Carlton, Gwen, Amanda, and Natalie.

“At this rate, I’ve got this game in the bag,” Barry said, chuckling at his own lack of adventure. 

Gloria leaned forward. “Wait, Gama, your hand’s not up! Uhm, you want to let me in on this story?”

“Ooohh, intrigue!” Toma said. “Was someone a bit wild?”

Had there been more light they could have seen the degree to which Hannah was blushing. As it was, the amber glow of the fuel can added some mirth to her smile. “It was a very long time ago,” she said, “before your mother was ever part of the equation. Your grandfather and I had gone on a picnic down on a secluded spot along the lake where we knew no one else would be. We ate our lunch and while we were lying there in the sun we started getting a little frisky and decided to go play in the water for a bit. Well, your grandfather had this 1946 Chevy Fleetline convertible. Oh, it was a sweet-looking thing, a shiny gray that he kept polished and nice, white leather interior. And we were in the water, both of us naked as jaybirds when I look up and notice that something, probably a possum, had knocked the chucks from under the wheels and the car had started rolling. It wasn’t on too big of a slope so it wasn’t going very fast but it was going to get away from us if we didn’t do something. 

“So, we both jumped out of the water and Bobby, your grandfather, ran for his clothes and I just ran straight for the car and since the top was down I jumped in, slid into the diver’s seat and got the car stopped. I look over and Bobby’s still down there fiddling with his shoes so I turn the car around and am driving back to our picnic spot, wasn’t but maybe 20, 30 yards at most, when who should come along down the road but the Preacher, Rev. Leonard, and there I am in the car, with the top down, naked as the day I was born, and oh my, the look on his face as we pass!”

The group roared as Hannah told the story.

“Gama, what did you do?” Gloria asked.

“What could I do?” Hannah responded. “I just smiled and waved. I gotta tell you, though, it made communion really uncomfortable for the next few weeks!”

As the group laughed and continued on with the game, Amber slipped away and stood at the glass door watching the rain. While the game was a fun distraction, she could feel more trouble gathering around them. She wasn’t sure what could possibly be heading their way now. They’d already endured floods and tornados and earthquakes. There didn’t seem to be much left for the natural world to throw at them. They weren’t in a location where they had to worry about wild animals. With all the water a horde of insects was out of the question for the time being. That more than likely meant that any challenge now was likely to come by human hands.

Lightning flashed in the sky and Amber could see the shadows of those gathering, waiting. She looked back over at the group. In many ways, they were all so innocent. They had no reason to worry about anything more than weather. As they laughed about mysterious bruises showing up from nowhere, she wished she could protect them all. She would do her best, but there was something out there stronger than all of them and it was in a bad mood.

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