SERIAL NOVEL: “The Correction” (Part 2), by Daniel Whyte III with Daniel D.P. Whyte IV
by Daniel Whyte III
with Daniel D.P. Whyte IV
What if the founding fathers signed another document?
Some delegates to the Second Continental Congress were worried that the new form of government forged by the American states could one day be corrupted just as the government of England had been corrupted and used to oppress the people. Thus, before the Declaration of Independence could be signed, they insisted that another document be drawn up — one that would give the people the right and the means to overthrow an unrighteous government.
This document was written, signed, sealed away, and forgotten about.
49 / Hunted
Michael knew he was underground, but he didn’t know exactly where, and no one would tell him. He didn’t know what time it was or what day it was. He hadn’t been shackled nor had he been taken back to the holding room that he had been in when he awakened. During his dinner — or breakfast, or lunch (he wasn’t sure which) — with the Caliph, he had told him everything that had transpired from the time he was sent to Massachusetts to track down Eli Dunn.
Looking into the steely grey eyes of the Caliph made it hard not to tell the truth. Michael had felt like the man was reading his mind as he spoke. So he had told him nearly everything — about Nehemiah and Saundra and Ginny; what he had done in New York and what had transpired in Boston. He fudged the truth just a little when the Caliph asked him what Nehemiah’s next moves would be.
Now, he was sitting in a long, dimly-lit room at a boardroom table. A kerosene heater in one corner kept the room warm. The Caliph was standing at the head of the table with his back toward Michael, his long white hair hanging straight past his shoulder blades. He was discussing something with another man in low tones. Michael couldn’t hear what they were saying.
Suddenly, the door behind him burst open, and a man in desert camouflage military fatigues entered. “Sir?” he said.
The Caliph turned around. The paleness of the skin on his thin face and frame stood out starkly in the dimness of the room. “What is it?”
“We believe that they have located the Correction, sir.”
“If this is true, then they are much farther ahead than what our friend, Michael, here indicated.” The Caliph turned his cold grey eyes on Michael. Michael looked at the table. “Where are they exactly?” the Caliph said, turning his attention back to the soldier.
“They are in Philadelphia.”
“Just as I said,” Michael replied.
“Do they have it in their possession?” asked the Caliph.
“No, but our sources say they know where it is. We have no reason to believe they will not move swiftly to retrieve it.”
“Then they are moving too fast,” said the Caliph. “We must slow them down. Create a diversion.” He thought for a moment. “Are they all together?”
“No,” said the soldier. “One of his adult companions is with two children. They are currently mobile in the city.”
“Then you know what to do,” said the Caliph with a dismissive wave of his hand.
“Wait!” Michael said. “They are just children.” The soldier hesitated by the door.
The Caliph fixed his eyes on Michael. “They are nothing to our plans.” He waved the soldier away. “They are divided. Now conquer.”
“This way,” Saundra shouted to Cody and Tonya. “Keep your heads down.”
The melee outside the Liberty Bell Center had increased as tourists and pedestrians tried to figure out which way to run. The shooting had stopped just as suddenly as it had began, but Saundra was sure they were the targets and the shooter would be coming for them any second now.
Cody and Tonya sprinted past her back to the entrance of the Liberty Bell Center.
“What about him?” Cody said pointing to the park ranger who lay prone on the ground, blood leaking out of his chest.
Saundra hesitated. Stopping to check on him would be the right thing to do. She stooped to check for a pulse. Cody stood wide-eyed, watching. Tonya looked away. “Get outside,” she told them. The bullet had gone straight through the park ranger’s chest. Saundra placed her fingers against his throat and then his wrist. There was nothing.
The scream and whine of police sirens and ambulances grew louder as she rushed to catch up with Cody and Tonya who were waiting just outside the entrance. “He’s gone,” she said.
Just then, the crackle of gunfire erupted again. A bullet slammed through the entrance of the Bell Center, shattering the glass door where Saundra had stood mere seconds before.
“Let’s go,” said Saundra. Running, she led the children from the landmark Philadelphia buildings and to the small, quiet street behind them.
Sirens wailed as more gunfire sounded. Maybe the police had engaged the shooter. She didn’t know. The tall brick buildings on either side of the street contained small shops and restaurants — popular places for tourists. A man stuck his head out of one of the shop doors. “Hey, what’s going on out there?” he said, then quickly ducked back in as gunfire sounded again.
Saundra kept running.
“Someone’s coming!” Tonya shouted. She was cradling her arm and lagging behind.
Saundra slowed and turned around. “Come on!”
Tonya staggered past her and then Saundra saw the man in the heavy brown raincoat turn onto the back street they were on. Apparently, he had used the confusion at Independence Hall to evade the police. Saundra turned and herded the children into an alley, desperately hoping they hadn’t been seen. The alley was blocked off by an apartment building with a fire escape hanging down the brick walls. The only way out of the alley was up the fire escape or back out the way they had come.
“What are we waiting for?” Cody asked quietly.
Saundra put her finger to her lips and listened for footsteps on the sidewalk. When she heard nothing, she began to think that maybe their attacker hadn’t seen them duck into the alley. But that was too much to hope for.
The footsteps came — slow and deliberate. Saundra felt panic and cold fear shivering through her body.
Cody leaned forward and pointed back to the entrance. Saundra and Tonya looked. They could see the heavy shadow of the man in his huge coat cast by the sun on the sidewalk.
Hastily, Saundra turned to Tonya and Cody. “If I don’t come back, climb up that fire escape and find a way down the other side. Wait for help.”
“What are — ” Cody started, but Saundra was gone. She sprinted back to the entrance of the alley. Cody and Tonya waited in silence. They heard scuffling — like footsteps moving rapidly — and then a grunt of surprise that they were sure came from the man who had been chasing them. Then they heard Saundra’s voice.
“I’ll tell you whatever you want. I’ll go wherever you want. You can shoot me if you want, but don’t do anything to the children.”
There was a painful beat of silence in which both Cody and Tonya held their breath.
Then there was a heavy thud.
A grunt of pain. Saundra screaming.
Scuffling. A blast of gunfire.
A sickening punch. A whimper.
More scuffling and grunting.
Cody and Tonya looked at each other and then raced toward the entrance of the alley.
50 / Savior
The man in the big, brown overcoat lay face down on the ground. A younger man — a boy, really — was kneeling on top of him tying his hands to his back. Saundra was getting up off the pavement beside them, her auburn hair pasted to her sweaty forehead. She looked tired, relieved, and very worried.
“We thought you were dead!” Cody said.
“Didn’t I tell you to run the other way?” Saundra said.
“Is he dead?” Cody asked pointing to the man on the ground.
The young man who had tied the shooter’s hands with a piece of black rope stood up and brushed off his jeans. He wore a blue dress shirt that read “Airy Computing” over the right pocket. He was tall and slender, brown-skinned with a one-inch cut of black hair. He stooped to retrieve a long stick nearly as tall as he was from the ground.
“Nah, he’s not dead,” the boy said. “Just knocked out cold. I better drag him back to where the police can find him. Wait for me here.” He leaned his stick against the side of a building and hauled the man up by his arms. He dragged him back the way Saundra, Tonya, and Cody had come.
“Do you know him?” Cody asked.
“No.” Saundra shook her head. “He literally jumped out of the sky. Maybe he’s an angel.” She smiled.
“Yeah, right,” Cody said. He walked over to examine the stick the boy left behind. “He beat a guy with a gun with this thing?”
Tonya was still holding her right arm.
“Let me see it,” said Saundra leaning over her. The girl’s forearm was bloody and embedded with tiny bits of glass from the wall that had shattered when the shooting began. “We need to get this taken care of before it gets infected,” Saundra said as she turned Tonya’s arm over to get a better look. Tonya flinched and jerked her arm back in pain. “Sorry,” Saundra said.
The boy came back just then. “I have a first aid kit at the office,” he said. “We should get going. I’m parked just around the corner. Hopefully, the police haven’t cordoned off the whole area yet.”
“We owe you our thanks,” said Saundra. “But who are you?”
“I’m Kamare-Scott Spencer,” the young man said. “Templeton sent me. Apparently, something happened at their meeting that made him think you might be in danger.” Kamare-Scott looked at Tonya. “Nehemiah Dunn is your dad, right?” he said.
“Anyway, I went to the restaurant he said he’d left y’all at, but you weren’t there. When I heard the gunshots, I came over here figuring this is where the trouble Templeton was talking about would be. I knew the police would shut things down pretty quickly so I climbed the fire escape at the other end of this building and that’s how I found you.”
“Thank you, again,” Saundra said. “I’d probably be dead if you hadn’t showed up.”
“No problem,” Kamare-Scott said. “I’m parked this way. Hey, where’s my bo?”
“You mean this stick?” Cody asked. He was standing a little ways from the rest and swinging the long, wooden object around.
“Give me that. It’s not a stick,” Kamare-Scott said. “It’s a bo, B-O. I practice bojutsu. It’s a Japanese martial arts form.”
“So, you beat that guy with bojutsu?” Cody said.
“Not exactly. I beat him with the ancient art form of hit-a-guy-over-the-head-so-hard-that-he-passes-out.”
Cody laughed and gave Kamare-Scott his bo.
“Let’s hurry,” Kamare said putting his arm around Tonya. “You look like you’re about to pass out.”
51 / The Amish Connection
“So, did you catch the thief?” George Felleck said around a mouthful of roast beef at a popular Philadelphia sandwich shop.
“No,” Nehemiah said. “He ran away before we could catch him. Dumped your clothes in a graveyard.” He, Abby, Titus, and Templeton had convinced George Felleck to meet with them after they dismissed the other members of the now re-established Sunrise Society. “But catching him is not the point. He is long gone by now. We need to know what you know.”
“I know these sandwiches are delicious,” said Templeton balling up the paper wrap and tossing it in the trash can. “I’m ordering another one to go.”
Nehemiah looked at him remembering the man’s enormous appetite from his father’s funeral.
“Just have mine,” said Abby whose sandwich sat untouched. The elderly lady had sat reading at the table the whole time.
“Good,” said Dr. Templeton. “I won’t have to stand in line again.” He slid the sandwich to his side of the table and patted the paper wrapping.
Nehemiah cleared his throat. “As I was saying…”
“Oh, right,” said Dr. Templeton inclining his head to Mr. Felleck. “We have it all together now. Whatever you can tell us will probably be of little use, but — and that‘s a very important but — it will give us the whole picture, or at least as much of the picture as we can possibly get considering it has been over two hundred years between then and now. So just tell us what you know.”
George sighed. “Fine,” he said. “The caves you’re looking for are located on property owned by my family in Northumberland County. That’s all I can tell you. They don’t allow tourists. It hasn’t been excavated as far as I know either. It’s not like I can take you there myself.”
“Why not?” said Nehemiah.
“Because my family shunned me years ago. I can’t go back home.”
“They… what?” said Titus. His black eyes squinted narrowly down above his sharp nose in confusion.
“He means that he got kicked out of his family and they won’t let him come back,” Abby said. “They’re Amish; they do that.”
Templeton pulled out a folded map and spread it across the table.
“What did you do to make them shun you?” Titus asked.
“Went to college. Married a girl from outside our community.” George shrugged. “That’s not allowed. Very strict people about worldliness and stuff.”
“Northumberland County is on the northeastern edge of the so-called Pennsylvania Dutch Country,” Templeton said.
“Well, you don’t have to go back,” Nehemiah said to George. “We do.”
“I told you they don’t allow tourists,” George said.
“But we’re not tourists,” Nehemiah said.
“Well, what do you want to call yourselves? Random strangers showing up asking to go tramping over private property? It won’t work. No one’s even supposed to know those caves exist.”
“But, we know,” Nehemiah smiled. “That should tell them something.”
George thought for a moment. “Well, I guess,” he said. “We can give it a try.”
Templeton folded his map. “So, are we resolved — ,” he began, but he was cut off by Nehemiah’s phone ringing.
“Hello,” Nehemiah answered. The skin on his forehead creased as he listened. “You’re okay? What?… Spencer?” He looked at Templeton who nodded. “Okay, thanks.” He pulled out a pen and scribbled an address on a napkin. “We’ll be there soon. Bye.”
Nehemiah appeared upset as he turned toward Templeton. “Why didn’t you — ?”
“I know, I know,” Templeton said waving his hands in front of his face. “I didn’t tell you so you wouldn’t get distracted. We needed to focus on this. But I handled it, okay? Everybody’s safe, right?”
“Yes, but Tonya almost got her arm blown off,” Nehemiah huffed.
“Now I know that’s an exaggeration,” Templeton said. “What this shows us is that while we are closer to our goal than ever before, things are about to get a whole lot more dangerous.”
52 / Northumberland County
Nehemiah Dunn drove the rented van down the bumpy half-dirt, half-gravel road in Northumberland County, Pennsylvania. George Felleck sat in the passenger’s seat, giving directions to his family’s home. Saundra Boone sat in the second row with Kamare-Scott Spencer who had insisted on coming along. “I might have to save your life again,” he had joked. Nehemiah’s kids, Tonya and Cody, sat in the back. Dr. Ronald Templeton followed in his own car with fellow Sunrise Society members, Abby and Titus.
“How much longer till we get there?” Cody called from the back.
“Shouldn’t be long now,” George said as he fiddled with the GPS device on the dashboard. “Just enjoy the rolling hills.”
“The rolling hills part of this trip has long been over,” Cody said. “And the hills weren’t rolling anyway.”
“This thing isn’t working,” George muttered.
“I think we hit a no-coverage patch,” Nehemiah said. “It’ll come back on soon.”
“Until then,” George said, pulling a folded map from the glove compartment, “we do things the old-fashioned way.”
“It’s not like there are a lot of roads around here to get lost on,” Nehemiah said.
“Is this the part where the hills have eyes?” Cody asked.
. . .
A half hour later, the not-so-rolling hills turned into acre upon acre of pasture. Cows and sheep grazed lazily. The gravel was gone from the road now, and a cloud of dust rose behind the van.
“We’re getting close,” George said.
A few miles later, they found themselves in a community of sorts. Simple two-story houses dotted the landscape. Huge reddish-brown barns rose from the earth. Plain-dressed Amish folk could be seen in the fields and around the houses.
“Go to the big house on the right,” George said.
The big house was three stories tall. It was painted white, but the paint was wearing off in some places, giving the building a dappled brown coat. A burly Amish man was standing in the front yard, his arms folded across his chest, hands stuffed under his armpits. He eyed the arrivals suspiciously.
Everyone was eager to get out of the van and stretch their legs. But, as soon as they set foot on the ground, the man in the yard called out, “We don’t allow for tourists.”
“We’re not tourists,” Nehemiah started to say, but George raised his hand to silence him.
“Uncle Hermann,” George greeted.
“George?” the Amish man said. “What brings you back? Who are these people?”
“These are friends of mine,” George said spreading his hands wide. “They have come to search for something very important that we believe is hidden in the caverns beneath your land.”
“What caverns?” Hermann said.
“Don’t feign ignorance with me, Uncle,” George said. “Does the name Wolcott Ellsworth mean anything to you?”
Hermann hesitated, and then said quietly, “I cannot make the decision to let you down in the caves on my own.” And then he added ominously, “But I will have you know that the last people who went down there never came back.”
“What happened to them?” George said.
“Do I know?” Hermann spread his hands wide. “For now, why don’t you all come in for lunch.”
53 / Amish Lunch
“How’s your arm?” Nehemiah asked Tonya as the van’s occupants gathered around two long oak wood tables that had been pushed together inside Hermann’s huge house. The house was dimly lit with kerosene lamps. But it had a warm, cozy feel.
“Still hurts,” Tonya said picking at the bandage around her right forearm. She sat down in one of the heavy-looking wooden chairs that one of the Amish men had placed behind her. They, more Amish men, had been arriving regularly, all with somber, bearded faces and wearing straw hats, since Hermann had invited George and his friends inside for lunch. By the time the food was served, there were about eight of them gathered in the living room.
Dr. Templeton, Titus, and Abby came in and sat down at the table after thanking their hosts.
“Aren’t they going to join us?” Templeton asked as he helped himself to a thick slice of cinnamon bread and several slices of ham.
“No,” George said. “Hermann says he can’t make the decision to let us down into the caves on our own.”
“Do we even need their permission?” Nehemiah said.
“Maybe not their permission, but, at least, their direction. We have no idea where the entrance to the caves is,” George said.
“It’s not like there can be that many caves around here,” Titus said.
“They’re underground and they’re unmarked,” George said quickly. “Years ago, when the government wanted to preserve the caves, a court ruled that the Amish weren’t obligated to allow exploration or mapping of the cave system since it was all on their property. By ‘it’, I mean any entrances to the caves.”
“So we’re going in blind?” Saundra said as she poured brown gravy on her mashed potatoes.
“Why did the government want to map the caves anyway?” Titus asked.
“They were working on behalf of a historical society who said something of historical value had been hidden in the caves,” George said as he twirled a crust of bread in gravy. “They never said what it was they were looking for, but I think we know now.” He turned around and looked out of the dining area and into the living room. He counted ten Amish men (none of whom he recognized besides Hermann). They were standing together in a circle, heads bowed, straw hats in hand, talking in low voices. “Everything all right, Hermann?” he said.
Hermann turned and looked at him. “Everything’s fine.”
George shrugged and turned back to his meal.
“I’d give a dollar to know what they’re saying,” Templeton said.
“Probably planning to keep us prisoner here,” Cody said. “I bet there’s a dungeon in the basement.”
53 / Into the Ground
When everyone had finished their meal, Hermann came back to the table. The other Amish men who had reattached their hats to their heads gathered in a crescent moon behind him. He cleared his throat. “We have decided to let you go down into the caverns just this once — “
“Once is hopefully all we’ll need,” George said.
” — On a few conditions,” Hermann continued. “You cannot stay longer than forty-eight hours. You must not harm or otherwise alter the natural appearance of the caverns. No drilling, no excavating — “
“We weren’t planning on doing any of that,” George said.
” — And you must tell no one else of your venture here, nor of the location of the cave’s entrance.”
“Agreed,” George said.
“So how do we get in?” said Nehemiah.
“I’ll show you,” Hermann said. “It’s not far.”
Nehemiah, Templeton, George, Saundra, Abby, Tonya, and Cody thanked their hosts for the meal and followed Hermann out of the house. Titus and Kamare-Scott went to the car to pull out their spelunking gear — rappelling cords, grappling hooks, flashlights, gloves, and hardhats with lamps.
Hermann led them all down the road that ran past the front of his house. They walked for a quarter of an hour until they turned up a narrow path overshadowed by trees on both sides. There were carriage tracks on the soft dirt road. The path turned and widened out into what appeared to be more pasture. But, there were no livestock grazing. It took a moment before everyone realized the place was a burial ground. Grave markers were placed every few yards. Some were simple, square gray slabs embedded in the ground; others were more elaborate headstones rising two to three feet above the earth; a few graves were raised above the ground.
“Why are we walking through a cemetery?” Titus asked.
“Because you have to die before you can go into the caves,” Hermann said.
“Now, look here — ” Templeton started as the group exchanged concerned glances.
“He just means that the entrance to the caverns is through a tomb,” George said quickly.
“Right, ’cause there’s nothing at all creepy about that,” Cody said.
A few minutes later, Hermann stopped at a tomb raised about a foot above the earth. The name LaCroix Schumann was engraved on the stone slab covering the tomb. “A hand here,” Hermann said as he grasped one end of the slab.
“There’s not, like, a real dead body in there, is it?” Saundra asked.
Nehemiah grasped the other end of the slab. It made a tremendous grating noise as he and Hermann slid it off revealing a gaping black rectangular hole in the ground.
Titus flicked on a flashlight and pointed it down into the tomb. A few time-ravaged steps were illuminated by the yellow light. “I’m claustrophobic,” he confessed.
“We all don’t have to go down,” Nehemiah said, looking at Tonya. He took a set of gear from Titus, putting a flashlight in his pocket and coiling rope around his arm. He checked his gun holster and counted his clips.
“Oh, I’m going down,” Cody said.
“I’m in,” Saundra said.
Abby sniffed. “My old bones can’t take tramping through underground caves.”
“I brought you this far; I can’t leave you now,” George said.
“Exploring dead people’s old graves is not really my thing,” Tonya said. She held up her arm. “And this is beginning to be a pain. I think I’ll stay behind.”
“I’ll stay with you,” Kamare-Scott said quickly.
Tonya smiled at him. “Thanks.”
“We’re all resolved then,” Templeton said, extending his hand toward the opening in the ground. “Shall we?”
55 / Michael
It had been several hours since Michael was dismissed from the Caliph’s presence. He had been taken back to the large, prison-like room with the white walls, the metal bed, and the two folding chairs. This time, he wasn’t tied up. He sat in one of the chairs at first, got uncomfortable, and then got up and sat in the other one. When he tired of the chairs, he went and sat on the metal bed. He thought of laying down to get some sleep, but didn’t think he’d be able to considering the brightness of the room and the general uncomfortableness of his accommodations.
All the while, the red pinprick light in the corner of the ceiling kept pulsing hypnotically. On and off, on and off. The only color in an ocean of white and gray.
Unlike the general calm of his surroundings, Michael’s soul was tumultuous. He kept recycling the events of the past 24-48 hours — at least, he estimated that that was the time he had been in the underground compound in Oklahoma, the home of the Caliph and his secret army, the Serpentine Column.
If only he hadn’t been so indecisive, he could have been back in Moscow with his wife and children. Now, he just felt guilty because someone else’s children had been put in danger by his cooperation with the Caliph. The soldiers of the Serpentine Column were skilled and ruthless — the Caliph only allowed the best to join his forces. Those who failed to excel in training were eliminated — and not by sending them back home either.
The sound of keys being pressed on the outside of the door interrupted his thoughts. Michael turned to face whoever entered the room. It was the same trio as before: two black-clad guards with guns, and a third man in a green military flight suit. The third man, smiling in the same unsettling way he had smiled when he had first come for Michael, flicked a tiny silver key between his fingers. He carried a tablet in his left hand.
“Very pleased to see that you are awake, sir,” the green man said.
Michael did not like the way these happened to be the same exact words he had heard from this man before. “Is everything all right? Did everything work out with the operation?”
“No,” the green man said. “But I suspect you already know that. The intelligence you gave the Caliph was faulty. There was an unknown quantity on the scene who enabled the targets to escape.”
“I told you everything I know,” Michael said, a pleading tone creeping into his voice. “I swear.”
“Whether you did or did not is of no consequence now. Your usefulness to the Caliph has been maximized.”
“No, no, wait…” Michael said.
The green man looked down at the tablet resting in the crook of his arm. “Mikhail Kursinska, you have failed the Caliph, you have failed the Column, you have failed the Cause. You are hereby released from your duties and responsibility. You have no other purpose to serve.”
Michael’s mouth opened, but he couldn’t say a thing. The green man nodded to one of the guards who produced two syringes, filled with a bluish liquid, from a small metal case. Michael started to scramble backwards on the metal bed, but the other guard got behind him and held him fast. The first guard raised the syringes and stabbed them into either side of his neck, emptying the poison into his veins.
Michael felt the coldness spread through his neck. He couldn’t breathe or think, but, for a moment, he could still feel and see. The coldness spread down into his chest, his torso, his legs, his toes — turning his veins to ice. He could see his body freezing up, becoming rigid. Finally, his eyes shut too.
56 / Above Ground
Titus, Abby, Tonya, and Kamare-Scott watched as Nehemiah, Saundra, Templeton, George, and Cody descended into the grave. Hermann held a flashlight above the opening into the ground. The yellow light bounced off of the hardhats of the descending crew until they were out of sight.
“No use in sticking around here,” Hermann said as he straightened and flicked off the flashlight. “I have a feeling they’ll be a while.”
“Someone should stay and keep watch, just in case there’s trouble,” Kamare-Scott said. He stabbed his bo into the ground with one hand.
“If there is trouble, there’s nothing anyone can do from up here. They’ve got radios and will call for help if they need it, I’m sure.” Herman frowned up at the sky and adjusted his wide-brim hat. “Besides, it’s about to rain. There’s no shelter out here and it’s bound to get muddy. Let’s go back to the house and stay dry. I’ll send one of the boys out to check every half hour or so.”
Kamare-Scott was ready to argue some more, but Abby and Titus had already turned back to the narrow path that had led them to the graveyard. “Okay, let’s go,” he relented. He grabbed Tonya’s good arm and they followed Hermann as he led them back to his house.
They walked in silence down the tree-lined path. Abby and Titus were conversing softly ahead of them, when they both stopped suddenly and stared out ahead of them.
“Is something wrong?” Kamare-Scott called down to them.
“I don’t know,” Titus said unable to hide the worry in his voice. “Hermann?”
Kamare-Scott and Tonya passed Hermann as they hurried to catch up with Abby and Titus where the road passed Hermann’s house. The scene that met them gave them reason to pause and stare.
The first thing they noticed were three Hummers idling on Hermann’s lawn. The vehicles were all-black, with heavily tinted windows, except for a rectangular spot on either side. The spot was yellow with a black serpent painted on it. Tonya thought she had seen a similar design in a history book along with the motto, “Don’t tread on me.”
The next thing they noticed was the dozen or so Amish men and women kneeling on the grass outside of Hermann’s house. Women clutched young children to their side. The men looked around as though wondering what to do. Standing over them were at least half a dozen men in black gear and black helmets carrying high-powered rifles. They milled about threateningly among the men, women, and children. One man wasn’t wearing a helmet and had a shiny, gold insignia on the right side of his chest; he looked like the leader.
“This is all wrong,” Kamare-Scott whispered. Abby and Tonya nodded in agreement. Titus just looked scared.
The distinct click of a gun hammer being drawn back sounded behind them.
Kamare-Scott whirled around, his bo at the ready.
Hermann was standing there with a pistol pointed at them.
“What in the world?” Kamare-Scott said.
Hermann just made a shooing motion with his free hand. “Move along, now,” he said.
57 / Under Ground
Nehemiah, Saundra, Templeton, George, and Cody had long left the pale afternoon light that shined through the open grave behind them. Once they had come down the steps — which seemed to go on forever — they had landed in a huge, dark cavern. The floor was dusty, but other than that, it was unremarkable.
Everyone immediately turned on their flashlights and headlamps until Templeton pointed out that they didn’t want to burn all their electricity now. So, Nehemiah and George went ahead — the former with his flashlight and the latter with his headlamp. Cody made the observation that they hadn’t thought to pack snacks or dinner, but Templeton said that couldn’t be helped. Saundra mused aloud about how this adventure would make for a great story she could publish one day although her job at Hancock Press seemed very distant at the moment.
George proved to be more useful than anyone expected. He had swiped an old guide to the underground caverns from his family’s house while the lunch was being prepared. Now, he had it open, telling Nehemiah about the path ahead. “Of course,” he kept saying, “it’s been nearly two hundred years since this guide was written, so there’s no telling how much things have changed down here.”
George said they were looking for “a place of pillars which mark the grave of LaCroix Schumann.”
“You mean giant icicles, right?” Cody said. “I wanna lick one.”
“Stalactites and stalagmites, and you won’t be licking them,” Nehemiah said. He stopped suddenly. “Now, which way?” he said looking over at George who appeared perplexed. Ahead of them, the narrow trail they had been following diverged. One path appeared to lead upward and to the left. The other appeared to lead further down and to the right. To add to the confusion, the party thought they could hear water flowing.
“There’s no two paths in the guide,” George said unfolding the map of the caverns. He pointed at the trail they’d been following. “One of the paths apparently wasn’t here when this guide was made, I assume.”
Nehemiah shined his flashlight down both corridors. “Anybody know how to tell which one is newer?” he asked.
Apparently, no one did.
“Maybe we could split up,” Saundra said. “We take both paths and then meet back here in a certain amount of time.”
“I advise against that,” George said. “There’s no telling what troubles await us ahead.”
“So, we go together,” Nehemiah said. “But which path should we take first?”
“Take the one where the water sounds the loudest,” Templeton said catching up with the group. He had begun lagging behind and had just caught the latter part of the conversation.
“Why?” Saundra said.
“We’re looking for the place of pillars,” Templeton said. “Stalactites and stalagmites form out of mineral-rich water deposits, so wherever the water is that’s where our giant icicles will be.”
“Okay, everyone quiet,” Nehemiah said. He walked softly into the rightmost and downward leading corridor straining to hear ahead. He went several yards before coming back. “It seems like the sound of water is muted down that way,” he said before turning into the leftmost and upward leading corridor. He walked several yards, the sound of the water growing incrementally, but steadily louder. “This is the one,” he hollered back to the others. There was a rush of footsteps as his four companions hurried to catch up with him. They all bottlenecked behind him in the narrow corridor.
“What now?” Cody asked impatiently. “You said this was the right path.”
“Yeah, one problem,” Nehemiah said. “There is no more path.”
His feet were planted on the very edge of a sheer rock face that plunged down into what looked like hundreds of feet of darkness.
58 / Deeper
Nehemiah stared over the precipice into the plummeting darkness. “How deep is it?” he said, voicing what they all were thinking.
Templeton stepped up beside him, pulled a quarter out of his pocket and flipped it into the chasm. The quarter flashed, silver over silver, in the light of their flashlights and headlamps, but was quickly swallowed by the darkness below them.
“There!” Templeton said a couple of seconds later. “It’s not that deep. We can climb down.”
Everyone looked at him. They had only heard the sound of steady rushing water and empty air. “You heard that?” Saundra said.
“Yeah, I have pretty good hearing,” Templeton said.
George shook his head. “What we need is something that will make a good, loud echoing noise,” he said. He grabbed his metal water canteen which was hanging from the pack on his back and started to unscrew the top.
“Don’t empty out all your…water,” Nehemiah said but it was too late.
“There’s plenty down there,” George said as he stepped up to the edge. He flung his canteen straight down.
Everyone held their breath. One…two…three…four…
“There!” Nehemiah and Cody said simultaneously. The tinny metal ringing echoed and reechoed up to them. “At least its solid down there. We go straight down from here.” Nehemiah, Templeton, and Saundra set down their backpacks to unload the spelunking gear.
It turned out that Nehemiah and Saundra were the only ones who actually knew something about the proper way to explore caves. (Cody claimed rock climbing counted as experience, but it didn’t.) So, there was a good deal of instruction that went on prior to the actual descent. They came up with only four harnesses, so they had to improvise a fifth one. (A few of the party thought it was a good idea to have someone stay behind, but no one offered.)
After about an hour of slowly descending, Nehemiah’s feet hit solid, horizontal rock. He turned around slowly, shining his headlamp on the new surroundings, and found he was standing on a shelf that went down several layers extending out further and further. Where the rock ended, a sand beach began, and beyond that a wide subterranean river, rushing along at a rapid pace, the noise was so loud he had to shout, “We made it.”
One by one, the other reached the rock shelves and unstrapped themselves from their harnesses leaving them dangling from the ropes. They’d need them for the way back up.
“Now what?” Saundra yelled. They huddled together around George who had pulled out the map again.
“The trail picks up again here,” he said pointing to a spot. “We need to cross the river and follow this tunnel. At least there’s only one this time.”
The party carefully climbed down the rock shelves until they reached the sandy beach, where the sound of the water made it nearly impossible to hear oneself talk. The waterfall was behind them — they hadn’t even seen it — but it sounded like it was suffocating their ears. Everyone was thinking the same thing: We need to find a place to cross.
59 / Betrayed
Titus felt the hard pistol pressed in his back as he, Abby, Titus, and Kamare-Scott were herded down the trail into Hermann’s front yard.
“Keep moving,” Herman said, hurrying them forward until they were standing before the man who appeared to be the leader of the dozen or so soldiers (that was the only word for them) who stood guardedly around Hermann’s two-story house. Titus saw that the insignia on the right side of the man’s chest was a gold serpent.
“Who are you people?” Titus said in bewilderment.
“I do the talking here,” Hermann said. He turned to the leader whose close-shaven hair was the same wheat color as his skin. He had a chinstrap beard and an equally thin mustache that curved downward creating a square around his mouth. “I brought them,” Hermann said. “Some of them.”
“Where are the others?” the leader said.
“I couldn’t hold them back any longer lest they got suspicious. They went into the caves,” Hermann said.
The leader frowned. He was about to say something when one of his soldiers opened the front door to Hermann’s house and came out. “It’s gone,” the soldier said.
“What’s gone?” said the leader.
“The map of the caves. It’s gone.”
The leader turned to Hermann, fisting his collar and jerking him forward so fast his hat fell off. “What kind of game are you playing here, old man? You said you had the map.”
“I did! I told you where it was,” Hermann gasped.
“Then why isn’t it there now? Did you give it to them? You playing both sides, huh?” The leader placed his hand on the gun in his belt.
“Looks like your friends aren’t too happy with you, Hermann,” Kamare-Scott taunted.
The leader took his gun out and pointed it at Kamare-Scott. “Keep your mouth closed, boy.”
“No, I swear I didn’t give it to them,” Hermann said. “George, he — he must’ve gotten to it. He’s the only one who would have had any idea where it was.”
“Hmm,” the leader thought for a moment and then let Hermann go. “Here’s what we’re going to do. You’ve seen the map, have ya?”
“Yeah, I laid eyes on it once or twice,” Hermann said smoothing out his shirt.
“Then you’re going to take some of my men and go into the caves and find the grave of Alexander Schumann.”
“But I don’t — ” Hermann said.
The leader pointed his gun at Hermann. “And you better pray to whatever god you pray to that your memory serves you well,” he said.
“Wait, what about us?” Titus said.
The leader motioned to one of his soldiers. “Get them inside. Keep an eye on them. Especially this one.” He pointed at Kamare-Scott who responded by waving his bo threateningly. “Give me that.” The leader walked over and snatched it from him. He cracked it over his knee, expecting it to break in half. But it didn’t, so he cracked it again, and again…
“Hey, don’t take out your anger management problems on my — “
…the bo broke and the leader threw the two pieces on the ground.
“You are gonna pay for that,” Kamare-Scott said, horrified.
“Get ’em inside,” the leader said. “Anyone who tries to run gets a black and red dot…” He placed a finger against his forehead. “…right here.”
60 / Swept Away
After another thirty minutes of trekking, the party reached a spot that looked appropriate to cross. Nehemiah spotted it first: a place where the river narrowed, and where a good number of large rocks formed slick stepping stones. It came just before a whirlpool that was fascinating to watch but horrifying to think about stepping into. It seemed to suck water in, spin it in a circle, and spit it out at a much faster rate on the other side. Most importantly, the crossing place was across from George’s tunnel.
Nehemiah motioned for everyone to gather around.
“We won’t find a better place to cross than here,” he yelled as everyone leaned in. “There’s no telling how deep the water is, but it’s going pretty fast, so you must hold on to the rocks.” He gave Cody a hard look.
We should have brought some of those ropes, Saundra thought as she squinted across the expanse of the river. It would be nice to have something to hold onto just in case someone loses their footing. But there was nothing to be done about it as she liked the idea of turning back to go get the ropes even less. Her legs were aching.
Everyone who had gloves put them on. Nehemiah stepped into the chilly river first. The water frothed up in white waves around him as if growing impatient that a human were impeding its progress. He went slowly, feeling for the ground beneath his feet… until a quarter of the way across it fell away and a violent undercurrent whipped his legs out from under him. He scrambled to tighten his grip on the rock. “Be careful,” he yelled back to the others. “It’s deep in the middle.” Only Cody, who had entered the water behind his father, heard him. The others were too far behind, and the river took his words and swept them into the whirlpool.
Nehemiah kept going, pausing only to look behind him to assess the progress of the others. They were spaced out and struggling against the current which kept trying to pull them into the whirlpool. Saundra was behind Cody, Templeton behind her, and George behind him.
Relieved when his feet touched the gravelly, underwater bank on the other side of the river, Nehemiah trudge upward, feeling heavier and very wet from his shoulders down. He stripped off his jacket and turned to help the others up onto the sand.
“There wouldn’t happen to be a dry cleaners on this side of the river?” Cody spluttered as he crawled up onto the shore. Kneeling in the sand, he looked around. “Guess not.” He turned around and helped pull Saundra out of the water. Templeton came next, spitting water as he heaved himself up onto the beach.
Everyone turned around to look for George who shouldn’t have been far behind.
“Where is he?” Templeton said hoarsely.
No one saw him on the rocks they had just crossed.
“No, no…” Saundra started to say as they spread out on the river bank peering across the water. Was it possible he had stayed on the other side?
“There,” Nehemiah shouted and pointed. George seemed to be struggling to keep his head above water. He was much further downstream from the place where the others had crossed — much closer to the whirlpool where there were far fewer rocks to hold on to. George was using a single hand to cling to one that looked awfully feeble.
“Hold on!” Nehemiah shouted to George though he knew he wouldn’t hear. “You’re going to have to hold on to me,” he said to the others. Nehemiah took Saundra’s hand, Saundra took Cody’s, and Cody took Templeton’s who wrapped his free arm around a pillar of stone at the very edge of the river. Nehemiah waded into the torrential water right at the very edge of the whirlpool.
Only a few feet separated him from George. He could see that something was wrong with him. His eyes were barely open and one arm hung limply at his side. He must have bashed it against a rock. His good arm was wrapped around a rock, clinging to it as one would cling to a long lost friend.
“George, George!” Nehemiah shouted when he was closer.
George opened his eyes and looked around as though startled. He saw Nehemiah coming toward him and immediately started to close the gap between them. In his haste, he let go of the rock he had been holding on to.
The water sucked him further into the whirlpool, spinning him in a circle and tossing him up.
Nehemiah lunged toward him, desperately trying to reach him…
But he was whipped away, his head slamming against a rock ledge that protruded over the whirlpool. A spray of dark liquid burst in the air, and George’s body was cast out on the other side of the whirlpool and carried away by the rushing water.
61 / A New Path
Nehemiah and his companions trudged on silently through a long winding tunnel. He tried to calculate how long they had been underground — several hours at least — and how far they had gone. But he couldn’t get past George Felleck’s head being bashed against the rock, blood spurting out, his body spun about like a rag doll in the whirlpool. He and Saundra had tried to clamber around the protruding rocks surrounding the whirlpool, but there was no footing, and the vicious waves beat them back each time. It was clear: whatever reached the other side would not survive.
Weighed down by grief (not to mention their water-logged gear and wet clothes), they carried on. This time, Templeton led the way, swinging his flashlight from side to side as he walked. He had been the last to look at George’s map and easily found the tunnel that, they hoped, led to the tomb of Alexander LaCroix Schumann. Nehemiah and Cody followed a few yards behind, and Saundra a few yards behind them. More than once, Saundra stopped to listen. Once she thought she heard footsteps, and another time voices. At one point, she felt with certainty they were being watched. But each time she turned around, there was nothing there.
They had been walking for at least an hour when Templeton stopped. “Look at this,” he called back over his shoulder as he took a step forward. “I think we found — “ His words devolved into a shout. His arms flew up, the flashlight in his right hand sending bizarre, jagged shadows across the cave wall behind him. His body pitched forward and vanished out of sight — as though he had been sucked into the earth.
“Templeton!” Nehemiah shouted and ran toward the spot where he had vanished. He skidded to a stop just in time to keep himself from going over the edge. “Whoa, hold it,” he said, extending his arm to block Cody and Saundra who had rushed up behind him.
“What happened to him?” Saundra asked.
Nehemiah flicked on his own flashlight and sent the beam over the edge. They were standing on top of a steep incline made of loose rock and sand. Down there, everything seemed to be cast in an eerie, pale blue glow. He spotted a figure hunched on the ground about sixty yards below them. “Templeton?” he called.
The figure stirred. Grunting and wheezing noises floated up from where he was. “Yeah, I’m fine,” Templeton called back. “That drop-off took me by surprise, is all. Take it slowly.”
Nehemiah, Saundra, and Cody took the slope slowly. They ended up half-sliding down the incline, clouds of dust billowing up in their wake. They landed roughly on the sandy ground below.
Templeton was leaning against a huge boulder.
“You need to rest?” Saundra asked him.
“No. We’re here now,” he said, motioning with one hand to their left.
A few yards away was the source of the pale blue glowing light that Nehemiah had noticed earlier. A wide cavern opened up before them. Stalagmites of varying heights sprouted from the ground, glowing white and pale blue with self-contained light. Stalactites stretched like icy fingers from the high roof of the cavern, crystalline rays softly glowing.
“Wow,” Cody said.
62 / Blue Tomb
The forest of icy fingers was a welcome sight. Even though it was further underground than anywhere they had been so far, it managed to look other-worldly.
Nehemiah, leading the others, walked in silence toward the formation. Templeton hobbled in the rear, still shaken by his fall down the sandy slope. Nehemiah wanted to ask him what came next on the map, but no one wanted to break the spirit of awe that had descended on them. He thought there should be dramatic music for a time like this. But instead, there was silence and the sound of their feet on the hardened earth.
They were in among the stalagmites and stalactites now. Cody came in last, a little away from the others. He looked at a particularly long stalactite for a moment, and then touched its glassine surface. It felt dry and brittle against his skin. He tilted his head back and licked it, pausing for a moment to consider the taste — sandy and rough and weird. Not at all like he’d imagined. He tried to break the end of it off with his hands to take back to show Tonya. But the thousands of years behind the icicle did not bend beneath the boy’s fingers.
Finally, Saundra asked, “Now what? This is the place — the last place on the map.”
Templeton shrugged. “It has to be around here. This place isn’t too big so let’s spread out. Nehemiah and I will go this way. You and Cody go that way. First person to find it shouts. If you reach the end of these things without finding it, go back to the slope and wait for the rest of us.”
Saundra and Cody split off and went to the right, weaving in and out of the forest of glacial stone fingers. Cody wondered if anyone had ever been impaled on a stalagmite before.
“I found something,” Saundra said. They had reached a far wall that rose up and seemed to mark the end of the forest. The blue light was harsher here. Saundra took out her flashlight and flicked it on, aiming the beam at the wall. There seemed to be some kind of writing etched into the stone. Up close, the individual letters appeared to be English, but Saundra couldn’t make out the incoherent scrawl.
“What does it say?” Cody asked.
Just then, a shout came from the other side of the cavern. It seemed farther away than it really was.
“Let’s go,” Saundra said. “They found something.”
What Nehemiah and Templeton had found was a tomb — a gray stone box topped with a lid, about the size it would take to hold an average man.
“Is it the one?” Saundra asked.
Nehemiah nodded, pointing at the single line of text engraved on the side — ALEXANDER LACROIX SCHUMANN, 1742 – 1789.
“Let’s hope nobody got here before us,” Templeton said. He gripped one corner of the stone lid and started to pull. “A little help, here,” he grunted.
Nehemiah made a lasso out of some rope and tied it around the opposite corner, and started to pull. Cody climbed up on the other side and started to push. Little by little, the lid began to budge sending up shivers of dust, eliciting coughs from the two men and Cody.
“Should… be… it…,” Nehemiah said, grunting as he pulled the lid one last time so that half of it hung off the edge of the ossuary.
“There’s a skull! There’s a real skull in here,” Cody said.
“At least there’s not a smell,” Templeton said. Actually, there was a whole skeleton in there, complete with bits of torn, tattered Revolutionary-era clothing. The man’s arms — or the bones of his arms — were crossed over his chest. Clutched between them was a rectangular leather box. Templeton reached in and tugged it out gently. “We found it,” he whispered. There was a tangled leather string at one end of the box. Templeton began to tug at it slowly.
“Where’s Saundra?” Cody said.
Everyone turned around. “She was just — ,” Nehemiah started to say, and then he heard the distinctive click of a gun.
“Get down!” Nehemiah shouted as he jumped off the tomb edge and reached for his gun. It was stuck in his belt and he had to wrestle it out. When he looked up, Saundra was standing limply a few feet away. Her eyes were closed. She was being held up by a man with a cowboy hat, a short grizzled beard, and a round, boyish face.
63 / Like Lambs to the Slaughter
The serpent soldiers — that’s how Tonya referred to them in her head — marched Titus, Abby, Kamare-Scott, and Tonya up the steps into Hermann’s house. They separated the four of them, one soldier led Abby and Titus into the kitchen and sat them down across from each other at the table where they had eaten lunch a few hours earlier.
“Put the kids over there,” one soldier who seemed to be in charge said. Kamare-Scott and Tonya were led into the living room and made to sit on the floor. Two soldiers went into the kitchen and began talking to Abby and Titus.
“What do you think they’re saying?” Tonya asked quietly.
Kamare-Scott shrugged and looked glum, hating the feeling of being helpless. He perked up momentarily as four soldiers clamored down the stairs and went out the front door. They all carried long, deadly-looking guns and wore hard helmets with visors. They seemed disciplined and efficient, going about whatever it was they were doing with quiet certainty. They bore no insignia that Kamare-Scott recognized. Certainly not U.S. military.
Tonya touched his arm. “Sorry about your bo,” she said. “It seemed very…special.”
“It was. My mom got it for me when she went to Japan,” Kamare-Scott said. “Just before she died. She was going to give it to me on my seventeenth birthday, but she gave it to me sooner. Somehow she knew she wouldn’t be here to give it to me then.”
“Oh,” Tonya said. She studied Kamare-Scott’s face. His afro was significantly flattened from when she had first seen him. But his face was hard, his eyes darting back and forth, probably calculating a way of escape. He couldn’t have been any more than eighteen; the pain of his mother’s death was still fresh. He jerked forward suddenly.
“I need to call Dad. I need to warn him,” he said.
“Umm,” Tonya said, remembering she had a phone in her pocket. She reached for it, but just then one of the soldiers spun around the corner and looked at them. Tonya froze.
The soldier marched over and ordered her to stand. He searched her pockets quietly, found the phone, and took it. Then, he searched Kamare-Scott who only had a bit of paper with writing on it in his pocket.
“Sorry,” Tonya murmured when the soldier turned away to put their things on a table out of reach.
When the soldier turned back around, he was holding plastic cuffs. “Hands,” he said.
Tonya hesitated. Kamare-Scott looked at the cuffs warily, took a deep breath and raised his arms.
At that moment, gunshots rang out outside the house. The soldier forgot all about cuffing them. He turned sharply and rushed back to the door, followed by several of his comrades.
“What’s happening?” Tonya whispered.
“I don’t know, and they don’t know either,” Kamare-Scott said. “Confusion is good. Let’s get Abby and Titus and get out of here.”
He grabbed Tonya’s arm and started pulling her toward the kitchen. But before they could get out of the living room, there was a loud bang — less like a single gunshot — more like a grenade had went off in front of the house.
“Get down!” Tonya cried, her ears ringing from the explosion. The floor shifted beneath them. The front door of the house tore from its hinges and flew back through the hall.
64 / Captured
Nehemiah pointed his gun at the man. “Let her go,” he demanded. “What did you do to her?”
“She’s fine. Just knocked out,” the man said. He was shorter than Nehemiah, with a grizzled beard that curled around his chin, and a round, boyish face. “But she’s coming with me unless you give me that.” He motioned with his gun toward Templeton who was holding the leather box that held the Correction.
“Do you even know what it is?” Nehemiah said, stalling.
“Of course, I know what it is,” the man said. “Oh, I see. Your sister didn’t mention me. I’m Dustin Moltinova. I would shake hands but,” he shrugged, “mine are currently occupied.” He repointed his gun. “Now hand it over.”
My sister? What? Nothing was making sense to Nehemiah. “It doesn’t belong to you,” he said, taking a small step toward the man. “What do you want it for?”
“Argument. See, I was hoping I wouldn’t have to do this.” Dustin whistled.
Behind him, the cave lit up with a brilliant, white light. Nehemiah, Cody, and Templeton were blinded. When their eyes adjusted they saw about twenty men standing outside the blue tomb. A few of them were holding high-powered lanterns. They were dressed mostly in jeans, camouflage jackets, and leather boots. All of them had guns.
Saundra stirred and moaned in Dustin’s arms. “What’s going on?” She blinked in the bright lights. “Hey, let go of me,” she said, jabbing her elbows against her captor.
“Not so fast,” Dustin said. “Not till he gives me what I want.”
Nehemiah sighed heavily. He nodded toward Templeton indicating that he should hand over the box. Templeton hesitated, turning the box over, looking at it longingly. Then he marched over and shoved it into Dustin’s hand.
“Now, here’s your girl,” Dustin said, pushing Saundra toward them. He tugged the string on the leather box until it opened, pulled the document partway out, and muttered approvingly to himself before pushing it back in. “Good, now y’all are coming with us.”
“What?” Saundra said. She still looked dazed.
“You got what you wanted,” Nehemiah said. “Now, let us go and we’ll leave you alone.”
“I would let you go, because I’m not one for taking hostages, but y’all are too much of a liability, so you’re coming with us.” He motioned to the men behind him. “Besides, y’all are outnumbered, so there’s no use resisting. Round ‘em up, boys, and let’s move up.”
“Come on,” Nehemiah said, putting one arm around Cody and the other around Saundra as they were surrounded by men with rifles.
They were marched out of the tomb and down a new path they hadn’t noticed before.
“By the way,” Dustin said, dropping back to walk beside them, “if y’all are wondering how we found you: we found your partner’s dead body floating in the river about a mile from here. So, we knew which way we had to go. Don’t worry, we gave him a proper burial.”
65 / Casualties
Tonya yanked Kamare-Scott back into the living room just in time. Torn from its hinges, the front door flew backward into the hall, splintering and slamming into the wall. Kamare-Scott, who had landed face down on the floor, rolled over and looked at it. He would have been crushed by it. “Thank you,” he said.
He got up and ran across the hall into the kitchen. The sounds of rapid gunfire continued outside. He could feel and hear the crack every time a bullet chewed through the wood of the building. Children screamed and there was a lot of shouting and the sound of running. But what he saw in the kitchen made him stop short in the entrance.
“What?” Tonya said, stumbling behind him.
“You don’t want to see this,” Kamare tried to turn around to block her view, to wash the image from his own eyes. But Tonya had already seen. She gasped and covered her mouth. Titus sat slack in his chair at the end of the table. Head leaning back, mouth open, eyes closed. There was a huge and bloody gash in his chest as if his heart were a grenade and it had exploded. Bones protruded from the cavity. There was no way he was alive.
Abby sat in the corner seat next to him with her head resting on the table. Blood seeped from her neck.
“Maybe Abby’s still alive,” Tonya said quietly.
Kamare went over and touched her shoulder. “Abby,” he said. “Can you hear me?” Nothing. He bent down to get a closer look at her neck. There was a piece of broken glass deeply embedded. He reached for her arm to check her pulse, but he already knew. She was gone. He looked at Tonya and shook his head.
As he straightened, the room spun out of focus. Waves of nausea made his head spin. He felt like he wanted to throw up.
There was another explosion outside that brought him back to reality. The room spun the other way. Whatever was going on outside, he and Tonya were still alive and needed to get to safety. He caught sight of another body lying on the floor on the other side of the long dining table. One of the serpent soldiers. He was quietly trying to fashion a tourniquet with a handkerchief around his leg where he’d been hit with a bullet.
Kamare-Scott walked over to him and kicked him hard in the side. “Damn you,” he said. Then he knelt down and unbuckled the man’s helmet and set it aside. He wrestled his rifle away from him, then stripped him of his jacket. He saw a knife in his belt and took that too.
“What are you doing?” the soldier said, gritting his teeth.
“Just be glad I’m not going to kill you like you killed our friends,” Kamare-Scott said.
“I didn’t kill them. They did,” the soldier said.
“I don’t know. I thought we were the only ones. I just do as I’m told.”
“The only ones what?” Kamare-Scott said.
But the man didn’t answer as another explosion ripped through the house, shattering glass. Something heavy thunked upstairs and Kamare looked up at the ceiling as footsteps sounded on the porch.
“We need to get out of here,” Tonya said, behind him.
66 / Escape
“Right, we need to leave,” Kamare-Scott said, turning around. “Get the gear off— “ He stopped when he saw Tonya in a black helmet and over-sized jacket, holding a rifle awkwardly. She had already stripped the soldier who had fallen in the other room. “Good,” he said.
The soldier on the kitchen floor was concentrating on tying his tourniquet again. “Good luck with that,” Kamare-Scott said. He unbuckled his helmet and put it on. It smelled of man-sweat and desperation. Kamare thought momentarily that the helmet was ruining his afro. So be it. He put on the jacket, picked up the rifle and stuck the knife in his pocket. “Let’s go,” he said to Tonya.
They left the kitchen and ran down the hallway toward the back of the house.
“What about Abby and Titus? I mean, their bodies?” Tonya asked.
“Hopefully, we can come back for them later,” Kamare-Scott said.
“What if the house is surrounded?”
“Let’s hope it’s not.”
“I don’t actually know how to use a gun,” Tonya said as they reached the back door. They could hear gunfire again now. Shouting. Screams. People running.
“It’s easy,” Kamare-Scott said. “It’s like using a mouse on a computer — point and click, except point and shoot.” He leaned out the back door and looked around, and then stepped back inside and looked at Tonya. “You’re holding it wrong. Assault rifles can be confusing, I know. You hold it like this.” He took her right hand and placed it on the pistol grip and placed her left hand around the magazine. “And watch out for the recoil. Matter of fact, that could mess your arm up. So, let me do the shooting. But, at least now, you look like you know what you’re doing.”
“Thanks,” Tonya said as they stepped outside. Thin drifts of gun smoke rose up over the house. Something was on fire and they could smell it burning. “We should head for those woods over there and then circle around, back to the tomb, so we can warn Dad and the rest,” Tonya said.
“Good thinking,” Kamare-Scott said.
“Hopefully, we won’t run into Hermann and his people again. I still can’t believe he did that to us.”
Kamare nodded in agreement and then they ran, keeping their heads down, across an open field. To their right, there were shots being fired, but by the time they reached the woods, they could hardly hear the melee. They leaned against the trees to catch their breath. Tonya fished in the pockets of her borrowed jacket and came up with a pair of binoculars. She used them to look back at the house.
“What do you see?” Kamare-Scott said.
“The guys in black are pretty much down. One of the Humvees across the field is leaving. The other one is still there,” Tonya said. “But there’s this whole other group of guys who look nothing like the serpent soldiers. They’re the ones who attacked.”
“Let me see,” Kamare-Scott said.
She handed him the binoculars, but a crack of gunfire sounded behind them and the tool ripped apart in Kamare’s hands. “That was so mean,” he said as he spun around, dropping the now-useless binoculars and raising his gun.
A man in a cowboy hat stepped into view. “Thought you were going to escape, did ya?”
16 / Bitter Reunion
Kamare-Scott swung his gun barrel back and forth as more men emerged from the trees behind him and Tonya. They all had rifles pointed at him.
“This is what they call being outmanned and outgunned,” Tonya said. “Let’s just try to stay alive here.”
Kamare nodded and lowered his gun. “We’re not your enemy,” he said to the leader who wore a thin suitcase that appeared to be made out of metal on a leather strap around his neck.
“You don’t look like my enemy,” the man in the cowboy hat said. Behind him there was the sound of more people tracking through the forest.
“What is going on here?” Kamare asked. “First, we got kidnapped by those guys.” He motioned over his shoulder toward the house. “They killed two of our friends. Then you guys show up and start killing those guys. Now, what?”
“I’m sorry to hear about the deaths of your friends,” the leader said. “I’m Dustin Moltinova. I believe a reunion is in order.” More people emerged from the forest behind him — Nehemiah, Saundra, Cody, and Templeton, along with about a dozen more armed men.
“Dad!” Tonya said. She ran to Nehemiah and hugged him. “What happened to you guys?”
“We got what we came for,” Nehemiah said, but he was glaring at Dustin over Tonya’s head. “Where’s Abby and Titus?”
“Um…” Tonya looked back toward the house and then at Kamare-Scott who put his head down. She turned back to her father with tears in her eyes and shook her head.
Nehemiah let out a ragged breath and let his head fall into his hand.
“This is a disaster,” Cody muttered.
“Looks like you’re down a number, too,” Kamare said quietly.
“George,” Saundra said, looking wearier than the rest. “There was an accident in the caves…He didn’t make it out.”
Everyone stood around quietly for a minute. Even Dustin’s soldiers were still. No one seemed to want to move or say anything.
The quiet was interrupted by the sudden crackle of radios carried by several of the soldiers. Running footsteps sounded through the forest and another man burst onto the scene.
“Sir, all the ones that survived are gone,” he addressed Dustin.
“What do you mean, ‘gone’?” Dustin said.
“They’re gone — like ghosts,” the messenger said. “They took one of the Hummers, but we found it a mile up the road. Empty.”
Dustin tightened his jaw in contemplation. “That could be a problem,” he said. “Let’s move back to the house. Treat the wounded. Repair the damage. Get rid of the enemy bodies. We need to move out before nightfall.”
The messenger gave a curt nod and ran off.
The rest of the entourage emerged from the woods and began walking back to Hermann’s house. Gun smoke drifted above the ground. Amish women huddled with their children. Some of the men were arguing with Dustin’s soldiers. Everyone stopped and looked to the sky at the sound of helicopter blades whirring.
A trio of grey-green U.S. Navy Seahawks passed over the house and began to descend on the open field beyond.
“She’s here,” Dustin said.
17 / Blackout
The chopper blades whirred to a slow hum as the aircraft touched down in the empty field. The door of one of the Seahawks opened and Secretary of the Navy Melanie Dunn jumped to the ground. She was dressed in a professional black pantsuit, boots, and sunglasses. A man in tactical gear jumped out behind her.
“I want a complete blackout on this op,” Melanie told him. “No information gets out without my say-so. No other departments brought in. Understand?”
“Got it.” The man nodded and turned to holler back to the crews of the other choppers. “You heard her. Secure the premises.”
A dozen and a half troops in camouflage deboarded from the other choppers and spread out in two single file lines, heading in opposite directions around Hermann’s house.
Melanie strode into the yard, followed by two soldiers, one of them carrying a box made of reinforced steel, to where Dustin Moltinova was waiting. “Did you get it?” she asked.
“Yes,” Dustin said. He patted the metal suitcase at his side. “Now, we need to discuss—“
“Let me see it,” Melanie cut him off.
Dustin hesitated. “You said—”
“I said let me see it.”
Dustin raised the suitcase and opened it slowly. The Correction, a rectangular document on aging paper, lay stretched out on a velvet bed. The fringe of the paper was clearly brittle, little tears appearing like cracks in the dignified facade, as if time had nibbled away at its edges. The worn leather case it had come in lay beside it.
“Excellent,” Melanie said. She motioned to the soldier carrying the steel case. “Fitz, take it.”
The soldier, Fitz, set the case down and pulled plastic gloves from one of the many pockets on his gear.
“Wait a minute.” Dustin jerked the suitcase away. “This isn’t what we agreed to.” He started to close the lid, but found three guns pointed at his head. He reached for his own weapon with his free hand, but slowly let it go when he felt the barrel of a fourth gun pressed into the back of his neck.
Fitz took the suitcase and slowly set it on the ground. He turned a combination lock embedded in the front of his steel box and the lid popped open. A cloud of white, cold-looking mist floated up from the open box. Fitz put on his plastic gloves, removed a glass case from the box, and then gently lifted The Correction out of Dustin’s suitcase and placed it between two glass panes.
“Melanie, what are you doing?” Nehemiah said, running up just then. He hadn’t seen his sister since the day of their father’s funeral.
Melanie held up a hand as she watched Fitz intently. “Taking this very important historical document into the custody of the U.S. government.”
“What? I think that defeats the point,” Nehemiah said.
Fitz lowered the glass case into the steel box. He shut the lid and the box emitted a hissing sound as it airlocked. He turned the combination lock, and opened a panel on the side of the box and punched a series of keys. “Temperature’s set, ma’am. We’re good.”
“Get it on board,” Melanie said.
“What are you going to do with it? Lock it away so no one can find it again?” Nehemiah asked.
“No, I have plans,” Melanie said.
18 / Competing Interests
“What kind of plans?” Nehemiah asked, suddenly alarmed. He glanced over at Fitz who was boarding one of the helicopters with the steel box in tow.
“Plans that don’t concern you,” Melanie said.
The chopper blades began to spin, splitting the air with their roar. Nehemiah felt as though everything he had worked for for the past few months was vanishing away in an instant. “This was your idea, remember,” he said. “You contacted me.” He pointed to himself.
“Because Dad asked me to,” Melanie said.
“But you were working for the government all along,” Nehemiah said as realization dawned on him. “You never really tried to help find The Correction yourself. It was just another order passed down the chain of command for you, wasn’t it?”
Melanie shook her head and started walking. “Don’t forget who saved your life when you got yourself and your son nearly killed at the lighthouse,” she said. “And who knows what Dustin would have done to you after he got what he wanted. I was looking out for you with the resources I had at my disposal.”
“That’s funny,” Nehemiah said. “I got the impression that Dustin was working for you.” He looked over his shoulder to where Dustin was addressing a tight group of his soldiers. He was gesticulating dramatically. He seemed angry. “Let me guess: Washington wants to keep this a secret. They don’t want anyone finding out about The Correction because it threatens the status quo. Admit I’m right.“
“Look, you need to accept that this is over,” Melanie said.
“Over? This is far from over,” Nehemiah said. “What did Dustin want with The Correction? How did he even know about it? And who the hell are these guys?” He pointed to the body of one of the serpent soldiers lying dead on the ground. “There are more of them out there. And what about Michael? He helped us, and we haven’t heard from him in days. This is not over.”
“You did your part for your country,” Melanie said. “It’s over for you. Now go back home. You have kids to raise. You have a badge to wear.”
Crap, Nehemiah thought. He had been gone from his job much longer than Chief Cullen had given him leave for. He probably didn’t have a job now.
“You have friends to bury,” Melanie continued.
“Speaking of, what am I going to tell their families, huh? That they died for nothing?”
“I’ll make some calls. The government will let their families know that their loved ones died in service to their country. They will be awarded the Presidential Citizens Medal.”
“You think that makes this okay?” Nehemiah said trying to keep his voice down as they neared the front of Hermann’s house where Tonya and Cody were sitting on the steps, looking distinctly worn out. Kamare-Scott and Templeton were dragging the bodies of the dead serpent soldiers out of the yard. Saundra was talking to one of the Amish women. “They died for this. Not so the government can just blackout their work. You can’t make this go away.”
“Look, I’m not arguing about this with you anymore,” Melanie said. “Everything will be handled.” She looked at her watch. “Now, I need to get going. And I need your girl, Saundra.”
“What? No. You can’t take her with you,” Nehemiah said.
Melanie ignored him. “Miss Boone, you need to come with us.”
Saundra walked over, wiping strands of auburn hair out of her face. She looked at Nehemiah, worried. “What? Why?”
“The government needs your services,” Melanie said. “You’re a historian who knows more about The Correction than anyone. You also knew the late Henry McAllen. Is that correct?”
“Yeah, but I’m just an editor,” Saundra said. “I was — am — going to publish Henry’s book on The Correction. The real historian is my mother.”
“Yes, she’s already on her way to our facility in Maryland,” Melanie said.
“She is?” Saundra asked, clearly worried.
“You picked up her mother?” Nehemiah asked incredulously. “Was she pressed into service against her will too?”
Melanie gave him a tired glance. “Please, Miss Boone. If you’ll come with me, you two can meet up at our facility. We have a lot of work to do.”
68 / The Package
Saundra didn’t see Melanie again after she boarded the helicopter; the Secretary rode in another vehicle. Looking down as the chopper gradually pulled itself up into the air, Saundra could tell most of the Navy soldiers were being left on the ground. To clean up this whole mess, no doubt, she thought.
The ride in the helicopter was somewhat jarring. Saundra sat beside Fitz who had the metal box secure between his feet. She wanted to ask some questions, but the loud roar of the chopper blades and the heavy vibrations made talking next to impossible. Besides, Fitz was wearing huge, metallic green headphones. The helicopter’s noise, raw and unyielding, made her ears feel as if they were being stuffed with sound. She wished she had Fitz’s headphones.
The trio of choppers set down at what looked like an abandoned airfield. The huge, concrete runway was cracked all over with tufts of grass breaking through. A large metal hangar stood at one end of the property with the word AIRPORT painted on its side in faded black. At the other end of the property, four black SUVs with heavily tinted windows and one glossy black sedan were parked, engines running.
Saundra and Fitz were separated. Fitz handed off the box to another gloved and headset-wearing technician who took it to one of the vehicles. Saundra stood watching, waiting for the wobbly feeling in her legs to subside. Before that could happen, a man in a suit ran up to her and took her elbow.
“Come with me.” He led Saundra toward the line of vehicles. “You’re Miss Boone,” he said.
“Since we’ve never met, that should be a question, but it’s not,” Saundra said. “I’m assuming you already know who I am.”
“Uh, yeah,” the man said. They had reached the vehicles now, and the man opened the back door of one of the SUVs. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a small, white, plastic card, about the size of a credit card, and handed it to her. “You’ll need this when you get inside,” he said. He extended his arm toward the open car door.
“Get inside where?” Saundra asked as she climbed in. But the man had already turned away. She sighed and leaned back in her seat — only to be startled by the presence of a large man in fatigues, bearing a heavy gun, sitting by the opposite door.
The man looked at her and then faced forward. Saundra thought better of asking him where “inside” was. A wave of tiredness washed over her. It seemed like she had been awake forever. She closed her eyes and tried to think of the last time she had slept. It was on the drive to Hermann’s house, which seemed so long ago. Death and war had happened since then, and now the air was filled with uncertainty.
The car lurched forward as the driver pressed the gas and the motorcade got moving. He raised a hand to his ear. “En route now,” he muttered. “We have the package.”
Saundra stirred herself long enough to wonder what “the package” was. She glanced over the back of her seat into the trunk. It was empty. There was nothing in the row in front of her or in the front passenger seat. With realization dawning, she settled back in her seat.
69 / Back Home
Back at his home in Trenton, New Jersey, Nehemiah found that he had not lost his job at the police department.
“You done working for the Feds?” Chief Cullen asked on his first day back. The chief was a jovial man and quite hairy. Nearly every inch of skin — arms, neck, most of his face, even his fingers — was covered in black and gray hairs. The unkempt hair on the top of his head stayed asphalt black, however. Behind his back, some of the officers called him “Bear.”
“I’m not sure,” Nehemiah said, polishing his badge on the side of his sleeve before clipping it on his belt. “But, I’m back for now.” All around him, the bustle of a police precinct bloomed. Detectives huddled at their desks. Officers marched to and fro from lockup to evidence. Petty criminals sat handcuffed on a bench behind a glass wall. Radios crackled with emergency alerts.
That his absence had been because he was working for the FBI was a useful lie Nehemiah figured Melanie had concocted to smooth things over with Cullen. After driving back home, Tonya and Cody had slept for almost an entire day. He had tried to call Saundra’s cell phone multiple times but she never picked up. He called the Department of History at Columbia University, but they said they hadn’t heard from Ginny, Saundra’s mother, in a couple of days. His calls to Melanie went unanswered too. As a last resort, he’d called Michael. He knew the man was kind of shady, but they’d had to trust each other in some tight circumstances. On top of that, he’d always seemed to have inside information. But Michael’s phone number was no longer in service.
After two days of hitting brick walls, Nehemiah put on his uniform, dropped his kids off at school, and went back to work. He figured things would happen when they happened. “Sorry it took so long,” he said.
“Hey, no problem,” Cullen said. “I’m just glad you’re back. What were you up to?”
“Uh, I can’t talk about it,” Nehemiah said rubbing one eye out with the heel of his hand. He’d been feeling like his energy had taken a vacation ever since he got back. Maybe seeing three new friends die in the same day did that to a person. “But, I could use a little help.”
“What can I do for you?”
Nehemiah pulled a photo of Michael out of his pocket. Curly black hair and tanned skin — one Saundra had surreptitiously taken of him when it appeared he was trying to kidnap her. “I need to find this man,” he said. “You think I can get this run through facial recognition?”
“Sure. I’ll get someone on it,” Cullen said.
Several hours later, Cullen called Nehemiah to his office.
“Okay, this is weird,” he said as Nehemiah shut the door. He slid the photo across his desk and turned his computer screen around so they both could look. On the screen was surveillance footage of a man walking through what looked like an airport. “That photograph belongs to Hassan Olinko,” Cullen said. “He came to the United States from Russia on a work permit visa for foreign doctors. He had an office in New Hampshire.”
Nehemiah nodded. That all added up. Michael was the “doctor” who had been treating his father a couple of months ago.
“From what I could gather from the Secretary of State’s office up there, everything was on the up and up,” Cullen continued. “Until a few weeks ago, when someone reported that our friend here hadn’t shown up at his own office for several days.”
“That makes sense,” Nehemiah nodded.
“This is where things get really strange.” Cullen clicked to a new screen of crime scene photos — a dark green Range Rover with tires slashed and the driver’s window smashed out on a tree-lined narrow road. Nehemiah recognized it instantly. “Someone found this vehicle by the side of the road. It was a rental, registered to someone named Michael, but that Michael matched the man in your photo. So, I’m assuming an alias.” Cullen looked at Nehemiah. “Does that tell you what you need to know?”
“Did you find him? His body?”
Cullen shook his head. “If he was driving this car at the time, he must have walked away — or was taken away — from whatever happened on that road. He hasn’t popped up anywhere since.”
70 / A Change of Plans
No one had ever before seen the Caliph with a beard. Either he was deliberately trying to grow one, or his attention had been so attuned to the recent events that he had forgotten to shave. Now, he sat at the head of a long table with his captains filling the other seats. A yellow handkerchief was folded on the table before him.
“I question if some of you are as committed to the dream as I am,” the Caliph said. His long white hair nearly glowed in the dim light of the underground conference room. He looked at each of his captains individually, steady grey eyes boring into theirs. “You do know why we are doing this? It is not just for ourselves, but for our posterity.” He spread out his hands toward them. “Your posterity. So they can live in a just, pure, holy society — free from infidels and abominations. One brotherhood, one community — one true United States under God.” He picked up the yellow handkerchief and unfolded it. It was a flag with a black serpent cut into several different pieces rampant across it. He held it up. “Remember: This is a symbol of all that we hate. Democracy is division, plain and simple.” His thin fingers fisted the fabric of the flag. “If you lose sight of this, we are doomed. Understood?”
The captains nodded in assent.
“Now, what happened?” the Caliph said.
One of the captains pressed a button on a remote controller and a multi-paneled screen lit up at one end of the room. Everyone turned to look at it. It displayed aerial pictures of the Amish community in Philadelphia. The images zoomed in, revealing melee in front of one large house in particular. Bodies lay on the ground. Men, women, and children clustered together, frozen in time, as they tried to get away.
“Six of our brothers. Dead.” The Caliph bowed his head.
“We were ambushed on two sides,” one of the captains said. “There was another group — a militia, I think. They call themselves the Southern Resistance. They had intel we couldn’t have known.”
“And that means what?” the Caliph said.
“The first group we were tracking — the Dunn connection — he has ties to the government. Either they’re working together or just using him.”
“That’s beside the point.” Losing patience, the Caliph rubbed his fingers against his temple. “Where is The Correction?”
The captain pressed another button on his remote control and the screens changed again, this time to a photo of a woman in tactical gear perched in the doorway of a helicopter. She was aiming what looked like a rocket launcher. A second panel showed an information box with text. And a third, a close-up of the woman’s face — silver-haired with eyes like glaciers. “The Secretary of the Navy showed up and extracted The Correction. We have not been able to determine what she intends to do with it or where it is being taken. But, like I said, clear fingerprints of an inner government operation.”
“Look into those eyes,” the Caliph said.
“What?” the captain stammered. “Pardon me, sir?”
“Her eyes.” The Caliph indicated the picture on the screen. “Do you really think she has purely altruistic motives?”
The captains looked at the picture again. “I don’t— I mean, I wouldn’t—,” the remote control man stammered again.
“The answer is no,” the Caliph snapped. “Which means we have a change of plans, but not by much.”
25 / Michael’s Real Truth
Nehemiah sat in his car in the tiny parking lot of the auto salvage yard and read Michael’s letter.
If you are reading this, I am dead, and I hope this letter has fallen into sympathetic hands.
My name is, or was, Hassan Olinko.
The people who killed me are nameless, faceless, and formless. They follow a man known as “the Caliph.” For a time, I followed him too. I believed in what he preached. He is a man of many names. When I was his student at the University of St. Petersburg, he was known as Masud Kaledin. He taught medicine during the day and philosophy at night.
I often asked myself how or why I could follow such a man? Back then, it was easy to answer. He was charismatic, a fresh thinker, popular with all the students. Both my wife, Katrya, and I were fans of his. Soon, however, he became radical.
His rants on politics were infamous and plenty. He spoke of reforming Russian society, the European order, even the world. But he vowed to start with the land most famous for its Revolution — America. He claimed there was a document that could “undo” the United States. His screeds made some wonder if he was losing his mind. He lost all pretense of teaching medicine or philosophy. He only held long “talks” on revolution at any cost. Plenty of students still came to hear him until the school revoked his tenure.
Masud seemed to fade from existence. I graduated with my medical degree and went into practice. I married Katrya and we had two children. Life was good for us.
But one day Masud got in touch. He said he was in America and that the Revolution he spoke of was at hand. He said I could be of use to him. At first, I laughed him off; surely he was mad now. But he persisted, and curiosity got the better of me. I told him I would consider his offer, but I wanted more details. He asked if I trusted him; I told him yes. Then he said, if I did trust him, I would believe him when he threatened to harm my family if I did not do as he said. He said he was building an army and that he could reach me wherever I ran.
Scared for the safety of my wife and children, I told him I would do whatever he asked. He told me I had to come to America and help him find The Correction. Turns out, this document that could undo America was a real thing. He wanted it, needed it, was obsessed with it.
At times, I wanted to turn back from the mission, but the thought of my family alive and safe made me continue. Masud — or the Caliph, as his new followers call him — kept telling me that I was nearly done. He told me that I could go home soon. I want nothing more.
I do not know if I will succeed in this mission. But I do know this. The Caliph must be stopped. He was not lying when he said he was building an army. I have seen it, glimpses of it. What their numbers and capabilities are, I do not know for sure. I was only told what I needed to know, and when I met with the Caliph’s people, I was encouraged not to ask questions. But they are dangerous. And the Caliph will not stop until he finds The Correction. But by then it will be too late.
If the slim possibility exists that, somehow, you are reading this letter and I am not actually dead, it is only a matter of time. I am going home to see about my wife and children before the Caliph kills us all.
26 / Funerals
Nehemiah had been to two funerals already that week. He was told it was for the best if he remained anonymous and that the families had been told that their loved ones had died as heroes, carrying out a classified operation for the government. Nehemiah did not envy the officials who had the job of explaining what type of classified operation that did not require leaving the country ended up with the deaths of civilians.
Abby was buried in her small hometown in Connecticut. An honor guard carried out the ceremony. Nehemiah didn’t see anyone who looked like they were her family. The handful of people who spoke remembered Abby as a school teacher, a librarian, and a friend. Nehemiah and Templeton stood out of sight beneath a copse of trees at the edge of the graveyard for the hour-long funeral.
It was both easier and harder to blend in at Titus’ funeral in Baltimore. At least there were more people — a lot more people — at the church’s homegoing celebration. Nehemiah sat on the end of the very last pew and tried to make himself unnoticeable. He kept looking for Saundra to show up, but she never did. Nehemiah remembered that the last time he had been in a church was for his wife Waverly’s funeral.
Titus was celebrated as something of a community hero. A young man, raised by a single mother, he had graduated from the University of Southern California. After returning home, he started teaching a history course at the community college and began running after school programs at local high schools. Every member of his large extended family took to the pulpit to speak about his life.
The service went on for hours. Nehemiah was afraid he would miss George Felleck’s funeral which was also taking place that evening. When the service let out, he rushed to the cemetery where George’s body was being buried.
A small knot of family members and friends were gathered around an open grave. The casket, which Nehemiah knew was empty because the government never recovered his body, was raised on a platform and draped with the American flag. Opposite the family was the honor guard and behind them a row of a half-dozen official-looking people, stiff and out of place. Nehemiah stood a few yards away, just within earshot of the minister’s voice. “May the love of God and the peace of the Lord Jesus Christ bless and console us and gently wipe every tear from our eyes,” he concluded. “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.” The honor guard proceeded to remove the flag from the casket and lower it into the ground.
One of the officials broke away from the burial and walked briskly toward Templeton and Nehemiah. It was Melanie. “You said you needed to see me,” she said.
“Yes.” Nehemiah pulled Michael’s letter out of his coat pocket and briefly explained what he had written. If Melanie was surprised or shocked, she didn’t show it.
“We’ve known about the Caliph for a while,” she said.
“You knew?” Nehemiah said.
“And you never thought to tell us while we were out there risking our lives?” Templeton said.
“Our purpose was to get The Correction, and we did,” Melanie said. “Thanks to you. We’ll deal with the Caliph in time. Letting him conduct his search was strategic. We needed to get a thread on him, draw him out, give him room to slip up.”
Nehemiah studied his sister’s face as realization dawned. “But he didn’t slip up. You didn’t draw him out.”
“You don’t even know where he is,” Templeton added.
“That’s true,” Melanie nodded. “Maybe there are some clues we could decipher from this.” She reached for Michael’s letter, but Nehemiah quickly refolded it and put it in his pocket.
“Not until you tell me where you took Saundra and what you’re doing with her,” he said.
27 / To Be Done
Special Director Katarina Forge led Saundra into a sterile-looking room. There was no furniture, only a cold, featureless floor. The four walls appeared to be made of a black reflective surface. The ceiling was a complex array of small silver panels that made Saundra feel like she was standing beneath a glass ceiling that had frozen in place just as it shattered.
“This is our sanitization chamber,” Forge said. “We’re just going to run some tests to make sure you’re not carrying anything harmful or toxic on your person.”
“Why would I do that?” Saundra said.
Forge’s smile seemed forced. “If you are carrying anything, you would be doing so unknowingly, of course,” Forge said. “It will only take a few minutes. Please stand in the middle of the room and don’t move.”
The room was plunged into darkness as the lights were turned off. Saundra stood perfectly still. She could hear machinery beeping and humming beyond the walls of the room. She felt and heard an air vent being opened and the sharp hiss of air streaming into the room. Droplets seemed to sprinkle around her, dampening her face and hair. Then the lights started. Long, thin streaks of bold colors — red, blue, green, and white — lanced through the air from all four walls striking her everywhere. Saundra felt like a barcode underneath a grocery store scanner. Though it felt longer, the whole process lasted only for a couple of minutes. The lights came back on and Saundra blinked to adjust her vision.
“So, did you find anything?” she asked when Forge opened the door.
“You’ll have to remove your shoes before you leave this room,” Forge said. “The test detected trace amounts of methane, which I suppose comes from tramping through underground caves.”
Saundra was provided with another pair of shoes — plain, white, and a size too big — but she didn’t complain. Forge opened the door to another large room. There were two long, metal tables on either side of the room. One was empty. One-half of the other table was stacked with books, old and worn like somebody had emptied out a Revolutionary-era library. The other half held what looked like scientific instruments. In the middle was a raised pane of glass. The Correction was stretched out on top of it, and another pane of glass held it in place.
“This is where you’ll work,” Forge said.
“For how long?” Saundra said. She looked at The Correction. The handwritten document was about sixteen inches long and twelve inches wide, its edges tattered. Under the bright lights, it looked significantly more fragile than when she had glimpsed at it in the caves.
“As long as is necessary, but preferably as brief a time as possible,” Forge said. “The Secretary wants everything done stat.”
“Everything like what?”
“Verification, preservation, conversion. She wants to know what it means, how it can be used.”
“I’m just a book lover who happens to like history,” Saundra said. “Who says I’m qualified for this?”
“I do,” said a familiar voice. Saundra turned to see her mother, Ginny, entering the room from a side door. She wore a lab coat and plastic gloves and she was carrying a vial of liquid. “And we are going to do this together.”
28 / Admiral Johnson
Admiral Benson Johnson sat uncomfortably around the meeting table with the other Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon. He glanced over at Chairman Seth Ford, anticipating his next question. The gruff man had a small circle of hair right on the top of his head. Admiral Johnson watched as the front of the circle turned to him.
“Why hasn’t the Secretary submitted the budget requirements?” Chairman Ford barked.
“She hasn’t had time to review it yet, sir,” Admiral Johnson said. “She’s been really busy.”
“Time to review it? Why can’t she just pull a copy of last year’s budget, raise it by ten percent, and sign it like the rest of us.” Chairman Ford laughed loudly and four of the others seated around the table joined in.
Admiral Johnson didn’t think Ford’s way of proposing a budget was legal, but he didn’t say anything about that. “She happens to be more meticulous about some things,” he said.
“Well, the Senate is breathing down our necks about it,” said the Vice Chairman, “so tell your boss to get it over stat.”
“What has got her so tied up anyway?” Chairman Ford said.
“From what I could gather, she’s working on something top secret for the President,” Admiral Johnson said.
“Top secret?” the Chairman said.
“The President hasn’t mentioned a word of it to us,” the Vice Chairman said.
“I just know what I’ve been told,” Admiral Johnson said.
“Well, you better get her to tell you more,” Chairman Ford said. “All right, this meeting is dismissed. Get that budget in here, Benson.”
“Yes, sir,” Admiral Johnson said as he stood up and hurriedly closed his laptop, gathering the briefings that had been delivered that morning. He folded the computer under his arm and stuffed the briefings into a briefcase. Hurrying down the hall, he passed military men and women, some in suits, some in fatigues. He dialed the number to the Secretary’s office. “Yes, I need to speak with the Secretary,” he said when the receptionist picked up.
“She’s not in her office now. Would you like to leave—”
Admiral Johnson hung up the phone.
In his own office, he exchanged his work briefcase for his home briefcase. He was meticulous about making sure that anything even remotely classified remained within the five walls of the Pentagon when it was time for him to go home.
Outside, the afternoon sun was bare and bright in a cloudless sky. He got into his Chevy Tahoe, set his briefcase down in the passenger seat, put the key in the ignition—
He had caught sight of a man wearing a balaclava mask staring back at him from the first row of seats.
Admiral Johnson started to turn in his seat, but he froze when he felt something cold and hard pressed against his ribs.
“Start the car,” the masked man said. His voice was muffled and gravelly.
Admiral Johnson started the car.
Admiral Johnson navigated the car toward the checkpoint that straddled the entrance and exit lanes.
“Wave your key card and keep going. Don’t stop.” The man crouched down in the back seat, ducking his head beneath the window.
Admiral Johnson waved his key card at the sensor box. The guard in the booth barely glanced at him; he was focused on his sub sandwich. Johnson hesitated, but immediately felt the gun jammed into his ribs again. “Drive,” the man ordered.
Admiral Johnson slowly pulled onto the road. What now? He was not eager to drive this man to where he lived with his wife and two children.
“Is this your address? 4805 Huntington Lane?”
Admiral Johnson felt his mouth go dry. “Yes,” he said in a near whisper. He felt very much relieved when his kidnapper said, “Don’t go home.”
29 / No Need for Panic
Melanie sat in the passenger’s seat of a black SUV, speeding along the interstate south of Washington D.C. Nehemiah sat beside Templeton in the second row. A few cars behind, a decoy SUV tailed them. Up ahead, a grey sedan in the left lane maintained a 230-degree angle from the first SUV. In the right lane, a plainclothes motorcycle-riding security officer maintained a 60-degree angle. With all of the other vehicles on the interstate, the formation was unnoticeable.
“I don’t see why you don’t get that this Caliph guy is a serious threat,” Templeton was saying. He was wearing a black blazer which fit him loosely. There were bags under his eyes and he appeared to have lost weight since the first time Melanie had seen him. “You saw what he could do when we were in Pennsylvania.”
“I didn’t say I don’t see it as a serious threat,” Melanie said. “To the contrary, it’s a threat so serious that it needs to be taken care of quietly. There’s no need to panic.” In exchange for Michael’s letter, she had agreed to take Nehemiah and Templeton to the secret facility where Ginny and Saundra were examining The Correction.
“Well, I’m panicking every night,” Templeton admitted. “I’d never seen so many dead people in one place in my life. Every time I sleep, I go right back there.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Melanie said. “I’ve learned not to let my nightmares dictate the concerns of my waking hours.” She sighed as the traffic around them began to slow to a crawl. Typical evening D.C. traffic jam.
“And what about that other group that was there?” Templeton said. “They didn’t kill us, but who were they?”
Melanie didn’t answer.
“Seems like you and their leader — Dustin, I think his name was — had some kind of agreement,” Nehemiah added.
Just then, the driver braked and brought the SUV to a halt. “Whoa,” he said. “Look.” The decoy SUV, the motorcycle, and the sedan stopped at the same time.
Up ahead, a man was walking onto the highway. He wore a scarf or some kind of mask that covered the lower half of his face. Only his eyes were visible, framed by straggly black hair.
“Probably just some homeless guy,” Melanie said as people in other vehicles started to honk their horns and roll down their windows, yelling at the man to get out of the way.
The man seemed not to hear. He came across the first lane and into the second, turning to face the oncoming traffic which was virtually at a standstill. As he turned, he exposed his other arm which held a long, black object which looked like a weapon.
“Probably not just a homeless guy,” the driver said. He reached for his gun and started to open the door.
Melanie grabbed his arm. “No, stay. The car is bulletproof.”
“That looks like it spits more than just bullets,” the driver said. But he shut the door again.
The highway walker came on slowly as if he didn’t have a care in the world. The cars started to move again around him, numerous drivers giving him “what-the-hell?” looks as they passed.
“He is clearly heading this way,” Templeton said.
The security officer on the motorcycle cut across the lane, weaving between cars to reach the armed man. As the motorcycle approached, the man turned, raised his weapon to his shoulder, pointed it at the oncoming motorcycle and fired. A disc-shaped object spun from the shaft of the weapon. It attached itself to the spinning wheel of the motorcycle. At first nothing happened.
Then there was a loud bang and an eruption of fire as the motorcycle exploded. Nehemiah was sure he saw the officer’s body shoot straight up in the air — or at least part of the officer’s body. It looked like the legs were missing.
There was a sudden rush of noise and confusion as nearly every driver within sight seemed to start honking their horns at once. Some who had been stalled suddenly found speed and ripped past the smoldering remains of the motorcycle on the highway, sure to create an even worse traffic jam up ahead.
“What do we do?” the driver said.
In the rearview mirror, Melanie saw the decoy SUV slowly approaching from behind, all four windows rolled down an inch, gun barrels extended. She grabbed the driver’s two-way out of the ashtray. “Beta team, stay where you are,” she ordered. “Do not engage.”
“What?” the team leader’s voice sounded confused over the radio.
“What?” Melanie’s driver echoed.
“He wants something,” Melanie said. “Or he would have killed us already.”
30 / A Message Delivered
The armed man passed the motorcycle wreckage. He looked at it with mild interest, as though it were just a flower growing through the concrete.
“I really hope you’re right about this,” Templeton said. He had one hand on the door handle.
Nehemiah looked at him and shook his head.
“I’d rather die running than die sitting still,” Templeton said.
The armed man came on still, slowly, casually. A few cars sped past him, but Melanie could see the traffic already backing up ahead of them. Police sirens sounded in the distance.
The armed man came around to the passenger’s side and stared through the glass. Melanie stared back, one finger on the window control. The man raised a gloved fist and knocked twice against the glass. “No one else has to die,” he said. His voice sounded staticky and warped, as if it were being distorted by something in his scarf mask.
Melanie rolled down the window. The driver’s finger twitched against the trigger of his gun.
The man held up a flat, rectangular, metallic object and passed it through the window. It was a tablet. Melanie took it. “I was to deliver this to you personally,” the man said.
“What is it?” Melanie said holding it gingerly.
“A message from the Caliph. He sends his regards.”
The man turned and walked away slowly the way he had come. He passed by the mangled motorcycle again. (Nehemiah could clearly see the officer’s legs, or at least the exposed bone and burned flesh that was left. He wondered when the rest of his body would fall back to earth. It was an odd thought.) The man jumped over the guardrail and vanished from sight.
“Start moving,” Melanie ordered as she rolled the window back up.
The driver put his gun away and started to navigate around the remains of the fallen officer.
The decoy SUV behind them stopped and two men in suits got out. One was talking into a device on his wrist, probably calling for help to clean up the wreckage.
Nehemiah and Templeton exchanged glances and leaned forward to see the tablet. “It’s probably just a video message,” Templeton said. “No cause for panic.”
There was just one button on the front of the tablet. Melanie pressed it.
The screen flickered on. An image displayed a yellow flag with a black serpent chopped into pieces. “Madame Secretary,” a smooth voice began. “I know you wish to find me, but I have found you first. We will meet soon, sooner than you may think. But, first, you have something that I want. My men nearly had it, but you took it right out from under my nose. I’ll admit it: I did not anticipate a rival in this race. But I often felt I had a shadow at my back, a cold ghost running at my heels. Now, I am pleased to put a face to that shadow, a body to that ghost. You are a worthy rival.”
The voice paused and a new image faded onto the screen. A picture of armed men like those Nehemiah and Templeton had seen when they were in Pennsylvania. Only in the image, there were what looked like a vast number of them. “Do not deceive yourself,” the voice continued. “I learn from my mistakes. You will not outsmart me again. Give me that which I seek, and I will leave you in peace.” The voice went silent and the screen went black.
“That’s it?” the driver said glancing over.
Melanie shook her head slowly. “No. Something’s… wrong.”
The tablet screen shivered and blazed back to life. “Of course, you are waiting for my ultimatum.” The voice sounded amused. A video popped onto the screen. It seemed to open onto a dimly lit area furnished like a living room. The camera was moving — around a lampstand, past a coffee table, into a dining room. It stopped, turning into a corner. A man was slumped against the wall, his head down, his hands bound behind him. “Give me The Correction, or he dies,” the voice said.
“Who is he?” Templeton whispered.
Another voice sounded on the video. “Look at me. Look at me,” the voice was saying. “Look in the camera and say your name.” The man shrugged a little, but didn’t look up. The camera jostled as an arm appeared from outside of the frame and struck the man in the face. “If you want to live, look in the camera and state your name and rank.”
After another moment, the man looked up. His face was cut and bruised. Blood trickled across his forehead. “My name is Admiral Benson Johnson.”
31 / Drive-Around
Nehemiah was pretty sure that the man in the suit with the curly white cord coming from behind his ear was purposefully driving him and Templeton in circles so they wouldn’t be able to figure out where they were being taken. The driver had ignored his request to drop them off already, and Nehemiah suspected that he was acting on Melanie’s orders.
Nehemiah hoped that they were being taken to whatever facility Saundra and Ginny had been whisked off to. He wasn’t sure because Melanie had been utterly silent after the masked gunman had brought traffic to a standstill on the D.C. freeway and informed her that her under secretary had been kidnapped and would only be released in exchange for The Correction.
Nehemiah assumed that Melanie had gone to save her personnel, and he and Templeton were stuck in the back of an SUV waiting for whenever the driver decided they were confused enough to drop them off at wherever they were headed.
Templeton was goading the driver by pointing out all the places they had passed for the third, fourth, or fifth time. “Midcon Trucking sure has a lot of empty warehouses on this route,” he said. “Look. There’s the fifth one we’ve seen.”
“I think this is going to take longer if you keep doing that,” Nehemiah said. Just then his cell phone buzzed. He pulled it out of his jacket pocket. It was an urgent text from Tonya telling him that Cody was burning the house down in his attempt to cook hot dogs for dinner. She had even included a video showing a column of black smoke rising from the kitchen sink.
He texted her back, saying they should both act like adults and that he would be home as soon as he could.
I’m 15. What happened to being authentic? she texted back. How am I supposed to be something I’m not?
Such a smart ass. Clearly, the house isn’t burning down, Nehemiah responded.
A few minutes later, he was notified that Cody had burned five hot dogs in his feeble cooking attempt and had taken the three that were actually cooked (or at least looked brown instead of black) for himself, leaving his sister to starve.
At least they were fighting each other and not moping because of the death they had experienced a week prior. It was such that made Nehemiah miss his late wife, Waverly, more than ever. She would know what to do should the kids have fallen into a depression.
“This is where I’ve been instructed to drop you off,” a voice said. It took a moment before Nehemiah realized the driver had finally found his tongue.
He and Templeton got out and looked around. They stood on a strip of gravel between a high chain link fence and a concrete building without any signage. There was a plain door painted the same color as the outer walls of the building, making it hard to notice unless one knew it was there. An intercom button was mounted beside it.
Before either of them could make a move toward the intercom, the door swung open, revealing a middle-aged Hispanic woman standing in the entrance. “Mr. Dunn, Mr. Templeton, I’m Special Director Katarina Forge. We’ve been expecting you.”
32 / Reunion
Nehemiah and Templeton followed Special Director Forge inside. They were led down a long hallway and made to wait in a cube-like room for a few minutes before being taken to a sanitation chamber, and finally to a lab.
Ginny and Saundra were there when the door opened, heads bent over a tablet. Nehemiah could see the resemblance between mother and daughter. Both women had their hair up, pencils stuck through messy buns. Where Ginny’s had grayed, Saundra’s was a dull auburn. Nehemiah hadn’t imagined that he would be so relieved to see them both.
Saundra looked happy to see him and immediately came over and gave him a hug. “We were so worried,” she said.
“So was I,” Nehemiah said. “But we’re fine.”
“It’s terrible what’s happened since the last time we met,” Ginny said. “Saundra was telling me about the—” She broke off, shaking her head.
“Well, it’s only going to get worse,” Templeton said, sitting down on one of the stools at a long pristine metal table. “Is it here?”
Ginny nodded and pointed to a rack of metal shelves against the far wall. While Templeton told the women about the funerals, the attack on the freeway, and the Caliph’s message, Nehemiah went and examined the shelves. At first, it looked as though The Correction was suspended between two shelves, but a closer inspection showed that it was sandwiched between two panes of glass which were part of a temperature controlled glass container.
It was the first time that he had really looked at it. It was a single, rectangular sheet of oversized paper—yellow, almost brown, with age. The edges of the page were chipped and ragged. A sharp crease showed where it had been folded. The ink was dark and mostly faded, but still readable, though the handwriting looked almost foreign.
This was what four people he had known had died for.
Nehemiah went back to the others. “As much as I hate to admit it, I have no idea what we’re supposed to do next,” he said.
Saundra, Templeton, and Ginny looked at him silently. Apparently, they had no ideas either.
Ginny was the one who finally spoke. “Why did you start?”
Nehemiah thought. “My father was dying. He needed to pass on the secret. That was when I learned that the secret wasn’t so secret, and other people were looking for The Correction too, and willing to kill for it. I decided that we—my sister and I—should try to get to it first.”
Ginny nodded. “So, it’s personal.”
“Yeah, something like that,” Nehemiah said, not realizing it wasn’t a question.
“In all the history I’ve studied, there’s one thing I’ve found to be true,” Ginny continued. “Whether it’s the assassination that sparked World War One, or Lee Harvey Oswald, or Hitler’s push for power in Germany, or the first people who came to America. At the root, at the most meta level, there’s a personal reason behind it all. Even the ages-long war between good and evil, sin and righteousness, got its start because one individual felt as though he wasn’t getting the respect he deserved.” As she spoke, her eyes glazed as if she had momentarily been transported back to her lecture podium in her classroom at Columbia.
“Mom, this isn’t a history lesson,” Saundra said. “However it got started—whether for personal reasons or not—good people died—”
“And more will die if we don’t do something,” Templeton said.
“Considering how people are willing to kill for this,” Nehemiah said, “I think our focus must be primarily on keeping it out of the wrong hands.” He looked at Templeton. “Maybe burying it again, making it disappear.”
“Only this time with some serious security,” Templeton said. “Your sister could help with that.”
Nehemiah shook his head. “I hate to say this, but I think she’s one of the people we need to keep this from.”
33 / Rescue Mission
Melanie didn’t have to look twice to know where her undersecretary was being held. She had a rescue team summoned and en route to the residential neighborhood south of Washington within an hour. She wanted to keep the operation quiet. The media was already crawling all over the freeway incident. Speculators said it was some kind of lone wolf terror attack, and law enforcement was searching for the masked man who had been captured on cell phone cameras by civilians, but no one knew anything specific. From the little Melanie knew about the Caliph, and from what Michael’s letter had said about his secretive methods, it would stay that way.
A bigger headache for her right now was that the media was also speculating that the undersecretary of the Navy had been kidnapped.
Well, he had been.
But Melanie didn’t want a bunch of eyes on her at this time. She wanted to rescue him as quietly as possible. That wasn’t being helped by the residents of the neighborhood where the undersecretary lived. They were mostly elderly people, leaning over their fences, curious about the armored personnel carrier rolling down their quiet street. Melanie followed in the back of a command truck—a huge box on wheels—with no windows, filled with communication equipment and four of her men monitoring visual and audio feeds of the situation. It was mounted with a loudspeaker. The driver ordered everyone to go inside and lock their doors. Melanie knew this would only leave them to watch from their windows. But warrants, right to personal property, Fourth Amendment and all. Nothing else could be done about it. She gave the order for both ends of the block to be sealed off.
At that moment, her phone rang. She unhooked it from her belt and was about to hit ‘Ignore’, but then saw who it was. She pressed ‘Answer.’ “Yes, Mr. President?”
“Secretary Dunn, I’ve been briefed on what happened to Admiral Johnson. Quite unfortunate.”
Melanie wondered if he knew the real story.
“I’ve authorized a Secret Service detail for the Joint Chiefs, and—”
“I appreciate that, Mr. President. But I’m in the middle of a situation right now.”
“Well, I just wanted to let you know that I’ve instructed the FBI and the CIA to treat this situation as a top priority, and to put all their resources—”
“Please, Mr. President, tell them not to bother. I’ve got the situation under control,” Melanie said.
President Federson sighed. “I hope so.” Then his voice dropped as if he didn’t want to be overheard. “Was that you on the freeway a few hours ago?”
Melanie weighed her response and registered one of the techs trying to get her attention. “Really, Mr. President, I have to go. I promise I’ll update you later.” She ended the call without waiting for a reply. “What?” she said to the tech.
“Look at this.” The tech indicated a monitor combining a heat signal and infrared imaging of the undersecretary’s house. He pointed to the neon red image of what was clearly a man’s form sitting on the floor in one of the rooms. He appeared to have his hands bound behind him. “There’s only one guy,” he said. “Where’s the kidnapper?”
“Maybe that is the kidnapper?” Melanie said. “He’s baiting us. He moved the undersecretary somewhere else.”
The tech shook his head. “Nah, he knows you’ll bring the fire. Maybe he took off or he’s hiding nearby.”
“Well, we’re about to find out.”
Melanie signaled her teams to move in.
Ten minutes later, Melanie entered the house. Admiral Johnson was standing in the kitchen, massaging his wrists, surrounded by half a dozen soldiers. His suit jacket was gone. His shirt was torn. Clearly, he’d put up a fight against his captor. A medic was checking him over for injuries, but when he saw Melanie, he waved the medic away. As he rushed toward his boss, the look on his face was one of a man disturbed.
He took Melanie by the shoulder and ushered her into an adjacent room.
“You look shook up,” Melanie said when they were alone.
“I’m fine,” Johnson said. “It was a good fight, but the bastard got me. Reminded me of the good old days, being in the field.”
“Why did the guy leave?” Melanie said.
“You won’t believe this.” Johnson looked around to make sure no one else was listening. “Before he left, he was talking to the president on the phone.”
“What?” Melanie said, not sure she had heard correctly. “The guy was on the phone—with the president—and then he just walked out?”
Admiral Johnson nodded.
“I was just on the phone with the president fifteen minutes ago. Are you sure it was him?”
“Yes. He kept saying, ‘Mr. President,’ and mentioned a base in California several times.”
Melanie pressed her fingers to her forehead, certain something was very wrong.
34 / Bloodless War
Eric Caner couldn’t stop smiling as he signed the transport manifest. If anyone asked, he’d say he was happy because of the sunny California weather or because his secret project for the U.S. Army was finally complete. But he was mostly happy because of the big, fat paycheck that would be deposited into his bank account by the end of the day. It was more money than a boy who had grown up on a horse ranch in Montana had a right to have all at once. But an unremarkable science fair in high school sparked an interest in electrical engineering which drove him to enroll in MIT’s Electrical Engineering & Computer Science program. After graduation, an internship at Lockheed Martin opened his eyes to government contracts that guaranteed big paydays.
It took a few months, but Eric eventually convinced the military that they needed to up their EMP game. The military convinced DARPA to allocate funding, so Eric and a small team of electricians and bombmakers got to work in an underground facility at the decommissioned Camp Haan.
Eric had convinced his military benefactors that an electric war would be fought much sooner than an atomic one. With a powerful enough electromagnetic pulse bomb, an aggressor could knock out its adversary’s communication systems rendering its jets and tanks useless, all without firing a shot. Any nation suffering a sufficiently large EMP attack would be knocked back to the middle ages operationally. With traffic snarled, hospitals running on generators, and essential communication, media, and financial systems offline, any government would be forced to focus on getting the power back on before thinking about retaliation. Eric liked to think her could singlehandedly end the need for deadly weapons. The next wars could be bloodless ones.
He finished signing the manifest with a flourish and handed it back to an officer who handed to a general whose permafrown didn’t change as he looked it over. Everything seemed in order. He muttered something to the officer who turned back to Eric. “Would you be available to come along for the transport to ensure proper delivery, testing, and storage?” he said.
This hadn’t been mentioned to Eric before, but he had learned that when men like the general made requests, they were actually making demands. “Sure,” Eric said. Cashing in on his payday could wait a little longer.
35 / Cleaning Man
Dustin never thought he would don the uniform of his father’s industrial cleaning company again. He had worn it for the last time when he ran away from home at sixteen. He’d taken another employee’s uniform, which was much too large for him, and escaped in one of the company’s vans, driving from Georgia to Texas and never looking back. Now, the uniform fit him perfectly.
He was parked outside the Pentagon in another cleaning company’s van. He didn’t plan to keep it. He was sure the company would report it as stolen if he didn’t give it up quickly. The real driver was tied up in the back. But Dustin needed his security credentials to get inside. He got out of the front of the van and went around the back. He needed to collect a few cleaning supplies to look legit. When he opened the door to the back of the van, his abductee started straining at the rope around his arms and legs, making desperate, muffled noises against the cloth tied tightly around his mouth. Dustin grabbed a cart of cleaning supplies and set it on the ground. Then he climbed into the back to check the ropes binding his captive.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “I’m not a terrorist. I’m not trying to blow up the Pentagon. I just need to see someone. No one dies today. If all goes well, you’ll have your van back in no time.”
The man gave a muffled cry of protest.
“Get some sleep,” Dustin said as he shut the van doors. “You look like you need it.”
He wheeled the cart to an unmarked entrance and scanned his borrowed keycard at the panel mounted beside the door. Inside, he was faced with a glass door, with a guard sitting at a desk behind it, and a keypad. He typed in the passcode he had swiped from his abductee. The door beeped, clicked, and opened. The guard sitting behind the desk looked up, giving him a glance that said, You’re not the usual guy.
He watched carefully as Dustin pushed the cleaning cart through the metal detector and then went through himself. No alert. No alarm.
Satisfied, the guard handed over a plastic day pass with the word “MAINTENANCE” stamped across it and beneath that a tiny barcode.
Dustin took the card and pushed his cleaning cart into the hallway. He was immediately enveloped by the hum of conversation, machines running, people in military dress uniforms hurrying back and forth. He kept to the edge of the hallway, pushing the cart determinedly. He remembered something his mother had once told him: If you walk like you know where you’re going, people will get out of the way. So he did.
Soon, he found what he was looking for. He stashed his cart inside a darkened and empty conference room and quickly changed out of the cleaning uniform into a simple dark blue suit. He hadn’t bothered with trying to procure fake (or stolen) military dress. (Military people were notoriously good at spotting fakes.)
He looked down at his white tennis shoes and realized he had forgotten to bring dress ones. Crap. With his curly brown hair and four day old scruff, he looked like Danny Rand on his first day back at work. So much for blending in. But it couldn’t be helped.
He needed to talk to Melanie Dunn. Ever since Northumberland, she hadn’t answered his phone calls or responded to his texts. Hell, he’d even risked sending a letter. No dice. So, he had to take extreme measures. He pushed the cleaning cart further into the darkness of the conference room and stepped out into the hall, looking for the elevator that would take him to Melanie’s office on the third floor.
36 / Stolen Devices
A couple of hours later, Eric sat in the passenger seat of a military cargo truck. His bombs were secured in the cargo area. The truck was the second in a convoy of four vehicles that ambled along a string of farmer-to-market roads to a military facility near San Francisco. The general rode in the first camouflage-colored Hummer, and the desert-toned cargo truck was followed by two jeeps with soldiers and technicians. Except for the occasional tractor or rusty pickup truck, they didn’t expect much company, which made Eric a little bit worried when the general’s Hummer began to slow down and then the entire convoy came to a halt.
“Why are we stopping?” Eric asked.
The driver rolled down his window to see around the stalled Hummer. “I don’t know. Something’s blocking the road up ahead.”
Eric rolled down his own window and looked out. An unmarked white van with painted over windows was blocking the convoy’s path. An identical vehicle had stopped in the oncoming lane. Between the vans stood a man dressed in plain clothes. He approached the driver’s side of the Hummer. The driver rolled down the window and started to tell him something, which, judging by his hand motions, Eric was certain it sounded something like, “We’re the U.S. Army. Get the hell out of the way.”
The words apparently didn’t work. The man pulled something out of his pocket and fired it into the Hummer. It looked like a tiny gun, but it didn’t make any noise at all.
“What was that?” Eric said.
But the truck driver shook his head. He reached for the gun strapped to his thigh. At the same time, the doors of the vans opened up and a dozen men jumped out. They each carried the same small, gun-shaped devices in their hands. They swarmed the Army vehicles, firing their devices in windows and opening doors.
“What do we do?” Eric asked.
“Stay put.” The driver opened his door and started to get out, gun in hand. But he didn’t get far. He was shoved back against the truck by one of their attackers. The device pressed against his neck appeared to have a needle on one end. The needle punctured his skin, injecting some kind of liquid. Eric watched as the driver’s body relaxed, his arm went limp, his gun clattered to the ground, his head fell back, and his eyelids slipped shut. He would wake up without knowing what had happened to him.
Eric froze, not sure what to do next. He expected a needle.
But the man who knocked out the driver climbed into his seat. “Are you Eric Caner?” he said.
“Yeah,” Eric said slowly.
“Good. You’re coming with us.”