********* To read the Prologue and Chapter One, click here
Hello! It’s Heather. It’s been a strange day, kind of invigorating, too. I’m gearing up for a fight — not a fisticuffs mind you but a fight all the same. I was courting danger and my nemesis knew it. I now why she believed in keeping your enemies closer. That is not to say that I didn’t win some of the battles or that I didn’t have fun. And, I suspect that some of guys who witnessed what happened didn’t mind watching. I suppose the only thing better would have been mud wrestling.
ESS is also preparing for a fight. We are three days into the investigation in what I call a thinking-out-loud session. All ideas are welcome and tabulated. It is slowly taking shape. A division of responsibilities is made afterwards.
The world outside of ESS is also heating up. I firmly believe that Billy and the rest of the leadership missed a lot of signs, took some of employees’ loyalty for granted. I know that sounds like I’m talking out of both sides of my mouth, but I think you will eventually see that what others did was so totally off the scale.
ESS and President Early would likewise find that traitors in your midst are often the hardest kind to be rid of.
Anyways, the action reopens on March 22, 2014 in Fort Meade, Maryland (guess where I’m talking about?)
“2AB bug of Project Elko has gone off-line,” an NSA analyst typed into the message box. He appended the standard tracking language that would note the time and date of the failure and hit send.
Minutes later he received a confirmation that the message had been received by another analyst two floors up. He reached into a pants pocket and pulled out a slip of paper. Punching up another system and then the message he had just sent, he typed in the receiving address and hit enter. A box appeared on the screen. He typed in the twenty-six alphanumeric code from the slip and hit enter again. The screen refreshed with a confirmation of receipt sent by a North Korean server.
“Okay so what do we know?” Billy asked the assembled group. The fifty filled the room. Nicknamed the ground zero team, the group was composed of the leadership, Carla and Jackie, admins and seconds, so named because they were second in command to the leadership. The only person missing was Angeline Bowman, Billy’s twin sister. Attending via teleconference, she was at home with a nasty case of the flu.
They were in Billy’s conference room where four smart boards, each the size of the one that had been in D.C., displayed the completed map of every short line. The tablets in each group member’s hand complemented the boards with more detailed information. To the uninitiated, the map was a mess of red lines, letters and dots. Half of the group led by Brandon had studied this map as it had developed, scrutinizing it, learning all that was to know about the short lines. The other half, led by Billy, analyzed the stolen drawings. Four large bright green dots marked the spots where the packaging material and the copy had been found.
A female voice from the middle shouted. “None of the green are near border exits.”
“Good, Anna. What else? Anyone,” Brandon said, as Carla’s handwriting appeared on a fifth board with the first suggestion.
“Only four shortlines cross a border,” a male admin boomed to Brandon’s left.
“One ends just shy of the Gulf of Mexico and others end prior to reaching a border, mostly land,” a second called from front row.
“And what conclusion can you draw from that?” Thomas Coke asked from the back of the room. He was the covert operations ESS member of the leadership.
“Transportation by truck out of the country by Canada and by Mexico,” the second responded.
“Could be by sea if distance…freighters,” an admin called beside Carla.
As Carla caught up, the newest admin walked up to the board closest to her. She tapped the board five times. Five circles popped up. Descriptions of entities inside the circles showed off to the left. “Refrigerated storage units in each area.” Billy examined the board closest to him as Coke and Brandon did the same. “One or two museums and short line in—”
“It’s the same pattern in the green areas, Becky,” Jason Snider, Billy’s second said, interrupting, sounding exasperated. “So what?”
Twenty one hours east, in Prairie du Chein, Wisconsin, a man snuck up to the back of a wooden outbuilding. With gloved hands, he shoved opened the door, nearly stumbling in the process. A cloud of smoke blew past him and the smell of fish nearly overwhelmed him.. He glanced down. Buckets of dry ice littered the floor. Taking out his smartphone, he turned on the flashlight and held it up. He brought the bottom of his sock cap up, covering his mouth and nose. To his right in the far back corner three feet away, he saw the freezer Jason had told him about. He sent a text message confirming his arrival. Quickly he strode over and raised the lid of the white chest freezer. The odor, a mixture of carp, trout, and salmon greeted him, adding to the nausea that had started the moment he stepped inside. He held his breath as he held the phone over, finding the twenty pound yellow carp he had come for. He positioned it so that the mouth stared up at him. Holding the mouth open, he brought out a two inch glass vial from his right pocket and put it in. He re-positioned the carp as he had found it and lowered the lid.
Billy flashed Jason a warning glance. “Go on, Becky. All ideas are welcome. That’s the purpose of sound off sessions.” He nodded in her direction, encouraging her. “What else?”
Jason’s phone vibrated. After putting in his pass code, he selected the text message icon, the screen refreshing a second later. He read the four word message, “On site. WCF found,” then deleted the message.
“There’s at least one airport, small but also big city ones in the circles.” She turned around, her yellow silk skirt riding up. A whistle came from behind her. She tugged at her skirt. “Two lines converge near San Francisco.”
“Any conclusion from that?” Brandon asked, chuckling at Jason, seeing him scowl. Why Billy kept Jason around no one knew. Females were good for one thing in Jason’s view, an opinion he frequently shared.
“They may be using the smaller airports to avoid customs checks at larger airports or borders,” Frank Marion, Brandon’s second responded, smiling at Becky.
She acknowledged him, returning the smile with one of her own. “Thanks,” she mouthed.
“No problem,” Frank mouthed back, as Becky returned to her seat.
“Two lines converge at San Francisco…easy access to the Pacific,” Heather said, licking her lips looking at Coke. “Easy access to the Far East and Russia.”
“So they do, Heather,” Angeline said, drawing out the admin’s name. Seeing that she got Heather’s attention, she frowned. “You could take a trip to Pyoungang. I’m sure someone in Kim Jong Un’s administration would appreciate your talents more than we do.”
Heather’s face flushed. A twitter of laughter sounded behind her. Her phone buzzed and she read the incoming message. “I’m watching you.”
Sitting next to her, Jason gave her a smirk. “I believe you’ve been called out,” he whispered, reaching down and patted the blue carpet. “on the floor, where you belong.”
Coke saved Heather. “I think we have enough work here.” He took out his phone and sent Angeline a text. “What with Brandon’s “idea”, which you were so gung ho to support.” He watched the screen. A minute later, her phone rattled on the table. She picked it up and read the text.
Thirty seconds later, he checked his, reading the curt reply from Angeline. “Heather=snake.” He deleted it and put his phone back in its holster.
Frank’s phone buzzed. Taking it out, he found a message from Jason. Opening it he read, “U think Becky ass going to get give u some tonight? Could be another Carla in the making.”
Before Frank could reply, Billy drew the session to a close. “Good thinking folks. The room will be open for the duration of the investigation. Use your pass key to access.” He pointed to the board that Carla was connecting her tablet. “Let’s keep the list growing.” As people rose, he clapped his hands to get their attention. “One area to concentrate on—the connection between the goods carried by the short lines and the subjects of the drawings.”
Coke addressed the seconds. “Check out all warehouses owned or used by a short lines.” He addressed Brandon’s second, Frank. “Get a group to start with those that have refrigerated units in the five circles.” He tapped each of the circles with the laser pointer he had. He looked over at Jason, then Billy, who barely shook his head no. He moved onto his second. “Jim, a group needs to check out the warehouses closest to other modes of transportation that would allow easy access out of the country.” He looked back at the board and turned back to Jim. “Select three men. They will go with me to San Francisco tomorrow night.” He ignored Angeline’s irritated hmmpf. Finding her second, an older man, an ex CIA agent, he said, “Stan, get out a description of what we’re looking for to all short lines with our contact information. Make at least telephone, if not in person, contact with whoever is in charge.” To the entire group, he said, “We believe that the thefts have ended but we may be wrong. Question thoroughly; do not hesitate to search. These warehouses have shipments coming in all hours of the day. It would be easy to get a shipment in undetected at some of these. After we break, I need to see Stan, Jim, Frank, Carla and Jackie.” Not facing the camera, he called, sneering slightly, “Angeline?”
Sneezing, Angeline positioned herself so she was in the middle of the lens. She nodded to Jackie who placed a note written to the president on the scanner. “The message is not important at this point.” Jackie picked up a laser pointer and drew a red line around the paper. “These symbols are.” She gave the group a minute to examine the images of fruit, flowers, and other things. “A group of admins will be working with Richard and myself pouring over Asian art history to try and determine what the significance of the images are to the drawings as well as to the message.”
Richard Embers was ESS’ reference librarian with a lengthy pedigree. It included multiple degrees in art history, including a doctorate in ancient Asian art, several director and curator level positions in museums throughout the world. Angeline had counted it ESS’ good fortune to lure him away from Los Angeles’ Getty Museum.
Angeline hit send on her phone. “The selected admins should be receiving a text from me now with further instructions.”
Heather’s phone buzzed. She reached for it. She glanced at Coke, thinking he had sent her a message. He was heading out the room, not looking at her. Opening the message, she nearly dropped the phone. It was the text from Angeline. Why had Angeline chosen her? A thought hit her. She could use the opportunity to spend more time with Coke. She smiled at the camera as she replied to the text. “See you at three.”
The smaller group remained in Billy’s conference room. “The museums have one number to call. You know what that number. It is not to be given out to anyone else. The rest of the group does not know anything about it.” He waited as each acknowledged the text he sent with the number. “They have been instructed to call at any time they move an Asian piece.” He passed out a folder of information to each. “In there are the museums to stay in contact with. For all intents and purposes, you work there. You should know the Asian art holdings in each museum at all times. Each of the leadership has one of these areas, too. Stay coordinated with that person.” He picked up a copy of the press release the president was announcing. “Give them a copy of this.” He sent a text message to Jackie. “Your duties will be modified based on the next meeting. Becky needs to be present.”
Jackie nodded, taking a deep breath as he dismissed them.
The Eternal Leader walked over to the makeshift display that had been set up in the penthouse suite of Pyongyang‘s Ryugyong Hotel. At their leader’s slight downward shake of his left hand, the military and ministry leaders accompanying him stopped, a foot behind. Six feet tall, shaped in a bay window formation, the display showed off two framed ink on satin drawings. The Eternal Leader glanced at the drawing on the right and then at the one on the left.
“This from the trawler?” the eternal leader asked, staring intently at a lotus bloom in the drawing on the left.
A minister indicated with his eyebrow for the military general to answer. Swallowing, the general flexed his legs as his shoes clicked together. “Yes, eternal leader.” He bowed slightly, then returned to his ramrod straight position.
The Eternal Leader motioned for the palace curator to remove the glass. As the four and half foot stick-thin curator placed a set of steps to the right of the drawing, he glanced nervously at the feet of the Eternal Leader. Gingerly, the curator mounted the top step and removed the frame from the wall. He beckoned another man over who took the frame and held it up to the curator. Deftly his fingers moved the staples that held the backing in place. He next removed the backing. Taking the drawing out, he assumed a chair position, carefully laying the drawing on his lap face up. His fingers found the edge of the glass less than a quarter of inch from the sides of the frame.
“You take glass,” the Eternal Leader said, his left hand indicating the general.
Ensuring that he stayed a foot away from the Eternal Leader, the general hastened to the curator while maintaining military cadence.
The curator replaced the silk drawing on its cushioned pegs and resealed the frame. Climbing back to the top step, he rehung the frame and quickly dismounted, taking the steps with him.
The Eternal Leader approached the drawing. Measuring nearly twenty-eight inches across by a little more than ten feet high, the drawing pictured a lotus blossom leaning into the wind. The Eternal Leader walked over to the panel containing information on the drawing and the artist. He read it contemptuously. “A lady looking at her reflection in water.” He narrowed his eyes, casting a sideways glance at the points of the petals that some had analogized to nipples. “Perfume drifts afar. Li Rihua 1565-1635.” His nose contorted. “No purity.” He hit the drawing, causing it to fold over onto itself. “Decadent. Not fit for consumption.” He gestured to the drawing. “Destroy it.”
When the Eternal Leader turned around to address his minister of defense, the curator gasped, quickly replacing his expression with his standard meekness.
“Engage tribunal for the trawler operator,” the Eternal Leader said, his throat tight with suppressed anger.
The minister nodded and placed his hands out in front of him in deference. “The charge Eternal Leader?”
“Treason, blasphemy of our morals,” the Eternal Leader replied thundering. “A time of confessional might be suggested.” He gestured to the glass.
“Yes, Eternal Leader.” The minister raised his eyes but not his head toward the other drawing. “What of it?”
The Eternal Leader thought on the paper drawing of a thatched hut by tall pines. “Palace hall. My wife shall like it.”