Washington, D.C., Situation Room
Outside the room, Coke’s cell phone vibrated then rang softly. He pulled it out and swiped the screen and entered his password. Angeline was calling on the emergency line. He looked at Billy, who nodded, concern on his face when he saw that it was his twin sister.
“Ill go on in,” Billy said as the marine at the door to the situation room stopped him.
“Sir, the president has asked that all cell phones and non-secure tablets and laptops be left outside.” The marine gestured to the table to his left. Billy unburdened himself of his tablet and cell phone. As he closed his email, he checked the inbox, seeing several new messages, all from Jackie. Her and Carla had accepted the position of co-chair of the newly-created Research Department. Last night on the way to the airport, he had drafted messages announcing their promotions, creation of five research analysts positions, request for computer and office set up, and the hiring announcement for Carla and Jackie’s old positions. The deepening pitch of Coke’s voice got his attention. When Coke was upset, his voice, normally a tenor that sounded like a screech when excited, lowered into a bass, almost a growl.
Angeline rubbed the brown leather steering wheel with the palm of her hand. The increased adrenaline that her brain had tapped was still coursing through fought for an exit. Her arms and legs shook and she had a hard time concentrating. It did not help that Coke threatening to fly out and permanently rid the earth of the “fucking asshole doctor” as Coke called Maxwell. While she would like nothing better for Coke to do just that, she knew it was a bad idea. On top of losing Coke likely forever to a Thai prison, Maxwell was not around. Coke would be a stranger and Thailand did not give up her secrets to just anyone. It had taken Angeline three years to get to where she could finish the research for her dissertation–Coke would not have that long. Pressing business at ESS would see to that.
Upon leaving the bungalow, two British women she guessed to be in their early forties, judging from their accents and their slightly thickening waists, had been talking about the handsome man and pointing to where the van had been. One had suggested calling the police; the other had suggested staying out of it. And, all she could tell Coke was that the gardener who had intervened was Chinese. Other than that, she had no clue as to where Maxwell had been taken. Then, there was the executive who she assumed was still holed in his bungalow. She considered the options, expressing her preference to Coke.
“I’ll sic the police on him, then catch the next flight home. Tell what I saw between the good doctor and him,” Angeline said, starting to feel her body relax. “Thai law can be merciless with illicit drugs dealing by ex–“
“Don’t, Angeline,” Billy said, having grabbed Coke’s phone. “They will wonder how you know. Jackass and his buddy will likely turn it around on you, convince the police that you brought in. I bet we can convince the owner that he stepped in it. He will be of use in our new project. Maxwell will be taken care of, but Coke and I have to go. People are waiting on us.”
“Billy, Maxwell has vanished, though I bet he hasn’t left the island. As it is, I will be forced to looking over my shoulder for him, and then to say we should work with that scared willy of a man. It isn’t fair!” Angeline almost yelled into the phone, frustrated.
“Little sister,” Billy said, honey in his voice, causing Angeline to smile in spite of herself, “go back to your hotel, get a bottle of your favorite wine, and do what makes you happy…in your room. Order room service, movies, or shop through the television. Let Coke. Brandon and I devise a scenario that allays all your fears. Either Coke or I will call you back tonight after we’re done here.”
“This scenario? It’s about whatever the president wanted to meet with you and me?” Angeline asked, revulsion at the prospect of future dealings with the owner causing her stomach muscles to tighten as her hands gripped the steering wheel dreading when Maxwell would reappear.
Billy asked, “Do we have any idea of the subject of Handel’s next novel?” On the screens to his left in the center at the opposite end of the table was a map of Thailand and two autopsy photos. One was of a set of lungs and one a brain. Both were grotesquely enlarged and deformed. Almost destroyed, Billy thought.
The windowless situation room sat fourteen at the oval table; behind, there was space for maybe twenty aides if the room’s a-v equipment was not in use. Aside from the secure phones at either end of the tables, there was nothing that appeared to be that prevented electronic transmissions in or out of the room. A hidden tray in the middle that ran the length of the table provided power, white house server and internet access. ESS’ conference room was more technology state of the art than this room. The president sat in his usual spot, at the head of the table closest to the door while McArizzry sat where the secretary of state sat. Billy and Coke sat next to McArizzry, the seats open.
Billy had related what he and Coke knew about Darnell’s unfinished novel. This had produced quick but tell-tale knowing glances between the president and McArizzry and then a wry smile by the president. What it specifically meant Billy could not speculate, though he knew it had something to do with Darnell’s widow, Anna. McArizzry had met them at the guard’s station inside the White House and given them a schedule of meetings that had been set up. One of those meetings, the last one, later tonight, involved Anna at the home in Deale she had shared with her husband.
“Claudia Handel on advice of her husband’s attorney has refused to speak with anybody, though she did say that a close friend of her husband, an author of some renown would finish and it would likely be published next year.” McArizzry shrugged. “According to Claudia, the novel is half finished.”
“Why is it thought there is a connection between Handel and Darnell’s death, other than they were thriller writers with large followings?” Billy asked. “And why is foul play suspected? The surgeon general’s report doesn’t suggest anything other natural causes.” Billy flipped to the back page of the report and pointed out what he was referencing. “I presume ESS will be given a copy of this and have access to whatever we need?”
McArizzry nodded. “Everything the surgeon general as well as her report is in the box outside, waiting for you.”
Potus looked over at his chief of staff. “You did tell them that I wanted an independent investigation?”
“I did, Mr. President,” McArizzry said, flipping to the last page of his copy of the surgeon general’s report. “If you knew the surgeon general, you would find the last line of her report puzzling.”
Angeline stepped out the shower and put the white luxurious towel around her body. She ran a comb through her shoulder-length brown hair, thinking back on the conversation with Coke, then Billy. She cringed as she jerked the comb through a tangle, not for the pain the comb had caused, but for the whiny little girl she had reverted back to. Her paternal grandmother, who had raised Billy and her, from the age of eight after their parents’ tragic deaths, would have been ashamed. Angeline had not been raised to be a hysterical cowed lady. After making sure that Angeline had not sustained any injury, her grandmother would have sat Angeline down and talked through what had happened and together they would have figured out how best to respond. Without the theatrics. Angeline finished combing her hair and set the comb down on the white and beige inlaid marble counter next to the sink. She studied the sharp somewhat oval set of her face, her high cheekbones and her dark brown with hints of green speck eyes, imagining her wiry give-n0-quarter grandmother standing behind her.
The light grey, almost white hair of her grandmother pinned up in a bun, thin, hard set face on the petite slight frame could have very well been her great aunt, Widow Brumby, who her grandmother and mother had idolized. Ahead of her time, Widow Brumby was a woman warrior, quite literally Angeline chuckled. The widow’s life had not been easy, hardly any one’s was during the American Civil War and the years of privation afterward. The South, and to the widow the only state that matter, Georgia struggled to find their way back to a semblance of society, and reinvest itself with the legendary honor, chivarly and quiet elegance of the pre-war years. Her second husband had been assassinated by a band of ruffians thought to have been in the employ of the monster of steam, the railroad. A preacher turned radical, the widow’s husband had been a mystery figure to the family. Besides his four year old son, J.B. Brumby, and a grieving widow, his death had left a gaping hole in the Georgia arm of the nascent Grainmen Railroad Association (“GRA”) that he had helped found five years before. GRA had been formed as one of the more radical agrarian and populist responses to the ruinous path of destruction that the corporate class of railroads had wreaked havoc on the struggling small landowners and farmers. Disruption of service, derailment of trains, and destruction of depots and equipment along with rabble-rousing and the spread of disinformation was GRA’s modius operandi.
ESS was the outgrowth of GRA, founded in Prohibition America, had at one time been part of GRA, part of the network for shipping booze to desperate customers. Once Prohibition was repealed by the 21st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, ESS had broken ranks with GRA. Time would marginalize mainstream populist politics. GRA to ESS’ close-knit family leadership was nothing more than “home grown terrorists.” ESS broke with GRA through the moving of company headquarters to Elko. Still, Widow Brumby was a loved, if eccentric, ancestor. Her vision to help the downtrodden, orphan children, and non-violent societal outcasts gave the current leadership the impetus five years ago to make ESS into the ultimate company town, a place to live as well as work.
Even now, Angeline could hear her grandmother. “Never forget your roots, Angeline, ” her grandmother had told her. The ghost of her grandmother’s bony finger tips pressed into her shoulder as Angeline whispered ESS’ mantra, “Force behind ideas makes might.”
Billy was right. Every circumstance had a way of it being used. This included the despicable bungalow owner. Angeline stepped away from the mirror. Braless, she threw on an over-sized purple long-sleeved v-neck silk tee. She loved the caressing feel of the silk on her breasts. Over a purple thong, she slipped on matching purple silk capris. Clothed in her favorite colors, she once again felt power surge through her. She walked through the bedroom into the suite’s living room. Eschewing the novel Zelda she had been reading, she walked over to the table where her laptop sat. The fictionalized telling of frivolity and destruction through marriage to and life with the author of The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald would only serve to keep Angeline’s focus in a downward spiral. Opening the web browser, she proceeded to order Handel and Darnell’s latest thrillers. As she was waiting for the books to download to her reader, she found the earlier message from Coke with the attachment containing the outline that had been hastily constructed to be used in reviewing the author’s books. Jackie and Carla would undoubtedly redo it after their meeting with ESS’ resident Handel and Darnell expert, using the outline would serve to get her mind off the attack. Opening the first book, she heard her grandmother, praising her, urging her forward.
Suvarnabhumi Airport, Thailand, Cargo Terminal
The gardener and another man picked up the unconscious Maxwell by his shoulders and feet as a third man opened the door of the panel van. After the doctor had been knocked out with a viscous blow to the back of the head by the hilt of a machete wielded by the other man, the gardener had bound Maxwell’s hands and feet with rope dripping in gouchang, a Korean red pepper paste diluted by vinegar. The men were not Chinese as Angeline had guessed, but were Korean-born, their faces surgically altered to make them appear a mix of Chinese and Thai. Inside the hanger, the men wrestled the heavy limp form three foot away to Kroyo cargo plane. A little over five hours later, they would unload in Pyongyang, where the good doctor would find that he was the guest of honor at a feast, an honor that he would, like the Eternal Leader’s uncle had before him pleaded while kowtowing, to be removed.
Holding the clamp, the palace curator gently shook the glass test tube over the flame of the bunsen burner until the amber colored toxin started to boil. As he did, he glanced over at the silk drawing that the Eternal Leader had decreed to be destroyed. He would not obey that order. He could not, his passion for ancient art would not let him. He knew it would mean certain punishment, pain exceeding all bounds of decency, but the oath he had taken as a young Buddhist scholar almost fifty years ago decried senseless destruction of revered objects of art. In same measure, the Eternal Leader’s planned execution of the doctor had forced the curator into action. Tiny bubbles formed on the bottom prompting the curator to remove the test tube and place it into the rack on the black Formica counter. The toxin, betaquinin, would lay dormant until the doctor’s flight or fight sense was at its height. Then, similar to drugs used in lethal injections, the toxin would paralyze the doctor’s lungs, and other organs. Within fifteen minutes he would be in a deep sleep never to awake. Betaquinine would not prevent the doctor from feeling the pain. In the span of two minutes, the betaquinine would coat every nerve ending throughout the body, inducing the brain to believe that the pain was occurring in someone else. As the toxin began to break down, in preparation for elimination from the body after death, it would prompt involuntary jerking and twitching. To anyone watching, the doctor would appear to be fully conscious.
The curator sighed. He did not want leave Pyongyang nor the Eternal Leader, who had come to his care at the age of fifteen when both had been shipped out to London. Tasked with ensuring that the elder Eternal Leader’s son did not forget his Korean heritage, the curator had seen to it that his young charge had gained the best liberal arts education that London could offer. It had been a happy time for his young charge, a time of exploration and learning away from the morose dictator father. The curator had been hopeful that the pledge of the dictator’s son to foster economic and cultural improvement in North Korea once he came to power after his father’s death would keep his young charge from the grips and influence of the powerful DEP, North Korea’s communist party. Only then would its people begin to prosper. Only then would the son be able to fulfill his father and those of his ancestor’s wish for the Korean peninsula to be oppose Seoul’s version of reunification and instead choose reunification under Pyongyang’s yoke.
But that was not to be the curator observed. His young charge was now a thirty year old megalomaniac caught up in the sway of powerful ministers who obsequiously served him while undermining his rule at every turn, at the behest of his in-laws. If only the Eternal Leader’s uncle had not corrupted his nephew’s then fiancee through the lure of stardom, then things would have been different. The uncle’s motivation though had not been the fiancee’s welfare but gratification of other’s flesh and so the fiancee and the uncle had been put to death. And with their deaths, the Eternal Leader’s conscious had tucked in a corner of his heart faraway from the light, unable to be heard.
McArizzry read the sentence from the screen in front of him, emphasizing the third word. “The deaths appear to be from natural causes and unrelated.”
Potus’ eyes narrowed. “Appear is the surgeon general’s way of saying ‘I don’t believe it.’ Stated another way, only a person who believes in coincidences would not contest the results.” Potus put his elbows on the table, his hands forming an A. On the way in from the airport last night, McAzrizzry had given Billy and Coke the upshot of what the president had been told. To Potus’ eyes, he saw disbelief and a certain sense of gall on each of their faces. This he had expected. When he had first been briefed, it had sounded like a project out of the world of fantastical conspiracy. Who would go to great lengths to kill Arnold Darnell and Patrick Handel, make their deaths look like natural causes and for why? While the subject matter of both authors dealt with real life incidents, involving political and military intrigue, and were often set in lands with interests hostile to the U.S., none of their novels had provoked the backlash that the movie about North Korea’s leader or Salman Rushdie’s book had.
As he had been on his way down to the situation room, Darryl Whitfield, his NSC chief had stopped him. It was not the subject of their talk that spooked him, it was where—in a hallway, in between opposing portraits of Presidents John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. It was then that the coincidences in the deaths of Jefferson and Adams’ deaths and Darnell and Handel’s deaths had become apparent. Old friends dying on the same day, hours apart, unknown to each other. Then as he was about to enter the situation room, McArizzry had placed in his hands a second report by the surgeon general. She had just finished it—the paper on which it had been printed still warm. That report had updated her findings of her earlier report with new information gleaned from another review of toxicology findings, brain scans of Darnell done prior to death and supplied by his neurologist, similar x-rays involving Handel’s lungs, and a rework of Handel and Darnell’s autopsies. At that point, he had given Anna Darnell’s belief that her husband and Handel had been killed credence.
The marine entered and handed several copies of the surgeon general’s second report to McArizzry and then left, closing the door behind him. As MvArizzry handed them out, keeping one for himself, the president rose and walked down to the other end. He picked up a pointer. The map of Thailand disappeared and the photos were filled the screen. The inititals of each author were underneath their respective photos. The president held the pointer up to a pus-filled area of Darnell’s brain and then to a similiar area of Handel’s lungs. “Diastatic fractures caused by inorganic swelling of the brain and lungs. The swelling pushed against unfused portions, sutures apart and causing them to break.”
“Mr. President, you said inorganic. Are you saying that the swelling and breaking was not a natural result, such as blood clots exploding in the brain or liquid building up in the lungs?” Coke asked. His mother had died from pneumonia. Her lungs had filled with so much fluid in the last hours of her life that her breast cavity was distended at death. “News reports said that Darnell’s doctor verified the presence of blood clots that had worked their way to his brain.”
The president briefly smiled before adopting his earlier grim expression. He liked inquisitive, challenging people. It was the reason he had overidden the Secret Service’s denial of Coke’s pass and like ESS. As a physician, before he decided to run for president, in the Senate, he had been a people’s advocate for advances in medicine that were effective yet affordable as well as calling for medical care that was geared toward increased responsiveness to patients’ and all of their needs, not just the medical, and the streamlining of the hyper-active red-tape that paralyzed medical offices.
“This type of breakage,” the president circled in red the fractures of Darnell’s brain and Handel’s lungs, “is caused by high-speed impacts, collisions and the like. Pneumonia and blood clots don’t cause this. An injected toxin made from blowfish will do this.”
McArizzy took over as the president returned to his seat. “More extensive toxicology tests have been ordered. The blowfish toxin is one guess by the surgeon general.”
“There are other toxins?” Billy asked. “And if Handel and Darnell were attended to at death…”
“There are as many toxins out there as there are uses. After giving the morning medicines to each, their nurses had left the room, so that family could visit.” McArizzry punched up a screen across from him. Twin layouts of houses appeared.
Coke and Billy looked at each other. The houses were exactly like. Finally, Billy spoke. “Mr. President, how close were Handel and Darnell?”
“As close as you and Coke are,” McArizzry answered. All of them stood as the president left the room. “Long story short, Handel and Darnell were working on a novel together. Whatever they were—”
“The trawler idea? How do you know this if Handel’s wife won’t talk?” Coke asked, more relaxed since the president had exited.
McArizzry shrugged. “Don’t know. It could be or it might be something else. Anna understands the value of discretion. Too many ears and eyes around here. She will explain more tonight. She was the one that requested ESS’ help. Whatever they were working on involved,” the layouts were replaced by a photograph of the small brass box, “that box and likely involves North Korea and somehow the recent Thai political unrest. If Pyongyang is involved, then you can expect China to be in the shadows. North Korea is the problem. Their leader will not deal with us or most other sovereign bodies.”
“Tim, ESS is a domestic company that as you know conducts testing on transportation and security infracsture. We don’t investigate what our results produce. We don’t have that expertise nor are we situated to go international on the scale the president needs. We don’t have the contacts to—”
“Small scale and yes you do. Angeline has some Thai contacts, I know and,” McArizzry put a hand on Billy’s arm and shifted in his seat so he could look Billy and Coke in the eyes. “Any agency that is at the forefront, any whiff by North Korea or China, will foretell doom for the investigation.” Disbelief and foreclosing, withdrawal, showed on Billy and Coke’s faces. “ESS will not be working this alone, though to the world, it may seem that way.” He punched in a three digit extension on the phone. A single beep answered. He turned his attention to Billy, his blue eyes centering on Billy’s brown ones. “Josh Fannin.” A tight lipped smile appeared on McArrizry’s face in answer to the widening in surprise of Billy’s eyes.
“The NSA chief?” Coke asked, having recalled the name from his review of the White House leadership.
“That and close quarters recessed help from the White House, only the most senior levels involved. ESS will have 24-7 support.”
“ESS controls the investigation?” Billy asked, his voice tight with suspicion at the mention of NSA. Although Josh Fannin had been a friend of his father’s, the two attending Stanford together, Billy had had no contact with the spy chief. ESS’ involvement with anything having to do with classified information was compartmentalized, on a need-to-know basis, was minimized and never had in the past dealt with any of the intelligence agencies. The mention of NSA conjured congressional hearings, federal criminal investigations, and lawsuits.
“Completely, which brings up a request from the president,” McArizzry said. “He wants a team from ESS in Washington until the matter is concluded.”
Coke tapped Billy’s left foot with his right to get Billy’s attention. Under his breath he asked, “J&C?”
“Where?” was all Billy asked.
McArizzry pulled out a folded sheet and gave it to Billy. “That is the summary of a proposal developed by the Library of Congress for a Darnell and Handel Day.”
Billy quickly skimmed the three paragraphs and handed it to Coke. “A legislative study group.”
McArizzry shook his head. “The president is meeting with the LOC’s librarian . . . to take over the study group with one of his own. The LOC will find out that the president has been a lifetime, if closet, fan of Handel, and the First Lady’s close friendship with Anna is public knowledge.”
“So an ESS-based study group?” Coke asked, as he and Billy traded glances. Both of them knew that Jackie and Carla would be beside themselves at the prospect of working inside the library. All those books. It was like a kid at Christmas.
“That is the idea,” McArizzry said, retrieving the document. “The team needs to be cleared through Fannin. He will assign one of his people as a liaison with the White House, NSA, and without their knowledge as to what is going on, the Library. How many people can ESS assign?”
Billy thought on his fingers. “Four; two will be full-time; two will go and come between Elko and here. I’m thinking we would pull the second that is in charge of the DC office, Ed Stratton and an analyst from that office. Jackie Denton and Carla Weathers, ESS’ new research co-chair department heads will toggle in and out of D.C.”
McArizzry quickly scribbled the names Billy had mentioned on a pad and then looked up. A knock at the door sounded. “Sounds good. That’s Fannin.” He rose and pushed his chair back to the table. “Do you two need a few minutes? I need to speak with him or it can wait—”
“We do,” Billy said, the tightness in his voice back, knowing the NSA chief was near, too near in his estimation.
In an alcove where the marine could not hear or observe them, Fannin handed McArizzry a copy of the intercepted message North Korea’s Eternal Leader had sent to China’s premier. McArizzry’s brows furrowed as he read the two phrases, “Eddy to lunch. Play time afterwards.”
“Release one hundred thou,” China’s premier kept two fingers on the authorization he had just signed. When the minister looked up, he added, “Tell our friends in North Korea that the next installment will be released when NK’s Assembly issues the proclamation as we discussed. No changes in terms permitted. Go!”
He waved his hand insistently at the quickly departing minister. Two minutes later, through the side door to the premier’s right, a military general entered, silently closing the door behind him as the premier depressed the button under his desk that locked all three doors in the office.
“What do you have for me?” the premier asked, sitting down. He wiped his bald head with a red silk rag as the fan in the air conditioning unit came on.
The general handed him a copy of yesterday’s state-run Korean newspaper. “The trawler was intercepted, seized by NK’s military. The ship was searched and everything of value was removed.”
Laying the copy on his desk, to be read and digested later, the premier asked, caution and a certain amount of dread in his voice, “What of the operator?”
“He is alive … taken to Pyongyang. No more details have been released.”
The premier crumpled up the red rag, holding his fist tight. He would have liked to done the same to the Eternal Leader’s face. The operator was the oldest of his three nephews. “Do they know who he is?” Before the general could tell him he did not know, the premier stopped him with an upraised forefinger. “Never mind.”
He struggled to control his rage. The last thing he wanted was for his rage to be talked about behind his back. It would reach the Western press no matter the controls on internal news agencies. The Eternal Leader’s display had in multiple occasions had served a mighty warning to him. A quiet leader with a predictable but in control violent temper was more effective, if just as feared. He let his eyes unfocus as he looked across his office at the giant brass gong that stood in the far left corner. Slowly, an idea of how to get, and keep, NK’s attention as well as keeping his nephew and the artwork safe, came to him. He would the Western boycott and economic blockade of NK as well NK’s misguided hermit approach to international relations against the Eternal Leader.
“See to it that our friend understands that if the operator or any of his cargo is not returned or is harmed, no more Western goods, be it wine, brandy, purses or negligees will be allowed into the country.” He licked his lips. “He can drink that vile rice wine instead.”