ESS Headquarters, Elko, Nevada, US
Renee stepped aside, letting a buxom blonde leave Brandon’s office. A coy slightly mocking face made Brandon smirk in return. “Can’t be that bad, can it?” She sat down on the brown leather sofa that was next to the window and perpendicular to, across from his desk, crossing her legs.
“She was the third. No one not even close to Carla,” Brandon said, checking out Renee’s tanned toned legs underneath her yellow, white, and brown plaid silk skirt. “Put me out of my mystery.”
“I believe you meant misery.” She watched him watching her, enjoying his appraisal. Even as turned forty a month ago, her legs caused a stir. “We could implement the assistant pool. Then no one would ever have to go through this. Let Gwen,” Renee said, referring to her assistant, “find the replacements. She knows what we need.” A ding indicated the arrival of a text. She checked her message. “Zach again. Wanting to know if I’ve told Billy about his idea to establish a medical clinic. He’s wanting to leave Reno General.” She set the phone of the arm of the sofa and arched her head toward the door, checking out who might overhear them. The receptionist was talking to Coke’s assistant. Lowering her voice, she asked about what she had come to find out. “The dinner to talk to Carla and Jackie about initiation into the group is set for Friday night. You think they’ll join?”
Brandon rolled his head around, working out the kink in his neck. “Carla will.” Renee rose and walked over and stood behind him, putting her hands on his neck and starting to rub. He undid his tie, pulling it off and unbuttoned the first three buttons of his powder blue oxford long-sleeve shirt. “Jackie, I don’t know. Maybe, if you or Angeline talk to her before. From what Carla has mentioned before, the prospect of Zach will do more to entice her than anything else.” He closed his eyes and relaxed under Renee’s deft touch on his shoulder blades and neck. “Get him to come to the new customers cocktail party Thursday night.”
Chuckling lightly, her laugh the sound of wind chimes, Renee stopped and leaned back on the teak credenza as he swiveled around to her. Brandon was the astute observer of the group. She had not picked up on Jackie’s eye for Zach though she understood the attraction to her handsome cousin. Forty-five years old, he looked at the most like he was in his late thirties, loved wine, art, jazz, and up Jackie’s alley–books. “Talk it up while she’s gazing at her Adonis?” She watched him as he buttoned up his shirt, her gaze dropping below his waist. “Then Carla and her will talk . . . and all is well?”
“Later that night, I expect. Carla and I are speaking at the seconds candidate school orientation. Carla’s giving the spiel on their new department.” The school, run and funded by the company, was ESS’ in-house training program for promising leadership candidates. A rigorous two year full-time program similar in content to mba programs immersed the candidates heavily in all things ESS. He shrugged as she fashioned his tie for him. “At least she won’t have to put up with Max, possessive as hell while cheating on her.”
Back in her office, Renee pulled up Coke’s email asking for another copy of the roi, or return on investment, scenarios that had been approved by ESS’ board of directors in September. The information was one of four benchmarks Jackie and Carla would be working toward and would use in setting up a budget for their department. As she forwarded him a copy, it occurred to her that Angeline’s revised travel itinerary would also give the group an additional opportunity to allay Jackie’s fears. Jackie could meet Angeline’s flight in Salt Lake City tomorrow night when it got in at ten. On the ride back, Angeline could tell Jackie about the group and answer any questions, and it would be in private, away from prying ears. Returning to her email, she sent one message to Angeline, then a second email to Jackie and Angeline.
Suvarnabhumi Airport, Bangkok, Thailand
Angeline reached into one of the fronts pocket of her light yellow linen pantsuit found her passport bearing the seal of the United States and boarding pass, handing both to the screening officer at the Suvarnabhumi Airport.
Just as she was getting ready to go to bed, the airline had called letting her know that a first class suite had been wait listed. She had jumped on that, checking out and driving through the night to be at the airport at the crack of dawn. Before leaving, she had sent Jackie and Carla, as well as the rest of the group, information on “Knocking knees,” the bungalow owner including his name and contact information and a picture of him taken before the assault. By the time she arrived back in the states, an investigation into “Knocking Knees” would have been opened and with any luck, ESS’ new research department would have a preliminary report available.
The officer handed her back her documents and pointed to his left to the recently opened fast track security line. “Go there. Singapore Airlines.” Angeline stuffed her documents into the outer side pocket of her leather satchel and stepped around him. An attractive woman dressed in the dark blue flowered print dress typical of Singapore Airlines ushered her over, taking her bag and placing it on the moving belt.
Ten minutes later, she was through security. Holding a hand over her forehead to shield her eyes from the early morning sun, she dodged an electric car carrying several elderly passengers. As she made her way to her gate, she thought about Renee’s email expressing concern that Jackie would be a tougher sell than Carla. The group’s central aim–and the basis for the company’s 19th century origins–to preserve the financial capital that underpinned ESS’ ability to not only operate debt free but have the freedom to continue its mission to provide aid in the form of a job and a home to those living on society’s fringes as well as to expand and diversify operations as future business and societal trends dictated–was not objectionable. This had been what had brought the girls, as Jackie and Carla were called, to the company’s doorstep. The manner of achieving this aim was, she noted with some irony, unorthodox, and was potentially a flash point for controversy and scandal, and given the company’s presence as a defense contractor, could invite legal and governmental action. Still, Angeline was confident that Jackie would see that her future with ESS was secure and filled with promise as a putative successor, along with Carla, to the current leadership when the time came. The wealth would give Jackie the opportunity to pursue her hobbies. And, the group, composed of the leadership, as well as Brandon’s wife, Barb, Jackie had, Angeline thought, felt comfortable being around and seemed to trust a bit. If only Jackie’s well-known scruples and her strait-jacket approach to relations with men did not get in the way.
Pyongyang, North Korea
The Eternal Leader read the text of what he, along with the young aide, had written. It was the first time that he had given a speech from a written text. This was important, though. The backlash from the Western press had been predictable. So had the condemnation from the imperialistic America and its hedonistic allies. His response to them was nothing of importance and had no need for careful analysis. It was the second, more private response, an announcement. The target–he had to find her name on the text… this Angeline Bowman.–had not indicated she knew. Had the message been blocked as a forbidden communication, despite the roundabout way through networks in several countries? – The men who had interrupted the attack were keeping careful watch, recording and replaying for him every movement of hers. It was how he knew she had opened her email and other messaging systems. Even now, he saw her as she approached the gate where she would board a plane to spirit her far away from him. It was no matter. They had an understanding, not borne of words spoken by any of the men following her, but of the look he caught in her eyes. She would help him.
He picked up the latest cable from the Chinese premier. An angry denouncement, criticizing NK, with yet another audacious demand for return of their art. Not even a thanks for allowing the trawler to go free, unharmed. No appreciation for his vision. Not one word. The cable had ended with renewed threats of embargoing Western goods he so prized. He spat on the cable and threw it in the trash. Too long had China acted the patronizing overlord, imposing their beliefs, submerging and supplanting Korean ways–all in the quest to make North Korea into an extension of itself. From there, to move into Seoul with its military and push the U.S. out of South Korea, back to Japan. Finally, to position China to declare war on Japan using the combined might of Korean and Chinese troops. He would move forward, show the Chinese premier that no threats, no embargoes were worth one won ton. China would watch his Angeline bring the world to him.
He clicked his fingers, instantly alerting the aide who ran to the front of his desk. “Get camera ready.”
Billy held the check the NSA chief had laid on the table minutes before. After a minute, he returned it to the table.
“It is the amount quoted, is it not?” the NSA chief asked, punching in a code on the telephone at the opposite end of the table from where the president had earlier sat. An image of the brass box appeared on the screen. He took the lack of response as a yes and continued. “This as the president has said appears to be at the roots.” He tapped a button on the remote that controlled the screens located on the walls of the situation room. On another screen a picture of two intersecting streets located in Morro Bay in Southern California came up. A red tractor trailer cab was being towed as another vehicle, an automobile, was being loaded onto the back of a second wrecker. “The box was taken from the car. The driver, Handel’s nurse, was killed, intentionally to get to the box.”
Coke walked over to the screen where the box shown. “Angeline can probably interpret this… ” he turned back to the NSA chief, “…or do already know what it says?”
The NSA chief shook his head. In an uncharacteristic revelation he admitted to the agency’s actions in this regard. “Several interpretations, involving flowers. None of which make any sense.” He sat back in his chair. He turned his attention to Billy. “The box was once in possession of a guard that worked for your great-great-great aunt who lived in Keyville, Georgia.” His hands formed an A as he perched his chin on top of them. He raised his eye brows in laughter as Billy’s eyes widened. “Therein is why I have consented to ESS being the investigatory agency.” A wicked smile appeared on the NSA’s thin high cheek bone face. “I may have missed a great but it is the Widow Brumby that is your, Angeline and Brandon’s relation?”
“I suppose you know why it was located there?” Billy asked, not answering the question and frowning at his one-time college buddy.
“No more than ESS can learn from its archives in Elko. We got it off your servers, after all. ”
Billy fumed. Only his former UCST college buddy could get away with this. He guessed it was why the president and McArizzry had left when they did. As college students rooming in the same dorm room, he had revealed to the NSA chief, assuming it would never see the light of day. He blew out a breath. Assume began with ass. It was what he had been; Angeline had warned him, disliking the spy chief. He did not doubt that the timing of the trip had been set so he would not have to face down Angeline. What Billy wanted to do he dared not do, not if he wanted to spend the night in his hotel suite rather than in a DC jail. He, Brandon, all of the leadership, Coke included, had forged a new identity, separating themselves and ESS from the past that Widow Brumby had at one time represented and then in turn had separated herself from. So many people had died; others, their lives destroyed as GRA, Grainmen Railroad Association (GRA) had bound them all together had broken apart, made many into enemies. He picked up the check, staring at the three million dollars. Was it enough for him to ask everyone to reopen that wound?
“What does Darnell and Handel have to do with this? So they’re each writing another far-out spy novel about the box?” Billy asked, emphasizing far-out and spy as he locked eyes with the NSA chief.
“It is one book, written together. Each taking a part. And it is not fiction. They were investigating for us,” the NSA chief replied, removing the photograph of the intersection, calling up a copy of an outline. On the screen to the right, a copy of another outline appeared. Both stopped after the fourth chapter.
Billy threw the check at the chief and stood. He looked at Coke, who remained seated for a moment longer, then proceeded to get up, reluctantly Billy observed. Either the president and McArizzry had lied about it being two novelists working on separate works of fiction or kept in the dark. Either way, it spelled trouble for ESS, Billy guessing that not even the NSA knew the depths that an investigation like this would plumb. “I can’t endanger our employees, can’t ask the leadership to agree to this.” He threw up his hands in frustration. “Darnell and Handel both were killed because of this and–“
Billy broke off when the door abruptly opened and the Marine strode in. He addressed them all, looking at the NSA chief, then Coke and ending with Billy. “The president said you should see the incoming message. It is video and audio. Translation services has been engaged.”
The NSA chief cleared the screens and called up the encrypted message. “Where is the message originating from?”
“Pyongyang, North Korea. Inside the governmental offices, sir. A one word cable in the form of a name preceded the message.”
Billy turned and looked at the immaculately dressed Marine.”What was the name?”
An urgentness in the Marine’s eyes forced Billy to retake his seat. Coke followed. “Angeline, your sister’s name, sir.” To the chief he said, “She’s on line one. She’s been patched in from the plane she is on…over Thailand.”