The Terrorist Plot at Gopherville by Steve Bartholomew - HTML preview
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He continued walking. Another man crossed his line of sight, much like the first he had seen, but closer now. Then several others passed by. They made no sound, said nothing. Bradshaw approached the side tunnel and stopped, listening. Somewhere to his right, he heard a low murmur of voices. Or rather it was one voice speaking to someone else. The listener responded only in monosyllables or grunts. Bradshaw strained to make out what the man was saying.
The voices stopped, but then there was the sound of approaching foot steps. Bradshaw waited. In a minute, two men appeared. Unlike the other men, these were better dressed. They carried no tools. One man wore an oldfashioned business suit, rather shabby looking. The other was dressed in work clothes, but they were clean and fairly new-looking. He carried a bundle wrapped in cloth under one arm.
The two men stopped a few feet away. They seemed to look right through Bradshaw without seeing him.
“How many on this shift?” the man in the suit asked.
“Eleven,” the other answered. “Listen, I got a bad feeling about this…”
“Shut up,” Bill, the suit said. “We been all through this. Dead Rock is played out. We’re up to our teeth in debt. The only way is to sell out without having to pay off the crew. You know that. Any white men on this shift?”
“Naw. Six Indians, five Chinee. Nobody’s gonna miss them. Still and all…”
“I told you to stop thinking. You wanna get paid or don’t you? Just do it. I’ll be waiting up top.”
The other man didn’t reply. The suit turned around and went back the way he had come. Bill unwrapped his bundle. It was four sticks of dynamite, taped together. He put them in the side tunnel where the crew had gone. Then he struck a match and lit a fuse.
“Fire in the hole,” he said, just above a whisper. Then he turned and went back the way the suit had gone.
Bradshaw stared in horror at the dynamite, at the sputtering fuse. He had an urge to scream, yet found he could barely draw breath. He thought of getting to the fuse and yanking it out. But he was terrified. The thing might go off at any second. Finally he found the will to move, turned and began to step away from the side tunnel. He wanted to run, but it was like trying to swim through molasses – he watched himself moving in slow motion, as if time itself had nearly stopped.
Then there was a great blow against his body, a sound so loud it could not be heard, a great wind and darkness.
Some time later he was aware of pain. The darkness was still there. Pitch black. He wondered if he was blind. He groped about on the ground and somehow found the hard metal shape of his flashlight. He clicked the switch, but nothing happened. Bradshaw felt the sharp edge of broken glass. He was still wearing his knapsack, thank God. He remembered the emergency candles. His fingers seemed made of wood, as he fumbled open the pack, rummaged through till he found a candle. Then he found matches, struck one and lit the wick. In the flickering light, he was horrified yet again, remembering what had happened.
The side tunnel was gone. In fact both the side tunnels were gone, both right and left. In their place was a pile of rubble. Bradshaw himself found he was covered with blood. He felt a wound on his head, with more bruises over most of his body.
Somehow he got to his feet, wondering what to do. His candles would not last long. How long had he been underground, anyway? How long had he been lying unconscious? There was only one direction he could go. He began to walk.
He heard a sound – chink, chink, chink. The sound of metal tapping rock. He began to follow the sound. He turned right into another tunnel, still following. The chinking sound grew louder. At last he made out a dim light far down the tunnel. He kept walking.
That was when he first met Oscar.
Oscar was tapping patiently with a small hammer against a quartz crystal embedded in the wall. Bradshaw could make out a fine thread of gold deep within. The gnome glanced at Bradshaw, then returned to his work. A soft yellow light came from a lantern on the floor. It made the crystal sparkle.
“The men…” Bradshaw licked his lips, trying to think of what to say.
“I couldn’t help them either,” the gnome said. “What you saw happened a long time ago.”
“The tunnel – they were buried alive.”
“Yes. And they do not rest,” Oscar said. “They will not rest ever.”
Bradshaw thought a minute, watching Oscar tap on the rock. He didn’t seem to be making much progress.
“What do they want?” Bradshaw asked.
“To be remembered,” the gnome said.
Oscar had led Bradshaw out of the mine. He had simply gestured for Bradshaw to follow, saying nothing more. Oscar had saved his life. They had been friends since then. But Oscar didn’t want to go back to the mine. The dead should be left alone.
* * * *
Brandt said to Sanderson,
“This Dead Rock Mine is the only lead we have at the moment.”
Sanderson stared morosely into his beer. Two more days wasted. Sylvia hadn’t called him. In some ways that was worse than if she had. Sanderson had heard rumors – something about a Grand Jury investigation. He looked at Brandt.
“Anything about this Oscar person? I’d bet money he’s Bradshaw’s contact, whoever he is.”
Brandt shook his head.
“I’ve talked to everyone in town that Bradshaw talks to. I’m getting the feeling we have a real conspiracy on our hands here. They all have the same story. He’s some kind of a gnome, whatever that means. Maybe that's a new term, something like a mole or a sleeper. But no one has seen this guy. Sounds to me it’s a code name. I think people know more than they’re telling. I’m beginning to suspect this Gopherville is one huge al Qaeda cell. Maybe we should get DHS to round up the whole town.”
“Maybe so,” Sanderson mused. “But that wouldn’t find us Project Emperor…”
“What about this Dead Rock?” Brandt returned to his original subject. “You were going to have someone check it out.”
Sanderson drank half his beer.
“I sent O’Reilly. A chance for him to redeem himself. He took another man with him, somebody who can read maps at least. They went up the old mine road in a Jeep Cherokee… They only got about half way there. Too many fallen snags and underbrush. That road hasn’t been used in a hundred years. O’Reilly’s going back up there tomorrow with a bigger crew, armed with chain saws. They might need another day or two to reach the mine. Probably a wild goose chase, anyway.”
“Jesus H…” Brandt had a sour look, staring out the window at the street. The weather was turning hot. The saloon was equipped with a swamp cooler that made the air feel moist. Brandt didn’t like hot weather.
“I’m going up there myself,” he said. “Tomorrow morning.”
“How?” Sanderson sounded truly puzzled. “There’s no place to land a chopper, the road’s closed…”
“Ever hear of horseback?” Brandt said. He finished his beer.
* * * *
Bradshaw had made progress. In fact, the project had gone faster than he’d expected. He thought it might take a couple of weeks to get some of the bugs out, but it was turning out a piece of cake. He had set up shop just inside the mine entrance. It was cool inside, and almost dust free. He used an old work bench he’d found there. For much of the work, he didn’t need electricity – it was simply a matter of plugging things in. When he did need power, for instance for the signal generator and oscilloscope, he fired up the old steam engine outside and started up the dynamo. He could see this new device could stand a lot of improving – in the first place, it was too large and heavy to carry around. He thought he saw some ways to fix that. But he had a feeling it might work.
On the same day Brandt decided to come up and look for him, Bradshaw snugged the final screw home on the device’s metal cover. Then he looked around for something to test it on. It occurred to him that the basic principle of operation had been known since the 19th century. He recalled reading how Nicola Tesla had nearly brought down a skyscraper under construction using the principle of resonance. In fact he had caused a minor earthquake in Greenwich Village with a similar device. in its way, was not nearly as dramatic. possibility of causing true chaos. Bradshaw grinned when he thought about it.
He found some old burlap sacks stuffed into an ancient storage bin. They would do nicely. After checking the equipment several times, he selected one large piece of sacking. He took it outside and nailed it up on the porch outside the office shack. Then he picked up his device.
This object was basically a “black box,” except that it wasn’t black, but rather aluminum and copper. It was about twice the size of a shoe box. One of its components was a battery which Bradshaw had charged from the steam generator. The battery was the heaviest single component, one Bradshaw wanted to improve on.
When he was satisfied with arrangements, Bradshaw pointed his device at the piece of sacking, from a few feet away. He flipped a switch. There was a low humming sound. Bradshaw watched a meter on the box, carefully tuning a dial. At first nothing seemed to happen. Bradshaw shook his head. It wasn’t working. Nothing would happen... Then something did.
One moment, the burlap sack was hanging on the porch. The next moment, it wasn’t. In its place, a fine cloud of powder and lint drifted gently to the floor.
Bradshaw chuckled. He switched off the power. Then he frowned. The damn thing worked. Now, the question was, what was he going to do with it?
He could see all manner of possibilities.
* * * *
Brandt set out early the next morning. He had arranged to rent a horse along with some basic gear such as a sleeping bag, tent and freeze dried food. Nestled under his left arm was a 9mm Glock. He didn't think he would need more hardware. He followed the old mine road for several miles, until he came to some fallen snags. He could see why Project Emperor, But it had the O'Reilly hadn't got far. The ground was steep, and the underbrush dense. He dismounted and led his horse on a long circuit, bypassing the thickest brush. Eventually he worked his way back to the mine road and remounted. He checked his map. At this rate, it would take him most of the day to reach the mine. He hoped this trip would be worth it. Of course, he could think of it as a paid vacation in the mountains. walk into. waiting for him. Sanderson had wanted him to wait till he had some backup, or until the road could be cleared. Brandt had said, Screw that. Bradshaw or Oscar could run any minute. But I'll watch my step.
Meanwhile, Bradshaw had already run. Actually, he had departed for home. Leaving most of his equipment and tools in the mine entrance, he had slung over his shoulder a knapsack, containing only the Project Emperor device. He took a different and much easier route than the one used by O'Reilly and Brandt. There was an ancient Indian trail that ran along the ridge, and a deer trail going downhill. Going downhill was faster than going up. He reached home by early afternoon. Jane was nowhere to be seen, but he could tell she had been there. The vegetable patch was watered and weeded. Melchizidek met him at the door, stretching lazily.
“Anyone been around lately?” Bradshaw asked.
“Only nice lady Jane. I gave her a mousie.”
“And I'm sure she was pleased. Well, let's see what else is for dinner tonight.”
He went inside, took the device from his bag and placed it on the table. Then, forgetting dinner for the moment, he sat down and stared at the little silver box with its switches and dials. The device was finished. Bradshaw had not needed Then again, you never knew what you might There might be an al Qaeda cell up ahead, the DVD to construct it, his memory for mechanical details was nearly perfect. It could use some improvements, but essentially it was done.
There remained still the question: what should he do with it?
Next morning, Sanderson had a phone call from Sheriff Martinez. He took the call on his cell phone, sitting on what had become his favorite park bench.
“Just a little heads-up,” Martinez said. “This probably doesn't mean anything. But some woman is asking questions.”
Sanderson for a moment held the phone away from his head, staring at it. All he needed was one more complication in this case.
“Some woman. What sort of woman? What sort of questions?”
“I wasn't there,” Martinez said. “Deputy Hargrove was on duty. Of course, he doesn't know anything anyway. But she was asking about Tiller. She claims the deceased was her uncle. She only just heard about his sad demise. Young, pretty gal, according to Hargrove. She gave her name as Octavia Tiller. Just thought you'd like to know.”
“I'll need to talk to her,” Sanderson said. “Where's she staying?”
“Same motel as yours. Where else would she stay?”
Sanderson clicked off and stared into space for a moment. This could actually be a break. If this woman knew anything about her uncle's activities at Faustus, she might have a clue to what had become of the missing DVD. It had occurred to Sanderson long ago that Tiller's visit to Gopherville might not have been accidental. There could be a connection between Tiller and Bradshaw.
On the other hand, it was equally possible she could screw up this entire investigation. Sanderson decided he needed a beer.
* * * *
David Brandt had reached the Dead Rock mine before sunset. He hobbled the horse, then looked around outside. He found the steam generator. So much for the suspect not having electricity. He went up on the porch of the old mine office, found traces of Bradshaw's encampment. Then he went inside and nearly broke a leg when one of the floor boards gave way under him. He backed out carefully. He went inside the mine entrance, finding Bradshaw's work bench and test equipment. He shone a light down the tunnel but didn't go any further. He shut the light off and listened. There was a sound of water dripping somewhere. He heard, faintly in the distance, a chinking sound. It stopped after a moment. He wasn't sure he had actually heard it, but he thought so. A sound like someone tapping.
He backed out of the mine, then selected a place at the edge of the clearing to spend the night. Eating a cold dinner, he decided this place was definitely spooky. Bradshaw or someone else had been using the place. There could still be someone hiding out down in that mine shaft. Whoever it was, he would find them. First thing in the morning. The stars came out and blazed above him.
* * * *
Sanderson finished his beer. He decided to get some lunch, then go and look for this Octavia woman. Before he could get up, his cell phone buzzed again. This time it was one of his lookouts, letting him know Bradshaw was in town. He had been seen heading for the library on his bicycle. Sanderson clicked off and headed there himself.
He found Bradshaw at the reference desk, browsing a book on Egyptian mythology. He smiled at Sanderson.
“Mr Sanderson. Nice to see you again. Are you enjoying your stay in our little town?”
“Brad, we need to talk.”
“Well, Mrs Smithers doesn't like talking in the library. What say we stroll in the park? I always enjoy conversation, especially with a dedicated public servant like yourself.”
“We wouldn't want to upset Mrs Smithers.” Sanderson briefly considered making Bradshaw go with him to the Sheriff's office, but decided to put that off awhile. They walked outside to the park and settled on Sanderson's favorite bench. Sanderson got right to the point.
“Where have you been the last few days, Brad?”
“The last few days? My mind is sort of a blur at times. I think I was up at the old mine. Then again, I may have been abducted by Aliens. That's happened to me before. Did you know that Aliens think of earth people sort of like cosmic road kill? I hate it when they stick that thing up my butt...”
'Never mind the Aliens.” Sanderson still hadn't decided just how crazy this man was. “How long have you been back?”
“Since yesterday, I guess. Oh, look at that.” He pulled an object out of his pocket and showed it to Sanderson. It was a sizable chunk of quartz, containing a tiny thread of gold. “I guess I must have been at the mine all right, picking up crystal. You can sell this stuff to tourists, you see...”
“Tell me about Oscar,” Sanderson said.
“He wasn't there. In fact, I haven't seen him. Peculiar. He said he was going along to watch out for me, but he must be busy doing something else...”
“What about Octavia Tiller? Do you know her?”
“No, should I?”
“I don't know whether you should or not. OK, Brad, that's all the questions I have for now. If you leave town or go back to the mine, I want to know about it. This is a serious criminal investigation. You understand me?”
Bradshaw nodded vigorously.
“Serious. Criminal. Investigation. Absolutely, I understand.”
Sanderson was definitely getting another headache. * * * *
David Brandt entered the Dead Rock mine some time before noon. He carried a flashlight in one hand and his Glock in the other. He regretted not having brought a hard hat. The ceiling of the mine tunnel was low; it wouldn't do to crack his skull. He proceeded cautiously down the first tunnel, examining all the equipment again, both the ancient tools left there by long-gone miners, and the more modern objects obviously left by Bradshaw. Brandt listened. He turned into the side tunnel and began to hear sounds again, sounds that shouldn't be there. Sometimes he caught a whisper of conversation, or a creak of metal. Then that chink, chink started again.
It occurred to him that his ears could be playing tricks. He stopped, switched off his light, and listened again, not breathing. He couldn't be sure. Sensory deprivation, that could be it. Then again, there was something screwy going on at this mine... Chink, chink.
He found the ladder at the end of the tunnel. He holstered his gun so he could climb down. At the bottom, he wondered what he had expected to find. more creaky wooden braces. Bad smells. getting creepy. Brandt decided if he didn't find anything definite in a few minutes, he'd go back up and wait till O”Reilly got there. He moved down the tunnel.
Another tunnel, This place was
Another sound. This sounded like a moan, a man groaning in pain. But so faint he couldn't be sure. Probably it was one of the old wooden beams creaking under stress. He felt goosebumps on his neck. He drew his gun again. He decided, if he saw anyone down here he would shoot first.
He had gone a few yards down the tunnel when he heard something behind him. It sounded like a footstep, the sound a heavy boot makes thumping on rock. He spun around, shone his light into darkness.
“Who's there? Show yourself, dammit, or I'll shoot!”
The light flickered, as if the batteries were already going dead. At the extreme range of his light, Brandt saw something, or thought he did. He made out the form of a man, at the far end of the tunnel. Brandt could barely see him in the shadows. There was something about him – he seemed to be wearing a faint yellow light on his cap, like the kind old time miners wore. Brandt for a moment forgot to shoot, straining to see. The man moved closer. Then Brandt did shoot, a wild shot down the tunnel. There was a blinding orange flash and a crash of sound. Brandt took a step backward, not seeing the open pit behind him...
Sanderson got the call late the next morning. It was O'Reilly, whose cell phone seemed to be working for once.
“We got the road clear, enough to get through with the Jeep. Brandt's horse was still where he left it. So was his bedroll and stuff. Someone has been around the mine, all right, they left some electronics junk inside the entrance. We didn't have too much trouble finding Brandt. He was the third level down. Looks like he fell off a ladder. It was only a few feet, but he must have landed on his head, broke his neck. Shoulda been more careful.”
Sanderson was in his motel room. From where he was standing, he could see his face in the bathroom mirror. It didn't look good.
“Maybe he had help,” Sanderson said after a moment. “How long do you think he was dead before you found him?”
“He also broke his Rolex. Twenty minutes after one, yesterday afternoon. Say, do you think this Bradshaw character...?”
Sanderson closed his eyes.
“Couldn't have been him. He was with me at the time. On a park bench. I was busy giving him an alibi.”
Sanderson was rattled. He reminded himself he was a professional in a dangerous business. But he was still rattled. He told himself it could have been an accident, after all. Sure, and pigs could fly. If he had not been rattled, he might have been better prepared for what happened next.
This Octavia Tiller – he was waiting for Davis to fax him a report on the background check. Sanderson wanted to know more about her. When he did, he would look her up and interrogate her...
There was a loud knock on the door. Or rather, someone pounding. Sanderson sighed. This better be important. He opened the door. It was a young, good-looking woman dressed in black.
“Are you Sanderson?” she demanded. Before he could reply, she brushed past him into the room, taking everything in with one glance. She spun about again, to look him in the eye.
“I'm Octavia Tiller, and I'm here to ask you questions.” * * * *
Bradshaw was slowly simmering a wild turkey in a big pot on top of the stove. He had found this bird early that morning, freshly killed and only slightly mutilated by the fender of some vehicle. He stirred the pot, adding a few herbs and spices. Melchizidek licked his chops.
“That Mrs Smithers is a nice lady,” Bradshaw said to Oscar. Oscar had re-appeared only a few minutes ago.
“She let me store the gizmo in her filing cabinet. I told her it's an invention I'm working on, which is true – I didn't actually claim it's my invention. Then I had a nice talk with that Mr Sanderson in the park. He's not such a bad sort, really... By the way, where have you been, Oscar? I missed you up at the mine. I thought you were going to look out for me.”
Oscar pointed north-east, in the direction of Dead Rock. He mimed tapping with his little hammer.
'Oh. You mean you were up there, but I didn't see you, is that it? You must have been deeper in the ground. What were you doing there all that time, if I may ask?”
Oscar looked directly at him.
“Accidents happen,” he said.
Bradshaw blinked, wondering what Oscar meant. Carefully, he sipped at the turkey broth. He figured he would find out what Oscar meant in due time, if he was supposed to find out.
* * * *
After Octavia left, Sanderson decided he needed a drink. Not just a beer, a drink. He called O'Reilly back on the motel phone and asked him to meet him down at the Gold Coin, which seemed to be the main saloon in town. When he got there Sanderson ordered a bourbon and soda; O'Reilly got a coke. Sanderson began playing with a book of matches. For once, he wished he had never quit smoking.
“She's too well informed, that's the problem,” he said. “She stuck that copy of the Gopherville Gazette in my face, the one with the picture of Tiller's car all shot up. She wants to know who killed her uncle and why.
Seems she's been spending her time talking to lawyers and researching Faustus Labs. I'm still waiting for our background check on Octavia Tiller. You see what I'm driving at, O'Reilly? We know almost nothing about Miss Octavia, but by now she knows almost all there is to know about us. Can you explain that to me, O'Reilly?”
O'Reilly didn't seem to think a response was called for, so he studied the ice cubes in his coke.
"At least she cleared up one mystery. We know Tiller was headed for Vegas when we caught up with him. He was probably planning to drop out of sight. We assumed he had made some kind of deal either with a criminal element or a foreign agent, intending either to sell or give away Project Emperor. However, it appears he had arranged to meet his niece Octavia there. According to her, he didn't tell her why, just that it was extremely urgent. After she arrived, it took her a couple days to figure out why he didn't show up.”
“Arrived from where?” O'Reilly asked. “Where's she from, what does she do?”
“She's some kind of computer geek, from what I could make out. She flew in from India, where she's been working for some foreign company that does outsourcing. Don't tell me this is suspicious, I already know it. Question is, how much does she know she isn't letting on?”
“Shouldn't we pick her up and find out?”
“Not yet. I want you and whoever you have helping to watch her. I need to know who she talks to, where she goes, what she reads, who she calls on the phone. From now on. But don't let her leave town.”
“You got it.” O'Reilly started to get up. “By the way. I didn't tell you, we found some electronic stuff up at that mine. Test equipment, tools and things. It might be junk that came from Danny's Computer Shack. We bagged it and brought it back, if you want to see it...”
Sanderson shook his head.
“Wouldn't tell me anything. In fact, I'm guessing it was left there on purpose to throw us off track. You'd probably find Bradshaw's fingerprints all over the stuff. Somebody wants us to think he was using it. Probably this mysterious Oscar character.”
O'Reilly turned to go, then paused again.
“What did you tell this Octavia lady, anyway?”
“Nothing, of course. You think I'm an amateur? I hinted that Tiller's accident might have had something to do with drug dealers. I told her there's a criminal investigation and I can't comment. I don't think she bought it. Oh, one thing more.”
“If she goes off into a woodsy environment, don't follow her yourself.”
* * * *
Meanwhile, Sylvia wasn't having a good day either. If Sanderson had known how bad a day she was having, he might have turned in his Security badge at that moment. She had called Samuels to her office, to plan strategy. While she was waiting for him, she regarded herself in the mirror on the wall of her private bathroom. She was still a goodlooking woman, considering the amount of stress she was under. Sometimes she wondered why she had trouble attracting eligible bachelors - not that she really cared, of course. What was important was her charisma and self confidence. These qualities would get her through anything, even a Grand Jury investigation.
Turning from the mirror, she shook her head. She was puzzled about that. There had apparently been complaints made, by someone who knew more about Faustus Labs than was usually made public. If she could figure out who it was...
Samuels from Accounting arrived and was shown in by Bruce, Sylvia's secretary. He carried the usual stack of documents. When the formalities were out of the way, Sylvia said,
“This will blow over in due course. There's nothing to worry about. I just want to make sure we have all the loose ends tied up. We have done nothing illegal. That is our position, and we are consistent with that. Do I make myself clear?”
'Yes, of course.” Samuels wasn't so sure. But around Sylvia he tried to act as if he was.
“As I said before, Sylvia...”
There was a knock at the door. Sylvia looked up, annoyed. She had told Bruce she was not to be disturbed. But Bruce opened the door before she could respond.
“Sylvia, there are some men here to see you...”
“What on earth...” Sylvia felt her short fuse begin to sputter. Before she could say anything else, two men in dark suits pushed past Bruce into the room. The one in front flipped open a leather ID wallet.
“My name is Roger Snow. We are from the SEC, and we have a warrant to examine your books.”
* * * *
The next morning, Bradshaw was debating whether to go into town when he was paid a visit from Octavia Tiller. She came plowing up the dirt driveway in one of those little Japanese sport cars, leaving a cloud of dust behind her. Bradshaw thought, This place is getting to be a regular tourist attraction. Maybe I should move to the country.
Octavia spilled out of her car and descended on Bradshaw. She had traded her conservative business suit for denims.
“Are you Bradshaw?” she demanded.
He raised an eyebrow.
“I have the honor to be the same,” he replied. “Doctor Bradshaw, that is.”
She did a double take, scanning the ramshackle collection of structures around her. She said, in a calmer tone,
“We need to talk. I'd like to know what you know about my uncle's death.”
“Your uncle? And who would that be?”
Octavia frowned. “You mean you don't know? Well, maybe you wouldn't. I'm Octavia Tiller. My uncle was shot to death in a car near here a couple weeks ago. I had an idea you might have been a witness.”
Bradshaw considered. He was having one of his feelings. He was having a feeling there was something different about this woman, something he needed to know more about.
“Would you like some coffee, Ms Tiller? Or perhaps some home-grown herbal tea?”
When they were settled around Bradshaw's kitchen table he asked her how she had learned about him.
“That fool Sanderson told me, of course.” She shook her head. “He didn't know he was telling me anything. I walked in and asked him a lot of questions I knew he wouldn't answer. But of course he had to ask me some. One of his questions was, did I know anyone named Bradshaw? I said no and changed the subject. As soon as I left him, I started making inquiries in town. Seems like everybody else knows you. Sanderson threw me a lot of smoke and mirrors about drug dealers and possible terrorists. But he gave me one clue – your name. So tell me what you know.”
Bradshaw sipped his coffee.
“Do you think you were followed here, Ms Tiller?”
“Octavia. Of course I was followed here. I'd be worried if I wasn't. Are you going to tell me, or not?”
“I can do better than that, Octavia. I believe I have a certain item in my possession which properly belongs to you. It's not here, but I can take you to it later. It may clear up a few things for you. But first I have a few questions of my own. Who are you besides Mr Tiller's niece? And how much do you already know about this affair?”
Octavia, like Bradshaw, believed in listening to her feelings. At the moment, she was having a feeling that this man was one she could trust. At least, until proven otherwise. She began to talk. Bradshaw listened.
“My uncle was an idealist,” she said. “He was a sort of closet peace activist. When his brother, my father, was killed in the war, he began a sort of personal crusade. He believed in the possibility of 'weapons of mass construction.' That is, technological developments that would make warfare less likely to happen. Some of them already exist, he thought – such as the Internet, and i Pods. In the last couple of years, he started sending me e mails suggesting he was onto something important. That was after he started working at Faustus. He kept saying he would tell me more later.
“Then he started sounding frustrated. He told me he was sure his invention would work, once it was actually built. But his employers wanted to turn it to the wrong uses. He started talking about selling the thing on e Bay, just so no one could get a monopoly on it. Of course that would have got him arrested.
Finally, he sent me a message demanding I meet him in Las Vegas. Under the circumstances, it was impossible to refuse. He didn't come right out and say so, but he implied he meant to deliver the plans into my hands and turn all the responsibility over to me. I didn't like the idea, but what could I do? I dropped everything and flew to Vegas. By the time I got there, my uncle was dead.”
Bradshaw frowned. “He left a video. That's part of the item I mentioned that belongs to you. He said he was planning to sell the plans to someone in Vegas, then move to South America.”
“That was no doubt to protect me, in case the video fell into wrong hands. Maybe he would have actually moved to Brazil, I don't know. haven't answered yet. woman, is who I am.”
Bradshaw and Octavia talked for nearly three hours. They told each other something about their lives. Octavia had worked in Silicon Valley, then she moved to Washington D.C. to work at the Pentagon. She had become disillusioned with the upper echelons of power.
“It's not that they're evil or stupid, necessarily,” she remarked. “It's just that the higher up they get, the further they move away from reality. Then they start promoting their own version of reality on radio, TV and even the movies. Then they watch their own propaganda and start believing it. It's a kind of closed feedback loop, leading eventually to madness. Do you understand what I'm saying, Bradshaw?”
“I understand perfectly,” he said. “How would you like some lunch? I'm afraid it's leftovers, but it's pretty good. At least Melchizidek thinks so.”
But you asked me who I am, and I I'm no peace activist. I'm an angry
He stoked up the fire in the stove and soon had the pot simmering. The aroma was delicious – Octavia's stomach growled. After her second helping, she asked Bradshaw what they had been eating.
“Wild turkey.” He grinned. “My own recipe.” * * * *
Sanderson had decided to call his office at Faustus. He still hadn't received the dossier on Octavia. He began to wonder if he might have been better off going on line and using Google. He dialed the direct line to Faustus Security, meaning to give Davis a chewing out. Instead, a different voice answered, “Faustus Labs.”
Sanderson did a double-take, then recognized the voice of Babbage, the Homeland Security man. Sanderson identified himself, then asked what was going on.
“Seems you have a new employer, in a manner of speaking,” Babbage said. “Your boss, Sylvia, is under indictment for securities fraud and a few other things. The Feds have taken over Faustus Labs, at least for the time being. We're becoming increasingly concerned over the missing property. There's some suspicion that Sylvia herself may have arranged to sell it to foreign agents. We have issued a Tan Alert for the premises of Faustus Labs.”
“Tan alert? What the hell is...”
“Never mind that. Have you made any progress yet in Gophertown?”
“Gopherville. We're working on it.” He told Babbage about Octavia Tiller. “I just heard from my man O'Reilly. She and Bradshaw just spent almost four hours in conference, unless they were talking about gardening techniques. Right at this moment they're headed into town in Tiller's car. It's looking more and more like Bradshaw...”
“Looks to me like a red herring,” Babbage cut in. “But we need to cover the bases. Watch them closely. Put bugs in Bradshaw's house. Tap his phone. I'll get back to you.”
Sanderson started to explain again that Bradshaw didn't have a phone, but Babbage had hung up. Sanderson put his phone down and stared at the wall for several minutes. * * * *
Octavia glanced at her rear view mirror.
“Our tail is about two blocks back, sticking like glue. We need to lose him.”
“How do you propose to do that?” Bradshaw asked.
“Easy. There's only one guy in the car. I'll drop you off near the library. Then I park in front of the Gold Coin, like I'm going in for a beer. The lady's room has a window I can slip through. I'll meet you in back of the library.”
Bradshaw couldn't think of any objection. He got out of the car and watched Octavia drive away at a leisurely pace, closely followed by a black Ford driven by a young fellow in a black suit. Bradshaw went on into the library, retrieved the DVD from Mrs Smithers' filing cabinet, then left by the back way. A short time later Octavia showed up on foot.
“What now?” Bradshaw asked.
She grinned. “Those guys couldn't track their own grandmothers across the kitchen. But they're watching the motel, of course. Fortunately, I made prior arrangements. Come on.”
Octavia set off by way of back alleys, skirting the edge of town. It was not a large town. A few minutes walk brought them to the Wagon Wheel RV park. Octavia led the way to a Westphalia van, parked at one side.
“This belongs to me,” she explained. “I brought it up here a few days before announcing myself. Paid a month rent for the space. Let them watch the motel all they want. If I want privacy, I come here.”
There were only a few other RV's in the park at this time of year, so Bradshaw guessed she would get her privacy. They went inside the van. Octavia pulled a laptop computer out of a storage compartment and set it up on a little table that swung out over the back seat. She turned it on and let it boot. Bradshaw handed her the wallet containing her uncle's DVD.
“You'll want to watch the video part,” he said. “The rest is all technical stuff.”
“I'll want to see that too, but I'll watch the video first.”
Octavia watched the video in silence. When it was over she shut down the laptop and stared at it.
“That mention of a contact in Vegas was misdirection on my uncle's part, just in case the authorities recovered this DVD. He wanted them to think he had some buyer lined up, so they wouldn't be looking for me. He didn't want to sell the invention, he wanted to put it to a useful purpose.”
She leaned back and gazed around the inside of the van.
“This is where I can go to ground. The van is registered to a fictitious name, and I signed into this park with a different name entirely. I used a credit card with yet another name. Any time I want to disappear from the face of the Earth, I can walk in here. There's enough food for a week. Well, this is what I came for. I could just drive out right now and go back where I came from. There isn't much they could do about it.”
“Your uncle's invention works,” Bradshaw said. “I built one. A pilot model.”
She stared at him.
“Now, that is interesting, Brad. You have even more on the ball than I thought. What were you planning to do with it?”
He scratched his head.
“I hadn't made up my mind yet.”
She nodded slowly, as if she were considering something he had just explained.
“I'm not leaving yet,” she said. “I have unfinished business here.”
“Oh? And what would that be, Octavia?”
She smiled. It was a cold smile.
“Revenge,” she said.
* * * *
Sanderson held the phone away from his face, staring at it a moment.
“What do you mean you lost them?” he demanded of O'Reilly. “How could you lose a suspect in Gopherville? This town isn't big enough to lose someone!”
He listened a moment to O”Reilly's garbled explanation, then interrupted.
“Never mind! They'll resurface sometime. Right now I want you to get back out to Bradshaw's spread. Plant some bugs. I assume you already have this Tiller woman covered? Cell phone trace, bugs, wiretap? What do you mean, warrant? We don't need warrants, we've got the Patriot Act. I'll explain later. Just make it happen.”
He hung up. Sanderson decided he would definitely go on a long cruise when this job was over with. Lots of sea air to clear his head...
* * * *
Octavia Tiller was brewing coffee. She waved a hand at the inside of the tiny camper van.
“This is where I go to ground,” she said again. “As I said before, I could hide out here for a week. But I'll go back to the motel, because I know they're watching me there. I can feed them what information I want them to have, and wait for them to tip their hands. Where did you hide the pilot model?”
Bradshaw shrugged. “I just asked Mrs Smithers to hold it for me. It's back at the library. The library's closed by now, but we could get it in the morning.”
“Maybe. I'll want to view the rest of the DVD first. You could stay here tonight. I'll come back tomorrow and drive you home, if you like. By the way, do you have a place to go to ground if you have to?
He thought about the Dead Rock Mine and nodded.
“Okay. But Octavia...”
“Yes?” She was turning back to her laptop.
“These people can play rough.”
“So can I,” she said. * * * *
As it turned out, they did not try to pick up the pilot model the next morning. Octavia stayed up late watching the technical part of the DVD. When she finished, she said to Bradshaw, “You built one just by memorizing the plans? That's incredible. I understood most of this, but it's going to take me awhile to digest it. I think I'll go sleep on it.”
She left Bradshaw in the van with a volume of People's History of the Roman Empire, which he had picked up at the library. Then Octavia retraced her route to the rear of the Gold Coin, slipped back in through the window, and walked out the front door. She didn't spot anyone watching the place. But she did, of course, notice the dark panel truck parked across the street from the motel.
Late next morning, she picked up Bradshaw outside the trailer park. She knew Sanderson would probably waste several hours trying to find out who Bradshaw had been visiting at the park, and why. That was fine with her. They drove in relative silence to Bradshaw's house. He asked her in for tea, and she accepted, having nothing better to do at the moment.
Bradshaw opened the front door and froze. Octavia started to ask a question, but he raised a finger to his lips. Something was different. He stepped inside, motioning her to stay put. He stepped into the room, looking slowly around. There was a different smell. Men's cologne, that was it. Someone had been wearing cologne or after-shave. Someone had been here. That would not be difficult, since he never bothered to lock the door. He didn't think they had taken anything, since they had already searched the place. The question then became: what had they put here?
Melchizidek was staring at him from a corner, telling him nothing. But then, for a moment, his eyes went to the dining table and back to Bradshaw. Bradshaw stepped to the table and looked underneath.
There, taped to the center, was a small black button.
He stepped back to where Octavia was standing. He put his mouth close to her ear and whispered, “Bugged.”
At this, Octavia's eyes lit up, as if she were delighted. She nodded and stepped into the house.
“So tell me, Brad. Who is this Oscar person they asked me about?”
Bradshaw busied himself making tea, after giving Melchizidek some wild turkey for breakfast.
“They asked you about Oscar?” he said absently. “Oscar's just an old friend of mine. He's a gnome. You know, comes from under the earth. Oh, hello, Oscar, I didn't see you there.”
“I don't see him even now.”
“Not everyone can. He's over there, sitting on that bench. You can sit anywhere else.”
“Oscar doesn't seem to say much,” she remarked.
“No, not usually.”
Octavia studied the bench in the corner. When the tea was ready she said,
“Brad. Please tell me about Oscar. How long have you known this person?”
Bradshaw had few secrets, nor did he care what Sanderson knew about Oscar. So he began to talk, relating to Octavia his experience in the Dead Rock, when he had first encountered Oscar, and about the miners buried alive. It took him some time to tell the story, during which he refilled her tea cup twice. When he was finished, Octavia looked seriously at him.
“You want to know what I think, Brad? Speaking as a friend?”
“Sure.” He looked at her and waited. He had finished his story and had nothing more to say.
“What I think is, you were down in that mine a long time. Toxic fumes and sensory deprivation can make you hallucinate. They can make you pass out. I think what happened is that you fell down and hit your head on something. Your mind made up a peculiar dream to explain the injury. And you suffered a concussion that makes you see things and hear voices. That's really what I think, Brad.”
He nodded slowly. “Yes, I suppose you could be right. That certainly does sound logical. Then again, they've been telling me I'm crazy for years. That's what they said back at M.I.T.”
“Is there any more of that turkey left, Brad? I want to hear about M.I.T.”
She wondered what Sanderson was going to make of all this.
(Sanderson was following the live broadcast of this conversation with great interest. At least the identity of the mysterious Oscar was cleared up. Now he wanted to hear about M.I.T. Elsewhere, in an unmarked van, a tape machine was rolling, recording every word for later analysis.)
* * * *
Dr Slagg was the head of Bradshaw's department at M.I.T. (Years earlier, before he had come to Gopherville.) When Bradshaw got summoned to Slagg's office on Monday morning, he knew it was not a good sign. Slagg was all smiles, which was an even worse sign.
There were the usual formalities, which only made it worse yet. Slagg offered coffee, which Bradshaw declined. Then Slagg folded his hands on his desk.
“Well, you're probably wondering why I asked you here, Brad.”
Bradshaw had a pretty good idea already, but he nodded politely.
“It has to do with your latest paper. That, and the defense contract.”
Bradshaw could see the latest copy of the Journal of Topology on Slagg's desk. It was the one with Bradshaw's paper in it. Bradshaw waited for Slagg's point.
“You certainly have some interesting theories on infinite connectivity,” Slagg said. That didn't call for a response, so Bradshaw waited some more.
“The thing is,” Slagg continued, “you have probably heard about Project Attila. I refer to this department's current defense contract.”
“I've heard of it,” Bradshaw said.
“Yes. I don't know how much you have heard, but I can tell you it's about a new super computer that the Pentagon wants. There's quite a lot of money riding on it. Maybe a billion or so. How would you like to be a part of the team, Brad?”
Bradshaw stared at him for a moment.
“I know something about what the Pentagon wants us to do. I have conversed unofficially with two or three people on the team. My response is this, Dr Slagg: Aside from the fact that I don't like working for the Military, the entire project is a waste of time and money. I could design a computer to meet their specifications for one tenth the cost and one tenth the time.”
Slagg coughed and tried to look embarrassed.
“Yes. Well, I presume you're referring to your theory here. I must say you have some unique ideas...”
“They're not unique. I'm just tying together some old ideas from different fields.”
“I see. You mean inter-disciplinary sort of thing. I hadn't looked at it that way. Well, at any rate, Brad, I'm afraid I'm going to have to ask you to withdraw your paper.”
“Really. On what grounds?”
“Oh, on the grounds of a number of logical flaws, which I can elaborate later.”
Bradshaw leaned across the desk.
“Let's get real, Slagg. The actual grounds are that if I'm right, it means your super-computer is obsolete before it gets to the planning stage. It's a waste of time and money.”
“Brad. Dr Bradshaw. The funds have already been allocated. Have you ever heard of the Pentagon sending back money it didn't spend? There is a great deal riding on this contract for our department. If you would like to be a part of the team...”
Bradshaw stood up.
“I already told you I'm not interested. I'm not withdrawing the paper. Have a nice day, Slagg.” He turned to leave.
Bradshaw glanced back. Slagg was holding the journal up, open to Bradshaw's paper.
“You're crazy, Brad.”
After that, he was. Or so it was said. The next issue of the journal carried a lengthy rebuttal to his theory, written by one of Slagg's toadies. Bradshaw was asked to defend the theory before an academic review board, which he declined, knowing who was on the board. Then there was the whispering campaign, carried on at faculty cocktail parties and luncheons; this was the most effective weapon against him. Students began dropping out of his classes. Research money dried up.
The following semester, he one day overheard some graduate students refer to him as “paranoid,” and “looneytunes.” In the middle of a class, Bradshaw suddenly wondered why he was still there. He excused himself to the class, walked out the door, and never came back. * * * *
“What exactly is infinite connectivity?” Octavia asked.
“Simple concept. Connectivity is a factor that describes the number of lines you can draw between a group of points. If there are only two points in a structure, then the factor is one. Three points, three. But if there are four points, the factor is six. The more points, the greater the factor. A computer is basically a large number of connection points. So is the human brain, for that matter. The connectivity factors are well up in the billions or trillions.
“All I did was generate a virtual tesseract. You can't make one in real space, but it's easy in cyberspace. You take the connectivity factor, bend it back through the fourth dimension. You divide the connectivity factor by zero, which produces infinity. So you can build a supercomputer with a relatively small number of physical connections. Understand?”
She blinked at him.
“No. But I can see why they thought you were crazy.”
He grinned. “I might have sold the idea to the Russians, but they thought the same thing.”
“You know what else I think?” She leaned over so she could see the bug stuck under the table. “I think your Mr Sanderson is a real idiot.”
* * * *
While Sanderson was mulling over this latest information and trying to tie it together with other data, a completely unrelated event was occurring, thousands of miles away. Ivor Lark, special assistant to the President of the United States, was watching television.
What he was watching was a new sitcom called Secret Mission. Unbeknownst to the general public or anyone else, including the show’s own producers and sponsors, this drama was one of the brainchildren of Lark himself, together with his inner circle of security advisors. The show contained numerous subliminal messages designed to instill a sense of unease and insecurity in viewers, especially related to hidden terrorists and possible enemies of Democracy around every corner. Some of the sublims were concealed in commercials. Lark thought the show was working well. In fact he was quite proud of it. In the first episode, a 14 year old boy and his sister realize to their horror that their father might possibly be engaged in some kind of subversive terrorist activity. They are debating whether to turn him in to the authorities.
Lark was pleased that the show left the problem unresolved and ambiguous. The audience did not know for certain if the father was a terrorist, nor could the children decide what to do about him. The point was to instill a vague unease and anxiety in the viewer, a subliminal message that only Vested Authority had the power to handle these problems.
When the show ended Lark picked up a folder which had been recently dropped on his desk – a summarized security briefing. reading. demonstrations, people arrested at airports for looking suspicious – not much useful. He was looking for something he could use. The President's ratings were down in the polls again. He was even losing support in Congress from his own party. Something had to be done. Maybe a red alert or a fake attack... Well, things weren't that desperate yet. All that was needed was something to make the Chief look good. A heroic gesture in the face of the enemy...
Lark spotted an anomaly in the security briefing. Something strange going on in a remote Western town. Gopherville. An agent dead, maybe by accident, maybe not. The story occupied only one paragraph in the briefing. Lark turned to his desktop computer, logged in to Central Security, did a search on Gopherville. He was amazed at what he found. The summary was by some agent named Babbage. It was highly detailed. The more Lark read, the more he wondered how much of this stuff was made up. Stolen weaponry, a Government contractor shut down, the CEO under indictment. Foreign agents, the weapon apparently vanished, an MIT mathematician, a mysterious character named Oscar... This couldn't be better.
He scanned it rapidly, using his skill at speed
It was mostly the usual stuff, a few protest One missing detail was the nature of the missing weapon. This was only hinted at. Above Top Secret. Lark mused that the CEO probably knew what it was, if not where it was. She would have to be prevented from discussing the matter in Court or anywhere else. Well, there was time to deal with her later. Lark began to concoct a scheme to improve the President's image. First it would be necessary to change the image of this Gopherville place.Gopherville was about to become a hotbed of foreign conspirators and concealed terrorists. If it wasn't already. * * * *
For the next two or three days, Sanderson felt baffled and in a quandary. Octavia Tiller had gone back to her motel room, going out only for meals and to read at the library. He checked on the books she was reading, but learned nothing. They ranged from ancient history to abstract mathematics, plus a couple of Steven King novels. Sanderson had a feeling she was trying to throw him off of some track. She made no phone calls, spoke to almost no one, and made no further attempt to contact Bradshaw. What was she waiting for?
Sanderson also listened to the tapes made from Bradshaw's bug. Unlike Octavia, Bradshaw held almost constant conversations – except that only one side of them could be heard. He conversed with Oscar and someone named Melchizidek, obviously a code name. Sanderson wasn't sure he believed the story that Oscar was an imaginary gnome. Bradshaw might be trying to put one over on Octavia Tiller. It was entirely possible Bradshaw was talking into a transmitter, digitally encrypted so that the transmissions were undetectable by normal means. Bradshaw could be speaking in code. In any event, he said nothing about the missing DVD or the secret weapon, or even Octavia Tiller.Sanderson began to get the feeling this whole exercise was useless.
In truth, Octavia had not been doing nothing. She had been thinking. She had been thinking about what to do next. She had been thinking about how far she could trust a lunatic like Bradshaw. She had been wondering if her uncle's invention really worked. Finally, she decided to find out.
At the library, in the afternoon, she waited until the agent assigned to watch her left to go to the men's room. He did this quite often, possibly with a slight prostate problem. When he was gone, Octavia rose and went over to Mrs Smithers. She handed the old lady a note. It said,
Dear Mrs Smithers,
Please give the bearer, Octavia Tiller, the small package I asked you to save for me in your filing cabinet. Once again, thank you for your help.
P.S. How are your petunias doing?
Mrs Smithers sighed.
“Poor Dr Bradshaw does get confused,” she said. “I don't have any petunias. But that's his signature, all right. He told me you might be along to pick up his package. Just a moment, please.”
A minute later, Octavia left the library carrying the package in plain sight. Her shadow, emerging from the men's room, glanced frantically around the reading room, then asked Mrs Smithers if she had seen “that young woman” leave. Mrs Smithers gave him a vague look.
“Which young woman? Perhaps she's in the Lady's?”
By that time, Octavia was around the corner and out of sight. It was only a few minutes walk to the RV park and her van. She had, in fact, come to several decisions at once. The first of these was to test Bradshaw's pilot model of Project Emperor.
The van itself was too small a space for testing the device, but she got an extra blanket from one of the storage compartments. The RV park was bordered on one side by a grassy lawn, and beyond that was a wooded area. A small creek ran through that, and on the other side the real forest began. Octavia crossed the lawn, plunged into the woods, and waded the creek until she was out of sight of civilization.
Here, only a few dozen yards away from the edge of town, she might have been in the center of wilderness. In fact, she had been warned about tourists who wandered too far, got lost, and were not found for days. She kept going until she found a small clearing in the woods.
Here, she took a few minutes to look over the territory. There was no trace of recent human presence. No footprints, no gum wrappers on the ground. The only sound was the distant rapping of a woodpecker. At one side of the clearing was a tall pine. She went over to it, unfolded her blanket, and hung it carefully from the lower branches. Then she backed off about twenty feet. Bradshaw had told her he thought that was the maximum range of his device.
She opened the package and took out a simple metal box. It was about the size of two shoe boxes. It had a grill at one end, an on/off switch, and a dial for checking battery charge. The batteries were still good.
After a final glance around, Octavia pointed the box at the blanket, and flipped the On switch. There was a low hum. For several seconds, nothing happened. Then she was amazed, and pleased, at the result.
After that, she returned to her van and for awhile was quite busy with her laptop.
Later that same day, Bradshaw had a visit from Indian Jane. She stood silently in his front yard until he noticed her. She always did this when she came to visit. Then he came outside until he was within easy speaking distance. She said,
“Octavia lady wants to see you.”
“How do you know that? Indian smoke signals or something?”
“No. Indian cell phone. She called me because she knows you don't have one. Also, nobody tapping my phone. She says, meet her in van tomorrow morning.”
Bradshaw was still puzzled.
“They're not tapping your phone, but they're tapping hers.”
“Not satellite. Octavia lady has satellite up-link from her computer. She makes phone calls through outer space, nobody listens.” Jane made a spiraling gesture with a finger, describing a long arc through the sky.
Bradshaw nodded. “Okay. Meet her in the morning. She say why?”
“She say, tell you newer model on the way. Don't ask me what that means. All white people are crazy.”
“You're right about that,” Bradshaw said. "By the way, why are you using broken English today?"
"Just practicing," she said.
* * * *
Sanderson, meanwhile, was feeling worse all the time. The latest element was a demand from Babbage for a full report. Babbage implied the demand originated from a higher level than himself, whatever that might be. There was a list of detailed questions, many of which Sanderson couldn't answer. Babbage wanted to know how many people were aware of the nature of the missing invention. He wanted to know how many possible terrorists or their accomplices had been identified so far in Gopherville. What, exactly, had Octavia Tiller been doing? And what about this secret agent known only as Oscar? In a separate memo, Babbage informed Sanderson that more agents would be arriving from Washington in the next few days. Sanderson himself might not be aware of who they were, unless they had reason to identify themselves.
Sanderson wondered who was going to house the additional agents. The only motel in town was already full. So was the RV park. If nothing else, this operation was bringing a lot of new tourist business to the town of Gopherville.
Sanderson stared out the window, wondering how to make the best of this situation. He wondered where Octavia Tiller kept disappearing to, and how she managed to elude his best agents. The woman was as slippery as an eel.
He scanned the list of questions again. He had learned from long experience that when his superiors wanted answers to questions, it was always best to give them answers they wanted. Otherwise you might find yourself out of a job, or worse. Maybe even dead. For just a moment, he considered telling Babbage what he actually knew about Oscar. But only for a moment.
Sanderson sat down with a notebook and pen and began to compose a rough draft of his report: There is ample reason to surmise that the individual referred to only as “Oscar” is a foreign operative, possibly of Arabic or Iranian origin. He is probably Bradshaw's handler, but seems to be unknown to Octavia Tiller...
* * * *
As usual, Bradshaw was followed when he rode into town the next day. It would have been extremely difficult to miss the tail, since Bradshaw was on a bicycle and his tail was driving a late model Jeep Cherokee. Half way to town, Bradshaw stopped to take a pee in the bushes. The Cherokee stopped a hundred yards or so back, the engine running. Bradshaw grinned and waved before getting back on his bike.
When he got to town, Bradshaw rode down the main street at a leisurely pace, pausing now and then to peer into shop windows. The Cherokee of course followed, stopping when Bradshaw stopped. Eventually Bradshaw got to the other side of town, where the main street changed back into a highway and headed into the hills. There was a dense wood on one side of the road. Here, Bradshaw stopped again, leaned his bicycle against a tree, and stepped into the bushes, unzipping his fly. The Cherokee again stopped a hundred yards back, waiting patiently. Bradshaw kept going. He slipped into the bushes, between the trees, and kept walking. He walked a quarter mile, crossed a small stream, and entered the Wagon Wheel RV park.
When he stepped into Octavia's VW van, she just said,
“Your fly's open, Bradshaw.”
Bradshaw took care of that problem. Octavia was busy on the Internet, apparently reading and sending e-mails. Bradshaw helped himself to coffee from the pot on the little stove. He sat down opposite Octavia, waiting till she finished. He was beginning to wish he'd brought something to read, when she put down her mouse and looked at him.
“Lot of spam,” she said. “More Nigerian bank scams and phishing. It's a crime, the amount of junk you have to wade through.”
“Both on the Internet and in Life,” he replied.
She nodded, unsmiling.
“I need to have you dismantle your pilot model,” she said. “I could do it myself, but I'm afraid I might screw something up. I need the acoustic klystron.”
Bradshaw nodded slowly. “You're right. You would have screwed something up.
"I rigged the circuit so if you remove components in the wrong order, you'll zap everything with a 50,000 volt current surge from the capacitor. Oh, it wouldn't hurt you, it wouldn't blow up. But it would fry the circuit board and klystron.”
He didn't ask her why she wanted him to take it apart. He figured she would tell him if she wanted him to know.
“I need the klystron by tomorrow morning. Can you get it out by then?”
He shrugged. 'It will take me about forty-five minutes to take the whole thing apart. It isn't really that complicated. Just give me some tools.”
Octavia pulled open a drawer and pulled out a small electronics tool kit, passed it over to him.
“I'm having Emperor redesigned. You did a good job putting it together, but it could stand improvement. It needs more power and range. And I'm hoping it can be made even smaller.”
Bradshaw began inspecting the selection of screwdrivers.
“You're having someone else redesign it? Might I inquire who...”
“I'm outsourcing,” she said.
He glanced sharply up at her, not sure if he understood.
“To India,” she explained. “Remember, that's my job. I'm head techie in an outsourcing company located outside Calcutta. I have people who can do this. I've been talking to them on-line. I already e-mailed the entire technical manual to them. The redesign is already half done. They're going to invent some entirely new components, but they need to see the klystron to understand how it works.”
“Well. That means the secret is out, then.” Bradshaw began removing the cover of the metal box.
“Not quite. This is still an industrial secret. Nothing gets out until I say so. Of course, if anything should happen to me, such as getting sent to Gitmo, they have orders to publish everything.”
“How are you going to get the klystron over to Calcutta without the Feds catching on?”
Octavia gave him an innocent, surprised look.
“Fed Ex, of course. They're picking the package up here tomorrow morning. They guarantee it will get there in two days. My people will send me the finished product the same way, as soon as it's ready. Hey, you have to trust somebody, right?”
Bradshaw nodded his agreement.
“You can always depend on Fed Ex.”
* * * *
Sylvia, in the meantime, was not sure whether this would turn out to be a good day or a bad one. It had begun looking really bad, but by now she wasn't so sure. The two men interrogating her had started out by informing her of her rights, which were basically zero. Under the Patriot Act, she had no right to an attorney. She could be held indefinitely without charge. It was in vain she protested she always voted Republican. They made it clear she was in deep doodoo, possibly involved with potential terrorists and spies, perhaps in collusion with Tiller to abscond with a highly dangerous secret weapon. Then the one called Danny told her,
“Maybe we could work something out.”
Sylvia's sixth sense came awake, the one that always detected an underhanded deal somewhere.
“I'm listening,” she said.
The other man, the one called Lloyd, said,
“If you cooperate we can make the grand jury thing go away. The fraud charges could be dropped, your position as CEO reinstated.”
Sylvia thought of saying, Would you like a blow job? but realized these guys had no sense of humor, and thought better of it. Instead, she merely nodded to indicate she was paying close attention.
“Here's what we would like you to do,” Danny said. “You will need to make a public statement...”
* * * *
Sanderson was reading the encrypted e-mail he had just received from Babbage. It said,
Subject: Gopherville Cell
DHS wishes to thank you for your cooperation in this matter. We regard the discovery of this terrorist cell as bearing the highest level of importance. Although I will be in charge of every aspect of this investigation henceforth, we wish you to remain on the scene as civilian advisor. As of now, all surveillance measures will be conducted by our agency rather than by private security. Do not, repeat DO NOT undertake any action whatever without my express advice and consent. We wish the two main principals to remain at large (code names Mickey and Minnie) because it is expected they will lead us to other operatives in the cell, such as our elusive “Oscar.” You will, of course, keep me advised of any new intelligence which may befall you.
Sanderson re-read the memo. “Intelligence which may befall you?” He shook his head, wondering if Babbage might have been taking a creative writing course. This was the first he'd heard about code names. Well, the plot was thickening. Sanderson decided to rent some good videos tonight. He might as well enjoy his paid vacation.
For several days, nothing much happened in Gopherville. Strangers came and went. The men who were nominally working for Faustus Security left town. New strangers drifted in one at a time, occupying the motel rooms vacated by the Security agents. One of the new agents was a female named Gloria Flanders. She was charged specifically with following Octavia Tiller whenever possible. Nothing else happened in town. There was no news to speak of. This fact made most people happy, with the exception of Abner Peabody, who was the editor, publisher, owner, manager and main reporter for the Gopherville Gazette. Peace and quiet never sold newspapers.
On Friday morning, however, things began to look up. Peabody was reading his e-mail. It was from an old friend who worked in the news department of a network TV station at the State capitol. From time to time they would send each other what looked like interesting tips. This one said:
Abner – better catch our evening news. In fact, get ready to put out an extra edition. There's going to be a short interview of that Faustus CEO who's under indictment – Sylvia Whatsername. It's got something to do with your town. Judging from all the lids clamped on this story, it's going to be big. ~~~Dave
Of course, Dave wasn't his real name.
Peabody looked out at the quiet main street of Gopherville. The evening news wouldn't be on for another eight hours. Still, this was something he'd always wanted to do. He picked up his phone and pressed the button that connected the direct line to Elizabeth, his wife, who was in charge of the Hewlett Packard computer and laser printers down in the basement, which cranked out the Gazette two or three times a week. When Elizabeth picked up the phone he said,
“Elizabeth! Stop the presses!”
Octavia, meanwhile, had not been entirely idle. While waiting for the package from India she remained mostly in her motel room, going out for meals. Of course she found the bugging device under the bed almost immediately. She left it in place, but decided to get even. Octavia remembered she had an old friend in Calcutta who had helped set up the top security encryption code for Homeland Security e-mail. Actually, the no-bid contract had gone to a White House crony who headed a phony software company in the Beltway. His company employed a few bookkeepers and clerical staff, but no one who could actually write a program. All the high-paying jobs were sub-contracted. This one was outsourced to India. Octavia's friend owed her a couple of favors. He was one of the lower-echelon employees who had access to the DHS database and e-mail server, by way of some clandestine back doors. It didn't take Octavia long to obtain the user names and passwords of both Babbage and Sanderson.
Thus, she read Sanderson's e-mail on a regular basis. She knew all about the change in command and the change of agents, including Gloria Flanders. She also read a heads-up advising Sanderson of the impending lead story on the evening news that evening. Octavia stepped outside, turned on her cell phone, and called Indian Jane.
“Jane,” she said. “This is Minnie.” Octavia rather liked the new code names. “Would you do me a big favor and pick up Mickey? Bring him down to my room before six. There's going to be something he should see. You might be interested, yourself.”
Sanderson himself saw that e-mail after coming back from lunch (liver and onion special, with beer). He decided this was a clever ploy to keep Bradshaw, Tiller, and anyone else involved off balance. Babbage's security system was airtight. This announcement on the evening news was not going to be leaked in advance. Probably not many people in Gopherville would be watching it. It would even be too late for the Gopherville Gazette to pick it up, until the weekend edition. The entire town would be caught off guard. They would be thrown into a panic. When people panic, they make mistakes. Sanderson decided to mix himself an afternoon martini. The more he thought about this, the more he liked it. Finally, something was about to happen. Maybe Tiller or Bradshaw would make a run for it, or the real Oscar would surface. This would be a psychological master stroke. Furthermore, it would put Faustus Labs. back in the black, which was what mattered to Sanderson. Sylvia's position as CEO would be secure, and so would Sanderson's job. It looked like this was going to turn out to be a good day.
Later in the afternoon, about an hour or so before the evening news, Sanderson's phone rang, awakening him from a nap. His mind, somewhat blurred by alcohol and sleep, took a minute or two to comprehend who was on the line and what he was asking.
It was Peabody of the Gazette, wanting to know if Sanderson had any comments about the statement that was going to be read on the news that evening. Before asking, Peabody read Sanderson a complete transcript of Sylvia's forthcoming statement. Sanderson decided this was not turning out to be such a good day after all.
Around five thirty, Indian Jane showed up with Bradshaw in her pickup truck. In accord with Native American custom, Jane did not knock on the door, but merely got out of her vehicle and waited outside until Octavia noticed her. Octavia had been expecting them; she went outside to greet them.
“Glad you could make it,” she told them. “Don't forget my room is bugged – careful what you say inside. A little while ago I came out to call my stock broker on the secure satellite phone. I told him to buy up every available share of Faustus Labs stock. I had to sell some of my other portfolio to do that. He nearly went ballistic – kept telling me that's junk stock, worth less than a dollar a share. But he did it anyway. Now I own 51 per cent of Faustus Labs. That's enough to control the Board of Directors. I have a feeling I'm going to make a profit by this time tomorrow. Now, come on in and watch TV.”
The intro to the usual evening news was unusually dramatic. BREAKING NEWS - PLEASE STAND BY FOR AN IMPORTANT ANNOUNCEMENT flashed on the screen. After the usual commercials, the face of the anchor, Walter Gruber, appeared. He told the viewing audience they were about to witness an urgent, completely unexpected public announcement involving national security. This was so unexpected, Gruber himself hadn't known about it till five minutes before the show started. (“B.S., muttered Octavia.) Then the camera switched to Sylvia, seated behind a desk. She wore a severe business dress which managed to emphasize her bosom. She spoke looking directly into the camera, or at any rate the teleprompter.
“Fellow Americans,” she began. (Sounds just like the Prez, Octavia muttered. Bradshaw shushed her.)
“This statement has been fully approved by the Department of Homeland Security,” Sylvia said. “As you know, I am C.E.O. of Faustus Laboratories, a small software company involved in Government defense contracts. Recently my company has been involved in certain public scandals which have affected my own personal reputation. I am happy to announce that both Faustus and myself have now been completely cleared of all negative allegations made against us. All indictments against myself have been dropped.”
Octavia made no comment, merely raising an eyebrow.
“Sadly,” Sylvia went on, “this entire fiasco grew out of a conspiracy hatched by a certain cell of foreign and domestic terrorists. Faustus Labs has been victimized by industrial espionage. The perpetrators involved attempted to make it appear that we were guilty of some wrong-doing. However, they did not succeed. A vigorous and thorough investigation by Homeland Security has at last revealed the truth.
“However, I am here tonight to ask for the help of all loyal citizens. More information is needed. The general outline of the conspiracy has been discovered, but not all of the participants have yet been identified. There are several suspects under constant surveillance. I can not reveal all details of the investigation, but I am allowed to tell you that the center of this terrorist cell appears to be in the town of Gopherville. Also, that the mastermind goes by the code name Oscar.”
“Good thing Oscar went underground,” Octavia said. She spoke directly toward the concealed listening device. Bradshaw choked.
Sylvia had a few more things to say, begging honest citizens to come forward with any information at all, even rumors and hearsay. When she was finished, Walter Gruber began breathlessly informing his audience of what they had all just heard. Octavia turned off the sound. Bradshaw was still trying to stifle laughter.
When the announcement was over and the station cut to a coffee commercial, Octavia picked up the phone and began to dial.
“Who are you calling?” Indian Jane asked.
“That 800 number they just put on the screen. They said we should report any suspicious... Ahh. Homeland Security? Yes, I can hold...” (Thirty second pause.) “Ah, hello. My name is Octavia Tiller. I just saw your announcement, that we should report any suspicious activity or persons. I'm staying here in Gopherville on a business trip. I want to report that someone has been following me for several days. her name is Gloria Flanders. what she's doing here, she's certainly not a resident of this town. I suspect she may be one of those terrorists. You'll check her out? You're welcome, sir. I'm just doing my duty as a loyal citizen.”
Bradshaw gave up and burst out laughing.
* * * *
Next morning in Washington, D.C. Ivor Lark read the headline on the special edition of the Gopherville Gazette. It had been FAXed to him late last night. TERRORIST CELL IN GOPHERVILLE, it screamed. Obviously, there had been a security leak somewhere. This operation was supposed to produce maximum anxiety. Now the element of surprise was lost. If people knew about something in advance, or were well-informed about it, they were less anxious. Lark wondered if Sanderson himself might be the prime suspect for the leak. Eventually someone's head would roll.
Anyway, it wasn't a total loss. The whole purpose of this was to make the President look good. Before it was finished, that was going to happen. It did occur to Lark for a moment that the original purpose had been to recover a missing weapon. But only for a moment. The device was probably lost by now anyway, or it would have surfaced. Details like that could take care of themselves. What was important was a good photo op. Lark began to visualize the Chief in some type of military uniform, maybe one of those Kevlar vests... * * * *
I asked around and learned I don't know who she is or
Gloria Flanders stared in disbelief at the e-mail telling her she was being re-assigned to Washington. In fact, to a desk job. The message implied that somehow her cover had been blown. Pack your bags, and take the next bus out. How could they do this to her? She had been doing her job perfectly – watching that Tiller woman every minute of the day, from dawn till dusk, when Tiller always turned in. Gloria was certain she had never been detected. And this, just when her career was beginning to take off.
She looked at her brand-new, shiny, nickel-plated automatic Beretta and began to cry.
* * * *
The rest of the week in Gopherville was much busier. The Town Council decided to allow RV's and campers to park in the County Fairgrounds, in order to accommodate all the new visitors. These were mostly reporters and TV camera crews, who wandered around town interviewing citizens and taking pictures of anything that might look fishy. The motel was overflowing, and some people were renting out rooms in their homes. Sheriff Martinez appeared several times on the evening news.
Octavia remained mostly in her room except for meals and liesurely strolls around town. As yet she hadn't noticed anyone new tailing her. At the end of the week she had a message from the RV park that there was a Fed Ex package waiting for her at the office. Octavia as usual had dinner out, returning to her motel room and turning on the TV evening news, with the lights turned low and the shades pulled. After that she changed her conservative dress to blue jeans and a man's shirt, then slipped out the back window and into the woods. A few minutes walk brought her to the back of the RV park and to the office, where she collected her package. She debated going to her VW camper, then decided to return to her motel. Once back there, she opened her package and studied it for awhile. She came to another decision.
This thing needed to be tested properly. She would go see Bradshaw.
* * * *
Abner Peabody, bemused, read the latest press release from DHS a second time. It seemed vague, full of dire warnings but nothing specific. The alert level was being raised to Magenta in Gopherville – a new classification just below Red Alert. Peabody wondered why no one had as yet been arrested or detained under the Patriot Act. Sheriff Martinez seemed equally in the dark, as if he had been cut out of the loop entirely.
The next edition of the Gazette was nearly ready for the printer. Peabody looked at the front page on his computer screen. So far the lead story was about the high school football team, the Gopherville Moles. But there was also a blank column reserved for news, if any, about the terrorist cell. The paper would be hitting the streets the next morning, assuming it was ready by then.
He picked up a printout of an e-mail which his wife had handed him an hour earlier. It purported to be from an anonymous tipster signing himself “Candyman.” The signature suggested to Peabody that, if this wasn't a hoax, the author was likely not a man. It said:
For your information: The person found shot to death in his car recently was one Mark Tiller, an employee of Faustus Labs. He is survived by a niece, Octavia Tiller, who has been a resident of your town for the past 2 or 3 weeks. This whole terrorist cell business is a set-up by DHS. More later. I am a true patriot. Candyman.
So that was the victim's name – assuming this message was true. The authorities had been "withholding name pending notification of relatives." As well as withholding any other real facts. The story was getting juicier.
Peabody had already telephoned Faustus Labs to find out if Mark Tiller had ever worked there. When he asked the question he was immediately transferred to someone else who wanted to know who was calling and why he wanted to know. Peabody hung up. The next step was obviously to track down this Octavia Tiller and get some answers. But there wasn't time before the next edition was due. He decided to take a chance. Switching his computer to MS Word, he began typing:
The Gopherville Gazette has received so-far unconfirmed information that the individual found deceased in his car recently was one Mark Tiller...
Peabody grinned. He had a feeling the doo-doo was about to hit the fan.
* * * *
In yet another place entirely, Babbage was also reading a memo. This one was from Sanderson. Babbage realized he had made an error in ever placing any confidence whatever in Sanderson or his crew. After all, they were civilians. This particular memo was in reference to the mysterious Oscar. Directly contradicting previous memos, Sanderson now seemed to imply that the man might not actually exist. Of course, that was ridiculous. The only reason Bradshaw and that Tiller woman were still running around loose was so that they would lead Babbage's men to Oscar, whoever or whatever he might be. Without Oscar, there would be no terrorist cell, no threat, no conspiracy, and Babbage might as well quit his job. That was not acceptable. Babbage knew his own spooks would note every possible movement of Tiller and Bradshaw. True, he was puzzled how Tiller had tumbled so quickly to Gloria Flanders. There must be an internal leak – more and more, Babbage was beginning to suspect Sanderson. Still, there was no harm done. The weak link was removed. Other agents had already closed the gap; from now on Tiller would not be left unobserved for a moment. Babbage tore up the memo and thoughtfully lit his pipe.
He decided to treat himself to a spy movie.
* * * *
Early next morning, a number of events happened at the same time. Sylvia returned to her office, only to learn that during the night there had been an emergency meeting of the Board of Directors, who had decided to vote her out as C.E.O. This, of course, was impossible and therefore a mistake. The Board had also decided to sell all rights for the acoustic klystron to some unknown company in India. This was even more impossible. Sylvia was also informed that although Faustus Lab's stock had just gone through the roof, her own broker had inexplicably sold off most of her own shares at junk prices the day before. She began making frantic phone calls to Loyd and Danny, who however did not return her calls. She also called her broker, demanding to know the purchaser of her stock. She was advised the buy was made through a third party proxy. The actual buyer was anonymous, code named “Minnie.”
Another event that morning, apparently unrelated, was the arrival in town of an individual using the name Homer Devlin. He was youthful and somewhat seedy-looking. He arrived on the Greyhound bus which served Gopherville twice a week. He didn't look as if he could have afforded a motel room even had there been a vacancy, but he checked into one of the several new rooming houses which had appeared since the sudden influx of transients and newcomers. Devlin spoke to almost no one in town, but he immediately began hanging out at the saloon or the lunch counters or the town square, in fact anywhere he could listen in on other people's conversations. Devlin said he was a mechanic, looking for work. In fact he did fill out a couple of job applications. However, he was more than he seemed. Devlin was actually a long term asset for two or three Government agencies involved in domestic intelligence. His particular specialty was infiltrating various protest organizations, mainly for the purpose of managing or sabotaging public demonstrations. As yet, there was no protest movement in Gopherville for him to infiltrate.
But he had every intention of starting one.
When Sanderson saw that morning's edition of the Gazette, he hit the roof. Almost every detail of the conspiracy was spelled out in black and white – even the name of Project Emperor and stuff about the missing DVD, as well as insider information regarding Oscar. This could only be an internal leak. Sanderson reached for his phone to call Babbage. Then he stopped when a sudden thought occurred to him. What if the leak was Babbage himself?
Octavia also saw the morning paper, but wasn't too concerned. She assumed as a matter of course that “They” were up to something. She wasn't worried as long as They didn't interfere with her own plans. Her own plans were not complete, but they had taken on a definite direction. Events were in motion. That morning she let the maid from the motel in to clean her room. Octavia explained to the maid she was playing a joke on her boyfriend. She gave the lady a considerable tip, exchanged clothes with her, and slipped out carrying a laundry bag. From there, it was a simple matter to walk the few blocks to Sam Goody's garage.
Octavia had previously arranged to rent a truck, an old four-wheel drive F-150. It wasn't the kind of vehicle to attract any attention whatever in that town. She got in, cranked the engine, and drove off in the direction of Bradshaw's place.
Bradshaw, meanwhile, had not seen the Gazette and probably would not have been interested if he had. He was more concerned with deer getting into his bean patch. After all, Octavia had taken over all responsibility for her uncle's invention. It was her property, anyway. Bradshaw didn't see why he need be concerned. After some thought, he had extracted the listening device from under his dining table, taken it out to the barn, and fed it to his mule after coating it with powdered sugar. Bradshaw reckoned by now whoever was listening must be hearing some interesting gurgles, burps and other sound effects.
That morning, Bradshaw had been involved in a heated discussion with both Melchizidek and Oscar. It was Bradshaw's theory that he could set aside a second bean patch for the deer to raid. He could then make them see reason, and they would leave his own patch alone. Of course, the cat and the gnome both insisted that deer were too dumb and untrustworthy to be reasoned with. The discussion broke off when Octavia's truck pulled into his driveway.
“Climb in,” Octavia said.
“Ah, Ms Tiller.” Bradshaw put down his pruning hook. “I assume we are going somewhere. Aren't you worried about being followed?”
“Not really. There's the usual stakeout down at the road, watching anyone who goes in or out of your place. But they're only watching the main entrance, not the back way.”
“The back way?”
“I mean the mine road.” Octavia shut off the truck's motor. “On second thought, before you climb in you better get yourself a change of clothes. And pack some lunch. We may be gone awhile.”
Bradshaw gave her a strange look. At that moment, in fact, he was having a strange feeling. It was one of those pivotal moments which arrive now and then during the course of a lifetime – an intuitive knowing that he was about to make some important choice, a decision that once made would change the entire direction of his life. Or he could decide not to choose, in which case his life would go on as before. And he would always experience an unknown regret. This thought or idea or understanding took but a moment to register. Then he looked sadly at his unpruned bean stalk. Oscar and Melchizidek had both disappeared.
“Give me five minutes,” he said.
Octavia wasted no time cranking the truck's engine when he came back. At her suggestion he had packed a knapsack with extra clothing, blankets and food, enough to last two or three days if necessary. Bradshaw asked no questions. She put the truck in four wheel drive and headed uphill, through the trees and onto the old mine road. Sanderson's men had previously cleared the road with heavy equipment, but they hadn't gone back since removing all relevant evidence from the Dead Rock Mine. It was fairly easy driving. Even so, it took two hours to get to the mine. When they got there, they noticed that Sanderson's crew had used their chain saws to chop down all the brush in the middle of the clearing. They had also stuck a wind sock up on a pole.
"Helicopter pad," Octavia observed. She turned off the motor and sat for a minute, looking around.
“The improved model of Emperor arrived yesterday,” she said. “We need to test it. On a human being.”
“Who gets to be the guinea pig?”
“I'll toss you for it,” she said.
* * * *
The two agents assigned to stakeout near Bradshaw's place were Bill and Marla. They didn't like each other, but the Agency would only give them a cramped Chevy minivan to work in, so they tried to make the best of it. Marla thought Bill was trying to seduce her, not realizing he was gay. Bill just thought she was too ambitious and smart for a woman. They tried playing cards, until Marla lost patience with his ineptitude at poker.
“That truck's been up there a long time,” Bill said. As usual, they had videotaped the vehicle as it turned in to Bradshaw's road. That was standing orders, not that there were many vehicles to practice on. Bill ran the tape on the monitor again, but still couldn't make out the driver's face through the windshield. The license plate was spattered with mud.
The truth was, both Bill and Marla were bored to tears.
“Turn that speaker on again,” Marla said.
Bill flipped a switch on the audio which relayed sounds from the listening device which, as far as they both knew, was still attached to the underside of Bradshaw's dining table. In reality, of course, it was at the moment somewhere in the upper intestinal tract of Bozo the mule.
For several minutes Bill and Marla listened to sounds of gurgling and rumbling.
“Still going on,” Bill observed.
“Chemicals,” Marla said. “He must be running some kind of chem laboratory up there. Couldn't be anything else.”
“Maybe he's got himself a meth lab,” Bill said.
“Or worse. Maybe he's making bombs.”
Bill and Marla stared at each other a moment. Then they both said almost at once,
“We gotta call in a raid.”
Bill said, “Okay. But we'll need clearance from Babbage.”
Marla nodded, looking determined.
“You're right. We'll send him a clip from the audio and a video of the truck. How long, in your experience, do you think it will take Babbage to approve a raid?”
Bill stared out the window, beginning to look discouraged.
“Shouldn't take more than a week.”
* * * *
In another part of the country, Gloria Flanders was composing some more anonymous e-mails, using various Yahoo or Hotmail return addresses. The first was addressed to Sanderson. It began, Your Mr Babbage is not what he seems. He is really trying to sabotage your entire operation... The second e- mail went to Babbage and began, Keep your eye on Sanderson. He's a traitor... There were several other e-mails, one addressed to Sheriff Martinez and another to Abner Peabody. Each of them was signed, Candyman.
Gloria grinned to herself. Her own career might be going nowhere, but she could think of several others headed in the same direction.
The Dead Rock mine was as silent as it had been for years. Other than a few tracks on the ground and the newly cut brush, Sanderson's men had left few traces of their presence. The door to the old mining office still gaped open, as if someone were about to enter or leave. Bradshaw always had a feeling that the place was just waiting for miners to return and go back to work. Maybe it was.
He and Octavia climbed out of the truck and went to sit on the porch of the office. Bradshaw had packed a picnic lunch. He poured coffee from a thermos and handed Octavia a cup and a sandwich on home-made bread. She tasted it tentatively, then proceeded to devour it.
“That's great,” she said. “What was in that sandwich, anyway?”
“Don't ask,” Bradshaw advised.
She turned to look at him.
“You're a strange duck, Brad.”
“I know,” he said.
“I can't quite figure you out. Sometimes I think you're crazy as a loon. Do you really think that invisible dwarf is real?”
“Not a dwarf, a gnome, there's a difference. What's real, anyway?” He gazed at the mine entrance. “Is an irrational number real? Is pi real? The square root of zero? How about the President?”
She looked thoughtful.
“Good point, Brad.”
“Now, that device of yours. Of your uncle's, I should say. It's high-tech, but the principle was figured out by Tesla back in the nineteenth century. He realized that all solid objects have their own peculiar resonant frequency. He was experimenting with huge objects like office buildings, steel bridges and the earth itself.
"Tesla attached a small vibrating device to the steel frame of a large building. The gadget struck a beam with a little hammer. That sent a tiny acoustic pulse out through the frame of the building. Eventually the pulse reached the other side of the structure and bounced back, like an echo. That's where Tesla's genius came in. His gadget could time the echo. When it got back to its starting point, that little hammer struck again, making the pulse slightly stronger and sending it back out again.”
Octavia looked interested.
“Brad, I never heard this before. I knew something about Tesla – every engineer does. But I never read about this vibrator stuff before. I think I see where it goes, though. Every time that pulse bounces back, it gets a little stronger. Until the whole building starts to shake.”
“Exactly. Tesla always turned off his device before the building collapsed, but he did prove his point. one time he even started a small earthquake. your uncle's invention uses technology that wasn't around in Tesla's time. With an office building or a bridge, the echo might take as much as a second or two to travel out and There was Of course, back. With your acoustic klystron, the timing gets down to nanoseconds. So you can resonate much smaller objects – such as cloth fibers.”
She nodded. “Using much higher frequencies on microscopic objects.”
“Yes. Fibers – whether animal, vegetable or synthetic. Every fiber starts to vibrate like a violin string. All of them at once, vibrating all over the place, the amplitudes going out of control. Then suddenly they all snap – like, well, like broken violin strings.”
Octavia nodded, finishing her sandwich. “What about the human body? What effect does it have on that, Brad?
He grinned. “That's what we're here to find out, isn't it?”
She got to her feet.
“Okay, Brad, let's get on with it. You lost the toss, so you're it. Where should we do this? Right here?”
He glanced at the sky. “Call me paranoid, but I'd rather do this where they can't see us from a satellite or spy plane.”
“Follow me, Octavia.”
He led her to the opposite side of the clearing, away from the mine entrance. Neither of them had any desire to go into that dead place. Bradshaw led the way to a faint trail through the brush. He pushed through, bending branches out of the way. She followed, carrying the laundry bag. For several minutes they plunged through underbrush. Then they were in a small, circular clearing roofed by branches of tall pine. Bradshaw walked to the center and stopped, very still.
When Octavia came to stand beside him, he said, “Do you notice anything unusual here?”
She took her time answering. She stood silently looking around. It was quiet here, without the usual clamor of birds and insects. There was not a hint of breeze, as if the place were holding its breath. There was also an undefinable difference in the quality of light. Then she noticed what he meant.
“There's a stone circle,” she said.
“Yes. The stones are arranged around the edge of the clearing. They're not large, but they have been there a long time. No trees or shrubs ever grow inside the circle. The Indians know about this place, but they don't know who put it here. They don't think it was their own ancestors. Hardly anyone ever comes here.”
“It's a sacred place,” she said.
“Yes. That's it. Sacred.”
They both stood in silence for nearly a minute, as if listening each to their own inner voices. Finally she opened her bag and unwrapped the device.
“Let's get this done, Brad.”
“All right,” he said.
She moved several paces away from him.
“I want you to know one thing, Brad. In case this thing kills you.”
“What's that, Octavia?”
“Just that I find you highly attractive.”
“I'm old enough to be your father. Maybe your grandfather.”
“I always preferred experience over youth. Are you ready, Brad?”
“Ready as I'll ever be. Although I should probably have a blindfold and a cigarette. Go ahead and shoot.”
She flipped the On button. There was a faint hum. She pointed the metal box in Bradshaw's direction. She pushed the Fire button. For a moment nothing happened.
Then all of Bradshaw's clothes disappeared.
He blinked several times. “I still have my shoes.”
“Yes. I wouldn't expect it to work on leather, that would have a different resonant frequency. Do you feel any bad side effects, Brad?”
He pulled off one of his shoes, turned it upside down. A fine powder drifted out.
“My socks have disappeared.”
“So I see. Anything else?”
“I felt a tingling sensation. It's a little chilly. That's all.”
“So far so good,” she said. She walked across to him, handed him the device.
“Now you try it on me.”
“Are you sure? Did you bring a change of clothes?”
“No, but there's a blanket in the truck. Don't worry, these aren't my clothes anyway. I bought them from a cleaning lady. Go ahead, we need to make sure this thing is safe.”
Bradshaw looked doubtful, but finally nodded.
“If you're sure. I guess you know what you're doing.” He stepped back from her several paces, then raised the device and aimed. He hesitated a moment, then pressed the Fire button. Octavia's clothing seemed to shimmer a moment, then fell away in a fine powder, drifting on a gentle breeze. Bradshaw turned off the device and set it down.
“How do you feel?” he asked.
“Wonderful,” she said. Her eyes seemed wide and dilated. Slowly she turned in a circle, looking it seemed at everything for the first time.
“These stones, Brad. What do you think they were for?”
He watched her.
“The Indians say they were to promote fertility.”
“That's what I thought,” she said. She stopped turning, went over to him and placed her arms about his neck.
“Let's dance, Brad.”
* * * *
Oddly enough, Bill and Marla's memo requesting a raid did not take a week to go through the usual channels. By some fluke, it went directly to Babbage's electronic in-box. As it happened, he was at the time perusing a web site which concerned itself with student nurses who enjoyed being spanked. But when the You Have Mail window popped up, he dutifully read the message.
Babbage leaned back in his office chair, gazing blankly at a nurse's bottom. The memo was cryptic, as well as encrypted. Apparently there was evidence this Bradshaw character was running some sort of chemical laboratory, possibly a bomb or chemical warfare factory. Then again, it could be something relatively harmless, such as a meth lab. Maybe it was time to rein Bradshaw in.
He wondered where Octavia Tiller was at this moment. On his computer screen, he shut off the nurse web site and brought up his Project Daily Incident Report. The summary from the Tiller stakeout was there – She hadn't left her motel room all day. The only one to enter or leave was the maid. Well, no, not quite - another woman had left about an hour later. She was unidentified. No one had seen her enter, either. Another mystery woman. Babbage shrugged. That one would have to wait.
The first memo had mentioned a pickup truck turning into the Bradshaw driveway. Presumably it was still there. A raid right now might be a good idea. Even if there were no weapons of mass destruction, it would be a cinch to plant the evidence. Pull in Bradshaw, maybe he could be used as leverage against Tiller. Anyway, detaining a suspect might demonstrate two main points – that the Threat was real, and that Homeland Security was on top of the situation.
Babbage picked up his land line phone and got a direct patch through to Bradshaw's stakeout team. A surprised Marla answered. Yes, the truck had not left and yes, they could still hear chemical processing on their bug. Babbage hung up and punched another number. In a few minutes he had arranged for a SWAT team to fly in by chopper. They would locate the pickup truck, land at Bradshaw's place, and detain everyone in sight.
Babbage decided to sit back and wait. To kill time, he went back to his previous web site.
* * * *
Sanderson, still stuck in his motel room, was listening when the first transmissions came in from the SWAT team. Sanderson had his scanner turned on most of the time, tuned to certain encrypted frequencies used exclusively by people in his line of work. He turned off his TV and listened with interest.
Dragonfly in flight, the pilot announced. ETA at House of Mickey is twenty-five minutes. Mickey, of course, was Bradshaw's code name. Sanderson wondered what was going on. Where was Minnie and what was she up to? And why wasn't he, Sanderson, being kept informed?
A sudden inspiration came to Sanderson. If Babbage was leaking information to the press, two could play at that game. He picked up his phone and punched in the number for the Gopherville Gazette. The editor himself answered.
“Get this,” Sanderson barked. “They're pulling a raid on Bradshaw's place at this moment, as I speak to you. That's right, helicopters, SWAT team, the whole bit. Why? How should I know, I just know what I know. Get a camera crew out there. Me? Let's just say I'm a concerned citizen.”
Sanderson hung up and settled back to listen to his scanner. That ought to teach Babbage to cut Sanderson out of the loop.
Dragonfly to Beehive, the transmission came half an hour later. Mickey has moved. I say again, Mickey has moved. Dragonfly is on the ground. There is no sign of subject. No evidence of chemical factory... The truck? What truck? You didn't say anything about a truck... Affirmative, we located the listening device. It's still transmitting, not defective. We found it in a pile of mule poop out behind the barn. At least, I think it's a mule. Might be a horse. It's big, anyway. Roger, Beehive, we will attempt to locate your truck.
Sanderson was becoming increasingly puzzled, listening. Babbage on the other hand was becoming increasingly frustrated. He never should have called in the regular SWAT. He should have got his own black ops people in the first place, although that would have taken more time. Then again, maybe it wasn't too late. He made another phone call.
Dragonfly to Beehive. We have contact with the truck. There were fresh tire tracks from House of Mickey to the old mine road. We followed the road up to Dead Rock. The truck is parked in a clearing, no personnel in view. Do you want us to land, Beehive? Also, be advised there appears to be a TV crew arriving on the scene at House of Mickey. Also, we have a weather front closing in. What are your instructions, Beehive?
Babbage fumed. Bloody hell, a TV crew? How did they find out something was happening? That probably blew any chance of planting a chemical warfare factory. He gave instructions to SWAT to return to base. Maybe the media people would get discouraged and go home when they saw nothing was going to happen at Bradshaw's place. He told SWAT “Team Bravo” would be taking over. Babbage wondered briefly about the “weather front,” but dismissed it from his mind. He had other things to worry about.
Andrew Gomez was the anchor man for Mountain News, which served several small TV stations that couldn't afford their own news services. Gomez was speaking into the camera, with Bradshaw's house in the background.
"Breaking news from the Bradshaw compound," he was saying. (Sanderson, watching the news, wondered when the place had become a “compound.”)
"Several witnesses report seeing an unmarked black helicopter take off from here a short time ago. What's that?" (Gomez cupped a hand over one ear to show the audience he was listening to an earpiece.) "Ah. I have just been informed we have an amateur video of that takeoff, taken by a local Boy Scout. We will be viewing that video shortly. However, the helicopter has departed the scene. The Bradshaw residence appears deserted. The mysterious Doctor Bradshaw is nowhere to be seen. The question remains, has he been detained by Homeland Security? Or was he taken away or abducted by persons unknown? The inquiry is continuing. Stay tuned to this station so we can let you know as soon as..."
“Team Bravo” consisted of Carl and Jim, the same two gentlemen who had murdered Octavia's uncle (They were now working directly for DHS rather than Sanderson). They were in their own helicopter and airborne within minutes after receiving Babbage's call.
Carl stared ahead through the windscreen.
“No screw-ups this time,” he said. “No civilian witnesses, no loose ends.”
Jim took off his sunglasses. The sky was getting dark, though it was still early afternoon.
“No screw-ups. We locate Bradshaw and pull him in. Unless he resists and we have to disappear him. Or maybe suicide him. Did you get a look at the weather map?”
“Yeah,” Carl said. “Looks like we might get snow. Not good flying weather.”
“Snow? This time of year?”
“We're in the mountains. Sometimes they get snow in June.”
They flew in silence. Despite some turbulence, they arrived over the Bradshaw "compound." Carl noticed someone on the ground pointing what looked like a camera at them. Then again, it could have been a RPG. He considered getting off a few rounds, but Jim turned east and flew toward the old mine road. In a few minutes they were hovering above the site of the Dead Rock Mine.
“There's the truck down there,” Carl said. “Doesn't look like there's anybody around.”
Jim circled two or three times, then landed the chopper not far from the truck. He cut the magnetos and shut down the engine. There was a soft whish-whish as the rotors slowed to a stop.
They sat in the cab for awhile, looking around. Then they climbed out, Carl with his M-16, Jim with a handgun. It was cold. When the rotors finally stopped, their ears rang with the silence. It was quiet up here.
* * * *
Peabody, editor of the Gazette, read his latest e-mail.
I have been observing the persecution of Dr Bradshaw on TV tonight. This is disgraceful. Dr Bradshaw is an honest citizen being made a scapegoat by Homeland Security for their own ineptitude. Why don't the people of this town protest? I say, let's have a meeting at the Town Hall.
Signed, Homer Devlin
Gopherville didn't actually have a Town Hall, unless maybe it was the Community Center. This was obviously an out-of-towner. However, it was typical of several other emails that had come in tonight. Peabody himself had tipped off the TV reporters, but he would be running his own pictures in tomorrow's edition. The photographs had been taken by one of Peabody's stringers, a Boy Scout working on his photography merit badge. This whole business looked to be developing into a real news story, for a change. Peabody decided to print that e-mail on tomorrow's front page.
He wondered where Bradshaw was.
* * * *
Sanderson wondered where Bradshaw was. He had put in a call to Babbage, but he didn't expect an answer. The TV crew had apparently abandoned Bradshaw's “compound,” but not before an alert photographer had caught the second, smaller helicopter heading east. Sanderson knew what that meant: A surgical strike. Babbage wasn't taking any chances. They would either pull Bradshaw in or take him out. Sanderson had also learned that Octavia Tiller was not in her room, and nowhere to be found. Slippery as an eel, she was. Sanderson was developing a grudging admiration for the woman. He wondered where she was. He wondered if he ought to have another beer.
* * * *
“I wonder where he is,” Carl said. “Bradshaw, I mean. And who's with him?”
“Spooky,” Jim said. “It's too damn quiet up here. And cold. It's dropped ten degrees, the last half hour.”
“Cold front coming in,” Carl agreed. “If it gets too windy we might be spending the night up here. You see any footprints or tracks around that truck?”
“Nah, ground's too hard. They might have gone any direction. You think they're armed?”
“We have to assume so,” Carl said. He checked his M-16 again. “I'm not taking any chances.”
“Babbage said to take him in alive.”
“Screw Babbage. It's more important I take myself in alive. You think I'm going to give an armed terrorist any slack?”
Jim nodded. There was something about this place that gave him the creeps. He didn't like standing out here in the open, exposed like this.
“Let's find some cover and just wait till they come back.”
A snowflake fluttered gently past his face.
* * * *
“I wonder where we are,” Octavia said.
“Don't worry, we're not lost,” Bradshaw said.
They had, of course, heard the helicopter coming in. Bradshaw had crept cautiously back toward the Dead Rock Mine, Octavia following. He had peered out from the bushes to see the chopper in the clearing, not far from the truck they had come in. By that time Carl and Jim had already concealed themselves. Bradshaw, in silence, returned to the cover of the trees. Now they were following another trail that led away from the stone circle, uphill.
“Brad, have you noticed it's getting cold out here?” They were, of course, still naked, having left their extra clothes and blankets in the truck.
“Hm? Oh, sure. Don't worry, I figure we have another half hour or so before we start going hypothermic. Are you sure you concealed that device well enough?”
Octavia had hidden the metal box behind one of the standing stones, then covered it with fallen branches. It was the best she could do.
“Brad, I'm shivering. It's starting to snow.”
“Shivering is ok. It's when you stop shivering that you have to worry. By the way, Octavia – in case we both die out here, I want you to know making love with you was the most fun I've had in thirty years.”
“Me too, Brad, but I'm not having fun right now.”
“Don't worry. It's just the other side of that big rock.”
“The stream. It comes down from the mountain.”
“Brad, I don't need a cold bath, I need a warm fire.”
“They would spot a fire in a minute, even if we had matches, which we don't. Come on over here.”
True to his word, there was a small creek tumbling down the side of the hill. He led her to the edge, then bent, scooped up a handful of mud, and plastered it on her chest. Octavia squealed.
“Brad, what the hell...”
“It's cold at first, but it will keep you warm. Turn around so I can put some on your back. After I do you, you can do me.”
They spent several minutes plastering mud on each other's bodies. After awhile, Octavia began giggling.
“Brad, you just can't stop having fun, can you?” * * * *
Jim said, “We ought to check out that mine.”
Carl said, “That place gives me the willies. What makes you think they went in there?”
Jim shrugged. “No reason, just they might have. I don't see them around here. They might be doing something down in that hole.”
Carl thought for a moment. It was hard to deny Jim's logic. But he didn't want to go in the mine. It was getting dark fast, and colder still.
“What if we go in there to look for them and they come back to the truck? One of us should stay out here to watch. You go on in and take a look.”
Jim shook his head, having none of that idea.
“Naw. Wait here a minute. I'll go pull the distributor cap. They won't be going anywhere while we're not looking.” Quickly, he strode to the truck, popped the hood, and came back with the distributor cap without bothering to close the hood. He made a quick detour to the helicopter to find a large flashlight.
Carl looked at the mine entrance. His mouth felt dry for some reason.
“All right, let's get on with it.” He led the way. * * * *
Octavia was panting, getting out of breath. Bradshaw had been leading her uphill. The climb didn't seem to bother him.
“Brad, I'm getting cold again! What's more, this clay is starting to dry out and flake off. And it's getting darker, and it's snowing. We're going to die out here, aren't we?”
“Don't worry,” he said. “Only a little further. Sure glad we still have our shoes. Are those real Guccis you have on?”
“No. What's that smell? It smells like rotten eggs.”
“Hydrogen sulfide. Now, if you had done your homework properly, you would know this is a geothermal area.”
“Just what I need. A tourist attraction.”
* * * *
Jim said, inside the mine shaft,
“At least it's warmer in here.”
“That's what they say. I hear it gets warmer the further down you go, till you'd have to take your shirt off. Hotter'n Hell. Which way do you think they went?” He shone his light first down the left gallery, then down the right.
“Don't know if they even came in here. Let's try left. Look for footprints.”
“Okay, but shut up. We don't want to make any noise. And keep your eyes and ears open, okay?”
“Okay,” Jim whispered.
They trudged in silence down the empty mine shaft. Carl swept his light left and right. They saw no footprints or any other signs of recent occupation. Once, a bat fluttered past Carl's head. He swung his rifle up instantly, but refrained from pulling the trigger. Jim shuddered. He wanted to ask if it was true about bats getting tangled in your hair. He wished he'd worn a hat. He fished in his jacket pocket to find a small flashlight of his own. He flipped it on and began flashing it in dark corners which Carl's light might have missed.
Carl stopped suddenly, causing Jim to bump into him. In his nervous state. Jim nearly yanked the trigger on his own gun. Carl leaned over to whisper in his ear.
“You hear that?”
“I dunno. It sounded like someone tapping on rock with a hammer. It's stopped now.”
Jim licked his lips, looked back the way they had come. He could no longer make out where the entrance was. After a full minute of silence, Carl began moving forward again. Jim followed, but not too close. He didn't want to bump again.
Carl turned into a side gallery. Jim followed. He hoped Carl wasn't planning to go down to any of the lower levels. This place was definitely creepy.
To one side, a yellowish glint caught his eye. Jim stopped and bent over for a closer look. He saw, embedded in rock, a piece of crystal with a streak of gold inside. Damn, he thought. Real gold. It probably wasn't worth much, but it would make a great souvenir. Then again, it might be worth some real money, once he saw how much was there.
From a pocket of his field jacket he fished out one of those multiple-use tools, the combined knife/saw/pliers/scissors, etc. He pulled out a screwdriver blade and began prying at the crystal. It proved to be stuck pretty solid in the rock.
After a moment he glanced up and realized Carl was no longer in sight. He considered yelling, but then remembered what Carl had said about not making noise. He shrugged and began working at the crystal again. After a minute or so, he thought he might have moved the rock a bit. He began to get excited. He had never found gold before. What if this turned out to be a really big strike? He wondered if he could file a claim. Or maybe he and Carl should keep it a secret, come back and mine the stuff themselves. Maybe they could quit their day jobs...
Jim realized this crystal nugget was embedded pretty deep in the bedrock. He would need to use a little more force. Putting down his flashlight, he tried slamming the screwdriver into the tiny crack he'd made, using the heel of his hand. That wouldn't do. He needed a hammer. Of course – he could use the butt of his pistol. Picking up his Glock, he turned it around, gripping it by the barrel, and began tapping on the screwdriver, like a hammer and chisel. Tap, tap, tap. The crack began gradually to widen. Or at least he thought so...
Carl, meanwhile, had gone ahead, every sense alert to what lay ahead. He was like a tightly wound hunting animal, aware of every detail, every sound, every smell. He didn't notice at first that Jim was no longer behind him. He crept forward in complete silence, hardly breathing, eyes and ears straining, M-14 at the ready, his finger on the trigger.
There it was again. That tapping sound. Only now it was coming from somewhere behind him. Looking back, he realized Jim was no longer there. Carl had turned into a side tunnel, so that he could not see Jim's flashlight. A cold chill went down his back, despite the warmth. Tap, tap, tap. How could someone – or something – have got to Jim without his hearing or seeing anything? This was too weird. Carl spun in his tracks, looking for something to shoot. There was nothing – only that distant tapping sound. What the hell was it? Carl began silently retracing his steps. He considered calling out for Jim, but that might only alert the enemy, whoever or whatever it was.
Carl had just reached the place where the side bore joined the main tunnel, when there was a deafening roar and a scream. Carl reacted by pointing both his light and his rifle down the main tunnel. There, some distance away, he could make out Jim lying on the ground. Cautiously, Carl moved in that direction, swinging his light and weapon from side to side and frequently looking back.
Jim was still alive. Carl glanced at him, but didn't stop surveying the tunnel. He couldn't see any place for an enemy to hide, but he was taking no chances.
“What happened?” Carl whispered.
“I shot myself in the damn foot, that's what happened,” Jim said. Then he passed out.
* * * *
Octavia was hugging herself. Most of the mud had dried and flaked off, leaving her mostly naked and turning blue. Light was fast fading from the sky, and the temperature had dropped another ten degrees in the past half hour. Snow was falling steadily, further reducing visibility.
“Brad, I'm really really cold,” she managed to say. She could barely speak through the chattering of her teeth. Oddly enough, the cold didn't seem to affect Bradshaw as much, despite the lack of fat on his body. He simply trudged on through the snow. Then he stopped.
“Look over there,” he said. They had been following the creek upstream. The rotten egg odor was stronger. Through the falling snow, Octavia could make out a faint mist.
“Wh-what is it?” she stammered.
“Steam,” he said. He took one of her hands, leading her forward. “Geothermal, remember? Come on, let's wash the mud off.”
She tried to pull back as he led her toward the creek. She could hear the faint gurgle of water. Then, off balance, she stumbled forward and into the creek.
“Better take your shoes off,” Bradshaw said, removing his own. “Don't want to ruin your Guccis.”
“My God, Brad, it's warm!” She plunged ahead into the creek, waist-deep at this point. She ducked her head under, then came up with a drawn-out aaahhh of pure pleasure.
“It's actually hotter than you think.” Bradshaw simply sat down closer to the bank, till the water was up to his neck. “When your body temp gets back to normal, you'll see what I mean.” For a minute he sat and admired her body, as she eased herself gently in and out of the water.
“There's a hot spring further up,” he explained. “It helps feed the stream. There are some spots where it's hot enough to boil an egg. You have to be careful. But it gradually cools off for a hundred yards or so, till you get to ice water. It's never exactly the same, from one hour to the next. But this spot here is always pretty warm.”
Octavia tired of bobbing up and down. She came over to Bradshaw and sat down next to him.
“It's nearly dark. I can hardly see my hand in front of my face. What do we do now, Brad? Where do we spend the night?”
“Right here, Octavia.” He shrugged. “Or a few feet downstream, where it's slightly cooler. You don't want to get overheated. Come on, follow me.” He got up and waded downstream through fine sand, till he found a spot he seemed to like. Then he lay down on the bank, so that his body was under water and only his head in the air. Octavia imitated him, lying down next to him.
“I must tell you something, Octavia.”
“Now what, Brad?”
“Just that I have long imagined sleeping with you. But I never dreamed it would be like this.”
* * * *
Next morning, a special two page issue of the Gazette hit the stands. There had been a number of special issues lately. The Gazette was close to becoming a daily. The headline screamed: WHERE IS BRADSHAW? With the missing person's picture spread over two columns.
Peabody had been busy all night. Gloria Flanders, as “Candyman,” was still busy feeding him classified information which she obtained by monitoring other people's mail. The Gazette's lead story explained that Bradshaw was being sought for questioning in the assault on a Federal agent, resulting in a serious gunshot wound. The story went on to relate that there was fear for Bradshaw's safety, since he was believed to have taken refuge in the woods, without shelter and in a snow storm. Sheriff Martinez said he would send out search parties at first light, but “held out slim hope for the elderly man's survival.” Overnight temperatures had dropped to five below zero.
Most of this stuff had come from Gloria. “The Department of Homeland Security could not be reached for comment.” There was also mention of an abandoned truck, which was believed to have been rented by someone using an assumed name and fake ID. And wearing a maid's uniform. Peabody enjoyed the weirdness of that last detail, and managed to work it into one of his sub-heads. He was looking forward to this week's advertising revenue.
Sanderson was still trying to figure out what was going on. He didn't think it was what seemed to be happening. He kept sending e-mails to Babbage and getting no response, or responses that meant almost nothing. He decided to go back to bed.
Carl had got Jim back to town late last night. By that time Carl was thoroughly disgusted. He was also cold, hungry, filthy and exhausted.
He'd had to put a tourniquet on Jim's leg to stop the bleeding, until he could get the shoe cut off his foot, using Jim's all-purpose tool. Meanwhile Jim kept screaming, hollering and complaining. When he finally got the remains of Jim's shoe off his foot, he ripped Jim's shirt to shreds to use as a bandage. (Jim screamed about that, too. It was an expensive shirt.) Then Carl had to abandon his M-14 so he could lift Jim in a fireman's carry and get him out of the Dead Rock Mine. He kept expecting to get shot in the back. There was too much snow and ice to take off in the chopper, so he was forced to commandeer the truck. Jim continued screaming, on the bone-jarring trip down the mountain. He passed out several times. During one of his spells of unconsciousness, Carl used his cell phone to patch through to Babbage and tell him what was happening.
“He couldn't have shot himself,” Babbage said. “How would that sound? I'm putting out an APB for that Bradshaw.”
“I thought there already was one.”
“Huh? Never mind, just get Jim back to Gopherville. I'll have somebody meet you. Don't talk to anyone.”
“I never do,” Carl said.
That afternoon, there wasn't another special edition of the Gazette, but the story made the TV news, with additional embellishments. Octavia Tiller, named as another “suspect” (the source didn't indicate what she was suspected of, exactly) was also missing and being sought. Sheriff Martinez had sent out a search party equipped with a bloodhound, but so far had found no trace of the missing Bradshaw. What was not reported was the fact that one of Martinez's deputies had discovered the missing acoustic klystron device, concealed under some out-of-place tree branches next to a big rock. Andrew Gomez, the TV anchorman, concluded his report by saying there was speculation Bradshaw was actually already in secret custody, under provisions of the Patriot Act, and that he had been shipped off to Guantanamo.
It was this last rumor that triggered the agent provocateur, Homer Devlin, into action. He had been carefully cultivating relationships with several people in town, none of them important, but all vocal and active. Devlin quickly got them to organize a spontaneous protest demonstration in front of the Sheriff's office. They would have picketed Homeland Security, except for the fact there was no such office in that area. Devlin himself stayed on the fringes of the crowd, out of TV camera range. As protest demos go, it wasn't much, but of course they're always bigger and louder on TV.
Octavia had awakened that morning feeling wonderfully rested, despite having awakened a number of times in the night, wondering where on Earth she was. She had been dreaming about bath tubs. She sat up on the bank of the warm stream, to find Bradshaw already packing his body with steaming mud.
“Ready for breakfast?” he asked cheerfully. “I'm afraid it's a bit of a walk, but at least it's stopped snowing.”
As it turned out, a bit of a walk meant about two miles. They crossed the stream and headed downhill. They stopped a couple of times to pack more clay on each other's bodies, but Octavia didn't feel nearly as cold as she had the night before. She was surprised to find that hiking naked in the snow was exhilarating.
In due time, they came to an old A-frame cabin a few yards back from the creek and under an overhanging cliff.
“Fishing cabin,” Bradshaw explained. “A few of us around here use it during the Spring and Summer. We try to keep it stocked for emergencies.” He pulled open the door, which wasn't locked. Inside, there were four bunks tucked under the sloping walls. There was a cast-iron stove in the middle of the room, and a home-built cupboard on the back wall. There was one window. Bradshaw picked up a blanket from one of the bunks, tossed it to Octavia. Then he went back outside to scrub off his remaining clay in the snow, before wrapping himself in another blanket. Next, he shoved a couple pieces of firewood into the stove, found some matches, and proceeded to build a fire.
“You said something about breakfast.” Octavia, once warmed, discovered she was ravenously hungry.
“I'm afraid there's no coffee, but there ought to be some tea left,” Bradshaw said. He opened the cupboard, revealing a modest stockpile of canned food. He put some water on to boil, then brought out a large can of pork and beans.
“Looks great,” Octavia said.
After they had eaten every last bean and trace of tomato sauce, Bradshaw unwrapped his blanket, took a paring knife and cut a small hole in the center. Then he pushed his head through, wearing the blanket like a poncho. He picked up another blanket and did the same for Octavia, who put in on and did a little dance step, like a fashion model.
“Elegant.” She winked. “What now, Brad?”
He shrugged. “That's up to you. If we follow that trail downstream we could get to Indian Jane's house before dark. She can come up with some extra clothes for us, as well as dinner. Or we could hole up here for a week, there's enough food to last. No telling how long this weather will last, though.”
“I don't know about you, Brad, but Octavia is exhausted. Sleeping in a hot tub was nice, but I got really relaxed. Then a two mile hike, naked in the snow before breakfast, sort of got to me. I say we go back tomorrow morning.”
Bradshaw nodded. “Have to admit I'm a little tired myself. We can rest up and head back tomorrow. No hurry. Only one thing bothers me, Octavia.”
She yawned. “What's that, Brad?”
“That little machine of yours. What if they find it?”
“I wouldn't worry. It's still only a prototype. It doesn't have a good power supply. My R and D people are working on a better model.”
“But if they find this one...”
“The battery is about dead, after two uses. It can be recharged, if you enter the proper code on the little keypad. But they don't have the code.”
Bradshaw gave her a thoughtful look.
“And what happens if someone tries to recharge without the right code?”
“Meltdown,” she said.
Octavia lay down on a cot, pulled another blanket over her head, and went to sleep.
* * * *
Meanwhile, back in Gopherville, chaos continued to escalate.
Later, there would be certain Brain Trust people who would try to analyze exactly what went wrong, and how such fiascos might be prevented in the future. Or at least how the public might be prevented from finding out about them. In the short term, Sheriff Martinez and Sanderson were destined to take the main heat.
Martinez was baffled by the crowd out in front bearing placards and demanding the release of Dr Bradshaw. Martinez himself went out to address the crowd and explain that Bradshaw was not in custody, but that didn't seem to matter. They seemed to expect that Martinez ought to be able to do something. After awhile he scratched his head, shrugged, and went back inside.
About an hour later, two other people showed up at almost the same time. The first was Sanderson. He had grown weary of being excluded from the loop. Sanderson knew he was getting no real information from Babbage or anyone else, with the possible exception of the Gazette. He decided to try pumping Martinez. Or perhaps he could just listen in and pick something up. Martinez was cordial enough, offering him coffee and a place to sit. But he claimed he didn't know what was going on. There was still a search party up in the hills somewhere, with a bloodhound, looking for Bradshaw. Octavia Tiller was nowhere to be found. She might or might not have been the one who rented the truck, no one was sure about anything, it seemed. Bradshaw was not wanted for shooting the DHS agent – at first he was, but now it appeared the agent was shot by Persons Unknown. The bullet lodged in his foot had been sent to Ballistics for testing. Martinez himself thought they should search the Dead Rock Mine again, soon as the snow let up.
Before Sanderson could begin to ask many questions, the second individual showed up. This was one of the Sheriff's deputies, named Sam. He was overweight in a way that made him intimidating, rather than soft-looking. He was carrying something in a black plastic bag.
“Any sign of him?” Martinez asked. Then, in an aside to Sanderson: “Sam was up there with the search team.”
Sam put the object on Martinez's desk with a heavy thump.
“Not a trace, sir. Dog can't pick up much of a scent in all that snow. I guess it freezes up his nostrils. But one of the Scouts found this thing. I would have called the Bomb Squad to check it out, but the kid was already swinging it around and banging it on rocks and trees, so I figured what the Hell. Thought you might wanna see it.”
Martinez blinked at the black bag, making no move to touch it.
“What is it?”
Before Sam could answer, Sanderson grabbed the bag and looked inside.
'I think I know, Sheriff. It's a dangerous weapon. Speaking as a deputized member of the Department of Homeland Security, I believe I should take this into custody at once. I'd appreciate it if you'd give me an armed escort back to my hotel room, where I can contact HQ on a secure line.”
Martinez was only too glad to pass this responsibility on to someone else. He breathed a sigh of relief when Sanderson and Sam had departed his office with the mysterious package in tow. Once again, he was happy about his decision ten years earlier not to take a job in Washington. He glanced out the window at the growing demonstration out front. A TV crew had arrived. He decided to spend the night in one of his empty cells.
Back in his room, Sanderson did make an encrypted telephone call, but not to DHS headquarters. He dialed the private number for his former boss, Sylvia. Luckily, she picked up the phone at once. Sanderson was a little surprised since he had never been able to get through so quickly in the past. Then again, he reflected Sylvia probably didn't have a lot to do these days.
Briefly, he explained that due to a stroke of good luck and his own investigative prowess, he had come into possession of a working model of the Emperor Project. To his disappointment, Sylvia's voice sounded apathetic at the other end.
“Hadn't you heard? I'm out of the picture. They stole the company from me.” Her speech had a faint slur, causing Sanderson to suspect she might have been sampling some of her own winery's expensive product.
“We may not be out of it yet,” Sanderson said. Using the pronoun “we” was one of his interrogation techniques. Make the subject think you're on her side. After all, this was an interrogation, and Sylvia might not cooperate. But she seemed to fall for it.
“Explain yourself,” she said.
“We may have the only working model in existence. At least it's one. We can copy it, provided I can keep it out of Babbage's hands. We can set up a whole new company before they know what's going on. Maybe overseas, in Swaziland or someplace. We can still get it on the market before anybody else.”
There was a long silence on the other end, as Sylvia considered that. Sanderson was afraid she was about to hang up. But then, he was after all her last hope.
“What do you want from me?” she said.
“First, information. I need to test this thing to see if it actually works. Before I do that, I need to find out what in Hell it's supposed to do.”
So Sylvia told him, after thinking some more and having a few more sips of Mosel. It didn't take long to explain. Sanderson's eyes grew very wide.
Abner Peabody was watching the evening news on the TV in his private office. This situation was making the networks, as well as CNN and Fox. In fact, he had just got off the phone with the Los Angeles Times, having agreed to write a story for their next edition. He would actually get paid for that. Peabody was feeling pleased. The anchorman on the news had a Boy Scout standing next to him. An Eagle Scout, judging by his badges. He was explaining that this was the local hero who had:
“...discovered a possible explosive device in the vicinity of the old Dead Rock Mine. Our phone calls to Sheriff Martinez have not yet been returned....”
Peabody of course knew all about that. He also knew they were still looking for Bradshaw. The TV video switched to a scene of the demonstration outside the town jail, where demonstrators were still demanding Bradshaw's release. Peabody considered the story he was about to write for the Times, and wondered how much of it he should make up.
Sanderson considered notifying Babbage of the fact that he, Sanderson, had the “possible explosive device” in his possession. He knew if he were to call him on the special line and actually get through, special agents would show up within twenty minutes to take the device away from him. On the other hand, if he failed to notify Babbage at all he could be held liable and possibly prosecuted for negligence or worse. He decided to do a “CYA” by sending an e-mail. He worded it carefully:
Babbage – it may interest you to know I have taken possession of some type of electronic device discovered near the old mine. It may have no connection to this case, and is probably worthless, but I thought you should know. E-mail or call me if you need more details. Sanderson.
Having done this, Sanderson resolved to try out the device for himself. After all, it might not even work. If it did work, he had time to decide on his next action. Probably Babbage wouldn't see the e-mail until tomorrow. Sanderson was seriously toying with the idea of pulling a disappearing act. This thing could be worth billions.
It crossed Sanderson's mind he could call a good-looking female agent to his rooms to try the machine on. He immediately rejected the idea, of course – it might be fun, but he didn't want more people than necessary to find out about this. Instead, he went to his closet and pulled out an old suit of clothes on its hanger. He had never liked the suit much anyway, wearing it only at formal office meetings mainly when Sylvia was in charge. He carried it into the bathroom and hung it carefully in the shower, taking care to move all towels and face cloths out of the way.
Then Sanderson stepped back into the living room, where he had a clear shot of the suit through the bathroom door. He picked up the device, flicked its switch to On, and pointed. He pressed the trigger button. There was a faint hum, but nothing else happened.
He noticed there was a little red light blinking. Under the light were two words – Battery Low.
Frustrated, he turned off the power and examined the object more closely. On the bottom, he discovered a small metal plate. He pressed it with a thumb and it popped open easily. Inside was an electrical cord that unreeled about four feet, with a common receptacle plug. There was also a key pad with four numerals, and a green light with the legend, Charging. The light of course was not lit.
Sanderson wondered briefly about the purpose of the key pad. Obviously some sort of security code, but he didn't know for what. Oh well, he thought, can't do any harm to plug the thing in and recharge. While it was charging, he could go out for a beer.
He pushed the plug into the wall socket. The green light came on. Not bothering to hide the device, Sanderson then left his rooms, leaving all the lights on.
When he came back an hour later, the rooms were filled with acrid smoke. The electrical cord was still plugged in the wall. At its other end was a lump of melted plastic. * * * *
Gopherville was the sort of town that usually rolls up its sidewalks after dark. The protest demonstration dwindled away, with demonstrators promising to return the next day. The TV crew packed up their gear and went home to dinner. Sheriff Martinez took advantage of the quiet to prepare a statement he intended to read to the media on the following morning:
The search for the missing Dr Thomas Bradshaw has been called off. We believe that given his advanced age and poor health, he could not have survived two nights in the open without shelter. A search for his remains will be conducted after the snow melts. As for his accomplice Octavia Tiller, there is no confirmation that she was with him when he disappeared. It is believed she may have chosen to drop out of sight for reasons of her own. Neither Dr Bradshaw nor Ms Tiller are in custody either of this department or any agency of the Federal Government.
Martinez looked over the statement and felt reasonably satisfied. The mention of Bradshaw's “poor health” was of course made up (it might even be true) but everything else was more or less factual. Martinez didn't actually know for sure who was or was not in custody of the Feds, but the statement was true as far as he knew. What more could one ask? He looked at the handwritten statement lying on his desk and sighed. Just to be safe, he thought he would spend one more night at the jail.
Sanderson spent the night staring at the ceiling. His career was over. He might even be going to prison. He wished he hadn't sent that e-mail to Babbage. He wished...
As it turned out, Babbage did read his e-mail in the morning. Around 11:00 a.m. there was a knock at Sanderson's door. Two men wearing black suits were there to take possession of the device in Sanderson's possession. He pointed to the mass of black plastic. He said, “It wasn't my fault...” They shook their heads, picked up the plastic and left.
Sanderson tried for the hundredth time since last night to figure out an explanation.
Martinez had read his statement into a TV camera earlier that morning, before the protesters could get worked up. After hearing the news they decided not to assemble at the jail. Instead they re-organized into an impromptu memorial service at the town park. They hoped to at least make the evening news.
That morning, Bradshaw and Octavia walked down the hillside from their camping cabin toward the trail that would lead to Indian Jane's home. They were each wrapped in blankets. At first they plodded through deep snow, but it became easier going with the drop in altitude. Octavia felt like talking. Last night, she had not slept so well in years.
“With me it was ZP,” she said. “That's why I decided to move to India. You know what ZP is?”
Bradshaw shook his head.
“Zero Point Energy,” she said. “The Government says it doesn't exist, so no one can get a patent on it. It's also against the law to reveal anything about Government research in the field.”
“I guess I've heard of that,”Bradshaw said. “I thought it was a myth.”
“Which is what they want you to think. Actually, all that stuff about perpetual motion or free energy probably is bogus. There isn't enough energy to make it useful as a power source. But that's missing the point.
“I used to work for a small company in Silicon Valley that mainly designed new microchips. You know, the kind of things that control your refrigerator or microwave or make your car run. We also had a grant to do some basic research, so I volunteered to do some work on superconductivity.
“I had this boss named Sidney. He was basically a pig. I knew going in that anything I discovered he would try to get the credit for, and probably succeed. Being an idealist at the time, I didn't care. To me, the work was important just because it was interesting. Anyway, I didn't actually expect to make any dramatic breakthroughs. I liked the job, despite my pig supervisor.
“Then, one weekend, I went to a seminar at the Stanford Research Institute that changed my life. It was about zero point energy. I needed to get a security clearance before I could go. The program was somehow connected to, or sponsored by, the Pentagon. What it boiled down to was, This is what we're doing with ZP energy. But it officially doesn't exist, and if you ever talk about it you go to jail, don't pass Go. I'm not sure why they were even giving the program, if it was so secret, how did they expect anyone to do anything with it?
“Then again, maybe that was the point. They didn't want anyone working this stuff out on their own. So they set up a classroom and tell them about it, on condition they never do anything, Catch 22.
“Unfortunately, they underestimated my potential for trouble-making. After the seminar, I did some thinking. We weren't allowed to take any reading material home, but I have a good memory, so I could do the math. I took notes, although I wasn't supposed to do that either. I saw almost immediately that the people in charge were missing something that was glaringly obvious to me. Of course, my own orientation and experience had to do with communication systems, not weapon systems.
“You see, the Pentagon was working on ZP as a possible propulsion system for space vehicles. They were thinking maybe they could eliminate inertia, or something. The Pentagon always thinks in terms of huge projects, costing billions.
“What I realized from the data is that ZP is after all what they call a 'weak force.' The amount of energy in a given volume of space is not that much, not enough to run an air conditioner, let alone a space ship. But for communication, you don't need huge amounts of energy. You can send a signal from Mars to Earth with only a few miliwatts.”
“I think maybe I see where this is leading,” Bradshaw said.
“To Hell in a hand basket, is where it went. To make a long story short, I got myself a project. I had to do some sucking up to Sidney to do it. The project took about a year and a half. I did my best to keep it under the radar – you know, to avoid publicity. You know the Casimir effect?”
“Let me see,” Bradshaw frowned. “As I recall, that has something to do with two metal plates close together being attracted to each other. I'm not sure why...”
“Because wave action of ZP energy keeps it from getting in between the plates. So the energy outside pushes them together. But it's a really weak force. You need special equipment to detect the effect, much less harness it.
“Well, I basically figured out a use for that. If you make a long metal nano tube, the interior can be like the space between the plates. That is, until you polarize it with magnets and open one end. Then that ZP can force its way up the tube. What you have got there is a conductor.”
Bradshaw looked thoughtful. “Okay, but what exactly is the advantage...?”
“The advantage,” she said with a faint smile, “is that ZP moves faster than light. You get practically instantaneous transmission. In theory, you could send a message to Pluto not in several minutes, but with zero time delay.”
“Aha,” Bradshaw said, still thinking about that.
“Of course, that's not the practical application. If you build the principal into a microchip you get the fastest chip ever built. And if...”
“Stop, my head's beginning to hurt,” Bradshaw said.
She chuckled. “You begin to get the picture. There are no ends of possibilities. Unfortunately, my mistake was underestimating the avarice and greed of my boss, Sidney. You see, I thought he would be smart enough to keep my process a trade secret, claim credit for it and maybe get himself a job as CEO in some other company. Hell, I didn't care if he made millions off my work as long as I got to continue doing the work.
“But instead, he called a press conference. He announced to the world that he, Sidney, had discovered how to harness ZP energy. Of course, the Feds descended on our offices early next day. The company was shut down. Sidney was rushed off to Interrogation somewhere. They wanted to know how he had got access to classified Government files. Didn't he know that revealing classified information is a crime? And besides, ZP doesn't exist anyway, so he was probably guilty of fraud.
“I saw the handwriting on the wall. I had already been entertaining the idea of another job in India. I always loved India. Especially Indian food. And Sitar music. I cleared out within a week. I assume Sidney tried to explain that it was really my project, but I don't think they believed him. After all, he had gone public to claim credit for the research.
“My ZP project of course disappeared into a black hole. Then again, you never know. Someday it may break surface again. You never know what may happen, Brad.”
He turned to look into her face and grinned.
“No, Octavia. You never know.”
* * * *
Babbage had been getting further instructions from Washington. It was assumed that Bradshaw and the Tiller woman were either escaped or frozen in the blizzard. (“Blizzard” was Babbage's term – he was from the South and had little concept of what a blizzard was.) At first Babbage was worried he might get blamed for Sanderson's ruining the prototype Project model. But Washington didn't seem to think that important. Babbage got the feeling that Washington didn't have a clue about the importance of this device. What was important was the President's standing in the polls.
So a plan of action had been suggested.
* * * *
Carl was again put in charge of the Black Ops phase of the operation. His former partner Jim was still at the hospital following foot surgery. He would be on sick leave probably for several weeks. His working partner on this job was Marla Velasquez, formerly assigned to stakeout duty outside Bradshaw's place. Carl didn't much care for the woman. She didn't seem eager to accept his role as authority figure and senior op. She asked too many questions.
Carl and Marla had driven an unmarked van up the old mine road to Dead Rock Mine. After making sure there was no one around, they unloaded a number of large wooden crates, which they loaded onto a dolly and moved into the mine entrance. Marla wanted to know what was going on. Carl was in a bad temper, not having had much sleep the night before.
“You can't figure it out?” he snapped.
“How could I? I don't even know what's in these boxes.”
“Well, let's open a few. Maybe then you'll get it.”
He used a small pry bar to pull the top off one of the crates. They were about a hundred feet inside the mine entrance, where it was dark enough to need a flash light. The crate was full of small plastic packages marked RDX COMPOSITION B – HIGH EXPLOSIVE.
“Old surplus junk the Marine Corps doesn't need anymore,” Carl explained. “It was on its way to the disposal area anyway.”
“So why are we putting it in here?”
Carl had to smile at her innocence.
“Weapons of Mass Destruction. Get it? Washington needs something to make them look good. So they tip off the local bomb squad there might be a terrorist arms cache in here. Next day, Gopherville is back in the headlines. Counter-terrorism wins again. Homeland Security is a hero. All in a day's work.”
For once Marla had nothing to say.
* * * *
Bradshaw didn't arrive back in town until late afternoon. He and Octavia had separated after being driven to the outskirts by Indian Jane. Octavia had made certain other arrangements with Jane, but Bradshaw hadn't really been listening. He was hoping to get home soon, but he supposed there might be some delay in that. Jane had filled him in on all the latest news reports.
He strolled down the main street and noticed the large gathering in the park. There was a TV camera crew, and someone was giving a speech. Bradshaw thought he heard his own name mentioned. He approached the edge of the crowd and asked someone what was going on.
“Sort of a combination memorial and protest meeting,” the stranger said. In fact, this happened to be Homer Devlin, the rabble rouser, who had never before set eyes on Bradshaw.
“It's in honor of the late Dr Bradshaw,” he added. “A sad victim of political persecution.”
Bradshaw nodded thoughtfully. He was about to turn away, when someone else cornered him. It was a TV person holding a microphone.
“Let's ask this gentleman,” the man was saying. “What do you think of the recent events in Gopherville, sir? How do you feel about the late Dr Bradshaw?”
“Deplorable,” Bradshaw said. “But I'm sure he got what he deserved. You'll have to excuse me, I'm on my way to talk to the Sheriff.”
* * * *
Octavia went back to her motel room, which of course was still closely watched. She suspected her RV park hideout might have been compromised by now. In any case, she felt no further need to hide.
Sanderson knocked on her door five minutes after she arrived. She had no time to change from the bib overalls and plaid shirt that Jane had lent her. She did get out of the poncho. She was looking forward to a hot shower and having a pizza delivered.
Sanderson seemed a little taken aback by her appearance, but didn't comment.
“We need to talk,” he said.
Octavia shrugged. “So come in and talk, I'll listen. I was going to order something. You like pizza?”
“No thanks. Have you had your TV on?”
“Just got in. Is there something good on?”
“Turn on Channel 4, the news.”
She picked up the remote, pointed. A moment later the screen came on. It was a picture of Bradshaw, looking unshaven and scruffy.
“got what he deserved,” he was saying.
“They're running that clip over and over,” Sanderson said. “I hear the Sheriff went ballistic when he saw that on live. Not to mention the news director, when he found out about it. Were you two together?”
“Certainly. Whatever he's done, I can give him an alibi. Or he can give me one, whatever. We were together till an hour and a half ago. Why?”
“He's down at the Sheriff's office now. They may hold him or they may turn him over to the Feds, I don't know. You could both be in a lot of trouble.”
She switched off the TV.
“Really. Trouble over what? Has someone committed a crime?”
Sanderson shrugged. “How would I know? I don't work for the Government, I'm civilian security. Come to that, you don't have to do anything to get locked up these days. Mind if I sit down?”
She waved at one of the chairs. “You sound disgruntled, Sanderson.”
“These days, I am definitely not in the gruntled category,” he said. “I didn't order your uncle shot.”
He shrugged again. “I'm not sure. It may have been a field decision, or they might have got an okay from DHS. I wasn't in that loop, although I thought I was at the time."
“So what did you want to see me about? By the way, is this room still bugged?”
“No, I had it turned off, not that you should believe anything I tell you. I'm not sure what I want to see you about. I'm thinking of looking for a new job.”
Octavia's expression became thoughtful.
“You said you're still in private security. Just who is your employer?”
“I thought you knew. I'm employed by Faustus Labs.”
“Yes, I did know, but that had slipped my mind. That means you work for me.”
He gave her a faint smile.
“Then it's true. My sources said you were the buyer, but I can't always trust the sources. Does this mean I'm fired?”
Octavia picked up the phone, dialed a number and began ordering a large size pizza.
“Why would I fire you?” she asked after hanging up. “As a matter of fact, Faustus needs a new CEO. Interested?”
Sanderson was surprised to discover that he was, in fact, interested.
* * * *
Bradshaw, meanwhile, was in a jail cell. He was in a small cell of his own, not in the main holding cell reserved mainly for town drunks and muggers. One of the deputies had kindly provided him with a late dinner, which he was eagerly scarfing down. When Martinez appeared, Bradshaw told him,
“One of my favorites. Tuna casserole. I sure do appreciate your hospitality, Sheriff.”
“Glad to hear it, Brad. Peabody and a bunch of other journalists out front are clamoring to see you, but I told them no.”
“ I appreciate that, too. What am I charged with, and when do I get my phone call?”
“No charge, no phone call. This is Patriot Act stuff. I had a call from DHS to grab you if I saw you. Somebody will be down in the morning to ask questions.”
“Well, I do hope I can be of assistance. Just let me know if I can do anything for you, Sheriff.”
Martinez turned away, then stepped back.
“Mind if I ask you something personal, Brad?”
“Not at all, ask away.”
“Is Oscar there in that cell with you? You know, that invisible gnome you're friendly with?”
Brad looked puzzled.
“That's funny. I'd almost forgotten about Oscar. I haven't seen him for awhile. I think he went back to the Dead Rock. I think he was getting fed up with town life and all the commotion. I hope he's okay.”
“So do I, Brad. So do I.”
* * * *
Babbage had been getting further instructions from Washington. Actually, they came from Ivor Lark, but messages were filtered through several underlings in order to preserve “executive deniability.” While insuring a high level of security, this method of communication had the drawback of some misunderstanding and confusion. Babbage of course was aware of who wrote these directives, though they were signed by various people he had never heard of.
He could understand the WMD scheme – tip off the locals about the huge arms cache, make sure pictures of all the bombs and stuff got on the evening news. A great victory for National Security and prestige of the Administration. However, Babbage argued that the plan needed a human angle. That is, they needed a real villain, someone like Osama or Lee Harvey Oswald. There was Bradshaw, but he wasn't convincing. He was too popular in town and a crazy coot besides. Then there was the Tiller woman, a bit of a loose cannon. Babbage couldn't quite picture her as an evil mastermind – she was too good-looking.
The obvious candidate was this mysterious Oscar character, whoever he was. Babbage had thought that either Tiller or Bradshaw might lead them to Oscar, but it was likely neither of them knew his real identity either. It might be better he remain at large; this way he was an ever-present threat, justifying all kinds of emergency measures.
Babbage was considering how to put the pieces together into a salable package, one that John Q. Public would buy. But first he would have to sell it to Ivor Lark. And there remained the question of what to do about Bradshaw and Tiller.
* * * *
Early next morning, Bradshaw received a visit from a Fed. Bradshaw never did get the fellow's name, or perhaps he wasn't paying attention. He hadn't been given any coffee yet. The interview was held at the jail's only interrogation room. Bradshaw said he wasn't prepared to confess to anything without a cup of coffee. The agent asked what he had to confess to. Bradshaw replied that he didn't know, not having had any coffee yet.
The agent got up to speak to someone in the corridor, asking for two cups of coffee. Without cream. When he sat down again, Bradshaw observed that the room looked just like those rooms on TV, with the one-way glass on one wall, and so forth. He wondered why he wasn't chained to the table. “Oh,” the agent grinned, “you don't look so dangerous to me.” Bradshaw grinned back and informed the agent of his black belt in Karate. (This was, of course, a lie. But the agent looked a bit taken aback.)
Most of the following interview concerned information which the Feds already knew, such as how long he had known Octavia Tiller. Bradshaw told the Fed he was unaware of Oscar's current whereabouts, but would be happy to pass on any message next time he saw him. He asked when they planned to send him to Cuba and start the torture?
The agent seemed to get more nervous and frustrated the longer he listened to Bradshaw, who was happy to talk once the coffee arrived. Finally he snapped off his tape recorder, muttering something about getting confused. He told Bradshaw he would be back. Bradshaw thanked him for the coffee.
(The summary above was taken from an actual transcript of this conversation.)
* * * *
Babbage and Lark, meanwhile, had settled on a definite plan of action. Lark was mainly concerned with the timing of the revelation about WMD discovered at the Dead Rock Mine. It wouldn't do to run this story any time this week, because the President was due to make an important Domestic Policy speech today. There was no point in distracting the media. On the other hand, next week one of the President's major opponents in the Other Party was due to give his opening speech in the up-coming election campaign. This would be a good time to distract the media. Babbage looked forward to a nice, relaxing day. He would be sure to tune in and catch the Prez's address to the Nation, later. After that, maybe he could fit in a game of golf. * * * *
This happened to be the same day that the Gopherville Gazette hit the stands, breaking the story of Project Emperor. According to the Gazette's usually reliable but anonymous source, Emperor was a secret device designed primarily for riot and crowd control. Either lost or stolen through bungling and incompetence, the Feds were eager to recover the plans. This was the real reason why Bradshaw was considered a “person of interest,” him being the only lead in the case.
The Department of Homeland Security immediately issued a statement that there was no such thing as Project Emperor – this entire story was a hoax.
Babbage had nothing to do with that statement. When he heard it on TV news, he realized Bradshaw would have to be released from jail. If Emperor was a hoax, he couldn't be charged with stealing it. Keeping him locked up would be a tacit denial of the Department's own official statement. Babbage swore under his breath for several minutes. Then he picked up his phone to call Sheriff Martinez.
* * * *
Carl and Marla, meanwhile, were completing their secret mission of planting WMD's. Altogether, they had unloaded three van loads of obsolete ammunition and explosives in the Dead Rock Mine shaft. They had included a dozen or so rifles, automatic weapons and pistols (formerly confiscated from drug dealers) for good measure. Those things are always impressive when seen on TV. Especially on Fox.
Carl and Marla had managed to get one van load up the old mine road on the previous evening. The second went up next morning. By the time they finished, it was midafternoon. There were some 500 pound bombs that had to be moved slowly and carefully, so they were both tired and somewhat stressed by the time they were done. Marla asked,
“Is it true those old bombs start to get more sensitive as they age? I heard they can explode if you look at them cross-eyed.”
Carl laughed. “Naw, not that bad. That's true of stuff like dynamite or black powder, but RDX is stable. I wouldn't worry about it.” Then he looked thoughtful.
“Although... Now that you mention it, some of those bombs still had the fuses in them. The fuses are black powder. You drop one of those suckers, that's all she wrote. But anyway, we were careful. Don't worry about it. Let's have some lunch.”
Marla opened the cooler and inspected deli sandwiches and potato salad.
“All the same, I'm glad we're done. I'm glad we're not the ones that have to come back and defuse the damn things.”
“Me too, lady, me too. What was that?”
“What was what?”
“Thought I heard something. Hey, I want that corned beef on rye.”
* * * *
When Sheriff Martinez unlocked Bradshaw's cell it was early afternoon and the day was nearly warm, outside. Bradshaw, still wearing his old bib overalls and unshaven, walked out past the few protesters outside the jail, who were still demanding his release. He nodded politely to them, but none of them recognized him. Bradshaw decided to stroll over to Octavia's motel room and ask her for a ride home.
When he got there, she kissed him and invited him in for lunch. As he was enjoying his soup and chicken sandwich, she turned on the TV.
“The President is about to give a special speech about National Security. I heard he's going to mention Gopherville.”
Bradshaw, chewing, watched the two anchor persons discussing what the President was about to say, until the Chief Executive himself appeared on screen sitting in front of his big flag. Bradshaw's mind wandered, thinking for some reason about String Theory, until the part about Gopherville.
“...and I want to take this occasion to reassure the people of this Nation that this Administration has them in good hands. There are rumors of terrorist plots in the very Heartland of America, in particular in the small community of Gophertown. I want to assure you, fellow Americans and citizens of Gophertown, that detentions are imminent. We have the situation well under control...”
Bradshaw had never thought of Gopherville as part of the Heartland. If anything, he thought it might be closer to the Big Toe. Nevertheless, his interest picked up, until the picture on the screen wavered, went blank for a moment, then came back on but without sound. A moment later the room gave a shudder, followed by a distant rumbling sound. Octavia raised an eyebrow.
"We hardly ever have those. Sounded to me more like something blowing up."
* * * *
Carl had finished his own sandwich about the same time Bradshaw was watching Octavia prepare his own. He enjoyed the corned beef, mustard and pickle, but kept glancing off toward the Dead Rock Mine entrance. Finally Marla asked him what he was looking for.
"You don't hear that?"
"I don't hear a thing," she said. "You sure you didn't get some of that toxic gas when we were in the mineshaft? They say it can make people hear things."
"No way. I heard that same sound once before. Sounds like someone tapping." He stood up, wiping his hands on his pants and checking his sidearm. "I'm going to take a look. You get the van ready, I'll be right back."
He walked toward the mine. As he approached, the sound grew louder. He thought it must be focused outward by the mine shaft, as if the tunnel were a giant megaphone. He began feeling uneasy.
Entering the shaft, he held a flashlight in one hand and his Glock in the other. He didn't turn the light on yet – there was still light enough to see down the tunnel as far as the first turn. He moved silently, listening. Tap, tap, tap... It was coming from the side tunnel to the right, where the explosives were stored. He was sure of it.
Carl approached the side opening, paused, listened a moment longer, holding his breath. Then he stepped sideways into the opening, at the same time turning on his light.
"What the fff..."
What Carl saw was an old man of small stature, wearing old brown clothes and a white beard reaching to his belly. He wore what looked to be a miner's cap. In his hand was a hammer, which he was using to tap on the side of a 100 pound bomb.
He looked directly at Carl, smiled, then brought the hammer directly down on the bomb's firing pin, just as Carl raised his gun and fired.
* * * *
The local news channel interrupted the President's address to the nation. George Gimble, the current news anchor, assured the community there had not been an earthquake. More information was expected momentarily. As it turned out, there was no difficulty tracing the source of the distant boom, since there was a column of smoke and dust clearly visible for miles around, arising from the area of the Dead Rock Mine.
The Channel Seven news helicopter was airborne in minutes and was shortly broadcasting a view of the scene. George Gimble was doing the voice-over, speculating about possible terrorist attack. As the chopper closed in on the mine, viewers saw a large van parked on the ground. There was a body on the ground nearby.
The chopper landed, someone jumped out and moved toward the body. The body sat up, evidently still alive. The newsman held a wireless mike up to the body's face, which proved to be that of a young woman. The newsman asked a somewhat incoherent and garbled question. The woman's reply, however, came across with perfect clarity:
"This job sucks."
* * * *
The next several days were confusing to anyone trying to understand what was going on. On the Internet, there were many new conspiracy theories circulating, some quite imaginative. There were several different explanations for the massive explosion at the Dead Rock Mine. Several reporters had tried to interview the woman rescued there, who proved not be seriously injured, only shaken up. She declined to say anything more. She was taken into custody by Authorities, and was not heard from again. At first there was some talk of terrorist bombs, possibly a secret arms cache at the mine which had gone up by accident. The only definite fact was that the mine entrance was now a huge pile of rubble, rocks and dirt. Finally, Homeland Security announced it had concluded their investigation by determining that the blast was most likely caused by an accidental accumulation of explosive gases in the mine shaft.
This was Babbage's best effort at calming things down. He had decided it would not go over well to claim Weapons of Mass Destruction if they had gone undetected. Babbage's staff had debated several other possible explanations, including the scenario that DHS had actually found the cache and blown it up without having time to notify anybody. That story left too many loose ends. The accident explanation was impossible to disprove, and therefore safe. When asked about the unidentified woman found at the scene, DHS said she was simply an Australian tourist, no connection to the blast. She had since gone home to Melbourne. No one knew why she had been driving a large rented delivery van.
Of course, not many people actually believed this explanation.
* * * * Sanderson said,
"I finally talked to Babbage last night, by phone."
Octavia regarded him over the edge of her coffee cup. They were conversing over lunch at a local diner, where they were reasonably sure there were no eavesdropping devices.
"He finally took your phone call? What did he want?"
Sanderson shrugged. "Information, of course. He heard about my getting appointed C.E.O., but I don't think he realizes you control the company. He does know about our frequent meetings, and wanted to know what's going on."
"What did you tell him?"
Instead of answering, Sanderson leaned back and took a sip of beer.
"Ms Tiller, did you ever wonder why I decided to leave a good Government job and go into private security?"
"Not really, but I have a feeling you're going to tell me."
"I was stationed in Peru," he said. "Assistant to the CIA station chief. My cover was director of a non-profit archaeological research project. That was sometimes awkward since I don't know anything about archeology. But it didn't matter much, because all the locals knew we were really CIA.
"Our actual mission was to inject pro-American propaganda stories into the local media, disguised as news releases from other sources. That part was easier than you might think. Do you have any idea how many stories in the news media are simply made up? Of course, we were also supposed to gather local intelligence and political gossip and feed it back to Langley. Sometimes we made up that stuff too, if it was a slow news day.
"The station chief was a language expert. Unfortunately, he was an expert mainly in Chinese, Japanese, and Korean. Highly educated and talented fellow. But he didn't know much Spanish. Personally, I speak enough Spanish to buy empanadas and cerveza. But most of the people in the town where we were located didn't speak Spanish anyway – they spoke Quechua. So you might say our job was made more difficult by the language barrier."
"I can imagine," Octavia said dryly.
"Of course, we did have two or three locals on staff. They did mainly translation and clerical work. It was a nice job, as long as we stayed out of the field. Great salary and benefits, wonderful place to live. But I was always worried that Langley might some day tell me to go out in the jungle and check out the actual rebels. A man could get himself killed doing things like that. Still, you could say I was happy in my job until the Explorer turned up."
Sanderson stared into his beer mug for several seconds, as if thinking about something else. Octavia prompted him:
"He said his name was Vasquez de Gama, but I'm sure that was phony. He was no more Latin than I am. He turned up in the office one day, wearing a bush jacket and carrying a thick folder. He said he wanted to apply for a grant."
"A grant for what?"
"To explore, of course. In the folder he had some terrain maps he must have downloaded from the Internet. He also had some photographs of what looked like ancient ruins. And several small artifacts.
"My immediate impulse was to turn him down flat, tell him we don't do grants and were not interested. But then I decided I might as well see what he was up to. If he had really been out in the back country, it was possible he might have some interesting information about the rebels.
"I have found the Lost City of Gold!" he said. "After searching for nearly twenty years, I have at last succeeded in locating the lost civilization! Most of my porters died, either by attack by savages or jungle fever, but I survived. And it was worth the sacrifice! Mountains of gold and jewels! Ancient books and scrolls, Wisdom of the Ages! And I found it! All I need is funding for another expedition, to reveal this discovery to the World. Of course, I wish to retain all film rights."
"I looked at the maps and aerial photographs and told him I didn't see any signs of a lost city. He said, of course not. It was entirely covered by jungle, the part that wasn't concealed in underground caverns. It went on for miles, bigger than Pompeii. It would take years to completely explore the place. I kept waiting for this guy to start talking about ancient curses and walking mummies, but he didn't go quite that far.
"I did ask him if he had run into any problems with the rebels, but he said no problem at all. He'd managed to make friends with them and got their permission to travel through their territory. Of course, I didn't believe that either.
"Finally, I told him I would have to check out his credentials with our head office in the States. I looked at the artifacts he'd brought with him. One was a figure of some sort of god, made out of gold. There was also a small pot, and a clay tablet with some kind of writing on it. I asked if I could borrow the stuff and have it evaluated by experts. He said sure, that's why he brought them along in the first place. I told him I'd have an answer for him in a few days. He left a number where he could be reached, and left the office.
"I had him figured as someone really new in town, or maybe just stupid or both. Otherwise he would have known we were really CIA – everybody else in town knew. Later, I began to suspect he knew all along. I think he was playing us for suckers, but I'll never know for sure.
"I had his artifacts sent back to Langley by diplomatic pouch, along with a memo asking how to proceed. What I expected to happen was, I would get back a directive telling me the artifacts were fakes, and I should forget the whole thing. Unfortunately, that wasn't exactly what happened.
"Oh, they did say they were fakes. Langley had the artifacts examined by professionals at the Smithsonian. Although the gold idol was actually real gold – in fact, almost pure 24 karat. But it didn't resemble anything else known from any culture in that part of the world. Same with the clay pot. It was carbon dated to about 500 A.D., but it didn't look South American at all. Probably something he'd picked up in an antique store in Singapore or Hong Kong, or maybe San Francisco. As for the tablet with writing, since all the experts agreed that no South American civilization ever achieved the written word, that was obviously bogus as well. They didn't even bother trying to translate.
"That was all well and good, but the second part of the directive made me wish I'd just told the Explorer to get lost in the first place. They told me to agree to his request for a grant."
(Here, Sanderson nodded sadly at Octavia's startled expression.)
"Yes. Langley even included a preliminary cash advance. I was supposed to tell the Explorer that the Smithsonian was really interested, and was going to fund him on two conditions. observer. Rebels again and get them to guarantee safe passage.
“Of course, that was the whole point. They wanted me to scope out the rebel army and pick up any information I could, then report back. Nobody cared a rat's ass if the Lost City existed or not.
“I should have resigned immediately. But I was dumb. I had my career to think of, all those benefits and perks and so on. And I really thought Langley knew what they were doing. Well, it had been more than a week since I'd sent that stuff off to Langley. I had a half-hearted hope that Vasquez de Gama, or whatever his name really was, had decided to leave town by then. But he was still at the address he'd given me, which turned out to be a fairly decent downtown First, he had to take me along as an impartial Second, that he had to make contact with the rooming house. I looked him up and passed on Langley's proposal, telling him of course that it came from the Smithsonian. I expected him to agree right away, but he thought it over for a few minutes. Then he said,
“On one condition. I insist on a written contract giving me complete film rights.”
"So I relayed that back to HQ. Sure enough, after three or four days a legal-looking document came through giving the Explorer what he wanted. I resigned myself to a trip into the bush.
"Okay, I'll make a long story short. I can see you're getting bored." (Octavia was anything but bored. She was fascinated.)
"It took us about two weeks of slogging through the woods before we made contact. It seemed more like two months. I had to carry a lot of gear on my own back, and I wasn't in shape for that. The worst part was the bugs, that and the snakes. The only way you can sleep is in a hammock, to avoid getting eaten alive. I didn't get much sleep. The water was foul, and we lived on freeze dried food, if you can call that living. I was pretty sure we were lost, although the Explorer kept saying he knew where we were going. It was usually over 90 in the shade, and no way to take a bath. I was ready to throw in the towel and turn back, career or no, when we suddenly made contact with General Vasquez."
"General who?" Octavia's forgotten coffee was getting cold between her hands.
"Vasquez. He was second or third in command of the Rebels, or maybe Number One, no one knew for sure. One day we stepped out into the middle of a clearing and found ourselves surrounded.
"Muy buenos dias, caballeros y CIA,” the general said. He was carrying an automatic rifle, but not actually pointed at us. He was smiling. The Explorer took off his hat and made a sweeping bow, then introduced me to Vasquez, telling him I was a famous, respected archaeologist from the Smithsonian. I knew right away that Vasquez knew better than that. I knew I was a dead man. I began to wish I'd remembered to bring my cyanide pill.
"But as it turned out, Vasquez wasn't interested in shooting us. He really did know the Explorer, from his previous expedition. Of course he was aware of my job with the CIA, but he never mentioned it again. He seemed to play along with the idea that I was really from the Smithsonian. He invited us for dinner at his camp site, and we had a few drinks. I think there were about fifty rebel guerrillas there, all armed to the teeth. I couldn't figure out Vasquez's game, except that after awhile he and the Explorer went off for a stroll through the woods and I realized they were making some kind of deal.
"When they got back, the Explorer had no problem telling me about it. 'He wants a percentage of the treasure,' de Gama said. "He needs gold to finance the revolution. Well, you can see his point. After all, there's plenty to go around."
"Obviously, this was no archaeologist. If he were for real, he'd never refer to artifacts as 'treasure.' But I already knew he was a phony. Anyhow, the next morning he was all for pushing on through the jungle to find his Lost City. I knew I was already in over my head. How could he promise Vasquez treasure from a Lost City that didn't really exist? What was de Gama really up to, other than scamming us out of a big cash grant? And why didn't Vasquez have us shot?
"Vasquez told the Explorer not to push ahead, it was too dangerous, what with all the government patrols out there looking for rebels. He said we should come back with a larger, better-equipped expedition. Vasquez would meet us with enough men to provide escort and protection. The Explorer asked Vasquez how we could find him again. Vasquez grinned, had a shot of tequila, and said, 'Don't worry, senor. I will find you.'
"So we turned around and headed back. That was fine with me, except I knew what would happen next. We had managed to contact the rebels. I would give the Company a full report which wouldn't mean much, since I had no idea of our location, and Vasquez would have moved on anyway. Langley would want more. CIA would provide financing for another expedition. The Explorer might just take the money and run, or he might actually go back into the bush. If he did that, Langley would tell me to go with him. They didn't necessarily want to eliminate Vasquez, but they wanted to know more about him, what he was up to, how many men he had, and so on.
"By the time I got back to town, I knew what I had to do. I wrote up my report, with my recommendation not to finance the Explorer. I knew Langley would do that anyway. So I also wrote up my resignation from the Service. There was no way I was going back into that jungle."
Octavia leaned back in her chair and studied Sanderson. Sanderson studied the beer remaining in his glass. Finally she said,
"So you got out of Peru and out of the Service, found a job with private security. Whatever happened to the Explorer?"
Sanderson looked up with an expression of surprise.
"You didn't watch the TV special, or the movie? But I forget, you were in India, you may have missed them. As it turned out, the Company did put up funds for an expedition, contrary to my warning. He disappeared into the jungle for about three months. When he resurfaced, he and his porters were carrying a truckload of gold and other artifacts. He also had a lot of film and tapes. The CIA helped him smuggle the artifacts out of the country so he could sell them at auction. I think they believed they were going to get all kinds of intelligence in return. As it turned out, there was nothing in the film about rebels. Only pictures of ancient ruins.
"The Explorer made a fortune. First he sold all his treasure to the highest bidders, then made a deal with Disney for the film and TV rights. Later, a lot more of the gold and stuff turned up on the international market. That was the percentage that de Gama had given to Vasquez. I think it was actually about fifty-fifty."
"So there really was a Lost City?" Octavia said.
"Evidently. Although no one else has yet been able to find the place. Or at least no one else wants to go back in that jungle. The Explorer retired on his loot. I heard he bought a villa in Tuscany or someplace. As for Vasquez, he didn't use his gold to finance the rebels. Instead, he paid some bribes and got himself appointed as a judge. Last I heard, he was planning to run for President of Peru. So it goes..."
"You should have kept your job. You could have got a piece of that action and retired to your own villa."
Sanderson shrugged. "There's an old saying – It's not the principle, it's the money, But in this case, for me, it was the principle. I just got tired of working for a company that was so damn stupid."
Octavia burst out laughing.
Ivor Lark, meanwhile, had finally come up with a plan. It would be an event to start turning the President's approval ratings around. It might not be enough to get the Party reelected, but it would be a start. He was not aware the idea had come originally from Sanderson. When Sanderson had finally got through to Babbage, he'd planted the idea, allowing Babbage to think it was his own. Babbage in turn had passed the notion on to Lark, who convinced himself it was his own idea, and managed to turn it into a Plan. It didn't take long to sell the plan to the Prez – it was just a matter of letting the Old Man believe he'd thought of it himself.
At any rate, Lark was busy mobilizing the White House staff. The Plan was simple enough, but it required logistics, research, and above all PR. They would, after all, be putting on a show.The President was going to visit Gopherville. * * * *
The coming spectacle was announced on television the next day. When Octavia heard about it she picked up the phone and called Sanderson, who was back at Faustus Labs.
"You heard?" she said.
"Sure. I told you it would work."
"How are we coming with production?"
"One hundred units on the assembly line. The first
"Okay. You know where to send it."
* * * *
Abner Peabody looked out his office window at Gopherville's main street below. It was usually referred to as "Main Street," but it had never been officially named. This fact was due to a hundred-year old feud between two of the town's leading families who each wanted it named after one of their own. Both families had long since died off or moved out of the area, but the Town Council had somehow never got around to coming up with a satisfactory name. There were rumors that they just didn't want to spend the money on street signs, but this was probably an urban legend.
Peabody could see the increase in traffic below his window, since the Big Announcement. The President was coming. He wasn't actually planning to stay overnight, due to a lack of suitable accommodations. But there were a lot more men in black suits and mirror sunglasses, as well as heavy equipment. It was necessary to designate an official helicopter landing pad, a short distance out of town. There was an impromptu portable stage being assembled in the park, as well as a lot of TV trucks jockeying for favored positions.
There had been a lot of speculation about whether the Men in Black were Secret Service, CIA, Homeland Security, or maybe something else we never heard of before. Peabody smiled inwardly, thinking about the next day's issue of his paper. He had managed another scoop. One of his Boy Scout stringers had approached two of these men loitering near the new stage.
Charlie, the young scout, told them he was working on an essay for his English class, in hopes of a future scholarship. Then he simply asked the two MIB if they worked for the CIA. They seemed flattered by his attention. One of the men chuckled and said, "No, son, we're Secret Service. We don't care much for those CIA spooks. And you can quote me."
So he would, indeed, be quoted, in tomorrow's paper. It was quite a long and revealing interview. No State secrets, just a lot of personal stuff about the trials and tribulations of working for the Service – long hours, a lot of travel, clothing expenses, and so on. The sort of human interest that sells papers. Peabody of course had changed the agent's name in the story. He hoped that would be enough to keep the poor fellow from getting fired or something. Peabody chuckled. People will sometimes say anything to a kid.
* * * *
Of course, in an event like this one, you always had to expect a few protest demonstrators. There were security concerns. But Babbage was happy with the way this scene was being handled. A Free Speech zone was set up, so protesters could be easily funneled to an area out of sight of the TV cameras. Most non-residents in town, except for friendly media people, were encouraged to leave. The President would be appearing in the open air, in public, but actually only for about fifteen minutes. And half the crowd would be Secret Service or FBI. Security would be Maximum. Even the President's hidden cocaine habit was currently under control.
Nothing could possibly go wrong.
* * * *
Octavia Tiller drove out to visit Bradshaw at home. Of course she was still being watched, but she was no longer greatly concerned about that.
She found Bradshaw cooking an aromatic stew. He invited her to lunch, which she declined. Instead, he made coffee.
"Oscar been around lately?" she asked.
He shrugged. "I have a feeling he's gone for good. Maybe he decided to stay down in the mine. I guess you'll be leaving soon, too."
She nodded. "Yes, I need to get back to work. I could stay here and run Faustus Labs, but I think I'll let Sanderson do that. I'd rather go back to India. They have good restaurants. What are your own plans, Brad?"
He gazed into the distance. "I've been thinking of taking a cruise around the world. Jane could look after my house. In fact, maybe I'll just give it to her. She can take Bozo. Of course I'd take Melchizidek along with me, he's somebody I can talk to."
Across the room, Bradshaw's cat gazed steadily at him. "Did I ever tell you I was in the Army?" Bradshaw asked. "No. In what war?"
"No war. At least no shooting war. I was back in the Cold War. The peacetime army. That was when I was just out of high school, before I went to MIT. I went to Fort Bliss, Texas for training.
We used to have to stand formation for inspection every Sunday morning. There was a certain brigadier general who used to do the inspecting. As far as anyone could tell, that was all he ever did. Never left the base. He must have had a lot of paperwork during the week. But he was never actually in command of anything.
"I finally heard his story when I was nearly through with training. Seems that several years before, he was a master sergeant. One day he went on maneuvers down in Louisiana. His job was to move a cannon through the swamp, from point A to point B. Well, it started raining. A lot. Somehow he managed to get lost – took a wrong turn, I suppose. He ended up in a swamp, in quicksand. "The end result was, the cannon sank slowly out of sight and was never seen again. This sergeant was hauled up on court martial. He pleaded guilty. Well, under Army regulations, the Government had to take the cost of the cannon out of his paycheck. But on a sergeant's pay, that would have taken about 200 years. So what they did was, they promoted him to general and gave him a job inspecting the troops. The only pay he ever got was a small clothing allowance. Of course he still got free room and board and medical, so I guess it wasn't such a bad deal."
Bradshaw stopped talking and stared into space. "What's the point of that story, Brad?"
"Oh, just that I've noticed there are a lot of people out there like that general. I believe I'll go on a long cruise. It's time to spend some of my money. Maybe I'll get to see whales."
"I have to go now, Brad." She kissed him on the mouth. "Good fortune to you, Octavia."
When she was gone, he turned and stared at the cat for awhile. That creature stared back at him.
"I won't miss her," he said. "Not really."
The cat said, "Liar, liar."
* * * *
In due course, the day of the President's visit dawned. The weather was balmy and, at last, Spring-like. Octavia picked up the phone in her room and called Sanderson at Faustus Labs. She assumed the line was still tapped, but it no longer mattered.
"How's it going?" she asked.
"On schedule," he said. Your personal unit should be delivered by messenger later this morning. We have already shipped fifty units and sold another thousand, before they're off the assembly line. We're advertising on the Internet. If this thing goes the way you hope, Faustus Labs stock prices will go through the roof by tomorrow. Of course, the Feds may try to shut us down..."
"They can't. The cat will be out of the bag." (As she said that, she experienced a brief mental image of Melchizidek staring at her.)
"I'll be watching," he said.
"So will everybody else."
* * * *
Babbage had a last minute consult with Ivor Lark, who had arrived in town ahead of the President and the rest of Staff.
"Looking good," Lark said. "Looking good." For him that was high praise indeed. He had already informed Babbage of the latter's coming promotion, to be announced that very day by the President himself.
"The Chief Executive...?" Babbage inquired.
"In great shape. His medications are finally under control. I've never seen him in better shape. The public is going to see he's not afraid to be seen in public, out among the Common People. This little appearance is going to take a lot of wind out of the sails of his opponents. Mark my words."
Babbage grinned happily.
"I certainly will."
Later that day, Indian Jane dropped in to the office of the Gopherville Gazette. Peabody was out, but Mrs Peabody was handling the reception desk.
"There you are! Abner said to tell you how pleased he is to have you as one of our stringers. He thinks you'll make a great reporter."
Jane looked solemn. "It's a responsibility. I guess I'm the first Native American on your staff. You know we're good at sneaking around undetected."
Mrs Peabody wasn't sure if that was a joke. She smiled anyway.
"I'm sure you'll do fine." She handed Jane a plasticlaminated Press card, which Jane pinned to her jacket. "Is that a new camera you have?"
"Huh? Oh, you mean this. Yes, it's new. They tell me it's easy to use. I think Abner knows I can work my way to the front of a crowd without being noticed. That's ancient Indian lore. He thinks I can get some good pictures. Your Boy Scouts are good too, but in a crowd like that, they tend to be too short."
Mrs Peabody still wasn't sure if her leg was being pulled. "Well, you go have fun. I'll be watching on TV."
"It should be fun, all right."
* * * *
Octavia Tiller left her room early, headed for Gopherville Central Park. (There was a tiny sign at one street corner which identified it as such.) She stopped on her way to visit a pharmacy. Inside, she took a few minutes to decide on her purchase, then came away with a small but elegant nylon bag slung over one shoulder. There was a Corporate logo on the bag, over the word "hair dryer."
Octavia strolled down the street, taking in all the commotion. The street was of course blocked to vehicular traffic. The sidewalks seemed jammed. People who would not be able to get in to see the President hoped to catch sight of his motorcade. There were even big-screen TV's set up on the street. The entire town park was enclosed and surrounded by a ten foot high canvas screen, thrown up overnight. Octavia felt in her pocket to reassure herself of the presence of her ticket. She had managed to wrangle an entry ticket out of Sheriff Martinez, who had been issued some passes to distribute to local citizens. Octavia wasn't local, but as she pointed out, she was a major shareholder in Faustus Labs, and therefore an important business rep. Gopherville didn't want to alienate Big Biz, after all. Martinez called Homeland Security first. After thinking it over for an hour or so, they called back and told him to go ahead and give her a ticket.
Octavia smiled to herself and patted the nylon bag under her arm.
In the distance, there was a rising, dramatic wail of sirens as the motorcade approached. Indian Jane heard them as she neared the canvas entrance. She didn't turn to look. She had her eye on the four Secret Service men at the gate. She attempted to brush past them, flashing her Press badge. "Hold it, lady."
She turned, smiling sweetly.
"Something wrong, Officer?"
"White House Press Corps only are allowed in. We don't make the rules."
"No? Well, perhaps you ought to read the rules. Gopherville Gazette was made a temporary member of the Press Corps. One time only. Our Beloved President certainly doesn't want to offend the locals, does he? Perhaps you should check with your boss?"
The agent she was speaking to looked at one of his partners, who shrugged, with a blank look.
"Hadn't heard that. Maybe we should..."
At that moment the crowd outside began making a loud commotion as the motorcade approached. Police on Harleys began to clear a path through the mob.
"Oh, Hell, he's here," one of the other agents said. "Go on inside, lady. You're holding things up."
Jane smiled sweetly again and swept through the entrance. She let out a breath. She had been afraid they might take time to check her story.
Octavia had to wait in the crowd while the motorcade halted and deployed and the President with his staff were ushered into the park through a rear entrance. Even so, she noticed that the security level around here seemed unusually low. But then, it was generally understood that the main point of this visit was to convince everyone that the Administration had a firm handle on security. There was nothing to fear. This concept might seem to contradict the current Elevated Alert status of the Nation, but it seemed few people noticed that sort of contradiction anymore. Then again, it occurred to Octavia that perhaps those in charge actually believed their security was good... She glanced around to make sure the woman who was currently tailing her was still there. She was back on the other side of the street, separated from Octavia by a cordon of motorcycle cops. Octavia smiled and waved, but the woman didn't respond, except to look away somewhere else. Octavia chuckled to herself.
* * * *
Soon, it was time for proceedings to begin. The Presidential staff took their places on stage. Senator Hoople (on his first visit to Gopherville) took the microphone and began warming up the crowd, using the usual platitudes.
Backstage, Babbage was talking to his Chief of Operations. "Any problems?" he asked.
"None at all, sir. It went down just as you predicted. We
have the Tiller woman in custody. We picked her up as she was trying to get through the front entrance, with her ticket which you personally authorized. She made no resistance.""Where is she now?"
"At the local jail, at present. We told Martinez we can charge her later."
"Good. Legal process and so on. What about the secret device? Did she have it on her?"
"Yes sir. Again, as you predicted. She was carrying it in a little case, disguised as a hair dryer. Imagine her thinking she could get away with it. It should be getting to the FBI lab right about now."
"Did she have anything to say?"
The agent scratched his head.
"Only one thing, far as I know. She asked the Sheriff if she could watch the President on TV."
Ivor Lark was on stage, along with the Press Secretary, the current Secretary of State, and some minor officials. Lately, the staff turnover was so high Babbage sometimes had trouble remembering who was who. He hoped his own new position of responsibility would last for a decent length of time. He took his own place on stage and adjusted the invisible ear piece which would allow him to continue contact with his Chief of Ops, and others if necessary. Babbage realized he was just in time. The Senator was drawing near the end of his own lengthy discourse.
And, finally, I have the honor of introducing to you the newly appointed head of the Department of Homeland Security...
Babbage's ear piece clicked.
"Yes?" he whispered into his lapel mike.
"I thought you'd want to know." It was Chief of Ops. "We already have a preliminary report on that device we took off the Tiller woman. It wasn't made in India, as you believed. It's made in China."
"Go on, go on!" Babbage had a feeling he was about to get bad news.
"It's a hair dryer."
...Fellow Americans, I give you Cyrus T. Babbage!
Babbage groaned and somehow got to his feet. It was time for him to introduce the President.
In the audience, a Party flack wearing a Party button noticed Jane and her Gopherville Gazette press badge. As Babbage was shuffling the papers of his speech, the flack leaned over and inquired,
"Tell me, ma'm. What are your feelings about our President?"
She gave him a quizzical look.
"What do you mean our?"
Babbage, getting his speech in some kind of order, launched into his introduction of the Commander in Chief. Some in the audience thought he seemed rattled. Perhaps he was nervous in front of large crowds? Babbage himself could not have explained. He had a feeling that something wasn't quite right, that he was missing something. He couldn't think about the problem and give his speech at the same time. It was like having an itch he couldn't scratch, right between his shoulder blades.
Still, looking out over the crowd, he could not see any trouble developing. There weren't even many protesters in the street outside. People actually seemed to be paying attention. Somehow he got to the end of his speech, without actually listening to what he himself was saying. It was hot today. Sweat trickled down his forehead. He would have liked to take off his coat and loosen his tie.
Then it was time for the President.
On the loudspeakers, there was the sudden blare of Hail to the Chief, recorded of course. Then the Old Man himself took to the stage, waving Babbage aside after briefly shaking his hand. The President launched immediately into his own litany:
Fellow Americans and especially citizens of Gophertown! We're really happy for this chance to see your charming community. Been looking forward to this for a long time!
There was more of the same stuff, the usual cliches and compliments to local officials. Then he got to the meat of his message.
"Now, our main purpose in coming to Gophertown today – aside from maybe getting in a little trout fishing (chuckle, chuckle) is two-fold. We mainly want to assure the good people here, as well as the good people of America, that they have nothing to fear. (Back at the Sheriff's office, Octavia remarked to Martinez, Strange. He's been trying to convince us of the opposite for the past four years.)
"We have the utmost respect and confidence in our Department of Homeland Security, and in the new Director, Cyrus Cabbage. Now, we know there have been lots of rumors flying around, about terrorist plots and so forth. Some of them may even have been true. But the point is, we now have everything under control. Any terrorists in the neighborhood have either been rounded up, or will be shortly.
"Now, we notice the papers have been speculating a lot and printing stories about this so-called Project Emperor, that someone is supposed to have stolen from the Government. Well, that does make a good story, doesn't it? But I am here to tell you, folks, there's no such thing!"
At this point, the President stepped away from his podium, mike in hand. He did make a fine figure that day, with his tailored suit and new hairdo. He looked as if he had been out in the sun a lot, not suffering through hangovers. It was, he felt, his finest moment. He had this crowd in the palm of his hand.
"Folks, let me spell it out for you. There ain't no such thing as Project Emperor! Never was and never will be! Y'all got my solemn word as your President on that!"
That was the moment when Indian Jane (AKA Dr Jane Greenbranch, PhD) raised her "camera" to her eye, sighted, and pressed the button. What happened next was only live on television for about twenty seconds. People remembering the scene later would often swear it lasted for several minutes, but that wasn't so.
The President's clothing disappeared. So did the clothes of every other official on stage. There was a gasp from the crowd. It was a long moment before the President realized something was wrong. He just stood there looking puzzled. He was also stark naked. Except, of course, for his leather shoes and the fetish thong underwear he happened to have on that day.
Then there was a great peal of laughter, beginning near the stage and spreading outward past the canvas walls, into the street, and all across the continent and the World. Thus did the Revolution begin.