David L. Golemon
St. Martin's Press
UNITED STATES PENITENTIARY, LEAVENWORTH
The man in the rumpled three-piece suit waited in front of Warden Hal Jennings’s desk. He stood with his battered briefcase clutched in both hands and was using it as if it were a talisman of some sort as he waited for his ruse to either pass muster, or for his deception to be found out. If he was found out it would be nothing more than an embarrassing episode and predicament he would eventually talk his way out of.
He watched the warden’s eyes as he read the letter. Without looking up at the man in the light blue suit, horn-rimmed glasses, and thinning red hair, the warden—who had been running the federal side of Leavenworth—placed his hand on his phone and picked up the receiver.
“Annie, connect me with the FBI field office in Topeka, I need a name run … Yes, tell Special Agent-in-charge Klinemann it’s for me, right. Thank you.”
The visitor in the blue suit smiled as the warden hung up the phone.
“Precautionary. It’s not that we don’t trust you … it’s more like—”
“It’s that you don’t trust me.” The man in the rumpled suit smiled.
The warden smiled and then relaxed. “Yeah, something like that. More or less. I was giving you a chance to back out of here without getting arrested if you’re lying to me. Trying to see this man you believe is here, if that man existed, could get you placed right next to him in an available cell, or worse.”
“Oh, the man exists. That’s what we do in our business, Warden Jennings—we make sure we have precise information.”
The phone buzzed and the warden picked up the receiver just as the door opened to the office and a large prison guard stepped in. He stood at the door with his eyes on the warden’s visitor. The speaker button was pushed and the phone was placed back into the cradle. Jennings wanted this man to hear his report firsthand from the secretary outside.
“Go ahead, Annie.”
“His credentials check out. Hiram Vickers, federal employee number 397-12-0989. Departmental information is unavailable but he is a confirmed employee at the Langley, Virginia headquarters facility.”
“Thank you, Annie, that’s enough. We just needed to match his identification with his story.”
The visitor watched the warden end his call and slide Vickers’s CIA identification back to him across the large desk.
“You will speak to Prisoner 275698 on his one-hour exercise period. If he refuses to speak to you that is his prerogative. The only men and women that have direct contact with him are corporate types or weapons theorists in which he has an obligation to speak to according to presidential order, and right now those orders do not include you. I am doing this as a favor to a sister agency. Any deviation from speech or any attempt to touch Prisoner 275698, and you will be shot without warning from the tower. If he refuses to speak with you there will be no comment, no persuasive banter. You will turn away from the exercise yard and exit where a guard will escort you from the facility. Are you clear on the rules?”
“Yes, very clear. I believe the man will wish to speak with me.” The visitor reached for his identification and placed it in his suit jacket.
“Then you have one hour. The guard will escort you to the exercise yard.”
The visitor smiled and nodded his head and turned away.
“Mr. Vickers,” the warden said, bringing the tall man to a stop before he reached the open door being held in place by the large guard.
“Remember, the prisoner you are meeting has no name, has no dossier; in general, he has no life inside or outside these walls. According to special order he does not even exist. If you attempt anything out of the range of description that I have outlined to you, you will be arrested and you will not leave here.”
“One of your special rules, I take it?”
“No, Mr. Vickers, not my rule at all but someone else’s. It’s another name that you may be familiar with—he’s called the commander-in-chief.”
Vickers smiled. “Yes, so I understand. But he is also a lame duck president who seems to have pissed a lot of people off.” Vickers smiled as he started to turn around but stopped and eyed the warden. “And he is also a president you may not want to align yourself so closely with in the near future. Tossing his name around will only make those men and women in power remember your name, Warden.”
The warden watched the arrogant man turn and leave his office with a smug air about him. The not-so-veiled threat hung in the air as the door closed. The man who had been in the federal prison system for thirty-one years wanted to go after the arrogant little bastard and slap him around, and for the life of him he didn’t understand why. His thoughts were interrupted by his door opening after a soft knock. It was his secretary.
“I’m stepping out for lunch, would you care for anything?” the small bespectacled woman asked.
“No, just let me know in an hour when our friend here is done speaking with our guest. I want to make sure he and our prisoner are still in place afterward.”
Annie nodded and left. She made her way downstairs and instead of heading for the lounge area staffed for the management end of Leavenworth, she went right and headed for the small area on the grass where men and women usually ate their lunches on fine days such as this. She didn’t have to look around as she sat. Lunch for most was after the noon hour, so she found herself sitting alone. She smiled and nodded her head at two passing guards and then easily brought the cell phone to her ear. She punched a preselected number—one she had never had to use before.
“Yes, this is Annie Kline in Kansas. Is this Mr. Jones?”
She waited only a moment until a voice answered at the other end.
“Yes, Mr. Jones, this is Annie at Leavenworth. We’ve had a visitor for our special guest that was not on the official rolls of authorized visitors. Yes, his name is Hiram Vickers, CIA. Yes, sir … yes, sir, one-hour visit. Before you hang up, Mr. Jones, this man won’t be in any sort of trouble, will he, because of my actions?”
She waited as a man she had never met explained the realities of life to her from afar.
“Yes, sir, the fifty thousand dollars will come in very handy, but I don’t wish to get into trouble. I’m just telling you about a visit to an unnamed prisoner. Yes, I will forward a copy of his ID to you at your office after the warden goes home for the evening. Thank you.” She ended the call and then looked up at the imposing structure of USP Leavenworth—and wondered if her small act as informant would go unnoticed in an ever-worrisome world.
* * *
The visitor was passed through no less than five security checks on his way to the meeting. Each set of guards eyed him as if he had requested to visit Charlie Manson. The man’s prison number drew looks of distaste from each and every man or woman he came across. He soon found himself standing in an enclosed concrete area with high walls and fences. There was no view of the grounds outside those walls and the only evident threat was a guard tower with a uniformed man watching him with a slung Ruger Mini-14 on his back. The eyes of the guard never left the visitor.
Hiram Vickers saw the man in the orange jumpsuit standing and looking at nothing in particular other than the blue sky. Then the prisoner lowered his head and started walking the line around the walls. Vickers watched him for a moment and then approached. He was minus his old briefcase, as it never made it past the first checkpoint.
“Beautiful day for a walk.”
The tall, extremely thin man with black hair just kept his gait without looking up at Vickers.
“I don’t conduct corporate inquiries out here, so go fuck yourself.”
The man kept walking and Vickers moved to pace him.
“Saucy for a Harvard graduate—I think prison has jaded you into being something other than you are.” Vickers chuckled as the man kept walking. “I’m corporate, but not the corporate type you believe me to be. My company is a bit smaller and based in Virginia.”
Vickers could see that the man, although he kept walking, became interested: his breath noticeably caught momentarily with a hitch as if the prisoner was trying to stifle a hiccup.
“I used to have many close friends in Virginia.” He stopped and looked at the visitor for the first time. He examined the man as if he were looking at some new and strange breed of bug. “But like most, the rats ran for cover when the exterminator arrived.” He gave the man a dirty look and then continued his walk to nowhere.
“And that is the very subject I am here to see you about. It’s not the rats I’m interested in, it’s the exterminator I want to meet.”
The prisoner laughed but kept his stride even and nonstop. “If you mention the name of that particular exterminator you could find yourself my roommate here”—the tall man gestured about him at the thick walls of Leavenworth prison—“in the Club Med of the plains.” The man in the orange jumpsuit laughed and shook his head at the strange and badly dressed man walking beside him.
Vickers matched the laugh with his own chuckle. “Actually, it’s the field men I want, not their boss.”
Prisoner 275698 stopped walking and stared at the slight man in the rumpled blue suit.
“Don’t those people at Langley give you a clothing allowance?”
Vickers, although the insult caught him off guard, ignored the comment because as a matter of fact he didn’t get a clothing allowance from the cheap bastards in Virginia.
“To be more precise, Prisoner 275698, I need several of those names—and one in particular.”
“Why me? I’ve been illegally locked up here since 2006. Why should I assist the people who helped put me here—stabbed me in the back, let’s say. Why?”
“Because the man who signed your life away is having difficulty hanging onto his power.”
“Look, the president who put me away is long out of office, but his replacement still holds the key and he’s not going to give it up.” The prisoner smiled. “It seems I am not the most popular figure going in the corporate world these days.”
Hiram Vickers stopped walking and became deathly serious as he watched the man’s back.
“Things change—they can change very quickly, I think. The president doesn’t need another problem on his hands with the budget he just turned in. The draft board thing isn’t going over too well either. I think you may have some very understanding ears turned your way in the next few months, and that, my friend, is the why portion of your question. I can get you out of here and back into the fight that’s coming, and along the way maybe we can work together and settle a few old scores.”
The prisoner laughed. “You have made an enemy, I think, and whoever it is scares the hell out of you.”
Vickers didn’t return the laugh as he started walking again. He stopped and looked to the blue Kansas sky.
“My enemies are your enemies. Deal with the devil to get what it is you want most.”
“Go ahead,” the federal prisoner said. He started to walk around his exercise yard once more.
“The desert, the high desert—need I say more?”
The prisoner looked up at the guard tower where the large officer’s eyes never left the two men strolling casually in the yard.
“I don’t know what it is you’re talking about.”
Vickers stopped cold in his tracks and chanced reaching for the prisoner’s arm, an action that drew the immediate attention of the armed guard, who shook his head at Vickers.
“The people I seek are in the high desert—or should I say, under it?”
“Again, I don’t know what it is you speak of.”
Exasperated, Vickers nearly reached out and slapped the man but remembered the very lethal looking Mini-14 the guard had on his back.
“Well, I thought I could count on a patriot such as yourself to want to get the hell out of here”—he gestured around him at the exercise yard—“and get into the fight that is surely coming at us.”
“What’s happened?” the man asked, suddenly becoming interested.
“Oh, that’s right, you’re no longer kept in the loop on Operation Magic, are you, Mr. Charles Hendrix II?”
Hendrix wasn’t surprised at all that this man mentioned what in this prison was unmentionable: his name.
“They deserve the fate they created for themselves. Nonetheless, Mr. Vickers, you have my attention.”
“Good, that’s a start. Now, the name of the man who really put you here, who is it?” The two men commenced walking once more.
“He’s dead … does that surprise you that I know this? Even I still have sources, my friend; my attorneys are not what they seem sometimes.”
“The name, Hendrix,” Vickers hissed.
“Lee, Garrison Lee. He’s quite an old enemy of my family—an enemy since 1947. But as I said, he’s dead and I curse the ground that particular Boy Scout is buried in.”
“Garrison Lee, the former U.S. senator?”
“One and the same.” Hendrix smiled and looked at his guest. “He was a little bit more than the history books will ever reveal.”
“We’ll discuss that at length later, after you’re a free man. Now, what is the other name I need?”
“Compton, Niles. He’s attached to the National Archives and works in that facility you mentioned underneath the desert in Las Vegas.”
“Yes, I know, underneath Nellis Air Force Base. Niles Compton, huh?”
“Dr. Niles Compton, yes. And do not, and I mean it, try to match wits with the man. He could outthink you in his sleep.”
“A lot of people, much to their regret, thought the same thing about me, Mr. Hendrix.”
Hendrix smiled down at the rumpled man. “Is that right? Well, this man has the muscle of the federal government backing him, and he hangs around with some very salty people.”
“It’s one of those salty people I am seeking. Collins, Jack, colonel, United States Army. Ring a bell?”
“Outside of his famous appearance in front of the senate oversight committee when he threw his commander and several high-ranking politicos underneath the proverbial bus, no. I take it he’s running the Group’s security for Compton. God knows military men are only good for little else.”
Hendrix saw the disappointment in Vickers’s face and knew he had the man. “I do have a name that will lead you to this colonel you want so badly.”
“Well, at the time of my arrest he was a commander in the Navy.” Hendrix’s eyes narrowed to slits. “That is one arrogant son of a bitch I wouldn’t mind seeing…” He looked around. “Gone. His name is Carl Everett, a Navy SEAL.”
To Vickers it felt as if he had a chance at getting his life back after reaching a starting point.
“Now, quid pro quo, Hiram. I need a name myself, and it could be a name that interests you and your bosses far more than the ones you asked about. But before I tell you the name I want, tell me: Why do you need to find this Colonel Collins, especially with the shit storm getting ready to engulf the entire world?”
“I have to find him and kill him”—he looked over at the taller Hendrix—“before he finds and kills me.” Once more Vickers looked away. “I may have inadvertently killed his sister.”
This made the man formerly known as Charles Hendrix II purse his lips and shake his head.
“I can understand your consternation, especially since this Group buried in the desert is the favorite of every president of the United States since Woodrow Wilson. And they protect this Group, Mr. CIA man—and I mean protect it.” He chuckled at Vickers and his little problem that made his own worry seem insignificant. “Yes, I guess you had better find this Collins, because if I remember correctly from my reports on him he seems to be a bit of a stone. Cold. Killer.” Hendrix emphasized each of the last three words.
“Thanks for that little bit of info, Hendrix. Now, who is it you want me to find for you?”
“You’ll find him in the desert also, just not the same desert as this mysterious Event Group. And believe me, this is a person who would be of much interest to not only your people, but many, many, others with names you cannot even afford to pronounce.”
“The name, Hendrix, the name.”
“He’s got a moniker that is a little off, but you should have no problem tracking him down with the right leads at your disposal.”
“Please,” he said sarcastically, “I can find anyone, anywhere.” He smiled as the guards were opening the exercise yard. Hendrix’s time in the sun was up for the day. “After all, I found you, and you were buried by secret orders of the president.”
“Touché, find me you did.”
“The name of the man?” Vickers insisted.
Hendrix stopped at the open gate and turned to face Vickers. “He’s not a man at all. I will explain to you in no uncertain terms that this name is one of the more valuable in the entire history of this planet.”
Hendrix saw the confused look on the CIA man’s face.
“I’m giddy with anticipation,” Vickers finally voiced.
“The name is Mahjtic, or as his friends underneath Nellis call him—the Matchstick Man.”
VANCOUVER, BRITISH COLUMBIA
The blond man in the overly large swivel chair spun around and hung up the phone. He kept his fingers on the receiver and tapped out a gentle beat as he thought. He was well-dressed, wearing a black sport coat with a simple white shirt underneath. His blond hair had grown out over his collar and his face had been unshaven for the past seven months. He pursed his lips, still tapping the phone when the alarm bell pinged on his fax machine. Annie was far faster than he gave the Kansas woman credit for. She had been easy to turn and for this man it came easily and naturally. “After all,” he had told her when he gave her an advance of ten thousand dollars, “it’s not like you’re giving out the names of good guys here.” The justification was that he was searching for the killer of a dear friend and he thought that anyone visiting U.S. Federal Prisoner 275698 could lead him to that killer. It gave the single mother a chance at excitement in her life, and if she was caught sending him information, well, that was just the way the world worked, in his opinion.
Colonel Henri Farbeaux stood while whistling and made his way to the large credenza by the wall and waited for the fax to finish. When it did he lifted the pages and looked at the face that had been sent to him from a cell phone straight from Leavenworth penitentiary. He looked from the features of the redheaded man to his name. The moniker seemed somewhat familiar to Farbeaux, but for the life of him he couldn’t place the face. He examined the name once more and seemed to remember meeting this man somewhere in the past. And then it struck him that he was liaison between the Centauris Corporation and the Central Intelligence Agency—their Games and Theory Department if he remembered correctly, which made sense because when he had met this man he himself had been a contract player for Centauris and their infamous invention, the Black Teams.
“I should have known,” Henri said. He took the sheets of paper back to his desk and sat down to study the man and his information.
Henri didn’t look up from the fax for a full forty minutes as he thought out his options. He smiled, laid the papers down, and then turned to look out the window. He turned and started typing commands into his computer. The screen was soon showing the tri-color national flag of France and Henri knew the DGSE—General Directorate for External Security—for the French nation had not changed his password. He shook his head, not knowing if he still had friends at the agency or if they were just that slow in their security department.
In thirty minutes Col. Henri Farbeaux had every piece of information on Hiram Vickers the French government had, and as he was beginning to notice it was quite a bit. Finally he printed out a better picture of the CIA agent and stared at it.
“Hello again, Mr. Vickers.”
THE HOGGAR MOUNTAINS
CENTRAL SAHARA DESERT, ALGERIA
TROPIC OF CANCER
The four Aérospatiale Gazelle helicopters flew low over the volcanic terrain. They had traveled 1,900 miles from Algiers, being refueled twice on their way to the desolate oasis. The four French-and-British-made helicopters were flying in tight formation after being alerted to a disturbance by, of all entities, the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration. NASA had placed an emergency call through to the Algerian military warning them of a highly unusual weather formation that had sprung up without warning in the region of mountainous terrain where there should be no weather systems at all other than the blazing sun—and a storm forming in or around the mountains was unheard of in the month of June. There was not a history of severe thunder and rainstorms in the entire northern portion of the Sahara such as Talmud. And the storm images taken by NASA declared this to be the mother of storms that came and went in only ten minutes’ time.
Talmud Oasis had been a viable source of water for the past five thousand years and was used by men traveling the barren wastes for more than half of that time. The French Foreign Legion made the site famous in many a tale of the Algerian wars. The oasis was home to just under thirty-three men and women who cared for the site and were paid monthly and supplied food by the Algerian government.
The lead helicopter made a slow turn to the north and then the pilot brought the Gazelle to three hundred feet and cleared a small rise. The view that greeted him was shocking at the very least. The spot where the oasis used to be, along with the small grouping of houses, was gone. Not only was the area featureless, there was a thousand-foot-diameter hole in the ground where it had once stood. It looked as if a giant manhole cover had been lifted and tossed aside. The edges of the hole were nearly a perfect circle where the small oasis and village had stood for over two thousand years. The action could have been done by laser cutting, it was that precise.
All four pilots and their emergency teams could see where the storm had washed out most of the sand dunes that used to line and surround the oasis. Even as they flew lower they could see small rivers that had accumulated in that very serious ten minutes of weather. Then they saw what looked like scorch marks on the sides of the small volcanic hillsides, accompanied by glass that shone brightly in the afternoon sun. They estimated that at least one square mile of sand had been blasted into glass by some form of searing heat.
The lead pilot in the first Gazelle hovered over the remains of the prehistoric oasis and made the radio call.
How he would explain this was beyond the language skills of any man he knew of. The world had just pushed the oasis off the face of the earth, not very scientific but he knew that was what he would say to his superiors.
Talmud was just gone.
THE WHITE HOUSE
The president sat with his wife and two daughters and ate a quiet lunch inside the private residence of the White House. The two girls, eleven and eight, talked about the plans they had made for their summer vacation, which just started two days before. Their mother laughed and spoke as her eyes drifted to her husband, who seemed to be listening, but she knew him too well. He was looking, smiling, and even nodding his head at the right times as the girls spoke excitedly, but his mind was a million miles away. The first lady of the United States, as well as most Americans, had been watching her husband slowly commit political suicide, and the sad thing was it was something he had to do.
The smile slowly left the president’s face when his thoughts were interrupted. Evidently he had been asked a question that a nod of his head would not cover.
“Excuse me, I’m sorry, drifted there for a minute,” he said, looking first at his wife and then at the two girls, who were just looking at him.
“They asked if you were going to make time to go to Disney World with us?” the first lady asked as her eyes met the president’s.
The president finally broke his spell and looked from his wife to the two waiting girls.
“Well, of course I am. The world can just go ahead and miss me for two days.”
The two girls laughed and clapped and then stood and ran around the table and hugged and kissed him. He returned the love as the girls broke their hold on him and then exited the private dining room. The first lady noticed his eyes following the girls and the sadness that seemed to be behind those eyes every time he saw his daughters.
“That bad?” she asked as she placed her napkin on her empty plate.
The president took a deep breath as the waitstaff came in and cleared the table. As the last man placed coffee in front of the most powerful couple in the world and left, the president looked at his wife.
“The idiots are not going to pass the bill.”
“I know this may sound traitorous to you, but even I would be throwing a fit if I didn’t know why you wanted the draft lottery instated.”
Again the deep breath. “I’ve explained to the senate and the house why we need the draft lottery ready to go. Why I need to extend enlistments and why I have placed retirement of any military man or woman on hold for the foreseeable future.”
“All of the house and senate?”
The president gave the first lady a bemused look. “Only the few that matter, the leaders of both parties.” He shook his head and sipped at his after-lunch coffee. “In other words, every enemy I have on both sides is tearing me apart in the papers.”
“Well, maybe it’s time you informed the world just what is really happening. I would want to know.”
“Like most American wives and mothers, you probably would have had a sense that something wasn’t right in the world. But being mere senators and representatives they’re a little slower on the uptake.”
“How are the branches of service taking the retirement and discharge freeze?”
“The staff at the Pentagon is fielding hate mail from their own soldiers, airmen, and sailors on a scale they have never seen.”
“You cannot stick to your timetable. The American people are beginning to think that either you’re militarily taking over this country or worse, you’ve gone completely mad. You have to tell them something. If your soldiers are listening to rumors they’re going to react in a negative way. You were a top soldier at one time and you didn’t like it.”
“I think I fit both scenarios at the moment—mad and a tyrant.” The president drank his coffee and then saw his Secret Service guard nod his head. The president stood and tossed the napkin on the table.
The first lady stood and paced to the president’s side of the table. She hugged him as he slid his relaxed tie up to its proper place under his chin.
“What is Niles saying?” she whispered in his ear as she kissed his cheek.
“Basically the same thing as you, and he’s just as big a nag.” He smiled and then regardless of his guards picked his wife up and hugged her.
“I think between your wife and the smartest man on the continent you should have a clear idea on what to say to the American people.”
The president finally lowered her and then straightened his coat just as the slight thump of turning rotors was heard coming from the White House lawn.
“Ooh, Daddy, that’s a Blackbird!” his younger daughter said as she had sprung from her chair and ran for the window.
“As a matter of fact, that’s just who I’m going to speak to right now,” the president said. He glanced only slightly toward his daughter, who was staring with wide eyes at the descending helicopter. “It’s a Black Hawk baby, not a Blackbird.”
The first lady turned his face back toward her own.
“Now don’t make him mad. Start off by calling him Niles and not ‘baldy,’ it puts him on the defensive.”
“Yeah, well, you’re not even supposed to know about him or what he does.”
“Then maybe you should have picked another person to be your best man at our wedding.”
“That, my dear, I should have done. That way I would have only one conscience to deal with.” He gave the first lady a quick wink.
“Such is life with the president.”
He smiled as walked to the door.
* * *
The president made his way to the administration wing of the White House. Most of the staff, visitors, and Secret Service men and women saw the same man they had been seeing on a daily basis for almost five years. He was always smiling, always confident. On his way into the Oval Office he nodded his head at his assistant and then nodded toward the door and she affirmed with a knowing look that his guest was inside waiting. His assistant knew almost immediately that the president was off limits for the next hour. However …
“Mr. President, House Speaker Camden has been waiting since 11:45. He does not have an appointment nor is he scheduled.” Senator and Speaker of the House, Giles Camden of Florida, stood up and got the president’s attention by placing his hands on his hips and glaring at him.
The president stopped and with no one seeing his face he rolled his eyes, but by the time he turned to face the senior Republican from Florida his customary smile was in place. The hawk from Florida was waiting and his hand wasn’t out. Even the president’s security detail disliked the man immensely.
“Mr. Speaker, this is a surprise, I wasn’t aware we had a meeting this afternoon.”
“Mr. President, my constituents as well as my colleagues are stupefied as to this draft lottery proposal you have been allowing to leak from your office.” The senator looked around to make sure that the ears inside the reception area were all tuned into his voice. “And keeping young men and women ensconced in military service when their obligations have been fulfilled to the utmost standards of the American military, well, sir, that’s just a little too much dictatorship and not enough democratic process.”
The president lost his smile as he stepped closer to the man from Florida who admiringly stood his ground against the formidable size of the former Army three-star general.
“One thing I don’t need from you, Senator Camden, is a lesson on my soldiers, airmen, and seamen, and how well they have fulfilled their duties in the global war on terror. I am well aware of it.” The president leaned over as far as he could and took the senator’s right hand in his own and shook slowly as he spoke low. “You of all people should know better than to listen to rumors. I have not made any such declarations, at least on an official basis, about either a draft proposal or freezing discharges.”
“Then perhaps the president can explain it to an old Southern gentleman the difference between rumor and fact”—he smiled—“as you see it, of course.”
The president released Camden’s hand and was tempted to wipe it on his pants leg, but smiled instead and then looked at his watch.
“If you don’t know the difference between the two by now, Mr. Speaker, I would never have the time to explain it to you. If you’ll excuse me, I have a meeting.”
Speaker of the House Camden watched, stunned, as the president turned and walked away. The tension inside the reception area was cold and you could cut the atmosphere with a knife. He noticed the Secret Service agent gesturing with his hand toward the nearest exit. Camden grimaced and then angrily looked down to where his own assistant was waiting and gestured for her to follow.
In the corridor he turned fuming to his female assistant. “I want CIA Director Harlan Easterbrook to meet me for dinner. And be sure he brings our good friend Dan Peachtree with him.”
“Are you sure that’s a good idea? I mean the director is squarely in the president’s camp on this issue”—the assistant corrected herself—“the rumored issue.”
“What goddamn issue? According to the president there is no issue, just an ugly rumor!” he hissed loudly and started getting looks from men and women lining the outer hallway waiting to see the man in the Oval Office. “Easterbrook knows who it is that controls the budget for his agency and I want Daniel Peachtree there to back us. Even Easterbrook can’t argue with his own AD of Operations on how screwed up this thing has become. Aliens, my ass! The president put one over on us four years ago with those damnable images of deep space and the so-called saucers. But where are they? We keep spending billions and what for?” He looked with wide eyes at his assistant. “I want details on what the president is up to and I want to be updated on Chinese and Russian military buildups. Hell, even the damn Brits have upped their naval budget by 100 percent as they are falling for the same crap the president did. And I want a full report on that little bald shit that the president bases all of his decisions on. National Archives, my ass!”
“On the foreign front I’m afraid, according to their governments, they also refuse to comment on rumors on their military. Now about this Niles Compton, Easterbrook and even our man Peachtree have no intel on Compton other than his educational background, which is of course extensive.”
“If Easterbrook doesn’t explain things to me far more clearly than they have been, I’m going to leak everything I have to the public and then let the president explain that.”
His assistant looked around and nervously leaned into her boss.
“Before you start making that kind of threat maybe we better get a better hold on the situation? After all, he is a lame duck president who doesn’t have a successor in any shape, form, or fashion unless you consider the spineless vice president, and Easterbrook will be looking for a job in two years.”
“I see. You’re saying a far more subtle approach is warranted?”
“It’s far better than the other rumors I’ve been hearing.” She again glanced at the faces now turned away from the two visitors.
The Speaker of the House stopped before reaching the outer door and faced the young assistant. “What, there are new rumors?”
“That two like-minded senators and backers of yours have just announced their sudden retirements.”
“Yes, Hastings and Schaller, Vermont and Texas respectively. Hastings is citing a pending divorce and Schaller is claiming health issues at age thirty-two.”
“Yes, well, some are saying after meeting with the president five weeks ago and them asking rather forcefully about those very rumors that you just mentioned, they suddenly announced their decisions on retiring the very next day.”
“Your point?” he asked, getting angry.
“My point is most people on the Hill are saying the president threatened them.”
“How do you mean?”
She didn’t respond but just looked into the older man’s face. He slowly but surely caught her ominous drift.
“Then that makes meeting with CIA Director Easterbrook and our friend Peachtree essential.” He turned and made his way to the door. “And remember, we can toss around threats also and Daniel Peachtree has just the man to issue those threats.”
The assistant exhaled deeply as she pictured the little creep across the river at CIA. “I can’t stomach that little bastard and I wish you would not be associated with him in any way. That Hiram Vickers reminds me of some slinking pedophile the way he looks at people.” She shivered at the thought of the little black operations guru over at Langley. “And one more thing, sir, what makes you think it wasn’t Director Easterbrook who backed up the president’s threat?” she mumbled as she raced to catch up with her boss.
House Speaker Camden only froze for a second at the door as he slightly turned and answered her.
“That will be Dan Peachtree’s problem, as he stands to gain the most from … complications in the chain of command at Langley.”
* * *
As the Secret Service agent held the door open for the president, the chief executive paused a moment, took a deep breath, nodded at the agent, and tried to confidently stride into the Oval Office. The president saw his friend immediately. Director Niles Compton was at the window behind the Lincoln desk, looking out onto Pennsylvania Avenue and the five thousand men and women protesting in the street. The placards were offensive to say the least and were saying that the U.S. was on a road to dictatorship. Niles Compton knew his friend was anything but dictatorial. Being a military man from the time he was in college, the president was always terrified of being labeled right wing when actually he thought as many generals do when they got to a certain age: that military power is a dangerous thing in the wrong hands—and even sometimes in the right ones. Niles Compton knew the problem could be in no more capable hands than those of his old friend.
“I’m really surprised you’re not out there with them protesting my supposed and rumored military moves.”
“Maybe they wouldn’t be protesting if they knew the whole truth,” Niles Compton said as he turned away from the window to face the president.
The president didn’t respond as he stood before his own desk. He gestured for Niles to move.
“Unless you want this screwed up job, do you mind if I sit at my own desk, baldy?”
Niles smiled and then moved. He kept his hands in his pockets as he paced to the front of the room. The president looked momentarily out of the window, then allowed the lace curtain to fall back into place as he turned and sat.
“My so-called good friends in the senate are starting to jump ship. The briefing I gave them four years ago is starting to wear off and now they’re running for cover. The key people I needed on the hawk side of things have completely flown the coop. My friends on the other end of the spectrum are now feeling the heat because of these rumors and the fact we haven’t even had one sighting of anything from space other than our own junk falling from the sky.”
Niles finally turned and faced the president as he sat in one of the double-facing couches. He opened his old briefcase and removed a file. “In one brief moment of time many years ago you asked me how I would handle it. I told you.”
“You didn’t understand the American psyche then as now. So, may I explain it again for you, Mr. Wizard?” The president saw his friend wasn’t going to respond so he quickly continued before he could. “Singly this nation is built of brilliant and smart citizens capable of immense kindness and compassion and a simple vision of the future. My people are smart, Niles. Oh, not like an egghead like you, but smart enough to know the situation and understand it when it’s explained to them. But go to the collective mind of those very same citizens and that’s where we run into trouble, and you know that. Collectively we can be the most frightened nation on this planet if things aren’t explained to the extreme point they can be.”
“Tell them everything now or call a press conference and deny all the military rumors as a lie, and then stop allowing the military to sway you into this supposed draft lottery. Come clean about everything from Roswell, to the incident with the destroyer in the Arizona desert, and even the moon landings from years ago. Everything.” Niles shook his head and then looked at his friend. “And what is this about keeping men and women in the military after their service is complete—is that one true?”
The president was silent as he turned his head away from the man he had known since college. Niles Compton was the director of the utmost darkened agency in the federal government. Their existence was known only to a few and answered only to the president of the United States since the time of Lincoln unofficially, and Woodrow Wilson by law. Department 5656, or what was known to a few outsiders as the Event Group, had a mission to uncover the truth about the shared history of the world, as the understanding of the past secured the future. Department 5656 advised the presidency of any correlation between past events and those currently unfolding in the present so he could make a calculated judgment on how to handle any repeat of that history.
“Yes, it’s true, Niles. I can’t fight a war if my military is stripped down to nothing because of a false sense of security after the war on terror.”
“Then explain why to the people of the country and of the world. For Christ’s sake we’re getting ready to watch the Chinese start killing themselves over their military expenditures. The same is happening in France, Russia, Germany, and England. We are the ones scaring the world, not them.” Compton pointed toward the high ceiling of the Oval Office and what he knew was the complete future of darkness beyond the high clouds.
“Why haven’t they moved on us, Niles? They’ve been sitting out there ten million light-years from Earth just waiting. I get new images from the Hubble every other day in my security briefing and they haven’t moved a light-year in any direction, they just sit there. This is why I have supporters jumping off what they now think of as a rudderless ship.”
“Our asset in the Arizona desert reports that the Grays are more than likely here already. They’ll strike when they see an opportunity to do so. Thus your military buildup could be a never-ending nightmare in the terms of time. When they come we have to fight them with the weapons we have already developed and the men and women trained to fight them. Not with new recruits or angry veterans.”
The president shook his head and abruptly stood; in so doing he pushed his large chair back hard enough for it to strike the wall.
“Niles, you and Garrison Lee came up with the plan for Operation Overlord. For the first aspect of that plan to come off I need warships and aircraft. To support our allies if the Grays strike at them first I need to get my army overseas, and for that I need control of the oceans. And I need enough men and equipment left over to secure our cities and train another army as fast as possible for our defenses here. For this I need experienced soldiers, and in order to have that I have to stop them from leaving their respective branches of service. I also need every aircraft we have mothballed in the desert and every obsolete warship in the navy yards at Philadelphia.”
“Then tell the people that,” Niles said, getting angry for the first time in the presence of the president. Compton watched as his friend turned and snatched the lace curtain back again to gaze at those very same citizens protesting the rumors that were running rampant. “But one thing you and the others are refusing to grasp—and you had better start facing it—is that the combined military strength of the entire planet may not last five days against a full-scale onslaught from the Grays.
“That’s why we have Overlord. If we can hold off an offensive strike until Overlord can come on line we have a chance, at least according to our little green friend out in Chato’s Crawl.”
“And you know damn good and well that Matchstick explained that part two of Overlord depends entirely on getting our hands on a power plant from a downed saucer.” The president released the curtain and turned to face Niles. “Your Group’s not confident at this point of possibly finding another crashed saucer?”
Niles opened the folder and pulled out his report.
“We have chased down every UFO report going back as far as the biblical Ezekiel. Outside of the two Roswell incidents we only have rumors of other incidents where a vehicle was recovered with an intact engine.”
“So it’s just as Matchstick says, then?” The president thought of the small alien who had been in U.S. custody since the Arizona incident in 2006.
“We’ll have to place a priority on getting our hands on a power plant when hostilities start … if we can knock the damn saucers out of the sky, that is.”
The president looked a little put out by Niles’s comment. “I believe your Mr. Ryan brought one down in the Pacific, if I remember correctly, with just a Phoenix missile. I think if he can do it we can at least get a few of the bastards for Matchstick to play with.”
“Touché,” Niles said as he slipped the report on the saucer search away. “We actually may have chance at getting at one early in any conflict. Then it’s just a matter of time constraints if we can literally get Overlord off the ground.”
The president raised his brows as he waited for any welcome news.
“Matchstick says they cannot come through their travel wormholes in any large force. Their energy is limited. A few saucers at a time, maybe five or six, and then the Grays have to recharge before they can continue sending their forces through from that extreme distance away. But if they punch us hard enough in the opening rounds their energy problems will be moot. As Matchstick says, it takes the power of an entire planet to produce the energy needed to produce a time-warp wormhole.”
The president slapped the top of his desk. “And that is exactly why I want my forces at full potential, Niles. Now, is Matchstick sure that this power that creates the wormholes is limited in scope?”
“Yes. As you know, the home planet of the Grays is dying. Their forces are growing old and their energy is used to maintain their fleet in space. They have stripped their home world in order to attack us. That is why there is a delay, as they wait for an opening that will be devastating to us.”
The president saw the concerned look briefly cross his friend’s face. “What is it?”
“In the briefings with Matchstick and Gus, they both get extremely quiet when we talk about the Grays’ home world. It seems something has been concerning the little green guy for a few years, but we at the Group cannot explain it, nor will he discuss it.”
The president held Niles in his sight and then lowered his head in near despair.
“God, I pray he’s not hiding anything from us.”
EVENT GROUP COMPLEX
NELLIS AIR FORCE BASE, NEVADA
At 1.7 miles beneath Nellis Air Force Base, the Event Group complex was at its usual brisk pace. Thirteen field teams were crawling through deserts, mountains, and oceans searching for a historical record of downed alien aircraft in ancient times. The push to find an intact alien power plant had stripped the Event Group of most of their divisions and military security personnel, so much so that gate number two inside the Gold City Pawn Shop had been closed due to the lack of viable military personnel to secure the Las Vegas entrance. And with so many scientists and historians in the field the complex was near empty.
The man in charge of complex security on a temporary basis was First Lieutenant Will Mendenhall. Naval Commander Jason Ryan officially outranked the lieutenant but the naval aviator stepped aside due to Will’s advanced training in black operations. Both men were standing inside the computer center with Pete Golding, the man responsible for the supercomputer Europa. They stood in front of Pete’s personal Europa terminal, and it was Golding who gestured angrily at the six-foot monitor.
“Look, there it is again. What in the hell are he and Gus Tilly working on that’s using so much computer time? I have people searching for ancient saucer wreckage and sometimes they can’t even log in as Matchstick has usurped the Europa system. Niles and I gave him complete access to the computers but even that wasn’t enough. Our green friend is locking out my own teams.”
“Have you called out to Arizona to ask Matchstick why he needs so much computer time?” Will looked over at a bored Jason Ryan, who just shrugged his shoulders.
“Gus won’t say. He says that Matchstick isn’t communicating with him about this suddenly urgent project he’s working on outside of the saucer power plant search. Gus also says Matchstick isn’t sleeping and barely eating, and Gus is afraid he’s going to get sick.”
“What does the director have to say about this?” Ryan offered. “I mean, the last I heard Matchstick has total control of Europa whenever he wants it, so why is this upsetting you to the point you’re whining like a schoolgirl?”
“The director doesn’t know,” Pete said as he turned off his monitor and the view of the computer center out in Arizona. They watched the small green alien known as Mahjtic as the monitor faded to nothing. The Group called him the Matchstick Man, as Gus Tilly had been calling him since the old prospector saved the life of the small being after it had crashed in the Arizona desert.
“Well, I would suggest bringing Virginia in on this and get a jump-start on getting some answers while Dr. Compton is in Washington,” Will said as he straightened and stretched his back. Pete nodded and started to reach for the phone on his desk, but Will and Jason stopped him by clearing their throats at the same moment.
Pete Golding finally thought he knew what the two military men wanted. He nodded his head and then released the phone. He turned and spoke softly into the extended microphone, and the large monitor above them came to life with a live picture of a giant ice cave. The video was stark as the lights of a surveillance camera glared off the crystalline blue ice.
“Europa managed to break into the British security cameras in the Antarctic. As you can see the ice has been excavated quite extensively in the area of the find. After the initial discovery of the wreckage and the finding of Captain Everett’s wristwatch with his and Colonel Collins’s DNA upon it, the site has yielded little else.”
Three months before they had been informed that a watch had been discovered inside the wreckage of an unknown type of aerial vehicle of Earth origin, no craft like it was now in existence. The plum in that little information was the fact that the British Antarctica expedition that discovered the wreckage found the artifacts under more than a mile of ice. And the kicker to that statement was the fact that the ice it was buried in was more than two hundred thousand years old. Thus they were now in the state they were in three weeks before with Captain Everett in retirement and Colonel Jack Collins suspended from all field operations as per presidential order.
“Are the British going to allow American examination of the craft?” Jason asked before Will could in their never-ending competition to be first in everything.
“Thus far they think the turning over of the watch was enough. Until they have thoroughly examined the ship, or whatever it is, they won’t budge. It seems the fight to get the most technology is ongoing. But the strange thing is, Niles, Matchstick, and even Colonel Collins know what the British are up to under the ice but they are keeping it close to the vest.”
“Does it have something to do with these strange names floating around security, Overlord and such?” Mendenhall asked.
“Details of that operation will get anyone fired around here for even mentioning it. So, your guess is as good as mine.”
“Dr. Golding,” Europa announced, “Chato’s Crawl has requested restricted satellite weather data from the NASA mainframe.”
“Damn,” Pete hissed as he shook his head. “Name of asset requesting data stream?” he asked.
“Identification code: Magic.”
“Matchstick again?” Jason asked as his smile grew. “The little fella is working overtime, I guess.”
“But on what?” Pete asked. “When he requests military data from anywhere he is usually forthcoming about what he’s looking for. But now I make requests for verification as to why he wants that data, and he clams up.”
Will Mendenhall looked at the clock readout in blue numbers that was projected onto the white plastic wall of the computer center.
“Well, get Dr. Pollock to sign off on Matchstick’s request, and I think it’s time we pay our friend in the desert a visit. Pete, please keep up on the Antarctic surveillance.” Mendenhall hesitated and then faced Pete again. “Without stepping on toes and mentioning this Operation Overlord, whatever it may be.”
“Will do. Also, when you get out to Chato’s Crawl, ask Matchstick what is so important about Charlie’s cryptozoology department. He’s been spending an inordinate amount of time running through Crypto’s files and Charlie Ellenshaw hasn’t figured out a pattern to Matchstick’s research yet. If he’s interested in Crypto, he should ask Charlie directly; he could be more of a help.”
“Okay.” Mendenhall turned to Jason. “Feel like flying out to Arizona?”
“Sure, beats sitting here listening to Pete,” Jason said as he slapped Golding on the back. “But as a field team we need two more security people, buddy, and guess what? We’re fresh out of live bodies. Everyone we have in security is either in the field chasing down leads to crashed saucers or on security duty here. As you know, even with gate two shut down we’re still shorthanded.”
“I’ve got that covered. Since we need Charlie on this trip he’ll be listed in the field report as added security.”
Jason smiled as he knew right where Will was heading. “Besides Charlie, who’s they in that equation?”
Will started to walk up the stairs that led to the theater-style seating above the main floor.
“The last I heard, Antarctica was still way down south. I think Chato’s Crawl is safe enough for our intrepid Colonel Collins to join us.”
Jason Ryan looked at Pete.
“After finding Captain Everett’s watch in two-hundred-thousand-year-old ice I don’t find very much safe about anything.”
“I hear that.”
* * *
The knock sounded loudly on his door. His eyes never left the screen full of information that scrolled across his face inside the darkness of his private quarters. The eyes scanned a document he had stared at for hours on end. It was an image of the only scrap of evidence in the murder of a thirty-one-year-old CIA agent. The internal memorandum was of U.S. government origin and was known to be used by three of the top agencies in the country—the FBI, the National Security Agency, and the CIA. The memo directed the young agent to a meeting she never returned from. The key to the document was the small dash-dot system in the left-hand corner. Pete and Europa finally deciphered the code and broke it down to indicate the memo originated at the desk of someone at the CIA.
The subject of the memo was the very man looking at the image supplied by Europa. It was a memo listing his name and day and dates of where he was at. It was a tracking report from a bug that had been planted covertly on his person, and the memo was an order to the contracted satellite company doing the tracking—Cassini Space-Based Systems—by the person or persons responsible for the young agent’s and another female’s death. The eyes scanned the document one last time and then Jack Collins shut off the monitor and turned his unshaven face toward the steel door of his quarters—or as he had come to think of it, his prison.
“Come,” he said as he stood. He paced to the bathroom and splashed water on his face just as the door opened. Will Mendenhall stuck his head inside.
“Feel like getting the hell out of here for a while, Colonel?” Will asked as his eyes studied the usually immaculate quarters. His eyes fell on the empty Jack Daniels bottle and several glasses that lined his desk. The room was a mess and so unlike Collins that Will shook his head.
Jack came out of the bathroom drying his hands on a towel. When he was finished he allowed it to slip through his fingers and onto the carpeted floor.
“What is it, you busting me out?” Jack started to slip into an olive-drab-colored T-shirt over his bare chest.
“Something like that. We’re shorthanded on a routine detail and it should afford you to get a little air since it’s nowhere near the South Pole.”
Collins looked at Will for the longest time.
“Still nothing on the origins of Mr. Everett’s watch?”
Mendenhall’s silence was enough of an answer. Jack angrily slipped into a wrinkled white dress shirt and started buttoning it. As long as he was restricted to base because of this archeological find in Antarctica he could not get out of the complex to find the killer of the young CIA agent—his sister, Lynn Simpson Collins. He knew the watch had to have been discovered in the efforts to free the largest part of Operation Overlord from the ice, a fact he couldn’t share with Will or anyone else who wasn’t in on the planned response to a possible Gray invasion.
“Figure we could go out and see our little friend in the desert. It seems he’s up to deviltry and it’s freaking Doc Golding out.”
“What doesn’t freak Pete out?” Jack said, feeling better just by talking about normal things again. “Why not,” he finally said. “And by the way, you know that anything our green friend wants, he gets, so Pete should just calm down.”
Will held the door open for the colonel in silence.
“What’s the latest on McIntire?” Jack asked as he gathered his things.
“She’s still in Uzbekistan, checking on one of the target areas for the search.”
“The supposed Soviet saucer encounter in 1972?” Jack retrieved his sunglasses from the desk and made his way to the door.
“Yeah, looks like another dead end as no one wants to talk to our team or the Russians. Both we and the Ruskies aren’t real popular over there. She should be back in a few days. I think Dr. Compton has another search he wants her on.”
“Matchstick has no theories on Everett’s watch and the Antarctica thing?” Jack knew the link between Operation Overlord and the captain’s watch had to be connected, but without telling the top-most secret in the world to Pete and the others they were at a dead end.
“When asked, green boy just looks confused and then says there is no such science as time displacement, no matter what Albert Einstein says, and I guess he would know.”
“Why? Most of the scientists around here believe Einstein was one of them anyway,” Jack said, referring to Albert’s proclivity for being right about everything.
For Will it was good to see the colonel smile, even if it was only a moment of normalcy.
Jack turned to close his door and then hesitated.
“How is Captain Everett?”
“No word. It seems the captain may have found a home in Romania.”
Jack nodded and felt better that his friend was at least safe inside Romania.
“Well, shall we go hassle the Matchstick Man?” Collins asked as he gestured for Will to lead the way.
On the way down the corridor Will whistled the old tune the colonel had made him listen to six years before—the 1967 hit by the British rock band Status Quo: “Pictures of Matchstick Men.” It was a tune that was hauntingly similar in description to their little green alien friend—Mahjtic.
THE WHITE HOUSE
Niles waited on the president. The way his friend fidgeted about on the facing couch resembled a man trying to find a way to tell his buddy he had a terminal illness. Then the president stood and moved to his desk and used a small key to open one of the many drawers. He removed his own special file and went to the coffee table fronting the two couches, sat on the edge, and then slapped Niles on the knee with it.
“What is this?” Niles asked, refusing to touch it.
Compton saw the president’s eyes as they locked on his own. Then his eyes moved to the emblem on the manila file as he saw it was from the Department of the Navy, and a cold chill ran through his body. Finally Niles reached out and accepted the folder.
“Before you open that I have this little problem to deal with and I want to do it in front of you so you can personally pass on what it was you witnessed.” The president reached into his suit jacket and brought out a large white envelope and opened it. Without comment the president tore the envelope and whatever was inside of it in two, then tossed the destroyed letter onto the t
DAVID L. GOLEMON makes his home in New York. Overlord is the ninth novel in his Event Group Series.