Chapters 23, 24 and 25
Things are heating up for our resident sociopath, Alicia Sonnet, at Homeland Security.
We learn that Washington D.C. is indeed heavily influenced by the dark side. Every single lobbyist is from Hell - a sort of work-release program for damned souls.
Still, it's not so bad....could be demons, who tend to be more....rapey.
Department of Homeland Security
Nebraska Avenue Complex
Alicia Sonnet was covering her tracks well…or at least trying to.
As to be expected, Homeland Security - as well as the FBI - went into overdrive after the bus bombings. The very first thing the two organizations focused on was the bomber’s identity – which they didn’t know – and the bomber’s ties to known terrorists groups – which they couldn’t identify.
No claims of responsibility were made to the media. In a rare instance of irony, the president of the United States was getting more information from Fox News than he was from two intelligence services with a combined budget of over 125 billion dollars per year.
To say the president was upset about this fact would have been a gross understatement.
Sonnet entered the lobby and headed for the bank of elevators. DHS headquarters was a maze of complexes covering three dozen acres, and at one time was a key Washington naval facility.
Her office, and the primary National Incident Command Center, was on the fifth floor, along with her boss. As the elevator doors opened, she noticed a flurry of activity around a central computer terminal that dominated the room.
The DHS Command Center consisted of several data workstations clustered together and manned by junior agents, most of them going through monotonous traffic cam footage or the email accounts of known bombers.
Washington D.C. had more CCTV cameras per square mile than anywhere else on Earth, including London - a grand total of 34,000. It was widely believed the bomber would have met up with a contact 36 to 48 hours before the attack - to receive the explosives, detonators or other equipment. This was true to a certain extent…in most cases. PETN couldn’t be safely stored in an urban area; the threat of prying neighbors was always a consideration.
Sonnet, in this case at least, knew otherwise.
She actually had no idea where James had gotten his explosives from, but that wasn’t important. Homeland Security was severely hamstringed in ways they didn’t even realize.
The sad fact of the matter was that facial recognition software used by DHS and the FBI had a very long way to go, so all the collected CCTV footage had to be reviewed one frame at a time by human eyes. This meant tired agents going through hours of recorded images, looking for a thirty-year-old man in a vast sea of other thirty-year-old men.
Another factor was working against the agency as well – no high level operators in the Dal Clann Hallstatt used email, encrypted or not. The only communications permitted were between Wi-Fi equipped vehicles, which were untraceable. The dark side had its drawbacks, but they weren’t idiots.
There was simply too much at stake.
Sonnet’s boss looked up from the set of screens and smiled grimly. “Good to see you, Alicia. I think we may have something.”
Sonnet was surprised. “You found the bomber?”
Deputy Secretary Pembroke shook his head. “No, I’m afraid not. Something else, though. Take a look.”
Contrary to everything that made Alicia Sonnet a demented psychopath, she liked and respected Josh Pembroke, her superior for the past decade.
He was a fair man with incredible inner strength and kindness. At the same time, Pembroke had absolutely no time for games or bullshit politics, and protected his agents accordingly. She’d heard that Pembroke had very tough early life that had derailed his career somewhat, but there was no evidence of that now. And if she’d been interested in older men, Sonnet would have definitely been smitten by Pembroke. Even though he was reaching retirement age, the man was a certified Grade-A hunk.
Josh Pembroke, even on a bad day, had George Clooney beat three ways to Sunday.
Sonnet set her laptop bag down and moved closer. Special Agent Greg Walker glanced up from the multiple traffic-camera surveillance screens with a quick smile. Walker, in her opinion, was a techno-geek that should have stayed in college. He did have his uses, though.
“Hi, Alicia.” Walker said. “I’ve uploaded every CCTV traffic cam in relation to our last witness reports of the bomber. Got something really strange here. See that?”
The camera view showed a typical Washington street, with foot traffic on the sidewalks and cars flowing by.
“Err…no. Can you be more specific?”
“Yeah.” Walker pointed. “Notice the black Tahoe?”
Sonnet took a second to study the vehicle on the screen. A black Tahoe was parked at the curb of 31st and Vine. The vehicle’s driver leaned against the fender, taking notes on the very same coffee shop that she and James had visited just the day before. Crap.
Sonnet placed a hand on Walker’s shoulder. “Who is that? FBI?”
Walker grunted. “No, not exactly. That’s the problem.”
“It’s all very odd.” Pembroke explained. “The Tahoe is registered to something called the Environmental Services Group.”
Frigging hell. Sonnet was very familiar with the Environmental Services Group, but she wasn’t going to share the fact that the ESG wasn’t an Earth-based agency.
“I don’t understand.” Sonnet said. “What does this have to do with our investigation?”
“Maybe nothing.” Pembroke replied, pointing to the driver of the Tahoe. “But this guy seems to be tracking the bomber’s last movements, just like we are. I’ll be damned if that isn’t the strangest part.”
“What is, then?”
“We ran this man’s photo through our facial recognition software, which usually doesn’t work worth a crap. But we got a positive hit, because he’s a former government employee.”
“One of ours?”
“Nope,” Pembroke said. “British…an agent with Scotland Yard. According to our files, this is Quentin Phillips.”
Sonnet raised an eyebrow. “What’s the weird part?”
“Quentin Phillips died in the line of duty 19 years ago.”
Sonnet, even though she was assistant deputy secretary to Homeland Security and knew precisely who the bomber was, had no intention on clueing in Josh Pembroke or anyone else.
She’d already corrupted several hours of video footage from the various coffee shops and restaurants that she’d frequented with James Hallstatt.
This business with Quentin Phillips, however, was throwing a wrench into the gears. The agent wasn’t attached to Black Ops or Division One, but that was the least of her problems.
Sonnet thought for a moment. Her lover wasn’t in the system, and neither was his child…but Gertie Hallstatt might be. Finding out about James and his family connections would be a matter of dumb luck, because Sonnet had personally closed all of the other routes normally employed by the agency.
She was still worried, though. Facial recognition software was still a CSI television show dream. But Homeland Security did have one thing operating in their favor.
Over the past few years the DHS had swallowed the Immigration and Naturalization Service, merging them with Homeland’s investigations, which was bad for her. The overall organization was a juggernaut now. She had to presume the ATF and FBI had traffic cam footage of James Hallstatt by now - and it was only a matter of time before one of Homeland’s 200,000 employees made a tentative connection.
Something strange – and rather unexpected - had occurred in Sonnet’s mind after the two buses had been blasted into oblivion, with the whole world watching. A tingle of fear had trickled down her spine, which was unusual, because it had never happened before. It took her some time to figure out the source of the fear, but Sonnet finally did.
Alicia Sonnet finally had something to lose.
A new sensation, to be sure, but very real, nonetheless. She had a home, a career, and an identity. Sonnet had respect. Smart men and women not only worked for her, they valued her insight as well.
This was very troubling, mainly because Sonnet liked the sensation of respect. There were other sensations she liked as well.
She enjoyed the other perks of life on Earth, too. Sonnet liked driving to her place after a hard day at work, slipping into cotton jam-jams, eating ice cream and watching Bones. It all felt so…normal.
And normal – it turned out - wasn’t such a bad thing. She realized that losing all of that would be devastating, a feeling that she didn’t wholly welcome.
Something had to be done.
In the past, being a demon in human disguise had always been a…blessing, of sorts. Demons didn’t give a crap about anyone or anything. You screwed up bad enough, then you simply went back to Hell, licked your wounds, and came back to fight another day.
Sonnet didn’t want to come back and fight another day. She wanted pistachio ice cream and David Boreanaz and a high thread count. She didn’t want to give up her iPhone, the eight airbags in her air-conditioned Audi or the freedom of Frisbee on a lazy Sunday.
Sonnet thought hard.
The Environmental Services Group had sent Quentin Phillips to Washington for a reason, but she couldn’t really fathom why. The ESG handled large scale disasters on Earth for God…not small crimes like the bus bombing.
It didn’t make any sense.
Sonnet smiled to herself. Sometimes these situations were best nipped in the bud.
So maybe a preemptive strike was in order.
Because of Hollywood - and the industry’s portrayal of evil - most people in today’s society lumped demons and damned souls from Hell together.
This was a mistake.
By the same token, very few humans were aware of a strange fact concerning Washington D.C. - and those who were aware of this particular shortcoming didn’t advertise, as it was very bad for business.
Across the world, there were automakers, manufactures of consumer electronics, software companies, as well as the huge entities that relied on military contracts - which used intermediaries to facilitate lucrative deals between corporations and governments…as well as delicate deals between the corporations themselves.
In Europe and Asia, these intermediaries were called ‘Mediators’ – and unknown to the general public - they were damned souls from Hell…sort of a work-release program for dead people.
A Mediator earned a living by traveling to Earth daily to put sensitive deals on the table without the service of high-priced lawyers.
Lawyers were expensive. Lawyers were bad.
It was a win-win for everyone. Multi-national corporations could broker deals without accruing huge billable hours from the law firms they employed, and Hell received some much needed income.
The biggest employers of Mediators in Europe were Royal Dutch Shell and Mercedes, with the British government coming in third. In Asia, the Kia Corporation didn’t even bother with lawyers, with 125 Mediators on the company payroll.
This service wasn’t limited to rich corporations or governments, either.
Mediators also worked for countries such as Pakistan, whose civilian government was rarely flush with cash for payment. Instead, Mediators were paid with valuable necessities such as clean drinking water, fuel, beer, cigarettes and even breakfast cereal. Cheerios was a very popular brand in Hell.
Contrary to popular belief, damned souls and demons were two completely different types of individuals. And even to the untrained eye, they were generally pretty easy to tell apart, too.
Damned souls, as in life, were out to work and make some serious cash….while demons tended to be more…rapey.
Demons were murderers and rapists that had caused massive amounts of misery during their lifetime on Earth. Some were sent to the Oubliette, of which there was no escape, while other demons lived a meager existence and tried to survive in Hell’s wasteland.
Not all demons did poorly, however.
Some demons proved to have a good understanding of the housing market. After his death, Pol Pot had built up an impressive collection of rental condos and bungalows in Hell, although he was a terrible landlord.
Demons were dangerous, however, and an escape to Earth was considered a big deal. Heaven’s armed forces had special organizations trained to send demons back where they came from. If given a chance, demons would usually wreak as much havoc as possible on Earth – with no thought given to their actions.
But damned souls?
Not so much.
As stated, most damned souls were simply interested in making a buck. Period. Damned souls were the con artists and used car salesmen of Hell. It wasn’t the profession that was the problem, necessarily, but the unrelenting pursuit of money.
That pursuit of money had a way of making people forget what was important during their stay on Earth, and they paid for it in the afterlife - dearly.
Most humans, caught up in the pursuit of happiness, also weren’t aware of what life in Hell was actually like. Take Detroit, set it in the middle of a scorching desert, break out the windows in every building…and turn off the power.
That was the average town in Hell.
These cities were mostly populated by damned souls, with a few well-behaved demons mixed in for flavor. Water and sewage was a constant problem, as was transporting in food and the other staples needed to sustain life.
Humans never thought about the fact that Hell had infrastructure comparable to an American frontier town - and like America’s Wild West, it was an absolutely miserable place to live.
There were automobiles, but 1945 was pretty much the cutoff date for anything with an engine - as nothing else would last more than a few miles in Hell’s harsh environment.
Fuel was precious, though, and most souls moved around on the dated – but exceedingly tough - steam train system.
Nearly every steam locomotive built on Earth was hard at work in Hell. Amazingly, no humans had ever really wondered where the steam locomotives had disappeared to after diesel engines were introduced.
Unknown to mankind, they had all been quietly moved to Hell one rainy night in 1949. It was rumored that Lucifer bought a very nice yacht after that sale, as he was already deep in the pockets of most politicians, and quite the Washington insider. Go figure.
Life, however, was hard for the damned in Hell.
Unsurprisingly, simply getting a drink of water was a traumatic event. In 1873, the idea of intermediaries was first presented as a career choice – and a relief from the ever-present poverty.
Damned souls rejoiced and jumped at the chance to work again. Mediators soon became an accepted - and even welcomed - part of Earth’s business community.
But Washington D.C. was, of course, another matter altogether.
Lucifer himself started the well-paying trend of ‘lobbying’ for corporations. By taking the Mediator model and twisting it a little, he created a unique profession custom-made for damned souls.
There were many powerful corporations in America that simply oozed cash - and those same corporations needed favors from politicians in the nation’s capital…the kind of favors that danced right outside the ethical line of the law. Wink, wink.
Putting the two together was child’s play for Lou. And make no mistake, politicians loved cash. Some Washington lawmakers were obsessed with upholding the laws of America, while others were more concerned with soundproofing their office bathrooms and installing a 60-inch Sony in the their private gym.
Lou could provide these luxuries and, understandably, had a lot of friends in Washington. Lucifer also had an extremely effective public relations machine that promised everything from an end to tort reform and punitive damages, to endless government pork projects. Politicians positively loved him.
The wheels in Washington turned smoothly. Over the last few decades, lobbyists from Hell had raked in millions of dollars in business; most of it funneled back home in the form of much-needed commodities.
In fact, Lucifer still worked for RJ Reynolds - the wealthy tobacco conglomerate - and it was Lou that had convinced Congress it was okay for schoolchildren to smoke cigarettes. Lou even designed the ad campaigns.
Having no conscience could sometimes be very rewarding. Lou drove a shiny new black BMW 7-series and owned a nice beach house in North Carolina…with six bathrooms.
Who said crime didn’t pay?
Alicia Sonnet’s local connection to Hell was a wealthy lobbyist named Frank Juno.
Most lobbyists - except for the occasional wildcard - kept a low profile in the public eye of Washington. Frank Juno, though, was a different sort of damned soul who’d been a Supreme Court judge at one time. Juno tended to think outside of the box. And although he’d died of a heart attack in New York after a long life of making everyone around him completely miserable, Juno still relished the thought of tormenting others.
The first part of the 20th century had seen huge steps forward in America. Women could vote, blacks were getting closer to being accepted by society and the Great Depression was making positive inroads to the country as a whole.
Frank Juno wasn’t having any of that nonsense.
Juno served on Woodrow Wilson’s presidential cabinet as an advisor - until Wilson, fed up with Juno’s sadistic, bitter nature - assigned the troublemaker to a permanent post on the Supreme Court.
This was a bad move.
As the nation’s highest judge, Juno made a point of blocking all progressive new laws, especially any that benefited blacks.
Or anyone that looked female or Jewish.
Or anyone was that was married, single or wore nail polish.
Juno, a dedicated misogynist, saw all of these discrepancies as an incorruptible sin - managing to completely alienate every man, woman and child that had the unfortunate pleasure of meeting him. Frank Juno retired from the Supreme Court in 1941, and died in 1946.
Not a single person attended his funeral.
In modern Washington, Frank Juno was a damned soul that came back to broker deals between the American government and corporations such as Lockheed Martin, General Motors, Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan Chase.
He was very good at his job.
Journalists in the nation’s capital had been speculating for fifty years who the evil genius was behind the fine print in contracts that cost taxpayers billions of dollars every quarter.
That would be Frank Juno.
And Juno, being the jackass that came naturally, was also a facilitator for the dark side.
The reason Alicia Sonnet needed a facilitator like Frank Juno in the first place – to her chagrin - was time-consuming, annoying and rather complicated.
Hell generated massive amounts of electromagnetic energy, so communicating with radio transmissions was out of the question. This electromagnetic energy was almost identical to a nuclear attack – except without the nuclear attack, what scientists called an EMP.
Cell phones and iPads became instant pieces of non-functioning plastic in Hell. Anything with a computer microchip - or even a vacuum tube - was immediately fried. Most importantly, the telephone switch banks used on Earth were useless, as well.
That left the telegraph.
There was electricity available to power the out-dated telegraph stations, but only from antique fuel-oil and steam-fired generators built in 19th-century, which were immune to the caustic atmospheric energy. They were few and far between, though.
Worst of all – for Sonnet, at least - communications were limited to one-way messages across the antiquated telegraph lines and stations located throughout Hell. Frank Juno was an expert with Morse code, and had a telegraph station hidden in his D.C. office, but the situation was still far from ideal.
Sonnet pulled out her cell phone, walked to her office and shut the door, dialing Juno’s number from memory. Juno’s D.C. office employed 45 damned souls and a few garden-variety humans, one of which was his long-suffering secretary, Rosa.
“Juno and Associates, how may I help you?”
“It’s Alicia Sonnet, Rosa. Put me through.”
The line clicked for a second, then Frank Juno came on. Sonnet could imagine Juno in her mind’s eye. He was probably chewing on an expensive cigar; tie askew, comb-over in need of attention. Lunch was probably smeared on his jacket and whiskey bottle was sitting on the messy desk.
“Alicia, you can’t call me here. I know damn well you were involved.”
“The phones, dammit.”
Sonnet sighed. “You’ve been watching too many movies. I’m calling you from a secure cell phone, dumbass. And I know for a fact that you have your offices swept every week.”
“But the Patriot Act - ”
“Haven’t you heard?” Sonnet said merrily. “Tapping phones without a warrant has been deemed unconstitutional for a year now. And if some moron from the FBI had gotten a warrant, don’t you think I’d let you know? To answer your question, I was involved with the bombing, but not directly.”
“Oh, shit.” Juno grunted. “I knew it. Want do you want?”
“John Jacob and his Irregulars, Frank.”
John Jacob and the Scinde Irregular Horse were mercenaries in Hell that could be bought for a few cartons of cigarettes and a case of Jim Beam. Sonnet considered herself lucky, as Washington D.C. had many, many tears in the fabric between the two worlds, mainly due to political corruption. The Scinde Irregulars could pass through practically anywhere they chose. She didn’t care for the outlaws, but they were always available on short notice.
Juno breathed heavily. “Oh, Jeez…I should have known. When do you want them?”
“Right now.” Sonnet placed her long legs on the desk. “And I have GPS coordinates for the objective.”
“Who are you targeting exactly?”
“I’m not quite sure.” Sonnet said. “The coordinates are on an ESG-registered Chevy Tahoe that’s nosing around in my business.”
“Alicia! You want to mess with God’s own? That’s a really bad idea.”
“Settle down, Frank, you’re going to have an aneurysm. I just want to convey a message. Send a flash message to Out Town, and get me a few Irregulars to ride through at Dupont Circle.”
Juno grunted in disbelief. “We can’t let those nut-jobs loose on Embassy Row! Are you insane?”
“Let me worry about that, Frank. Just send the flash traffic.”
Sonnet left her office feeling good, and returned to the DHS Command Center where Walker and Deputy Secretary Pembroke were still glued to the monitors.
She joined them and studied the traffic cams, still deep in thought. The black Tahoe had stopped on New Hampshire illegally to pick up passengers. The sunglasses-wearing driver – Quentin Phillips - climbed out and waved to someone out of view.
Pembroke and Walker leaned forward to see who would reveal themselves. The images were grainy, and Sonnet stepped a little closer. She was surprised to see a man and a blonde woman greet Phillips.
The man wore a rumpled suit and appeared to be in his fifties - good-looking but well worn. She’d seen his picture somewhere, but couldn’t place it.
Josh Pembroke scratched his ear. “That guy looks very familiar. Something…”
The blonde that accompanied the older man came into full view. The woman was young and beautiful, her intelligence shining through even on the degraded monitor image. Walker whistled quietly and focused on the blonde, switching the view to three huge plasma screens mounted on the far wall.
As a group they turned to look at the screens. The blonde’s image was gigantic now, and sharply-defined, as well. There was absolutely no reason Sonnet should have known the young woman, but a chill still ran up her spine.
The blonde, somehow, was dangerous.
Sonnet watched in fascination as Deputy Secretary Pembroke walked as if in a trance to one of the plasma screens. He tentatively reached a hand out to the surface of the monitor, touching the lovely blonde woman’s face. Then Pembroke drew back his hand as if scorched…his face as white as a ghost.
“That’s impossible…that’s just not…”
Sonnet had no idea what just occurred, but it was in her nature to take advantage of every situation that arose.
She smiled to herself, re-dialing Juno’s office to relay new instructions.
Things had just gotten very interesting.