Chapters 28, 29 and 30
I enjoy giving characters and locations a credible and amusing background, and here you get the story behind the Blakely River Battery, while Alicia Sonnet is closing in on Christine and her team.
East Potomac River Park
Johnston Lee Blakely had been possibly the unluckiest – or the dumbest - American sea captain to ever command a ship…the jury was still out on that dubious distinction.
The Potomac River Battery that later bore his name proved to be no exception.
Captain Blakely’s first commission was the 30-gun frigate Wasp, stationed at Staten Island. His warship’s first mission was to escort the dreadnought Enterprise to Bermuda for a goodwill tour in 1810.
Things didn’t quite go as planned.
Naval commanders already had a small inkling things weren’t quite right with Blakely and his crew, but were short on ships and manpower. As it turned out, if vessels were school-children, the Wasp would have been the one kid that smelled his own fingers and ate a lot of paste.
The trouble started before the two vessels even left for their voyage. An inexperienced sailor failed to properly winch up the starboard anchor, and as the Wasp backed away from the dock, the anchor was dragged across the stern of the Enterprise, causing substantial damage. The carnage wasn’t over, as the tangled ropes and lines snared the two vessels together, resulting in even more destruction - as well as laughter from the dock.
And they hadn’t even left port yet.
Halfway to Bermuda, Captain Blakely ordered a drill to demonstrate effective cover-fire the Wasp could provide for the Enterprise. Barrage balloons were raised, and the drill went well, Wasp crew members fired their cannons and the exercise ended successfully. The next drill involved the two ships firing harmless grapeshot at one another, perfecting their aiming techniques.
This was a mistake.
Someone, history has forgotten who, forgot to make sure that paste-eating kids on the Wasp had loaded the correct practice shot. Blakely, unaware of the oversight, ordered his gun crews to fire, and their aim was very accurate, indeed - as was the near fatal damage to the Enterprise by the paste-eaters. The USS Enterprise, with several holes at her waterline, a bevy of smashed lifeboats and a missing crewmember, limped back to New York for repairs.
Wasp sailed on for Bermuda. Upon arrival, the entire crew was met by Marines, arrested and thrown in the brig. The president intervened; however, Captain Blakely and the Wasp were reassigned to Alaska – the dreary and cold Aleutian Islands.
During their year-long stay, everything went well for Blakely and his crew, at least until the War of 1812 broke out.
Upon hearing of the new orders to return to Washington D.C., the entire crew of the Wasp celebrated by firing the warship’s cannons. Unfortunately, being drunk or stupid - or a tragic combination of the two - Wasp’s guns managed to completely destroy the base commander’s home.
Along with everyone in it.
Understandably, the reception in Washington was rather cold, even though an investigation revealed nothing substantial. Wasp was ordered to sea, northward, to patrol against British ships making way for Sacket’s Harbor – the heart of American ship construction.
Wasp, living up to her reputation as a troublemaker, mistook the brig USS Oneida for the HMS Earl of Moira in a heavy fog, firing all guns. Such a mistake was easy to make, as the Oneida was only twice as big as any British ship in the area, and was flying a huge American flag.
The Oneida, whose crew probably never understood why they were being attacked by one of their own, went down quickly with all hands.
The Wasp was heavily damaged in the one-sided battle, sinking off the coast with no loss of life. Captain Johnston Blakely was quietly retired - with full military honors - and the whole mess was swept under the rug in Washington and soon forgotten.
Until 51 years later.
In 1862, Congress was searching for a sea veteran to name their brand new Potomac River Battery after, and finally chose the unlikely Johnston Lee Blakely for their namesake.
This would prove to be a very bad choice.
The Blakely River Battery was intended to protect Washington from naval attack, as were many sea forts in the area. The Battery was a monstrous octagon of thick walls armed with 32-pound cannon, built of the southern tip of what is now the East Potomac Park.
The Blakely’s coverage was two-fold, where the Anacostia and Potomac Rivers met. By 1865, several fatal accidents had earned the river battery an unsavory reputation, and – following the Civil War - the 34-acre complex was converted into an insane asylum by 1870.
The name Blakely stayed with the former river battery, though, for better or for worse.
By 1894, the Blakely Lunatic Asylum had become a huge, sprawling complex that housed 3,500 patients. On January 5th that year, the southern block - known as X Ward 6 - suffered a boiler explosion, resulting in a blaze that spread through the ward like a runaway train, fanned by a freezing breeze from the Potomac.
The flames soon engulfed X Ward 5, which melted the corrugated metal roof, causing it to collapse. X Ward housed women at the time, and 566 female prisoners burned to death before firefighters arrived, and took control of the situation.
The fire hazards were far from over. In 1903, a fire broke out in a two-story wooden outbuilding constructed on the side of the male common dormitory. Staff members noticed the smoke and sounded the alarm, but the keys to the dormitory were lost in the confusion. The flames consumed the building, with 41 male patients trapped inside.
The fun didn’t end there.
The Blakely Lunatic Asylum was completely rebuilt by FDR’s ‘New Deal’ dollars during the depression. The facility continued to operate and eventually housed an average of 4,300 patients by 1935 - roughly 1,800 above capacity…and the facility’s troubles weren’t over just yet.
On April 21st, 1939 a fire began at the northwest corner of Z Ward, possibly set by an inmate. The flames spread through the wooden rafters with remarkable speed, alerting the guards and staff.
The asylum warden – Thomas Preston - didn’t believe there was any danger, assuming incorrectly the patients were staging an escape. By the time the fire department and Coast Guard were notified, 129 male patients had burned alive in their dormitory cells.
The Blakely Lunatic Asylum finally closed its doors amidst public outcry.
And reopened two years later.
Of course, this was because of Pearl Harbor and the panic that ensued immediately afterwards. And to be fair, the Second World War had the entire East Coast scared out of their wits concerning German or Japanese sabotage.
The Blakely Lunatic Asylum became the Blakely River Battery once again, although the ancient cannons were replaced by modern antiaircraft guns. Seven huge stilted 300-ton antiaircraft stations were built out of steel over the water, connected to the River Battery by a series of narrow metal catwalks. The giant gun platforms were manned 24-7 in case of an aerial attack against the American government, and could put up a literal wall of scorching metal in the sky with their weapons.
This was deemed…not good enough.
In 1943, two full years after Pearl Harbor, there were two types of politicians in Washington…the type that got things done, and the type that talked about getting things done. The first type – and FDR was a perfect example - could be considered policy-makers.
Unfortunately, there was also the second type – such as Republican Senator Charles Rosewood, who had a reputation for never accomplishing anything but a decent bowel movement.
The political talker-types usually had a hugely overvalued and exaggerated sense of their own importance – like Rosewood. And it was Rosewood that publically funded a heavily fortified flak tower constructed right at the Potomac’s edge, becoming an integral part of the Blakely River Battery.
This was no ordinary flak tower. It hovered menacingly over the entire complex, and was built entirely of reinforced concrete. It was designed to be totally autonomous, with its own electricity and water, housing several hundred military personnel.
It was also completely useless.
Flak batteries were hidden by camouflage netting and other means for an important reason. Enemy pilots had an aversion to being shot down, and would avoid exposed ack-ack guns like the plague – much less a giant tower bristling with weapons. Not that any German or Japanese planes ever flew over American soil, it was the principal of the thing that counted.
Of course, after the war certain politicians- again, like Rosewood - wanted the flak tower taken down as soon as possible – and who could blame them? The tower was a twenty-million-dollar reminder to taxpayers that their elected officials sometimes made very poor decisions.
From 1947 to 1953, the Army Corps of Engineers tried to demolish the unsightly flak tower, but after eight tries over six years, the high-explosives only managed to break a few windows.
They decided that it looked great right where it was.
The Blakely River Battery flak tower was the first thing Christine saw from the backseat of the Tahoe. Phillips was driving, with Pine Coffin Hardy sitting next to him.
The SUV was on its last legs as they rolled through the front gate of the facility. Most of the asylum buildings were Victorian, overgrown with vines and falling in on themselves. The driveway turned into a rutted track as they wound around the property to the river’s edge.
Christine stared up at the rusty antiaircraft emplacements jutting from the murky water, and the huge assortment of half-sunk Navy vessels tied up on the cracked and chipped quay. Flaky, creaking catwalks soared overhead, connected to bomb-proof doors embedded into the side of the flak tower. The theme seemed to be rust and neglect.
“What is this place?”
“Your safe house” Harry said. “We’ve been using the Blakely for a long time.”
“I feel like I need a tetanus shot just being here.”
“Like in all things, Christine, looks can sometimes be deceiving.”
St. Christopher’s School
Josh Pembroke and Alicia Sonnet got out of the unmarked Crown Vic and looked around. Several police cars had cordoned off the street near the German embassy.
A news van had extended it antenna as a reporter stared at a camera and spoke in hushed tones of the dire occurrence on the plush street. Onlookers speculated to each other about the likelihood the incident was connected to the bus bombings. Schoolchildren and bystanders were being interviewed as a tow truck arrived for the crushed Saab.
“Call Walker, Alicia.” Pembroke said. “Have him pull up all of the traffic cam footage. Then go and see if St. Christopher’s had any cameras covering the street.”
“You got it.”
She almost regretted pulling the John Jacob stunt on the blonde in the Tahoe, because the woman was obviously very important to Pembroke. He’d been deeply subdued ever since the incident in the Command Center. Sonnet pulled out her phone and started toward the private school. Her path was soon blocked by an overweight irate man.
“I take it you are an FBI agent?”
“Special Agent Sonnet, sir, with Homeland Security.”
“Hmmph.” The man said. “I certainly don’t feel very secure. You must start earning your wages. He was one of our most trusted employees…and now this.”
Sonnet stared at the well-dressed man, who was a good fifty pounds past his prime. Good food and easy living - if these idiots only knew what awaited them on the other side. She could read people fairly quickly, and the gentleman gave off all of the signs of a pompous ass. Right down to the elbow-patches on his corduroy jacket.
“Who are you, sir?”
“Willard Quincy…Principal Willard Quincy, of St. Christopher’s.”
“I see. Who are you referring to, Mr. Quincy?”
“Why, Mr. Hardy, of course.” Quincy replied. “He’s been here for years…but to bring that…element…near our children. The sheer insanity of it all.”
“What - element, exactly, sir?”
“The cowboy showdown right here!” Quincy said loudly. “What element do you think I’m talking about? A bunch of idiots on mangy horses were shooting guns right out there in the street! We at St. Christopher’s pride ourselves on the safety of our school. The next leaders of this nation attend this very establishment.”
Sonnet smiled to herself. Willard Quincy was referring to the Irregulars, but he didn’t know that. As for the future leaders of America, well, the country was in deep crap. Sonnet only really cared if John Jacob had done his job, though, not about a bunch of snot-nosed spoiled children. She was still unsure if calling in the Irregulars had been effective.
“Can you tell me what happened to the…cowboys, sir?”
“Well, Mr. Hardy dispatched them. In a most gruesome fashion, I might add. I don’t know where they came from, but Hardy and his friends….blew them up. I can’t really describe it any other way. To think that Mr. Hardy would associate with such riff-raff, well…it’s simply unthinkable.”
“Thank you for your help, sir.”
Sonnet walked away from Quincy and took a good look at the area. The only evidence anything at all had happened was a crushed Saab and a downed power pole. She supposed that was something. The Irregulars hadn’t lived up to their hype one bit, but that was all right. At least a clear message had been sent to whoever these bozos were. Her phone chirped.
“Alicia, it’s Frank. You really screwed the pooch this time.”
“Oh, really? Why do you say that?”
Sonnet walked across the street, away from the other investigators. They were concentrating their search for clues near the fallen light pole and the scorch marks on the pavement. She poked into the bushes at the edge of the sidewalk as Frank Juno went on.
“Those weren’t just ESG agents…you attacked Harry Moss and his second in command. Do you have any idea how serious this is?”
Whoa, Sonnet stopped short and thought fast. That was interesting. Harry Moss, one of God’s closest friends. No wonder Juno was so agitated. It was generally a bad idea to go after God’s favorites. A glint caught her eye. She held the phone with her shoulder and snapped on a pair of latex gloves.
Sonnet breathed evenly, reaching into the shrubbery. “Well, we’ll just have to be more careful next time.”
“There isn’t going to be a next time!” Juno was practically hyperventilating. “Don’t you get it? The entire timetable has just changed because you stirred up a hornet’s nest. Meet me tonight at our usual place. We’ve got a lot to discuss.”
Sonnet put her phone away and gazed up at the blue sky for a moment, then picked up the item in the bushes that had caught her attention.
A human arm.
A naval gunnery ring, awarded to officers in British service perhaps 150 years ago, was still on one of the fingers.
John Jacob, maybe? Those Irregulars really were a bunch of losers. Sonnet sighed, holding up the arm to the other agents.
“Can one of you guys come over here and give me a hand?”
Blakely River Battery
East Potomac River Park
A 25-foot high bay door had been built into the side north side of the concrete flak tower, just off of the rutted track. Phillips parked in front of the gaping maw, then got out, opened the tailgate of the SUV and started handing out weapons.
“You guys will need these more than me. Take whatever you want.”
Harry grabbed an armload of shotguns, while Pine Coffin took a bag of automatic handguns and tactical gear. Christine peered into the Tahoe and retrieved what was left, happy as a clam.
“Do you know how to use an RPG?” Phillips asked.
Christine giggled. “I don’t even know what RPG means. But it’s big and it probably blows stuff up, right?”
“Good enough for me.”
The ground level roll-up door of was open, letting in fresh air and light. Christine gazed upward as she entered the cavern-like building. Sunlight wasn’t helping matters a bit. The interior of the flak tower was dark, water-stained and dreary. Quentin Phillips waved as he puttered away in the damaged Tahoe.
“I think Parker Noble has already arrived.” Pine Coffin said over shoulder. “Have you met him?”
“Unfortunately.” Christine answered. “I found him to be rude, dirty and a complete ass. I didn’t like him one bit.”
“Sounds like Parker.”
Christine followed Harry and Pine Coffin up a metal spiral staircase to a large landing constructed of rusty grating. Beyond that, though, a modern open apartment had been built into the facility.
Dirty skylights glowed overhead, making the space warm and inviting, although the interior decorator had obviously been a man…probably Pine Coffin, by the look of things. The walls were a lurid testament to Pine Coffin Hardy’s boxing career in larger-than-life greatness.
Christine gaped at the audaciousness. Every available space was covered with turn-of-the-century photos that had been transformed into giant posters – all of Pine Coffin from his fighting days. Each was a close-up of his winning smile, his sparkling eyes…his sheer love of himself.
Christine cradled her RPG, bile rising in her throat. “Bloody Nora…welcome to the museum of testosterone.”
Pine Coffin posed in front a particularly obnoxious five-foot picture of himself. “Fantastic, isn’t it?”
“No, Pine Coffin.” Christine said. “It’s like Mike Tyson and Sylvester Stallone had a love child.”
“I’ll take it.” Pine Coffin nodded happily, then ambled over to a small kitchen, and started rummaging through the fridge.
Christine noticed a familiar figure hunched over a large assortment of computer equipment on a worktable, running cables under a partition. The man stood up, and Christine, for the first time in decades, was rendered speechless - relatively speaking.
Dr. Parker Noble smiled distantly, still bringing up displays and programs. She was astounded by the change in his appearance - he was clean-shaven, and his hair was trimmed short and neat. The straw cowboy hat was gone - as were the ridiculous clothes.
Parker Noble wore cargo pants and a khaki safari shirt with the sleeves rolled up, revealing heavily-muscled forearms. Sweaty, edible forearms. She shuddered for a moment. Christine was reminded of a young Brendan Fraser from The Mummy, except that Noble was much better looking.
“Hey, Pumpkin,” Parker said. “Heard you had a bitch of a day.”
“Uh-huh.” Christine held up her prize from the Tahoe. “But look what I got now.”
Parker snorted. “A rocket-propelled grenade? What are you going to do with that?”
“Whatever the hell I want.”
Christine watched as Pine Coffin settled in comfortably with a beverage and giant sandwich. Harry looked around, finally focusing on the drink cup that Pine Coffin was nursing.
“Hit me.” Harry said to Pine Coffin. The huge black man handed over another 44-ounce foam cup, which Harry took with a smile of thanks. “Give her one, too. It’s been a rough day.”
Pine Coffin passed a cup to Christine and she took a swallow, then gagged. “That’s 90 percent scotch!”
“Yep.” Pine Coffin grumbled. “Cutty Sark and Coke…light on the Coke.”
Christine drained the cup, then held it out. “Uno mas?”
Harry and Pine Coffin laughed.
Christine accepted her refill and sat down in an ancient office chair. She thought for a moment, looking up at Harry. “That attack….just what was that? Those demon cowboys knew where we were. How is that possible?”
“Think about it, sweetheart.” Harry said. “Somebody was tracking us. Somebody with a whole lot of influence.”
“I don’t understand….who?”
Pine Coffin cleared his throat. “Not a who….a what.”
“He’s right, Christine.” Harry agreed. “We need to find out who exactly is responsible – and powerful enough – for sending the Scinde Irregulars after us. Whoever it is, that person has heavy influence in a high-profile government agency.”
Christine’s eyebrows shot up. “What?”
“Don’t act so surprised, dear. This is serious business. James Hallstatt blew himself up for a reason….and his daughter is next on their list.”
Harry nodded. “Yeah. King Brian and his brother Ulf are behind the curtains here – the only types of individuals that pack that kind of punch…Beyond-Salvage demons. But we need to know who their representative here in Washington is.”
“I thought Beyond-Salvage demons were stuck in the Oubliette.”
Harry shook his head. “Not all the time. Souls always manage to fall through the cracks, one way or another. It goes deeper than that, however, mainly because there are two separate issues at play here. So we’re talking about a Beyond-Salvage demon that is living here on Earth…and has been for a very long time.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Simple. It’s a matter deduction. Only the federal government has the resources to track people down using traffic cameras and hacked email accounts. So it stands to reason the demon that we seemed to have irritated has infiltrated an agency such as the FBI. Getting away with a stunt like that requires decades of patiently building an identity.”
Harry nodded. “Absolutely. I’m willing to bet that we’re up against a demon that has gotten very good at fitting into human society. Unfortunately, a computerized record search won’t help us. More than likely this Beyond-Salvage demon stole the identity they are using now long before accurate records were being kept.”
Christine sagged. “What do we do then?”
“Well, there is one important clue.” Harry said.
“And that is?”
“You, of course.”
Pine Coffin nodded. “Yep. The Irregulars wanted you, Christine.”