A novel by Timothy Geigner
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Mathew King could feel the sweat on his fingers as he typed. This whole ordeal
would soon be over, one way or another, and he could only hope it worked out his way.
Everything in the airplane cabin was soaked in sunlight from the windows. He leaned in
close so he could see the screen on his laptop, resting on the food tray. Next to him a
woman who couldn‟t have been more than twenty-five was bouncing an infant on one
knee while simultaneously trying to screw the nipple onto a formula bottle. The infant
batted at the bottle, unwilling to open her mouth. “Come on, darling. Just a little more
and you‟ll be ready for your nap. Just a little more. Here comes the choo-choo train...”
King tried to ignore them as best he could. His fingers continued to fly over the
keyboard. Beside him, the infant gurgled and belched, then finally seemed to be
placated. He was certain that would change the moment the engines roared for takeoff,
but for the moment it was obligingly quiet.
He continued to work, trying to find out if and how they were gong to come after
him. Regardless, his life was effectively over. His wife, the kids, they would all have to
leave Virginia immediately. But him first, of course. Like the stewardess had said
during their preflight instructions, you had to save yourself before you could help anyone
If they only knew.
Even now he was surprised by how at ease everyone was. It might not be as bad
as before the terrorist attacks, but still, flight attendants were chatting idly with one
another, and King had even seen the pilot flirting with one of the passengers before the
flight had gotten underway. It all struck him as very unprofessional, and unsecure.
Probably the crew did that type of thing to stay fresh. Even pilots must have to stretch
their legs once in a while. But he was certain that if the crew had any idea who he was,
or who was after him, they too would have sweat dripping down their skin.
With a lurch that shook his laptop, the airplane began to taxi backwards. The
woman beside him was shifting around, and instinctively King turned to look at her. She
had put the baby back onto her lap and was looking out the window. The baby stared up
at him with that half curious, half astonished look that infants got.
“Sir, you‟re going to have to close that during takeoff,” an attendant‟s voice came
from the aisle. He turned to see her indicating his laptop. “It interferes with the radio
That was bull, he knew. The reason that all electronic devices had to be turned
off during takeoff and landing cycles was because of terrorism. Most attacks on aircraft
occurred during or near takeoffs and landings. Not being forced to monitor CD players,
laptop computers, and Gameboys made it easier for the attendants and the Air Marshall to
watch the passengers for suspicious activity. In the 80‟s there might have been an actual
risk of radio disruption, but in the digital world of the new millennium, such interference
just wasn‟t possible.
However, in the post 9/11 world, you also didn‟t argue with flight attendants, so
King smiled and closed the screen on his notebook. That didn‟t actually shut it down, of
course. Instead, it went into its partial hibernation mode, ready to flicker back when he
reopened the screen. The stewardess didn‟t seem to know that, however, and she thanked
him and moved down the aisle.
Beside him, the baby smiled and blew bubbles with her spit. The mother turned
and saw him looking, and she favored him with a grin. “Nervous flier?”
“No more so than most people,” he answered automatically. Despite everything
that had happened, his training still took over. Answer in a way that doesn‟t draw
attention. Be charming, but forgettable. Be funny, but not memorably so. “I guess I just
prefer to be on the ground.”
The woman nodded seriously. “This is my first time flying.”
“You‟re handling it very well,” King said absently. How long until the flight
attendants were done with their rounds and strapped themselves in? Then he could open
the laptop and finish checking the military radio bands.
“Having Jessica here helps,” the woman said, nodding towards the infant. “When
she‟s keeping me busy I don‟t have time to imagine all the terrible things that could
“She‟s a beautiful baby,” King said. The airplane shuddered to a halt, no longer
reversing. With the barest of vibrations, it began to turn forwards toward the runway
field. He leaned to peer over the chairs. He couldn‟t see any of the crew, so he reached
for the laptop and flipped it open.
“You‟re not supposed to do that,” the woman beside him said sharply. King
looked over to see her staring at him nervously. “The attendant said it screws up
communications with the tower.”
“It‟s okay,” he said, putting a soothing tone into the voice. “That‟s only when
they‟re emitting wireless internet signals, and this one doesn‟t have a wireless card.” He
reached over and tickled the infant under the chin. “We‟re not going to let anything get
in the way of Jessica‟s first flight, are we?”
“Are you sure it‟s safe?”
“I work in the flight industry,” King lied to her, anything to shut her up and let
him get back to work. “Believe me, I wouldn‟t do anything to endanger one of my
That seemed to placate her. She continued to glance nervously at the notebook as
he resumed typing, but when nothing happened and no attendants came running she went
back to her infant.
The military bands were quiet, aside from a slight uptick at an Air Force base one
state over. It’s probably a training exercise, he thought. Certainly there was nothing in
the satellite data to indicate any serious activity.
The takeoff went smoothly. The woman was predictably nervous during the
procedure. She had gone stiff and ignored the infant‟s wailing once the engines geared
up. During liftoff she had reached over and dug her nails into his arm. Soon they had
reached cruising altitude. The woman retracted her claws and King finally began to
He had participated in flight sabotages in the past. King himself had organized a
rather notorious incident in Minnesota, though that plane had been a single engine Cessna
carrying only a Senator and his family, nothing like this monster Boeing 747. Still, he
thought again that the easiest time to carry out an attack on a flight was right before or
during takeoff. Not because the plane was more vulnerable during those times, but rather
because there was so much else going on upon which to lay the blame for the ensuing
To his side, as if agreeing that they were now out of danger, the infant was
sleeping on the woman‟s shoulder, blissfully making sucking motions with her mouth.
Things were finally becoming calm.
Abruptly the plane shuddered and began to turn towards the Potomac River. It
was severe enough that King could feel his seatbelt digging into his stomach. He heard
the dull thuds of the overhead luggage knocking around and the passengers began
whispering to one another.
The pilot‟s voice came over the intercom after a brief crackle. “Ladies and
gentlemen, if you will return to your seats and please secure your seatbelts, we are going
to be momentarily delayed. We have been diverted by the United States Air Force to
avoid flying into one of their training exercises. We should be back on course shortly.”
King began sweating again. Something was wrong, he was sure of it. From the
front of the plane, he heard heated chatter, different than the calm tone the pilot had used
over the intercom. He worked at the laptop again, updating his satellite images. In the
last twenty minutes, the chatter ticker had spiked at the nearby Air Force base. There was
also corresponding activity from the runways. They were moving quickly and the
satellite images he had access to only took a picture every twelve seconds, but it looked
like two F-16 Tomcats had made liftoff. Their pilot might have been informed correctly.
Maybe those two Tomcats were indeed running a training drill near Washington D.C.
airspace. It wasn‟t unheard of, particularly in the years since 9/11.
But King couldn‟t stop sweating.
After several more minutes, the plane banked again. More shouts came from the
front of the plane, this time louder. “I‟m running out of land. Where are you guiding
me,” he heard the pilot shout. When he looked out the window, King was startled to see
the ocean, flat and blue. They appeared to be heading over the water. Why?
To minimize collateral damage, he thought. There were no houses or offices for
the plane to fall on over the Atlantic.
Immediately he pulled his carryon bag from under the chair and stuffed the laptop
inside. Then he stood and started up the aisle. Predictably, one of the stewardesses
stepped to block his path.
“Sir, the fasten seat belt sign is-,” she began, and then screamed as he shoved her
to the side and continued on.
When he arrived at the cockpit door, he found the Air Marshall standing with his
sidearm drawn. “Stop right there. On the ground, face down.”
King took another step forward. “Tell the pilot he has to land the plane. Get us
back over land, and get us on the ground.”
“I said down!” The Air Marshall made a deliberate show of clicking off the
“Idiot, you‟re already dead,” King said and turned to walk back to the rear of the
plane. It was rare, and he wasn‟t sure if they were high enough for a jump anyway, but
occasionally there were crew parachutes at the back of the coach cabin.
The Air Marshall followed him cautiously, repeating his order to get down and
warning him not to harm any of the passengers in the aisles. King glanced back
occasionally to make sure he wouldn‟t be rushed from behind, but kept moving to the
rear of the fuselage.
He had almost reached the rear of the cabin when he heard the angry howl of jet
engines roaring past. Barely noticing that he was back to his original seat, he leaned and
peered out the nearest window. One F-16 Tomcat was hovering forty-five degrees off of
the wing, looking jagged and menacing. King quickly leaned over the seats in the other
aisle. Another Tomcat was there, too. As he watched, it slowly pulled back,
disappearing from sight.
He turned back to the Air Marshall. “Put your gun down. We‟ve got about two
minutes left, so we might as well not spend it fighting with one another.”
The Air Marshall kept his aim trained as King flopped heavily into his seat. The
woman and the baby were both staring at him, the latter with a grin.
“What the hell?” the pilot shouted from the front of the plane. The Air Marshall
looked conflicted, as though trying to decide whether to stay with King or return to the
cockpit. The pilot continued, “They‟re targeting us!”
The plane immediately went into a steep dive. Probably some kind of evasive
maneuver, for all the good it would do. One of the stewardesses went tumbling down the
aisle, knocking the Air Marshall to the ground and sending his sidearm rattling under the
seats. Oxygen masks dropped and people hurriedly began putting them on. The woman
next to him was pleading with him to help her put a mask on the infant. King looked at
her and the shrieking baby, and then looked away. It was too late for them anyway.
There was nothing he could do.
He was being pressed hard into his seat by the force of the dive and it continued
to get worse as the pilot lost control. Passengers that had failed to attach their safety belts
began rising into the air and slamming into the windows. King looked over at the woman
once more and noticed that she had lost the baby and that blood was trickling from her
earlobe. Alarms were going off everywhere, mixing their shrieks in with those of the
All of this for a DAT tape, he thought.
And as he heard the pilot yell something about a missile impact, he lowered his
head and began to pray.
“United flight one-oh-two, what is your location?”
The dank, crowded control room of the Washington Dulles Air Traffic Authority
building rang with the din of one-sided conversation. Four-year control officer David
Barker had been tracking the movement of United Flight 102 for the last seventeen
minutes, immediately after it had been handed off from the Dulles control tower. For the
final ten or so, his senior advisor had been leaning over his shoulder.
The problem was the deviation from the flight plan. Barker was tracking the
plane‟s path via the transponder beacon that all airlines installed on their birds. He had
first noticed the deviation roughly twenty minutes into the flight. Because it had taken
off from Dulles, he hadn‟t even had time yet to hand the flight over to the next leg‟s
controller. Its proximity to DC when the flight first diverted from the flight plan had
nearly caused Barker to issue the terror alert, but its path never went near the capital.
Instead, it flew southeast over Fredericksburg, south of Quantico, and over the
Chesapeake Bay. At that point, they were effectively over the Atlantic and out of harm‟s
Shortly before they had reached water, Barker had radioed the pilot to ask him
what the hell was going on. The pilot had responded with some story about an Air Force
training exercise, which didn‟t make any sense at all. The nearest Air Force base that
regularly ran airborne drills was in Langley, and they usually conducted them over the
water to minimize collateral risk. Regardless, any military exercise would have been
logged with the FAA and passed down the switchboard to all of the controllers at Dulles.
Still, mistakes sometimes happened and Barker had put a call in to their Air Force liaison,
who told him that no training exercises were planned for another week.
So what the hell was this pilot talking about? He hadn‟t sounded hysterical, and
Barker had dealt with flight crises enough that he could tell when pilots were speculating
or lying. He decided to just play along, ready to hit the terror alert if the plane turned
back towards Washington.
He had logged the new flight path and maintained contact with the pilot, listening
for any sign that something was off. Eventually Barker grew frustrated and told the pilot
that there was no training exercise and that he was going to alert the Air Force if he didn‟t
turn the plane around and get back on course.
“But I‟m telling you, they‟re the ones that gave me this heading,” the pilot said,
sounding like he was getting frustrated himself. “And I‟ve got two fighter jets tailing me
that won‟t let me deviate from this course.”
Barker immediately rechecked his radar. There were no fighters according to the
screen. Only Flight 102. He frowned and began to wonder if the pilot might be having a
breakdown after all.
That‟s when he‟d heard angry shouts about targeting locks and missiles over the
radio. Barker glanced at his supervisor, who looked equally perplexed. Back on the
screen, Flight 102‟s readings had gone all screwy, registering severe pitches and
oscillations that looked to Barker like evasive maneuvers. It wasn‟t the kind of thing that
commercial aircraft were built to withstand.
Then the radio crackled and went silent.
Barker looked back at the radar screen. United Flight 102 had disappeared.
And now he‟d been trying for ten minutes to raise the pilot on the radio, but there
was nothing but static. “What the hell,” Barker shook his head. He turned to his
“I don‟t get it,” the supervisor frowned. “Log the coordinates when the
transponder went offline and issue the terror watch. I‟ll call the FAA.”
John Baez had been the one on call for the FAA‟s Washington-Dulles office, just
down the Potomac. His office was in charge of supervising all of the commercial
carriers, and he was one of the six agents assigned to United Airlines. It was an
enormous job, one that far outreached the FAA‟s funding, something about which his
supervisor had reminded him after providing him with an agency sedan and a map to the
crash location in the Chesapeake Bay. With fare hikes coming frequently and ridership
plummeting due to the economy, the airline business was getting squeezed and the old
whispered demands of deregulation were starting to be heard again. It was causing even
the senior agents in Baez‟s office to worry about their jobs and update their resumes.
He made the turn off of the highway and drove along the coast of the bay.
Eventually he saw the flashing lights of ambulances and cars marked NTSB, for the
National Transportation Safety Board.
He parked on the shoulder and made his way through the grass towards a rocky,
One of the NTSB lackeys who‟d been milling about came jogging to meet him.
“You from the IAD office?”
IAD was the abbreviation for Dulles International Airport. “Yes, what have you
“We just confirmed that it‟s Flight 102 from the serial numbers on part of the
fuselage.” The young man squinted in the sun. “Truth be told, there isn‟t a whole lot
“Uh-huh.” Baez pulled out his blackberry and began typing notes as he asked
questions. Was the flight recorder recovered? Was it intact? Had they confirmed the
entry point? What was the condition of the flight deck? Were there any survivors?
Were there any bodies?
The young man answered negatively or uncertainly in nearly every case,
prompting Baez to lower the Blackberry and glare. “Look, you have to have found
“Like I said, sir, there isn‟t a whole lot left.”
“Let me talk to lead NTSB agent on site then. He ought to know more.”
“I‟m the lead agent, sir.” The young man squinted again. “Look, maybe you
should just take a look for yourself.”
They made their way towards the water. Baez hadn‟t been able to see them
before because of the high grass, but the agents had assembled three distinct piles of
debris out of the reach of the water. One was tail, one was fuselage, and the other was
flight deck. He could tell by material of the fragments and their shape. The piles were
fairly small, with maybe fifteen pounds of scrap in each.
In the water were several inflated rafts manned by more agents. They were
reaching into the water or casting out fishing nets. None of them seemed to be making
for shore to drop anything off. “This is all you‟ve collected?”
“Yes, sir, somewhere around fifty pounds.”
“And you‟ve scanned under water?”
“Using passive sonar and magnetic response for the metal. We‟ve got nothing,
sir.” The agent bit his lip.
“Something to add?” Baez asked him.
“Sir, some of the men have heard rumors that the Air Force shot something down
over the bay. Something big. And there was the rogue flight warning issued from
Dulles.” His implication was obvious.
“The Air Force doesn‟t shoot down civilian planes,” Baez sighed. “Tell your men
to stop spreading rumors.”
“But if it really was terrorists, wouldn‟t they—“
“They haven‟t shot down a civilian aircraft in the entire history of flight,” Baez
cut him off. “Perhaps they will have to, sometime in the future, but I can guarantee you
that they didn‟t shoot down this plane.”
“How do you know?”
“Because they had no reason to,” Baez said, trying to maintain his patience.
“They were over water and headed due east over the Pacific. What danger could they
The NTSB agent seemed to consider that and then nodded. He said he was going
to gather up the other senior agents and have them issue warnings to their crews about
spreading false rumors.
In the meantime, Baez made his way back to the salvage piles and picked through
them. He found the remains of the FDR in one of the piles. Flight Data Recorders were
one of the infamous black boxes that the media constantly referred to. Reporters talked
about them like they were they eyes of God on a flight, able to spit back exactly what
happened on any commercial airliner. In truth, FDRs were notoriously unreliable. Single
faults in one of the data drives could and often did result in faults throughout the
machine. He was just about to bend down and collect the contents when he heard shouts
from further up the beach.
He saw the NTSB lead agent gesticulating angrily as he argued with two men in
dark suits. The men were frowning and kept shaking their heads, one of them repeatedly
holding up a piece of paper. He stood and made his way over.
“John Baez, FAA,” he said to the two men, reaching out his hand.
They ignored it. The one with the paperwork held it up. “This area is being
quarantined by the NSA. Everyone needs to be off of this beach in the next twenty
“This is a crash site,” Baez said sharply. He couldn‟t imagine what the NSA
would be doing here. “We need time to investigate.”
“Not possible,” the NSA agent replied. “Twenty minutes from now, this beach is
going to be hit by low-grade napalm. We believe that the plane that crashed was carrying
a biological weapon. You‟re to remove nothing from the site and vacate immediately.
We need to cleanse the area to ensure it does not spread.”
Baez immediately felt unclean. He turned to the NTSB agent. “You heard them.
Gather your men and let‟s get the hell out of here.”
“But sir,” the agent began.
“Biological weapon,” Baez said, emphasizing the words. “You want to stay here
and catch whatever they were carrying, fine. I‟m going back to Dulles.”
The NTSB agent frowned again, but then went off to gather his men. It was only
after he was out of earshot that Baez asked to see the NSA agents‟ identification and
paperwork again. It all appeared to check out.
There was little else he could do, so he began making his way back up the beach
and towards the highway. The NTSB agents were already back on shore and gathering
their equipment. He looked and saw the two NSA agents digging through the salvage
piles. One of them reached down and pulled out a thin black laptop computer. He broke
the laptop apart and retrieved some sort of data disc. He looked around quickly, not
noticing Baez, and slid it into his trench coat.
Baez frowned. Something wasn‟t sitting right about all this. But his supervisor‟s
statements about their budget and lack of pay rang in his memory. After one last look
over the beach and the water beyond, he returned to his car and drove back to the office.
“Uncle Doc, are you going to hunt aliens today?”
Payton Connor was standing in the kitchen of his apartment on the northwest side
of Chicago. He hadn‟t yet made it into his suit and coat, instead concentrating on the
perfect over-easy flip of his niece‟s eggs, getting his caffeine intake from his coffee, and
watching the television on the counter. Payton was just shy of thirty, an investigator at
the Center for UFO Studies in Chicago. His niece, who was ten and enthusiastically told
her friends that her uncle chased little green men, was waiting at the table for her
She was staying with him for the week while his sister was away on business. He
had a sneaking suspicion there was a lot less work going on than she had let on, but he
liked Jennifer‟s company and she seemed to enjoy her time at the small two-bedroom
apartment. She was partially disabled, having had a small stroke when she was an infant.
It had happened slowly, starting in her left leg before presenting in the other. Than it
took the knees, the thighs, and pelvic area. The doctors never did figure out what had
caused the stroke. His sister had cried in his arms when the doctors confronted her with
the paralysis, but eventually she‟d reverted to cold anger when she overheard one of the
interns saying that all patients were puzzles to be solved. Why had they given up on her
daughter‟s puzzle? For whatever reason, the idea of life‟s problems as a puzzle had stuck
with Payton, persisting in his personal and professional life.
“Well, are you?” Jennifer asked from her wheelchair at the table. “Are you going
to find flying saucers and kill the aliens?”
“You know that‟s not what I do, Jenny.”
“I know. You tell people they‟re crazy liars.”
Payton laughed. “Close enough.” Actually, as a senior investigator at CUFOS,
his job was to respond to sightings of UFOs and other paranormal phenomena, determine
the validity of the report, and catalog it. It was true that most of the time the reports were
cranks and lies. Payton himself had gotten a reputation for dissecting stories like a
surgeon. In fact, that was how he had earned the nickname Doc. Now everyone used it,
so much so that somewhere along the line even Jennifer had picked it up.
He dropped two eggs onto her plate and pulled up a chair.
“You look tense,” Jennifer said. Despite her condition, she appeared to enjoy
mothering him. This was her concerned tone. “Do you need a cigarette?”
“And what does a little girl like you know about cigarettes?”
“I know that they kill people,” she said matter-of-factly. “And I know you smoke
one whenever you‟re not happy.”
Such a wonderfully observant child, Payton thought. “Just finish eating so we can
get you ready for sports camp. Mrs. Sloan should be here to pick you up soon.”
“Uncle,” she said severely. “I‟m your niece. I have a right to know. Are you
having trouble with a girl?”
Unfortunately. “Eat,” he said again, taking a seat. “You‟re not going to make me
She stuck out her lip. “I hate camp. All the kids are in wheelchairs.”
Payton chuckled. “So are you.”
“I want to play with the normal kids.”
She got like this from time to time, when she would suddenly become intensely
aware of her disability and want to break free from it. It was admirable, and it was sad.
He was going to try and reassure her, but the reporter on the news caught his attention.
Apparently there had been a crash out east. The terror alert had been issued, some kind
of chemical weapons threat. The reporter breezed through the facts so fast it was hard to
follow. Then the camera cut away to some FAA representative named Baez. He was
explaining crash procedure, but the reporter didn‟t seem interested. She kept trying to
bring the conversation back to casualty numbers and the monetary value of the damage.
Payton was about to give up on the report when that Baez guy mentioned something
about the government napalming a beach.
“Christ,” he muttered.
“Language,” Jennifer clucked at him. “What‟s the girl‟s name?”
Payton thoughts returned to his niece and his coming day. “Chanel, honey.”
“Like the perfume?” Jennifer loved perfume.
“Yes, like the perfume.”
“Is she your girlfriend?”
“No, she‟s my new partner,” Payton said, making an effort not to grimace at the
word. He‟d had partners in the past. It had never worked out. “And if you don‟t eat
your breakfast, I‟m going to be late for her first day. That wouldn‟t be too good, would
“No,” she shook her head. “Never keep a lady waiting.” Then she broke out
Payton laughed with her. “Where do you learn this stuff?”
“Television, Uncle Doc.”
They ate in silence for a while. The anchorman back in the studio was onto a
story about some kind of charitable donation to a scholarship group from Jonathan Dowd,
a well-known businessman in the energy industry. Then there were the local sports
scores. The Cubs had lost again, no surprise. He swore inwardly, watching the
highlights as he cleared the table. He was just finishing when he heard a honk out front.
Jennifer pushed away from the table and started rolling towards the front door.
“Bye Uncle Doc.”
“How about your jacket, sweetheart,” Payton called after her.
“I‟ll be fine. It‟s not even cold out.”
“Take it anyway.”
“Don‟t but Uncle me,” Payton said, trying to bury a laugh. Even the frustrating
times with her made him smile. “Get your jacket, missy.”
He made sure that she retrieved her jacket from the front closet before she made
her way out the door. Payton followed her onto the front stoop of the two flat. He shared
the porch with two other apartments. He waved once at Jennifer as she was being lifted
into the van. She lifted he hand briefly, but it was a halfhearted gesture. She had already
switched personas to her social setting. Now she was cool, indifferent Jennifer. She had
once told him that the other kids looked up to her, that she was a “queen on wheels”.
As he watched the van make for the end of the block, he saw a dark sedan sitting
at the corner. It was parked on the other side of the road and he noticed that there were
several cigarette butts outside the driver‟s side door. This part of Wicker Park wasn‟t the
best neighborhood in the city, but most of the crime problems arose from nearby gang
territory. For all of their menacing and posturing, gang-bangers didn‟t roll around in
black sedans. He thought about calling the police, or walking down the street and
investigating himself. Before he could decide what to do, however, he heard the text
message alert on his phone going off. He went inside and flipped the phone open.
CUFOS HQ ASAP – IFI TDAY
“Damn,” he muttered. Something must be up. It was from the director, telling
him to get to the CUFOS building in a hurry. It was still almost two hours before he
would normally be due at his desk. The last abbreviations told him why. He would be
leaving on an IFI later. That was an in-the-field investigation.
Somebody somewhere had called in a report.
Morning traffic was notoriously frustrating in Chicago. Fortunately Payton‟s
apartment and CUFOS headquarters were both near Western Avenue, allowing him to
avoid the crowded highways and drive his Jeep Wrangler to work without too much of a
hassle. Payton took a peek in the rearview mirror. He hadn‟t had time to do much more
than shower and throw on his clothes. His short dark hair looked disheveled and his
naturally thin and angular face made the bags under his eyes look like moon craters. He
used to be more active, playing volleyball at his health club, jogging after work. Lately
he‟d been spending more time in his apartment, trying out pricey bottles of Irish whiskey.
It wasn‟t that he was depressed, and he didn‟t think he was an alcoholic. But
when you‟re an investigator at the Center for UFO Studies, there were few people who
could help from laughing at your vocation, and in modern times, your job was who you
were. That made him a kook. His niece might enjoy telling people that he chased little
green men, but Jennifer‟s glee was everyone else‟s disdain. Parents, former friends, old
professors, all of them had expressed surprise when he‟d left the corporate world for
He‟d worked in human resources after graduating from Illinois Chicago. He had
a BA in Psychology with a minor in Business. To make his job prospects worse, he had
also chosen to pursue a focus on ancient languages, largely due to his interest in religion.
His grades had been good enough that some of Chicago‟s largest companies had come
calling, including Leo Burnett, where he‟d ended up as a recruiting executive. That had
lasted a little over a year. Somewhere between growing up in a rigid Catholic family and
a near obsession with his studies of human behavior, Payton had picked up a rather
impressive ability to determine when people were lying. He‟d long since shed his
parent‟s religion, but his hatred for liars had remained. That made the business world
difficult to navigate, since everyone lied, particularly during the interview process. He
found he had trouble recommending anyone he interviewed for hire, since he always
detected a lie at some point in their interview.
He‟d left Leo Burnett before they could fire him. He had briefly tried again at
Prudential, but before long he gave that job up as well. He had considered going back to
school, maybe getting his advanced degree and applying for a teaching job. Then he‟d
gotten a call from a Professor Hiroshi Mikora asking him if he believed in UFOs. He‟d
said no. Then the Professor had invited him to lunch.
Mikora was the director of CUFOS, a group comprised mostly of Astronomy and
Physics professors from Northwestern. He said that he was friends with one of the Psych
professors at UIC and that he‟d heard of that special talent he had, the one that made it
impossible for him to work in a corporate environment. Mikora told him that this same
trait would take him far at CUFOS. Payton had argued at first, mainly because he didn‟t
believe in UFOs.
“That‟s good,” Mikora had told him. “Most of the reports we get are fakes.
You‟re going to help us figure out which ones to study and which to throw away.” He‟d
also mentioned that the Center had moved beyond exclusively dealing with UFO reports.
Now days they investigated all types of paranormal reports.
The pay wasn‟t great, but it wasn‟t bad either. And the work had turned out to be
interesting, though perhaps more monotonous than many would expect. Most days he
spent behind a desk, armed with only a computer and a telephone. There were times
when he was out in the field, and the travel was fun. But the truth was he preferred the
work behind the desk. That was where most of the puzzles were, and he loved solving
In return for solving those puzzles, he had access to virtually every level of the
Center. There were a few other investigators, all of them older than Payton, but none of
them was given the same amount of freedom. Records, physics, and forensics: he had the
run of them all.
He knew that his title of Investigator sounded more impressive than it was. It had
the ring of law enforcement, with none of the authority. The few times that he‟d gone in
the field and been confronted by local detectives or the feds, they had snickered while
treating him like a mentally disabled cousin. But CUFOS had its own following. It had
been mentioned on television shows. Ufologists treated the Center with a mixture of
reverence and wariness. The Center was one of the institutions that gave credence to the
paranormal, though the inherent skepticism that investigators like Payton brought to the
job caused flying saucer chasers to shy away from their final reports. They just couldn‟t
understand why he didn‟t believe, and couldn‟t seem to make them understand that he
never believed anything.
He was still on Western, halfway to work, when Jennifer‟s voice began ringing in
his ears. Never keep a lady waiting.
He yanked his cell phone from the charger and dialed the main number at the
Center. It rang once and Carla picked up on the other end. Carla had been the Center‟s
secretary since its inception. Rumor had it that she was ex-CIA. Payton doubted she‟d
ever been a spy, but no one knew more about the inner workings of CUFOS.
“Center for UFO Studies.” She sounded bored. She always sounded bored.
“You better get your ass in here, Doc,” Carla said.
“What‟s going on?”
“Schuda is going crazy,” she said. “No one else seems to know anything. Rumor
is it‟s something big, though. Did I mention Schuda is going crazy?”
Professor Michael Schuda was the head of research. He was also a notorious
occultist, even by CUFOS standards. Like all the other department heads he was a
professor at a local university; Columbia, in this case. Unlike the others, he taught
classes in the liberal arts, specifically American History. His most popular class was
called Who Killed Kennedy.
“Are you there?” Carla asked.
“What are you going to do about your new partner?”
“I wasn‟t aware I needed to do anything,” he said.
“The Director wants you to pick her up and bring her in for the meeting this
morning. Didn‟t you get the email?”
“Uh, no.” Actually, he‟d forgotten to check his laptop before leaving. It was
something all investigators were supposed to do each morning, although there was rarely
anything in his inbox at seven in the morning. It was just one of those bureaucratic rules
that permeated all institutions, even weird ones like CUFOS. “Where does she live?”
“You have to be kidding.” The Center was on Peterson. He‟d been heading north
on Western for the last twenty minutes. “How far south?”
“Near Midway Airport.”
“That‟s forty-five minutes away. We‟ll never make it on time.”
“Good thing I sent her an email asking her to meet you at your coffee place down
She was laughing, toying with him. He got coffee at the same shop every
morning to supplement whatever he had managed to make for himself at home.
“She should be there in the next ten minutes.”
He sighed. “Have you met her?”
“When she interviewed.”
“How bad is she?”
Christ, he thought. “UFO nut?”
“At least this one‟s pretty.”
He asked her to tell Schuda that they were on their way just as he was turning into
the parking lot of the coffee shop.
Craig‟s Coffee was one of those special places that only remained in big cities
like Chicago. It hadn‟t yet been tainted by big company politics. They served strong
coffee, plain bagels, and coffee cake. The kids behind the counter tended to have dark,
spiky hair, regardless of their gender, and they all seemed to know his name.
Payton placed his order with a pouting teenage girl: one black coffee and one
plain bagel. He paid and took his tray to the nearest window. He‟d taken a brief look
around the shop upon entering, looking for anyone who might be his new partner.
Carla‟s description didn‟t give him much to work with, particularly with what appeared
to be several good-looking women in the shop. Most of them looked high school or
college aged, however, so he had a seat and pulled his new partner‟s file from his
briefcase while he waited.
At least Chanel Falasco had an impressive history jacket. She had graduated from
Western Illinois with degrees in both Criminology and Forensic Science. According to
the interview notes, she‟d had the opportunity to do some photo modeling work, but she
came from a long line of Chicago cops, and she joined up immediately after she
graduated. There she progressed through the ranks with surprising quickness,
particularly for a woman. She‟d gone from patrol to narcotics in less than two years and
had earned her detective‟s badge shortly after. Then CUFOS had come calling.
When the interviewer had asked why she wanted to leave behind a successful
career in law enforcement to join the Center, Chanel had revealed that she‟d had an uncle
growing up that used to tell her stories about his work looking for aliens for the
government. He‟d been part of the SETI program, the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Life,
something of a running joke amongst the scientific community. It was a joke amongst
the rest of her family too, apparently, since her father had all but barred her uncle from
the family home.
“Excuse me?” came a voice from behind.
Payton turned to see a woman in suit pants and a garish button down striped shirt.
It was the kind that college graduates were wearing, with vibrant colors and a wide, thick
collar. Business casual clubbing gear, as he usually referred to it. She was a bit tall, and
her hair was that distracting kind of dark brown that seemed to reflect every photon of
light. He recalled from her file that she had gotten some modeling offers in college and
he decided that she could have made a career of it if not for a slightly largish nose.
Please don’t let this be her, he thought.
“You aren‟t Payton Conner by chance, are you?”
So much for wishful thinking. He stood up and offered his hand, doing his best to
put a smile on his face. “Call me Doc. Everyone else does.”
“Chanel,” she smiled and took his hand. “Pronounced like the perfume.”
“We don‟t have long, Ms. Falasco, so have a seat.”
She pulled up a chair, looking comfortable and at ease. Payton remembered his
first day at CUFOS. He had met the then ranking investigator in this very coffee shop.
And he had been nervous as hell. Either this woman, this girl with the perfume name was
extremely confident in herself or she had no idea what she was getting herself into.
“Everyone I‟ve talked to has told me about you,” she said. He noticed that she
had a stylish mug in front of her instead of a paper cup like the one in his hand. Brown
foam was nearly spilling over the top, one of those expensive drinks that were in vogue.
“How can you drink that swill?”
She smiled. “I‟m looking forward to getting in the field with you.”
The field? “The Center‟s brochure gives an inflated impression of our job, I can
assure you. If you are expecting excitement at CUFOS you are going to be disappointed,
even on the rare occasion that we are in the field,” he said.
“Rare? I thought you were the lead field operative for the organization.”
“I am, and even for me, field work is rare. We go out four or five times a year, on
“What do we do the rest of the time,” she asked. She looked uneasy.
“Research more than anything else. Chances are you will spend the
overwhelming majority of your career at a desk behind a computer.”
He sighed. “What is it exactly you think we do at CUFOS?”
“We investigate reports of unidentified flying objects, unless I have the acronym
wrong.” She was pouting
“The acronym is right, just outdated. CUFOS was started years ago by a college
professor, a man who was skeptical of reported UFO sightings and abductions.
Obviously he managed to keep an open mind about the subject, but his roots in the
sciences remained. Today, the Center studies a variety of unexplained phenomena, any
that we deem worthy of investigation. That boils down to about five or six cases per
investigator per year.”
“Yes, I was briefed, you know.”
“Then you know that nine out of ten reports we get are deemed not credible
enough to investigate. The majority are hoaxes so fake that we dismiss them without
going out into the field.”
She seemed to consider for a moment. “For a group created to study the occult, it
seems like you are being very judgmental about what is legitimate and what isn‟t.”
Payton sighed. He hadn‟t meant to broach the subject this soon, but what the hell.
“You‟re a believer, I gather.”
She gave him a dazzling smile. “In UFO‟s? Absolutely.”
He shook his head.
“Is that a problem?”
He paused a moment. “There are two types of Investigators at the Center. There
are people like you, who believe in UFO‟s and aliens and every other crazy little story
they hear. The other type of investigator is like me.”
“Annoying?” she asked, this time her smile was wicked in a way he wouldn‟t
have thought possible.
“Competent,” Payton replied. He would not have his emotions played upon,
certainly not by a rookie. “I don‟t believe in anything when it comes to this job. There
are things I can prove and there are things that I suspect. You say you believe in UFOs,
but all it means is that you don‟t have any proof. You just want it to be true. This, of
course, means your judgment is affected. That‟s very dangerous in this line of work.”
“And if you don‟t accept anything except what you can prove, then you have
closed yourself off to any possibilities that might be un-provable.”
He leaned across the table to look her more closely in the eye. “My way works.”
She smiled, but did not reply.
He glanced at his watch and then quickly drained the rest of his coffee. “Let‟s get
moving. I‟ll meet you in the lobby.” He almost left, but then turned back to where she
sat. “And from now on, you dress like me. White button down or blouse, everything else
in dark colors.”
She looked at him sharply. “What... like the men in black?”
Payton grinned. “Hey, you‟re the believer. Get moving.”
She walked through the revolving doors at the CUFOS building some five
minutes after him. Somehow she had managed to change into a white button-down to
match the same pair of black suit pants she‟d already been wearing. Payton was left to
ponder the reason she might have a clean shirt in her car. He carefully avoided the image
of the actual disrobing, of course. His traditional problems with partners not
withstanding, he had grown up with a firm understanding that romantic interest with a
coworker was never a good idea. His niece could insinuate all she like, but no amount of
attraction would lead him down that dangerous path.
He had been trying to get details about the IFI out of Carla at the front desk.
Officially, she wasn‟t supposed to be informed about remote investigations, or much else
for that matter, so of course she probably knew everything about the IFI and a likely a
great deal more. But whatever was going on, Carla wasn't telling.
Chanel walked up and stood next to him. “Do I look boring enough now?”
Carla chuckled. “You‟re right,” she said. “She is a pain in the ass.”
“I told you,” Payton sighed.
Chanel rolled her eyes. “Can we get started?”
They boarded the lobby elevator. On the way up, he turned to her. “You familiar
with the history of CUFOS?” She said that she only knew what he‟d told her at the
coffee shop and what was on the website, so he filled her in.
It was Allen Hynek, a doctor of astronomy at Ohio State University who started
the Center for UFO Studies. The professor had first served as an advisor to both the
Senate and Executive Office during the late fifties and early sixties. Hynek had also been
the astrological advisor to the United States Air Force on an operation called Project Blue
Book. Blue Book had been a military study to determine possible natural causes of
reported UFO sightings. It had also been one of the Air Force‟s greatest failures,
embarrassing enough that the official reports for Project Blue Book were buried six layers
deep under government clearance, too far for most anyone to find. It had been the Blue
Book team‟s inability to explain nearly every one of the incidents they studied that had
convinced Hynek to start CUFOS in seventy-three.
The Center became the first private, scientifically lead organization studying UFO
reports. Meanwhile, Hynek wrote a book on the subject, becoming the first person to
coin the phrase close encounter. He was humiliated among most of his peers, save the
scientists who agreed to come work with him. Their funding came entirely out of their
own pockets at first, although after a few years they began accepting donations from
private citizens who believed in their work. Eventually they landed a few commitments
from wealthy eccentrics who gave grants and donations, usually as a way to fuel their
own fantasies. That had been roughly ten years before present, and those donations had
allowed the Center to expand to include non-scientific personnel who were more
specifically suited towards investigation rather than science. People who were more like
detectives with some scientific background, rather than the vice-versa. People like
“And people like you, too,” he added. The elevator door opened and they walked
into the hallway.
In the last five years, the Center had expanded their research to other unexplained
phenomena. They had conducted a formal investigation at Loch Ness four years ago.
They had released an updated report on the Kennedy assassination less then two years
ago, with their own breakthrough research on the homemade films being featured on
Sixty Minutes. Last year, Payton had led an investigation of illegal government
monitoring through American currency, based on a tip from a disgruntled Treasury
“The point is we investigate more than just UFO sightings and abductions these
days. But our main focus is always to determine validity. And we almost always find the
reports to be false.”
“Almost?” Chanel repeated as they continued walking down a long corridor
towards the glass-paneled door at the end of it.
“Yes, almost,” he answered, walking through the door and nodding to the woman
behind the desk. “All the rest remain unexplained. Either way, every time we
investigate, we fill out a full report including any evidence we obtain. Those reports are
all stored in house, on floor five. That entire story of the building is dedicated to
maintaining a library of our investigations. We‟re on six, which is the main office floor.
This is where the division heads have their offices. Two through four are labs.
Everything from a full forensic detail to nuclear and chemical labs. We are still a step
behind the government agencies, but only a step. We can do all kinds of science here,
something that comes in handy for forensics.”
He continued through the halls of the sixth floor, introducing her to each of the
department heads, all of them professors at local universities in conjunction with their
role at CUFOS: Rob Garcea ran Astronomy, Dan Hobbes did Forensics, Travis Eliason
headed up Physics, and Mike Schuda was in charge of their Research division.
Payton tried to imagine Schuda‟s office through Chanel‟s eyes, as if for the first
time: small, cramped quarters with a desk that surely would have been dusty if only there
wasn‟t a mountain of paper and folder upon it. The walls were covered in tack boards,
rife with more reports, maps, and charts than anyone could hope to keep organized. The
wall behind the desk was a top-to-bottom window overlooking Peterson Avenue and a
few trees. It would have been pretty if the glass weren‟t covered in a film of grime that
gave everything a muddied sandblasted tone.
The man behind the desk was a contrast to the office. Mike Schuda was short,
nervous, and primly dressed. Others at the Center joked that he looked like the
bookkeeper of a mob outfit.
Payton said, “Mike Schuda, meet Chanel Falasco.”
Schuda stood. “Chanel, welcome.” He gave her a nervous smile before turning
back to Payton. “Close the door please, so we can go over your IFI.”
Payton glanced at Chanel, who was frowning. Obviously she had not been made
aware of Schuda‟s reputation of paranoia. “What have you got, Mike.”
Schuda waved them into their seats. “A classic, to be sure,” Schuda said with a
smile. He reached across the desk and pushed two manila file folders to the edge, which
Payton and Chanel picked up and thumbed through. “Roswell in New Mexico, the
location of the most famous UFO sighting in history.”
“Yes,” Payton said. He glanced over at Chanel, noting with disdain the eager
expression on her face. “And that sighting has been debunked over and over again. I
was there myself four years ago and found nothing.”
“Maybe you weren‟t looking hard enough,” came Chanel‟s voice from beside
He closed his eyes and lightly bit his tongue.
“Yes, well, either way, there‟s a farmer who claims not only to have footage of a
sighting, but apparently there‟s something going on with his crops he wants you to look
at.” Schuda gave them a nod towards the files. “You can bone up on the material on the
plane. Your tickets are in the paperwork. I just booked them. Flight leaves tomorrow.”
“What do you mean tickets?” Payton asked. He studied Schuda closely and saw
his eyes flick nervously to Chanel. When he turned to glance at her again, he seemed to
register for the first time the fact that she had her own file, which surely included a plane
ticket. He turned back. “No way, Mike.”
“Sorry, Doc, nothing you or I can do about it. She‟s going.”
“Not if I have anything to say about it.”
“You don‟t. This came from the Director.”
Payton stood and immediately walked out the door and started down the hallway.
Chanel was on his heels.
“What‟s your problem,” she demanded, struggling to keep up with him.
“Are you kidding? Today is your first day. You don‟t have the background or
the science to participate in an IFI yet.”
“You might be surprised if you gave me a chance.”
He stopped and turned to her. “This isn‟t personal. I‟ve been doing this for a
long time. I‟m told that I‟m…one of the better investigators here. And even I wasn‟t
ready to tackle an IFI on my first day.”
“It‟s hard to imagine you as a new recruit,” She smiled. “But perhaps I‟m better
than you were.”
“I hope you are. That would be good for the Center, not to mention it would
mean I could sooner wean you off as my partner if you progress quickly.” He took a step
closer to her, fixing her with a stare. “But trust me, you aren‟t ready for this. You don‟t
have the science.”
And with that, he turned and started once more down the hallway. She followed.
Soon Payton was striding past the Director‟s secretary and into his office.
Director Mikora had already met Chanel when she had interviewed, of course, but Payton
introduced them anyway.
“Ah, yes, investigator Falasco,” the director said, his white beard widening as he
smiled. Payton could feel his partner‟s eyes on him as the director had used her formal
title. “It‟s good to see you again. We‟ve been looking forward to your arrival for some
time now.” Director Mikora glanced at Payton. “Some of us have, anyway.”
“Thank you Mr. Director,” Falasco said. “I‟m already learning so much. I can‟t
wait to get out in the field.”
Payton cleared his throat. “Boss, Schuda seems to be under the impression that
two of us are going on an IFI tomorrow.”
“Of course,” Director Mikora said, and Payton could feel the beginnings of a
headache forming in his temple. “You and your new partner.”
Payton stared across the desk for a moment, an uncomfortable silence dropping
like a blanket across the room. He could feel Chanel‟s eyes boring into his head, and
Director Mikora had a look of waiting expectation across his face. “Mr. Director, could I
speak with you in private a moment?”
The Director took off his glasses and began to polish them. “No, Payton, you
may not. I think I have already made myself clear on this matter, and you agreed to
cooperate. If you‟ve changed your mind, we can always find you a desk in the
He had a desk already, of course. The Director was threatening to take the field
work away permanently, something that only happened to agents who reached the age of
fifty, not thirty. It wasn‟t that he loved the field work, but there was a status implication
that went along with being a field investigator. To have that taken away would have
limited the puzzles that they would ask him to solve, and he loved the puzzles too much
to give them up.
The conversation he was referring to would have been better described as a verbal
free for all. A new investigator was one thing. One that had Chanel‟s kind of history
jacket was something different all together, and Payton had made it well known that he
did not approve of the hire. She simply did not have the scientific background, in his
opinion, and he had considered her assignment as his partner as something of a
“I understand sir,” Payton managed through gritted teeth. “But I think that having
her in the field on her second day might be a bit premature. She needs the background in
Director Mikora waved a dismissive hand. “Investigator Falasco has outstanding
detective skills, as exemplified by her jacket. You can help her along with the science.”
It was an obvious dismissal, the end of any chance for discussion on the topic, so
they both got up and started out of the office. He led the way and could feel Chanel
glaring at the back of his head again. He was almost through the door when Director
Mikora‟s voice came from behind them.
“And Payton, I want you to pay attention. You just might learn a thing or two
from your new partner.”
Seething, Payton continued on through the door. They walked back the way they
had come, towards the main office where the bullpen and their desks awaited. Payton
knew the silence would not last. “Look, if you‟re going to say it, just say it.”
“Sounds like you don‟t care for my appointment,” Chanel said as they walked.
“It‟s not personal. You don‟t have the background for this job.”
“I have investigative skills.”
He shook his head, and they came to a stop. “Four years in the Chicago Police
Department hardly qualifies you to investigate the type of cases you‟re going to see
“I have degrees in criminology and forensic-” she started in a huff. Then she took
a deep breath and glared at him. “This is because I‟m a woman. Because of how I look.”
He turned on her. “You were hired because of how you look. And even worse,
you took the job because you believe in science fiction.” He shook his head again. “You
don‟t have the science.”
“Looks like I‟m going to have the chance to prove you wrong earlier than you
thought,” she said. Without another word, she shoved passed him and stalked down the
Payton sighed and turned after her. “You have any idea where you‟re going?”
She stopped. “Where‟s my desk?”
Payton showed her around the bullpen. It was where nearly all of the
investigative and non-scientific personnel were set up. They worked in cubicles, the
same as he‟d had in the corporate world. He showed her his system: these files go in this
drawer; there are extra pens in this cabinet, and so on. She commented on the bullpen‟s
similarity to her old precinct quarters. It seemed to be comfortable to her, and she picked
up on the organization of the office quickly. They were finished sooner than he expected.
Afterwards, it was a simple matter of having her fill out her employee paperwork, and
they were done.
Payton glanced at his watch. It was just before noon. They had finished with the
IFI brief and paperwork in record time.
“Now what?” she asked.
“Now we go home, pack, and get familiar with the file,” he answered, tapping the
manila folder. “Memorize it, even if you have to stay up late to do it. Tomorrow‟s an
early day, so be at the Southwest terminal at eight AM.”
“We‟re going home?” she asked disbelievingly. “It isn‟t even noon.”
“There‟s nothing else for us to do here, and I need to find a sitter for my niece.”
Payton tapped the folder again. “Spend the time memorizing the file. It‟s important.”
The plane had ceased moving backward and was now taxiing towards one of the
many runways at O‟Hare Airport on the northwest side. They sat in coach, squeezing
into the seats. Chanel had watched impatiently as the rest of the passengers boarded.
Once they had started moving, she had lowered the meal tray and propped up a rather
slick looking notebook computer. Payton tried to move around and get comfortable.
Between the near vertical position of his chair and his knees constantly knocking into the
chair in front of him, he couldn‟t get settled. We need more contributions, he thought,
not for the first time. Like all investigators, he enjoyed occasional field work, but first
class seats would make the travel more pleasurable.
“Do we get a meal on this flight,” Chanel asked with no pause in her typing.
“Peanuts I think,” Payton said. “It‟s a short flight. We‟ll be on the ground in a
few hours.” He noticed that she kept glancing out the window. “Afraid to fly?”
Her face soured. “No. Any second now one of those stiff bitches is going to
come over here and tell me to close my computer. She‟ll tell me it can mess with the
“She‟ll be lying. Ignorant of her lie, yes, but lying nonetheless,” Chanel said.
She must have seen the look on his face because she explained. “Digital transmissions
make all of this precaution meaningless. In reality, they make you shut everything off for
law enforcement reasons. It makes the passengers easier to monitor.”
Payton nodded. “I suppose you ought to know. So you‟re what, anxious for the
stewardess to come by so you can pick a fight?”
“No. Schuda emailed me some satellite data I want to get familiar with.” She
turned back to her notebook.
“Know the territory in which you‟ll be working. That‟s good practice,” he said.
“What did you think of the background file?”
“I was familiar with most of it already,” she shrugged. “I was surprised by the
witness profiles. It makes those people look like nut jobs. I‟ve been reading and hearing
about some of those same people for years, and now my file says they‟re attention
“Like I said, we‟ve known this one was false for some time. I wrote most of
those witness profiles myself when we were here a few years ago.”
The stewardess came by and asked Chanel to close her computer and return her
meal tray to the full and upright position.
Chanel watched her continue down the aisle. “We‟ll see,” she said simply, and
then returned to look out the window. “Given the historical complications of the
incident, I‟ll be excited to finally get a look at the terrain.”
Payton sighed. It was hard to blame her, though, and she was right about the
incident‟s history being a convoluted mess.
The world‟s most famous UFO incident occurred on June 24th, in 1947. An
amateur pilot named Ken Arnold reported seeing some kind of flying disc while he was
in the air. Very little was made of the report initially, since it was uncorroborated. The
fact that the nearby Roswell Air Force Base was long suspected to be the launching pad
for experimental aircraft led most of the media to conclude that Arnold simply did not
know what he was looking at.
All of that changed on July 2nd, when a rancher named Mack Brazel reported to
the Roswell sheriff that he had discovered a large amount of unusual detritus on his
property, some seventy-five miles northwest of Roswell. The sheriff in turn contacted
Colonel William Blanchard at the RAF base, who sent a team of counter-intelligence
officers out to investigate the debris. They were led by Brazel to the sight and promptly
carried off the debris, keeping some of it at the RAF base outside of Roswell, and sending
the rest to Wright Field in Dayton, Ohio. Days later, Colonel Blanchard released an
official Air Force statement, in which he stated that a flying disc had been recovered and
sent to higher Air Force authorities for investigation. The report was backed up when an
Air Force official told the local newspaper, The Roswell Daily Record, that the 509th
Bombardment group stated that they had come into possession of a flying saucer.
The very next day the RAF base released a contradictory report, claiming that
what they had come into possession of was in fact a high altitude weather balloon. There
were follow up interviews in the Daily Record, as well as a piece on the local radio
station. An Air Force weather officer was flown in within days, confirming the find as a
“hexagonal weather balloon”, and making the Air Force report official.
In the following years, several investigations and reports threw confusion over the
Roswell incident. High-ranking officers from the Roswell Air Force Base retired and
claimed they were ordered to start a cover-up of the story, mostly in best-selling books.
Mack Brazel‟s story also seemed to contradict itself. Almost at once, he had told
officials that he was now sure that the find was a weather balloon, but also told them that
he had found such balloons before and that none had looked anything like the debris.
The Roswell sheriff refused to comment, besides referring any investigators to Roswell
Air Force Base officials. Friends and family members of the witnesses made reports in
the following years, claiming that they had been confided in regarding what had really
happened during the incident. Accusations flew, including everything from the Air Force
having an intact aircraft to study, to strange hieroglyphics being discovered on the
recovered debris, to government representatives having actually recovered living bodies
of the alien life forms who had been piloting Mack Brazel‟s UFO.
These accusations were fueled most recently by the advent of the Internet, on
which anyone with a story to tell could do so, often with a false sense of validity.
“The point is, no one really knows what happened that day,” Payton commented
to Chanel, who was listening with a skeptical look on her face. “But the Air Force‟s
story certainly makes more sense than the others. And they have something that all their
accusers do not.”
“What‟s that?” Chanel asked.
“Evidence,” Payton said simply. “They have physical evidence.”
“Manufactured evidence?” Chanel smiled.
“Possibly,” he shrugged. “Like I said, nobody really knows, but it‟s better than
The plane pitched steeply during take-off, banking to point southwest before
leveling out. Chanel dropped the tray in front of her and once more opened up her
laptop. Moments later, the computer screen was filled again with satellite images and
Payton practically knew the layout by heart.
There was the town itself, now with a population of over fifty thousand. The
RAF base was a half hour‟s drive outside the city limits. The ranches and mountains
were to the west, where the site of the crash was located.
The city itself had changed quite a bit since the forties. RAF airbase had closed
briefly, sending Roswell into a recession that cost the town half its population. The
abandoned airbase was now an industrial yard, mostly for utility companies servicing
Arizona and California. The Air Force had opened the new base nearby, though it was
substantially different, being constructed not of large hangars and aircraft sheds, but
underground bunkers set beside the runway strips.
The real cause for the newfound prosperity of the town of Roswell was the
emerging tourist market resulting from the UFO reports. When Payton had last visited
the town a few years back, he was disappointed to see that every shop along Main Street
was in some way trying to associate itself with the reported crash. There was the Crash
Landing Café and Alien Records. Other World Travel Planners had brought a
particularly bad taste to his mouth, especially with its statue of a flying saucer atop the
Not that he could blame the townspeople. Main Street was thriving once more,
and the town was expanding, unlike most other smaller municipalities in New Mexico.
Year after year ufologists, as they called themselves, flocked to the small town to hear
lectures from supposed experts, or to take official Roswell UFO tour, or to participate in
the yearly “UFO Parade and Celebration”.
Most of the interested parties couldn‟t tell truth from fiction, most of the supposed
experts did not have a clue as to what they were talking about, and neither group seemed
to care. The idea of UFO‟s and government cover-ups was fun, and those people were
relishing in that fun. The townspeople would have been foolish not to cash in on their
Chanel stirred next to him. “What is this lake to the west?”
Payton peered over at the display, getting a whiff of whatever perfume his partner
was wearing. Perfume, he thought. On a CUFOS agent. “It‟s not a lake,” he said,
burying his contempt. “It‟s called Two Rivers Reservoir. There are a series of dams that
power the town along the rivers.”
“That much power for a town that small?” Chanel asked, her brow furrowed.
“Well, they sell a lot of the electricity to Arizona and California. The state of
New Mexico bases a large part of their economy on energy export, not to mention the
private firms.” But still, now that he thought about it, it was kind of strange, having that
many dams along the rivers. It might even be worth taking a trip down Highway 175A to
check them out, just to be thorough. God forbid she should mention something about the
dams to Schuda and Payton not have an answer for him.
“I‟m going to go over the rest of this data,” Chanel said, typing away at the
“Yeah, that‟s good,” he replied, unbuckling the restraining belt. “I‟m going to hit
the bathroom. If I‟m not back in five minutes, I may have flushed myself down the toilet.
I hear the suction will rip your head clean off.”
Chanel‟s head did not move. “Lovely, Doc.”
Figures, Payton thought, coming to a halt as the bathroom door was marked
occupied. He shifted from leg to leg a few moments. He thought idly of the way Jennifer
did when they went grocery shopping and she was forced to hold nature at bay. Without
the use of her legs, she tended simply squirm and scoot in her wheelchair. Payton smiled
thinking of her.
Finally the colored lever clicked and shifted and the bathroom door opened. An
older gentleman in a trench coat shuffled through the narrow opening to exit the
Payton barely had time to think who wears a trench coat on an airplane, when the
old man caught his toe on the ground and lurched sideways. Payton reached out and
caught hold of him, cradling him in his arms.
“Are you alright?” he asked, feeling the old man‟s hands grasping at his body.
“Yes,” the old man responded. “I think I‟ll be fine.”
And then he looked up into Payton‟s eyes, looked down at his pants pocket, back
to his eyes.
Payton‟s eyes shifted to look at his trousers, and when he made to look back at the
older gentlemen, he found he was already trudging down the aisle, presumably back to
his seat. With a frown, Payton continued on into the bathroom.
It took a moment to relieve himself and then the toilet was flushing with an angry
hiss. He returned to the sink, washed his hands, and then twisted the faucet so that it was
barely dripping. He had learned a trick on a trip to Washington D.C. during his high
school days: turning the tap slightly on an airplane bathroom sink will create enough of a
vacuum to suck a careful amount of cigarette smoke down into the drainage system.
When he had first attempted the trick high school he had been terrified of getting caught.
Now he was a pro, enough that the post 9/11 restrictions on bathroom conduct didn‟t
even faze him. He dug into his breast pocket for his pack of smokes and pulled one from
Where is my lighter?
Normally he kept it alongside the box of Camels, but it wasn‟t there. He began
digging through his pockets. His hand gripped the round plastic of his lighter, framed by
some other type of material. Rigid, like plastic, but with a slippery feel. Laminated,
He pulled both out at once, seeing his red plastic lighter sandwiched in between a
flimsy square something. Laying the lighter on the stainless steel sink, Payton unfolded
the material. It was the corner from one of the in-flight emergency instructions, cut
roughly, as if in a hurry. Payton unfolded it, noting the pictures of people plunging to
their doom, calmly sitting with their heads between their legs and air masks held firmly to
their mouths. Of more interest was the hasty message scrawled across the pastel
Meet me in the clubhouse at Spring River Golf Course on 8th Street.
You will want to hear what I have to say. I’m the one that brought you here.
Keep the young puppy on her leash. Tomorrow at 8am.
Payton stared at the torn parchment another minute, going over the old man‟s
stumble in his mind and trying to decide how he had gotten the message into his trouser
pocket. There was no doubt it had come from him, not in Payton‟s mind. When else
would someone have had the time to pass the cryptic message along? No, it had to have
The only question was what he ought to do about it. Confront the man in his
airplane seat, where there was nowhere to go? Or ignore the situation completely?
Should he tell Chanel about the note, or leave her be?
That last one was simple enough. The note made it pretty obvious that John Doe,
that age old moniker notwithstanding, did not want his new partner anywhere near the
Spring River Golf Course. Whatever he decided, whether he went to meet his informant
or not, he would not tell Chanel about the note or the encounter. And if he chose to meet
the old man after all, he was certain that he could make the early morning request without
his partner ever being aware that he‟d gone. He knew 8th street fairly well, and was
pretty sure he recalled the golf course‟s location. It wasn‟t terribly far from their motel.
He ought to be able to leave his room, meet the old man, and be back within an hour or
so. Chanel might still be sleeping by the time he got back.
Payton smoked the cigarette, exhaling into the sink drain. With it seemed to go
any consternation about what would happen the next morning. The plane would be
landing at Roswell Industrial Air Center in a few hours, and he might as well settle in for
the rest of the flight. After all, it seemed that no matter what happened the following day,
his trip was going to be far more interesting than he‟d expected.
Interesting, he mused. He would have preferred routine, but fate wasn‟t being
He folded the note back into his pocket and exited the bathroom. Soon he was
back in his cramped little seat next to Chanel, desperately trying to recline far enough so
he could take a nap. Chanel looked at him a moment and he thought she was going to ask
him something, but she said nothing and soon the darkness of sleep overcame him.
Roughly three and a half hours later they were driving away from the airport in
their rental sedan. Chanel let out a long breath. “That seemed like it was longer than
Payton shrugged. “You get used to it,” he said. What did she expect? Flashing
lights and perps in the backseat? Bookings at the station and overtly serious briefings? If
it was excitement she was after, she might as well have stayed with the Chicago Police
Department. I had the most excitement of anyone on the flight, he thought. And all it got
me was an invitation to a golf course to meet a wrinkly old man. Is that what she wants?
“Will there be any press involved in this?” Chanel asked.
“Probably not. We‟ve got one rancher outside of the major population center,”
Payton answered. “There isn‟t any tape or pictures, so they‟ll probably leave it alone.”
“But what if it‟s true?”
“Truth doesn‟t matter,” he said. When she looked confused, he continued.
“Look, you were in law enforcement. How many homicides were there in Chicago last
“I don‟t know the exact figures,” she said. “Something around three hundred,
“Actually it was just a shade over four hundred,” he corrected her. “Which ones
do you remember? The gang member on the west side that killed four prostitutes and one
of their customers? How about the south side woman who drowned her three children
and then phoned it in as an accident to 911?”
“I thought that south side thing was a vehicular homicide case,” Chanel frowned.
“No, that was a different incident altogether,” he said as he pulled into the parking
lot of the Roswell Motel. “But that‟s the one you remember because it was on the news.
And it was only on the news because they had security camera footage of the woman as
she drove over two of her victims. And it wasn‟t a homicide case, it was attempted
vehicular homicide. No one died, but it made the nine o‟clock news, all because of the
Chanel said nothing.
Payton and Chanel checked into their separate quarters. She said she wanted to
review their briefing records again and to expect not to hear from her the rest of the night.
Payton settled in, flipping on the television to one of the twenty-four hour sports
networks and ordering a pizza for delivery. He had another cigarette and thumbed
through his copy of the briefing, thinking about the strange old man on the plane and
listening as the announcer on the television rambled on about the current Chicago Cubs
Some things never change, he thought.
Looking at the Roswell briefing, he remembered that the old man had suggested
he was behind the UFO report to begin with. Did that mean that the report was a farce,
designed specifically to get Payton to New Mexico? Or maybe the old man had simply
used the event as a way to contact him. Then again, the old man might just be lying, or
crazy. This wasn‟t something he‟d had to deal with on an IFI before. I guess some things
do change, he thought to himself.
A short while later, a knock at the door signaled the arrival of his pizza. Payton
paid the delivery boy and opened the box. He sighed. The sauce had gone sloppy at
some point in transit, and a few bites confirmed to Payton for the millionth time that
nobody outside of Chicago could make a pizza.
Best to get to sleep as early as possible, he thought. He was going to have to
wake up early if he was to make it out to the golf course by 8am. Chanel would not be
happy about him taking the rental car, especially if she wanted to go out for breakfast, but
he was fairly sure she‟d stay put. They were due on the ranch to speak with the farmer
who had supposedly made the initial report at eleven in the morning. That meant a trip to
the golf course, back to pick Chanel up after, and then they would shoot down Highway
246 around ten-thirty. It might be tight, but he thought he could make it. And if his
partner slept in a little, she might not even realize he had left.
He looked down at the box on the bed and was surprised to see he had nearly
finished the fourteen-inch pizza. He closed the lid and took it out to the dumpster,
noticing how the stars shone with clarity Chicagoans never saw. Oddly enough, though
the sky above him seemed clear enough, he noticed that he couldn‟t see any stars off to
the west, the direction from which the weather came in this part of the country. He made
a mental note to check the Weather Channel in the morning to see if there might be any
severe weather coming through, then returned to the room and slipped underneath the
Things began smoothly the next morning. Payton got his wake up call on the
phone next to his bed at six-thirty. He showered with the breaking sun streaming through
a little porthole window that only opened half way in the stall. The continental breakfast
was a joke, of course, but a donut made for decent fuel as he pulled the rental out of the
motel parking lot. From there it was a short trip down Montana Avenue, one turn west
on Eighth Street, and then he was parking next to a couple of luxury cars at Spring River
Payton walked through the main entrance to the clubhouse. When he swung open
the door, a large billow of dust chased away from him. The first thing he noticed was the
lack of light, particularly above, where the ceiling was wood and looked unstable. Beams
crisscrossed like scaffolding, and he fleetingly wondered whether they might serve some
actual structural purpose, or if they were simply some tasteless person‟s attempt at
decoration. The rest of the clubhouse was the size of large sitting room. Broken rays of
sun that looked as though they ought to shine upon the Ten Commandments instead
found a few shabby wooden tables, a glass front desk, and a motley bar in the back. An
immense man behind the register hardly looked up from his crossword puzzle as he
walked to the bar.
Seated there, the sole patron on his stool was the old man from the airplane.
As he sat next to him, he saw a group of men in golfing clothes shooting the old
man wary glances. Probably it had something to do with the sifter of brown liquid lying
half empty on the bar. “That looks like whiskey,” Payton said. “It‟s eight in the
morning. I was wondering whether you were crazy or drunk. I suppose I have my
“Order yourself one, my friend,” the old man said. “You‟ll need it, with what I‟m
going to tell you.”
Payton caught the stench of the liquor from his breath and winced. “You‟re
“Don‟t you want to hear why I brought you here?” he asked.
Payton shook his head. “You didn‟t. I‟m here investigating a UFO sighting.”
The old man looked at him evenly. “And who do you think contacted The Center
for UFO Studies? Some rancher trying to farm acres of desert, who probably still has a
“It was you?” Payton asked him.
“So the sighting was another fake?” He thought about it for a minute. “Of course
it was. I knew it was.”
“That sighting is inconsequential,” the older gentlemen said. “There are so many
reports coming from this area year after year, no one could hope to separate them. But I
do know a researcher at CUFOS with a soft spot for the Roswell incident. A few well
placed calls, and here you are.”
Payton frowned. The old man knew Schuda? Or at least knew enough about
Schuda to be familiar with his interests and tendencies? How could he know about the
Center‟s directors? “You‟re right,” he said, motioning to the bartender. “I think I will
have that drink.”
“That‟s a lad. We have a great deal to discuss and I know you have an
appointment to keep, so I‟m afraid we will need to get to the point rather quickly.”
“Who are you,” Payton asked immediately. “And don‟t tell me your name is John
“Yes,” the old man chuckled with a boozy grin. “It is such a tired alias, isn‟t it?
But my name isn‟t important. Let‟s just say that if you want to get into the real
conspiracies perpetrated against the American people, I‟m the one that can give them to
Payton shook his head. “And this UFO report?”
“Small potatoes, even if it is true,” he said. “Which I suspect it isn‟t, given the
“I was sent here to make sure that you followed up on that report.” He smiled.
“And only that report. There is a great deal to be discovered here in Roswell, and most of
it has nothing to do with your little green men and flying saucers. I‟m talking about real,
tangible crimes committed by men who operate above the law. Above all nationality, in
fact, so much so that they have no allegiance to any country or religion, only to currency
“And these people would be…”
The old man stared at him a moment, then took a long drink from his glass,
draining the whiskey inside and motioning the bartender for a refill. “A group of men,”
he said. “Energy industry heads, defense contractors, bankers. Powerful men that rule
without votes and determine global policy without any checks or balances.”
“What the hell are you talking about?” Payton asked. He drained his glass.
“Are you familiar with a group called the Illuminati?” the old man asked.
The Illuminati. “You have to be joking.”
“It‟s no joke, I can assure you,” the old man said, and indeed his expression was
grave. “Under one name or another, the Illuminati have been around in this country since
before it existed. And they were in Europe long before that. These men, some eleven
families, they control a vast majority of the wealth on this planet. As they always have.”
“I‟ve read the theories,” Payton said, trying to keep a straight face. “But theories
are all that they are. There isn‟t one scrap of legitimate evidence that nails down any
members of this supposed group. The men you‟re talking about are so wealthy that they
are constantly scrutinized by the government and the press.”
The old man laughed. “They own the government and the press.”
Payton stared at him a moment. “Why are you telling me this?”
“We keep an eye on people who the group considers…curious. CUFOS members
are included in that distinction. Now, I‟m relatively low on the ladder amongst the
organization, simply a misinformation agent, but I‟ve read the dossier on you.”
“You‟ve been watching me?” Payton asked. He found it hard to believe.
“Those years when you first joined the Agency,” the old man nodded. “You
worked so hard. I always liked your work.”
“Especially that bit in Nebraska,” the old man continued. “When you figured out
that those two farm boys had kidnapped that poor little girl and then forced her to lie and
say it was aliens. You were a real hero that day. I remember thinking Payton Connor
isn‟t like the others.”
“Get to the point,” Payton said.
“I have a problem.”
“What kind of problem?”
The old man took another long sip, and Payton noticed that there was no wince as
he drank. “I‟m getting a bit…old,” the old man said with a smile. “There is something
going on in our group. Something big. Now, I‟m not high up enough to know what it is,
but it scares the hell out of me.”
“Scares you? So do something about it,” Payton said, shrugging. “You‟re the
one claiming to be a part of this group. Go to the authorities. Do something from the
“I can‟t,” the old man shook his head quickly. “They might be watching me. Not
now of course,” he added quickly as Payton had started looking around the clubhouse.
“But any move I made to go to the authorities would be useless anyway.”
“Why?” Payton asked.
“Two reasons. First of all, they are the authorities, the ones at the top of the
power chain, anyway. Secondly, who would believe me? After all, you‟ve seen stranger
things than most people on Earth, and even you are having trouble with this. But with
your record, with your work at CUFOS disproving things, being so skeptical…Well,
maybe people will believe someone like you.”
Payton shook his head. “I mean, come on. The Illuminati?”
The old man sighed. “I know. But like I said, there is something going on, and I
think we might all be in danger. I can‟t look into it, they‟ll kill me. They already killed a
friend of mine when he stole something from them, something about a spy network. I
want you to pick up where he left off, with me pointing you in the right direction.”
“And why exactly should I help you?” Payton asked.
“You‟re not listening to me,” the old man said sharply. “We‟re all in danger,
myself included. From what I hear, the military arm of the group is gearing up for
something.” He leaned forward and lowered his voice. “I‟m talking about a major event
here, Connor. Something larger than you, me, and your miniscule little agency.”
“These are the men who sent you to make this UFO report go away?”
“It‟s already happening, as we sit here,” the old man said. “I myself ordered
Majestic operatives to the ranch this morning, before coming here to meet with you.”
Payton simultaneously recalled the word Majestic in some of what he‟d read
about the Illuminati and began wondering if the old man might be telling at least some
part of the truth. “You mean,” he began, and then came to a decision. He got up from
the bar stool and started towards the door.
“Where are you going, Investigator Connor?” the old man called out to him.
“To find out if what you‟re saying is true,” Payton answered over his shoulder.
He made his way towards the door. From behind him, he could hear the old man
shouting at him, slurring his words.
“You‟re too late, Connor. It‟s already done!”
“Get up, Falasco,” Payton said, knocking on her motel door.
He heard rustling, a yawn, the lock on the door clicking open, and finally the door
opened to reveal a robed Chanel Falasco. “Doc?” she said, yawning again. “What are
you doing? We don‟t have to leave for another forty-five minutes.”
“Just get some clothes on and meet me in the car,” Payton told her.
“What is this about-“
“In the car,” Payton said again, and turned on his heel to return to the Taurus.
Moments later they were on the highway. “You want to tell me what this is all
about?” Chanel asked.
“We might have a problem,” Payton answered her. “A big problem.”
“And that is?”
Payton took a deep breath. “I met with someone this morning. Someone who
identified himself as both the person who called in our UFO report and the person sent to
cover it up.”
Chanel looked at him. “What are you talking about?”
“He approached me on the plane from Chicago. Asked me to meet with him this
morning, and asked that I come alone. He said he was the one who made sure the report
got to Schuda. He also said that he was part of a group that is hiding something in the
“What group?” Chanel asked.
Payton grimaced. “The Illuminati.” Turning his head to the right, he could see
her staring at him in disbelief. “I know, I know. But he knew about the report. And he
knew Schuda‟s name.”
“Jesus, Doc,” Chanel laughed. “Every one of the department heads is named on
the CUFOS website. Somebody is messing with you.”
Maybe, he thought, but he stared straight ahead, speeding the rental car towards
They saw the smoke long before they reached their destination. The silo to the
right was burning three-quarters of the way up. The ranch house itself was a glowing
flower, spitting its black smoke into the pale blue sky. Fire trucks with the letters RFD
stenciled into their sides were already there and large men in yellow flame-retardant suits
were battling the blaze with long rubber hoses.
“Jesus Christ,” Chanel breathed.
Payton pulled up to just behind one of the big red trucks, noting again the
stenciled white lettering and simultaneously shifted into park while climbing out of his
seat and through the door. Chanel slammed her own door shut and followed behind him.
The first thing that hit him was the smell of burning wood. Chanel pointed out the
firemen dressed in the white collared shirt and black hat of a firehouse Captain.
Payton tapped him on the shoulder. “What the hell happened here?”
The Captain looked at the two of them up and down, no doubt taking in their
civilian clothing before responding. “Electrical fire, by the looks of it. We won‟t know
for sure until we‟ve sifted through the ashes.”
Payton looked at what was left of the ranch house. Most of it was gone, but he
could still tell how small it was. He couldn‟t be certain, but it didn‟t seem like the type of
home that included a great deal of electronics. “Do you mind telling me who called in
The Captain turned back to him, looking annoyed. “I‟ve got union Roswell
firemen running around putting out a dangerous electrical fire outside of their service
area. Lord knows what this farmer had in his home. Maybe he was making bombs in his
spare time, or maybe he ran a meth lab out of his basement, either of which could set off
an explosion at any time. So yes, I mind that you are pestering me.”
Chanel stepped forward. “Then maybe you can point us towards someone else
who might be more inclined to speak with us.”
“I think it‟s time you two told me why you‟re here.”
“Investigators Conner and Falasco from CUFOS,” Chanel piped up.
“CUFOS? Is that government?” the Captain asked.
“No it‟s The Center for--" Chanel started.
Payton cut her off with a stern shake of the head. “We‟re not government.”
“Then get the hell out of here. Both of you.”
“Fine,” Payton said. “Just point us in the direction of the ranch owner.”
The Captain nodded behind them. “Over by the EMT unit. In the body bag.”
They both turned to look and saw a pair of emergency medical techs zipping up a
black vinyl body bag. Payton threw the Captain one last look and led Chanel back
towards the car.
She flopped roughly into the car seat and immediately launched into a tirade
about the legitimacy of CUFOS and how the investigators who worked for the
organization should not be embarrassed to say so.
Payton cut her off before she could really get going. “Enough. Let me make it
easy for you to understand. You start spouting off about UFO‟s and conspiracies or
anything else we do at CUFOS, and you‟ll be digging holes for the both of us.” Payton
pulled back onto the highway with one last look at the fire trucks in the rear mirror.
“So what do we do now?” Chanel asked.
“Maybe the old man will still be at the golf course.”
“If you want to drop me off, I can hang out at the firehouse and see what they
come up with.”
Payton shook his head. “It wouldn‟t do you any good. Those weren‟t firemen.”
“What?” Chanel asked, turning sharply.
“Two years ago, after the state of New Mexico instituted a pretty hefty income tax
increase, the city of Roswell filed for emergency federal aid for primary government
“And that includes the fire department.”
Chanel‟s brow furrowed. “I don‟t get it.”
“Those fire trucks had RFD stenciled onto them. That would be the Roswell Fire
Department, which hasn‟t existed for the last two years. Those trucks should have read
NMFD, for New Mexico Fire Department.”
They rode in silence for a few moments.
“Doc,” Chanel whispered. “Who were those men at the ranch?”
“I don‟t know. But I‟m hoping the old man might.”
The old man was pissed.
“I told you I didn‟t want to talk to anyone but you.”
Chanel and Payton had just walked in the clubhouse door to find the old man
putting on his jacket and trying to move past them. He was cursing now, and still reeking
of booze. Payton wondered whether he might be too drunk to talk.
Only one way to find out. “Look, she‟s with me,” Payton said, putting a hand out
to keep the old man from walking by them. “You want me, you get her.”
The old man leaned in close to Payton. “You don‟t get it, do you,” he hissed.
“I‟m risking my life here. I know all about you. Her…well, I don‟t have any intelligence
on her. No intelligence makes me nervous.”
Payton turned to look at Chanel. She raised her eyebrows, as if challenging him
not to include her in whatever he planned to do. “Look, I told you already, you don‟t get
me without her.”
“Fine,” the old man sighed. “But if she gets me killed, it‟s on your head.” The
old man gestured toward the bar. “Well, I‟m sure you have plenty of questions, so why
don‟t we have a seat.”
“Yes, let‟s,” Payton nodded. “But not here. There‟s a diner off of Main Street
that cooks a decent hamburger.”
“Can they fix a good drink?” the old man asked.
“Sure.” Payton flashed him a smile. “Best coffee in town. And it‟s on me. Now
It was only a ten-minute trip in the rental to the diner. The dingy establishment
was obligingly empty and in mere moments they had taken a booth and ordered food.
The old man was finally starting to sober up about halfway through his corned beef
“Come on,” Payton said to him. “Tell me your name. I have to call you
“Not a chance,” the old man said, firmly shaking his head. “John is good enough”
Chanel stirred next to Payton. “Fine John. How about telling us who were the
men wearing those uniforms back at the ranch?”
“Your partner already knows.”
“So tell me,” she insisted.
The old man sighed again. “They are the soldiers of a global group called the
Illuminati. They kill, they cover up, and they steal. I‟m surprised you even knew those
men weren‟t Roswell firemen, that‟s how good they are at staying hidden.”
“Your stenciling on the fire engines is a bit outdated,” Payton said.
“Ah, the changeover to the state,” John nodded. “I had forgotten about that. In
any case, we‟re talking about a network of soldiers without names, records, social
security numbers, any of that.”
“And you command them?” Chanel asked.
“Not formally. I‟m a misinformation agent. I make sure that none of our work is
exposed, and that all the right stories get to the correct people. The call to CUFOS made
it necessary for a Majestic cleansing.”
“Majestic?” Chanel asked.
“An Illuminati code word for our troops,” the old man said. “They have a way of
making people and evidence, and even themselves, disappear. As if they could do
Payton saw a smile spread across Chanel‟s face. “So the UFO report was real. I
knew it. And you were sent to cover it up.”
“I don‟t know. Sometimes the cover-ups I‟m sent on are for false reports that are
in sensitive areas of the country. Others aren‟t.”
“But some of the UFO reports are real, then?” Chanel asked. Payton thought her
unrelenting enthusiasm remarkable and childish at once.
The old man just shrugged. “I don‟t ask and they don‟t tell. Most of what they do
is military, that much I can tell you.” The old man gave the both of them a rather pointed
look. “I‟m surprised at the both of you. Neither of you has asked me the most important
“What are you getting at?” Chanel asked.
“Investigator Conner knows what I‟m talking about, don‟t you?” John asked,
throwing him a look.
Payton nodded. “Yeah, I know the question. Tell us, why are you outing yourself
“Very good, Connor. Look, I don‟t know everything that goes on with this group.
Frankly, I‟m just not that high up in the ranks. But I‟ve heard whispers about some kind
of conflict going on within the leadership. That puts things on edge for everyone,
especially on us mid-level guys whose single responsibility is manipulating
Payton leaned closer across the table. “You really are afraid for your life, aren‟t
“You learn to live with it,” the old man sighed. “I had a friend in the group, as
much as people in our group can be friends, I guess. He was working with me to expose
what‟s been going on.” He looked up at Payton. “I‟m sure you can guess where this is
“When did he disappear?” Payton asked.
“Disappear?” The old man‟s eyebrows went up. “He didn‟t disappear, Connor.
He was murdered, killed for all to see on national television.”
“Pardon?” Chanel asked.
“You two see the crash on the news?” the old man asked. “You know, the one
after which they nuked that beach because of some unnamed terrorist threat?”
“There was no threat?” Payton asked.
“Oh,” the old man shook his head. “There was a threat, alright, a threat to the
group and certain individuals within the United States government. Hell, some of them
are the same people.”
“What did your man get?” Payton asked.
“I‟m not sure, but it was big. He sent me a coded message, something about a
network, and a file he had found. Or intercepted. Or who knows?” The old man looked
down at the table for a moment. “All I know is that I‟d sent him to a covert base we have
in Anchorage. The group keeps a lot of our records houses there, partly because of the
lack of population centers, and partly because the governor there is friendly to the group.
He came back with…something. Something that got him killed. Immediately after the
crash, there was report of some hushed up transfer going on to one of our bases in this
“So you want us to continue the work,” Payton nodded. “I still don‟t understand
“Two reasons,” the old man grunted. “As I said, I‟m not proud of many of the
things I‟ve done, but you must understand, I‟m a patriot first. For a very long time, until
recently, I thought that the things I was doing were a benefit to my country and my
family. Now that I‟ve uncovered a few things the group tries to keep hidden, well, let‟s
just say it‟s changed my perspective rather dramatically.”
“And the other reason?” Chanel asked.
The old man sighed. “The only leverage I can possibly have if someone decides
that a sixty-year old man who probably has way too much information would be better
off dead is if I have a way to release some sensitive information should anything happen
to me. You two are going to be my way. By continuing the work.”
Payton sat back on his side of the booth. “And we‟re going to do this for you
“Because if I‟m right, then you can‟t afford to bury your head in the sand.”
“What do you mean?” Payton asked. He didn‟t like the tone of the old man‟s
“Like I‟ve been saying, something is going on within the group. One of the
Eleven, our leadership, has passed away,” the old man said. Then he looked around the
diner and leaned over the table. “Nobody has any specifics, but they‟ve got something
planned. Something within a few weeks.”
“How do you know?” Chanel asked. “I thought you didn‟t have any specifics?”
“About their plans? I don‟t. But some of the instructions we‟re getting,
specifically the contingency plans we‟re being asked to draw up, we‟ve never been asked
to this type of work before.”
“That‟s pretty thin,” Payton said.
“That‟s what I need you for,” the old man snapped. “I‟m using you to try and get
the specifics. But keep this in mind: last week they asked me to draw up a plan on urban
citizen logistics. I had to design a plan to get potential domestic combatants out of six
major cities and into concentration camps in radiating suburbs. They said it had to be
completed by the end of the week. Four days.”
“Jesus,” Chanel whispered.
“How are we supposed to contact you?” Payton asked.
“You won‟t. I‟ll contact you,” the old man replied. Then he pulled something
from his carry bag lying beneath the booth‟s table. “Forget that for now. I need to be
getting back, before I‟m missed, but I thought you might find this an interesting way for
me to prove my good intentions.” With that he flipped a manila folder onto the table and
got up. “Look through that and act at your own discretion, but if you choose to help me,
and I think you will, the location where they moved whatever my friend tried to take
should be obvious from the information in the file. Oh, and I left you something a little
heavier underneath the table.” Then the old man who called himself John turned and
walked out of the diner.
They sat there, both of them on the same side of the booth, for a few moments.
With a quick look around the diner, Payton nudged Chanel, indicating for her to check
out the underside of the table. She nodded, slid her fork off the edge of the table, and
ducked beneath. For a slightly uncomfortable moment, Payton was intensely aware that
her head was hovering dangerously close to his lap.
It only lasted a heartbeat, however, and when Chanel lifted her head back up to
look at him, she was biting her lip. “You better have a look,” she whispered.
Taking another quick glance around the diner, he slid to look beneath the table.
There, half hidden behind the table‟s single large center leg was the last thing he would
have expected to see.
It was a pistol. A Desert Eagle, fifty-caliber, if the computer shooter games he‟d
played in college were an accurate source of comparison, which he knew they were. He
thought briefly about leaving it there, but he had already given the waitress his credit
card. Surely the gun would be found and eventually traced back to him. He snatched the
large pistol as quick as he could and stuffed into the inside pocket of his trench coat.
Then he got back into his seat and made a show of sipping his water and cleaning off his
“You took it?” Chanel hissed.
“Of course I took it,” Payton snapped back, trying to be as quiet as possible. “I
can‟t just leave it here.”
“That thing is enormous.”
Payton shrugged. “It‟s a pistol.”
“It‟s damned cannon.”
“Nothing we can do about it now,” He said. He shuddered in the air conditioning.
The diner had taken on a chill that he suspected had nothing to do with the ventilation.
“What about the file,” he continued, pointing at the manila folder resting conspicuously
on the table. “Want to open it here?
“Hell no,” Chanel answered quickly. “That gun gives me the creeps. Let‟s get
out of dodge.”
“I couldn‟t agree more.”
A quick call to their waitress brought their bill. Payton signed off on the credit
card statement and they hurried out to the car.
“This is incredible,” Chanel said. She had been muttering curses for the past half
an hour as she leafed through the manila folder. She was splayed across her motel bed,
Payton on the gaudy chair beside her. She was right. The file was incredible. It
appeared to be a brief dossier on the Illuminati, from its inception right up to present day.
Payton had gone back to leaf through the first couple of pages, marveling at the
information they contained.
According to the file, what people referred to as the Illuminati in the present day
had begun as a sort of conglomerate of special interest groups. At first these factions had
wildly separate goals and ambitions, not to mention biases. There were the early anti-
Christian Gnostics. The anti-Muslim Persians came soon after. The Catholic order of the
Knights Templar followed, stemming from the Crusades and creating the modern
banking system. That particular group had outlasted most of the others, but certainly it
was not the last. There were the Luciferians, Rosicrucians, and the Levellers, all coming
about to do battle with the Christians in general, and often the Templars in particular.
These groups continued to vie for control of world resources until the seventeen
hundreds. They fought over bank holdings, political power fronts, and mineral caches.
And as they fought, they diminished themselves.
Finally, uniting themselves under the philosophy of a Frenchman named Voltaire,
the group usurped the power of the various thrones in Europe and Persia, and united
under a common leadership. Most scholars thought that it was the Templars that
remained in power, victorious over their rivals. In truth, they simply absorbed their
competitors and went about business as usual. Modern day theorists usually surmised
that the Illuminati had taken on the form and religion of a Jewish cabal. It was the basis
for the fervent hollering most commonly espoused by the Nazis and otherwise prejudiced
clans. This, according to the document, couldn‟t be further from the truth. They were no
longer exclusively Jewish, Moslem, Catholic, or even Christian for that matter. They had
become a multi-national, multi-ethnic, and multi-faith cabal. It wasn‟t just about guns, or
power, or even money. The group simply did whatever it took to keep power, regardless
of how detestable the act. All of the major families were in power, even then: the
Rothchilds, Rockefellers, Morgans, Fords, and others. However, it was a Bavarian
professor who once and for all united the families under the title of the Illuminati, both in
name and philosophy. His name was Adam Weishaupt, a fierce anti-monarchist,
controversial Freemason, and devout Agnostic. His departure from his local Freemason
lodge came as he solidified the powerbase of the Illuminati. He claimed that only a
group of elder philosophers, together with the backing of powerful businessmen could
unite the world under a single peaceful leadership. The Freemason lodge that banished
him claimed that Weishaupt proposed using organized religion to control the masses, a
notion strictly forbidden by the organization, which had always revered truth and
From the very start Weishaupt understood the most basic rule of secrecy: the best
place to hide is amongst the enemy. He immediately made the group a public entity,
though not by the same name. They were considered philanthropists, a charitable
organization. Their seemingly generous nature was especially effective at drawing the
attention of German philosophers and members of the Protestant Church. The Protestants
were attracted to the publicly stated goal of the group, which was to unite the Earth to
bring happiness upon its denizens. In reality, the group was busy infiltrating
democracies, overthrowing anarchies, and making power plays behind the scenes
throughout the histories of several fledgling nations and colonies. Then, instantly
changing the world in the late seventeen hundreds, something remarkable happened.
The fertile land of the Americas was established.
Once situated, constantly under the watchful eye of the Illuminati, the carefully
formed American Government provided a breeding ground for the organization. No
longer were there monarchies and despots to battle. The United States was a political
clean slate, where capitalism provided the cover under which to increase the Illuminati‟s
wealth, based on tried and true Templar banking practices. They single handedly created
the gold standard, in addition to normalizing the policy of government borrowing against
its own people.
Under this new iteration of the Illuminati, the group‟s leader, named the
Illuminatus Minor, was protected with secrecy and arms far superior to that of the
President. He was not allowed to own property beyond a personal abode, hold legitimate
government papers, or even have a social security number, although it was generally
agreed that he would be allowed to own and operate business interests, so long as those
interests translated into capital for the group. The obsession with secrecy went to such an
extreme that the Illuminatus Minor was taught to write with both hands, so as to limit
anyone‟s ability to track him.
According to the dossier, the group had more recently sponsored state terrorists in
order to further the military-driven economy of a few home nations, most notably
America, France, Britain, and Germany. There were some rumors and accusations that
they had a hand in bringing Hitler to power, theoretically to battle the spreading threat of
communism. They were also responsible for the creation of the United Nations, after
they used the Pearl Harbor incident to put an end to a Hitler that had grown beyond their
control, and whose bid for world domination directly conflicted with the Illuminati‟s
control. The file emphasized that when the League of Nations was first proposed, the
location of the headquarters was reportedly under heated debate. There were supposed to
be several host nations, and even though the League of Nations took up residence
elsewhere, it was widely believed that it would soon be moved to Switzerland, due to
their infamous neutrality.
The next thing the world knew, the United Nations had been formed,
headquartered in the United States on land donated by the Rockefeller family. Rumor
had it that the elder members of the Rockefellers were still allowed to walk the grounds
of the United Nations without restriction. Such access afforded the family and its friends
the chance to remain in close contact with the world‟s elite players. Whether they did so
to further their personal wealth or simply to influence and spy on the proceedings was a
matter for debate. However, it could not be argued that the family did not to this day
enjoy a familiarity with world leaders that few could match.
“I can‟t believe this,” Chanel murmured into the stack of papers she‟d been
examining. Her eyes were moving quickly through each page as she studied. “He even
included photos. Here‟s one from 2001 of the Iraqi Interior Minister with some UN
Energy Department head.”
Payton leaned forward in the chair to peer at the photo she held out to him. “That
could be anyone.”
“I suppose,” she replied. “But the recon document that it was stapled to said „UN
Energy Department head‟.”
Payton sighed. “Look, I don‟t want you getting too excited about all of this.
Chances are the old man was lying.”
“What about the fire trucks?”
“Strange, but probably explainable.”
“And the gun?”
“Anyone can buy a gun.”
“The plans the old man said he was asked to draw up? His warning that
something major was going to happen in the next week?”
He shrugged. “He could be lying.”
“You‟re unbelievable,” she sighed, sounding disgusted. “Nobody could convince
you of anything, you‟re so closed minded.”
“My niece, Jennifer, can,” Payton said. “She always convinces me to let her stay
up late, even when I know she…Come check this out.” He had pulled another stack of
recon sheets from the folder and had marked the spot where he had stopped skimming
with his forefinger.
“What is it?” she asked. She flipped over on the bed and scooted to the edge.
“The old man said that if we wanted to figure out where to go next, the file would
make it obvious,” he said. “I‟m pretty sure he meant these aerial photos.” He tapped the
pictures in his hand.
“You know the location in the pictures?” she asked.
“Two Rivers Reservoir,” he answered. “According to these satellite infrareds
there is a considerable amount of energy coming from beneath the ground. And if I‟m
reading these photos correctly, there‟s some kind of web of heat signatures stemming out
from the reservoir.”
“At levels equal to a small city.”
“You think maybe we ought to check it out?” Chanel asked. She smiled as she
tossed the paperwork she‟d been examining onto the bed and scooted behind Payton to
peer at the satellite imagery.
He could feel her breath on his neck. “Yeah,” Payton said distractedly. “I guess
we better take a look.”
He could tell with a quick glance through the open curtains that it was already
dark. He wasn‟t particularly happy about the way that this had developed, and trudging
around the desert in the dark was even less appealing. But he supposed they ought to be
thorough, and he couldn‟t even imagine Schuda‟s reaction if he found out that they‟d left
this lead unexamined.
They left the room and checked out of the motel at the front desk. He thought
about this puzzle, thought about its pieces and shape, and wondered, while he turned the
ignition of the rental car, how it would all work out.
It was frustrating. Usually he would have a question placed in front of him, neat
and packaged with a simple goal and a direct set of answers. Thinking about the old man
and his contentions, Payton realized that he wasn‟t even sure what the puzzle was, or how
many there were, or what pieces were part of which puzzle. Certainly there was the
Illuminati puzzle: were they real, what were they doing, what had the old man‟s friend
stolen to get him killed, was it the Illuminati that had even killed him, etc.
But Payton realized that the first question was a puzzle within itself. Were they
real or weren‟t they? If they were, who was involved? What were they involved in?
Why were they involved? What did they hope to gain? What could he do about it?
Should he do anything about it?
And if they weren‟t real, if the old man was lying or delusional, what was the
reason for the lie or delusion? Who did the old man really work for, if not the Illuminati?
What could he do about it? Should he do anything about it?
Too many puzzles, Payton thought. Too many choices.
Chanel sat silently in the passenger seat as he drove onto the highway.
They parked the car roughly half a mile from the reservoir. Payton felt a bit silly
stashing the sedan off the side of Highway 70 next to a cactus, which held its arms high
in the air as if the victim of a stickup. Chanel followed close behind him as they left the
car behind and crept south towards the reservoir. The desert was cold, icy sand slipping
into Payton‟s shoes as they walked. You never think about the desert like this, Payton
thought. Blazing heat in daylight was the common perception, not the inky cold
blackness at night.
“You want to tell me where we‟re going?” Chanel asked, slightly behind him.
“The map shows a pumping station just this side of the reservoir. Seems like a
logical place to start.”
“This is so much fun. I thought you said we weren‟t going to get to do this type
of field work.”
“We shouldn‟t be. You shouldn‟t be. We should be behind a comfortable desk in
a warm office in Chicago.”
“Don‟t be such a baby. You love this as much as I do.”
“Just keep a lookout for the pumping station.”
They walked in silence for the next several minutes. Visibility was surprisingly
bad, owed to the abnormal presence of clouds in the sky. The moonlight streaked
through in patches, but even cacti a few meters away were mere outlines. This is fun?
All I want right now is to separate these puzzles and see if any of them are worth solving.
Why can’t I just leave all this alone? Why can’t I be like normal people and think
conspiracy theorists are just nuts and let it be? Is it any surprise that people chuckle
when Jennifer tells them my job is to chase little green men? No wonder the only friends
I have are oddballs like me. Who would want to call me their friend? What woman
could put up with me long enough to want to be with me?
“I see something,” Chanel whispered.
Sure enough, a few hundred meters to the south was the pumping station. It was
smaller than Payton had imagined, even having reviewed the satellite data. It might have
been a townhouse, or a fire station. What secrets do you hold, I wonder? I told my
partner that it would probably be nothing, but she didn’t believe that. Truthfully, neither
do I. I truly hope you will disappoint us both.
“Stop,” Payton hissed. They were still about a football field away from the
pumping station. He needed to get a better look. “Binoculars.”
“Here,” Chanel said. She placed the heavy black binoculars in his hand and he
lifted them to his eyes.
The pumping station was made of that gray stucco that seemed to be the perpetual
vogue in the Southwest. There were a few lights spilling upon the façade. There was a
single door, barely visible and painted the same color as the stucco surrounding it.
Payton scanned the area on and around the door for some kind of locking mechanism, but
couldn‟t find one. Instead, there was only a large metallic sign to the left. It forbade
access to anyone save government employees, complete with a lightning bolt stenciled
across it. How effective, he thought. Locks invited intrigue. Mundane symbols of
authority, on the other hand, made for the perfect deterrent. Who didn‟t see these
authoritative symbols every day, and ignore them?
Chanel crouched down next to him. “See anyone?”
“There‟s no security in sight, but that doesn‟t mean a whole lot. They could be
around the side of the building, where I can‟t see them.”
“I don‟t know why you‟re so sure there will be guards.”
“I‟m not sure, but if the old man was telling the truth, they won‟t leave this
building unguarded. You can be sure they have someone inside.”
“Then what are we waiting for?”
“We‟re being prudent.”
He heard her sigh.
They stayed prone until Payton was as certain as could be that no guards would
appear once they approached the building. Then, with a stiffness brought on by the chilly
air, he helped Chanel to her feet and walked cautiously towards the pumping station.
They kept low as they moved; just because he hadn‟t been able to see them in the
binoculars, Payton didn‟t believe that there weren‟t at least cameras or motion devices
monitoring the building. They reached the door unmolested, however. To Payton‟s
surprise, when Chanel pushed on the handle, the door to the pumping station was
unlocked. She looked at him with a frown. He shrugged and brushed past her through
The interior of the building was nearly as dark as the exterior. Instead of miles of
sand and cacti, here there were catwalks and large metallic red pipes. They all lead
down, and Payton had a flashback to his childhood, his mother telling him the story of
Alice In Wonderland. She had been astonished at the fear he‟d displayed at the
beginning of the story, when Alice first fell tumbling down the rabbit hole. She couldn‟t
understand the sheer terror he felt imagining her trek toward the unknown. His fear had
only increased as the story continued and she landed in Wonderland. Such an
unexplainable place, filled with unsolvable riddles. How could Alice possibly have kept
her wits about her?
The interior dropped out of sight beyond the catwalk. He couldn‟t see much
below, just hints of machinery and metal. The only way was forward, and since no one
had met them at the entrance, they continued on and downward.
“This looks like…” Chanel began, and then trailed off as they made their way
down the first set of the iron grate steps.
“Like a pumping station,” Payton finished for her. “I know, but let‟s not judge
They continued down. Six catwalks, six layers of piping, and six staircases
passed by before they reached the concrete floor. Payton tried to guess how far
underground they were. It had to be over fifty feet, quite an engineering feat in the desert
sand. Here there were valves and wheels adorning the piping, with needle meters for
decoration. Occasionally soft wisps of steam would float out of some hidden recess.
Hell, when did my life turn into a bad movie, Payton thought. It wasn‟t something to
dwell on, however, what with the entire ground level complete with convoluted piping to
rummage through. Payton thought back to his childhood again, this time to his Peewee
Football days, imagining the floor as the playing field, and the pipe stations as blockers
They searched among the machinery and then along the floor for another half an
hour, at first hiding and ducking behind the piping in case someone should appear and
discover them. By the time they spent the final five minutes searching for doorways,
they were no longer bothering to conceal themselves. Payton was just about to give up
when he found it.
“Yeah, yeah,” she interrupted him. “I know, I know. You were right. The old
man was lying. His folder intelligence was a forgery. This is just a pumping station.”
“Maybe,” Payton said, smiling. “But we still have some exploring to do. Take a
look at this.”
It was a trap door in the most classic sense. Painted to match the cement, the
entrance hatch had a recessed steel handle that they must have walked over half a dozen
times. He noticed that opening the hatch kicked up no dust, indicating that someone had
gone through it recently. Another staircase was revealed, but this one was created of
sleek steps that looked as if they were made of obsidian. The tunnel the stairs followed
was made of modern plaster and reinforced by beaming and studs that were made from
some kind of graphite. About ten feet down, the stairway bucked and u-turned to
continue on to the left. Where it made the turn, there was a light on the ceiling, bathing
everything in a deep skittle blue.
“Looks ominous,” Chanel said from beside him.
“Scared?” Payton asked.
“Excited.” She shouldered past him and started down the hatch.
Payton hurried after her, making the turn, and then continuing down another flight
of black stairs. They reached what looked like an ordinary office, or it would have been
ordinary, if not for the fact that it was located some three stories below the bottom floor
of a pumping station. There were gray walls, occasionally spotted with a handful of
cheap color prints by Monet or Rembrandt or whoever. In the middle of the room was a
simple desk with only a calendar, pencil sharpener, and a telephone atop it.
“This sucks,” Chanel said.
They spent the next several minutes searching the room, the desk, even behind the
paintings. The room seemed to contain nothing, not even any files in the desk. The
calendar only referenced maintenance schedules pertaining to the pumping station.
Payton had just taken a seat in the chair that accompanied the desk when Chanel‟s
frustration finally boiled over.
“Damn it, Doc, there‟s nothing here.”
“Nothing we can see, anyway.‟
She rounded on him. “How can you sit there and not be pissed?”
“What do you want, pictures of UFOs behind a smiling Eisenhower giving the
thumbs up? Maybe some kind of obviously alien ray gun stuck in the desk drawer?”
Payton shrugged. “Isn‟t this what I told you would happen? It‟s exactly as I expected.”
“Did you expect this?” she asked. She walked over to his chair with startling
speed and stuck out her foot. Then she gave him a vicious shove in the chest, sending
him toppling to the floor. He landed heavily on his back and felt the wind rush from his
gut. He glared up angrily, waiting to catch his breath and trying to decide just what kind
of vulgarity with which to berate her. Instead, he caught a glimpse of what looked very
much like a light switch resting just underneath the desk. He reached out towards it
quickly, noting with some satisfaction how Chanel flinched at the movement, and flicked
the switch. To his right he saw a slot in the wall slide open.
She helped him to his feet and they both stared at the open portal. “Nice catch,”
“I owe it all to you.”
“You get the feeling that there‟s going to be something big on the other side of
“Eh,” Payton grunted. “Only one way to find out.” And he led her through the
Payton was reminded of the hospital where they had worked on Jennifer;
everything beyond the door had that bright, clean look to it. They were on another
catwalk, but this one was surrounded by a clear tube, at the end of which was another
doorway. The grounding was solid enough, made of steel, but in every other direction
they could see clearly through glass, and he immediately had to fight off the feeling of
vertigo. Beyond the tube there was a one story drop to the floor of a huge chamber. It
was entirely white, with white walls, white lighting, and a few men in white lab coats
bustling around several labs. As soon as they saw the men below, Payton and Chanel
ducked and hugged the solid steel catwalk, trying their best to remain unseen. He
motioned to her and they continued through the glass tube on their stomachs. It felt like
forever to Payton, but eventually they came to the door. Payton reached to his waist,
removed the pistol the old man had given them at the diner, and pushed it open.
They rushed through as quickly as their prone positions would allow and closed
the door quietly behind them. They were in what Payton guessed must be a control or
security room, something like three times the size of the office they had first encountered.
The entire wall to their right was a bank of monitors that showed the labs below and the
glass catwalk they had just come from. So much for army crawling, Payton thought.
The rest of the room was filled by two workstations, complete with lamps and
computers, and roughly twenty gray metal file cabinets. Remembering the lack of files in
the office, he went to the cabinets immediately, bending to look at the neatly printed
labels that identified each of the drawers.
He immediately thought back to Professor Schuda, who would fill the time in
between UFO reports by tasking Payton in investigating all manner of conspiratorial lore.
At first Payton had resisted what he had thought of as busy work. But eventually, he
realized that Schuda, crazy as he was, often had genuinely interesting material at his
disposal. He might be a conspiracy nut, but the puzzles he had Payton investigating were
usually intriguing, and a pleasure to complete.
He recognized several topics as he ran his finger down the labels, noticing
absently that they were in alphabetical order. There was one labeled AS1897, another one
that said ELF effect study and application, and still another labeled KtsTmplr. They were
in varying abbreviated states, but Payton had no trouble deciphering them. AS1897
probably referred to the airship sighted just before the turn of the century, arguably the
first UFO case ever to be reported on American soil. ELF was an obvious reference to
extremely low frequency systems used by the military, predominantly the Navy, to
communicate with submerged ships throughout the world. There were some concerns as
to the effects that such frequencies might have on the millions of people who happened to
be in their way, but ELF systems were not particularly unknown, nor were they hidden by
the government and military. KtsTmplr was the most obvious of the three, surely
referring to the Knights Templar, that infamous order of the Catholic Church, charged
with guarding Catholic treasures, the fabled Ark of the Covenant, and the legendary Holy
None of these particular topics were particularly devious one way or another, and
certainly none of them were classified. He fought the disappointment beginning to swell
in him and kept looking. Once Payton had continued a bit farther down the alphabetical
cabinets, he came across several demarcations that he wasn‟t familiar with at all.
Operation: Big City, Operation: Daedalus/Echelon, Operation: Paperclip, Project:
Patriot, and Project: Silverbug all caught his attention. Not knowing exactly where he
wanted to begin, he turned to see what Chanel had been doing. She was studying the
bank of monitors and the scientists as they worked.
“Are they doing anything interesting?” Payton asked.
“Very,” she answered. He walked over to join her. “You see those sealed
baggies they‟re carrying from the cooler to the workstation by that big machine?”
Payton leaned in to peer more closely at the monitor she was indicating. The men
seemed to be shuffling what looked like several sandwich bags. It was hard to tell what
was inside them, partly because of the resolution of the image, and partly because the
bags seemed to be fogged from the inside. “Yeah, I see them. Why do they look
“Because they are keeping them chilled. You see the yellow and black insignia?”
He looked closely again. “It almost looks like one of those nuke warnings you
see in power plants.”
“Similar, yes. It‟s a bio-med symbol, used to denote potentially hazardous
organic material. Normally they use it to mark medical waste, blood, or plasma.”
“Maybe that‟s what it is.”
She frowned. “In the basement of a pumping station? What use would it be?
Come on, Doc.”
“Yeah, I suppose not. Why do they keep it frozen, whatever it is.”
“You always keep hazardous bio-material frozen. It slows down any harmful
toxins and chemical reactions.”
“So what are they doing with the material?”
“See that machine next to the workstation? I can‟t be certain, but I‟m pretty sure
that‟s a mass spectrometer.”
“It‟s a highly specialized piece of machinery that analyzes material to determine
its composition, down to trace elements. Law enforcement agencies use them for DNA
workups, toxicology screens on inanimate objects, and finding trace elements of forensic
evidence. I‟m no forensic scientist, but I‟m not aware of any application the machinery
might have for reservoir pumping.” She looked at him significantly.
“Ok,” Payton said. “Come help me gather some files from the cabinets.”
“What did you find?”
“I‟m not sure yet. But we need to hurry up.”
“Why? No one‟s here.”
“This is a control room,” Payton said and led her to the file cabinets. He pointed
briefly at the desks. “Somebody is supposed to be sitting at those computers.”
They turned to the file cabinets. “Which ones do you want to take?” Chanel
It was a question Payton had been considering since first coming across the files.
They couldn‟t carry much without packs and he didn‟t want their limited capacity to go
to waste on files for topics with which he was already familiar, thanks to Schuda‟s
assignments. “The files are alphabetical,” he told her. “Take the ones marked
Operation: Daedalus/Echelon and Paperclip. I‟ll get the Project Silverbug and Patriot
files.” They each made their way to the respective cabinets and began digging out the
Payton had just grabbed his files and was closing the cabinets when he heard the
door to the catwalk open behind him. He spun around to see a tall, chiseled man in a jet-
black suit and tie walking through the door. The man was completely bald, lacking even
eyebrows above his dark sunglasses, and there seemed to be a slight discoloration to his
skin. Later he would recall immediately having the impression that the man must have
had military training of some sort, judging by the way he carried himself. The
implication was clear: he was a guard.
Payton froze and noticed Chanel doing the same. The man in the suit took a step
into the room and then he stopped and blinked, apparently noticing them for the first
time. They all stood there looking at one another for what felt like forever, but could
only have been an instant.
Then the blank stare on the guard‟s face was replaced with a snarl, and with an
odd timber to his voice shouted, “You two, stop!” His hand flew to his hip where there
was a metallic bulge.
Before he could reach the holster that was certainly there, Payton pulled his pistol
and aimed it just above the guard‟s head and braced himself for the noise. He squeezed
off two shots, loosening a deafening report throughout the control room.
The guard reacted quickly, splaying sideways to the floor. Payton was on him in
an instant, attacking randomly and landing several blows to the abdomen before finally
cuffing him over the back of the head with the butt of the pistol. It only took a moment
to confirm that the guard was unconscious, and he noted that his skin was surprisingly
cold and still giving off that strange tint.
Chanel walked over to stand over him, gaping slightly. “Is…is he-,” she started.
“Just go,” Payton said, nodding towards the door. “Go now.”
They raced out onto the catwalk. Two desks, he kept thinking. What if there’s
another suit walking around. I don’t want to shoot anyone.
They passed the catwalk without seeing any guards and continued through the
gray office and up the staircase. Payton was beginning to think that they had lucked out
completely, but as soon as they had both climbed out of the hatchway and back into the
pumping station, they heard shouts and the echoing pop of gunfire. Metallic pings
sounded all around them, and there were an indeterminate number of sparks flying off of
the surrounding metal, reminding him of the small firecrackers he‟d played with as a
child. He reached out and grabbed Chanel by the collar, dragging her along to keep pace
as they rushed up the catwalks and out into the desert night.
They ran all the way to the rental car, which Payton started and threw into gear.
He slammed his foot onto the gas pedal, grabbed Chanel by the back of her head, and
pushed her down below the passenger seat as gunfire continued to pop behind them. He
had trouble navigating back onto the highway, as he was also doing his best to stay low in
“Jesus Christ, Doc!” Chanel screamed next to him as he skidded around one last
cactus and peeled onto the highway.
He pressed the accelerator to the floor, glancing quickly at the rearview mirror
and sitting up again in his seat. “Please tell me you got the files.”
She held up one manila folder and some kind of computer cartridge. “I got two of
them. The only thing in the Daedalus/Echelon file was this tape cartridge, though. There
weren‟t any paper files.”
“It‟ll be enough. I can‟t wait to hear what Mikora says when he sees this stuff.”
“What are you so excited about?” she asked. “You don‟t even know what‟s in the
“Doesn‟t matter,” Payton said with a shake of his head. “Anything worth
shooting us over is going to be big. You see anyone behind us?”
Chanel turned around and peeked over the top of the passenger seat. “I think
we‟re clear,” she said.
“Good. Get out the map and find me the best way to the airport. They won‟t be
able to follow us past security there, and our flight leaves in a few hours anyway.”
“I thought you said this job would be boring.”
“Just be glad we‟re alive,” Payton answered her. He rolled down his window and
tossed the Desert Eagle out into the sand.
Payton had expected someone to try to get the files back. He spent most of the
flight back to Chicago teaching Chanel how to evade questions under interrogation,
something he‟d had to master during his youth. All the while, he refused to open the files
they had stolen or try the DAT disc on her laptop. Chanel was incensed, of course, but he
wouldn‟t give in. Once they were back on soil, and in somewhat familiar settings, maybe
they would take a look. Until then, the less they knew, the better off they were.
Their flight landed at O‟Hare a little before noon. It was a simple matter of
collecting their bags and hailing a cab before they were on their way to CUFOS
“Turn down Irving Park,” Payton said and then leaned back in the cab to sit next
“Don‟t we get to go home first?” she asked.
“Absolutely not. We need to make our report.”
“And the files?”
“I‟ve been thinking about that. I think we should keep them to ourselves for the
“There‟s no need to endanger the others,” he said. “If they don‟t know anything,
then they can‟t be considered a liability by whomever this tape incriminates.”
Payton saw Chanel staring at him out of the corner of his eye. “You really think
we‟ve got something, don‟t you?”
“Yeah, I do, but not what you think.”
Payton took a deep breath. “UFOs have never been seen or accepted by the
general public. Mankind as a group doesn‟t know whether or not they truly exist. But
corrupted men? Money and power hungry politicians? Evil governments? These are
things we have seen, that we can virtually count on. I don‟t think we‟ll find evidence of
your little green men on these files. But I think we will find information regarding what
people in this country are doing to subjugate national and international law. Men that
might go to great lengths to keep that information from being revealed to the American
“And the bio-med material?” Chanel persisted.
Payton shrugged. “Unexplainable, but there‟s no evidence the material has
anything to do with extra terrestrials. In fact, there‟s no lack of examples for rogue
governments and scientists conducting heinous experiments unbeknownst to the public.”
Payton thought back to some of the background on illegal medical experimentation that
Schuda had once given him. He claimed that the United States government was
complicit in the acts. Payton had had his doubts, but as he told Chanel, the facts were
The most notorious example was the infamous SS officer, Josef Mengele.
Mengele was a Nazi physician with the distinction of inspecting incoming Jewish
prisoners, deciding which of them was suitable for testing, and which of them was
doomed to Auschwitz. Unfortunately for the prisoners Mengele took, Auschwitz was
probably the better of the two.
According to witness interviews, Mengele wasn‟t an anti-Semite, he was simply a
scientist mad with power. He used the Auschwitz prisoners as an opportunity to
experiment with eugenics. Of particular interest were identical twins. Jewish twins were
located, tagged with tattoos, and placed in separate barracks within concentration camps.
Their behavior was studied, with a particular eye towards any psychic reactions and
Mengele wasn‟t the only such example. Federal government experiments in
inoculations of viral diseases had attracted all kinds of attention, particularly from
conspiracy theorists. Then there were corporate inoculation trials that just so happened to
be conducted on unsuspecting Chilean families that thought they were being given
antibiotics for Meningitis.
“Christ, Doc,” Chanel said. “You really think this is about medical experiments?
Payton didn‟t answer. He told the cabby to turn onto Peterson and they pulled
up to the CUFOS building.
“Come on, Doc. That place was too big for medical testing,” she pressed.
Payton helped her out of the car. “All I‟m saying is it might explain the
biomaterial. And the mass spectral thing.”
“Mass spectrometer,” Chanel corrected him.
“Whatever. Just remember what we talked about, keep quiet, and let me do the
talking,” he said. “We don‟t want to unnecessarily put CUFOS at risk.”
After they got past Carla at the front desk, who gave them a curious look and
informed them that Director Mikora was expecting them, they rode the elevator to the
sixth floor and walked through the office towards the Director‟s room. Payton stopped
briefly to duck into Professor Hobbes‟ office along the Forensics hallway.
“What was that about?” Chanel asked when he returned.
He didn‟t answer, instead taking her by the elbow and leading her to the door of
the Director‟s Office. Payton knocked.
“Enter,” came Mikora‟s sharp voice.
“You ready?” Payton asked Chanel quietly. She nodded and he opened the door.
The normally well-lit office was surprisingly dark. The blinds were half drawn,
making for streaks of sunlight that came into the room in harsh rays from the large
window that overlooked the street. There were two men, one behind the desk and
another leaning against the wall to the side. There was an air of danger in the room.
Payton thought of sharks circling bloody waters.
After squinting a bit, Payton identified Director Mikora behind the desk. The
other man, dressed in a dark suit and coat, he had never met. Payton cautiously took one
of the remaining chairs in front of the desk and motioned for Chanel to sit next to him.
“Good morning,” the Director said sharply. He leaned forward on his desk. “You
can file your official reports with Professor Schuda later. For now I think it would be
best if you tell me exactly what happened to you two last night.”
Chanel started to answer, but Payton put a hand on her shoulder to stop her. “I‟m
not sure what you mean, Director.”
Mikora stood up from behind the desk and Payton saw his shadowy form begin to
pace as he shouted, “You know damn well what I mean. We placed thirty-some calls to
each of your hotel rooms last night and never received a response. We sent you text
messages on your cell phones. We sent you emails. We even had the local authorities
check your rooms. They said you checked out.”
“They were right,” Payton answered simply.
“So where were you?” the Director demanded.
“We had a late dinner,” Payton said. He would tell Director Mikora the truth
eventually, but he was uncomfortable saying anything else until the man standing by the
desk identified himself. “After a few cups of coffee we figured we wouldn‟t get any
sleep and decided to get to the airport early. You can check the timestamps on our
boarding passes if you like.”
For the first time, the man in the suite stirred. “Mikora, you said they would be
cooperative. I don‟t want to bring an entire team of agents to Chicago simply to
investigate CUFOS, but I will.”
“They‟ll cooperate, and I‟ll thank you to refrain from threatening me.” Mikora
turned back to Payton and Chanel looking even more furious. “I get calls from the
Assistant Director of the Chicago FBI Office. Now I‟m getting house calls from the
NSA. Whatever you did, I want a goddamn explanation and I want it now!”
Instead of answering him, Payton turned to the other man. “What does the
National Security Agency want with us?”
The agent looked at him a moment. “We want the files you stole. You were
trespassing on government property.”
“And the purpose of that property?”
“I am not required to answer your questions, Mr. Connor,” the NSA agent said in
a frosty tone. “You, on the other hand, are required to answer mine, or you risk being
charged with obstruction of justice in addition to trespassing.”
Payton didn‟t see any way out. They know we were there. They know what we
took. He stole a glance at Chanel, who returned his look with one that expressed similar
thoughts: we’re caught. All he could do was come clean with what they‟d done. At least
with the Director here to listen to a full confession, the government wouldn‟t be able file
obstruction charges. “We arrived on site and conducted our investigation as planned.
There might have been foul play involved in a fire at the site we were sent to investigate,
but we were turned away by the local authorities, so there was little else we could do.
We were approached later by a confidential informant, who implicated a group in the
cover up of the incident, and who also pointed us to the Two Rivers Reservoir facility as
the location of their operation.”
“And the name of your CI?” the agent asked.
“There‟s a reason for the word confidential in their titles, agent,” Payton answered
“What was the shadow group he implicated?” the agent persisted.
“The Ill--" Chanel began.
“Unknown,” Payton cut her off with a look. Don’t give anything away, he
thought at her silently. The less we know the better, didn’t I tell you that? Just sit there
and shut up, and we might get out of this okay. “The CI‟s information could not be
verified, so we sought to confirm his story on our own.”
“What did you find?” Director Mikora asked.
He took a breath. “What looked like a medical or scientific facility was hidden
below a pumping station near the Two Rivers Reservoir. We came across some kind of
control room that contained files implicating the workers at the facility in crimes against
American citizens. We attempted to retrieve some of their files so that they might be
brought to justice.”
“They weren‟t criminals,” the agent sighed. Some of the tightness in his face
seemed to melt away.
“You don‟t say,” answered Payton evenly.
The agent looked at him sharply. “They were government scientists, Connor.
There have been several threats of attack upon the dams that make up the power matrix in
that area made by animal rights groups and eco-terrorists that seem to think we are
contaminating the rivers and harming local wildlife. Those scientists you saw were
working to make sure that the government is doing all it can to protect the animals in the
“And the files?”
“Extensive reports by our security assets on the terrorist groups making the threats
and the fictional beliefs that are the basis for their mistrust of the United States
Payton couldn‟t help but laugh. “The NSA has a dossier on fictional conspiracy
theories below a reservoir pumping station? That’s your explanation?”
“Information is power, Mr. Connor, a concept I imagine your agency is quite
familiar with. We don‟t have a better place to store our counter-intelligence files related
to the threats, so we keep them there.” He held out his hand. “Now give me the files.”
Payton looked at his hand for a moment, then shrugged and leaned over to where
his carryon bag lay next to his chair. He pulled four manila folders from his pack and
held them out to the agent. “All of these are fictional?”
“Entirely,” the agent said. He reached forward.
Payton pulled them away a couple of inches, just out of his reach. “Then you
won‟t mind if I make copies of them.”
The agent studied him for a moment. “You can have duplicates of the files, but
you‟ll have to sign an NDA.” He reached further and snatched the files away. “I‟ll get
you the paperwork in a couple of days.”
“A non-disclosure agreement?”
“Of course, Mr. Connor. We can‟t have the terrorist groups discovering what we
do and do not know about them.” He stopped to leaf through the folders. “Where is the
“The DAT disc, Connor,” the agent said. Payton could tell by the rising volume
of his voice and the color of his face that they had just made the jump from mild
annoyance to true anger. “You also stole a DAT disc.”
Payton made a show of looking at Chanel, who returned his look with barely a
shrug and the slightest shake of her head. Just like we practiced, Payton thought. She‟s a
quick study. He turned back. “Sorry agent. We don‟t know what you‟re talking about.”
The agent started towards Payton. He rose from his chair reflexively, and they
were nearly face to face with each other when the Director‟s voice rang out.
“That‟s enough, Agent DeMarco,” the Director‟s voice came sharply. “They gave
you the files when you asked for them. I‟m sure they‟d do the same with the disc if they
had it. I‟ll make sure your Section Chief has their contact information if you come up
with any further questions. In the meantime, I expect the trespassing charges to be
dropped, as you promised.”
Agent DeMarco‟s eyes never left Payton‟s as he reached into his jacket pocket
and handed over his card. “My phone number. In case you have anything else for me.”
He turned back to the desk. “Goodbye, Director Mikora.”
“Goodbye, Agent DeMarco,” the Director called after him as he walked out of the
The door to the office slammed shut. Payton waited a moment to make sure that
Agent DeMarco would have moved far enough from the office to be unable to eavesdrop
before speaking. “Thanks, boss.”
Mikora frowned at him and pointed to the top of his desk. “Empty your bags on
my desk. Now.”
So much for solidarity, Payton thought. Chanel looked at him. “Do it,” he said.
They emptied the contents of their carryon bags onto the Directors desk.
The Director spent several moments sifting through their flight paperwork,
shaving kits, clothing, and identification before returning his gaze to Payton and Chanel.
“So you don‟t have the disc?” he asked, eyebrows raised.
“Do you really want to know?” Payton asked.
The Director‟s expression softened. “No, I want you to tell me again that you
don‟t have any reason to worry about the FBI or NSA.”
“You don‟t,” Payton said.
“Good,” Director Mikora said with a sigh and a nod. “Now I imagine you two
would like to get cleaned up, so why don‟t you go home and get some rest. After
submitting your report, or course, which I expect to be thorough. Show Investigator
Falasco how to fill out the paperwork.”
It was clearly a dismissal. “On it, boss,” Payton said, and they left the office.
Perhaps Chanel had thought that paperwork at CUFOS would be more interesting
than at her previous job. If so, she was soon disappointed. They sat together at Payton‟s
desk in the bullpen, a bank of cubicles outside the main offices. There they entered their
report into the template he had opened: flight times here, arrivals there, names of
witnesses and expense receipts throughout.
It left little for Chanel to do and he worried that she would start to fidget, but to
her credit she paid attention, asking questions occasionally to clarify something she
hadn‟t understood. In truth, it didn‟t take all that long, less than an hour. After they both
signed their e-signatures to the document, Payton sent it off to Schuda‟s email account
and pushed away from the cubicle, almost knocking over Chanel, who had been peering
over his shoulder.
She lowered her voice. “The DAT disc. Where is it?”
“Patience,” he told her.
“Can we go home?” she asked.
He looked her over. Her pants and jacket were wrinkled and her posture had
become stooped as she leaned on the cubicle walls. Bags were even beginning to appear
under her eyes. She was tired. Hell, we both are. “Almost,” he told her. “Follow me.”
She followed him to Professor Hobbes‟ office.
“I heard you had a visitor for your debriefing,” Professor Hobbes said from
behind his desk. Payton didn‟t bother sitting down.
“And how would you know that,” Payton asked, but he was pretty sure he already
knew the answer. They‟d had to walk past Professor Schuda‟s office to get to the
Director‟s. He would have been able to see everyone that had gone into the meeting.
“Schuda said something, didn‟t he?”
Professor Hobbes waved a dismissive hand. “Mike is an old conspiracy theorist.
He can‟t keep his mouth shut about anything, you know that. Speaking of which, I
suppose you want this back?” He held up the disc.
“Ah,” Chanel said, nodding. “That‟s where it went.”
“I‟m surprised you hadn‟t already guessed, Investigator Falasco.” He turned back
to Payton. “I didn‟t try to load it, as you asked.”
“Good,” Payton said. He reached out to take the disc.
Hobbes jerked his hand back out of reach, not unlike Payton had done to Agent
DeMarco. “Do I at least get to know what this is?”
Payton reached over the desk, took the disc, and slipped it into his jacket pocket.
“When I know, you‟ll know. We‟re going home for the day.”‟
“Just be careful,” Hobbes called after them as they left the office.
They made their way through the office, down the elevator, and past Carla, who
gave them a lazy wave. She probably knew all about the meeting and their visit by Agent
DeMarco. CUFOS had a small parking lot alongside the building. Payton and Chanel
each made their way to their vehicles, which weren‟t parked far from one another.
“This is me,” Chanel said. She patted a Toyota Prius, one of those new hybrid
cars that were supposed to be good for the environment.
“Tree hugger?” Payton asked with a smile.
“Nah,” Chanel answered. “I‟m a dollar hugger. At three-fifty a gallon, getting
better mileage is important. So are we really going home?”
“We‟re really going home,” he confirmed. “What are you doing tonight?”
Chanel smiled. “I don‟t date co-workers, Doc.”
“Neither do I. But I do know someone who might be able to help us out with
this.” Payton patted his inside coat jacket where he had stuffed the DAT disc. “And I
know if I look into it without you, you‟d throw a fit.”
“Damn right I would. What time are you going to pick me up?”
“Around seven. And don‟t eat. My friend will want us to buy him dinner.”
Chanel wrote her address down for him and they parted ways, she in her Prius,
Payton in his jeep. Once he had turned onto Peterson he pulled out his cell phone and
“Chuck? I need your help tonight. How does Italian sound for dinner? Yeah, the
place in Wicker Park. See you there. And Chuck? Just between us, okay?”
Chanel lived on the near south side of the city. Payton knew the way and he took
the highway towards Midway Airport. He pulled the Wrangler up to the front of her
building and honked twice. She appeared in the doorway moments later, dressed casually
in a Western Illinois sweatshirt, jeans, and a pair of white gym shoes. He flashed his hi-
beams twice and soon she was seated next to him as he put the jeep into gear and pulled
back onto the road.
She peppered him about his friend at first, but he refused to discuss their
upcoming meeting. Instead, he questioned her about her time as a Chicago cop. She had
worked the eighth district, the precinct around Midway Airport. In her short time, she
had attained an impressive jacket along with a roster of interesting stories.
They turned off of the highway.
“Do I at least get to know where we‟re going to dinner?” Chanel asked.
“It‟s an Italian restaurant called The Lucky Club in Bucktown.”
“It‟s dark, not too crowded, with great food and Wi-Fi access.”
They pulled off of onto a dark side street. It was another two blocks to the
restaurant. Payton pulled over and had the valet take the jeep.
Lucky Club had been in Bucktown for years. Though the neighborhood had
undergone the pitches and oscillations that mirrored American economy, Lucky Club had
remained the same. The front room was a musky bar, fully stocked with both local brews
and expensive imported spirits. There was a podium just inside the door with a
reservation book. The bar, the stools, and the tables were all made of the same dark
mahogany wood that mixed well with the meager lighting. Tim, the owner, waved hello
from behind the bar and called him over.
“Who‟s your friend?” he asked.
“This is Chanel,” Payton answered. “Chanel, meet Tim. He owns the place.”
Chanel shook his hand. “We‟re going to need a table, tonight.”
“Your friend is already sitting in back,” Tim said with a nod towards the dining
area. “Double martini. You must be buying.”
“Yeah, I must be,” Payton chuckled. He led Chanel to the dining area.
It wasn‟t that the seating hall was large, because it wasn‟t. And it wasn‟t that the
table settings were lavishly presented, though they certainly looked nice enough.
Whatever it was, be it the romantic lighting or the aroma of sauces coming from the
kitchen area, Lucky Club managed to be elegant without being pretentious. All manner
of people ate here, from upper class executives and their wrinkled wives, to young lovers
from the nearby Wicker Park neighborhood, a known haven for artists and musicians.
Each of the fifteen or so tables was set with a candle resulting in the softest of shadows
flickering throughout the entire dining area.
“Wow, Doc,” Chanel breathed from beside him. “This place is amazing.” She
sniffed the air. “What‟s that smell?”
“The city‟s best red sauce. Come on, I see my friend.”
They walked to the far corner of the room where a young bearded man was seated
on one side of a table for four. Chuck Mikuzis always struck Payton as how a mole must
look if it gained a few extra pounds and put on a pair of glasses. Such an appearance
might have been comical, except that the less than impressive exterior housed a genius in
the field of computers and programming.
Chuck was a systems administrator for a large medical company based out of Oak
Brook, a Chicago suburb. He spent all day around computers, programming, networking,
and doing all the other technical chores that went along with the job. Growing up, Payton
had always had a typical image of computer nerds in his head: white oxfords and bad
slacks, along with unkempt hair and pocket protectors. Not too far from what he himself
wore to work every day, in fact. Chuck, on the other hand, was perpetually dressed in a
concert shirt, a hooded sweatshirt, jeans, and a pair of designer Pumas.
They had met a few years back when Payton had first joined CUFOS. One of the
professors, Schuda probably, had forwarded him a list of UFO related websites. He‟d
made the mistake of responding to one of Chuck‟s posts about a UFO sighting over
O‟Hare Airport, and had taken him up on his request to investigate. It had been an
elaborate hoax, cooked up by Chuck and a few friends that wanted to draw attention to
other, supposedly legitimate cases. It was the first case Payton had ever proven false at
the Center, and Chuck had been impressed with Payton‟s ability to prove his report false.
They‟d become friends afterwards, and whenever he needed something researched
quietly, Payton knew where to go.
Chuck finally looked up from his martini and saw Payton standing over him. He
stood up to shake his hand. “Hey, what‟s up, Doc?” he grinned, and then burst out
Payton turned to Chanel. “He thinks that‟s the funniest thing in the world, says it
every time we get together.” He turned back. “Chuck, this is my new partner, Chanel
“Chanel?” Chuck asked, reaching out his hand. “Like the perfume?”
“Exactly,” Chanel said.
They all took their seats around the table, Chuck on one side, Payton and Chanel
on the other. Chuck forced small talk for several minutes, telling Chanel how he and
Payton had met and commenting awkwardly on Payton‟s inability to keep a partner, both
in his personal and professional life. He was beginning to get into some details that
Payton would rather avoid when the waiter mercifully came by and took their orders,
leaving the entire table a round of martinis.
It was only after their food was served nearly twenty minutes later that Chuck
dropped his voice a couple decibels and they got to business. “Okay, what do you have
“You sure you‟re comfortable doing this in front of Chanel?” Payton asked.
Chuck was notoriously paranoid and no one would benefit from a public freak out.
But to his surprise, Chuck merely shrugged. “She‟s with you, isn‟t she? Now
what did you get your hands on?”
Payton reached into his jacket pocket. “A DAT tape from a secure government
facility. Unreadable by my PC at home. It didn‟t even register on my file folder.”
“Yeah, well you don‟t have access to the government decrypts, do you?” Chuck
smiled. He took the disc that Payton had slid across the table. “You want to do this
Payton shrugged. “A public setting is probably the best option.”
“Am I going to be able to go home after this?”
“Well, if you don‟t think you can do it without getting caught...”
“Hey, Doc, you know my ninja skills are the best in the land. I just like to know
what I‟m getting myself into.” Chuck reached below the table and brought back a small,
thin laptop. He opened it, slid a finger over the touch pad, and reached back under the
table. He spent the next minute or so plugging all manner of peripherals into the
computer, explaining as he worked. “This is an outboard data decrypt CD-DAT scanner.
This is the wireless booster, so I‟ll have enough bandwidth to hack into any government
linkups that might help with the decoding. Here‟s the GPS signal encrypt, which will
take care of any GPS snoopware. And this is my baby: a military grade wireless signal
scrambler with top to bottom rerouting capability. With this they won‟t even know what
country we‟re in.” Chuck plugged the last peripheral into his laptop and then looked over
at Chanel. “Turned on, beautiful?”
“Just check the disc out, Chuck,” Payton sighed.
“Yeah, sure.” He opened the tray for the scanner and popped the DAT disc
inside. Then he turned back to the laptop and began typing. “Setting up the peripherals,
making sure they are active and working properly. Now we turn on the wireless
scrambler so we can safely get at the government‟s decrypt codes. Running the DAT
Payton waited a moment. “Chuck?”
“Hold on, it‟s accessing the government databases right now. CIA, FBI, Home-
Sec, INS…” Chuck frowned again. “None of the decrypt codes match. Those are all my
default databases. Any idea where this disk actually came from?”
“Try the National Security Agency,” Chanel said.
“The NSA?” Chuck asked. His brow furrowed and he bit his lower lip. “I don‟t
think I‟ve ever tried to crack their databases.”
“Can you do it?” Payton asked.
“Should be able to. Their public website is a front, as you would expect. They
have a separate site for employees and agents where they house their intranet and where
their cipher database should be. Just give me a minute while I run the search
program…Okay, got it. Now we run the login key generator.” He typed continuously,
his fingers never seeming to break stride. After several moments he sat back, looking
frustrated. “Damn it. Sorry brother, I can‟t get in. My login codes don‟t work on the
NSA database site.”
“So you can‟t help us,” Payton sighed.
Chuck smiled. “Well, I might not be able to login into the DAT tape itself, but I
doubt they encrypted the coding on all of the subsidiary files. Let‟s try to get at the meat
and potatoes of the disc, shall we?”
Chuck‟s fingers flew over the keyboard and touch pad again. Payton and Chanel
each took the opportunity to dig into their dishes and sip their martinis. Chanel had
gotten linguini in red sauce with mushrooms, a dish Payton had ordered on several
occasions and knew to be delicious. He had ordered his favorite dish, the rigatoni with
veal meatballs. He had finished about half of his plate when Chuck cleared his throat
rather loudly. Payton put down his fork to find his friend looking at him suspiciously.
“I get it. This is payback for my trying to trick you all those years ago, right?” he
asked. “Is this some kind of joke, Doc?”
“I was hoping you could tell me.”
Chuck flipped the laptop around so he and Chanel could see the display screen.
“This is the code for a program. I found it copied into a text document and saved as an
accompanying file on the disc. It‟s not the main access file on the DAT tape, but it takes
up a significant portion of its memory space. I would guess that it‟s an attachment file
that the encrypted data refers to.” He was getting worked up.
“So what‟s the problem?” Chanel asked.
“The problem? Look at the damn code!” Chuck hissed.
Payton peered at the display.
<?Xpdt EchNav cointelpro version="3.99"?>
<xpdtns="longitude - latitude">
<name>Maxbit transfer echelon</name>
<direction>input sat info</direction>
<relatedStateVariable>timedata data dump</relatedStateVariable>
<name>NewFileCreate input:paperclip database</name>
<direction>outbound FT.M**** database</direction>
“This might as well be gibberish,” Payton said with a shake of his head. “What the hell
am I looking at?”
“This is one of fifty-two pages of program coding that is attached to the DAT
disc. Most of it is in programming language, but some of it is readable.”
“So it‟s a computer program?”
“Of course not,” Chuck said. He looked at Payton as if that ought to be obvious.
“There‟s no executable file associated with the code. I think it was included on the DAT
disc to be reviewed by anyone who was reading the disc.”
Chanel shifted in her chair, bumping into Payton as she tried to get a better look at
the display. “But what does it do?”
“Just look at the code,” Chuck said again. “Anything jump out at you?”
Payton took a better look at the lines of programming, trying to see what Chuck
was getting at. “What‟s this first line?” he asked, pointing at the screen.
<?Xpdt EchNav cointelpro version="3.99"?>
“Very good,” Chuck nodded. “That‟s the line that tells us where this program comes
“It does?” Chanel asked. “Where?”
“Fort Meade, Maryland,” Chuck answered.
Payton and Chanel glanced at each other, mirrored looks of surprise on their
faces. “How do you know that?” Payton asked.
“COINTELPRO was an FBI/NSA joint surveillance program supposedly used to
hunt communists embedded in America during the Cold War era. The acronym stands
for Counter Intelligence Program. It was started by Hoover who sold it as a program to
monitor groups disruptive to American society. Apparently, to Mr. Hoover, that
distinction included groups like the American Communist Party, the Students for a
Democratic Society collective, and environmentalist groups. The Pentagon Papers even
suggest that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was under COINTELPRO surveillance at one
point or another.”
Payton studied Chuck a moment. “Is this more of your paranoid bullshit, or is
this for real?”
“It‟s a matter of public record,” Chuck said. “And I am not paranoid. The
Citizens Committee to investigate the FBI exposed COINTELPRO in the early seventies,
including paperwork detailing a good deal of their espionage programs. The
investigation forced Congress to shut the program down. Of course, Reagan reauthorized
some of it. Then the Patriot Act took domestic counterintelligence even further.”
“So bottom line, COINTELPRO still exists?” Chanel asked.
“Not under the same name, but probably, yes.”
“How can you be sure?”
Chuck tapped the wireless booster. “You‟re the one who suggested it. Besides,
the NSA isn‟t as public or as well regulated as the FBI. They can get away with shit the
“So why Fort Meade?” Chanel asked.
Payton finally put it together. “Because that‟s where NSA headquarters is.”
“You got it,” Chuck said. “So you have an encrypted DAT disc from a secure
government facility that refers to a semi-legal domestic spy network that hasn‟t set off
any civil liberties alerts for nearly half a century. Just so you understand what we‟re
“Yeah,” Payton said heavily. “We get it.”
“Good. Now, for the most part, the next several lines are simple procedural code.
Version numbers and routing sequences. The kind of stuff you find in all kinds of
commercial software throughout silicon valley. Then we get this.”
“This is a command line, isn‟t it?” Payton asked.
“You know more than you let on,” Chuck said approvingly. “LinkSatInfoRouter
is an opening line command that links satellite assets as a main transfer option, rather
than wireless or landline routing. So when this line on the program runs, it‟s accessing a
data transfer stream to an unspecified satellite, presumably somewhere in orbit. The
argument list directs the program to pass along digital information it has collected to the
linkup. That information is specified in the subject heading, in this case by this
“I‟m assuming that refers to telephone, fax, and email?” Payton asked.
“Sort of. According to digital collection intelligence gathering software, those
three distinctions provide for virtually every type of digital and voice communication
known to man. Every call, email, text message, facsimile message, and pretty much
every communication that can be caught by digital snoop software or physical
surveillance devices is all provided for under the TelFaxEml demarcation.”
“Okay,” Chanel said. “They‟re gathering communication information.”
“You‟re not getting it,” Chuck said. “They‟re gathering information on every
communication in America. And probably most other industrialized nations as well.”
“Come on,” Chanel sighed. “They can‟t possibly be listening to every word
spoken and written in the industrialized world.”
“You think so?” Chuck asked seriously. “Take a look at the rest of the program.”
<name>Maxbit transfer echelon</name>
<direction>input sat info</direction>
<relatedStateVariable>timedata data dump</relatedStateVariable>
<name>NewFileCreate input:paperclip database</name>
Chuck tapped the text on the screen as he explained. “Input sat info is the routing
direction of the data transfer into the stream to the satellite. A timed data dump is a
sequence of transfer that is used to encode the stream, making it undetectable to anyone
on the outside except when it‟s in mid-burst. All of this indicates a very expensive, very
secretive movement of covert data.”
“How do you know this has anything to do with American citizens?” Payton
“This input command right here,” Chuck said. He pointed at the second to last
line. “Operation Paperclip was a top-secret government operation the CIA used to
smuggle some of the most intelligent scientists and geneticists this world has ever seen
Chanel looked hopeful. “Aliens?”
“Worse,” Chuck said with a frown. “Nazis.”
“You must be kidding,” Payton said.
“It‟s absolutely true, also partially declassified,” Chuck insisted. “It isn‟t widely
publicized, but the fact is that throughout World War Two, Nazi technology was farther
advanced than the Allies in nearly every strategically important category. Jet propulsion
systems, V-2 Rockets. Hell, even particle beam technology was developed by the Third
Reich. Once it became obvious that we would win the war, the allied forces, specifically
America and Russia, began making plans to split up the Nazi scientists and bring them to
their respective new homes. Those two split groups of Nazis were responsible for the
moon race of the sixties. There are also some who say that those same geneticists began
the work on the human genome project. In order to build up their databases, they began
collecting the genetic information of all military personnel, starting in the early fifties.
Then, they were allowed to collect genetic samples from every medically treated civilian
in the country.”
“How the hell did they manage that?” Chanel laughed incredulously.
“Through government mandated inoculations, which just so happened to be
implemented in the sixties.”
Her face fell. “Oh.”
“So they create this genetic database of everyone in the country. They keep the
genetic samples attached to the communication data they collect, hence Operation
Paperclip. And they get their genetic samples from DNA taken out during inoculations.
But what if they aren‟t just taking things out?” Chuck asked. “What if they decided to
start putting things in?”
“What type of things?” Chanel asked. Payton noticed she was no longer laughing
and her mouth remained slightly ajar.
“Biometric chips, perhaps,” Chuck said. “Injected in the right spot, they could
give output readings of heart rate, autoimmune cellular production, even brain wave
activity. If they were equipped with the right nano-technology, these chips could
introduce foreign toxins or disease into an organism. They could give a person AIDS, for
instance. Or the plague. Or—“
“Unlikely,” Payton interjected. “Unlikely that they would be able to inject
anything that wouldn‟t show up on full body scans or x-rays. On the off chance that they
could manage it, the most likely use for such an implant would be tracking.”
“GPS,” Chanel said.
“That would be my guess, too,” Chuck said, sounding slightly disappointed.
“Global Position Satellite implants have already been proposed for American immigrants.
The technology is obviously available. Besides, that would make sense for use in
conjunction with the COINTELPRO program. If the satellite collecting the
communication data bursts has a GPS reader onboard, or if it is in close communication
with a synched up GPS satellite, then they can immediately confirm to whom they are
“They,” Payton repeated.
“The NSA,” Chuck said. He saw the look on Payton‟s face. “Uh, right?”
Payton didn‟t want to answer him. Either the old man was wrong and he would
simply sound ridiculous, or he was right and the Illuminati were real, as would be the
danger to Chuck if Payton passed that information to him. Instead, he pointed back to the
screen. “What is maxbit transfer echelon?”
Chuck eyed him a moment longer, then turned to the screen. “Well in Sat-Com
language, a max-bit transfer releases the communication sequence from bandwidth
restrictions. As for the Echelon heading…” he trailed off for a moment. “It‟s a Greek
demarcation, of course. Probably it refers to a file somewhere in the Paperclip database.
Or, maybe, Echelon…E…maybe it stands for Earth. You know, for the global spy
“Maybe,” Payton murmured. “Can you make a backup of the DAT tape?”
“Write protected. First thing I checked.”
“Can you copy an image of the disc?” Payton asked.
“That anyone can do,” Chuck nodded. “It won‟t be certain that all the file data
will transfer correctly, but I can burn an image onto my hard drive.”
“Do it,” Payton said. He motioned to their waitress with his credit card for the
check. “Then I think we should all go our separate ways and get the hell out of here.”
Payton paid, they walked out of the back room and through the bar, and out the
front door. They left, all in different directions, Chuck and Payton in their cars, Chanel in
a taxi after Payton handed her money along with an apology for not getting her home
Payton had the impression that he was being followed, but there was too much
traffic to be certain. He considered taking an evasive route as he drove home, but
decided he was being silly. Instead he directed the jeep directly to his apartment, went
inside, and went to bed.
But not without wishing he still had the old man‟s gun.
Payton went into work late the next day. He skipped the coffee shop, something
he almost never did, and headed directly to CUFOS headquarters. Carla stopped him as
he made for the elevator.
“Hey,” she said. “They‟re waiting for you again. Hobbes‟ office this time.”
Payton stopped, one foot halfway toward the elevator. He turned his head
sideways to look at Carla. “Any idea what they want?”
“Lots of ideas.” She didn‟t elaborate.
A chill caused him to shiver.
He pushed the up button and got on the elevator. It was a quick ride to the fifth
floor, yet it seemed to take forever. What could they want? What did they know? Had
someone truly been following him last night? And what about Chanel? Or Chuck?
The elevator doors parted, revealing the bullpen office, usually familiar and
inviting. Payton thought, for the first time, I am afraid to go through those doors. Is
Chanel waiting for me on the other side? Or has she been gobbled up in the web of
trouble I managed to lay for her?
Payton navigated the halls and cubicles and opened the door to Professor Hobbes‟
office. He was behind his desk, with Schuda seated to the right and Chanel to the left.
He paused a moment, then decided that since he didn‟t know what this was all about, it
would be best if he acted as naturally as possible. He yanked a chair from beside the
nearest wall, slid it next to Chanel, and then plopped into it without bothering to remove
his jacket. The others were looking at him, clearly expecting him to speak, but Payton
remained silent, observing their reactions.
Schuda spoke up. “Hey, Doc. We have-“
“Where were you last night?” Hobbes cut in.
“Last night?” Payton asked as innocently as he could manage. “I had dinner with
my partner, then I went home. Why do you care?”
“I care because neither you nor your partner seems to want to give me a straight
answer to a simple question.”
Payton looked sideways at Chanel. She was staring straight ahead, looking like
some sort of seated gargoyle. Impressive, he thought. Payton turned back to the
professor. “What‟s the problem.”
Hobbes rose halfway out of his chair. “I have NSA agents calling my office
warning me that one of my investigators has gone off the reservation and is consorting
with known criminals.”
Shit. “Criminals?” Payton asked. “I had dinner with my new partner and a
Hobbes rummaged about the papers and files on his desk. He came up with a
stapled stack and tossed them across his desk in Payton‟s direction. “Here is an NSA and
FBI joint dossier on one Charles Stanford Mikuzis. It contains a report chronicling
several computer crimes, including recent purchases he made of illegal hacking
equipment, in particular peripheral physical hardware used to get into federal intranet
sites. So I wonder, why were our best field agent and his new partner meeting with him
last night? And what does it have to do with that disc you had me hiding yesterday?”
Payton forced a laugh. “Dan, I can assure you that Chuck Mikuzis is a lot of
things, and not all of them good. But a renowned criminal he is not.”
“The NSA seems to think different.”
“Then the NSA wouldn‟t know their own ass from a hole in the ground. Chuck is
Professor Hobbes looked as though he wanted to argue the point further, but the
tension finally eased off of his face. “You‟re sure your friend isn‟t endangering the
“I‟m sure,” Payton nodded. He wondered how truthful he was being.
“You had better not be playing chicken with our work.”
“I already told you they‟re wrong. Besides which, what business it is of yours
with whom I eat meals?”
Professor Hobbes‟ face flushed red. “I‟ll thank you to take a more respectful tone
with your superiors, Investigator Connor.”
“Of course, Professor,” Payton said. “Just so long as you stay out of my dinner
Payton could tell he was still angry, but some of the color began to drain from his
face. “In that case, I will set aside this dossier and inform Agent DeMarco of your
remarks on Mr. Mikuzis. In the meantime, I believe Professor Schuda has another IFI for
you and your partner.”
Schuda passed them manila folders. “You‟re both going to Boston. An MIT
professor there has managed to uncover what he thinks is an original composition by
“And he would be…” Chanel began.
“A Freemason that lived in New York during the early nineteenth century. There
was something of a controversy surrounding him, not long after he let it be known that he
was writing a book that would reveal the inner workings and secrets of American
Freemasonry. The print shop that had agreed to publish his work was razed, and Morgan
was arrested soon after, supposedly for failing to pay two dollars owed to a debtor.
Someone showed up to pay his bail that night and witnesses saw him being shoved into a
carriage by a group of known Freemasons. He was never heard from again.”
“And the composition this MIT guy has, he thinks it‟s this book?” she asked.
Schuda nodded. “Part of it, anyway.”
Payton thought of the events of the previous night. He couldn‟t leave now.
Chuck might come up with something on the DAT tape, not to mention that NSA agent
had obviously put his friend under surveillance. No, this was the worst of timing, never
mind that he was still feeling the effects of the trip to New Mexico. He handed the file
back to Schuda and stood up. “Send someone else. Parker or Nadler can handle this.”
Everyone stared at him, but it was Chanel that spoke first. “What‟s your
“We just got back from one IFI. We shouldn‟t be scheduled for another for at
least a couple of weeks. That‟s standard operating procedure.” Payton turned to Schuda.
Schuda looked at him a moment. “It‟s true SOP regulations require a two week
waiting period, but we‟re going to have to overlook the rules in this case.”
“Why?” Payton asked.
“The MIT professor requested you be sent. Personally.”
Warning bells sounded inside Payton‟s head. Why would this professor ask for
him? How did this guy even know his name? He asked Schuda.
“Apparently he‟s done work on Senate committee hearings. Says that‟s where he
got your name.”
That was certainly a possibility. Every once in a while, some Senator or House
Committee member got a bug up his or her rear about UFOs or whatever. They would
make a big show of looking into a particular event or conspiracy, they would hold some
half-baked hearings, Payton would travel to Washington as an expert witness for the
Center, and then the whole thing would just go away. They were media events, not
hearings, but they had garnered enough attention from certain academics that he
occasionally got calls afterwards.
Payton looked at Chanel. Her brow was furrowed, her eyes cast downward in
consternation. This doesn’t feel right to her either, Payton thought. Maybe I’ve
underestimated her. She has good instincts. Nearly as good as mine. I should refuse to
go. I could feign sickness. I could say I have a family emergency. There are plenty of
ways to get out of this. To insist they send someone else.
But before he could form the words, Chanel stirred from her chair. “Plane
“In the folders,” Schuda nodded.
“When do we leave?”
“Six o‟clock tonight. You board at the United terminal at Midway Airport.”
She let out a deep breath. For a fleeting moment, Payton thought there might be a
chance of her making his refusal in his stead. But only for that moment. “Okay,” she
said at last. “We‟ll need the rest of the afternoon to get familiar with the file.”
Schuda smiled at Payton. “She sounds like you.”
You have no idea how wrong you are, Payton thought.
They were done and, what with Hobbes being less then amicable at the moment,
they beat a hasty retreat back to their desks. Once they were seated, Payton attempted to
inquire what exactly Chanel had been thinking overstepping her bounds and accepting the
mission for the both of them. But every time he broached the subject, she shot him looks
of warning. Instead, it seemed to him she was putting on an act in pouring through the
intelligence files Schuda had given them.
They were relatively sparse. There was a detailed history of colonial and early American
Freemasonry. Then a layout of Boston, with their hotel and the MIT cafeteria were
Since Chanel seemed to not want to speak about why she had agreed to the trip,
he tried to speak bring up the IFI itself. But every time he mentioned the MIT professor,
the only logical place to begin, she threw him funny look after funny look. Finally, he‟d
“You want to tell me what the problem is?” he asked her.
“No problem. You have to go home and pack before we leave?”
Payton stared at her. “Of course.”
“Me too. I think we should grab something to eat before we hit the airport. Don‟t
What the hell was this? She was talking as though reading from a script. Well,
perhaps not quite so mechanical, but there was clearly something going on. Something
she was keeping from him. “Sure,” he said slowly. “I missed my morning coffee.
There‟s a Starbucks outside the domestic terminal. They have decent food.”
“Great. I‟ll meet you there. Say four-thirty?”
“Four-thirty,” he nodded, and she walked out of the office.
He was supposed to have Jennifer again that night, so he called his sister to tell
her that he would be out of town for the next couple of days. She told him that he was in
luck. She had found a sitter for her at the last minute, someone from her neighborhood
that she had struck up a conversation with at the grocery store, or something like that.
Payton wasn‟t really listening all that much, the phone on his shoulder as he began to fill
out his paperwork for the IFI. His sister had the tendency to ramble. All he needed to
know was that there was someone to watch Jennifer. At some point his sister had taken a
breath and he managed to squeeze in a goodbye and hung up the phone.
It took another half an hour or so to finish up some leftover paperwork from the
trip to Roswell, expense reports and time logs mostly. There were emails he answered
only half consciously. The rest of his thoughts were spent replaying the last hour of
Chanel‟s behavior over and over again in his mind. What was she doing? Motivation
was what directed people, however contrary their actions might appear. And Chanel was
obviously avoiding the IFI topic all together. That didn‟t make any sense at all. She
clearly wanted to go to Boston. She had accepted the mission for both of them after all.
So what was she hiding?
It was so unlike her, which bothered him. She had hardly been reserved in the
time they‟d spent together. In fact, if asked he would have probably said that she was too
forthcoming, even embarrassingly honest at times.
He resolved to ask her when they met at the coffee shop. He finished his
paperwork and went home to pack.
They had been in the air for nearly five hours and Payton‟s rear end was
beginning to ache. He had spent most of the flight to Boston trying to find out what
Chanel was hiding. She still wouldn‟t let him in on the secret, the joke, whatever it was.
It had been frustrating and annoying when she had played this game at CUFOS
headquarters. Since then, it had graduated to being flat out infuriating. The reason for
the escalation was her attitude. In Chicago, Chanel had been content to avoid the subject.
In the coffee shop, on the airplane, she positively delighted that he had no idea what was
It had begun slowly. “You mean you haven‟t figured it out?” she had asked him.
He tried to explain to her that she was obligated to tell him anything important,
especially given the recent events they had experienced. So wouldn‟t she just tell him
what was going on?
“Hell no, I won‟t tell you,” She had responded. “Finally, I‟ve got the scoop on
you. I‟ve figured it out when you haven‟t.”
He asked her what it was he hadn‟t figured out. What did she know that he did
not? What had he missed?”
“I can‟t tell you. Not yet. Because I‟m not sure, and I don‟t want to have to
admit that I was wrong. But if I‟m right, we should know it soon after we land.”
“You‟ll see,” she had said, then seemed to reconsider. “Or if I‟m wrong, you
never will.” Then she had laughed.
So now they were landing and Payton‟s anticipation was beginning to mount.
There was something going on here, of that much he was certain. The adolescent that
still dwelt within him hoped she was wrong. But then he would never find out what she
had suspected, so a larger part hoped she was proven correct. Just so long as he didn‟t
have to listen to her gloat about it.
The pilot had announced the Boston temperature and what not. It was the sort of
thing the airlines did to make passengers feel more like family, especially after well-
publicized incidents like the crash earlier in the week. Thank you for flying our airline.
Please enjoy your time in Boston. Please ignore this sardine can of a flying machine in
which you have been crammed. They exited the plane and went down the ramp into the
Boston has so much history, he thought as he gazed at the city through the
windows. Modernized though the airport was, the surrounding sights and people took on
an almost colonial air. The east coast was different from the Midwest. Older, with more
pride and dignity and tradition. They exited onto the promenade and hailed a cab.
The ride to their motel was relatively silent. Chanel peered out the window
constantly, her neck in crooked positions that made Payton uncomfortable just looking at
her. Boston was such a scenic city, it was no wonder Chanel could hardly keep her eyes
off of it. “Beautiful, isn‟t it.”
She turned to look at him quizzically.
“The city, I mean,” Payton continued.
“Oh,” Chanel smiled. “Yeah, I guess it is.”
He watched as she turned to look out the window again, occasionally shifting to
glance behind them.
Their motel, another sleazy chain that caused him to think of traveling salesmen,
was on the outskirts of the city. The taxi pulled into the parking lot and helped them haul
their bags out of the trunk. Payton paid the driver who thanked him in that Boston drawl
that made him think he had landed in some kind of bizarre Wonderland that Alice had
long since abandoned. They checked in at the front desk and soon found themselves at
the doors to their respective rooms, which were situated next to each other.
Payton suggested they unpack quickly and get together in his room to go over
their itinerary for the following morning.
“Yeah, that sounds good,” she answered him. “Your room is probably best.”
Payton stared after her as she turned the key and disappeared into her room. What
the hell? Your room is probably best? What did that mean? What was so special about
his room? He turned his own key and walked through the doorway, taking a moment to
look around critically. Was there something special in here? He ran his eyes over the
meager dresser, the coffee machine, the aging television complete with videogame
console chained to the entertainment center, the bed adorned with sickly brown sheets
The bed? No, he thought. She couldn‟t be thinking about his bed, could she?
Sex? No, no way. She was attractive, of course, but they had a professional relationship,
besides their having just met one another. In the past all of the partners he‟d been forced
to work with had been men, and never before had he ever heard of a CUFOS partnership
blossoming into anything more personal than mild friendship. Payton‟s partnerships
hadn‟t even made it that far, what few he‟d had in his tenure at the Center.
The truth was he never really felt comfortable around most people. In today‟s
busy times, there were two types of people in a person‟s life: the people you work with
and the people you don‟t. It was what made it so difficult for Payton to meet anyone,
especially women. Those he worked with were often gawky and completely immersed in
the job. Not unlike me, Payton thought. It was the job they loved, cliché as it might
sound. This profession he and his contemporaries had chosen drew a certain type of
person, and that person was often more adept at uncovering ionized sand particles or
microscopic injection sites than the mysteries of friendship and romance. It meant that
when he was around the people with whom he worked, which was most of the time, the
conversation turned to shop talk. Because for them there was simply nothing else to
The opposite was true with women outside of work. His friends were few and
most of them were just as odd as his co-workers. Those that weren‟t completely helpless
in the realm of social interaction constantly pestered him to join them at the trendy bars
and clubs that peppered downtown Chicago. As if he was going to meet a woman there.
He could just picture it. What do you do for a living? I investigate suspected UFO
sightings to determine their validity or the possible deceptions of the supposed victims.
Oh, that must be interesting, right? Actually, no. What little interest you might have in
the unusual nature of my work is about to be obliterated when I tell you that the majority
of my time is spent behind a desk, filling out expense reports, studying topography and
satellite data. Oh, well at least it must pay well. You‟d be surprised how little it pays,
actually. I‟m in my early thirties and I still rent a two-bedroom apartment because I can‟t
afford a house or a condo, not in this market anyway. But hey, why don‟t I buy you a
drink as a manifestation of my interest in partaking in coitus with you later this evening?
It was enough to make Payton chuckle as he imagined it. No, people inside the
business were decidedly unattractive and the people outside the business weren‟t
attracted to him. And that left nobody.
Except the beautiful woman in the next room, who had impressed him with her
intelligence and guile, who was fun and conversational, and who for some reason had
found it quite agreeable to meet him in his hotel room, where there was little else save a
few pieces of furniture, a television, and a big, comfy bed.
This is stupid, he thought. I’m imagining this because I’m lonely. I’m imagining
it because of everything she and I went through out west. She is not having romantic
thoughts about the two of us.
But what if she was? Payton found himself stowing the few clothes he‟d brought
in the dresser, more neatly than he had ever done in a motel room before. He put a pot of
coffee on, though he knew how awful the grounds at these places usually were. He sat on
the bed and leafed through a pamphlet he‟d found next to the King James Bible
describing the local food spots, and he ordered a pizza large enough for two.
He seemed to watch himself do all this from afar, conscious of what he was doing
and why he was doing it, yet feeling a disembodied sheepishness the entire time.
Payton flopped back onto the bed. It was time to clear his mind, remove this
parasitic notion from his thoughts. He flipped on the television and worked the remote to
one of those twenty-four hour sports stations. In what seemed like an impossible
coincidence, the Cubs were in town playing the Red Sox at Fenway Park, only a few
miles down the coast. The Cubs were losing, of course, as was their perpetual destiny.
When the knock came at the door, Payton shouted that it was open. Chanel came
in and glanced at the television. “Baseball?”
Payton kept his eyes on the glowing game and tried to ignore the slight pickup in
his heartbeat. “Baseball is the key to understanding life.”
“Oh really?” she smirked.
“Everything in the game mirrors life. Batting averages, where you put your
whole life into every swing and you‟re an all-star if you‟re successful a third of the time.
Pitching, where you compete with your adversary, setting him up with one pitch and
cutting him down with the curveball. Power by itself is useless without speed and
coordination. The symmetry, the strategy, the dance. Individuals of such skill and depth,
and yet they are useless unless they manage to work seamlessly with one another. It‟s
poetry on dirt and grass.”
Chanel nodded. “With beer and hotdogs.”
“The other keys to life.”
“I was working security when the White Sox won the World Series.”
“Ugh, the Sox?”
“Oh, shut up,” she said with a laugh. “I‟m starving. We should get a pizza.”
“Already on its way.”
Chanel leaned over and put a hand on his shoulder. “Doc Connor, you think of
Payton felt his shoulder tingle where she had touched him, but she walked over to
sit in the room‟s only chair. The next few minutes passed in silence as they both watched
the game until the end of the inning.
“You see,” Chanel said. “It‟s their coaching that‟s the problem. Ozzie would
have made the double switch.”
Payton looked at her. “Wow, you actually sound like you know your stuff.”
“My Dad had season tickets.”
A knock came from the door.
“Pizza,” Payton said.
Chanel stared at the door a moment. “Maybe. Answer it.”
Maybe? He pushed himself up from the bed and walked to the door to peer
through the peephole. The pizza guy was waiting outside. Payton couldn‟t really see
much of him as his back turned. But peeking around the edges he could just make out the
corners of a cardboard pizza box. He turned to find Chanel watching him. “Pizza guy,”
“Mm hmm,” Chanel said with a smile.
Payton turned and opened the door. The pizza guy still had his back turned.
“What do I owe you?” Payton asked as he dug for his wallet.
The pizza guy turned. “More than you could possibly find in your back pocket.”
It was the old man from Roswell. He brushed past Payton while at the same time
handing him the pizza box. He tipped his hat to Chanel and took a seat at the edge of the
Payton stood still a moment, simply staring at the threshold of the doorway where
the old man had stridden into the room. What the hell was going on? He finally turned
to deposit the pizza box, which he noticed was hot in his hands. Chanel was smirking at
She practically jumped out of her chair. “I knew it! I knew it, and you didn‟t! I
beat the great Doc Connor.”
“So you knew he was going to contact us while we were on our assignment. Big
The old man, who had been watching them with a bemused look on his face,
broke out into a chuckle and turned to Falasco. “And I thought he was supposed to be the
smart one.” He laughed again, and Chanel laughed along with him.
Payton waited until the laughter died down. “Mind letting me in on the joke?”
It was the old man who answered. “I didn‟t just happen to catch up with you in
Boston. I called the report in. Again.”
Payton grimaced. “And I take you‟re not actually an MIT professor.”
“Good lord, I should think not. Never been much for the Ivy League.” The old
man cocked his head. “Unlike so many of my colleagues.”
Payton sighed and leaned against the entertainment center, the television set still
glowing. “Let me guess. All of your compatriots are Skull and Bones at Harvard and
“Don‟t forget Stanford and Brown,” the old man smiled.
Payton gestured around the motel room. “Tell us why we‟re here.”
“I heard you made it to our facility at the reservoir,” the old man said. His face
had turned serious. “How did you make out?”
Payton paused before answering, taking a breath and throwing Chanel a look.
“We turned up empty,” he said, throwing as much indignation into his voice as he could
manage. “Your Pandora‟s box was a bust.”
“Really,” asked the old man, with raised brow. “Then how did Mr. Mikuzis get
his hands on a certain program file and then try to access the NSA decryption database?
You didn‟t really think that would go undetected, did you? You sent off national security
warnings across half a dozen agencies. Guess who they report to.”
“The Illuminati,” Chanel sighed. She walked over to lean against the television
shelf next to him.
“The Illuminati,” the old man nodded. He looked at them both. “I knew you two
would get out of there with something good. I didn‟t realize you‟d make off with the
jackpot, for Christ sake. That DAT tape is the most telling piece of evidence you could
have found. Unless I‟m mistaken, my friend had a copy when they shot his plane down.
And unless my sources are wrong, what‟s on that tape has something to do with this
timeline I keep hearing about.”
Payton kicked the entertainment center with his heal to silence the old man.
“Because of you the NSA is after us.”
The old man nodded. “And one of your friends, too, as I understand it. Tell me,
what did your friend Mr. Mikuzis get off of the tape?”
“You mean you don‟t know?” Payton asked.
The old man chuckled. “Mr. Mikuzis really is paranoid. So much so, in fact, that
he was wearing a radio wave scrambler when he met with you. It was enough to keep the
local operatives from listening in on your conversation at the restaurant.”
Payton decided to let the irony of someone listening in on “paranoid” Chuck go
without comment. Instead he recounted what had passed during their time at Lucky
Club. Chanel piped up now and again to clarify details Payton had forgotten. Everything
from the equipment his friend had used, to the coded sequence they had examined, to
Chuck‟s theories on its implications. The old man listened patiently. When they had
finished, he smiled approvingly.
“Your friend is very smart. If my group knew how much he suspected, he‟d
probably be in serious trouble. As it is, they‟re convinced he‟s just a kook with a
penchant towards illegal electronics. Besides, most of them are too busy working on this
deadline thing, from what I hear. Otherwise, like I said, serious trouble.”
“So Chuck was right?” Chanel asked. Payton noticed that she had somehow
edged even closer to him along the entertainment center. She was almost shoulder to
shoulder with him now. “All that Paperclip and COINTELPRO stuff is true?”
“Well, he‟s got a lot of the details wrong,” the old man said. “But yeah, he was
“So that‟s what you wanted us to uncover?” Payton asked. “Chuck said most of
that stuff is declassified now. They might have started those programs up again under the
guise of the Patriot Act, but there are civil liberty advocates hollering about that stuff
already. Seems like an awful waste of time to me.”
The old man paused a moment before smiling. “Echelon,” he said.
“The Greek demarcation?” Payton asked. “Chuck said it was probably the name
for a file cache in Operation Paperclip.”
“Oh, but he was wrong about that one,” the old man said quietly. “Echelon is
something else entirely. Something far more frightening. It‟s the reason I called in the
MIT report, the reason I got you here.”
“Yeah,” Payton began. “From now on, it‟d be nice if we had a couple weeks off
from your craziness between your calls.”
“For what it‟s worth, if I didn‟t think this deadline thing was so important, I
wouldn‟t have called in another report so quickly.”
“And what the hell are we supposed to tell the office,” Payton asked. “They‟re
expecting a report and Freemason documents.”
The old man got up from the bed and slipped a hand into his overcoat. He
withdrew a leather pamphlet and tossed it at Payton. “William Morgan‟s original draft.”
Payton had caught the pamphlet and stared at it in his hands. “You‟re kidding.”
“Lying, actually,” said the old man. “It‟s a fake. Something a rudimentary
examination by your researchers ought to uncover, but you two have your bases covered.
Can we get back to business?”
Payton looked at Chanel a moment, then back at the old man. “All right, tell us.”
And he did tell them, though most of it was so unbelievable that throughout the
explanation Payton had to make an effort not to roll his eyes.
According to the old man, Echelon originally started as a program of another
name, the High Frequency Auroral Research Program, or HARP. It began as a program
to convert the aurora borealis, the northern lights, into a usable electrical field to transmit
communications to bases and stations throughout the globe. It was thought that if you
could make a magnetic antenna powerful enough, the limitless bandwidth of the northern
lights would allow instantaneous transmission, regardless of distance or data size. It was
the basis for the creation of the extremely low frequency antennae, or ELFs,
manufactured years later by the United States Navy, supposedly as a means to
communicate with deep sea submarines and research centers. Other research suggested
that ELFs could be used to disrupt brain activity. Some conspiracy theorists even
contended that the antennae were the first step to inducing mind control over the
American people. What was not in dispute was the massive amount of technology
needed to power the program. The computing power simply didn‟t exist in the sixties.
But modern times brought modern innovations, particularly in fiber optics. The new
communication cables made the attempt to use the aurora borealis moot, offering both
limitless bandwidth and speed. When coupled with the most powerful super-computers
of the modern era, the goal of HARP had been realized, although through different
But soon people in the highest of circles thought of other ways to use the
equipment, other directions to take the technology. Echelon was still shrouded in
secrecy, even from much of the subterfuge groups that were involved, according to the
old man. But if you knew what to look for, some startling revelations could be made.
Any type of information routing would require a massive array of fiber optics and
computing power. Technology of that sort would be certain to give off equally massive
infrared and heat-signature readings. According to satellite imagery, there were several
such signatures throughout the United States, and even a few overseas. Silicon Valley
was one of those locations, albeit a relatively small one. There was the headquarters of
the European Union, the headquarters of the United Nations, and the NATO building.
They all had large heat signatures and fiber optic webs.
Then there was Fort Meade and the Rothschild Energy Tower, both in Maryland
and within fifty miles of one another. Together, their heat signatures outshone every
other site on the planet. The old man passed Payton and Chanel satellite data indicating a
massive consumption of power and the most centralized web of fiber optics on Earth.
They came about under President Ronald Reagan, who also added information systems
security, operations security training, and support combat operations to the NSA mandate
after stripping the Department of Defense of their responsibilities. Critics of the
administration cried foul, admittedly fearful of an authoritarian DOD but just plain
terrified of the NSA, a secretive organization with almost no oversight. To comply with
their new orders, the NSA had amassed the most extensive array of intelligence-gathering
equipment in the world.
The question was how did they pay for it? In the mid-eighties, the Reagan
economy was floundering under the shadow of high oil prices. His tax cuts would
eventually bring America back from recession, but at the time of Reagan‟s redistribution
of intelligence objectives, times were tough. It was only natural for American oil and
energy companies to come to the government‟s aid. They had the most to lose from
spiraling conflict in the Middle East and they still had an enormous amount of capital,
despite the economic turmoil. So when the government needed to pay for all of this new
surveillance equipment and new technology, they turned to the energy groups for
borrowing power. Groups steeped in the history and lineage of the Illuminati cabal.
The Echelon project continued to new depths and structure beyond the objectives
laid out by Reagan. Emboldened by the election of President George Herbert Walker
Bush, a product of the intelligence community, the NSA continued to expand their base
and their operations. In the nineties they became the world‟s largest employer of
mathematicians, cryptographers, linguists, and programmers. Beyond that, they added to
their technology stock through continued grants and gifts from energy groups. This
culminated in the need to rewrite consumption legislation in Maryland to accommodate
the needs of the NSA. They had been sucking up so much power, under a significant
discount from corporations like Rothschild energy, that they had violated Federal law.
The United States government had an explanation for Project Echelon. The NSA
had made significant progress using Echelon technology to intercept and break encrypted
signals that eventually brought down the USSR. Once the shadow of the Cold War was
gone, radical extremists took center stage, bred both at home and abroad. There was an
NSA presence in every major terrorist investigation that had taken place since, from the
Oklahoma City bombing to the attacks on the USS Cole. Some even theorized that the
United States government had been involved in the terrorist attack that killed over three
thousand citizens and brought down the World Trade Center. Others pointed to
indications that Israel knew it was going to happen and made sure their key people were
out of New York and Washington as early as August. Most of these notions were
baseless and steeped in aged prejudice, but certainly the government hadn‟t missed the
opportunity posed by international terrorism to tighten its grip on civil liberties and
expand its centralized intelligence network.
The old man had finally paused to take a breath. Payton seized upon the
opportunity to interject a question. “So Project Echelon is an intelligence network. We
had already come to that conclusion ourselves. What's the point here?”
The old man gave a nod of head towards Chanel. “Ask your partner. I looked her
up. She was a Chicago cop. Ask her how her network of CI‟s was constructed.”
Chanel frowned. “We had informants in all the major gang neighborhoods,
spread out through the districts. They reported to multiple individual detectives.” Her
forehead creased further. “I don‟t know what you‟re getting at.”
“You said it yourself,” said the old man. “Your informant network was spread
throughout the city, and the resulting information was reported to an equally expansive
“Yes, it was.”
“Was it effective?” the old man continued.
“So why is the Echelon network centralized? Why does all the recon and
surveillance information that the network gathers go through one central location? Why
does it all go to Fort Meade? And why does that information then transmit through a
fiber optic link to Gaithersburg, Maryland, where Rothschild Energy Corporation has its
Payton looked over at Chanel and saw her returning a blank stare.
The old man sighed. “Think of the spy network as the human body. The network
intercepts signals the same way our skin and nerves register stimuli. The network then
routes the information to Fort Meade and Gaithersburg, just like the nervous system does
to the human brain.”
“Because that‟s where decision making occurs,” Payton said with a shrug. “Of
course the data has to go to the NSA, because they‟re the ones who decide what to do
“True, but you two are forgetting a couple of very important points. First, the
sheer amount of data collected by the network makes automation a necessity. It would
take years for a team of hundreds to pour through the data collected on any given day.
You‟re talking about a sophisticated computer network, designed to collect and organize
communications data presented in a variety of formats. That would also account for the
enormous consumption of power at both locations in Maryland. A series of
supercomputers with linked processors would probably do the trick, although you‟re
talking about several hundred of these machines in a single location. Peripherals and
accessories would be minimized, of course, but it would still require an enormous amount
of real estate.”
“Like a military base?” Chanel asked.
“Or below a billion dollar company‟s headquarters,” Payton suggested.
The old man nodded. “Second, groups like the NSA and the Illuminati do not like
to share information, meaning that this computer system wouldn‟t report to many people,
nor would there be very many individuals working in conjunction with it. This furthers
the need for automation.”
“Why?” Chanel asked.
“The fewer people involved in the program, the less risk you incur of a leak or an
informant. This means the computer network has to be incredibly sophisticated,
intelligent enough not only to read the data it receives, but also to determine what that
data represents and when higher authorities should be consulted.”
“You‟re talking about artificial intelligence,” Payton said.
“The most sophisticated artificial intelligence on the planet. To be effective, you
would think it‟d be routed directly to government weapons systems and intelligence
“Makes sense,” Payton agreed. “Where does Rothschild energy come into the
“As I said, they paid for it all. If there is one unifying factor in the entire
industrialized world, it is our consumption of energy. No one sector of our society has
more capital, and few have more influence. So after the spy network reports to the NSA
at Fort Meade, the network then reports to Rothschild energy.”
“But why?” Chanel asked. “What does an energy company want with
information gathered by the spy network? It doesn‟t make sense.”
Payton sighed. “It does if they are the real decision makers.”
The old man smiled. “My group has a vested interest in the success of the
American administration. African diamond colonies, government coups in the Middle
East, cheap labor afforded by Southeast Asia; none of it is possible without American
involvement. And if you go beyond that, taking into account missions like Operation
Paperclip and the Human Genome project, the stakes get even higher. Those operations
give the Illuminati the scientific advantage to produce new and more effective weaponry,
not to mention an informational leg up on potential adversarial groups and political
misfits. My employers would do anything, and I mean anything, to preserve the
American advantage over the rest of the world.”
“Okay,” Payton said. “So what do you want us to do?”
“I know why there is such an enormous heat signature coming from the NSA
headquarters within Fort Meade, since that's the overwhelmingly logical place for the
supercomputers. The question is what‟s causing a similar heat signature in Gaithersburg
and what does it have to do with this deadline I‟m hearing about?”
Payton shot a quick glance at Chanel, who was biting her lip. “You want us to
break into Rothschild Energy?”
“Break in?” the old man asked with a laugh. “You‟d never make it past the
guards.” He reached into his jacket again and pulled out two ID cards and tossed them to
both Chanel and Payton. “Welcome to the IEC.”
Payton looked at the card. “The International Energy Council?”
The old man nodded. “You‟re United Nations reps now. They can‟t legally keep
you out of the building.” Then he reached into his jacket and withdrew a midnight-black
pistol. He held the pistol a moment, and then tossed it onto the bed. It was small but
slick looking. Payton wasn‟t sure, but he thought it might be a SIG-Sauer. “I figured you
wouldn‟t be able to get the last one aboard the plane.”
“IEC carry side arms?” Payton asked.
“Hell no. But you‟re not really IEC, are you?”
“If they really are Illuminati, they‟ll have their own people on the council.
Wouldn‟t they expect to be informed that we were coming?”
“It‟s true some in the company‟s upper management have those connections. But
you‟re going to make your little visit after hours. They won‟t be there. If you leave
tonight, you can make it into the building by midnight, conduct your examination, and be
back in Boston by morning.”
“Their upper management?” Payton repeated. He thought back to the morning
he‟d cooked breakfast for Jennifer and what he‟d seen on television. “You‟re talking
about Jonathan Dowd.”
“Correct,” the old man confirmed. “As best as I can tell, there is no more
powerful member of the Illuminati than Dowd. All of our orders ultimately come from
him. For a long time, no one knew it was him, not directly. But we began receiving
instructions with his name on them about the same time we began hearing about this
“I presume you‟ll want us to meet you after we get back?”
“Of course. Miller‟s pub is just inside the city limits, down the street from here.
I‟ll be there all night. And a bit of advice, make sure you search the underground floors
beneath RE Tower. That‟s where my group tends to hide the good stuff.”
The old man got up to leave, but Payton stepped forward to block his path. “Your
last adventure got us in a hell of a lot of trouble.”
“I never said this wouldn‟t be dangerous. Remember, I‟m risking my life as
well.” The old man smiled at him. His teeth were yellowing. “Eat your pizza and get
moving. If you get to Gaithersburg too late, you won‟t be able to get in.” With that the
old man stepped around Payton and walked out the door, leaving Payton standing there,
staring after him.
“What do you think?” Chanel asked from behind him.
“I think we‟d be crazy to go, as much trouble as we are probably already in.”
“So when do we leave?”
Payton laughed. “As soon as we finish our food.”
The motel had set them up with a rental car. The ride to Gaithersburg was dark
and uneventful until they crossed over the city limits. It was about the time that they
were turning the rental car off of the turnpike that the bright headlights appeared behind
them. Payton wasn‟t sure if Chanel was immediately aware of them, but by the time they
were pulling off of the highway she had begun to glance frequently at the rearview
“You see them?” she asked.
He nodded. “Think they might be government?”
“Not sure. Probably not officially government. If we aren‟t just being paranoid.”
He stole a glance through the windshield. The Maryland scenery around them
was bathed in shadowy black. The sky revealed no stars and only the vaguest hint of
lunar glow shone down through the unseen clouds. He couldn‟t make out any convenient
good. He reached back to adjust the SIG that was stuffed in the back of his slacks. “How
far to the RE Tower?”
She glanced at the map that was spread across her lap. “Another mile or so.”
“Okay,” Payton said. “I guess we keep going.”
After a few more blocks, the headlights pulled off into one of the parking lots
lining the road. The knot that had been forming in Payton‟s stomach loosened and he let
out a deep breath. He thought he heard Chanel exhale beside him.
We shouldn’t be so relaxed, he thought. We’re about to commit a half dozen
domestic crimes, not to mention at least one international offense. There’s a very good
chance that getting caught means a suite in federal prison for the both of us.
“Breathe, Doc,” Chanel said.
He took a deep breath, and let it out slowly. “I‟m a little nervous.”
RE Tower appeared in front of them. Payton was struck by its un-tower like
appearance. It couldn‟t have been more than twenty stories tall, not particularly
impressive as multi-billion dollar company headquarters went. Of course, if their
informant was correct, there would be floors located below ground level. It got bigger in
the windshield as Payton continued to drive, a stone and stucco sentinel awaiting them,
mocking their pitiful intention to infiltrate its exterior.
Payton noted with surprise that they were able to drive right up to the building,
into its parking lot, and past the guard gate without any more hassle than flashing the ID
cards the old man had given them. They were good, complete with their photos and the
holographic logo of the International Energy Council. In fact, the uniformed guard had
looked bored as he waved them through after lifting the gate. The parking lot was nearly
empty, of course, it being so late at night. Payton pulled the car into the spot nearest the
double revolving doors at the building‟s entrance.
He reached into the backseat and dug through his carry bag, pulling out a black
felt case. He handed it to Chanel. “Open it,” he said.
She unclipped the snap and dumped the contents into her hand. There were two
small devices that looked like hearing aids alongside two plastic pieces that looked like
alligator clips, followed immediately by a pair of black boxes the size of battery chargers.
Each of the boxes had a numbered dial and a battery light. “What are these?” she asked.
She jiggled the pieces in her hand.
“You never did any undercover work, did you?”
“I didn‟t have time. Wasn‟t there long enough.”
Payton gestured towards her hand. “The ear pieces are called earwigs. The
alligator clips go on the inside of your sleeve. Transmitter on your waist, preferably
underneath your shirt.” Payton looked her over. They were both in their suits, at
Payton‟s direction. He figured it‟d be what IEC agents would wear. His battery pack
would fit comfortably under his suit jacket. But Chanel had her oxford blouse tucked
snuggly into her black suit pants. “You‟re going to have to un-tuck your shirt, I think.”
She squirmed as she pulled the blouse free and attempted to smooth out the
wrinkles. “This looks ridiculous,” she frowned.
Payton grinned. “I never would have thought you‟d be concerned with
“How could I not be, with you always sneaking looks?” she replied. She was still
calmly trying to flatten out her blouse. Finally she turned to the assorted items in her
hand, plucking out the transmitter and holding it up to peer at the fastener clip on the
back. “Where on my waist does this thing go?”
“Backside of your pants,” Payton answered her. She immediately stuck her
hands between her back and the seat, attaching the device. Payton then showed her how
to slide the alligator clip onto her shirt cuff and tunnel the earwig into place.
“How do we turn them on?”
“They‟re voice activated.” Payton lifted his wrist to his mouth. “Activate,” he
said into his sleeve.
Chanel watched him, then did the same.
“Good. Now talk into the sleeve clip.”
She lifted her wrist to her face. “Hello? Testing? I feel like an idiot.”
Her voice came through clearly over his earwig. Payton pointed at his ear. “You
sound like one, too,” he smirked. Then he lifted his own wrist. “Check,” he said softly.
“Your voice sounds deeper over the earwig.” She flashed a smile. “Sexy.”
“Just focus, please.”
“I‟m focused. Let‟s do it.”
They got out of the sedan and made their way to the double revolving doors at the
entrance. The building had seemed imposing from a distance, and up close the effect was
heightened. It might have been short, as towers went, but the obsidian colored exterior
and enormous reflective windows were intimidating. Probably they had built it with just
that effect in mind. As they walked toward the doors, Payton glanced at the distorted
images they were casting in the windows. It was as though the building was trying to tell
them to stay out. Don’t come in here. It will change you. He reached back underneath
his jacket and felt the weight of the SIG, snug against his backside. He let out a deep
Once through the revolving doors, Payton took stock of the lobby. Everything
seemed to be the blinding white color of a hospital wing. Even the fluorescent lights
were nauseatingly pale. The receiving area was surprisingly small. A reception desk lay
to the right. Probably it was manned during normal hours by a secretary. Now it was
silently vacant. A few chairs and a heavy steel door were off to the left. Three
ubiquitous elevators were straight ahead. The room was silent, save for tinny piped in
elevator music. They stood there like that for several moments.
“Well?” Chanel asked from his side.
Payton glanced at the steel door. “Watch this,” he muttered. And he took a step
toward the elevator bank.
“Stop right there, please,” a sharp voice rang out.
A guard strode out of the steel door and blocked their path. His uniform was
powdered blue. A badge gleamed from his chest. It had RE-SEC stenciled into it. A
prod hung from his belt. Payton looked, but he couldn‟t see a sidearm. “We‟re here on a
surprise inspection,” he said. He put as much authority as he could manage into his
The guard looked them over. “I wasn‟t informed of an inspection, Mr.…”
Payton reached into his back pocket and motioned for Chanel to do the same.
“Agent,” he said, sneering. He flipped the wallet open, showing the guard the fake
The guard frowned. “International Energy Council? Shouldn‟t you guys be at
one of the plants?”
“The United Nations IEC charter gives us access to all corporate locations that
might contain instruments of production, records of production, or related monetary and
business interests with regard to all power and energy related production.” He did his
best to make it sound as though he were reciting the words from memory, despite the fact
that he was making the whole thing up as he went. “Now get the hell out of our way.”
They took a step forward.
The guard held out one hand and dropped the other to his stun holster. “Sorry, sir,
but I‟m going to need both of your names as well as your authorization paperwork.”
Payton stared at him a moment, then turned to Chanel. “I thought you said these
rent-a-cop types were supposed to be cooperative.”
Chanel shrugged. “The boys at Com Ed were downright charming.” She turned
to the guard. “Of course that was after we reminded them that we are required to note
any impedance we encounter. Specifically from whom we encountered it.”
The guard bristled visibly. “Are you threatening-?”
“You?” Chanel interrupted him with a point of her finger. “I don‟t think I need to
do that. Because you security boys all talk to each other. I‟m sure you heard what
happened to the guard from Tri-Solar in Sandusky who tried to stall me outside their
headquarters while the CFO was shredding documents outlining an embezzling scheme
with several Iranian Mullahs.” She took a step forward. “See? I don‟t have to threaten.
I‟m an agent of the United Nations. And if I so much as breathe the word corruption,
you‟ll be on a permanent vacation underground somewhere in Geneva.”
“Geneva?” the guard stammered, looking confused.
Payton gave him a hard look. “Where do you think they lock up people foolish
enough to obstruct international investigations?”
The guard looked conflicted for a few moments. Then he seemed to come to a
decision. “I‟ll be your guide,” he said with a grimace.
Chanel nodded. “Like I said, charming.”
They rode the elevator to one of the top floors. The guard had spoken briefly into
the talkie clipped to his shoulder. Otherwise, they were silent. Payton looked at the bank
of buttons. There was only one floor listed below the lobby level. It was marked BB.
Payton assumed it denoted the basement. He had considered pushing the button when
they had first stepped aboard the elevator, but the guard had quickly sent them upwards.
He made a mental note of the basement floor, remembering what the old man had told
them back at the motel.
They got off at the second floor form the top. The guard led them through several
executive offices. He asked them what files they wanted to inspect.
“That‟s none of your business,” Chanel said sternly.
The guard had begun to regain some of his bravado. “Maybe I ought to call one
of the executives and let them know what‟s going on.”
Payton crossed his arms. “You do what you must,” he said. “Just make sure you
put the phone on speaker so we can make a note of who you are contacting. And at what
time. And your stated reason for—“
“Look,” the guard said nervously. “Just finish your business and get out of here.”
Payton glanced quickly at Chanel, and then looked back at the guard.
“Over in the accounting office,” he said. “It‟s this way.”
Payton turned to Chanel. “You go with him. I want to get a look at the security
room in the lobby.”
The guard looked up. “Security room? Why?”
“Because that‟s where the video monitors will show me all the rooms in all the
floors in the building,” he said. “So that I can be sure you aren‟t keeping something from
The guard looked at him a moment and then nodded. “You can find your way
“I‟ll manage.” Payton made a point of coughing loudly into his right hand, where
the alligator clip was snapped to his sleeve. Seeing Chanel wince let him know that she
was then painfully reminded of their ability to communicate with one another. He turned
back toward the elevators.
“Don‟t get lost,” the guard called from behind him.
Once in the elevator, Payton immediately pressed the button labeled “BB”. He
noted that it took the elevator a long time to come to a stop after he had passed up the
When the doors opened Payton stepped out into a sizeable room tempered in dim
light. The floor was barren, save for a few storage boxes heaped in the corner. A single
light bulb swung from the middle of the ceiling. It threw oblong shadows in multiple
directions. Grey walls were equally empty, except for another set of elevator doors on
the far wall. Payton thought of old spy movies he had watched as a child, where evil
villains kept underground layers that were only accessible through single entrances
monitored by henchman and gun turrets and other such nonsense.
He pushed the elevator button.
After another trip on the second elevator he stepped into what looked disturbingly
like the control room of the bunker in New Mexico. There was a bank of monitors along
the far wall. There must have been a hundred or so screens. He started to count them
and lost track. There had only been about ten or so floors above ground according to the
other elevator. A hundred cameras seemed like an awful lot of security. He leaned over
to peer closer at the bottom row of the screens. There were several that showed empty
rooms. Some appeared to be labs. Others were offices. In any case, they showed
nothing particularly interesting. Certainly there were no mass spectrometers or baggies
containing medical waste.
He turned away from the monitor bank and looked around the rest of the room.
There was a desk in the corner, complete with one of those multi-line phones like they
had back at the Center. Otherwise it was barren. To the side there was a recess cut into
the wall. It was only a few feet wide and deep, but wedged into the space was what
looked like some kind of holographic display unit, much like Payton had seen in tech
displays at CUFOS and at trade shows. There was a switch at its base. That would be
the power supply. This meant there ought to be a data feed switch somewhere nearby as
He found it along the wall, hidden by the desk. These displays were normally
used to fashion three-dimensional images of complex architecture or data matrices.
Sometimes executives would use this type of sophisticated equipment for three-
dimensional video conferencing. Payton tried to imagine Rothschild Energy board
members seated haughtily at the desk and adjusting whatever mechanism would make
sure that their image on the display was as impressive looking as possible..
What the hell, he thought. Even if the device turned out to be nothing, at least it
might be good for a laugh.
He hit the switch at the base of the display and slapped the data feed.
And then he jumped backwards and yelped in surprise.
Swirling up from the holographic display the image of a white, vaguely porcelain-
looking face appeared. Payton thought it looked like a Shakespearian theatre mask. It
was huge, taking up the majority of the space within the recess. He took another startled
step back and stared.
“Please speak,” the face said. Its voice was a deep baritone, with a layer of some
timber or tone that suggested artificiality. It‟s face and lips were exquisitely modeled,
particularly the mouth and speech correlation. “Hables, por favor,” the face continued.
“Tu Parles, s‟il vous plait.”
Payton stared at the glowing avatar. It was cycling through languages, each time
saying essentially the same thing, asking him to speak. What would it want him to do
that for? He decided to find out. “What are you?” he asked, feeling foolish.
The face was silent for a moment, the eyes fluttering slightly. Then it seemed to
focus on Payton once more. “Language analysis complete. Common American English,
Midwestern dialect.” The face paused a moment. Payton had the impression that it was
gathering itself. Then it smiled abruptly. “Good evening, visitor. The time is two-
hundred hours, twenty minutes. How may I be of service?”
Payton was taken aback by the friendliness of the face and the eagerness with
which the porcelain image appeared to welcome him. But if the avatar wanted to be
friendly, Payton could be friendly back. “How are you today?” he asked.
The avatar cocked its head in an eerily human manor. “I do not understand your
request. Please try to ask the question a different way.”
Interesting, Payton thought. Clearly this was some form of artificial intelligence.
One built with a significant degree of sophistication, too, given that it not only had
speech recognition capabilities, but the ability to determine in what language that speech
had been delivered. It implied a reasoning level that was military grade at least.
Payton had some experience with this type of programming. Chuck had dragged
him along to a tech conference a while back. Payton had gone along to amuse him, but
had taken an interest into some of the programming breakthroughs that were on display,
particularly in automation programming. The techs that worked in the field were more
like psychologists than programmers, often discussing the software and Pavlov in the
same breath. The programs were interesting little puzzles. He‟d particularly enjoyed
some of the hands on displays that allowed users to interact with artificial intelligence.
Several of the booths had displayed programming similar to what Payton was
seeing with the avatar, although not nearly so slick in appearance. Still, the avatar
apparently could only answer questions that were posed in a specific way it could
recognize. It meant the programming had limitations. Classic limitations, in fact.
Artificial data recognition algorithms had been around for decades. Hoover in
particular had invested hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars into data recognition
techniques as Director of the FBI. His successors had continued the research, never more
than mildly successful. Finally, in the early nineties, the FBI stopped funding internal
research of recognition capabilities altogether. The reason came as a surprise to all those
who inquired about it at the time. The simple fact was that all the scientists,
programmers, and cryptographers competent enough in the field to make any serious
progress were avoiding government jobs like a disease.
In the nineties, amongst the scientific community, it had become increasingly
clear that the real scientific work was done at academies and universities. That‟s where
the true innovations were made. It used to be that if you were good at your research, you
went to work for the government, built your home, had your family, and retired on your
pension. All that had changed. Now you went to Cal, or UCLA, MIT, or maybe Brown.
You did your clinical work on their dime. Then you patented whatever applicable
research you came up with, be it genetic, cryptographic, or in programming. With a joint
patent with the university, you either sold your patent to an interested firm, or better yet,
you created your own firm and “sold” the licensing to yourself. Pensions were replaced
by tenure and a fat Roth IRA. The bottom line was that when rudimentary data
recognition programming finally appeared in the mid-eighties, it came from American
University in D.C.
Advances in such programming came quickly in the first decade, though the
public never heard about it. The government gobbled up every patent it could. Those
they couldn‟t buy they simply stole from patent offices, claiming rights under national
security laws. But there was a problem with all the known techniques. It was referred to
as the character congruency malfunction.
The original data recognition programs were created to pore over documents. The
feds thought that if they could digitally log intercepted communications, the logs could
then be filtered through pattern recognition software to uncover encrypted messages
within the characters. They had mild success at first, but soon the character congruency
malfunction became evident.
The way the data recognition software worked was by creating loose parameters
for each recognizable character. For instance, a vertical line with a point at its apex
registered as a lower case i. A horizontal line making an acute downward angle was a 7.
But the program ran into trouble with similar, or congruent, characters. The worst
pairings were S and 5, B and 8, A and 4, D and O. With such like characters the program
became confused, made mistakes. The people creating the ciphers were aware of such
limitations, of course, and began hiding their code specifically within those characters.
The necessarily ambiguous recognition parameters were what made congruent written
characters so difficult to differentiate. A poorly drawn O could indeed look like the letter
D, and so on. Add to that the emergence of different fonts for digital communiqués, and
most of the known data recognition programs had to be scrapped.
But if the congruent character malfunction was serious impedance for software
designed to interpret the written word, programmers generally agreed that it made
automated voice recognition software a downright impossibility. You could multiply all
the common fonts in type written language several times and not come close to the
amount of accents, colloquialisms, and minor inflections that regularly occurred in
everyday human speech. How would a language recognition program, somewhat adept at
discerning the intricacies of the written word, make similar differentiations between
modulated speech patterns? The answer was that it couldn‟t.
Take a relatively simple sentence: Can you all make it to the party tonight? Now
transform that sentence phonetically using different regional colloquialisms. A young
man from Boston could say it, and it would come out Can yah all make it tah the pahty
tahnight? Or an aged woman from Southern Texas: Kin ya’ll make it to der perty
tonaht? Even failing to take into consideration the difference in syntax and other
machinations that existed in entirely different languages, those differences made speech
to data programming seemingly impossible.
Payton peered at the avatar still steadily looking back at him. The simplest
solution to congruent character malfunctions from a programming standpoint was to give
the program a script based on pervasive and relatively unalterable keywords. If the
program recognized the word hi, or anything similar to it, at the beginning of a sentence,
then the program treated the rest of the sentence as a greeting. For artificial intelligence
software that made use of speech recognition, a keyword like you that was located near
the genesis of a statement invoked a response aimed at simulating a give and take
responsive interaction. The fact that Payton‟s last request had gone unrecognized
suggested this program served a more utilitarian function.
Payton decided to ask. “What is your purpose?”
The avatar‟s face righted itself. “I am a data retrieval unit for the Echelon system.
My primary function is to retrieve nominal data sets regarding inputted subjects in order
to amuse investors and provide evidentiary proof of the excellence of the network.”
“That‟s a hell of a mouthful,” Payton smirked.
“I am sorry, that statement does not register as a request.”
Touchy, Payton thought. “What is the network?”
“Echelon network is a surveillance system. It includes routing systems to
centralized data sets from electronic, digital, and analog mediums.”
Payton thought a moment. “Do you have specifics on the routing systems?”
“The system includes four-hundred and thirty-two million visual recognition
units, six-hundred twenty-six million audio monitoring units, and thirty-two hundred
automated still camera units.”
Payton began to interject, but the avatar wasn‟t finished.
“There are also thirty-four snoop-ware programs monitoring all major electronic
communication systems, including facsimile and email. Public, private and institutional
systems are all monitored by the network.”
Payton paused to make sure the avatar was finished. “What is the purpose of the
“The Echelon system reports on any subversive content deemed to be a threat.”
“A threat to whom?”
“A threat to the Illuminated,” the Avatar answered.
The Illuminated? “Give me an identity report on the Illuminated,” Payton said.
The avatar‟s eyes fluttered again. “I‟m sorry, there is no data set under the
“You‟re the one that mentioned them,” Payton said. “Give me whatever data you
have on the Masters.”
“I‟m sorry, there is no data set under the inputted subject.” The avatar once again
gave Payton that monotonous glowing gaze.
“Damn AI,” Payton muttered and turned away. He took a few steps and
immediately stopped as the glow from his backside had turned dark. When he looked he
saw the face had disappeared from the holo-projector on the floor of the recess. No
matter. He knew where the power button was. That was the nice thing about an artificial
intelligence, as long as you knew where the switch was, you could always bring it back.
But it occurred to Payton that another un-artificial source of intelligence might move
things along. He lifted his sleeve to his mouth. “You read me, Chanel?”
After a hiss of static, her voice came through tinny but clear enough to
understand. “Yeah, I‟m here,” she whispered. “The guard isn‟t leaving me much
breathing room, though. It‟s going to be hard to talk.”
“Forget it. Just cough once for yes, twice for no,” Payton said. It was an old
trick, with clips and earwigs, but Payton was betting it was one the rent-a-cop wouldn‟t
be familiar with. It was also helpful that the coughing allowed you to put your sleeve to
your mouth. “You understand?”
“Good. I‟ve found something in the basement level, two elevators down. Some
sort of artificial librarian for the Echelon system. Any chance you can get away from the
He had been afraid of that. “You‟re going to have to figure out a way. Make
some kind of excuse.” He thought back to when he had exited the elevator with Chanel
and the guard. “There‟s a bathroom back by the elevator,” he said. “Tell him you have
to use the restroom and that you want him to organize some of the paperwork for you.
That ought to keep him busy long enough for you to get down here. Think you can do
Payton waited what seemed like fifteen minutes, though he knew it must have
been less. “On my way,” Chanel finally whispered.
He paced the room for another few moments. What would his partner make of
the avatar? Would she have more success getting useful information out of it than he?
The elevator doors opened and Chanel walked into the room, giving the interior a
sweeping glance as she did. “Nice,” she grimaced. “These guys must have the same
decorator as whoever put together that New Mexico bunker.” She took another look
around. “Clearly not Martha Stewart.”
“Are you done making jokes?” Payton asked, failing to keep the impatience out of
“Yeah, better show me this thing quick. Our friend upstairs was starting to ask
questions about you. I don‟t think it‟ll be much longer before he makes a call down to
the control room.”
Payton nodded. “This way.” He led her to the recess near the desk. Without
hesitating, he reached down and slapped the power button on the wall.
The familiar image swirled upwards, quickly resolving into the white-faced
avatar. Payton heard Chanel‟s quick hiss of breath from his side.
“Please speak,” it said, exactly as before.
Payton took a step forward. “Come on, didn‟t we just do this?”
“Language analysis complete. Common American English, Midwestern dialect.”
The avatar mimicked the smile it had delivered to Payton earlier. “Good evening,
visitors. The time is two-hundred hours, fifty-six minutes. How may I be of service?”
“Jesus,” Chanel breathed. “What the hell is this thing?”
The avatar shifted its holographic gaze to Chanel. “I‟m sorry, there is no data set
under the inputted subject,” and the avatar paused a moment. “The hell is this thing,” it
finished in an almost perfect imitation of Chanel‟s voice.
Payton stared, startled. It hadn‟t been a recording. The voice inflections were all
wrong. The avatar had mimicked Chanel‟s voice. Had it done the same with his? He
couldn‟t recall. He turned to his partner. “The script on this thing is kind of finicky,” he
“So how do we talk to it?”
Payton answered by running the avatar threw his previous questions, save those
resulting in erroneous responses. It had the desired effect of bringing her up to speed.
“Huh,” Chanel said. “It really is like a librarian.”
“Glad you like the analogy,” Payton pressed. “What should we ask it?”
“Well, what would you ask a librarian?”
Payton considered. “Maybe for help finding a particular book?”
“I like it,” Chanel nodded, then turned to the avatar. “Read me the file for Payton
“Excuse me?” Payton hissed, spinning on her.
“Clarification needed,” the avatar said. “I show records for two-hundred and
forty data sets for the inputted subject: Payton Connor. You may clarify by address,
employment, fiscal records, tax ID, or social security number.”
“I‟m not telling you my bank account numbers,” Payton muttered. “Or any of
that other stuff, either.”
“I bet I don‟t need them.” She turned back to the avatar. “Read me the file on
Payton Connor in Wicker Park, Chicago.”
The avatar paused a moment. Payton noticed again how the eyes fluttered
rapidly, mimicking the rapid eye movement that was associated with memory retention.
Then the face righted. “Payton Connor: resides at seventeen zero two North Wood
Street. Currently employed by the Center for UFO Studies in Chicago. Age twenty-nine.
Height: six foot two inches. Weight: one hundred and seventy-two pounds. Graduated
from the University of Illinois in Chicago, Cuma Sum Laude with degrees in psychology
“Jesus Christ,” Payton breathed.
The avatar shifted its gaze to Payton. “The subject has traveled recently. Would
you like a summary?”
“Tell us,” Payton said.
The avatar proceeded to give them a disturbingly detailed account of their recent
travels, including their trip to New Mexico, several iPass transactions on Chicago
freeways, and their flight information for their trek to Boston. “No further locale and
travel information is available.”
“What else have you got?” Chanel asked.
“Information data sets on the subject include: blood work, medical history,
financial history, credit report, and extended lineage.”
Payton considered. “You have my blood work?”
“Yes, including type, vaccination history, and--“
“What about genetic information?”
The eyes fluttered again. “Genetic information is not available from this
“Then where is it available?”
“Genetic information may only be retrieved by authorized users accessing the
Chanel stirred. “Where is the mainframe terminal?”
Fluttering eyes. “That information is not available from this terminal.”
“Then where is it available?”
“That information is not-“
“Available from this terminal,” Chanel muttered. “Yeah, we got it.”
“What next?” Payton asked.
She never answered. Instead they both turned to the elevator, attracted by the
sudden whirring as it spurned into action. “Well that‟s just not good,” he grimaced.
“That has to be the guard.”
“What are we going to do? There‟s no place to hide.”
“We don‟t hide,” Payton said grimly. He reached towards his backside.
“Pulling that pistol just might get us killed," she said.
“I wasn‟t going for the SIG,” he responded with a tight smile. He tossed his
wallet in the air and caught it. “I‟m going to pull rank.”
Payton threw the rental into park and leaned back in his car seat. He let out a
deep breath. They were back in Boston, far away from corporate towers and dupable
Chanel stirred in the passenger seat, stretching into a yawn. “We there?”
She yawned again. “I still can‟t believe we got away with that load of crap back
Payton was forced to silently agree. He had indeed pulled every bit of imaginary
rank he could muster. The false IEC ID had only gotten him so far with the guard and his
three friends. After dazzling them with its display, he had berated them, called them
names, and insulted their families. He had even threatened them with their jobs.
Eventually, they had let them into the elevator and then escorted them to the lobby. That
they had glanced around the bunker office quizzically before filing into the elevator
suggested that they hadn‟t been in the room before. And had probably wondered why it
wasn‟t on their monitors.
“Those guys were really dumb,” Chanel mused. Then she laughed. “I swear,
when you started raving about calling the Senator, I thought they were going to piss
The only time he thought they were really in for it was when they‟d made it back
to the lobby. There they had been met by a large, bald man in a suit. He had no hair
whatsoever, at least from what Payton could see, including where his eyebrows ought to
have been. The slight tint to his skin caused him to shiver. The man looked an awful lot
like the guard he‟d knocked out in New Mexico.
But if it was the same man, he gave no indication that he recognized them.
Instead he gave another cursory look at their IEC badges and then silently hurried them
out of the building.
Chanel stretched and sat up with a look out the windshield. “And we‟re where,
“Miller‟s Pub. A bit early, perhaps, but John Doe‟s a drinker. He‟ll probably be
here waiting for us.”
They exited the car and walked in together.
Miller‟s Pub was like a coffin with stools. It seemed to Payton like an
unreasonable place to go and die. The patrons looked miserable, but they also clearly had
no interest in moving. They looked gruff, in an honorable sort of way. As though life
hadn‟t treated them as fairly as they had treated life. Payton‟s father had been that guy.
He too had wasted away in a pub like this on Chicago‟s North Side. He too had been
burdened by early mornings and envelopes heavy with bills. He had also found just such
a coffin in which to crawl and die.
Payton shook his head clear. He swept the bar in a single glance, taking in what
he could without drawing too much attention. He glanced to his side where Chanel was
standing, looking attractive despite everything they‟d been through. No, with her in tow,
he probably wasn‟t the one that would be drawing the attention.
With dark corners and semi-enclosed booths, there was no way they would be
able to see every one of the bar‟s customers, of which there were quite a few. He decided
instead to make directly for the bar, counting on the old man to have seen them walk in.
A stooped bartender gave them a mumbled greeting. They ordered drinks, Payton a glass
of single malt whiskey, Chanel a light beer. They sat down and waited.
“Whiskey man, eh?” She asked, pointing towards his drink
“Single malt Irish,” Payton answered. “The only true whiskey there is.”
“My father was a Johnny Walker fan.”
“He was a cop, right?”
Chanel shrugged. “South Side traditions die hard.”
“Are we going to talk about that creepy librarian thing at some point?”
During the trip back to Boston he had refused to discuss it with her, telling her
instead to sleep.
“Not until our guest arrives,” Payton he answered. He took a sip of his whiskey,
feeling its warmth prickle down his throat. “Until he gets here, all of our guesses are just
meaningless speculation. And I want some real answers.”
“You‟re worried, aren‟t you?”
He looked at her. “That thing knew my name. It knows where I live. It had my
travel and financial information. That‟s trouble enough. If there‟s a system that actually
has my genetic workup, then yes, I‟m worried.”
They sat quietly again. Payton surprised himself by finishing his whiskey in
fifteen minutes or so, and he ordered another. Chanel had given him a worried glance,
but went back to silently sipping her beer. From elsewhere in the bar a jukebox clicked
on, buzzing Turn The Page by Bob Seger over the sound system. Payton listened to the
throaty song and took another sip of whiskey.
Two trips in the last week, with an eerie dinner back in Chicago to boot. Yes,
Payton thought, I feel as though I’ve been on the road for some time. He thought back to
their trip to New Mexico. When had that been? A week ago? Less than a week? It felt
like a lifetime. Turn the page, he thought with a look into his glass. The pages had been
turning quickly. Too quickly. He stole a glance at Chanel out of the corner of his eye. A
critical look seemed to confirm that she was in similar form. They were tired.
“You two look like shit,” came a voice from behind.
They spun on their stools to see the old man, still donning the large overcoat. He
was running a critical looking eye over them both. Then he jerked his head towards the
depths of the bar. “Let‟s get a booth.”
They followed him towards the back of the pub and slid onto the padded benches
of a booth. The old man had a drink on the table, something thick and brown. It looked
like tree sap.
“So,” the old man asked with a slight smile. He kept his head ducked low, so low
that Payton noticed a bald patch on the top of his crown. “How did you make out?”
“Make out?” Payton asked. Suddenly he was furious. “We lied our way into the
headquarters of an international energy company and had a nice long conversation with
some sort of electronic bookkeeper for your spy network. Never mind that we were
doing your dirty work while you stayed here in south Boston and drank your muck.
Never mind that we had to be filmed by fifty cameras in that building.”
“Oh, you two have bigger problems than that.”
“Bigger problems than committing international fraud and impersonating a
member of the IEC?” Payton hissed, with a quick glance around.
“I‟m afraid so. There‟s a warrant out for both of your arrests.”
Chanel sat forward. “What are we wanted for?”
The old man studied them a moment. “Murder and accessory to murder.”
A chill ran down Payton‟s spine. “And exactly whom are we supposed to have
“A drifter here in south Boston, apparently. Sometime after midnight, according
to the police report.” The old man reached below the table and slid a file folder across
Payton opened it and scanned the pages. The word homicide was used several
times in the description of a grisly murder of a homeless man in a south Boston alleyway.
Two bullets had punctured the drifter, one in the head and one through the heart. The
police report said the shots had come from some distance, but the specifics wouldn‟t be
determined until ballistics was done on the slugs pulled from the body. According to the
report, the bullets were a serious problem. Apparently they had been cut in a
checkerboard pattern. It‟s the only thing, according to the report, that could have made
bullets shatter into unidentifiable fragments the way these had.
“Hold on,” Chanel said from over his shoulder. “This says the drifter is as yet
The old man smiled. “Imagine that.”
But then Payton understood what she was getting at. “This isn‟t a mistake.
They‟re just making it all up.”
“They?” the old man asked with raised eyebrows. “So you believe me now?”
“Well,” Payton sighed. “Let‟s just say that I know what I saw in Gaithersburg.
And what I saw scared the hell out of me.”
“Good. And yes, they‟re pinning this on you two.”
“But they don‟t actually have a body. This is all fiction,” Payton said, holding up
the file. “Nothing in here is real.”
“Oh, they‟ll have a body alright. Maybe they didn‟t have one at first. Maybe
they don‟t even have one now. But if they manage to catch you, when they manage to
catch you, they‟ll come up with something real enough to convict you.”
Chanel sat back heavily against the back of the bench. “What will they do? Just
kill some homeless guy the way it‟s described in the report.”
“Yes, actually,” the old man said. For a moment, Payton thought he saw
something dark cross his wrinkled face. “Something like that. Some homeless guy. Or
“Jesus Christ,” Chanel muttered. “What are we going to do? We can‟t go back to
CUFOS. They‟ll be waiting for us.”
The old man gave both of them an almost apologetic look. “There‟s nowhere to
wait, actually. CUFOS headquarters was seized by the federal government last night.
FBI, from what I understand.”
“CUFOS? Why?” Payton asked, startled.
“On charges of treason.”
“God,” Chanel breathed. “I never even got to cash my first paycheck.”
“So what are we going to do?” Payton muttered.
The old man sat forward. “First you‟re going to tell me what happened at RE
Tower. Then you‟re going to take the ID and credit cards I had made for you and you‟re
going to keep working.” He shook his head sadly. “You two are in it now. And the only
way out is through.”
It was Payton who told the majority of the story, with Chanel only piping up to
fill in necessary details. To his relief, Chanel allowed him to skip the specific name and
identity of the person they had done the information request on with the avatar.
“Avatar. I like that word,” the old man said. “I‟ve heard about the record
retrieval AI. Never actually seen it, though.”
“Yeah, well, its ability to retrieve all the information it claimed to have was
truncated,” Payton said.
“Of course it was. That thing isn‟t meant to be fully operational. It‟s a
“A prototype?” Chanel asked. “For what purpose?”
“To amuse, of course. You said it yourselves, it kept referring to you as visitors.
That thing is meant to impress, not divulge.”
“It kept referring to some kind of mainframe,” Payton said. “Where full records
could be retrieved.”
“The main terminal,” the old man nodded. “That‟s your next stop. Once you
figure out where it is, of course.”
Payton and Chanel exchanged looks.
“Figure out where it is?” Payton echoed. “Isn‟t it at NSA HQ inside Fort
“That would be the obvious conclusion,” the old man said, and then he seemed to
consider for a moment. “But I think not. The hardware is there, certainly. The heat
signatures tell us that much. But I think the mainframe access point is somewhere else.
Somewhere more secure.”
“More secure than Fort Meade?” Chanel asked, looking incredulous.
The old man sat back. “Security isn‟t only about men and guns and cameras.”
“It isn‟t?” she asked.
“Of course not.” When she continued to look confused, the old man sighed and
went on. “Say you were a thief and you broke into a house. In the basement you find
two safes. Now, you know the owners are going to be back soon, so you have to work
quickly. The first is a combination safe of somewhat modern design. It protects against
fire damage, most tools, and cutting mechanisms. The second safe is a lockbox. It is
especially designed to withstand small to medium sized explosive devices. With your
limited amount of time, which safe do you decide to try and open?”
Chanel looked at Payton, but he didn‟t see where the old man was going and
could only shrug.
“The explosive repellant safe,” she said when she had returned her gaze to the old
man. “If I‟m a thief, I probably don‟t have explosives anyway.”
“Wrong,” the old man said with a shake of his bald head.
“Then the combination safe?”
“Also wrong,” the old man smiled. “The correct safe to open is the one you never
saw, buried under the basement floor. You see, security isn‟t having the safe. It‟s
convincing the thief that the truly important safe doesn‟t exist. If you want to keep the
mainframe access point a secret, you don‟t hide it in places like RE Tower and Fort
Meade. For one thing, too many people have access. For another, how are you going to
conveniently get into Fort Meade as the CEO of an energy firm without raising flags with
the common military personnel that work there?”
“I guess you couldn‟t.”
“That‟s right. Instead, you hide it under the basement floor, so to speak. You put
it someplace where others wouldn‟t think to look for it.”
Something occurred to Payton. “But you couldn‟t hide it. There would still be
the heat signatures from the electronics and the fiber-optics.”
“No there wouldn‟t, because you don‟t need that much equipment. For remote
access to the mainframe, all you need is an encrypted line. Or a transmitter and receiver,
if you wanted it to be wireless, which is unlikely. Those wouldn‟t give off any more of a
heat signature than the telephone lines leading to and from this pub.” The old man shook
his head. “It could be anywhere.”
“And you‟re telling us you have no clue?” Payton asked.
“I thought I did,” he answered. “What did you think I had you doing all this
time? I thought it might be in the bunker in Roswell, but it wasn‟t. Then I thought,
despite my reservations, maybe they had made the mistake of putting the mainframe
access point at RE Tower. But I was wrong there, too. Now…”
“Now what?” Chanel pressed.
The old man smiled and lifted his glass in a sort of cynical salute. “Now I‟m
short on guesses and sitting with two wanted murderers. So I suggest we get drunk,
because I‟m all out of ideas.”
They didn‟t really get all that drunk, to the best of Payton‟s recollection. He
would later say that they had gotten a friendly buzz going, if any level of inebriation
could be called friendly in such a dank setting. The old man had been quiet at first,
before having a few drinks and opening up about some of the things he‟d seen during his
“I could tell you things that would scare the hair off your head,” the old man had
told them. He reached up and rubbed his own expansive bald patch on his crown.
“Wonder if that‟s where mine went.”
“What kind of things?” Chanel had asked.
The old man relayed to them the history of a program called MKSEARCH,
originally named MKULTRA. The name change occurred in the early sixties, when the
government project had moved on from the MKULTRA goal of testing potential
interrogation drugs on prisoners and the unsuspecting public and onto the more focused
project of procuring a usable truth serum to be tested on those same citizens.
Both projects had begun as an extension of Operation Paperclip, with imported
German scientists continuing the work of Nazi psychiatrists under the umbrella of the
OSS and the CIA. The Nazi work had been done on Jews placed in their concentration
camps and others the Third Reich had deemed to be expendable. They tested
experimental drugs such as LSD and MDMA, all in the search of feasible interrogation
techniques. Such experiments often led to the death of the test subjects, though total
fatalities were difficult to ascertain due to an inability to identify the bodies.
“But where are they doing these tests?” Chanel asked. “Offshore? Gitmo?”
No, the old man told them. They were conducted in CIA and FBI safe houses in
major cities: Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington D.C. CIA scientists
were charged with using serums and drugs to prey on the weaknesses of the human
psyche. These large cities offered a wide base of potential test subjects, with their
impoverished areas and homeless population.
Two laboratories were founded by the secret service for MKULTRA. One was
portrayed as a privately funded research center in Baltimore. There the CIA scientists
were tasked with mimicking death in subjects through non-lethal carbon dioxide
poisoning. The other lab was the Army Biological Laboratory in Fort Detrick, Maryland.
There immunologists worked with experimental drugs designed to promote acute
“Were they successful?” Payton asked.
The old man just shrugged. “I‟ve heard things, but nothing I‟d stake my life on.”
Payton swirled his whiskey, watching the liquid cling to the glass and begin its
inevitable slide downward. “What time is it?”
Chanel looked at her watch. “Nearly one in the morning.”
“Christ,” muttered the old man. His speech was beginning to slur. “I think it‟s
time to bring this to an end.”
Payton thought there was something odd about the way he said it. “An end?”
“To the evening, of course.” The old man slid two folders across the table.
“Your new identification, complete with driver‟s licenses and credit cards.”
Payton leafed through the paperwork before peering at the license. “Oregon?” he
asked, noting the state of the license‟s origin. “Why Oregon?”
“Because that‟s where I came up in the organization. And that‟s where I have
friends that don‟t ask too many questions.”
They stuffed their new ID cards into their wallets and got up to leave, Payton
helping the old man out of the booth. He stumbled a bit, and Payton caught him to keep
him from falling.
“Let us drive you home,” Payton said.
“Hell no, I‟m fine.”
“At least let us walk you to your car then.”
“I insist,” Payton pressed.
“I‟m telling you, no. It‟s not necessary. I think it would be best if you didn‟t.”
That strange chord again, struck at an off key that sent a chill down Payton‟s
back. “To the door then? It‟s the least we can do.”
The old man studied him a moment. Then he nodded. “Fine. To the door.” He
started to shuffle off towards the rear of the bar. “I‟m parked out back.”
They walked to the back door which led into a tight alley. A light rain was
beginning to fall, washed out in the distant streetlamps. There were several cars lined
up along the adjoining buildings. “Which one‟s yours?” Payton asked.
Chanel came up behind them. “Come now, let us walk you to the car.”
The old man jerked his arm away from Payton. “I said no, damn it.” Then he
began to stumble into the mist and towards the black Chevy. Payton took a step forward,
but stopped when the old guy spun around. “Back! Stay back!”
He was becoming increasingly distressed, Payton could tell, though he couldn‟t
figure out the reason behind it. He was still shouting for them to stay back, gesturing
angrily, making a lot of noise. Payton heard Chanel answering someone in the bar and
telling them that everything was fine. Payton took another step into the drizzle. “Tell me
what‟s going on here.”
The old man finally stopped shouting and his voice was practically pleading.
“Don‟t you get it? Haven‟t you been listening?” He took a step backward and stumbled.
Payton moved forward again. “Let us help you.”
“Not another step,” the old man said as he righted himself. “Stay where you are.”
Payton wasn‟t listening and was about to give up the cat and mouse game and just
rush forward to steady the old man.
That was when he heard the high-pitched whine of a silencer hiss twice from
somewhere above them. His vision streaked towards the roof instinctively and caught a
glimpse of a figure in a suit and tie, at the same time he was shoving Chanel back through
the doorway. She screamed and crashed to the floor inside the pub. Payton had the SIG
out and was tracking towards the rooftops, but between the glare of distant streetlamps
shining down and his having to blink the mist out of his eyes, the visibility was terrible.
Even so, he could have sworn he recognized the rooftop figure.
Well, he thought, if they were going to keep shooting at me, they would have
already fired again. It’s not like I’m under any kind of cover.
He turned back to the old man.
He was lying crumpled on his back.
No no no no no. Payton shouted for Chanel to stay where she was and rushed to
his side. The old man was lying in a pool of rainwater, his overcoat splayed open to his
sides. He had a hole in his oxford shirt, in the left chest, as well as one through his
forehead. It would be pointless attempting to resuscitate. The chest wound looked like it
was through the heart, or near enough to it that the old man was sure to bleed out. The
hole through the head erased any remaining hope Payton might have had of getting him
any type of medical attention. There was only a trickle of blood squeezing out of his
forehead, but when Payton lifted the head and saw the exit wound gashing outward in a
jagged mess of ribbon skin and tattered skull, he laid the whole mess back down in the
“Doc?” Chanel shouted from the door. “What‟s going on?”
“I don‟t think I can. The bartender is coming. Along with some of his
And they were both wanted for murder. Of an elderly drifter. Whom they were
supposed to have murdered in a south Boston alleyway, with a bullet to the heart and one
to the head. The old man had been correct, prophetic even. The conspirators had gotten
their body. It was as neat and tidy a box in which Payton had ever been put.
Apparently Chanel had vacated the doorway, because she had come up behind
him and put her hand on his shoulder. “Jesus, Doc.”
“Yeah, I know.”
“What the hell are we going to do?”
“I have no idea.”
They heard a rising din at the doorway and Payton turned to see the bartender and
a couple others standing there and pointing at them.
“You two! What did you do to him?” the bartender shouted.
Payton started to try to explain, but one of the patrons shouted, “He‟s got a gun!
They shot him!”
Payton and Chanel both looked down at the SIG still in his hand.
And then they turned and ran.
They had run straight to their rental car, leaped into it, and made it onto the
highway. Payton hardly saw the writing on the exit signs as they flew past. He had been
too shocked to speak as he drove. Chanel had been equally silent. A few hours they
drove like that. The whole time, Payton‟s mind worked furiously, replaying the scene in
the alleyway over and over again. But no matter how much he tried to remember, he
couldn‟t place the blurred vision of the shooter.
Eventually the fuel light clicked on and he pulled off the highway in Latrobe,
Pennsylvania. They needed to stop and rest. And think.
Latrobe was tiny, despite enjoying a bit of celebrity as the birthplace of Arnold
Palmer. The golfer‟s picture was on everything visible in the early morning light:
welcoming signs, golf course entrances, motel facades. Payton pulled into the parking lot
of the Palmer Place, a dreary looking inn. Just looking at the white siding on the exterior
made him think of moldy tiles in a shower stall.
They checked in with a bored looking kid at the front desk. He couldn‟t have
been more than twenty and he seemed preoccupied with the laptop in front of him and the
videogame controller connected to it. Then he got a look at Chanel. The kid tossed the
controller aside and performed a toothy greeting, asking what type of room they wanted.
Chanel stirred a bit when he inquired about a single room. Payton shot her a warning
look before turning back to the innkeeper. “What do you have available?”
“You‟ll be our only guests for the night, so you can have any room you want. I
can even upgrade you to the honeymoon suite, if you like.” The kid grinned.
“Thanks, no,” Payton said. The room was fifty a night. Payton pulled out a
hundred from his wallet. “Book us through tomorrow.”
“Is that a problem?”
“I guess not. You just don‟t see many customers paying with cash, is all. Even
Chanel sidled up to him and took his arm. “We‟re old fashioned. In many ways.
Does sound carry through the walls?”
The kid‟s grin broadened. “I suppose that would depend on the amount of noise
Payton peered sideways at her. She was giving the kid a look that was downright
seductive, smiling knowingly while still wrapped around his arm. “Let‟s just get to our
room, dear,” he said, playing along.
He turned her back towards the door.
“Make as much noise as you want,” the kid called after them. “The walls are a
foot thick. Have fun you two!”
Payton dropped Chanel‟s bag next to the door and stared a moment at the single
king sized bed with the atrociously patterned comforter laying accusingly in the center.
Chanel squeezed passed where he stood by the door.
“Excuse me, darling.”
“You mind telling me what that was all about?”
She pirouetted in a passable imitation of a showgirl. “Acting, Doc,” she said
flashing a smile. “After all, your one room order gave the impression that we‟re a
couple. My little display ought to have driven the point home.”
That actually made sense. “Aren‟t you tired?” he asked.
“Exhausted, though I‟m thinking that it might be a defense mechanism. You
know, avoiding the idea of being wanted for the murder of a man I just saw shot to
“Or it‟s because it‟s nine in the morning and we‟ve been up for almost twenty-
four hours. Either way, we need to get some sleep before we figure out what to do next.”
“So we sleep.”
“Yes we do. The question being where do we sleep. We have two bodies and
She laughed. “Come on, Doc. We‟re adults. I think we can handle taking
separate sides of a king sized bed.”
He was feeling nervous, a giddy discomfort shivered through him. I’m being
childish, he thought. It didn‟t matter that she was attractive. It wasn‟t important that they
were both probably mature enough to handle whatever might happen. They were
partners, simple as that, and partners could be comforting, they could be close, but they
were not to be involved. He knew all this, and he agreed with the rules. So why was this
single motel room making him so nervous?
Because I’m worried that something will happen. And that the reason for it
happening will be the terrible ordeal we just went through instead of anything real. I’m
worried that it’s something we’re going to end up regretting.
She was still looking at him.
“I think I‟ll take the floor,” he said.
“Don‟t be silly.”
“Sometimes I snore.” He knew how weak it sounded.
She shrugged. “And I sleep nude. But for you, I‟ll wear pajamas. And you‟ll
just have to do your best to keep that schnoz of yours quiet.”
He sighed. “Okay.”
“I‟m going to change in the bathroom. You have pajamas?”
He shook his head. “But I have gym shorts and an undershirt.”
She nodded and disappeared into the bathroom. When she returned she was
wearing red flannel pants and an oversized CPD sweatshirt. They crawled into bed, each
of them flat on their back on their respective sides of the mattress. Payton had shut the
blinds tightly and she had flipped the light off. Payton stared upwards into the darkness,
He felt her flip over to face him. “Hey.”
“Get some sleep,” Payton murmured. His heartbeat picked up a bit.
“Tell me everything‟s going to be okay first.”
“Everything is going to be okay,” he answered.
She was quiet a moment. “You know, we still don‟t know much about one
Payton agreed. And it was going to be a while before his thoughts would quiet
down enough to allow for sleep. “All right,” he said, flipping over. “We‟re going to play
a game called my story is better than your story.”
They traded tales for the next hour. Payton was impressed. She had some really
entertaining stories to tell.
They both started off with recent history. Payton relived the last time he had
braved Chicago‟s South Side Irish Parade. She chuckled through most of the
recollection, but nearly lost control of herself when he described an incredibly inebriated
attempt to pole dance at one of the Western Avenue bars along the parade route. He‟d
made an ass of himself. Especially when he had finished his little dance and then tried to
hit on the bartender, opening up with an explanation of what he did for a living.
Chanel burst out again, tipping dangerously close to him. “She must have thought
you were crazy,” she giggled.
“A sci-fi fanatic, actually,” Payton nodded. “Your turn.”
According to Chanel, her first day as a member of Chicago‟s finest had started off
normally. They had taken roll, she had been introduced to the partner she would be
learning from and riding with, and they had set out on their patrol. Six hours into her first
day, she had slowly drifted into boredom. There had been no arrests, no stops, and no
shakedowns. And then they pulled over a blue sedan with expired plates.
It was standard operating procedure in the eighth district to remove all suspects
from a vehicle once it had been pulled over. Her partner had told her to handle it. She
had ordered the sedan‟s sole occupant out of the car over the mounted megaphone atop
the squad car. A middle-eastern man had stepped out of the car, young and bearded.
Chanel had exited the squad car, patted the man down, and proceeded to search the sedan.
On the front seat she had found detailed plans to blow up Navy Pier.
And the way she told it, she had completely flipped out.
“I‟m talking gun out, yelling and shouting, screaming for backup,” Chanel said.
Payton laughed. “When did they let you in on the joke?”
Chanel peered at him. “How‟d you know they were playing a prank?”
“It‟s typical to haze the new guy,” Payton said. “Or girl, in this case. The
CUFOS guys did the same to me when I first joined up.”
Chanel‟s face deepened with interest. “Really?”
“Yes, they did. Just replace over the top Arab guy with ridiculous looking
skeletal corpse with antennae coming from the skull.”
They both laughed and continued trading stories.
Chanel had been arrested in college for streaking across the football field as part
of a sorority prank. Payton had once drunk an entire bottle of chocolate syrup to win a
bet. Chanel once dressed up as Charlie Chaplin for Halloween and had apparently passed
herself off as a man well enough to have to fend off a rather aggressive young woman
who‟d had too much to drink. Payton had once sat through an eight-hour expose on
ghost trails in haunted houses, just to satisfy a pretentious woman he was trying to sleep
“Was she pretty?” Chanel asked with a laugh.
“Gorgeous. But dumb as a brick.”
“So that‟s how you like them?”
Payton looked at her. “Not even a little. That was…I haven‟t dated in some time,
“Why not?” she asked.
“Well,” he said, then took a deep breath. “I guess that with work, I‟m just not
focused enough to have a successful relationship. This job takes up a lot of time, with a
decent amount of travel and strange hours.” He chuckled. “Besides, what woman wants
to introduce her boyfriend to her parents as the guy that chases little green men?”
Chanel smiled. “When I told my friends I was leaving the force to join CUFOS,
they looked at me like I was crazy. My parents were less surprised, but more
Payton nodded. He‟d had the same experience. “They‟ll get over it.”
“That‟s the thing, I couldn‟t care less if they get over it or not. Assuming we get
out of this in one piece, and assuming that CUFOS somehow gets reinstated, I‟ll go back
to work and enjoy every second of it.”
Payton looked her over, a newfound understanding and respect for her building
inside him. CUFOS was unlike other vocations in countless ways, but motivation for
joining was just as varied as with any other employment. All of them were interested in
the occult to some degree. For some of them it was personal: a family member who
claimed to be abducted, or the sighting of something in the sky one wayward night. For
others it was simply more interesting than working data entry or sales. Some of them
were probably just collecting a paycheck. Their reasons were as varied as their numbers.
But Chanel was in to it, being a CUFOS investigator. It wasn‟t personal with her.
It was something she truly wanted to do, as opposed to something she needed to do. She
was smart, passionate, devoted to the work. Even in the short time they had spent
together, Payton could see that much.
Was I like this when I first joined up, Payton wondered. Was I so full of fire? So
“Hey,” Chanel whispered. “You in there?”
Payton smiled. “Just thinking back to when I first signed up for all this.”
“All this,” Chanel repeated. She made a show of looking around the motel room.
“Somehow this didn‟t make the CUFOS recruitment brochure.”
Payton laughed and shook his head. “Some senior investigator I am. Two field
operations in, and I‟ve got the both of us wanted for murder and on the run from the
police, the NSA, and God knows who else.” He flipped onto his back and put his hands
behind his head. “What a disaster.”
She shifted a bit beside him. “You know, Mr. Self Pity, I seem to remember
playing some part in all of this, too.”
Payton kept staring towards the ceiling, although he couldn‟t really see it in the
darkness. She was trying to make him feel better, he knew. It was sweet, actually, that
despite everything she had just gone through, she still had it in her to try to relieve him of
some of his guilt. It was a real shame it wasn‟t working.
He turned his head and saw she was still looking at him, concern barely
discernable in the shadows. “Yeah, you played along. But I should have known better.
I‟m the senior investigator. I‟m supposed to be the experienced one.” He sighed and laid
back again. “We wouldn‟t be here if it weren‟t for me.”
He stared at the ceiling for a few more minutes. Then, with a rustle of the covers,
he felt Chanel nestle up to him and lay her head on his chest. “It‟s not the being here I
mind so much,” she said. “It‟s the circumstances that could use some altering.” He felt
her take a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Tell me again we‟re going to make it
Payton sighed. “I‟m not sure we will.”
“Well that‟s reassuring.”
“Sorry. I never was very good at the whole partner thing.” He thought back to
his last girlfriend, his last psyche workup, his last visit to his parents. He slipped his one
arm around her shoulder, trying to put as much friendliness into the gesture as possible,
and trying to keep any indication of romance out of it. “In fact, people keep telling me
I‟m no good with people. Like…at all.”
She looked up at him. “They tell you why?”
“No, but they don‟t need to. I know why. It‟s the same thing that got me hired by
CUFOS,” he said. “The same reason I have that ridiculous nickname.”
“Doc,” she said, smiling up at him in a way that told him she was teasing. “It‟s
because you‟re smart, right?”
“I‟m not smart,” he replied, returning his gaze upward. “It‟s just that I can tell
when people are lying. It‟s what I‟ve always been good at.”
“A useful talent,” she murmured.
“Not in relationships,” he sighed. “Parents, friends, men, women…they all lie.
And for some reason, I can‟t play along with them. I can‟t pretend that I don‟t know the
truth. I have to call them out. I have to let them know that I know.” A shiver ran
through him. “I don‟t know why it‟s so important to me, to find the lie.”
“You‟re an honest man, so you expect the people in your life to be honest as
“That‟s my point: I don‟t expect others to be honest with me at all. I expect the
lie. I look for it in everyone I meet. I look for it until I find it.” He looked down at her,
expecting to see revulsion.
She was indeed looking at him, but there was no hint of revulsion. That intensity
was back, but softer, with a shade of compassion in it. “I won‟t lie to you, Doc. I
He continued looking down at her and smiled. “But what if that’s the first lie?”
She looked hurt and laid her face on his chest again. “Where‟s the gun?”
He had left the SIG slipped into one leg of his slacks on the floor beside the bed.
“Close by,” he told her.
“Tell me we‟re safe.”
Payton held her a little closer, telling himself that he simply wanted to comfort
her. “We‟re safe for the night,” he said.
It was silent for a few moments. Then Chanel spoke very quietly into the
darkness, so quietly that at first Payton thought she was talking to herself. “I won‟t lie to
you, Doc. Never to you.”
Payton‟s mind instinctively recoiled at the words, the notion. Everyone lies, he
Payton awoke early in the evening. He didn‟t move at first, afraid to wake Chanel
in case she was still sleeping saddled up close to him. But he didn‟t feel any pressure on
his chest and when he opened his eyes he saw that she had twisted away from him to lie
in a fetal position in the opposite direction.
He smiled. This is the way life was. The way things really happened. In the
movies last night would have gone much differently. They would have talked and
laughed, sure. But then they would have been helpless to resist a long passionate kiss
with one another. And then they would have made love, slowly and artistically, before
falling asleep wrapped in each other‟s arms.
But life was not a movie. They had enjoyed their conversation and Chanel had
even gone to sleep with her head on his chest and his arm snaked around her back. But
there was no kiss. There was no sex. And in the middle of the night, despite his touch,
Chanel had twisted away from him to lie comfortably alone on the other side of the
He climbed out of bed. He slid on his slacks and shirt and tucked the SIG out of
sight in his waistband. He decided he needed clean clothes. Chanel had the travel bag on
the floor, but Payton had assumed they would be back in Chicago before he would need a
change of clothes. Now their plans had been altered and, for whatever reason, the
prospect of spending the day in the same suit jacket and slacks he‟d been wearing the
night before seemed unbearable. He recalled a Kmart up the street from their motel. In
small towns, such places were not only convenience stores with household and office
products, but they also were somewhat accomplished clothing boutiques. They would
have something more comfortable and far less gamey for him to wear. Payton felt the
keys in his pocket. He considered waking Chanel to tell her where he was going, but she
was sleeping peacefully and he didn‟t have the heart to wake her.
Twilight was setting in as he cautiously exited the room to the parking lot. He got
into the rental sedan, depositing the SIG in the dash. The Kmart was only a mile or so
down the road, but he would still have to drive very carefully. Chances were pretty good
that their plates had been tagged in the warrant. At the very least there would be a BOLO
on the car, a police acronym for be on the lookout. It was unlikely that the authorities
would be actively searching for them this far from Boston, or any other major city for
that matter. But if he sped, rolled through a stop sign, gave them any reason to run his
plates, he was certain to be in trouble.
Briefly he toyed with the idea of leaving Chanel on her own, driving to the nearest
police station, and turning himself in. The only weapon he had on him was the SIG, and
it wouldn‟t match whatever weapon had killed the old man. He momentarily thought that
might be enough to vindicate him.
Don’t be stupid, he thought. Any group cunning enough to organize that setup the
day before would certainly be good enough to falsify the ballistics, or at least the report.
No, it’s better to remain on the run for now, to take some time to figure out what the hell
we are going to do.
He put the sedan in gear and pulled out of the parking lot. It was still early
evening, around dinnertime. It would probably be as busy a traffic time as this little town
was likely to have. Even so, in the one mile trip to the Kmart, Payton couldn‟t have seen
more than ten other cars on the road. He passed a bait shop, and then a small diner.
There had been a moment of panic, when Payton had passed up a local police car taking
radar. But he‟d been traveling the speed limit and the angle probably wouldn‟t have
allowed the cop to get a good enough view of the sedan‟s rear to run his plates. Soon he
pulled into the Kmart parking lot.
The Kmart was big and blue, looking for the entire world like an oversized tool
shed, some twenty thousand square feet of retail space within its walls. Payton had spent
enough time in small towns during his tenure at CUFOS that he knew big box stores like
this were the epicenter of these communities. He wasn‟t surprised to see quadruple the
number of cars parked in the lot compared to on the streets. He left the SIG in the dash
as he got out of the car and made his way to towards the front doors.
The people working at the store were friendly, happily pointing him to the men‟s
clothing section. The clothing was cheap, which was a good thing as they were running
low on cash and he had no intention of using his credit card. He leafed through the racks,
picking out two pair of ten-dollar jeans and a couple of reasonably priced polo shirts. He
carried them by their hangers, picked up a few packs of boxers and socks, and made his
way to the checkout lines. After another few minutes, and with the removal of a good
portion of his remaining cash, he was making his way towards the exit. At the last
moment, he stopped at a periodical kiosk and picked up a local newspaper and walked
out the door.
After loading the bags in the trunk of the sedan, he climbed into the front seat and
opened the paper, scanning the headlines. He had half expected to see their names
splashed across the front page, or at least some blurb about the shooting in south Boston.
There was no mention of it at all, however, and the headlines indicated a rather slow
news day: unexpectedly warm weather across the country, an impromptu meeting of the
Tri-Lateral Commission in Washington, and a scathing report on the current
administration and its failure to stem the tide of rising oil and gas prices. He folded the
paper back up and tossed it on the passenger seat before pulling out of the parking lot and
heading back to the motel.
This was all going smoothly, so much so that his heartbeat hardly picked up when
he passed the diner and its idle squad car once more. He wasn‟t sure he completely
trusted all this good fortune, but he‟d made the conscious decision to shed his paranoia by
the time he parked the sedan once more in front of their room at the motel. He was
feeling an unexpected sense of calm as he removed the SIG from the dash opened the
door to their room.
“You stupid son of a bitch!” Chanel was standing next to the bed, fully dressed in
khakis and a blouse, and glaring daggers at him.
“Where the hell have you been?” she asked. Her fists were clenched.
Payton took the clothes he‟d bought and tossed them on the bed. “Secret
mission,” he said with a smile. “To get me some clean clothes. It was tough, but I
figured I could handle it myself.”
She took a furious step forward and crossed her arms. “Damn it, Doc, leave me a
note next time. I had no idea where you were. I thought you had left me. I thought you
had decided to do something stupid like turn yourself in.” She caught her breath. “Just
leave a damn note next time.”
Payton studied her a moment, uncomfortably aware of how accurate her concerns
were. He had indeed thought about turning himself in as a way to get the heat off of her
and onto him alone.
But she didn‟t need to know that.
“I‟m going to shower,” he told her. He never liked to admit fear, but still he gave
her a wide berth as he made his way to the bathroom. She continued to glare at him as he
The motel might not have been luxurious, but there was nothing wrong with the
hot water. Payton locked the door, stripped, and placed the SIG on the sink before
starting a long hot shower. He hadn‟t realized the toll the past couple of days had taken
on him until the steamy water hit his shoulders. The ache washed off him with the dried
sweat and grime, swirling on the porcelain below before slipping into the drain. Between
the sleep he‟d gotten earlier and now the shower, he finally felt normal again.
He began to work through their options for the day. The problem was that they
were going to need cash. The CUFOS credit card Payton carried would be useless, likely
cancelled, and their personal credit cards were sure to be flagged. Checks were a better
option, since there would be a two or three day delay before the transaction was reported,
but Payton still hoped to avoid leaving any kind of trail for the authorities to follow. It
might be something they could use once or twice, but they would have to be on the move
immediately after they issued a check, and the purchase would have to be small. No
matter how they managed their funds, there was one thing Payton was sure of.
They were going to need a friend.
His mind continued to work as he toweled off. He had few friends, truth be told,
but those he had he trusted. One catch was going to be getting them to take the situation
seriously. Being wanted for murder would get their attention, of course, but if he and
Chanel were going to continue on their search for the location of the mainframe terminal,
they were going to need the kind of help for which Payton had only one reliable source.
He was going to have to try and contact Chuck. This presented a different set of
challenges. Using their cell phones was out, obviously. In fact, they probably ought to
get rid of the CUFOS issued phones altogether. Payton had made a point of making sure
Chanel had shut hers off, but technological revelations seemed to be coming at a fast clip
this past week, and he didn‟t trust the GPS tracking capability that came in all modern
phones to be completely idle. Emails would probably be better, although those too were
sure to be monitored. Fortunately he was fairly certain that Chuck‟s unregistered email
drop addresses would go completely undetected by anyone trying to monitor him. It was
also fortunate that Chuck had long ago made Payton commit those addresses to memory.
Payton had thought it was funny back then. Now, however, he was thankful that his
friend had a way to be discreetly contacted.
No, the real problem was getting on the web to send the message at all, preferably
without alerting the authorities. The laptops they carried with them, again issued by
CUFOS, had a unique signal sure to be monitored. Even if they accessed the web on the
computers through a public connection, say the motel‟s wireless network, the IP address
would still show as being registered to Payton Connor or Chanel Falasco of CUFOS, and
would provide any snooping agents a relatively precise location of the access point. So
where could they go for a discreet connection?
Payton finished drying his hair and looked at himself in the mirror, mussing his
scalp to get the moisture out. He peeled the tags off of his new clothes and pulled them
on. He thought he looked kind of silly in the jeans and light blue polo, but with little
choice he simply tucked the shirt in, pulled on a fresh pair of socks, and took one of the
single-serving mouthwash bottles and emptied its contents into his mouth. As he swished
the blue liquid in his mouth, his thoughts drifted to Chanel and his hope that she wasn‟t
still angry with him.
Thankfully she wasn‟t; when he returned from the bathroom he found her sitting
at the edge of the bed with the television on. He looked at the screen and saw the Cubs
and the Fenway Park in the background. “They winning?” he asked.
“Up three in the fourth,” she answered.
“You‟re watching the Cubs? I thought you were a Sox fan.”
“Somebody told me once that you can learn a lot about life by watching baseball.”
She smiled at him.
Payton took a breath and braced himself. “I want to get a message to Chuck,” he
To his surprise, she merely nodded. “I was thinking the same thing.” Payton
must have given her a funny look, because she went on to explain. “Oh, don‟t look so
shocked. He‟s still got the code from the DAT tape. It might be able to tell us where the
mainframe access point is.”
Payton gave himself a mental slap on the back of the head. He had been so
focused on Chuck‟s ability to get around any government monitoring that he‟d
completely forgotten about the DAT tape they had stolen from the pumping station in
New Mexico. “We‟re paid up through tomorrow morning, and my inclination is to get
him out here. But I‟m having trouble figuring out how to get a message to him.” He
went on to explain his concerns about how they were to get online to send the email.
“Well,” she said. “What are you going to have him do?”
“I think he ought to just come out here,” Payton said. “He might have a tail on
him, too, but I trust Chuck to be able to get around that kind of snoopware.”
“Will he fly out here if you ask?” Chanel asked, looking doubtful.
She studied him a moment, then got up and went to the nightstand next to the bed.
She reached into the drawer and retrieved a paper pad and pen. “Here,” she said, handing
it to him. “Write down what you want me to put in the email & the address you want it
Payton paused. “You figured something out?” He would have waited for an
answer, but Chanel was busy altering her appearance. She started with her hair, tossing it
to one side in a seductive sweep. Then she reached into her blouse and cupped each of
her breasts, giving them a not so subtle lift. Finally, she slid her jeans down her waist so
that they were hitched low, the belt clinging to her hipbones. “Uh, what are you doing?”
“The kid at the front desk, Doc,” she muttered, not looking at him, still adjusting
herself. “He had a laptop. Playing a game on it, if I remember correctly. He was really
into it, too.” She smiled slyly. “Until he saw me, that is.”
Of course, Payton thought. The kid had his laptop. More than likely it was his
personal machine, what with the games on it and the controller. This meant that when it
accessed a network, say a motel‟s wireless network, it would list the IP address under the
kid‟s name. Even if by chance the laptop was company issued, that would only help.
Then it would be the motel‟s laptop accessing the motel‟s network. What could be more
routine? A message to one of Chuck‟s discreet email accounts would probably go
“Okay,” he said. “Give me the pad and pen.”
He toyed with the idea of putting the message in some easily deciphered code, but
thought better of it. Speed was something of a concern here, and misjudging Chuck‟s
ability to translate whatever cipher he used might lead to delay. Instead, he kept the
message short and simple, informing his friend that they were out of reach by cell phone
and he would have to find them once he reached town. To get him there, Payton left
several references to Arnold Palmer and the motel‟s proximity to one of the
championship golf courses the legendary player had designed. Finally, he included one
of Chuck‟s email accounts.
He handed the pad to Chanel. “That should do it. When you send it, see if the kid
will let you hang around for a few minutes. Chuck should respond fairly quickly.”
She scanned the message, looking skeptical. “Is he going to be able to figure this
“Chuck‟s a paranoid ass,” Payton smiled. “But he‟s not short on smarts. He‟ll
“But when will he get it? Who knows when he‟ll check his email?”
“You don‟t know Chuck,” Payton said, his smile widening. He glanced at his
watch. Nine-thirty at night, his clock read. “Chuck will be online when you send the
Her expression wrinkled. “On a Friday night?”
Is it already Friday, he thought. “Trust me, he‟ll be on. Just send the message.”
She twirled around slowly in a manner that reminded Payton of a fashion model.
“So? Do I look fetching enough to manipulate a twenty year old geek?”
Payton refrained from the response that jumped immediately to mind. She didn‟t
look good; she looked great. He‟d already recognized that she was attractive, especially
in casual clothing. Between the seductive hair and the jeans riding low, she added a
certain degree of sensuality to her appearance. Payton was having trouble forcing
himself not to stare.
“Just don‟t give the poor kid a heart attack,” he said.
After she had left, Payton had busied himself with the coffee machine on the
dresser. Motel coffee was usually terrible, but he was pleasantly surprised to find the
room stocked with several name brand grounds. Soon the entire motel room was filled
with the bold aroma of brewing java. While he waited for the percolator to work its
magic, Payton folded his dirty laundry onto the seat of the room‟s only chair. Then he
placed the SIG under the folded clothes so that it was hidden from view, but within easy
By the time he was pouring himself his first cup, Chanel had been gone for nearly
fifteen minutes. Payton sat on the edge of his bed with his coffee and watched the
baseball game. The Cubs were still in Boston and they were enough to momentarily
distract him from all the trouble in which they were in.
He had said that baseball was a game about life back in Boston. Could it really
only have been twenty-four hours ago? He suddenly felt tired again and began drinking
the coffee quickly to get a caffeine buzz going.
Chanel returned a few minutes later, about the time the Cubs closer struck out the
side and won the game. She looked hungrily at the coffee machine a moment, and
Payton poured her a cup. She told him she‟d convinced the kid to hand over the laptop,
although he‟d insisted on watching over her shoulder, more to look down her blouse than
out of any interest in her activities. She‟d sent the message without incident, and then
had endured fifteen minutes of flirting with the kid while he showed her “how cool” his
personal laptop was, with all of its upgrades and peripherals.
He saw her shudder visibly. “God, that kid was creepy.”
Payton laughed, thinking that the kid sounded very much like a Chuck-in-training.
“I take it you got a response.”
“Yes,” she said. She handed him a computer printout and then stood back and
took a long sip of her coffee. “You‟ve got some strange friends.”
Payton opened the printout out and read it to himself.
Good to hear from you. I heard your trip out East was a killer. I received your
message and need to see you right away. Have information that cannot wait. I’ll fill
you in when I come out, but let’s just say that there are some very powerful people
applying pressure on you to turn yourself in. You can expect me in the morning.
Maybe we can play a round of golf or something.
Payton let out his breath slowly. Chuck had gotten the message and his reference
to playing golf made it certain that he knew their location. The message also indicated
his friend would be leaving immediately, catching a redeye so as to get to Latrobe into
the early hours the following morning. He wasn‟t quite sure what to make of the
reference to people applying pressure on him, but he‟d get the full story soon enough.
It was roughly ten in the evening. It was about four hours by plane from Chicago
to Pennsylvania. Ideally he would fly into either Penn State‟s tiny airport in University
Park or at least into nearby Pittsburgh. That would mean he‟d be exiting the tarmac at
roughly three in the morning. From either location, it wouldn‟t be more than a few hours
by car to their motel.
“When do you think he‟ll get here?” Chanel asked.
Payton had already done the math. “I‟d guess somewhere around six or seven
“What do we do until then?” she asked.
“Well, you‟re already dressed up,” he answered. “How about we get something
Her eyebrows went up. “The entire world is after us and you want to take me out
on a date?”
A date. “Not a date,” he said, perhaps a bit too quickly judging by her smirk.
“But there‟s no sense in starving ourselves. I checked the local paper this morning.
There was no mention of the old man in Boston. Between the distance and our fake
identification, I think it‟d be safe for us to grab a bite to eat in a rural town restaurant.”
“Ah, so this isn‟t just idle talk. You have an eatery in mind?”
He hadn‟t thought it that far through, actually, but he immediately thought of the
diner half a mile down the road. It had had that backcountry look, invoking thoughts of
heavy waitresses with cheery dispositions and molasses accents. That type of place was
downright exotic to a city rat like Payton. He offered the diner as his choice to Chanel.
“Sounds wonderful,” she responded. “Did you buy anything dressier than that
polo this morning?”
“I‟m afraid not,” Payton grinned. “I guess you‟re going to have to slum it with
Chanel sighed theatrically. “That‟s okay. I‟m used to being the good looking
Payton laughed, grabbed his jacket, and made for the door. Before exiting the
motel room, he briefly thought about returning to the chair and retrieving the SIG, but
thought instead of his own words to his partner moments earlier. Surely in this small
Pennsylvanian town they would find no trouble.
He turned to walk back out the door into the parking lot where Chanel was
waiting in the sedan.
They were seated at the diner and leafing through their respective menus. It was
mostly rural American fare, heavy on the red meat and vegetables, short on any type of
cultural or ethnic flair. They had already ordered their drinks, light beer for both of them,
and were now deciding on entrées. Payton had just begun piecing through the listings
when Chanel closed her menu, placed it on the table, and caught the waitress‟ attention.
He looked up. “What are you having?”
“Southwest burger with coleslaw and fries, cooked rare. Oh, and I could use
another beer,” she said. She saw him staring at her. “What?”
“How do you eat that crap and manage to look like that?” he asked, wrinkling his
“Aw,” she crooned, grinning at him devilishly. “You think I look good, do you?”
Payton felt blood rush to his face. He turned back to his menu. When he looked
back up at the waitress, he found she too was grinning at him knowingly. “Chicken
sandwich,” he said. “And as big a side of cottage cheese as you can find back there.”
The waitress left with their order.
Payton was about to make conversation, but saw Chanel still giving him that look.
“What?” he asked.
That smirk was still playing across her face. “Doc thinks I‟m pretty,” she chimed
in a singsong voice.
He took a sip from his beer. “I think you‟re my partner,” he told her, trying to
make it sound stern. “And partners don‟t talk about that type of thing. And they
definitely don‟t get involved.”
“Hey, don‟t get so defensive, Doc. It‟s okay to tell a woman she looks good.”
“Fine,” Payton sighed. “You look good.”
She smiled. “Well thank you.” Her face grew more serious. “Besides, we‟re not
“I don‟t think so,” she shook her head. “We can‟t be a CUFOS investigating team
if there‟s no CUFOS, can we?”
A technicality, Payton thought, but ultimately true. For now. “We‟ll get the
Center cleared,” he said, forcing confidence into his voice.
“I hope so,” she replied, her facing showing creases. “What if we can‟t do it?
What if they never reopen CUFOS? I know I only just started, but after the past week I
can‟t imagine doing anything else.”
Payton knew what she meant. It was an interesting job, working for CUFOS.
Fun even. And there was always that first case or investigation that really grabbed you,
caught you up in the web so that you couldn‟t dream of leaving. To have that case occur
in your first week must have been nearly overwhelming.
“What would you do if you couldn‟t work at CUFOS anymore?” she asked,
interrupting his thoughts.
Payton considered the question, but could not come up with an answer. “I have
no idea,” he said. He chuckled. “Mall security, maybe. Chasing after little shoplifters
instead of little green men.”
Chanel laughed with him. “Can I still be your partner?”
Payton nodded. “It‟d be worth it just to see you in the uniform.”
Their food came and they dug in. Her burger looked delicious and his sandwich
wasn‟t half bad. The waitress had even made good on the cottage cheese, heaped in what
looked like a cereal bowl on the side. When he‟d been young, Payton‟s father had often
taken them fishing and hunting in the country. His father liked to refer to them as their
“little adventures”, and part of the fun was eating at the local joints, enjoying the country
food. For a kid born and raised in the city, it was a treat to taste country cooking.
And the diner didn‟t disappoint. The chicken was cooked perfectly, with poppy
seeds and mustard on the bun. The cottage cheese tasted like it was homemade, not that
garbage that came in the plastic tins. It was a throwback to days long gone, when farmers
sold their foodstuffs to local diners. Farmers that took pride in their stock, and cooks
who took equal pride in their craft. It made the food taste that much better, just thinking
of the work that went into each bite.
From the way she was wolfing down her burger, Chanel too was enjoying her
“You know,” he said conversationally. “Before the move toward corporate
agriculture, this must have been how all food tasted.”
Chanel took a swig of her beer and washed down what she had been chewing.
She then raised her bottle in salute. “To the independent farmer.”
Payton smiled and clinked bottles with her.
“Are you an anti-globalist, Doc?” she asked between bites.
“Last week I‟d have said no. After everything we‟ve seen…I‟m not so sure.”
Payton shook his head. “My whole career at CUFOS has been built on disproving
crackpot stories. Now I‟m living one.”
“Fun, isn‟t it?”
Fun? “I want to go home,” he said.
They ate in silence. Payton started thinking about the task ahead of them.
Evading arrest until they managed to clear themselves was a daunting task in itself. The
thought of also trying to find the mainframe access point was enough to bring on
exhaustion. Having Chuck with them would be of help. But without the old man to
guide them, Payton was beginning to feel lost. Their mole, their guardian angel was no
more. How would they know where to begin? How would they decide what to do next?
As if he were shouting his thoughts instead of internalizing them, Chanel reached
across the table and patted his hand. “Relax, Doc,” she said. “We‟ll get this straightened
Payton smiled at her. “I thought I was supposed to comfort you,” he said.
“So sorry for not playing the damsel in distress for you,” she mocked.
“Especially after you did it so well last night,” Payton said. Her face went cold.
“Hey, I was kidding.”
“Forget it,” she said, and returned to her burger and beer.
“I just think we should have this discussion now. I wouldn‟t want something to
happen simply because of all the stress we‟re under. We‟d probably regret it later,” he
“It‟s not a problem,” she said gruffly.
“You sure? Because it seemed to me that you‟ve come on pretty strong lately.”
“I said drop it, Doc,” she snapped. Her face flushed red and he immediately
regretted speaking so frankly.
He tried to make conversation throughout the rest of their meal, but her normally
congenial disposition had been chased away and was replaced by a perpetual scowl.
Suddenly she began complaining about the food, the service, the beer. Eventually he
gave up trying to be friendly and concentrated on eating.
They finished and he paid in cash. It was a quick and silent ride back to their
motel room, where they watched a little television and then went to sleep.
On separate sides of the bed.
She still wasn‟t speaking much when they awoke the next day. Checkout was at
eleven, and Payton had no intention of spending another night in this dingy motel.
Sharing a bed with an angry woman had made the cramped room exponentially more
uncomfortable. They took turns in the bathroom, drank their coffee from the machine,
and sat on separate sides of the bed watching Sports Center.
Twice he considered trying to talk to her, to put an end to this quiet siege. Both
times he changed his mind after giving the matter further thought. If he tried to drag her
back to civility, she was likely to resist and the situation would worsen. Allowing her to
get there herself, on the other hand, was far more likely to yield an agreeable outcome.
He just hoped she got there quickly. Chuck was due any moment, and their situation was
simply too dire to put up with the added tension.
What made this so difficult? So he had touched a nerve being frank about her
behavior. So what? Perhaps she was feeling vulnerable and was the type of person that
didn‟t like that feeling. I’m one of those people, too, he thought. Her comment about
being a damsel in distress was ringing in his ear. It rattled around there along with his
poke at their interaction with each other in bed the previous night.
He hadn‟t had to worry about such pretzel closeness this last time around. His
partner had bade him a curt goodnight and fallen asleep without another word. Silent
though she might be, lying on her side and facing the other direction near her edge of the
mattress spoke volumes.
When was this going to end?
He swung his legs over the edge of the comforter and got up to go to the
bathroom. Payton loved coffee, good or bad. He had grown up drinking it early, as far
back as high school. Maple coffee, iced coffee, caramel coffee, black coffee, Irish
coffee; they were all good. At mid-adulthood, the very idea of not beginning the day
with a morning brew was laughable. The effect on his bladder was a tolerable side effect.
He walked around the heap of wet towels on the tiled floor. True to his earlier
predilection, the grout in between the squares was darkened with grime. The mirror
above the sink offered a poor reflection thanks in large part to condensation streaks left
from their earlier showers. As he flipped up the seat he noticed rust marks around the
bolts that held the cover in place. Where were all these things last night? He finished
relieving himself and walked back into the other room.
Chanel looked up. “The Cubs won,” she said.
Payton looked at her. “What?”
“Last night. We left for dinner before the fourth, and I thought you‟d want to
know that they won.”
It was a considerate thing to do, tell him his favorite team had won the night
before. Not a big gesture, to be sure, but it was a sign the healing process had begun. He
thought it best not to put a spotlight on her, though, so he thanked her and shut his mouth
and went back to standing quietly.
She didn‟t let him stand idle for long.
“Look,” she started. Payton watched defiance flair across her face for the briefest
moment and then give way to sheepishness. “About last night…”
“Forget it,” Payton cut her off. “I didn‟t mean to upset you.”
“That‟s no excuse for me being a bitch,” she said with a smile.
Payton could tell she was as relieved as he was, but he didn‟t know where this
conversation was supposed to go next. She had apologized, he had expressed his
regret…Now what? His father had been the old school military type. The old man had
enjoyed his coffee strong, his whiskey stronger, and movies that featured John Wayne.
The Duke‟s policy of never apologizing had been instilled into Payton for as long as he
could remember. Now, confronted with a remorseful compatriot, he had no idea how to
“This makes you uncomfortable, doesn‟t it?” Chanel asked as though she were
reading his mind.
He grimaced. “I thought I was hiding it better than that.”
“You weren‟t,” she said with a smile. Her expression turned serious. “The next
few days isn‟t going to be easy for us. It‟s important that we‟re on the same page. I
won‟t let petty confrontations get in the way. You have my word.”
He was about to respond, but twisted at the sound of a knock on the door. “Speak
of the devil,” Payton said with a smile. He went to the door, reached out for the handle,
then thought better of it and peered through the keyhole.
The man on the other side of the fisheye had his back turned. The profile from
behind was framed by a long trench coat, beige and hanging low. Poking out from the
other side of the coat Payton could see the edges of a cardboard pizza box. His stomach
dropped an inch or two. The old man! How could it be?
Payton fumbled with the deadbolt and tore open the door. “You son of a bitch,”
he laughed with a slap on the other‟s back.
Chuck turned around with the pizza box in his hand. “Well I‟m happy to see you
too, bright eyes,” his friend said with a grin. He lifted up the pizza box. “Breakfast?”
They sat around the hotel room and dug into the pizza. He and Chanel were back
on their opposite sides of the bed, minus the animosity, and Chuck was seated in the
room‟s sole chair. Chuck had somehow come up with a pie that included scrambled egg
and bacon for toppings. It would have been disgusting if he hadn‟t been starving. And
the truth was it didn‟t taste half bad.
Judging by the way she was efficiently demolishing the four pieces she‟d taken
thus far, Chanel concurred.
“You said you had something for us?” Payton asked through a mouthful of bacon
and sauce. “So let‟s hear it.”
“Uh, yeah, Doc,” Chuck started. Then he bit his lower lip. “There‟s something
you need to know.”
Chuck rarely had this kind of grave expression. Payton put his pizza down.
“Why do I get the feeling that you‟re about to tell me about this pressure that‟s being
applied to me?”
“Yeah, about that,” he said. He sat down on the bed. “Doc, your niece is
Payton stood up. “What?”
“Apparently Jennifer was taken out of her babysitter‟s house yesterday,” Chuck
said solemnly. “They left a note.”
Payton sat back down, dread washing over him. “What did it say?”
“It said: you have two days to return the disc or she dies.” Chuck shook his head.
“Jesus, Doc. I‟m so sorry.”
Chanel put a hand on his shoulder.
“Where are they holding her?” Payton asked, ignoring her touch.
“Actually, I might have an idea about that,” Chuck said. He reached into his bag
and pulled out some papers. “I think the answer might be in the code you had me looking
“Just tell me where my niece is.”
“I‟m pretty sure I can do that. You‟re not going to believe this,” Chuck said. “I
went through the DAT tape with a fine tooth…well, mouse, I suppose. It‟s really genius
stuff, light years ahead of anything else I‟ve seen, but whoever encrypted this stuff is a
complete moron. They encrypted the actual file object with 256 bit AES, but they left the
back door open for the code, so to speak. I was able to pull a significant amount of the
coding for the sequencing and transportation. It‟s not the actual meat of the file, but it
gives us a ton of information we didn‟t know before.”
“Chuck, they have Jennifer,” Payton interrupted him. “Get to the point.”
“Oh yeah. Right.” He reached into the briefcase he had brought with him and
retrieved a pair of printouts. He handed one to each of them. “I went through what I
could decrypt, looking for anything that you might be able to use. Here‟s what I came up
Payton scanned the printout.
Executing "Echelon COINTELPRO run 2008btel”
Process: Echelon COINTELPRO sequence overclock
Link: SatNet Pioneer
Link Dest: <DeepSat USS Tannenbaum>
Link Reroute: Tandem LinkSat Station
Exit NCords <334.32x67.2>
Return code to parent process: COINTELPRO
Executing "DataWrite Sequence to backup device “LogKeeper””
PreWrite: to <334.32x67.2> \Backup sequence to “LogKeeper”
Process: DataWrite w/Limiting agent
Link: 2ndary destination <MobileSat NavySat 22399>
Link Dest: <SatNet Pioneer>
Link Reroute: <Direct>
Exit Ncords <224.00x109.99>
Return code to parent process: COINTELPRO
Executing "DataRip to recovery native”
EndWrite: to <224.00x109.99>
Process: DataWrite to native
Enter full sequence and unRip
Process: Recover Data<native> from <SatFile Cmprss>
Return data to parent directory: MJ12:\COINTELPRO_ROOT\
Access point for MnFrm <512.02x115.99> encrypted sequence
For Access point MnFrm: Pswrd Req
Payton looked up at Chanel. He watched her brow furrow, lacking
comprehension. Eventually she looked back at him and shrugged. Payton turned to his
friend. “Chuck, you know you‟re going to have to walk us through this.”
His friend sighed. “What jumps out at you?”
“COINTELPRO is all over the place,” Chanel piped up.
“Sure is,” Chuck nodded. “All over the rest of the coding too. The DAT came
out to something like two hundred pages of coding, with COINTELPRO listed over four
hundred times throughout the language. But this sequence is different. It doesn‟t just
designate the program, it designates its routing sequence.”
Payton looked back down at his copy of the printout. “It does?”
“Sure. See all the program lines with the link demarcation? Those are routing
sequences, moving the data stream collected by network to and from specific locations.”
Chuck read off of his own copy. “In the first sequence, data is streaming to a satellite
called Pioneer, presumably somewhere in orbit. Then it goes to some Navy ship, where
it‟s sent back out under an encrypted tandem router before finally coming to rest at these
coordinates: three-three-four dot three-two by six-seven dot two.”
“Hmm,” Payton frowned. “Latitude by longitude?”
“That‟s what I thought,” Chuck nodded. “But when I ran the numbers, I came up
empty. All the normal mapping numbers led to locations that were incongruent with the
data, or they else they were totally nonexistent points.” Chuck stood up. “But let‟s come
back to that. Take a look at the second sequence.”
“The same coordinates appear in the second line,” Chanel murmured.
“Correct. They denote the pre-write location, or the starting point for the next
sequence. The data goes from those coordinates to a backup site with a limiting agent.
This programming object called LogKeeper. That one I‟m lost on, unfortunately. I‟ve
never heard anything like it in programming language.”
Payton looked at Chanel. Might this LogKeeper be their librarian in
Gaithersburg? “Weird,” he said mechanically.
“Yeah, well, it‟s obviously storage space, meant to backup the collected data
stream for later analysis. The data stream splits there and also gets routed to a mobile
Navy satellite, bounces off of the Pioneer, and ends up at a second set of numbered
“I assume those aren‟t typical demarcations either?” Payton asked.
“I‟m afraid not. I knew right away they wouldn‟t be, after running the previous
numbers, but I did check to be sure.” Chuck smiled. “The last sequence is by far the
most enlightening. You‟ve got the previous coordinates again, this time the starting
point. The code directs the program write the data to the parent directory in its
Chanel tapped her sheet. “What is this tech-speak about? Recover data? Un-rip?
Native?” She looked back up at Chuck, thoroughly lost.
Chuck turned to her to explain. “When information is transmitted over this type
of data stream, it has to be compressed. You familiar with zip file algorithms?”
Chanel shook her head.
She sighed. “No, other than when I convert my digital photos into a JPEG file.”
“Good,” Chuck brightened. “Take your digital picture, composed and captured in
hi-res and stored on your hard drive. Now when it is originally captured, the picture is
made up of a series of points on a matrix and instructions determining what color they
should be. Thirty-two bit settings mean over two million colors, but the truth is the
average digital photo only utilizes about a third of that.” When Chanel frowned at him,
he explained further. “Take a picture of a flower, say a rose. You‟re going to have lots
of reds and greens, probably some yellow, and maybe a touch of blue for the sky, right?
But you probably won‟t have a lot of grays, or blacks, or purples. And there are a lot of
shades of those colors that you can omit from the two million totals. Follow me?”
“Yeah, I get it,” Chanel nodded.
“Well, even with only a third of the colors in the picture, you‟re still talking about
a lot of information. The average hi-res photo has something like a million points on the
matrix for which it has to define a color. When all of these million or so points are
colored in, you get your photo. Got it?”
“Now, what takes up so much space and data for these types of photos is that you
have to write instructions for colors at each spot on the matrix. That‟s one million lines
of instructions. Compression programs cut those lines of code tenfold.”
Chanel‟s frown deepened. “How?”
“We already agreed that the majority of the colors in a typical photo are the same,
or similar. And we know that in its uncompressed format, each line of instruction
denotes one point on the photo‟s matrix. For your flower, the program might read that
point one by one is green, one by two is green, one by three is green, and so on. JPEG
compression rewrites the file to say that point one by one is green, and so are the next
twenty points, or whatever. Depending on the photo, you cut your lines of code by as
much as fifty percent or so. This reduces the file size and allows for quicker copying,
pasting, or transmission.”
Chanel brightened. “I get it. Less code means reduced file size.”
Chuck nodded approvingly. “Now, instead of a digital photo, consider other data,
say vocal recordings. The same theory applies. Much of what occurs in audio recordings
is repeated information: large sections of silence, sounds that are similar, etcetera. So
audio compression works the same way as our JPEG compression formatting.”
“Well…” Payton piped up from the other side of the bed.
“Hey,” Chuck shot him a look. “Layman‟s terms.”
“Yeah,” Chanel smiled. “Layman‟s terms.”
“So,” Chuck continued. “Our program here transmits its data stream in a
compressed format, bouncing it off all of these locations, before coming to rest at this
parent directory, marked as MJ12. There we can assume that a decompression program
is integrated to un-rip the file back to its native state so that it can be read.”
“So in programming language, native means uncompressed?” Chanel asked.
“You got it,” Chuck said. He tapped his page again. “In this case, the native files
are located in this parent directory, which is accessed from this final set of coordinates.”
He looked at Payton. “And before you ask, these coordinates are in the same uncommon
format as the previous demarcations.”
Chuck had a way of building to suspense like this, Payton knew. Especially when
he was particularly proud of whatever he‟d come up with. “Just tell us what you found
out about the coordinates,” Payton said. He did nothing to keep the impatience out of his
His friend gave him a plaintive look. “No foreplay?”
He sighed. “Each time the coordinates are first mentioned in the code, they are
preceded by this designation: Ncords. It wasn‟t a plotting format I was familiar with, and
I was at a loss for a while. Until I started looking at the relays.”
Payton glanced down at his sheet. “The relays?”
“Come on, Doc,” Chuck smiled. “It‟s not that tough.”
“N cords…” Payton trailed off. “Navy coordinates?”
“Close,” Chuck said. “But no cigar. Navy coordinates have followed the
traditional longitude and latitude format for the past hundred years or so. But before they
made the transition, they used an older format, one that hasn‟t been used outside of the
military in almost three hundred years.” He pointed at his printout. “These are nautical
Payton glanced at Chanel and saw her return a blank expression. He turned back
to Chuck. “Never heard of them.”
“That‟s the point,” his friend said. “Other than the Navy, no one has used this
format since colonial times. I did a little research on them and found out the nautical
format was developed by European bankers who needed a way to divide up investment
properties in the New World and Africa in the fourteen hundreds. It was a collaborative
effort by the major financial institutions in France, Spain, and Portugal.”
European bankers. “Templars?” Payton asked.
“That would seem likely,” Chuck nodded. “At least some within the group,
almost certainly. I‟ve looked into them a couple of times in the past and this type of
thing was their forte. In any case, I found an old copy of the format key on the website
for the Nautical Historical Society and plugged in the numbers.”
“And?” Payton pressed.
“The first coordinates, where this LogKeeper object is employed, are in a suburb
in Maryland. Some place called Gaithersburg. There‟s not much there, other than the
homes of a few politically connected families and some corporate buildings.”
Payton glanced again at Chanel and saw similar recognition across her face. She
now knew as well as he did to what the LogKeeper object in the coding referred. The
memory of the avatar came to mind. In fact, now that he knew what he was looking at,
the limiting agent the coding referred to was probably what had kept the program from
divulging the full data banks available through the mainframe.
He looked back to Chuck, who was continuing as he ran his forefinger down the
“The next set is even creepier,” Chuck said. “You‟ll never guess the location of
Payton smiled. “Fort Meade, Maryland?”
Chuck stared at him. “How did you know?”
“Come on, Chuck. It‟s an NSA DAT tape. You already told us their headquarters
is in the Fort Meade facility.”
Chuck stared at him a moment more. Then his face cleared and he smiled once
more. “I‟ll bet you can‟t tell me the location of the last coordinates.”
Payton shrugged. “Nope, sure can‟t.”
“Think close to home,” Chuck smiled.
Home? “Chicago?” Payton asked after a moment‟s hesitation.
“Not quite. Like I said, close to home. It‟s out in the west suburbs, actually, in
the town of Oak Brook.” He must have seen the skeptical look that Payton could feel
crease his face, because he hurried to continue. “Don‟t look so surprised. That suburb is
one of the wealthiest townships per capita in the country. It has the nation‟s largest
outdoor mall, vacation homes for politicos and the elite, and the headquarters of one of
the world‟s largest corporations.”
Payton nodded. He had passed the McDonalds building many times when
traveling to Oak Brook Mall in his youth. Still, it was difficult to imagine the quiet
suburb hiding anything as insidious as an Illuminati building. He voiced as much to his
Chuck shrugged. “I‟m just telling you where the coordinates are,” he said.
Chanel shook her head. “So the access point is in the McDonalds building?”
“No,” Chuck said. “These coordinates point just to the northeast of the Oak
Brook Mall property.”
Payton dug through his memory for the layout of the area. “That land has several
bank administration buildings on it.”
Chuck nodded. “And one small laboratory building registered to the United
“And you think that‟s where they have Jennifer?”
“This building in Oak Brook isn‟t just a coincidence, Doc.” He bit his lip again.
“Plus there was this other bit of code that pointed to the Oak Brook building, but I‟m
pretty sure…It can‟t be real.”
Payton looked up again. “What do you mean?”
“Well, it‟s just,” Chuck began. “Look, Doc, it can’t be real.”
“What does the code do?” Chanel asked.
Chuck sighed. “Part of it is a countdown. It‟s been running for years, since
sometime during the Hoover days.” He paused. “At the end of the countdown the
second part of the code runs a program that basically shuts everything down.”
“It shuts down the Echelon network?” Payton asked. “Why would they want to
“I didn‟t say it shuts down Echelon, I said it shuts down everything. And I mean
everything. Basic government services, utilities, power plants, government facilities,
missile silos, NORAD, CIA, FBI, NSA. It all goes dark. All except this one building in
Oak Brook, which would still be plugged in and have access to the net.”
“Jesus,” Chanel whispered. “Can they really do that?”
“No,” Chuck said, shaking his head. “No way. It‟s not possible. It can’t be
possible. There have to be a million checks on this type of thing.”
Payton stared at him a moment as his mind worked through all the information
with which it had just been presented. It all pointed to one thing: they had to get into this
building in Oak Brook. His mind began to churn.
Breaking into the government building was sure to be far more difficult than
anything else they had thus far attempted, especially without the old man as a resource.
They were wanted for murder, and the warrant was sure to extend far beyond the Boston
region, probably nationwide. If they were going to have any chance at bargaining for
their freedom, they would need some kind of leverage over the NSA and its co-
It meant not only knowing where the access point was, but they would also need a
way to shut it down before the countdown ran out. Shut down the code, you shut down
the program, and that would prevent whatever these people were planning. The NSA and
the Illuminati were both adept at manipulating the press and putting forth misinformation,
so attempting to simply expose this whole thing was out. What they needed was a way to
threaten the mainframe, a way to bring it down around their collective ears before they
sent the country back to the stone age.
He posed the situation aloud to the others.
“I don‟t know, Doc,” Chanel said doubtfully. “I still don‟t think that code is
going to do what it says it will, but even if it did, how are we going to disrupt the data
stream? Or the mainframe itself? It‟s not like we can shoot the satellites out of the sky,
and I don‟t even want to think about trying to sneak into Fort Meade to plant explosives
on the mainframe itself.”
Payton had to agree. Aside from their lack of means, that type of action was
unlikely to endear the NSA to the idea of clearing them of the false murder charges. It all
came back to their need to get into this building in Oak Brook. He turned to Chuck.
“How about a more subtle approach?”
His friend regarded him warily. “What do you mean?”
“All we have to do is disable the mainframe, right?” Payton asked. “If we do that,
then all of this code is useless. They can gather all of the information off the network
they want, but it won‟t do them any good if they don‟t have anywhere to put it. Plus it
would take out this doomsday program, since it runs centrally from the mainframe.”
Chuck seemed to think about it for a moment, and then nodded slowly. “I
suppose that makes sense. Even if they amassed enough hardware to create a new
mainframe, they would have to totally rewrite most of the three million lines of code in
the routing software. That could take them years.” Chuck frowned and nodded towards
Chanel. “But she‟s right. Fort Meade is probably one of the ten most secure facilities in
the world. You‟re not going to be able to get in there.”
“Maybe we don‟t need to go to Fort Meade at all,” Payton mused. “Why can‟t we
corrupt the mainframe through the access point in Oak Brook?”
Chuck frowned. “What are you thinking?”
“How about a virus?” Payton asked.
“A digital phage,” Chuck said quietly, his frown deepening. “The drawback of
most viruses is that it‟s impossible to keep your fingerprints off of them. That and most
viruses try to make use of the data it is corrupting. In this case we wouldn‟t have to
worry about either. You‟d want them to know it was your virus, and the idea is to
destroy the mainframe with the virus, not employ it.” He smiled. “A phage might
“Can you make one?” Payton asked.
“All it has to do is destroy the software?”
Chuck reached into his pack and pulled out a tablet laptop computer. “It‟ll be
done in an hour. I have a few code templates that practically write themselves. I just
have to make a few alterations to the software. What else will you need?”
“A quick tutorial on how to upload the virus to the access point,” Payton said.
“Also, a ride back home would help, since the authorities will be looking for our rental
“You got it. Anything else?”
Payton looked at Chanel. She held up her thumb and forefinger and rubbed them
“Oh yeah, and as much cash as you can spare.”
Chuck smiled and nodded. A few moments later, he was hard at work on his
tablet. Payton and Chanel sat on the bed and worked out what they were going to do
once they got back to Chicago.
Where, one way or the other, he was going to get Jennifer back, stop whatever the
Illuminati had planned for the end of this countdown, and all of this was going to come to
They checked out of the motel shortly after eleven and piled into Chuck‟s rental
car, another non-descript sedan. Chuck insisted on driving, prompting Payton to
continuously caution him not to do anything to attract attention. Soon Chanel announced
that she wouldn‟t play audience to their bickering any longer. She was now lying across
the cramped backseat, fast asleep.
“She‟s a firecracker,” Chuck said from the driver‟s seat.
“Not bad looking, either. It‟s about time you had a woman in your life.”
Payton shot his friend a look from the passenger seat, silently ordering him off the
topic of his partner. Instead of conversation, Payton busied himself watching the
Pennsylvania countryside fly by. Highway Ninety would take them all the way home, to
Chicago. Chanel had said she had a friend on the South Side of the city they could stay
with while they were still on the run and Chuck had helped her send him a secure email
letting him know when they would be arriving. According to her it was close to her
apartment, giving them access to her car the following morning. Chuck had promised to
drop them off before returning home to keep from raising too much suspicion with
anyone who might be keeping tabs on him.
But first they had to get there.
They drove for a couple of hours. There wasn‟t much for variety, other than the
different classic rock radio stations that fuzzed in and out from the dashboard. They soon
left behind the hills of Pennsylvania and crossed into the plains of Ohio. Once they had
passed the “Welcome to Ohio” sign, the topography seemed to change as if on cue.
The highway would take them through Cleveland, if they didn‟t take the bypass.
Chuck suggested altering their course and Payton agreed. They turned off of Highway
Ninety and made their way through the small Cleveland suburbs. Payton nodded off for a
while until Chuck woke him around one in the afternoon.
“Where are we?” he yawned. He sat up in the passenger seat and looked around.
They were on one of those truck stop overpasses. There was a diesel station with a few
regular pumps. Alongside it was a convenience store. Atop the overpass was a visitor‟s
center, a rental car station, and the promise of food and refreshments. He turned to
Chuck. “You hungry?”
His friend patted his round lump of a stomach and smiled. “Always. But this
place should have wireless access, too. I want to run the virus past a couple friends of
Payton shot to sit straight up. “Oh, no you‟re not. You log onto a wireless
network through your tablet and we‟ll have NSA agents crawling up our ass. I‟m not yet
old enough for a prostate check.”
Chuck looked him up and down. “And how would they get up your ass with such
a large stick blocking their path?” His friend waved his concerns off with his hand. “My
anonymity software will keep them from tracing the ISP number to me.”
Payton wasn‟t so sure. He thought back to Chuck‟s similar assurances at the
Lucky Club in Chicago, when he‟d linked up to a wireless network while examining the
DAT tape for the first time. Certainly they hadn‟t suffered through any serious
consequences, but he remembered thinking he‟d been followed leaving Lucky Club. And
that Agent DeMarco seemed to have been able to track them, as well. He told Chuck to
His friend got out of the car and made for the visitor‟s building, leaving Payton to
wake up his partner. “Hey,” he said softly. He reached out and shook her shoulder.
“Time for all good little girls to get up.”
“Then I‟ll stay right where I am,” Chanel murmured. Her eyes fluttered open.
“It‟s been a long time since I‟ve been a good little girl.”
Payton smiled. You had to admire the girl‟s ability to keep a light tone with all
that was going on. “Does the bad girl want food?”
She immediately flipped up and made for the door. “God, yes. I‟m starving.
Come on, Doc. I‟ll buy you a cheeseburger.”
Chuckling to himself, Payton got out of the car and hurried to catch up to her.
Chuck flipped the tablet closed. “Looks like we‟re good to go,” he smiled. Then
he slid the notebook across the food court table to where Payton and Chanel sat. “It‟s all
Payton exchanged glances with his partner. “Uh, okay. What am I supposed to
do with this?”
Chuck grinned. “Check your email. Play a game. Message your friends.” He
leaned in close. “And when it‟s time, use it to bring down a highly illegal domestic spy
network,” he finished in a whisper.
Payton stared at the tablet. “How?”
“With this,” Chuck answered. He reached into his pack and pulled out a yellow
cable and pushed it across the table. One end culminated in a single silver jack. The
other ended in a double jack, one larger than the other. “It‟s a connection cable. One end
is standard, the other is Ethernet. You‟re covered either way.” Chuck tapped the tablet.
“All you have to do is hook up to the mainframe access point, press control and the letter
F to bring up the search field. Then type in LET FREEDOM RING, all of it in caps. That
is the command that will upload the phage.”
It was simple enough, assuming it actually worked. Plug in the appropriate cord,
type in the code phrase, hit enter, and upload the virus. Payton lifted the cord and the
tablet into his bag. He briefly scanned the rest of the food court to make sure no one was
paying them any attention before turning back to his friend across the table. “Let
“Oh come on. If I can‟t stick it to these bastards myself, I can at least instill a
little poetry in your justice.” Chuck leaned in. “How are you two going to do this?”
It was a good question, one Payton had been hoping to answer during the drive
back to Chicago. Breaking into the building hiding the access point under the cover of
darkness seemed like the obvious choice. But upon further thought, it carried plenty of
risks. Anyone guarding the building would be far more alert to trouble at night. And if
they were caught, hauling them away to the closest NSA or Illuminati safe house without
alerting the public, the press, or the local authorities would be far easier early in the
morning. Payton voiced his concerns.
Chanel looked at him skeptically. “You want to walk in there in the daylight?
How the hell are we going to get in?”
It was another good question, but one for which he was prepared. When he‟d
been in high school, Payton and his friends had often wanted to buy alcohol. The
problem was that they had no access to fake identification. Being a teenager in the
suburbs offered plenty of advantages, but finding shady ways to buy beer on the
weekends wasn‟t one of them. Fortunately, one of his friends had looked rather older
than his age.
They key, as his friend was fond of telling him, was find a less than reputable
liquor store and walk in like you owned the place. Those types of places knew how
liquor sales worked. Half of their weekend take came from underage consumers. As
long as you didn‟t give them a reason to bust you, they would look the other way. So his
friend would park the car, stroll into the store, haul two thirty packs onto the checkout
counter, and make idle chitchat while he paid. Then he would smile and whistle his way
out the door, toss the beer in the backseat, and they would drive back home.
Chuck and Chanel were both staring at him. “You want to walk into an Illuminati
building with a smile and a whistle?” Chuck gaped.
Payton shrugged. “I don‟t really see any other option.”
“I do,” Chanel said with a sad shake of her head. “Why don‟t we just slap a pair
of cuffs on our wrists and turn ourselves in to the Chicago Federal Building? It would
save us a trip to Oak Brook.”
"Lost your nerve?" Payton asked, smiling lopsidedly.
Chuck leaned forward. "Doc, going in during daylight is suicide."
"And going in at night isn't?"
Chuck just stared at him.
Payton turned instead to Chanel. "You have a say in this, too," he said, inclining
his head. "I can't do this without you, partner."
Her face brightened a bit. Then her brow creased once more. "You really think
it's our best chance?"
"I wouldn't be willing to do it myself if it wasn't." He paused to think a moment.
"Morning would probably be best. As early as possible, like just before dawn. Trained
or not, everyone's a little groggy at daybreak."
Chanel studied him for another moment, then nodded.
"You two have certainly got balls, I'll give you that," Chuck said, leaning back in
his chair. He looked at Chanel. "Figuratively speaking, of course. So I drop you off at
your friend's place tonight and you guys make for the suburbs tomorrow morning?"
Chanel sighed. "I wish we had more help."
"You'll have the best help there is," Chuck smiled. "Me."
Payton glanced at his friend. "And what kind of help are you going to be?"
"Hey, I may not be stupid enough to go strolling into that building with you, but I
can certainly create a diversion."
"Computer stuff?" Payton asked.
Chuck nodded. "Might buy you a little time."
They walked out of the visitor's center together. As they crossed the parking lot,
Payton looked up into the sky and squinted at the sun. It was well into its trek towards
the western finish line. Glancing at his watch, he noted that it was after three. They
needed to get moving again if they were going to reach Chicago by nightfall. He was
adamant about their need for a restful night, and the quicker they made Chicago, the more
time they would have to allot for sleep.
Like either one of them was going to sleep that night.
A glint caught his eye and he shifted his gaze back to mother Earth. A man in a
black suit was walking past their rental car. Payton thought he looked vaguely familiar,
though with only his back profile to look at, he couldn't quite see enough of the man to
place him. He shivered involuntarily, staring at the black Lincoln into which the figure
"Did you see that guy?" Payton asked to no one in particular. Like him, they had
come to a halt just inside the parking lot grounds. "He walked right past our car. Did
Chanel looked at the black Lincoln and then back to him. "Jumping at shadows,
"Yeah, Doc," Chuck frowned at him. "Shouldn't we be hitting the pavement?"
"Just hang on a minute," Payton replied impatiently. The black Lincoln pulled
out of its parking space and made for the exit ramp, which was just out of sight behind
the visitor's center. It was probably nothing, of course. But Payton still had that nagging
feeling that he knew the man in the suit, had met or seen in somewhere before. And
suddenly the memory clicked.
"Turn around," he told the others. "Back to the visitor's center."
"What?" Chanel asked, looking thoroughly perplexed. "Why?"
"Call it an overabundance of caution." Payton nodded in the direction from which
they had come. He caught sight of the car rental shop and altered his direction. "We
need new transportation."
Chanel looked over her shoulder. "What's wrong with our car?"
"Maybe nothing," Payton shrugged.
"But you don't think it's nothing."
"No," he shook his head. "No I don't. Time to see how good the old man's false
identifications are. Like if they'll work well enough to rent a car."
He turned back a moment, looking at their rental car. It was glinting innocently
on the blacktop, inviting them, beckoning them. It’s lucky, Payton thought, that no one
else seems to be parked near it. That should minimize the damage of anything they might
have done to it.
Chuck pulled on his sleeve, slowly backing him away. "Jesus that thing suddenly
Payton lead them to the car rental. The credit cards supplied by the old man
proved to be every bit as good as they could have hoped for. They apparently stated that
they had outstanding credit and were welcome to rent any car currently in the inventory.
They need only make their selection from the inventory list and wait for the porter to pull
around the front, by the parking lot.
Chuck, who'd always had a bit of an environmentalist bent, suggested a blue Mini
Cooper. Chanel, who seemed to thinking more logically, pointed to a nondescript
maroon Chevy Malibu.
Payton mulled it over another moment, and then tapped a third choice, his choice,
further down the pamphlet. It was a midnight black 2008 Ford Mustang. Four seats, two
in the bucket, with Tremec five-speed manual transmission. A four liter V6 twelve-valve
engine promised two-hundred and ten horses worth of power behind rack and pinion
steering. Payton had always been reasonable with his automobile purchases, including
his used Wrangler back home, but this was his dream car.
"You're kidding," Chanel said, looking up from where he'd laid his finger.
"No joke," Payton smiled. He turned to the rental clerk. "We'll be waiting out
front for it." He told the clerk to bill him at the address on the identification, to which she
agreed, owed certainly to the excellent credit report associated with his alias.
Once they had walked back out to the parking lot, Payton saw the other two turn
to him. Typically, it was Chanel who spoke. "You want to explain why we're making
the rest of our trip home in one of the most conspicuous vehicles imaginable instead of
the rental sedan that got us here?"
Payton nodded towards the lot and their former transportation still motionless and
reflecting the sunlight. "That guy I mentioned? I think it was an NSA agent."
Chanel hardly reacted, still staring at him, but Chuck flinched. "NSA? You can‟t
He gave Chuck a hard look and filled him on the surveillance file they‟d had on
them after their dinner at Lucky Club.
"Okay, okay. You're serious. How do you know this particular guy is NSA?"
"Because he told me so," Payton said. He turned back to his partner. "And he
told you, too."
Recognition dawned upon her face. "DeMarco?"
Payton nodded. "It looked like him anyway."
"You think he did something to the car, don't you?" Chuck asked.
Payton shrugged. "Either way, it would certainly behoove us to be cautious.”
The other two were quiet for a moment, before Chanel piped up. "So why the
"Because I've always wanted to drive one," Payton smiled. "Besides, in this case,
since they know who we are and how we're likely to behave, driving a flashy car might
be just what we need to get back to Chicago."
Her eyebrows went up. "How's that?"
"Any spotters are going to immediately disregard-". Payton broke off, somehow
consciously feeling his own jaw drop. "Immediately disregard this ridiculously beautiful
automobile." He took a step forward as the porter pulled the car to a stop. It looked like
the angry offspring of a Formula One car and a fighter jet. It even sounded furious, the
engine grumbling with barely bridled power as the car came to a halt at the curb in front
Chanel took a step forward and let her hand trail over the finish as she circled its
perimeter. "It certainly is pretty."
Chuck grunted. "A Mustang isn't pretty, darling."
"No," Payton agreed. "It's too powerful to be pretty."
They piled in, Payton behind the wheel and Chanel in the passenger seat. Chuck
had tried to jump shotgun, but she had shoved him towards the back door, making an
entirely inappropriate reference to never having felt so much power between her legs and
not missing this opportunity. With a laugh, Payton worked the clutch and got them
moving towards the on-ramp.
As he neared the edge of the parking lot, he eased the car to an idle stop.
Reaching up to tilt the rear-view mirror, he caught sight of their previous method of
transportation. It was still resting peacefully vacant in its parking space, surrounded by
nothing but empty space. Its nearest neighbor was a blue Volvo, something close to two
hundred feet away.
Chuck got closer in the mirror, sitting forward in the backseat. He clapped Payton
on the shoulder. "You all right, man?"
Payton considered a moment, hesitating. But with so much empty space
surrounding the sedan, really...what could happen? "Chuck?"
"You still have the keys from the sedan?"
He heard some jingling as Chuck dug through his pockets. "Yeah. Why?"
"Is there a button for keyless ignition?"
Payton saw Chuck look down. When his eyes came back forward he was
Payton took a deep breath and got his feet in position to hit the clutch. They had
enough gas in the Mustang to make it to Chicago, or nearly so. They hadn't checked the
rental car back in, but it was registered to a Mr. Charles Mikuzis. After seeing DeMarco,
it wasn't any great leap to assume that the NSA and whomever else would connect the
dots between Chuck and the two wanted CUFOS agents on the lam.
Payton turned to his partner, locking eyes with her as she squinted at him. "Hit
the button, Chuck."
Before he did, they all turned in their seat to stare at the rental car through the rear
And Chucked pushed the button.
Later, Payton decided he wasn't sure what he'd expected after ignition. Big,
small, he couldn't decide. But what came next was decidedly unexpected.
The sedan had shuddered a bit, the product of its ignition. The ghostly plume of
initial exhaust emanated from the trunk. And the car sat there, hundreds of feet away,
stifled by its park gear, looking every bit as innocent as it had moments ago.
"Well," Chuck breathed, and there was a relief in his voice. "I suppose you were
Payton just stared at the sedan.
Chanel put a hand on his knee. Any other time it might have sent a tingle through
his body. Now, however, he hardly noticed. "Doc," she said, rather sharply. When he
turned to look at her, she was giving him a hard stare. "We need to get moving."
He sighed. "Yeah."
With a pop of the clutch into first gear, he got the Mustang moving towards the
"Don't beat yourself up, Doc," she continued. "Everyone's wrong once in a
I guess so, he thought.
And then everything was thrown into a kind of orange relief as the sound of a
massive report rang through them. It might have only been the surprise and sound of the
destruction, or maybe it was some kind of residual shock wave, but the steering wheel
became unstable in Payton's hands and he swerved onto the shoulder of the ramp. He
finally fought the powerful vehicle to a standstill. All three of them jerked to look
through the rear window.
It was like something out of the Middle East. The sedan had probably jumped a
standard foot, but now it was resting, charred and blackened. Smoke was pouring from
its bowels, and there were a surprisingly small number of flames licking up the splintered
metal side-panels. A group of onlookers was congregating outside the visitor's center
shouting and pointing. Payton thought he heard sirens in the distance, but quickly
identified the sound as the ringing in his ears.
"Jesus Christ," Chuck whispered.
Chanel turned to stare at him. "You saved our lives," she breathed. "You were
right, and we...I'm alive because you kept us out of that car."
Payton looked at them both a moment.
Then he put the Mustang back into gear and got onto the highway as quickly as he
They had been on the highway for an hour before anyone spoke. They were all
rattled from the explosion, lost in thoughts of what almost was. Payton had to admit that
he‟d been guilty of that kind of thinking himself. Even now he hardly noticed the mile
markers zipping by, exit signs blurred as made their trek up the Mustang's windshield.
Chanel and Chuck had both started in on thanking him again. He tried to brush
them off, to change the subject. Eventually, the platitudes faded away, and they were
silent once more. At first he was relieved, but that entire void left his mind free to race
through their situation, think about what these people were doing to his niece, and fret
over the coming morning.
Something occurred to Payton. He turned to Chuck. "That building we're going
to tomorrow," he said. "You're sure it's a government building?"
"Absolutely," Chuck nodded. "I double checked with the Department of Records.
It's registered to the United States government."
"Then what's its name?"
Keeping his eyes on the road, Payton couldn't see much of his friend's face, but
the silence indicated the other's confusion before it was voiced.
"Excuse me?" Chuck said.
"It's name, the name of the building," Payton answered. He glanced in the rear
view mirror for what seemed like the millionth time to make sure no one was following
them. He noticed that Chanel was sitting forward and paying attention. "Government
buildings usually have names. The Hoover Building, The Eisenhower Building, The
Dirksen Federal Building. All of them have names. So what's the name of the Oak
"Uh, um…" Chuck murmured. He threw up his hands. "Oh, I don't remember the
damn name, Doc. It was the Perez Building. No, that's not right. Pena Building? I don't
know. It was something like that."
"The name wasn't Peron, was it?"
"Sounds about right,” he shrugged. “That means something to you?"
"Yeah, it means I might actually know who we‟re up against."
“No kidding?” Chanel asked. “Who?”
“The National Socialist Party,” Payton answered. “And I know what you‟re
going to say, but from some research I‟ve done in the past, plus the Paperclip connection,
I think we can assume that the Illuminati is either a group of Nazis, or at least a group
affiliated with the Nazis.”
Chanel leaned further forward. "You want to fill us in?"
He gave them the short version.
While Paperclip had been one of the most widely publicized extradition of Nazis
during the World War II era, it certainly wasn‟t the only such operation, nor was it the
largest. It wasn‟t as commonly known, but while many Nazis found safe havens in
Europe, Russia, and the United States, the largest group of expatriated Nazis went to
South America. Specifically Argentina. No other South American leader was more
accommodating that Argentinean dictator Juan Domingo Peron and his wife Eva.
After assuming control of the country with a military coup in 1943, Peron won a
majority election with his platform of the elimination of poverty and returning pride to
the Argentina worker. He was elected despite intense opposition by the United States,
who correctly feared that Peron would nationalize American businesses. After the
election, American and British influence decreased, and German influence began to rise.
Luftwaffe pilots trained Peron‟s air force. After the war, large numbers of Nazi
SS and Gestapo fugitives served in the Argentine Army, after escaping Europe on
Vatican issued visas. Although he was generally seen as a despot, Juan Peron is still
regarded as a champion of the working class. His citizens didn‟t realize that he was
stashing away some half a billion dollars in European banks, which he reciprocated by
allowing war criminals to immigrate to his country.
Peron was also fascinated by Adolph Hitler. He had studied German during his
youth so that he could read Mein Kampf. He agreed to shelter Nazis ranking from simple
SS and Gestapo officers all the way up to Deputy Fuehrer Martin Bormann. There was
significant evidence that Peron also supported Bormann‟s flight capital program, an
operation designed to transport all of the war loot the Nazis had amassed out of Germany
before the end of the war. Depending on which rumors you listened to, this valuable
cache included everything from cash, precious stones, religious artifacts and documents,
government documents and secrets, the Holy Grail, and even the Arch of the Covenant.
Peron‟s wife, Eva, acted as liaison between Peron and the Nazis. In 1947 she
embarked on tour of Europe, was treated as royalty in Spain, met with shipping
companies in Genoa to acquire their services in transporting Nazis, and finished up with a
series of meetings with bankers in Switzerland. There she arranged for proceeds from
Nazi conquests to be laundered through legitimate banking interests, which then provided
funding for the Nazi escape networks, commonly referred to as ratlines.
Years later, in 1955, the relationship between Peron and Bormann deteriorated.
Most of the circulating reports indicated that Bormann had more power within the
Argentine military and police than Peron, and that Peron didn‟t like it. Shortly after the
rift became public, Peron was ousted in another coup and was forced to flee to Spain.
For all intents and purposes, the National Socialist Party had a new nation in which to
The impact of these transplanted Nazis continued to have an increasing effect on
the continent. Argentinean Nazis began to win new converts amongst South American
military wings and were helpful in teaching them torture and tactical methods. Left wing
pro-Nazi students were responsible for the junta that launched the Dirty War in 1976.
South American Nazis began running guns between Bolivia, Peru, and Chile. The most
notorious of these was Klaus Barbie, the “butcher of Lyon”, who ran a massive gun
running operation that eventually expanded to illegal drug trade. According to the DEA,
it was because of Barbie that Bolivia became the primary source for cocaine for several
leading drug cartels. The CIA-run company Interarmco worked directly with Barbie on
both sides of his business.
"Nice story," Chanel sneered. "So you think the Peron Building is named after
this Juan Peron Nazi sympathizer?"
"That seems likely,” he nodded. “I don‟t know if that means we‟re actually going
up against a group of Nazis or not, however. There have been longstanding
investigations as to whether there was a wealthy group of plutocrats that organized and
supported American democracy, Nazi socialism, and Russian Communism, all designed
to be in opposition with one another.."
"That‟s a hell of a dangerous game to be playing," Chanel shuddered.
Payton shrugged. "It was about profits and control. You create a conflict that
effectively allows you to sell required materials to all sides, which builds you massive
profits. Then, in the aftermath, you use the war as an example of why there ought to be a
unified world government. Then you take said profits and use them to purchase influence
or direct control of this world government. If they pulled it off, the group could take over
the entire world without firing a single shot."
"Sounds a lot different from what we were taught in School," Chuck said. "So if
the plan was to use World War II, or any other war, to take over the world, what‟s taking
them so long?"
"It‟s already in action," Payton shook his head. "The United Nations has effective
control over most of the nations in the world."
Chanel's brow wrinkled. "Excuse me?”
"It‟s true,” Payton said. “They don‟t advertise it that way, but in a majority of the
nations on the planet, the UN has some or complete control over basic services for the
citizens. Medical care is provided by the Red Cross. Political pressure is applied via
groups like Amnesty International, which was started by the UN. They supply over half
of the citizens of the world with their daily food and nourishment. It‟s just in the fully
industrialized nations like America and Russia that they don‟t have such a heavy hand.”
"I don‟t know, Doc," Chuck said. "People think I‟m crazy about this stuff, but
even I have a hard time believing the UN really has that much control. Besides,” he
continued. “Why haven‟t they done all of this in America, too?”
“I can‟t be certain,” Payton answered, a final piece of the puzzle clicking into
place. “But I think they simply underestimated democracy. Our freedom of the press,
particularly over the internet, has allowed us to share information with each other
instantaneously. The big media outlets might be and probably are controlled by these
plutocrats, but what about small outlets and blogs? As citizens, we are more connected
than ever before. If the UN tried to assume control or infringe upon our civil rights, the
ensuing revolt by the common people would begin immediately.”
He saw Chanel staring at him out of the corner of his eye. “You‟ve figured
something out, haven‟t you?”
Payton nodded. “The countdown is real, the program to shut off all essential
services in America is real, and we have to stop it. Because if they succeed in keeping
Americans from communicating with each other, which is what will happen if that
program runs, they will be able to take over. Between the confusion and the chaos,
they‟ll have us all by the time they flip the switch back on.” He turned to Chanel. “I
think we should get to Oak Brook earlier than we planned. Chuck can‟t tell us exactly
when this countdown ends, only that it‟s sometime in the next day or so. We can‟t afford
to risk a single second.”
“How much of a time difference is that going to make?” She asked.
“Shouldn‟t be much at all,” he said. “I wasn‟t allowing for much sleeping time
anyway. We were planning on getting to the Peron building early in the morning. We‟ll
just have to get their really early. Like four in the morning early.”
“What about me?” Chuck asked.
“You‟re going with us as far as the outskirts of the mall,” Payton answered.
“Then you‟re going to take the car and go do whatever it was you were going to do
Chuck shook his head. “All of this secret society stuff is beginning to give me a
“That‟s the point,” Payton smiled. “Groups like this have always wrapped
themselves in such a confusing shroud that no one really trusts any answers anyone
comes up with about them. The Nazis modeled themselves after those types of groups. It
was really only by mistake that they came to power in the first place. Until the twenties
they were every bit as secretive as the groups they modeled themselves after.”
“What groups?” Chanel asked.
“The Freemasons, mostly,” Payton answered. “And the Neolithic peoples from
whom they originated.”
“Neolithic?” she repeated.
They were identified by the grooves they carved into their pottery and they spread
from the coasts of Europe to their most prominent settlements in England, Wales, Ireland,
and Scotland. They were responsible for thousands of Neolithic structures still standing
in present day, the most famous of which was Stonehenge. They built with skill, and
they built with purpose. But mostly, they built according to the orientation of the stars.
It has since become known amongst the more educated present day Masons that
their roots were with the Grooved Ware society. Both groups shared many of the same
traditions, including building the Boaz and Jachin columns, symbolizing the rise and fall
of the sun, into their most prominent structures, not to mention a deep respect and
worship for the planet Venus. The similarities between their building techniques and
those of the architects of Solomon‟s Temple thousands of nautical miles down the coast
suggested that the Grooved Ware culture had moved far enough along to develop
seafaring transportation. There was even evidence to suggest that the Grooved Wares
had established trading posts in Egypt and Phoenicia.
"That makes sense," Chanel nodded. "The Grooved Ware people established
posts in Phoenicia, which assimilated the culture around them."
"That's the conclusion others have come to," Payton nodded. "Though it certainly
isn't accepted by the majority of the scientific community."
"Why not?" Chuck asked.
"Embarrassment, mostly," Payton said. "As long as the question has been posed,
scientists in a dozen different fields have all agreed that civilization began in Northern
Africa. You can imagine their reluctance to admit that it actually came from Scotland,
thousands of miles away."
Chuck cleared his throat. "None of this explains why this modern day secret
society is infiltrating the Federal government and using this elaborate spy network. I
mean, the countdown ends, they shut everything down, and then they take over the
world? If these people are who we think they are, they‟re already in control."
Payton thought into the silence for a while. More exit signs slipped by overhead.
Occasionally, when they passed by stables on one of the farms, the Mustang would fill
with the sweet smell of manure. The sun was finally starting to set, turning sherbert-
orange in the western sky. They were still something like two or three hours outside of
Chicago. It meant they would be entering the city at night, something that appealed to
"This group, the Illuminati,” he began. “Whatever this is, it isn‟t about profit and
it isn‟t about government. There is something else planned, something big. And
although I don‟t yet know what it is, I think we all know that it must be stopped.”
He pressed the pedal down further and sped them back home.
Hours later, Payton looked back upon the final leg of their journey home and he
was sure that it must have happened in fast forward. He could recall blurring farms until
they hit Gary, Indiana. From there it was all granite and smog. Gary had the kind of
pollution problem that that made him sure the Mustang must have left a wake as it cut
through. From there they shot past the Casinos in Hammond, onto 90/94 through the far
South Suburbs and Beverly.
As they got closer to Oak Brook he began performing some time consuming but
effective evasive maneuvers to ensure that they weren‟t being tailed. Several times he
back tracked and retraced their path on side streets. Every once in a while he would pull
suddenly into a gas station or a convenience store and watch how the few vehicles behind
them reacted. By the time he pulled the rental into the Oak Brook Mall parking lot he
was fairly certain that no one was following them.
“We‟re early,” he said. “So we‟re going to have to hang tight for a while.”
“You want me to stick around?” Chuck asked.
“You can go,” Payton answered. He peered towards the other end of the parking
lot, beyond which stood a few banks and the Peron Building. The entire lot was lined by
decorative brush. A quick look up at the light posts confirmed that mall security didn‟t
have surveillance cameras this far out. “We‟ll be fine. Just give me a minute.”
“Take your time,” Chuck said. “This is only the most dangerous thing I‟ve ever
done, after all.”
Payton pulled out his pack. “Earwigs and sleeve clips on,” he said and handed
them to Chanel. Then he stuck the SIG into his pant waist. “Once we‟re inside we don‟t
talk, we whisper. We maintain total com-silence whenever possible. I‟ll carry the pack
with the laptop and the DAT tape.”
“You‟re going to make me go in there unarmed?” she asked.
“Absolutely,” he nodded. “If things get dangerous I want you running, not
“Got it,” she said.
Based on her tone of voice, he wasn‟t convinced she would comply.
They got out of the car and Chuck got behind the wheel. “Be careful,” Payton
“How long do you want me to wait before I give you your distraction?”
Payton glanced at his watch. It was just after four. Sunrise would be sometime
around five-thirty. He hoped they would have exited the building by then. “Twenty
minutes or so ought to work,” Payton told him.
They started off towards the bushes and the banks. There was an AMC movie
theatre on the right, and Chase and Royal Scotland banks on the left. The buildings were
high, and the word sniper came to mind unbidden. Chuck had pulled out of the parking
lot to go wherever he was going. Meanwhile they had arrived at the line of bushes and
squatted down behind them.
“How are we going to know when Chuck does his thing?” Chanel whispered.
Chanel looked at him. "You okay?"
He nodded. "Just self-analyzing.”
"Will it help if I keep your mind occupied for the next twenty minutes?"
"Good. Because I want to know more about the Freemasons."
"Anything in particular?" he asked. He couldn‟t help but be touched by the effort.
"You've already been given an overview."
"How about some specifics on how they came to power," she suggested.
"That's easy. Power comes from money. They didn't have any." Payton took a
deep breath. "Then they did."
"Excuse me? How did they get their money?"
"Partner," Payton smiled. "That is something no one knows."
"Not for sure. But we have some guesses."
The most difficult aspect of the Freemason equation was deriving its origins and
successors, the latter being groups that split from or in conjunction with them. The
history was a complicated one, made all the more so by hyperbole and pure speculation.
The official story included the subculture's genesis from the Neolithic groups of Western
Europe, its rise to power during and immediately after the Crusades in Israel, and
culminating when the Pope worked directly with the French Monarchy to capture and kill
the Templars in their entirety. Officially the Masons were a sort of friendly group to the
Templars. They shared some knowledge, according to the Masonic ritual, and they
continued on long after history books claimed that the Templars had been killed in the
As it so often was the case, the history books got it wrong, often in spectacular
fashion. After all, history was written by the winners of wars, as the saying goes, and the
overwhelmingly victorious Catholic Church and, eventually, the Republic that resulted
from the French Revolution had been the authors of those texts. Teachers, biased or
otherwise, tended to keep things simple. The official story was simple.
And the truth was anything but.
It had been recently discovered that the Masons were partly the evolution of a
persecuted Knights Templar, but to really understand the pup, one needed a thorough
knowledge of the sire.
While officially the Pope brought his power to bear on the Templars for
insubordination towards Mother Church, it was actually for two very different reasons.
The first was wealth. Since returning from the crusades, the Knights Templar had
amassed an incredible cache of wealth. According to most theories, this came from the
excavation they were allowed to perform beneath Solomon's Temple. The legends of a
treasure beyond all others hidden inside Solomon‟s Temple were prevalent throughout
Mid-Eastern lore. What no one could agree on was exactly what that treasure consisted
of. Some said it was gold bullion. Others claimed it was religious and artistic artifacts.
Still others claimed there were secret documents that outlined the true history of all
monotheistic religion, something for which the modern day Church paid them to keep
"Which brings us to the second reason the Pope went after them," Payton said.
"What better reason could there be than all the money in the world?" Chanel
"The oldest reason of all," he responded. "Heresy."
If you asked the Catholic hierarchy for a historical account of the Knights
Templar, you usually get a heroic tale of chivalry and servitude. Depending on which
member of the clergy is doing the telling, the order began with somewhere between ten
and twenty monks as initiates. They made their money and their reputations by guarding
Europeans making pilgrimage to the holy land. Ten to twenty knights, guarding what
were literally thousands of caravans each year. Never mind that the majority of the path
such pilgrimages took travelled through hostile Muslim territory. It was a task for
thousands, not twenty.
But wait, says the stammering clergyman. The Knights Templar began with ten
to twenty, but as time went on they recruited new members.
That was to be expected since the order lasted hundreds of years before their
supposed destruction in the thirteenth century. But according to all recovered records,
the Order of the Knights Templar never grew larger than a few hundred members at any
given time. And that included the low level members. Like most secular cult
organizations, the Templars were a layered society. Most of the group worked with and
for the order on the outskirts, believing themselves important cogs in the machine, but
never privy to the true secrets of the group. More to the point, even at these slightly
inflated numbers, the story of the Templars as muscle for hire on lonely stretches of
foreign road simply didn't hold historical water.
And yet the order was definitely involved in the excavation of Solomon‟s Temple,
which was perhaps the single most important moment in its history. It was this same
point in time that forever twined the Knights Templar and modern Freemasonry.
The Templar's did the excavation with the approval of the local Judeo-Christian
government and with the aid of the Egyptian stonemasons that built the structure. That in
itself was not unexpected. After all, they knew the plans, the materials, and the building
style. Who better than the group that built the temple to help search it out?
But what was significant was that once the Templars removed whatever they
found and returned to Europe so ridiculously wealthy, the Masons went with them. Back
to England and back to France. Theoretically, with their origins amongst the Neolithic
peoples of Scotland, they were truly going back home.
These early Masons and the Knights Templar co-mingled once they settled. The
Templars invented banking, and the Masons built the banks. The Templars believed in
poverty, so they gave back to the communities in which they resided, and the Masons
bestowed the Templar gifts upon the people. The Templars were fiercely spiritual, the
Masons built their cathedrals.
But that wasn't all.
Sometime during the trek home, or maybe even while they were still in Israel
excavating, the ancient Egyptian religious practices of the Middle Eastern Masons and
the Christian principles of the Templars began to mix. And where there was some natural
overlap between the two, they melted together.
There were more of those latter overlaps than most modern parishioners realized.
For instance, the holy Sabbath is held on Sundays. This might seem incidental to most
parishioners today, but it was actually a concession made by the Church roughly around
the fourth century. Sunday was originally the holy day of an astrologically based religion
that flourished from southern Europe to southern Egypt. That religion worshiped the
stars, more specifically the planet Venus and the Sun, hence Sunday.
And that wasn't the only concession the early Church made. Modern day
believers celebrated the birth of their savior on December 25th, even though the Church
had long ago acknowledged that they had no idea when Christ was born. Instead, they
chose to celebrate on a date that the so-called pagans dedicated to the end of winter,
shortly after the solstice on December twenty-second.
They also included the ritualistic legend of the Shekinah in the story of the new
testament. The Shekinah was what the early Jews called the rare occurrence when Mars
and Venus rose in the sky in conjunction just before dawn. This resulted in what looked
like an incredibly bright star in the early morning sky. The ancient Hebrews believed that
the Shekinah signaled the coming of an important event or person. For instance, perhaps
coincidentally, the Neolithic people in Scotland did not begin to establish the trade routes
that disseminated their culture throughout the known world until immediately after the
appearance of the bright star. In certainly less happenstance fashion, the appearance of
the Shekinah also coincided with the emergence of Moses and the exodus of the Jews
from Pharaoh's Egypt. The star appeared again around 7BC, which is generally accepted
to be the approximate time of Christ's birth.
"And this all appears in the Bible?" Chanel asked.
"The Bible, the Qur'an, and the Torah," Payton nodded.
"Well that doesn't count as a reliable source," she snorted.
"I thought you were a Catholic."
"I am. That doesn't mean I'm stupid. I'm aware of the inherent fallacy of men
writing down the word of God. That some of the work is tainted by man doesn't mean
the word of the Big Guy upstairs isn't still embedded in the text."
"Upstairs?" Payton laughed. "That thinly veiled reference to the sun? You only
prove my point." He took a breath. "And no, the religious texts aren't the only source of
information regarding the Shekinah and the events that surround its appearance. The best
astronomical software in both America and Europe also plot the coming of the great star
around the same time as those events. It's a regular occurrence, as predictable as the
rising sun, albeit not nearly so frequent."
"So has it occurred since the birth of Christ?"
"Anything Earth shattering occur?"
"You consider Christopher Columbus an important historical figure?"
She frowned in thought for a moment and then turned to stare at him. "You're
He shook his head. "No joke. The appearance of the Shekinah coincides
perfectly with the European discovery of the Americas. It is said to appear every
fourteen-hundred and forty-four years."
"And the Templars and Masons believed in this Astrology," Chanel nodded
comprehending. "And that's why the Church labeled them as heretics. That's why they
"Partly, yes. But not entirely."
If ever a major influential group on Earth could be called misogynistic, it was the
Catholic Church. Its practice of keeping women in the background, refusing them
priesthood and condemning them for witchcraft was well known. As far back as Adam
and Eve, the Church had been pinning all that was evil on women. They so despised the
female in the early going that they had taken sexual intercourse and turned it from
something that was once considered sacred into the most shameful of acts.
Conversely, the heretical groups may have held sacred the stars, but they flat out
worshiped the feminine. In fact, in ancient times all the way up to the time of Christ, it
was believed that potential Messiah could only be anointed through the power of
ritualistic sex. Pagan goddesses were prevalent during those times, ranging in geography
from Palestine to India. There were even links in Israel to the Tantric beliefs practiced in
The most prominent of the pagan goddesses was Isis, the consort of Osiris. Isis
was represented by the planet Venus and Osiris by the sun. They were considered lovers
and it was only after Venus finished its yearly crescent shaped dance around the sun that
spring arrived to bring life once again in the form of crops and rain. In fact, that crescent
shape has generally been regarded as the inspiration behind Satan's horns, made so once
the Church had decided to prosecute star worshipers as heretics.
Hateful though their attitude towards these pagans might be, nothing compared to
vitriol they displayed towards that most controversial of women, Mary Magdalene.
Labeled a repentant prostitute, the Church didn't just marginalize her through her
supposed sin, they took ownership of her story by way of her supposed redemption. The
obvious question that arose from how the Church regarded Mary Magdalene was why all
the effort? Why go to such lengths to discredit this apparently harmless woman, whose
only significant mentions in the New Testament occurred with the washing of Christ's
feet and the discovery of his empty tomb and risen body?
There were no cut and dry answers, of course, but there was also no shortage of
theories. They ranged from pure misogyny to jealousy amongst the Disciples for Christ's
attention. Peter in particular is said in many of the omitted Gnostic gospels to have
competed with the Magdalene for Jesus' affection.
“How do you know all this?” Chanel asked.
“I was brought up Catholic,” he shrugged. “When I got older, I studied the
religion to try and better understand it. Let‟s just say after my studying I wasn‟t so
"So was that it?" She asked. "The Church has a tradition of demeaning women
because Jesus spent time with Mary Magdalene?"
"Spending time would be an understatement," Payton snorted. "The basis for her
being a prostitute stems from two written verses, one in the Bible and one in the Gnostic
texts. The first, at her introduction before she washes Christ's feet with anointing oils,
referred to her as Mary Magdalene, a sinner. The translation to English makes things
seem more simplistic than they actually are, since the more accurate translation was
probably something closer to Mary Magdalene, a non-Jew. But the Church has taken
that one vague statement, along with a description of her wearing her hair loose, and
turned this woman into a prostitute."
"She wasn't Jewish?" Chanel frowned. "I thought everyone in the area was
"No they weren't, and you know they weren't," he replied. "Pontius Pilate
certainly wasn't Jewish of faith, nor of ethnic origin. Neither, for that matter, were most
of the authority figures at the time. They were all Roman."
"So there were also Romans."
"Yes, but not just them." Payton peered at his watch again. He didn‟t want to
wait much longer.
"Who else, then?"
"Well, the Egyptians traveled there regularly. Also there were a variety of sects
outside the Jewish faith that practiced on the outskirts of the region. Also there were
occasional traders from Southern Asia. The point is there were plenty of available
spiritual influences other than pure Judaism."
She looked at him. "I take it there's one in particular I should be concerned
"One from southern Asia, actually," he nodded. "But we'll get back to that. First,
consider the second mention that the Church occasionally points to as evidence of the
Magdalene being a prostitute. It is in the Book of Philip, one of the gospels rejected for
inclusion at the council of Nicaea. There is a verse in which Peter questions Christ about
his relationship with Mary, going so far as complaining that he spends too much time
with her, and is always kissing her on the mouth."
"Kissing her on the mouth," Chanel repeated.
Payton nodded. "Rather unbecoming of the figure Pauline Christianity painted.
So very un-Jewish."
"So Christ...was not a Jew?"
"It's certainly a possibility," Payton agreed. "And it's not like it hasn't been
explored before. Biblical scholars have considered it for years. It has even appeared in
popular culture, in The Last Temptation Of Christ and The Da Vinci Code, for instance.
But most of those that have considered Christ's possible fornication with the Magdalene
have completely missed the point."
"Sure. Because there's a very obvious question that no one seems to be asking.
What if Christ wasn't a sinning Jew? What if he was a practicing Pagan?"
"Controversial, I know. But consider all of the groups that worship the feminine
in general and the Magdalene in particular. These cult groups have several things in
common: the worship of the female form, the practice of ritualistic sexual rites, and a
profound disdain for Pauline Christianity. You find them all over southern Europe,
particularly in the Languedoc region of France. Associated with these regions are
Templar strongholds and enigmatic Black Madonna statues. They were also sites
frequently visited by the Nazis during World War II."
"The Templars worshiped Mary Magdalene?" Chanel asked, looking incredulous.
Payton nodded. "Of course. After all, she was the holy consort of Christ. They
treated her like the royalty she was, venerating her and the children she bore from Jesus
Christ. And the Catholic Church hunted them down for it."
"They killed all of the knights?"
"No. They hunted them. They murdered most of the leadership, perhaps all of it.
But the members dispersed to other cult groups, the Rosicrucians, Luciferians,
Freemasons, and so on. And those groups have been battling each other for power ever
They were silent. He stared over the hedge at the buildings. We're almost there.
Whatever happens, this is all going to be over soon.
"Doc?" Chanel asked from beside him. Payton thought he heard a hint of tremble
in her voice.
"What is it, partner?"
"What does this have to do with the Echelon network?"
“Whether Illuminati is simply a new name for these escaped Nazis, or if they are
truly a group of wealthy globalists pulling the strings, we know they are connected. It‟s
also commonly known that the Vatican did much to aid the flight of Germans to South
America by providing them passports and safe refuge. The Church itself can be
considered globalist in nature, advocating a unity of the world under the rule of God,
conveniently administered by the Pope.”
“You think they‟re all linked by Echelon?”
He nodded. "I do."
"Power," Payton answered. "It's always about power."
Fifteen minutes later they were still waiting. Payton was beginning to wonder if
he‟d been wrong assuming they would know when Chuck had done whatever it was he
was going to do. Maybe he was doing such a good job of leading any authorities away
from them that there would be no warning it was taking place at all.
Then came the sirens.
They went screaming past on Route 83, cherry red with blue and white flashers
spinning. The ladders on the fire trucks were topped by coated men with the wind
whipping their clothing around them. In their wake came several squad cars and a pair of
ambulances. There were more sirens in the distance.
"Is that our diversion?"
She had hardly finished her sentence when, as they were still half crouched, every
street and building light in the immediate vicinity blinked out. They both froze, mid-
crouch next to the brush. They looked around, seeing little in the darkness. Payton
briefly thought that maybe they were too late, maybe the countdown had already ended
and this was the start of the doomsday program at work.
Then he looked in the distance and saw that there were still lights glowing in the
distance. It was just their immediate surroundings that had gone dark.
"You think?" Chanel asked.
"Yeah," Payton murmured. "I'd say Chuck came through."
They started towards the banks and the Peron building. In the barest of dawn-
light, and with no artificial glow to light the way, they could scarcely see each other as
they filed along.
"What do you think he did?" Chanel asked.
"No idea," he hissed in answer. They had made their way across the lawn of the
nearest building. He led them along the dark walls amongst the bushes. "Probably
something with the power grid. Does it really matter?"
"I guess not. He gave us our shot. That's enough."
He silently agreed. The bushes were far enough away from the building that they
could walk easily while remaining more or less hidden. They followed the track the
length of the building to the rear. There it emptied into a sort of miniature valley. At the
bottom of the pit was a small man-made pond, complete with a spouting fountain in the
And beyond the pond was one plain, short building, sitting innocently between its
The Peron building.
There were no visible guards. No electronic surveillance equipment either. In
fact, from what Payton remembered, the Peron building looked an awful lot like the
exterior of the pumping station in New Mexico. And for the very same reason, probably.
If you wanted to remain incognito, the last thing you did was post uniformed guards with
whirring motion detectors outside of your supposedly meager government building. He
didn‟t really believe that they could be so lax.
Chanel must have been thinking the same thing. "You'd think they'd at least have
one camera," she whispered with a shake of her head. "They're either very arrogant or
"They're not stupid. They just believe they've kept their secret." He looked
around. The flood lights that would normally have bathed the area in light were dark,
although there were still a few lights on within the building. Apparently whatever Chuck
had done to the electrical grid hadn‟t permeated the Peron building. He pointed out the
path they would take: past that tree, around that light pole, through that bush, and right on
to the front door. "Any questions?"
"Nope. Let's do it."
"Remember what I said before. You get any hint that it's going to go bad, you
run. Got it?"
"Damn it, I don‟t want to have to worry about you. If I tell you to go, you go."
She glared at him. "I said I got it."
He held her gaze a moment longer and then strode out from behind the bushes.
Despite all their assurances, their faked deaths, Chuck's distraction, he was still somewhat
surprised that he wasn't shot dead the moment he left cover. Instead, he took a brief look
around, a briefer breath, and started towards the building.
That sense of foreboding never left him as he led his partner through their
predetermined route. It seemed to take a full day to the make it to the tree, a month to
weave around the light pole, years to make it through those decorative bushes. In a mere
lifetime, they arrived at the entrance.
Unlike New Mexico, there was a lock on the revolving doors. Fortunately Chanel
had apparently picked up some lock picking ability during her time as a cop. As she
worked, Payton pulled the SIG from his waist band and looked up at the building. Grey
stucco with tinted windows, it looked close to how he'd imagined it from the top-down
satellite imagery. Uniform in normalcy and utterly devoid of mentionable features.
Would you let us in willingly if you knew why we were here, Payton thought to himself as
his partners lock pick clinked and thunked. Would you want us to purge you of your
inhabitants, or do you instead enjoy the importance they have bestowed upon your
otherwise complacent exterior?
"Got it," Chanel broke up his thoughts.
He turned to where she was crouched and saw that the revolving doors were now
spinning slowly. "Under a minute," he said approvingly. "You'd have made a better thief
than a cop."
"Yeah, yeah," she smiled. "Just make sure you're covering my ass."
There was nothing particularly exemplary about the lobby. There was a large
greeting desk, vacant. It was a combination of that dark-grained mahogany that indicated
expense and a marble finished top that exuded a modern aesthetic. The walls were dark
gray marble as well, and the floors were the type of tile that looked as though they would
be reflective if only there were light with which to reflect. Behind the desk on either side
of an isthmus were two banks of elevators. At the far wall of each bank was a large
American flag. There were respective signs for each denoting the floors to which they
traveled. The set on the left went to floors BB-5, and the other 2-8.
They stopped in front of the desk, peering behind it at a cache of surveillance
monitors. Thankfully, none of them showed the building‟s exterior, nor did any of the
images show any habitation or activity. They silently watched the flickering images
some five minutes, hoping to catch a glimpse of something they might recognize as a
mainframe terminal. For all of their preparation, for all of Chuck‟s insight, they still had
no idea what form such a terminal might take. It might look as simple as a desktop
computer, with a keyboard and a screen. It could also resemble the contraption that
portrayed the avatar they had encountered in Maryland. Maybe it was a combination of
the two, or something completely foreign and new.
“What do you think?” Chanel asked, moving to the front of the desk to examine
the two elevator banks. “The old man said these guys always hide the best stuff
underground. Is that the direction we ought to head?”
Payton nodded. “That would be the logical choice.”
“You think anyone else is in the building?”
He looked at his watch. “I hope not.”
“So we go to BB?”
They waited for the elevator in the darkness. When it arrived, the chime it
sounded was enough to make them both jump, and when the doors opened and the light
from the elevator spilled out onto them, Payton winced. Everything seemed to make
noise in this type of silence and every light looked like the almighty himself in such
darkness. Or is it herself, Payton wondered.
They boarded the elevator, which was playing the kind of soft music one normally
heard while sitting in a dentist‟s chair. Chanel made a face, apparently sharing his
opinion, then pressed the button marked BB. Payton had thought his heart was already
racing, but now it beat so hard that he could feel the vibrations on his teeth. What would
be awaiting them when the doors opened in the next moments?
He had to wait a bit longer than he expected. The elevator felt like it was
progressing at a normal speed, but they must have been descending for over a minute and
there was no indication that they were coming to a halt. The lobby button and the BB
button were directly next to one another, and Payton was forced to conclude that they
were physically in sequence as well. It indicated that there was a fair amount of distance
between the lobby and the basement floor. He began to get a sinking feeling in his
And then the doors opened.
He stared at the wall opposite, upon which an enormous mural was spanning at
least six feet by eight feet in illustration. It was darkly colored, all except the central
figure, a muscled human body with a goat‟s head, and curling, ram-like horns. It was
striding across the canvass of the mural, stepping over crushed human skulls and
sweeping aside groveling men and women with a scepter crowned by a swastika.
It was the most disturbing thing Payton had ever seen.
"Jesus," Chanel whispered, staring.
"Com silence," he hissed at her.
The wall opened up to the left in a dark hallway. It was difficult to see much in
the corridor because there was very little in the way of light. There were a few decrepit
doorways, constructed of simple wood and giving the impression of rot and foul smell,
but what lay beyond them remained a mystery. There also wasn't much to see on the
walls. All in all, it looked like the corridor of some medieval dungeon.
But that took a backseat to the glowing doorway at the end of the chamber. Not a
doorway, Payton thought. It looks like some kind of-
"Look at that thing," Chanel interjected with more whispers. "It looks like the
mouth of a cave."
He turned to her. "What'd I say?"
"Oh relax. No one's around." She started down the corridor, headed for the cave
"Hey," he hissed.
"Where do you think you're going?"
She nodded down the corridor. "Foreboding thresholds have a certain appeal."
"It really does look like a cave," he said fairly, and he was pleased when she
smiled. "That also means that the mainframe terminal is very unlikely to be through that
portal." He pointed to the doors lining the hallway. "These offices are more likely
She started to argue, but a muffled shout came from the cavernous doorway.
They both crouched low, startled. The noise repeated, and this time it was a chorus of
voices. They softened, then rose to a crescendo. It reminded Payton of a movie,
something he'd seen as a kid but couldn't quite place.
He turned to Chanel, only then realizing they were still in their startled crouches.
It might have been funny if he weren't so terrified. Hearing those voices, knowing that at
least some of the perpetrators and maybe Jennifer were through that door was like getting
a corner piece to the puzzle he was trying to solve. He knew that he should be searching
for the mainframe access terminal so that he would have a bargaining chip for his niece.
But he had to see what was beyond that portal. He had to see who those voices belonged
"Let's go," he said.
"I changed my mind. Let's just check the other doors and get the hell out of here,"
"Too late," Payton said. "Now I'm interested." He started forward. "And stay
They crept forward, down the dark hallway. The light from the portal that had
seemed so muted got significantly sharper as they moved forward. With the darkness
surrounding them, it got so bad after they'd made it halfway that he had to squint to see.
When they reached the doorway, they got down on their bellies and continued forward.
What he saw made him shiver involuntarily.
The floor dropped sharply beyond the portal along a winding metal staircase.
What the chamber below was made of, he couldn't be sure. The entire cavern seemed to
be constructed of some kind of ashy iron-like material, black and silver and brown all at
once. The ground was simple stone and dirt but it was impressive, with seemingly
random designs etched into it throughout. Somewhere in the back of his mind the movie
memory clicked. It looked like the Temple of Doom.
It was hard to tell but Payton could swear that the chamber could hold a football
field in either direction. The floor was roughly square, as were the walls around it, and
there were what appeared to be torch lamps every thirty feet or so. They threw orange
light in every direction.
But dominating the scene were twelve men standing in the chamber. They were
all dressed in brown hooded robes and their faces were hidden, as they stood with their
hands behind their backs and their heads bowed. It looked like prayer to Payton, an
impression that was helped along by the low incantation they were humming. Ten of
them stood like that, all facing away from Payton and Chanel, pointed towards a dais
upon which the remaining two figures were located.
One was standing, and his robes were identical to the others, but upon his head
was a mask. It looked like the head of a goat, with curved horns and two slits for eyes.
In fact, it was an almost perfect representation of the beast in the mural. He was leading
the other men's chants, the give to their take.
And at his feet, kneeling and in the same robe, only with the hood pulled back,
was a very recognizable man.
DeMarco knelt, facing their direction, his eyes closed. The incantations
continued. The masked man stood behind DeMarco, his hand resting upon the other's
head. The incantations were much crisper now that they were closer and they came
"For too long we have remained in the shadows," the man in the goat mask
shouted. "For too long we have operated in secrecy, assuming the roles of common men
and serving when we should be served."
The men in robes answered back. “Aspicio, nos adveho."
Behold, for we come. They were speaking in Latin. Luckily, Payton had taken
ancient languages in college.
"As is this man, our third degree initiate." The masked man lifted DeMarco to his
feet and turned him so that his back was to the others. "We who seek illumination and
enlightenment, both spiritual and intellectual, have a destiny that we must seek out. That
destiny is to unite the world, to wipe out famine and war, to rebuke those that would
disturb our unity, and to bring man into an age of purpose and control."
"Per lux lucis nos plumbum."
Through light we lead.
"And when the enemies of our world kingdom come calling, we shall have such
weapons as they have never seen, and they shall be vanquished. Our council of twelve,
we majestic men, must always be in control, in the open or otherwise. We are an order of
twelve, so when we lose one of our number, we initiate another."
The robed men moved forward slowly, approaching DeMarco from behind as he
continued to stare at the masked man.
Payton glanced over at Chanel, whose mouth was slightly agape as she watched
Meanwhile the nine robed men had reached the dais. They surrounded DeMarco
in a semicircle. One of them got down on all fours behind his knees, like a grade school
kid pulling a prank. The masked man reached behind his back and retrieved a wicked
looking foot long dagger.
"We are born for one purpose, but now we live for another. Before we can be
worthy to take on our goal, the person we are must experience death."
The masked man raised the dagger high. Payton nearly cried out but the man
brought his arm down slowly in symbolic action. DeMarco took weak blows on each
wrist, then on both of his feet. He stood a moment longer as he was gently struck again,
this time in the left of his rib cage. Only then did he slowly topple backwards over the
robed figure behind him. The rest of the congregation caught him as he fell, gently
lowering him to the ground.
“Rise, rise, rise,” the congregation chanted.
"Our kind has been in danger of remaining entombed forever because of the
treachery of others," the masked man continued. "But we give thanks for the actions of
the first Illuminatus Major, the most holy of Saints, Paul, who taught the masses how to
recreate the Christ in this world, not so that he could be glorified, but so that order might
return to the people, so that they might have guidance from those that remained most
The robed men lifted DeMarco back to his feet, and they surrounded him again,
this time completing the circle with the masked eleventh man.
The entire group, including DeMarco, intoned loudly, "Nos es miles Senatus de
We are the Council of Paul.
The group let out a cheer, and they broke ranks. After removing their hoods they
took turns shaking DeMarco's hand.
And then they turned towards the stairway, intent upon on leaving. Instead they
spotted Chanel and Payton staring. Everyone was still for several heartbeats.
Then the masked man pointed at them and snarled, “Get them!”
They didn't make it far. In fact, Payton was surprised that they had gotten all the
way into the elevator before they were both grabbed roughly from behind and thrown
bodily back through its doors.
Their captors‟ hoods were back up over their heads as they piled around them.
The masked man whispered to several of the others. He turned to Payton, gave him a
barely visible smile, and brought the butt of the dagger crashing down on top of his head.
And then everything went black.
Payton's face went white hot as he was struck across the face. He shook the pain
away, tasting blood in the back of his mouth. Upon opening his eyes he saw he was in
large office, tied to a chair. The room was obnoxiously beige from floor to ceiling, with
absolutely no decoration whatsoever. It took a moment to recall what had happened and
then put together a pretty good idea of how he had come to be there.
They had tried to run from the group of hooded men, three of which were now
standing in front of him in the room. He had been hit over the head by the masked
leader, which was presumably how he had come to be tied to a chair there. So now what
am I going to do, he thought. His head was still throbbing and he could feel a tight knot
beginning to form on his brow. Where is Jennifer? Where is Chanel?
The other men in the room were milling about and occasionally whispering to one
another. It seemed to Payton that they were waiting for something.
"Where's my partner?" he asked, a hoarse catch in his voice.
They turned to look at him. The man nearest stepped forward. "Be quiet," He
said with a thick German accent, and then dealt a vicious blow across Payton‟s face.
Payton shook his head as it throbbed. He coughed, noticing a mist of blood eject.
"What are you going to do with me?" he managed.
"That's up to you," the man responded. Though closer than the others, mere feet
away, his face was still hidden. "Answer our questions and he'll probably kill you
"If I don't?"
Even though he couldn't actually see it, Payton got the impression that the man
smiled. "Do you have any idea how difficult it is to learn the art of torture? It takes years
to get good, decades to master." The robed man knelt in front of Payton. "Our methods
go back all the way to the times of King Edward. Edward was the one of the first
members of the Crown to help the Church hunt down the Templars. His failure to
capture them all was punished. Do you know the story of how His Majesty was killed?"
Payton swallowed. "No."
"His testicles were carefully removed and then destroyed in front of him," the
hooded man said. "Then a hot fireplace poker was inserted rectally. You see the irony?"
Payton shook his head.
"He was accused of being a homosexual," the other laughed. "Because he was an
agent of those Venus worshiping heretics." He lifted Payton's chin with a single finger.
"Like you, perhaps?"
"I'm a government agent," Payton muttered, hoping the lie would be enough to
warrant his immediate release.
"Are you? You don't have government ID." The robed man held up his wallet.
The fake ID the old man had given him was visible in the plastic fold.
He slapped Payton across the face.
"That's enough," a second voice rang out sharply. Payton's vision was still in the
process of returning, but he could hear the only door in the room close. "You'll knock
him unconscious if you're not careful."
Payton shook his head yet again. The man in the goat mask was standing in front
of him, peering down. "Who are you?" Payton asked.
The man reached up and removed the mask, uncovering a wrinkled, familiar face.
He had gray hair. Distinguished lines appeared on either side of his smile. It was a
handsome face, one that Payton had seen on the cover of Time and People. He‟d even
seen him on television a couple days ago. There were only a handful of Americans who
weren't familiar with this man's story.
Jonathan Dowd had always been simply elite, from his high school days at
Tamfield Prep near the Hamptons, to his triumphant ascension to Chairman of the Board
for several international corporations. His might have been just another typical American
success story but for the fact that he had so accomplished a life while battling a pervasive
genetic illness that rendered him legally blind. His was the life teachers used as an
example for what one could accomplish with hard work and persistence. Not long after
the turn of the century he was named Time Magazine's most inspiring person of the year.
Forbes clocked him in as the third wealthiest man in the world in 2003. After the terrorist
attacks on September 11th, he personally made a donation to New York City in the form
of a cashier's check. The Wall Street Journal reported that it was rumored to be an
amount over ten million dollars.
The public regarded him as a benefactor, a modern day saint, even.
"Christ," Payton muttered.
"Oh, yes, Mr. Connor," Dowd nodded with a smile. "You are in a great deal of
"Yeah, I kind of gathered."
"No doubt, someone as smart as yourself." The smile vanished. "But I have good
"Oh?" Payton grimaced. "Good for whom?"
"For you. I thought you understood." Dowd squatted down to look at him. "The
only reason you, your niece, and your partner are all alive is because I want to offer you a
"The best job you've ever had, I can ensure you." Dowd smiled. "You wouldn't
believe the benefits package."
Payton snorted. "I imagine there's no need for a life insurance policy."
Dowd looked momentarily confused, but then nodded. "Ah, yes, that
unpleasantness in Boston." He dropped the smile. "Those who cannot keep our secrets
do not last long in our group. We do not enjoy harming anyone, least of all our brothers."
"You hurt everyone," Payton spat. He could feel the sneer on his face.
Dowd stood and sighed. "I see I'll have to let you sit a while longer. You don't
understand at all. You see us as the enemy. But our sole purpose is to keep people safe,
to maintain order. We've killed, certainly. We eliminate the people that choose to
threaten the stability we create. Do you have any idea how many lives our actions save
every single day?" He began to walk away.
"I've seen what you do," Payton snarled. "You spy on people's lives. Invade their
Dowd spun around. "In the new America, people won‟t have privacy,” he said.
“After tonight, the countdown to our emergence will end, and we will reveal ourselves to
the world. We will take control of this country and begin to establish the new order of
things. And despite the problems caused by people like you, the world will be better for
Seeing the anger on Dowd‟s face, Payton laughed. "You're insane."
Dowd seemed to gather himself. "Perhaps your opinion will change if I show you
something." He motioned to the other men to untie him from the chair. "If I allow you to
take a walk with me, will you give me your word that you won't try anything stupid?"
"Like strangling you the moment I have the opportunity?" Payton smiled.
"Precisely," Dowd nodded. He revealed a wicked looking snub-nosed pistol from
under his robes. "I would hate to have to use this, Mr. Connor, I really would. We have
so much we could accomplish together. More importantly, I'm fairly certain that you
would rather I not shoot your pretty young niece, or your partner."
"You bastard,” Payton snarled as they untied his bonds.
Dowd jerked the pistol, indicating he get up.
They walked out the door, Dowd following behind him. Payton noticed that
they‟d been in one of the offices that lined the corridor they‟d been in earlier. Dowd had
tucked the pistol back inside his robes, but Payton was certain it was still pointed at him.
They made their way down the hallway, away from what Payton had come to think of as
the ceremonial chamber, and towards the elevator. He studied each of the doors on either
side of the hallway. None of them had windows and all were shut tightly. He wondered
if Chanel or Jennifer were behind any of them.
They reached the elevator, and Dowd pushed the button.
"Where are we going?" Payton asked, turning his head slightly. Dowd was just
out of view at his back. "What is it you‟re going to show me?"
"Something about which you think you know a lot," Dowd replied. "Though in
fact, you know very little." The elevator cab chimed open. "Get in."
Dowd ordered him to stand with his back against the side of the elevator. Instead
of pressing one of the floor buttons, he flipped open the emergency panel and pressed the
emergency stop and several floor buttons in a complicated pattern. The elevator lurched
suddenly. Then, to Payton's surprise, the cab began descending.
Dowd smiled. "We always hide the best stuff underground."
"Someone told me once that the best secret is the one you never know exists,"
Payton nodded. The elevator was moving swiftly, and like the trip from the lobby to the
basement, it was taking some time. "I must say I'm impressed by your organization. You
weren‟t an easy puzzle to solve."
"We've had a great deal of practice at operating behind the scenes," Dowd agreed.
“We.” Payton turned to him. "The Illuminati, you mean."
"An old name," Dowd dismissed with a wave. “Yes, we have been called that in
the past. Although we‟ve just as often been referred to by many other names.” He
sighed deeply. Payton thought he almost heard a hint of regret in his voice. “Most of the
time they get it wrong, those who care enough to try and investigate us. They think we‟re
Satanists, or Luciferians, or Nazis. Hell, some folks even think we have a link to
“I got that my impression myself.”
“Yes, yes,” Dowd chuckled. “We know all about your friend, Charles Mikuzis.
So much information and yet he has not the mind to process it correctly. That DAT disc
you stole had so many more secrets on it, if only you knew how to access them.”
The elevator doors opened.
Dowd motioned beneath his robes. “Get moving.”
Payton stepped out into another shadowy room. It was large and circular, with an
upper level on the outside, and steps leading to the lower parapet in the center. There, in
the center of a slightly raised section of the floor, was a massive computer console.
It looked like something out of science fiction. Several large screens sat in front
of a sleek black chair, looking for the entire world like a multi-display for an overblown
personal computer. Upon further examination, Payton saw a tangle of wiring and tubes
snaking from the back of the screens. From a distance he couldn‟t be sure, but he had the
impression that some of the tubes and wires were black, some red, and some blue. All of
them were rather fatter than normal cabling. The entire set up rested upon the base of the
console, which was clearly some kind of huge machine. There was a keyboard and an
enormous set of speakers sat on either side of the console. Again he was reminded of a
desktop computer, albeit an oversized one. He could see a few winking lights on the base
of the machine, along with what looked like an optical drive, a standard ZIP drive, a three
and a half inch disk drive, and several other female cable ports.
It was the mainframe terminal. It had to be.
Technically he couldn‟t be sure, of course, but for whatever reason he knew he‟d
found it. The massive amount of wiring indicated hefty power requirements. The tubing
seemed to be the right size for fiber optics. And even though he had no idea where the
pack containing Chuck‟s tablet was being kept, he was sure that one of the connectors
would fit into one of those ports on the console.
Feign ignorance, he instructed himself. He turned to where Dowd stood near the
threshold. “New DVD player?”
“Hardly. This is the gateway to more information than you ever imagined was
possible.” Dowd stepped forward and turned in a circle. “It is also a control center. For
as long as men have required governance, they have built castles and thrones for their
kings. In past times, these thrones were made of gold and the knaves bowed at the waist
in front of their rulers. Today we have republics and democracies, which are
aesthetically different, yes,” Dowd added, probably seeing the face Payton knew he was
“Democracy is more than aesthetics,” he argued.
“Is it? Tell me.”
Payton took a breath. “Today we choose our leaders. The people we have to
choose from might not always be ideal, but the people are still the ones that vote our
leadership into office.”
Dowd, who had been walking towards the center of the room, turned to peer at
him. “After everything you‟ve done in your career, after everything you‟re supposed to
have seen this past week, you don‟t actually believe that, do you?”
Payton walked towards him. “I know what you‟re group does. But you don‟t
control the American people, or our government.”
“My dear boy, haven‟t you been paying attention?” Dowd chuckled. “We are the
government. You have no idea how easy it is to control a senator, bribe a mayor, and
blackmail a president. All you need is information. And this,” he said, spreading his
arms wide again, indicating the console that was now before them. “This is how we do it.
How I do it. Aquinas spoke of the mythical city upon the hill. America is that city, and
in the next few weeks, I will be crowned its king. Priests complain that government has
become the religion of the people. Today, I will give them their God.”
“Really,” Payton snorted. He walked around the machine, trying to manufacture
a look of mild interest while examining the port connections, looking for one that might
be an exact fit for his Ethernet cable. “So this thing is going to make you a God? You‟d
think people in the government would try to stop you.”
“Some of them will, certainly,” Dowd smiled. “But most of those who matter are
firmly under our control.”
“I‟ll show you an example.” Dowd turned to the console and sat in the chair.
“On,” he commanded.
The screen display flickered a moment, then winked onto a blue screen. Payton
walked over to stand over his Dowd‟s shoulder. There were hundreds of icons on the
screen. He saw one marked VidSurv, another was PhnTps, another EmlScn. The rest
were more obscure.
“How does it work?” He asked.
“Voice activated,” Dowd said. “Configured to accept vocal patterns of authorized
users using the accepted commands.”
Payton thought of the avatar. This system was clearly more flexible. “And my
Dowd nodded. “Let‟s start with a mid-level target. How about Senator Patrick
Joseph, Chairman of the Senate Arms Committee.” He turned to the screen. “Patrick
Joseph, Senator, phone tap records.”
The screen flickered as several operating windows swirled open, each showing
graphical icons and drop down menus.
Dowd turned over his shoulder. “Intuitive GUI makes manipulating data simple.
They system will actually guess what you‟re looking for and tailor its presentation to the
user. Necessary, given that access is available to several people and the sheer amount of
data the system contains.”
“Graphical User Interface. An acronym for the operating system.”
“It looks like Microsoft Windows.”
“What‟d you do, steal a key to the United States Patents office?”
“Actually, yes, that‟s exactly what we did,” Dowd said. He turned back to the
display. “List all cell phone calls originating from the Senator‟s phone to Donald Sage.”
Another window flicked open on one of the screens and a mass of records
appeared, ordered by date. There was something like two hundred calls listed.
“January seventh,” Dowd commanded. Most of the calls listed disappeared from
the list, leaving four records. “Two thirty-six AM.”
The record opened up in a separate window. In it was a detailed transcript of a
cell phone call from the Senator to some guy named Don Sage. There was nothing to
indicate who Sage was, or what position he might have in the government. What was
evident, however, was that the Senator was carrying on an affair with Sage. Reading the
words on the screen was embarrassing enough, particularly the references to the club
drugs they were both apparently abusing. But moments later, the speakers buzzed and
clicked on, and a recording of the call played in its entirety. The words that were
embarrassing on the screen were nearly unbearable to hear on the recording.
Payton felt his face redden. “I take it you used this to blackmail the Senator?”
“This helped,” Dowd confirmed. “But believe me, this isn‟t the worst we have on
Senator Joseph. Would you believe that he was taking money in exchange for awarding
defense contracts in the great state of Nebraska? Such corruption. And then there‟s the
little matter of the CIA torture documents.”
“Remember the Justice Department press release a couple of months back about
terror prison camp interrogation records being destroyed?” Dowd said. “That was him.
“So you blackmail him to keep quiet about your group‟s existence?”
“No, no, no,” Dowd shook his head. “Senator‟s like this aren‟t high up enough
for us to expose the group to him. No, he simply thinks I‟m a businessman with an
energy company that requires certain legislation to pass through Congress. He doesn‟t
know what purpose that legislation is actually serving.”
“Well,” Dowd smiled. “I haven‟t received your answer on my offer, so I don‟t
think I ought to be revealing all of my cards quiet yet.”
“How about a taste,” Payton suggested.
“Are you familiar with fluoridation?”
“That chemical they put in drinking water to protect people‟s teeth?” Payton
“That‟s what they tell you,” Dowd smiled. “Do you know who pushed
fluoridation into law? Oscar Ewing, a Wall Street attorney that was appointed by
Truman to head the U.S. Public Health Service and the Office of Education. Truman
later suggested that he only did so at the hand of lobbyists for aluminum manufacturers,
which included the Rockefeller family.” Payton must have looked as puzzled as he felt
because Dowd explained further. “The chemical used in fluoridation is sodium fluoride,
which is a byproduct of the process for creating aluminum. Sodium fluoride is a toxin,
but they had to put it somewhere, so why not sell it to the government under the pretense
that it‟s good for your teeth?”
“That can‟t be true,” Payton said. It came out sounding hopeful rather than
Dowd studied him. “Do you know where one of the first documented
applications of fluoridation occurred? Nazi concentration camps. It‟s true. They gave it
to Jewish prisoners because studies showed the sodium fluoride inhibited the synapses in
the part of the brain that create social dissonance.”
“So who in the government does know about you people?”
“Very few people, as you‟d expect. We don‟t go outside of our group very often.
A couple of Senators, one or two cabinet members, depending on the administration.”
“Depends on the administration,” Dowd repeated. “And of course there are some
aides and lobbyists that know something is going on. Most just aren‟t smart enough to
figure it all out.”
“So, like, twenty people outside the group?”
“Nineteen,” Dowd agreed. “You and your partner will make twenty-one amongst
those that have a firm understanding of the true purpose of our group, not including the
volunteer MJ12 troops.”
“And what exactly is this job you‟re offering us?”
“Pretty much the same thing you do currently, for your little Center of flying
saucers. We have a need for individuals with the skills of an investigator, particularly
those with interrogation experience. I understand both you and your partner have that
experience, and that you in particular have the reputation as someone who can tell when
people are being duplicitous.”
“You want to hire us as investigators for the Illuminati,” Payton said slowly.
“I want you to be a misinformation agent with Majestic Twelve,” he responded.
He shrugged. “Or I can kill you, your partner, and your niece right now. The choice is
“I take it this isn‟t how you normally recruit?”
“Thankfully, no,” Dowd smiled. “But you know too much to let you go, and
you‟re too useful to pass up the opportunity to recruit you. So you see the predicament
Payton stared at the mainframe terminal. How could he get out of this? What
was his next move? He couldn‟t, wouldn’t let Dowd harm Jennifer of Chanel. “This
countdown you‟re referring to,” he said. “It ends tonight?”
Dowd nodded. “One way or another, at nine-twenty this morning, in just under
two hours, we are going to take control of the United States through this very terminal.
The only question is whether you‟re going to be alive to witness it.”
Payton‟s mind worked furiously through several scenarios for escape, but he kept
coming back to the same conclusion. Escape wasn‟t good enough. He had to upload the
virus to this terminal and make sure that Jennifer and Chanel made it out of here alive.
Only then, if there was still the possibility, would he concern himself with his own
retreat. He turned back to Dowd. “I guess I don‟t really have a choice,” he said with a
shake of his head. “Before I agree to this, I‟ll need to see my niece to make sure she‟s
still alive. I‟ll also need some time to discuss this with my partner.”
“What‟s to discuss? Join or die,” Dowd said sternly.
“I can convince her that joining is the only option,” Payton pressed. “But if I
don‟t talk to her first, she‟ll likely do something stupid and get herself killed. I don‟t
“Loyalty to your partner is all well and good,” Dowd sneered. “But your loyalty
must ultimately lie with the group. Otherwise, things will end badly for you, as you saw
“That‟s another thing,” Payton said. “Before we agree to this, I want
confirmation that the warrants for us and the investigation into CUFOS are rescinded.”
Dowd sighed. “As of this afternoon, your agency and every police department
throughout America will have been officially disbanded. There would be no point in
fulfilling your request.”
“I want it done anyway,” Payton insisted. “I don‟t want there to ever have been a
paper trail implicating that we or the Center did anything wrong.”
Dowd studied him a moment. “You‟re asking an awful lot for someone without a
whole lot of leverage.”
“I know,” Payton conceded. “But I‟m offering you a lifetime of service. I think
it‟s a pretty good deal, even for a shrewd businessman such as you.”
Dowd seemed to think about it. Then he smiled. “Shrewd. I like that word.” He
stuck out his hand. “We‟ll have to do the official ceremonies later, but you have a deal,
“You can retract the warrants from this console?”
“I can do it right now, if you wish.”
“No,” Payton said, trying not to sound too eager. “It‟ll be better if you do it with
my partner here. To help convince her.”
Dowd nodded and reached out once more.
Payton looked at his outstretched hand. He hated this, but he hated the image of
Jennifer or Chanel lying dead more. If this was the only way to keep them alive, then he
would just have to pinch his nose and go along with this. Chanel wouldn‟t be happy
about it either, but she‟d have to go along. He just hoped they all survived this.
He reached out and shook Dowd‟s hand.
They had locked him back in the office. He had expected them to have guards
inside the room with him, but to his surprise the two hooded men assigned to watch him
were stationed outside the door. He paced the room for a couple of minutes and then
spent some time searching through what little furniture and equipment was in the room
for something to use as a weapon. They must have anticipated this, though, as there was
nothing useful to be found.
He went back to pacing and his thoughts drifted to Jennifer. She must have been
out of her mind with fear. Unable to run with no idea what was happening, Payton‟s
heart leapt in his chest crying out for her. Don’t worry, sweetheart, he thought. I’m
keeping you safe. I won’t let anyone hurt you.
He glanced at his watch. It was nearly eight o‟clock. In an hour and a half the
America he knew and loved was going to cease to exist, and he‟d signed up for the
The office door opened and a hooded figure threw Chanel to the ground. Payton
went to her side as the door closed once more. “You okay?” he asked.
She looked up at him. Blood was trickling from her nose and there was an ugly
purple bruise underneath her left eye, but she appeared to be alright. He didn‟t see any
fear or pain in her eyes, much to his surprise. All that was there was cold anger.
She shrugged him off. “I‟m fine,” she said. She stood up and regarded him with
that same cold expression. “I had a nice long talk with Jonathan Dowd and two of his
hooded cronies. They said you agreed to work for them. They said you traded our
service for our lives.”
“There‟s no other choice,” he said, hoping she was really hearing him. “Either we
join up or they kill us.”
“How can you do this?” she shouted at him. Her fists were clenched and she was
up on her toes. “These people are the enemy, for Christ‟s sake.”
“And they hold all the cards,” he bellowed back at her. “You don‟t play poker
without a hand. All you can do is fold.”
And then he mouthed a single word to her: bluff.
She took a step back, looking puzzled for a moment. Then it clicked. He could
see that she stifled a smile, instead giving a quick curt nod.
The door opened again and another robed figure pushed Jennifer in on her
wheelchair. Payton moved towards her but the robed figure struck out him and he backed
off. When the door was closed once more, he looked his niece over.
She had begun crying when she saw him. There were tear tracks crisscrossing
down her face. Her hair looked dirty and disheveled, and her clothes looked wrinkled as
though they‟d been worn for too long. She didn‟t appear to have been harmed, however,
and Payton went to her once more.
“I‟m so sorry, honey,” he said. He struggled to keep tears from coming to his
own eyes. She needed him to be strong. “I‟m so sorry you got involved in this.”
“They said they were going to kill me if I tried to get away,” Jennifer sobbed.
She reached as far as she could in her wheelchair to wrap her arms around his neck. “I
kept telling them I couldn‟t go anywhere because of my chair, but they wouldn‟t listen to
me. Why is this happening, Uncle Doc? They said they were going to kill you if I made
Rage boiled inside him. He forced a smile. “No one is going to be killed,
sweetheart. These men aren‟t going to hurt us anymore.”
She looked up at him again and nodded, choking off her sobs. Then her eyes
flicked to Chanel. “Who are you?” she asked, and her eyes narrowed suspiciously.
Chanel smiled and walked over. She stuck out her hand. “My name is Chanel.
I‟m your Uncle‟s partner.”
In a gesture that made her look far older than she was, Jennifer reached out and
shook her hand. She continued to stare at Chanel for a moment, then pointed at her face.
“Did they do that?”
“Don‟t worry about that, darling,” Chanel smiled. “They won‟t hurt us anymore.”
Jennifer turned to Payton. “Your partner is pretty,” she whispered. “You should
ask her on a date.”
Tears came to Payton‟s eyes again, but he smiled through them.
The office door opened yet again, and this time Dowd walked through it. He was
out of his robes. He had an escort with him. Payton‟s eyes widened as he looked upon a
man in a suit. The man was bald. In fact, it looked as if his body was entirely hairless,
including his eyebrows. There was a bulge on one side of his open jacket, and Payton
caught a flash of a gun. Other than a slight tint to his skin, the only distinguishing mark
on him was a nasty gash on the back of his head.
“You,” Chanel said softly.
“Ah, yes,” Dowd smiled after looking between them. “You‟ve met Jean-Pierre,
haven‟t you? If I remember correctly it was you two that gave him that tap to the back of
“Him,” the man growled, pointing at Payton.
He hadn‟t noticed it before, but there was something odd in the timber or tone of
his voice. He turned to Dowd. “Is he…human?” Payton managed.
Jean-Pierre gave him a cold stare.
Dowd laughed. “I suppose that would depend on your definition of human.” He
looked at Jennifer, who was hiding slightly. “But now I‟m afraid he‟s going to have to
take this little one to another room while the grownups get to work.”
Jean-Pierre stepped forward, causing Jennifer to whimper and roll her chair
further backwards. Payton put up a hand to stop him. Jean-Pierre‟s fingers closed
around the gun holstered at his side.
“Easy,” Payton said. “Let me talk to her.”
Payton knelt in front of Jennifer. “I need you to go with them for now,” he said.
She started to cry again and a lump jumped in his throat. “Don‟t worry, honey. I‟ll be
done working soon. Then we can go home.”
Tears continued to stream from her eyes, but she nodded.
Jean-Pierre stepped forward again. Payton caught him by the arm and whispered
in his ear. “If anything happens to her, I will kill you. Do you understand me?”
He smiled evilly and shrugged him off. He wheeled Jennifer out of the room and
they were alone with Dowd, who had his pistol out again. It wasn‟t pointed directly at
them, but the way he held it would make jumping him impossible. Obviously, agreement
or no, he didn‟t trust them just yet.
“Come with me,” Dowd said.
“Wait,” Chanel piped up. “I‟m going to need my pack.”
“Not a chance,” Dowd said.
Chanel shrugged. “Suit yourself. If you‟ve been keeping tabs on us the way I
think you have, you know we‟ve got a tablet computer in that bag and that it came from a
Dowd frowned. “So?”
“If we‟re going to go along with this, I figure you‟ll want the information we got
from the DAT tape,” she said. “It‟s encrypted on the tablet.”
“We have very good people that can decrypt the files,” Dowd smiled.
“Wouldn‟t you rather have it done now?” she continued. “I would. Especially
with what you‟ve got planned. Why leave any loose ends?”
Dowd studied her. “And you‟ll do this right now?” he asked suspiciously.
“No,” she shook her head. “You promised to clear our names. Bring the tablet to
wherever that happens. Once it‟s done, I‟ll give you your files back.”
Dowd paused, then nodded. “Fine. We‟ll pick up your pack on the way.” He
gave them a dark look. “Along with Jean-Pierre. If you try anything, I‟m afraid he‟ll
have to show you his unpleasant side.”
“We‟ll play ball,” Payton told him. “We‟re not stupid. This is all just a little
Dowd‟s expression softened and, for a moment, Payton thought he looked almost
gentle. “I understand. It‟s overwhelming for all of us at first. Relax. You‟re part of
something important now. In ninety minutes, you‟ll be one of twenty-five people or so
who will be employed by the United States Government.”
Ten minutes later they were back in the terminal chamber. Dowd ordered them to
stand to the side where they were under the constant gaze of Jean Pierre. Meanwhile,
Dowd took a seat in the terminal chair and began uttering commands.
“Is that it?” Chanel whispered, looking at the mainframe terminal.
“Yeah,” Payton whispered back.
“Quiet,” Jean-Pierre barked.
They stood silently for several minutes while Dowd worked at the console. His
hands flew over the keyboard. Payton thought it was odd to see a man of his age working
so efficiently on such a novel piece of technology.
The tablet computer was closed and resting on the mainframe console. Payton
couldn‟t help but glance at it occasionally. Chanel had displayed some serious guile in
getting Chuck‟s computer in the same room as the mainframe access terminal. From the
look of concentration that was occasionally passing over her face, she was now working
on how to hook it up to the terminal and upload the virus. Those looks had been coming
and going for several minutes now, indicating that she wasn‟t making much progress. It
was up to him.
Dowd called over Jean-Pierre and began showing him something on several of the
screens. He appeared to give him whispered instructions. Payton couldn‟t hear all of
what was said, but he caught enough of it. Shortly before nine-twenty, Jean-Pierre would
gather the rest of the group in the ceremony chamber to await Dowd‟s return. Once
Dowd had initiated the shutdown of the government and the national communications
systems, he would be sending some kind of communiqué that would release waiting
Majestic Twelve military forces to secure government facilities and utilities throughout
the country. After an hour or so, Dowd would flip the switch back on, the Illuminati
controlled government would restore basic services, instill a nationwide curfew for all
non-military personnel, and lock down the borders. The representative government
members not in on the conspiracy would be given the chance to go quietly. If they
refused, they were to be shot. There was also to be fifty-thousand heavily armed troops
from the Army and Marines that were immediately available to put down any resistance
that might be mounted. The Federal Emergency Management Agency would declare
martial law and suspend the constitution. Once the internet and phone systems had been
restored, the Echelon network would begin searching for resisters of the new government.
Any offenders would be placed in FEMA operated concentration camps in Nevada,
California, Illinois, New York, Texas, and Florida. The United Nations would be
disbanded, as would NORAD and NATO. Full control of all defense systems would be
routed through Echelon and handled through automation, ultimately controlled by Dowd.
“Jesus,” Payton whispered to Chanel, who was straining to listen as well. “We
can‟t let them go through with it.”
“If you have any ideas on how to stop them, I‟m all ears,” Chanel whispered back.
Payton looked over the console again. The tablet was right there. All that he
needed to do was get the Ethernet cables plugged in and initiate the virus upload. But
Dowd wasn‟t stupid. He wasn‟t going to let them hook the tablet up to the console. He
didn‟t see any hope of overtaking the two men by force, either. Dowd might be old and
nearly blind, but Jean-Pierre had the look of a professional soldier. Plus they were both
“Did I hear Dowd say that he was going to send what‟s his name away?” Chanel
whispered. Apparently she was thinking along the same lines. “Once he‟s gone, we
could probably jump the old man.”
Payton didn‟t like it but he had to agree. It seemed like it was their only chance.
It would be dangerous. They would have to keep Dowd from making enough noise to
bring any nearby troops down on them. Also they would be cutting the timing
dangerously close to the end of the countdown.
But there didn‟t seem to be any alternatives. At least with Jean-Pierre and his gun
out of the room, they would have a fighting chance. Dowd might still had his weapon,
but the lighting in the room wasn‟t all that great and Payton would bet that the old man‟s
blind eyes wouldn‟t be able to hit much if they moved fast.
“You two, come here,” Dowd ordered.
Jean-Pierre watched them carefully as they came to stand beside the console. His
hand never lifted off the pistol‟s grip.
They looked up at the displays, which showed too much information in a variety
of windows to comprehend at once. Payton did notice that Dowd was logged into several
government web consoles. A hovering face that looked very much like the avatar was
also displayed on one of the monitors. In the center display was a copy of the police
report the old man had showed them in Boston.
“Watch carefully,” Dowd said. He began whispering commands again and typing
on the keyboard. As they watched, he closed the murder case against them, citing a
confession by a prisoner already in federal custody. He then logged into the records site
for the BOP, or Bureau of Prisons, and applied a trial judgment for the murder to the
unnamed inmate, identified only by his prisoner ID number. Next he opened the NSA
and FBI intranet portals, erased all of the case files under their names, and lifted the
government sanctions and investigations into CUFOS. He was moving so fast that
Payton missed some of what was being done, but in an amazingly short period of time,
Dowd was completely cleaning up everything that had been done to them over the last
seventy-two hours. “And I‟m done,” he sighed. “It‟s amazing what you can do with a
machine these days. When I was younger, we had a hell of a time creating paper trails.
Now,” he waved a hand at the machine. “The console fills in the blanks automatically.”
“Impressive,” Payton said.
“And now I think Ms. Falasco has her end of a promise to keep.”
Chanel stepped forward and opened the tablet. The screen was tilted slightly
away from the console so that she was the only one that could really see what she was
doing. Payton silently hoped she didn‟t do anything stupid.
She was doing an awful lot of typing and he wondered if she was just pretending
to work, since the files on the computer weren‟t actually encrypted. Finally, she looked
back at Dowd. “You want me to put this on a disk?”
“No,” he said. “You can move it from your tablet to the console hard drive over
an Ethernet cable.”
Payton‟s heart began to pound and he forced his head not to snap alert. He
couldn‟t be that stupid, could he? He wouldn‟t actually allow them to link up. Would
he? Was he really that careless?
No, he thought. He isn’t stupid and he isn’t careless. He’s just so confident in his
system that he doesn’t believe there is anything we can do to threaten it.
As if reading his thoughts, Dowd handed Jean-Pierre a set of cables. “Jean-Pierre
will transfer the files,” he said, and Jean-Pierre moved to stand behind her. He had drawn
his pistol. “If you try anything, he will shoot the both of you.”
Payton manage to swallow a grimace. There went any chance of Chanel being
able to initiate the virus upload. Jean-Pierre motioned Chanel to return to where she‟d
been standing and began to manipulate the touchpad on the tablet with one hand, keeping
the pistol trained in their direction with the other. Moments later he was done.
“Excellent,” Dowd said. The files appeared on one of the displays. Dowd began
scanning through them, occasionally stopping to read a notation that Chuck had made.
“Your friend is very, very good. If we thought we could control him, we might even
have offered him work. As it is, he‟ll probably have to spend some time in one of the
FEMA camps until he learns some restraint.”
“Are the camps really necessary?” Payton asked. “Why can‟t you just operate
within the local police districts to maintain order?”
Dowd looked at him. “Questions like that are outside of your pay grade,” he said.
“You said you would join. That means you completely join. You don‟t get to pick and
choose which parts of the organization you agree with.”
Payton shrugged. “I was just curious.”
“Curiosity kills, my dear boy,” Dowd said sternly. His expression eased a bit.
“Although I suppose you‟ve made a leap in joining us, so it isn‟t unreasonable to expect
answers to some questions.” He took a deep breath. “The FEMA camps are not only
places to house resisters. They will also be used to continue some research projects that
we‟ve been working on for some time. We need to gather genetic information and
material so that we can institute breeding guidelines in the new America.”
Payton‟s jaw dropped. “You‟re talking about eugenics.”
“Call it whatever you want,” Dowd shrugged. “It is very important that we
control the genetics of the American people after we take control.”
“I can‟t believe this,” Chanel said. “We knew you were importing Nazi scientists,
but how can you people be so intelligent and racist at the same time?”
Dowd turned to her. “Young lady, this isn‟t about race. Nazi eugenics wasn‟t
supposed to be about race. We gave Hitler a job to do and then funded him to do it, but
don‟t pin his going rogue on us. We don‟t have any prejudice against Jews, blacks, or
anyone else. In fact, most minorities are fairly well represented within our group. Our
eugenics program is about inoculating our entire species against some very real threats.”
“Inoculating?” Payton repeated. “You‟re talking about disease.”
Dowd gave him a haunting look. “There are things out there that would make
your hair curl.”
“Things like…” Payton trailed off.
Dowd‟s look turned ghostly for a moment and Payton got the impression that he
wasn‟t actually seeing them. It only lasted a moment, however, and his eyes refocused.
“That‟s for another time, I‟m afraid,” he said. “The FEMA camps are necessary. But if
he behaves, we‟ll try to keep Mr. Mikuzis from being locked any longer than he makes
Payton nodded. “Thank you.”
“What now?” Chanel asked.
“I‟ve given you what you asked for, and you‟ve kept your end of the bargain,”
Dowd said. Then he pointed towards the door. “Now you‟re going with him while the
takeover is completed.”
They turned towards the door. There, out of his robes and back in his suit, was
the man who had been after them from the very beginning.
Payton hadn‟t noticed it at first, but there was another room jutting off of the
terminal chamber. The chamber was big enough that he‟d tried to think of something
witty to say while DeMarco escorted them into the room. He hadn‟t come up with
Through the door was what might have been a prison cell, but there was no lock
on the door and no bars. Payton guessed it was something like twenty feet by twenty
feet. There were several uncomfortable looking chairs lined up against the far wall,
otherwise the room was nearly bare.
“Sit,” DeMarco said, pointing at the chairs.
Payton looked DeMarco over. He was back in a suit, and it looked like it could
be the same one he‟d been wearing in the parking lot of at the visitor‟s center. He was
wearing a leather shoulder holster and when he moved just right, Payton caught a glimpse
of a pistol tucked snuggly away. There were bags under his eyes and his face was taut
with tension. It was hard to get much more of a read on him, however, as he was
pressing his ear against the door, apparently trying to hear what Dowd and Jean-Pierre
were doing in the other room.
“Don‟t they tell you what‟s going on?” Payton asked him.
“Quiet,” DeMarco hissed, turning to glare at him. “I need to hear.”
“I thought you were in their elite class now,” Payton laughed. “You don‟t look
too majestic with your face against the door.”
DeMarco‟s face flushed red and he stepped away from the door scowling. “You
just couldn‟t stay out of this, could you? All you had to do was leave well enough alone
and you would have been out there and away from all this.” He began pacing around the
room, rubbing his hands together nervously.
Something was going on. Payton glanced at Chanel, who was frowning. “What
are you talking about?” she asked warily. “Your boss has asked us to join the group.
How would we be better off out there?”
DeMarco spun back on them, pistol out and pointing at each of them in turn.
Payton did his best not to jump, noticing that Chanel managed quite nicely. DeMarco
was sweating, still aiming his pistol at each of them, and he looked as though any sudden
movement might cause him to pull the trigger. His eyes were shifting continuously. “I
want both of you tell me the truth. If you lie, I‟ll shoot the both of you and say you tried
Payton nodded. “I guess that would wrap up the unfinished work you left at the
visitor‟s center. I mean, a car bomb? You could have just shot us and been done with it.”
“You don‟t know what you‟re talking about,” DeMarco snapped, hissing like a
pressure hose. He took a step closer and leveled the pistol against Payton‟s forehead.
“Are you joining the group? Really?”
Payton stared at him. Was this a test? Some kind of bizarre loyalty exam? If so,
it wasn‟t a particularly effective one. After all, how else was he going to respond but
“yes” with a gun pointed at his head? “What are you talking about?” he asked instead.
“I‟m asking you where your loyalties lie. I want to know if the two of you are
truly going to work for the Illuminati, or if you‟re faking it to buy time so you can pull
some kind of stunt.” DeMarco paused. “And think carefully, because your answer to
that question is extremely important.” He cocked the hammer on the pistol. It made that
clicking noise, sounding like a dog‟s claws on tile.
There was something in his face that Payton couldn‟t quite place. It was part
desperation, part fear, and part determination. This wasn‟t how he‟d been expecting
DeMarco to act.
Ultimately, he decided, it didn‟t make the slightest bit of difference. From the
moment DeMarco had led them to this room and closed the door, Payton knew he was
going to have to kill him. If they were to have any hope of getting out of this room,
uploading the virus, and getting everyone out of the building, they were going to have to
take him out. He‟d been running through scenarios in his mind, trying to think of a way
to set DeMarco up to be taken down, but he‟d come up empty. With his pistol, the
problem of getting close enough to him before getting shot kept popping up. Now, with
the pistol placed firmly against his forehead, that problem was solved.
“I don‟t know what you expect me to say, but I will tell you that I can‟t speak for
my partner,” he said with a nod towards Chanel. On what must have been pure instinct,
DeMarco‟s eyes flitted to follow his nod. For the briefest of moments, his eyes were off
In that same moment, he struck.
In one motion his one hand slapped the pistol away while he jammed the other as
hard as he could into DeMarco‟s gut. The gun went spinning across the room and slid up
against the wall. DeMarco shuffled backwards for a moment, gasping for breath.
Payton‟s well placed punch had struck him in the breadbasket, just below the sternum.
He wouldn‟t be able to shout for a few moments, which was all Chanel needed to cross
the room, retrieve the pistol, and bring it back to press against DeMarco‟s chest as he lay
on his back.
Payton got on top of him and covered his mouth. He was still heaving, but he‟d
get his wind back quickly and they didn‟t need any guards to deal with. He gave
DeMarco another gut shot and he curled up as much as Payton let him. “Don‟t you dare
make a sound,” Payton instructed him. “One shout and my partner shoots you straight
through the heart.”
“You…don‟t understand,” Demarco managed to get out, still gasping.
“Oh, we understand,” Chanel whispered angrily. “You were tailing us at the
restaurant in Chicago, you were following us on the highway in Pennsylvania, and then
you tried to blow us into little bitty pieces with a car bomb. I think we have an excellent
understanding of what you are.”
DeMarco tried to respond, but couldn‟t catch enough of his breath, and settled for
violently shaking his head.
“Now, we have to go back into that chamber and do what we came here to do,”
Payton said softly. “Unfortunately, both of those men have guns.” Payton smiled. “So
we‟re going to use you as a body shield.”
“Get up,” Chanel instructed.
DeMarco got to his feet, still shaking his head and trying to get them to listen.
“What, you want to beg for your life?” Payton asked. “I don‟t remember getting
that chance when you rigged a bomb to our car.”
DeMarco breathed deeply and seemed to gather himself. “Saved…your life,” he
Payton stopped dead. “What did you say?”
He finally seemed to catch his wind. “I…made sure the bomb went off when
there was no one around to get hurt,” DeMarco huffed. “They ordered me to kill you. If
I…didn‟t make it look good, they would have found another way.”
Payton stared at him. “That‟s ridiculous. You‟ve been after us from day one.
We have no reason to believe a word you say.”
“I‟m going to reach towards my shirt,” DeMarco said. He slowly unfastened the
top two buttons of his shirt after loosening his tie. He pulled open the collar. Underneath
there were several black wires taped to his chest. “You see?”
Chanel peered at the wires. “Who are you?”
“Agent Anthony DeMarco.”
“We already knew that,” Chanel said, looking up at him.
“Of the United States Justice Department,” DeMarco finished.
What the hell? The Justice Department? “But…you‟re in the NSA,” Payton said
“I‟m a plant,” DeMarco said. “The USJD has been quietly investigating the NSA
regarding misappropriation of funds and collusion with wealthy industrialists. They‟ve
had me undercover in the NSA for the past six years.”
“And, what, Dowd just happened to pick you to be inducted into the Illuminati?”
“Nothing so happenstance. The DeMarco family has considerable influence in
Italy. My grandfather was a close friend of Benito Mussolini.” He took a breath. “My
last name is something I‟ve had to fight against my entire life. When Dowd had one of
his NSA cronies offer to introduce us, the USJD jumped at the chance and I agreed to
Payton looked at Chanel. She shrugged.
He released DeMarco. They both got up. Chanel still had the gun up and aimed.
Payton thought back to her file and their talk at the coffee shop a week before. She was
prone to gullibility. She considered herself open minded, but Payton knew that the desire
to believe was very dangerous, particularly in this case. She might be willing to accept
DeMarco‟s word at face value, but Payton didn‟t believe in anything, as he liked to tell
people. He needed proof.
“If there‟s someone listening in on your wires, get them in here right now,” he
told DeMarco. “Call in the cavalry, shut this whole thing down, and get us the hell out of
“Can‟t,” DeMarco shook his head. “This building is protected against wireless
communications. I lost contact with my team the moment I set foot in here.”
“How convenient,” Payton said. Chanel gave him a look, but he ignored her.
“You say you have a team. We didn‟t see anyone on our way in.”
“They‟re in the Royal Scotland Bank building.”
“How many men?”
“Twenty,” DeMarco said.
“I think you‟re lying,” Payton said. “These men are not the type to leave anything
to chance. They have people on every council, on every committee, in every agency. We
turn your gun on you and all of the sudden you‟re from the Justice Department? If that
were true, the Illuminati would have known all about you, thanks to that Echelon
program you tried so hard to get back from us in Chicago. You probably would have
been killed long ago.”
“You‟re right. These people are very, very good,” DeMarco said. “But they‟re
not invincible, and they‟re not omniscient. Believe it or not, there are still some good
guys in our government, and we can still work outside the normal communication
“Tell us the name of these government officials,” Payton demanded.
“No way,” he shook his head. “I‟m not putting anyone else in danger. Besides,
this ends tonight.”
“Meaning?” Payton asked.
“We anticipated our transmissions getting cut off. The USJD troops outside have
strict orders to storm the building if I have not checked in for six hours.” DeMarco
glanced at his watch. “Two hours from now, they‟ll be coming in.”
Payton had been watching him closely. He normally trusted his ability to know
when people were lying to him, but now he hesitated. As far as he could tell, DeMarco
was telling the truth, but for some reason, he wasn‟t ready for Chanel to lower her
“Look, I can see in your eyes you don‟t trust me, and I can‟t really blame you,”
DeMarco said reasonably. “I have a backup piece in my ankle holster. I could have gone
for it when I was on the ground. I could have gone for it this entire time we‟ve been
talking. I‟m going to reach for it now. I will grip it by the end of the barrel, my finger
will be nowhere near the trigger.” He reached slowly and did as he‟d said. He brought
up a short revolver, the kind policemen carried. He had it pinched between two fingers,
and he held it out to Payton.
“What are you doing?” Payton asked.
“Giving you my gun,” he answered. “Take it.”
Payton kept his eye on him as he reached out and took it. He opened the chamber
on the revolver. It was fully loaded. He looked back at DeMarco and saw a very hopeful
and determined expression on his face. He sighed and motioned for Chanel to lower her
gun. “I believe you.”
“Thank God,” DeMarco sighed. “All we have to do is wait here and my men will
get us out.”
“I‟m afraid not,” Payton said. “Have they told you anything about a countdown?”
“Yeah, I know about it,” DeMarco said. “What the hell do you think we‟re trying
to prevent here? We gave up the misappropriation charges a long time ago.”
“They tell you when the countdown was scheduled to end?”
“Nobody gets to know that until their inducted,” DeMarco frowned. “I was
supposed to find out tonight.”
Payton sighed. “We‟ve got an hour and a half.”
DeMarco‟s head snapped up. “No,” he said. Then he must have seen the serious
look on Payton‟s face, because his expression turned to fear. “Jesus Christ. There‟s
nothing we can do to stop it. Even if we kill everyone in this room, that trigger shuts
everything down. Actually, that‟d be worse. If we take everyone down there would be
no one around to turn everything back on.”
“Actually,” Payton said. “We might have a way.”
They filled him in on the tablet and Chuck‟s virus. If it was still sitting on the
mainframe terminal console, all they had to do was get to it and enter in the phrase and
they‟d be done. The problem was that there were at least two armed men on the other
side of the door, possibly more. He, Chanel, and DeMarco had two firearms between
them, but that didn‟t guarantee that everyone would all live through a frontal attack.
“I have an idea,” DeMarco said. He turned to Chanel. “Give me my gun back.”
She handed the gun over. Payton fought back a wince.
“Now,” DeMarco continued, examining the pistol before looking at Payton.
“We‟re going to go out there, so keep your gun out of site. You go through the door first,
I‟ll follow with my gun in your back. I‟ll say that you hid additional files from him on
your tablet, and that you‟re going to show him where they are.”
“Then what?” Payton asked.
“Assuming they buy it, we start shooting as soon as we‟re close enough.”
“What if there are more than Dowd and Jean-Pierre out there?” Payton asked.
“Then we do as well as we can,” DeMarco said. “We don‟t have time to come up
with anything else, do we?”
“I guess not,” Payton agreed.
Chanel cleared her throat. “Ahem. Putting aside that I can just about guarantee
that I‟ve spent more time on the firearm qualifying range than either of you, what exactly
am I going to be doing while you boys are off playing with your guns?”
“As soon as the shooting stops, you get out there and initiate the virus upload,”
DeMarco answered. “Then we get the hell out of here.”
“After we get my niece,” Payton added.
“Right. You ready?”
Payton‟s heart was pounding. He wasn‟t sure this was such a good idea, but they
were running out of time. “I‟m ready,” he said.
Chanel moved in front of him. “Are you sure about this, Doc?”
He shrugged. “What other choice is there?”
She nodded. Then she reached out and hugged him close, wrapping her arms
around his neck. “Be careful,” she whispered. She hugged him tighter. “I don‟t want a
Payton pulled away from her. Her embrace had felt good, but he had work to do.
“This one has been hiding some files from us,” DeMarco announced as they went
through the door.
Payton took stock of the terminal chamber. Everything looked nearly as it had
before. The tablet was still resting on the console. Jean-Pierre looked every bit as bald
and foreboding as before, but Dowd was nowhere to be found. Instead he‟d been
replaced by two faceless robed figures. They were all huddled around the console,
though none of them were seated in the chair. Payton got the impression that they didn‟t
have the authority to sit in it. The cold metal of the revolver tucked against the small of
his back was oddly comforting.
“You were told to keep them in the holding room,” Jean-Pierre said sternly.
“Take them back there now.”
“He has more of our files,” DeMarco repeated. “Dowd would want them.”
They continued to cross the chamber towards the console.
“Dowd isn‟t here,” Jean-Pierre said. Payton noticed again the odd timber in his
voice. “He said he‟d be back. And he left me in charge.”
They were getting close to them now, something like a hundred feet away.
“Good,” DeMarco said. “When he gets back, we‟ll have Mr. Connor copy over
They were close enough now that Payton could see Jean-Pierre‟s eyes narrow.
“Take him back to the holding room. I will inform Dowd upon his return.”
“And let you take the credit? I don‟t think so,” DeMarco shook his head.
Payton was beginning to wonder how close Dowd intended to get.
“Stop and return to the room DeMarco!” Jean-Pierre shouted. He made to reach
into his jacket.
Payton was shoved sideways by DeMarco, who then shifted his aim. Payton
vaguely saw Jean-Pierre‟s snarling face disappear behind the two robed men. Shots rang
out, four or five, he couldn‟t be sure. When he looked back towards the console, the two
robed men had crumpled to the floor. Jean-Pierre had ducked behind the terminal and
DeMarco was moving quickly towards him, keeping low.
Payton dug the revolver out of the back of his pants and followed. DeMarco
caught his eye and motioned for him to go around one end of the console while he went
the other direction. He circled around the console slowly, half expecting to see a gun
pointed back at him with every step he took.
“Payton, come here,” DeMarco‟s voice came.
He rushed around the console to see DeMarco leaning over Jean-Pierre, who was
slumped against the machinery, his weapon just out of reach. A red splotch on his white
shirt was spreading outward. From what Payton could tell, DeMarco had hit him roughly
around the heart cavity. It was a fatal injury, but for the moment he was still breathing
laboriously. His hiccupping gasps were painful to listen to, and he was glaring up at
“He‟s going to die,” Payton said. He tucked the revolver into the back of his
“And good riddance,” DeMarco nodded.
“Doc?” Chanel was standing in the doorway.
He waved her over. “Get to work on that thing,” he said. He couldn‟t believe it.
They were going to do it. They were going to shut down the Echelon network and thwart
the plans of the Illuminati.
“I have to admit, you guys are pretty good,” DeMarco said.
Payton shook his head. “We‟re not out of here yet.”
Chanel trotted over and began to ask if they were both alright. Payton stopped her
and told her again to get to work on the tablet. She walked over to it.
And all three of them ducked as two shots rang out, sending sparks off of the
console base. They moved quickly around the console and huddled together.
“Who‟s shooting at us?” Chanel hissed.
“Connor!” shouted a familiar voice from the doorway. “Get out here Connor. Or
I shoot your niece in the head.”
“Uncle,” Payton heard his niece‟s whimper.
He looked around at Chanel and DeMarco. They were both shaking their heads
no. He gritted his teeth and stepped from behind the console.
Jennifer was in her chair, just inside the doorway. She was crying out for him and
both of her arms were stretched out in front of her, as though she wanted him to come
and pick her up. Dowd was stooped down behind her chair. He had one arm around her
neck and the other was pointing a gun at her head.
“It‟s over Dowd,” Payton said. He raised his arms in the air and walked towards
them. “The building is surrounded by Justice Department agents.”
“Actually, we‟re dealing with them upstairs,” Dowd sneered. “They tried to get
in the building and the guards we stationed there after you broke in are keeping them out.
They won‟t make it down here. Certainly not in time, anyway.” He looked past Payton.
“I know you‟re back there DeMarco. Since I‟m the only one with a hostage, I think I
should be the only one with a gun. Slide yours out please, or I shoot the girl.”
Payton thought immediately of the revolver against his back. Apparently Dowd
wasn‟t aware of it. He wondered how much time they had left. It couldn‟t be more than
twenty minutes. Maybe less.
DeMarco‟s pistol went sliding past him and clanked against the wheelchair.
Dowd reached down and picked it up, smiling. “Very good. Now I think we should have
all three of you out and against the wall, please.” He abandoned Jennifer and the cover of
the wheelchair and walked into the chamber. Both pistols were now trained on him.
He got them lined up against the nearest wall. He paced back and forth, his two
weapons always pointed in their general direction. Jennifer was still in the doorway,
wailing for him.
“You damned people,” Dowd spat at them as he paced. “Don‟t you understand
what we‟re trying to do? We‟re the good guys. No more war, no more corruption, no
more poverty. That‟s what we represent. We‟re going to give people jobs, a purpose for
being. Why would you fight that?”
“You take people‟s freedom away,” Payton said. How much time was there now?
“Think about it, do people really deserve freedom?” Dowd asked. “Every day,
the people in this country lie, cheat, and steal. Do you have any idea how many murders
are committed on a yearly basis? How about how about the number of people the United
States Military kills? I‟m talking about putting an end to all of that. When we have
control, we‟ll close the borders and make every person in the country a part of the
solution instead of the problem.”
“What about us?” DeMarco asked. “What happens to us?”
Dowd ignored the question and stalked silently. Payton noticed that his eyes were
constantly moving. He seemed to tilt his head to concentrate wherever he was looking,
as if he were always seeing out of only one eye or the other. Payton wondered just how
bad his vision really was. His own hands were at his side, but he began inching his right
arm to reach behind his back. He didn‟t dare make a sudden grab for the revolver with
Dowd‟s pistols continuously trained on the three of them. All he could hope for was a
moment of distraction, much like in the holding room with DeMarco, so he could strike.
“I offered work to all of you,” Dowd continued. He was ranting. It seemed to
Payton as if he was working himself up to something. Probably to kill them. “More than
just work, I offered you elite positions amongst the group. Positions that would have
given you power and influence in the new America I‟m going to create.” He glanced at
his watch. “It won‟t be long now. Another few minutes and this is all over.”
“You‟re going to kill us,” Payton said. “But you want an audience first.”
“Yes,” Dowd smiled evilly. “Pride is one of my vices.”
“Well you can just kill me now,” DeMarco said. “I don‟t plan on applauding
“As you wish,” Dowd shrugged. “I don‟t need all three of you.” He trained both
pistols on DeMarco and smiled.
“No!” Payton shouted and reached for the revolver. His hand gripped it as he
launched himself at Dowd. He brought his aim around and squeezed the trigger. Dowd
was pulling a face and trying to shift the sights on one of his guns to Payton. Several
shots rang out, three from Payton, and another two or three from Dowd.
It felt like everything was happening in slow motion. He saw fire spitting from
both of Dowd‟s pistols as well as his own. As if from far away he felt a bullet rip into his
shoulder and strike bone. The pain was immediately intense, even as he continued to
slowly perceive what was going on around him. He was able to watch two shots of his
own hit somewhere on Dowd‟s body, though by the time he hit the floor, he was too
consumed with the pain in his shoulder to note the location of the wounds.
Everything sped back up to real time again. He was rolling on the floor, his
shoulder throbbing. He tried to move his arm, but cried out when he was able to feel the
bullet scrape against the bone in his shoulder. Somebody else was screaming. When he
looked he saw it was Jennifer, who was rolling her chair in his direction.
Dowd was on the ground gasping for air. It sounded like one of his lungs had
been punctured. As he made the sucking sounds he glared coldly at Payton.
“Uncle Doc,” Jennifer sobbed. “Are you okay, Uncle Doc? Are you okay?”
Chanel was by his side by the time his niece skidded to a halt. Tears were
flowing like tributaries down Jennifer‟s face as she looked him over. He tried to tell her
he was fine, but his voice caught as the bullet scraped again.
“Relax,” Chanel said. She knelt beside him and tore open his shirt.
“Bad?” Payton managed.
“It looks like the bullet went straight in,” she replied. “Missed the major arteries
and the bleeding isn‟t too bad. Assuming we get you to a hospital within a couple of
hours, you‟ll live.”
“Time?” he croaked.
She lifted his good arm and checked his watch. “Ten after nine.”
“Go,” he heaved. He jerked his head toward the console.
She left his side and made her way over to the console. She began typing on the
tablet. He reached out and patted Jennifer on the leg. “I‟ll be okay,” he said, trying to be
as soothing as he could manage. She had to be scared to death.
Chanel returned to his side. “It‟s uploaded.”
“Did it work?” he asked.
She shook her head. “I don‟t know. I think so. The console displays got screwy
and the whole thing shut down. Whether that means it made it throughout the entire
network, I don‟t know.”
It didn‟t matter. They had done everything they could. The rest was up to fate.
His eyes began to droop. It took a supreme effort, but he managed to crook his
head and peer down at his shoulder. Despite what Chanel had said, blood was trickling
from the wound and had begun pooling on the floor. It felt like the energy was seeping
out of him with the blood.
He barely heard the door open and several men in suits pour through, instructing
them to raise their hands and informing them that the entire building was now under the
control of the United States Justice Department. Chanel was calling them over, pleading
with them to get him to a hospital. Jennifer began crying once more.
Payton closed his eyes and darkness overcame him.
It was a beautiful evening. Payton stood in the backyard outside of his apartment
in the twilight, sipping a beer. Chanel was sitting with Jennifer at the patio table. They
were eating the burgers he had cooked on the grill.
Chanel got up and stood beside him. “So,” she said. “We dodged a bullet.”
“I guess so,” he said.
“Did you see the news?”
He had. For the last week there had been report after report of indicted
industrialists. The official word was that they were being accused of giving aid and
comfort to the enemies of the war on terror. That amounted to treason. The trials were
expected to be quick and the outcome certain.
“I saw them,” he said. “No mention of us, of course.”
“Yeah, well, I‟m okay with that.” She stared up at the stars. “At least we get to
go back to work tomorrow. Assuming your shoulder has healed.”
He shrugged circles. The pain was mostly gone. “Feels pretty good. Yeah, I‟ll
make it to work tomorrow.”
She wrapped her arm around his waist. “What have you been thinking about,
looking up at the sky?”
“Actually, I‟ve been thinking about something Dowd said,” he answered her. “I
want to know what is out there that scares him enough that he thought eugenics was
She shrugged. “He was a bad, evil guy.”
“Yeah, but he wasn‟t stupid,” he said. “None of them were. Which has got me
thinking: there‟s no way they‟ll get them all. Some of them will get away. Some of them
probably weren‟t even in the country. And they would have had to be fools not to have a
contingency plan for all of this.”
“So we‟ll keep working until we get them all.”
“With what Dowd said, I just wonder if we really made the country stronger.”
She stepped up onto her toes and kissed him on the cheek. She‟d been doing a lot
of that sort of thing lately. “We can look into it tomorrow at the Center. Tonight, let‟s
just enjoy ourselves.”
He nodded. “How about another burger?”
“Sure,” she smiled. “You keep cooking them and we‟ll keep eating them. Right
“I want pickles,” Jennifer shouted.
They laughed and sat with her at the table. Payton began squeezing some of the
ground beef into a patty for grilling.
“Uncle Doc,” Jennifer whispered in his ear. “She‟s really pretty.”
“I know,” Payton said.
“Didn‟t I say you should ask her out on a date?” Jennifer whispered. She had her
concerned tone working again. “You don‟t want to be alone, do you?”
Chanel apparently overheard them and laughed.