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“There? That dusty old bookstore? That's where you think the Alexandria Project that's trying to take down western civilization as we know it is based?"
“Yes, 'that dusty old bookstore!'” Marla snapped. “My father’s certain that’s where the attacks are coming from. We’re in Alexandria, right? So it all ties together. And in case you’ve forgotten, the first gripe the Alexandria Project mentioned in the letter they sent George Marchand was about the Library of Congress pulping books,” so why not a bunch of book fanatics? Marla blew her nose, and Carl noticed for the first time that she had a bad cold.
“Okay, okay. It’s just not what I had expected, but don’t worry, we’ll take it from here.”
“’We’ll take it from here?’ What is that supposed to mean?” Marla was more than annoyed now.
Carl looked surprised. “You know, I’ll report in to headquarters, we’ll comb the store without the owners knowing anything, and if we can find the right evidence, we’ll arrest them.”
“Right.” Marla said. “Exactly right. That’s just what we’ll do. Didn’t anyone teach you how to use pronouns properly?”
Carl looked alarmed. “Now, Marla, come on – this is highly technical work, and dangerous, too! You can’t expect to be part of it.”
But Carl was now talking to the back of a newspaper, so he stopped. Okay, if that’s the way she wanted it, that’s how she could have it. He started to get up. He’d just get a search warrant and…
Carl sat back down with a thump. Now exactly how would he get that search warrant? He didn’t have any proof. He didn’t have anything at all to tell the judge other than what he had just heard, and Marla could deny that if she wanted to. Without a sworn affidavit from Marla to show probable cause, he would never get a warrant
Carl cleared his throat, and then started speaking again, this time with a note of pleading in his voice. “Now please, Marla, let’s just be reasonable here….”
Half an hour later, Carl was sitting in his car, dialing George Marchand. Marla had declined to be reasonable.
“Good news/bad news time. The good news is that Marla just gave me the location that Frank thinks the Alexandria Project’s operating out of. It’s an old book store in Alexandria.”
“How sure is Frank?”
“She says he’s dead certain, but she wouldn’t say how he knows. Anyway, it looks like it should be an easy place to check out. If we can get a warrant, we could even get in there tonight – it closes at 5:00 PM, and it looks like the store takes up the whole building. No apartments or offices upstairs.”
“So what’s the problem? That’s why Homeland Security’s got its own judge on call, 24/7. Just get down there with Marla and let’s get cooking.”
“Well, now, that takes us to the bad news. Marla says she’s not going to swear out an affidavit unless I let her go into the building with us. She says she doesn’t trust us yet. She says she’s worried that we’ll just disappear the Alexandria Project guys and Frank won’t have any proof that someone else was responsible for what’s going on.” She wants to be a witness to whatever we find so we can’t leave her father out to dry.”
George thought for a moment. Marla was his God daughter, and she might believe him if he came clean with her. But that would mean revealing his other life with the CIA to her. He took a deep breath.
“OK. So here’s what we’re going to do.”
At 4:45 that afternoon, a man in coveralls with “Able Locksmiths” on his back leaned against the wall of the same coffee shop in which Carl and Marla had been arguing that morning. He took his time finishing the coffee he’d just bought, looking up and down the street as if waiting for a bus, but taking care to also watch the sales clerk through the plate glass window of the Alexandria Antiquarian Bookstore across the street. Finally, two people lined up at the register. Picking up the bag of tools by his feet, he walked quickly across the street and pushed open the door.
With an apologetic smile, he interrupted the clerk. “Pardon me, Ma’am. Where’s the lock with the problem?”
“Excuse me? What lock?”
“Back door lock. The one that’s sticking.”
The clerk looked confused. “There’s only one back door. It’s through the curtain in the back and down a few stairs.”
“Thanks – have it fixed for you in a jiffy.”
The locksmith walked away before she could reply. Once past the curtain, he knelt by the back door and examined its ancient lock carefully, trying to figure out who had manufactured it. Then, he pulled an enormous ring of master keys out of his tool bag, and riffled through them till he found the section of keys he was looking for. He selected one and tried it; no luck; another; no luck.
On his third try, the lock opened easily. To be on the safe side, he tried it from the out side as well. Smooth as silk.
He stretched a rubber sleeve over the key to mark it, and stood up. A minute later, he was walking past the clerk as she counted out the cash register for the day.
“I wish every repair was that easy,” he said cheerfully to the clerk, giving her a warm smile. “All I had to do was spray some graphite into the tumblers and she’s good as new.”
“Do we owe you anything?”
“Nah, I had another job just up the street, so my travel time’s already covered. No charge – this’ll just be my good deed for the day.”
And with that, he was gone.
Half a world away in Pyongyang, Kim Jong-Il, Supreme Commander of the People’s Army and Chairman of the National Defense Commission of North Korea, was presiding over a strategy session with the top civil and military leaders of his government. He looked tired and detached as the ranking general of the Korean Peoples Army, Chan Bok Choy, finished his presentation.
“As you know, Dear Leader, we can begin fueling the missiles the moment you give the order. Just over 11 hours later they could be on their way – of course, only on your command.
“And the troops, General? When will they be fully in position?”
“As you know, 85% of the People’s Army, about 1,000,000 troops, are always deployed along the Demilitarized Zone. We’ve added another 50,000, but we’ve also been repositioning random companies along the DMZ to create uncertainty as to how many additional troops have been deployed. This also forces the South to keep repositioning their forces defensively as well. In addition, all leaves have been cancelled beginning yesterday, so our forces will increase daily as those already on leave return.”
The general looked at the Dear Leader confidently. “We have also activated and begun moving 2,000,000 of the Red Guard into position just behind the regular troops.”
Kim Jong-Il looked back in surprise. He inclined his one good hand slightly so that the General would pause, and then beckoned Kim Long-dong, the President of the Supreme People’s Assembly to his side. “Did I order the Red Guard into position?” he asked in a hoarse whisper. “I don’t recall authorizing that move.”
“Of course you did, Sir. At our meeting last week. And I must say that it was one of your most brilliant decisions. Never before in one of our manufactured crises have we called the Red Guard to the DMZ. Your daring took our breath away, and the West has reacted just as we hoped. Never have they taken us so seriously before.”
Kim Jong-il leaned back into his seat uncertainly. Ever since his stroke his memory had been playing tricks on him. He needed to rely more and more on those around him for consistency – except that to him, things seemed to be more and more inconsistent. He gestured to the general to continue
“The troops will be fully positioned by Friday. We will then be ready to conduct the missile tests as soon as you give the word.”
“Tests, General?” The Dear Leader was once again confused; was he forgetting what the entire plan was all about? Hadn’t the intention been simply to scare the West by letting their spy satellites see the refueling begin? Wasn’t that, and the troop deployments, all that should be needed to finally bring the U.S. unilaterally to the bargaining table?
“Of course, Dear Leader. Just as you described in your private instructions to me ten days ago. Is the time now ripe for me to reveal your master strategy to the others, Sir?”
Kim Jong-Il felt dizzy; he nodded slightly and strained to make sense of what he was hearing.
“We must test the Taepodong III before we know that we can credibly threaten the West with our nuclear weapons. We must also know whether America’s anti-nuclear defenses can really knock our rockets out of the air. Their Joint Chiefs claim they can, but their own civilian experts say they can’t.
“Of course, we will not really allow our missiles to pass a point in flight at which the U.S. might retaliate in kind. But that point is beyond the line at which the American’s anti-missile interceptors will destroy our missiles if they are capable of doing so. And it is also after the point where the third stage of our missiles would fire, so we will be able to perform the full test.
“Your idea of destroying our own missiles just before the point of retaliation was a stroke of pure genius. If our missiles fail, or if the enemy destroys one or both of them, we can still claim to our people that we destroyed them after having proven their capabilities, and we can use the test results to perfect our designs.
“But if even one of our missiles is destroyed by us, then Washington will know fear, and have no choice but to come to the bargaining table.
The Dear Leader nodded. Now he understood. It was one of his best plans ever.
Frank was sitting in a folding chair in his clearing, enjoying the unexpectedly warm midday sun. The ground was bare – all of the snows of the recent blizzard had been swept away by the fierce rains that followed a few days later. Like the weather, Frank’s plans were once again in a lull. But he was desperate to hear from Marla whether or not the Alexandria Project culprits had been flushed out and captured.
So, too wired to work, and with no real work to do anyway, Frank sat in the sun. He hoped that the sound of the scrub jays, the sun, and the mild breezes would relax him.
It wasn’t working. Still, he forced himself to sit there, grimly determined to make himself relax, or bore himself to death trying. Then, a far away sparkle of light on the mountain ridge to the south caught his eye. That was strange; he had followed the jeep track up in that direction once when he was lost in thought, trying to work out a particularly difficult issue. Eventually, the track had faded into a trail, and then petered out entirely. He couldn’t remember encountering anything at all in that direction – no collapsed cabin with broken glass windows to catch the sun; not even a discarded beer can.
A minute later, he saw a flash of light again. This time it seemed slightly closer. Without thinking much about it, he shifted his chair so that he could watch more easily. No longer tense, he watched, fascinated, as the flashes of reflected sunlight appeared and disappeared, ever so slowly creeping in his direction. Remembering a pair of binoculars hanging on an inside wall of the truck, he went to fetch them.
Settling back, he rested his elbows on the arms of his chair, and searched the rocky slope where the light had last appeared. To his surprise, he saw a Jeep-like vehicle picking its way laboriously across the broken slope of skree, its fenders rocking up and down and from side to side as the driver nursed the vehicle across the uneven terrain.
Frank cradled the binoculars in his lap. What might this be all about? He hadn’t seen a soul in almost a month. Could whoever this was be looking for him, and if so, why?
Frank felt suddenly self conscious. His clearing was a mess. Beer cans, water bottles and random camping equipment was scattered everywhere, so he began tidying up. If he was going to have company, he might as well not look like a slob. Then he returned to his chair to watch and wait.
Carl and Marla parked their car on a side street a half a block from the Alexandria Antiquarian Book Store and walked towards the alley that ran behind it. Just as they reached the narrow roadway, a man stepped out to meet them.
“George! What are you doing here?”
Carl tried to look innocent. “Sorry, Marla – I guess I forgot to mentioned this part of the plan to you.” Actually, it had been simple payback. He was determined to keep her in the dark about as much as he possibly could. “We needed someone in a hurry to hack whatever systems we might find here, and since no IT expert has more experience dealing with the Alexandria Project than George, we thought we’d see whether we could enlist his help. Luckily for us, he said ‘yes.’”
Marla nodded and blew her nose. “Ok. Now what?”
Carl looked up and down the street. “Just keep chatting while I find the right door and unlock it. When I wave, keep chatting and walk naturally up the alley until you reach me.”
Carl waited until the main street at the end of the block was empty of pedestrians, and then strode off into the shadows of the alley.
“How are you, George? I haven’t seen you since that wonderful Christmas party.”
George looked uncomfortable. “Fine, Marla, just fine.” Now what should he say? “I hope you don’t mind my asking, but how’s your father?”
Now it was Marla who wasn’t sure how to reply. What would her father want her to say? With relief, she saw a dark shape step out of the shadows down the alley and wave to them. “Let’s go,” she said and began walking.
Three buildings down, they found Carl with his hand on the knob of a door. He held his finger to his lips, and then silently swung the door open. As he entered, he turned on a pen sized flashlight that cast a pale red circle of light on the threshold of the entrance as they stepped in. Then he closed the door behind them.
The three of them stood silently just inside as Carl cast his light in every direction. Then he handed a similar flashlight to each of them.
Carl pointed his flashlight at a door in the corner of the room and whispered, “We’ve already had someone check out the rest of the store today, posing as a customer. Unless there’s something in the attic, whatever’s here to find has got to be down those stairs. Follow me and test every step as you go.”
Carl crossed the darkened room, opened the door, and began to descend slowly and gingerly, placing his weight gradually on each stair tread as he crept downward, holding his flashlight in one hand while he slid the other along the wall to steady him as he tiptoed on. After a few steps, he stopped and listened, turning to face the other two, a question on his face.
Marla strained to hear; yes, she thought heard something as well – muffled voices, almost certainly. She nodded affirmatively. More carefully than ever, they eased their way downwards until they reached a closed door.
All three could clearly hear voices now, but it was difficult to catch more than the occasional word. Carl knelt down and set his flashlight on a step, taking care not to allow its light to shine under the door. Then he took a slim package from his coat pocket, opened it, and removed a small device the size of an iPod. Silently, he unwound the two wires wrapped around it. At the end of one was a suction cup, which he licked and pressed against the door. Then he pressed the bud at the end of the other wire into his ear, and moved a switch on the tiny recording device.
What he heard was too good to be true, and much better than any data they might have lifted off a server. He listened intently, watching the sound meter on the recorder.
“What is your conclusion, then, Callimachus?”
“The public cannot be expected to put up with these cyber attacks much longer. With each wave, they become more furious and distrustful. Some are starting to withdraw their money from banks, fearing that their accounts may be falsified and their money simply disappear. If the attacks continue much longer, the entire financial system will be in danger of collapse.”
“And you Aristarchus?”
“I agree. A few more well-publicized attacks, and entire segments of commerce will begin shutting down as people realize how vulnerable they are when computerized systems are compromised. Oil, food and gasoline supplies have already been disrupted. Soon, airlines will have to begin cancelling flights for lack of traffic because people are growing afraid to fly; patients are worrying that their medications have been switched without their knowledge. When elections are held this fall, voters won’t trust the results.”
Then a voice asked, “Zenodotus, what shall we do now?”
There was a pause. Then a tired voice said, “Who would have imagined how dramatically and quickly our claims would be proven? The plan we put in motion a few short months ago has succeeded beyond our wildest dreams. Who could have expected what has happened?”
And that’s a wrap, Carl thought as he disengaged the microphone and confirmed that the recorder had worked properly. Excellent! The voices had come through perfectly. Time to get back to the street as quickly and quietly as possible and call in the boys with the body armor to arrest the culprits, whoever they were. All the three of them needed to do was watch the doors from the outside in case the meeting ended too soon.
But as Carl turned around to motion the others upstairs, he saw that Marla’s face was bizarrely contorted. And one of her hands was rolled up in a fist, pressed against her lips. Carl’s eyes widened as he wondered what the hell was wrong with her?
Then it hit him. He threw up his hands in a silent gesture of “Stop!” just as Marla unleashed an explosive sneeze.
All three of them froze. There was a sudden silence on the other side of the door as well.
Damn! No choice, now! Carl spun around, drawing his Beretta from his shoulder holster at the same time as he slammed his other shoulder against the door. Bursting through, he hit the floor in a shooter’s stance. “Freeze!” he screamed, in the loudest and most threatening voice he could muster; gripping his gun in both hands, he jerked it from side to side, trying to cover however many people might be in the room. Behind him, George and Marla crouched on the bottom-most stair. All three blinked in the bright light of the room, half-blinded by the glare.
As it happened, Carl could hardly have asked for a more obedient audience for his command. Seated around a table before him sat six startled, elderly men seated around a table. Two wore beards. Four wore tweed jackets. All wore expressions of shock and awe. In front of each was a small stemmed glass, and In the middle of the table stood a crystal decanter.
A man with the voice of Zenodotus was the first to collect himself. “I presume you’ll be reading us our Miranda rights now?”
Carl could not yet speak. Which was just as well, as CIA agents didn’t have authority to read Miranda rights anyway.
Zenodotus continued helpfully. “Perhaps a glass of sherry, then?”
With that, Carl recovered his wits, and sternly instructed them, “Everyone put your hands on the table where I can see them.”
Twelve hands were obediently placed on the table. Each dignified gentleman laced his fingers together and sat straight up in his chair. Carl felt like he was standing in front of a Sunday School class.
Zenodotus sighed. “Why don’t you all just have a seat and make yourselves comfortable? Clearly, we have a bit of explaining to do, and then you can take us to wherever it is that you should. To tell the truth, it will be quite a relief to all of us if you would.”
Frank was actually relaxing, becoming fascinated by the slow approach of the tiny, distant vehicle as it worked its way around boulders, across ravines, and finally onto the jeep track he had explored a few weeks before. Although he was the opposite of a social animal, Frank had been in isolation for a very long time. He was also out of touch, he realized. Not once had he used the satellite dish to pull in a TV or radio signal, and the only on line news he’d checked in on related to the Alexandria Project. For all he knew, the world had ended and he and the mystery driver were the last men alive.
Eventually, the driver reached the tree line and disappeared. Perhaps a little news from the outside wouldn’t be a bad thing to hear. He set out a second chair, and a cooler with a six-pack of beer on ice in between. Not long afterward, he heard the distant sound of an engine, and not long after he glimpsed a vehicle as it lurched into view between the ponderosa pines. It was an ancient, boxy car with a high wheel base, a spare tire mounted on the front hood, and a tubular roof rack the length of the four door cab. And then the vehicle wheeled into Frank’s clearing and came to a halt.
It seemed only polite to stand up, so Frank did. When the driver swung open the door and stepped out, Frank saw to his surprise that it was the desert rat he had met at the Little A’Le’Inn.
“Howdy,” the old man said as he walked in a jerky fashion across the clearing. “Ah! These old bones just don’t handle a rough ride like they used to.”
Frank motioned to one of the folding chairs. “Have a seat, then. Beer?”
“Don’t mind if I do; don’t mind if I do.” With another loud “Ah!” he settled into the chair.
Frank opened the cooler, and handed him a cold one. “What brings you up here?”
“Well, I reckoned that if I sent a city boy like you way the hell up here, p’raps I ought to come check in on ya once’t to be sure the bears hadn’t et ya up. Here’s to ya!”
The old man took a long pull on the bottle. “Ah!” he said once again, this time smacking his lips loudly. “Yup! That hit the spot.” Then he looked around the clearing. “But it looks like you’re doing OK up here, so I guess I was worrying about nuth’n. Glad to see it. Hate to have had somethin’ unfortunate on my conscience. It’s got enough to keep it busy already.” He gave Frank a grin and said “Here’s to ya!” again.
Quite a character, Frank thought to himself. Straight out of a Western movie. “That’s some car you have there. What is it?”
“Land Rover – ’58. Back from when they could go anywhere, do anything. Not like them bogus sedans that set ya back a fortune that they’re push’n out now. Huh! Bought it in ’69 used and I’ve kept it on the road ever since. Noth’n else like it. Body’s aluminum – lasts forever, if’n you don’t wrap it around a tree. I hoisted her up and put a new chassis under her in ’93. Hope that one lasts longer than I do.” He grinned at Frank again.
“Well, you certainly know how to drive it. I’ve been watching you work your way over that ridge and down here for the last two hours. Why didn’t you just come up the way I did?”
“Well, you know, I remembered as how you didn’t want any company up here, and if I’d a laid a new set of tire tracks up from the road down below, it’d kind of advertise that someone’s up here, now wouldn’t it? Anyway’s, it’s a nice day for a Sunday drive, now ain’t it?”
Frank realized he didn’t have the foggiest notion whether it was Sunday or not, so he just said, “Well, I guess.” Why should the old man have gone so far out of his way to protect Frank’s privacy?
“So I see ya found yourself a real nice place to settle in under them trees you was look’n for.” He paused, and gave Frank a sideways look. “Say, what is it about them pines, anyway, that speaks to ya?”
Frank shifted uncomfortably in his chair. “Well, you see, I was somewhere out here before, a long, long time ago. Coming from back East, I’d never seen country like this before. And those trees, so tall and straight and set out at a distance from each other like it was some kind of well-tended park just seemed, well, majestic, I guess.”
Frank turned his head and pointed to a stand of shorter trees, “And I remember those trees over there, too, the ones with the gray bark and the fluttery leaves.”
“Aspens,” the old man said quietly, watching Frank closely as he suddenly picked up speed.
“And I remember the bright sunshine and the clear, crisp air and the endless, blue, blue sky out here – it was like all of it was in Kodachrome. I’d never seen anything like that before. Once I got back home, I never saw anything like it again.” Frank stopped abruptly, lost in memories.
The old man sat for a little while, and then asked gently. “Out here alone, was ya?”
Frank watched the setting sun, mesmerized. “No, no, not at all. I was just 11, you see. I was out here with my Dad. It was in the summer and he was between jobs, and one day he just said, “Let’s you and me go see the U.S.A.” And that’s what we did. Just him and me, we loaded up this old Jeep he had – he was a hell of a mechanic – with a bunch of camping gear, and off we went.
“We drove nonstop till we hit the Mississippi, me sleeping half the time and him driving. Once we crossed the big river, he gave this big sigh of relief and said, “Well, now I can breathe!” He’d just woken me up a few minutes before so I wouldn’t miss the river as we crossed it, and when we reached the other side, he broke into this big grin, and said, “Now I can breathe!”
Frank had forgotten that moment until just now. I wonder what he meant by that, he wondered.
The old man rolled his beer bottle slowly between his weathered hands and didn’t look up. “You still get together with him when you can?”
“Hah!” Frank spat that out. “I wouldn’t walk across the street to get together with my Dad. That fall, the one after we went out West, he skipped out on my mother and me and I never saw or heard from him again. Left us high and dry. No warning. Just like that."
There was silence for awhile. Finally, the old man said quietly “Not meaning to pry or nuth’n, ya know, but why you figure he did that?”
“How the hell should I know? My Mom never talked about it – would never even talk about him. One day I just came home and she said “Your father’s gone.” That was it. Just “Your father’s gone,” and I couldn’t get another word out of her.” Frank shook his head, staring at the sunset, his brow furrowed.
For a full five minutes the two sat in their chairs in the gathering darkness, each alone with his thoughts. Finally, Frank spoke. “You know, I lied to you a little while ago. I would walk across the street to see that bastard again, but just to ask him one, simple question – ask him why he walked out on us.” Frank stopped and choked up a bit, “Why he walked out on me.”
The old man looked down at his beer bottle again, and then turned his gaze up to the now dark sky. He found the Big Dipper, and then followed the pointer stars. There it was – the North Star. Was that really the way he should go, he wondered?
Finally, he made his decision and lowered his gaze. He pulled his wallet out of the pocket of his jeans, and slid something out of it. He gave it a brief, fond look in the dim light shining out of the truck behind them, and then he gently placed the dog-eared, black and white picture on Frank’s knee. Frank reached out to pick it up, and then stared at it in wonder. In the picture, a child sat on a man’s shoulders. Both were smiling, and above them soared tall, ram-rod straight trees with heavily veined bark.
The old man abruptly looked away, and cleared his throat. Then Frank heard a long forgotten, but now much older voice, say with a pronounced Queens accent, “Well, son, I guess now’s your chance.”
Carl can’t follow Frank on the run, but you can, on
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