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Where are our Children: A Novel: Complete and Uncut

Where are our Children: A Novel

 

By Gary Sapp

Copyright 2016 Gary Sapp

The Complete and Uncut Shakespir Edition

Shakespir Edition, License Notes

 

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to Smashword.com or your favorite retailer and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

 

Table of Contents

Episode 1 411

Prologue: The Dying Man

Chapter One

Louis

Serena

Thomas

Chapter Two

Angel

Seth

Chapter Three

Chris

Xavier

Angel

Chris

Episode 2: Deliverance

Chapter Four

Roxanne

Thomas

Serena

Chapter Five

Xavier

Serena

Xavier

Angel

Chapter Six

Thomas

Chris

Louis

Episode 3 Rapture

Chapter Seven

Chris

Roxanne

Xavier

Chapter Eight

Louis

Roxanne

Angel

Roxanne

Chapter Nine

Seth

Chris

Louis

Episode 4 Past Prologue

Chapter Ten

Thomas

Xavier

Thomas

Chapter Eleven

Chris

Roxanne

Angel

Seth

Chapter Twelve

Chris

Xavier

Seth

Episode 5 Zero Hour

Chapter Thirteen

Louis

Chapter Fourteen

Thomas

Chris

Roxanne

Chapter Fifteen

Xavier

Serena

Angel

Chapter Sixteen

Seth

Thomas

Chris

Episode 6 Betrayal

Chapter Seventeen

Seth

Angel

Chapter Eighteen

Chris

Xavier

Serena

Chris

Chapter Nineteen

Roxanne

Louis

Thomas

Seth

Episode 7 Scar

Chapter Twenty

Serena

Seth

Thomas

Chris

Chapter Twenty One

Angel

Louis

Chapter Twenty Two

Roxanne

Chris

Serena

Seth

Episode 8 Tempest Rising

Chapter Twenty Three

Chris

Chapter Twenty Four

Angel

Chris

Hugh

Serena

Chapter Twenty Five

Thomas

Angel

Roxanne

Chapter Twenty Six

Serena

Thomas

Episode 9 Whirlwind

Chapter Twenty Seven

Angel

Chris

Thomas

Chapter Twenty Eight

Angel

Roxanne

Angel

Chris

Chapter Twenty Nine

Angel

Seth

Epilogue: Another Dying Man

Dedication

Nest Egg Publishing Note

No Rules Just Write: Nest Egg Publishing

Where to find this author Online

Episode 1: 411

Prologue: The Dying Man

The Dying Man told fellow inmate Xavier Prince and his other three assailants, he knew who murdered the first black president.

More importantly he knew how, the real reason, not the one that the one that had been manufactured for the entire world to see.

He told them that Serena Tennyson and her Pandora associates had hoped that Adolphus Sweet’s demise would accelerate the dissolution between the two most influential races in this country forever.

He’d told them while South Georgia’s early afternoon March sunlight glistened through the prison bars of Calhoun State Prison behind all of the inmates into the otherwise cold corridor.

He’d told them through gasp of stolen breaths from his broken ribs and blood gushing through his mouth and nose, thanks in no small part to Xavier’s muscle that had accompanied him.

He spat out a mouthful of bruised blood. And then he told them that a further escalation of this dissolution was coming.

And soon.

Yet, the dying man was no fool. He had no loyalty to Serena or her cause, so he’d spill his beans about the when and the where…for a price.

Xavier Prince slid his toothpick with his tongue from one side of his mouth to the other, stole a quick glance at the cracked face of the clock striking 12:30 on the molded wall…tictocktictock, and shook his head once then again, no deal.

Xavier Prince:

He was an undersized black man in his early 40’s whose reputation and presence, The Dying Man thought, almost seemed to cast the shadow of a much larger man behind him. He was the tone of charred charcoal; he wore his hair cropped short and his sideburns thick around his ears. He had a drunkards eyes and nicotine stains on his teeth. His reputation had preceded him that he was as a man of few words, even now, though when he had choose to speak his voice resonated smooth, silky, like a sweet ballad. Every one of his movements seemed measured or calculated, and he pimped more than he walked.

He said, “Once, someone very dear to me said that beams of sunlight radiating throughout small pockets of space like in this room were like the eyes of God piercing through. And that the guilty shied away from this light for fear of His judgment raining upon them.”

So when Michael Davenport, The Dying Man failed to accept Xavier’s offer of life in exchange for his information, the leader of A House in Chains ordered the other man silenced forever.

The largest of his executioners, with biceps the size of barbells unsheathed a machete and got on with the business of dislodging The Dying Man’s sorry head from the remainder of his body.

Fear of his end coming…or perhaps something as simple as sheer curiosity caused The Dying man to use the final seconds of his life to watch Xavier Prince instead of the machete’s edge swinging to greet him.

Tic.

Once, someone very dear to Xavier said that beams of sunlight radiating throughout small pockets of space like in this room were like the eyes of God piercing through. And that the guilty shy away from this light for fear of His judgment raining on them.

Tock.

At the instant that the machete’s blade severed Davenport’s curiosity—and his head—he watched Xavier Prince step backwards into the light and let God’s judgment rain upon him.

Chapter One

 

Alright Listeners, we have a caller waiting on line three. Go ahead, caller, you’re on the air.

Hi, Larry. Thanks for taking my call. I love your show by the way. I listen in every day. My guess is that the 411 has to be the grand opening of Atlanta’s newest upscale nightclub in Buckhead. You know, Larry, where the party is at.

-An unnamed caller’s entry into the ‘What is the 411’contest by 104.5 Hip Hop FM

Louis

Andrew Young Youth Center, NW Atlanta, 1st day

 

The car bomb performed impressively.

The initial blast shattered glass, scattered debris and launched crimson and mustard colored shrapnel in a maddening rush that illuminated Atlanta’s late evening skyline with what remained of the Andrew Young Youth Center.

The flames licked rows upon rows of shotgun houses and invited those structures to join this fiery party.

It was a bomb that had taken on a life all its own and knew exactly where and when to strike.

It was a bomb that seemed to know too much.

Just like Serena had told him that it would.

Louis Keaton:

He was a pocket sized man nearing 60 years old. He had those deep blue eyes that eerily never seemed lose their focus or intensity and refused to blink. He wore his hair, long since gray and thin, combed backwards against his skull. He was dressed tonight in his typical battle gear: A denim jacket, flannel shirt and faded jeans and ankle length cowboy boots.

He’d ducked for relative safety underneath the brim of a shed 200 or so feet from the bomb’s epicenter. He’d spied the locale during one of his many reconnaissance ventures down here over the past month. Serena had assured the old man that the more he was familiar with his surroundings—and his escape route—the more he increased his odds of surviving this night.

Yet, his preordained location had provided something else unexpected as well.

He watched in part fascination…in part horror, as three bystanders—two men and one woman—were killed by the youth center’s falling debris. He could hear the sirens of first responder units blaring from miles away, but drawing closer with each measured breath he took. Though they won’t arrive in time to save these poor bastards, he thought. And of course, per protocols, a police helicopter or two would sure to take flight soon. I mustn’t be here when they arrive. I can’t let them see me. I can’t. Louis had been instructed by Serena to walk with a steady stride, and then accelerate his pace…and finally run when he was sure he was far beyond seeing eyes, though as to not draw attention to his presence.

Oh My God,” Louis heard a voice cry out into the night. “Can anyone save the children inside?

What children is she talking about? Louis asked himself. But then he’d sworn on Elvis’ life and death that he’d heard another female stranger approaching from a side street begging for someone—anyone to save her two nephews who were supposed to be playing a game of pickup basketball inside the gym.

Now dozens of people were frantically racing towards the inferno babbling about a young loved one who was probably trapped inside as well.

Unconsciously, Louis Keaton took a half dozen steps towards the blaze when a young black man wearing black tee shirt, khakis, and sneakers crushed him underneath his weight with a devastating tackle.

He is a Peacekeeper. You’re screwed. You should have left this place when you had the chance.

Louis had been warned by Serena to avoid these young men and women, the military right hand of A House in Chains at all cost. The younger man, dressed in a black hoody, khakis’ and sneakers swore at Louis and screamed at him to stay out of the damned way and let the trained professionals do their jobs. His type shouldn’t be down here anyway.

And what type is that, my young friend? He thought. I was shedding tears for men like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr on the day of his murder, years before your parents were born.

The memory didn’t serve him well. Now, all he could do was remember that fateful afternoon, when Louis was just a scrawny teenager, back home in Memphis, Tennessee. And he remembered how the colored kids, who had previously claimed to be his friends, punched and kicked and spit on him while he walked home from school after the principal had delivered the devastating news over the intercom system before the day’s final bell rang.

Now, tonight, he desperately wanted to save these children, but he didn’t want to be punched, kicked, or spit on by these People of Color. That was the term that Blacks used to identify themselves in today’s world.

Louis pushed himself to his feet, felt for the detonation mechanism that should have still been in his jacket pocket. He moved away from the young Peacekeeper who had attacked him and made his way up half a block, before he stopped and glanced back over his shoulder.

Groups upon groups of hysterical family members, worried onlookers, and otherwise concerned citizens had huddled together, locked fingers with one another and held each other for strength. They began chanting something unfathomable for him to understand at his great distance. The chanting soon quieted into crying and the tears led to expressions of grief and finally the grief grew into anguish.

In that moment Louis Keaton remembered asking Serena, after one of their meditation sessions weeks ago, why she hated People of Color so passionately to order this attack against them.

I never said that I hated them, Louis. She had looked taken aback. But I will not allow A House in Chains to destroy what so many of our forefathers, on both sides of the color barrier, have worked to diligently to build together in this country.

Louis had nodded at her response, but thought there had to be something a great deal more personal in this for her. Serena must have had read his thoughts because she added, the finest man I’ve ever known sacrificed everything to further the cause of People of Color. And I do mean everything. Now, too many of them abuse his sacrifice. Many of them breed like rabbits. They can be cruel to one another. And too many of them are uneducated, unreliable and act too uncivilized to contribute to society.

Louis Keaton heard the police helicopter flying nearby, yanking him back into the present, and reminded him of the danger that he faced if he dared hang around here any longer. And he knew that he had to go right now or all would be lost. So he stole one final glance at the family members, the onlookers, the everyday citizens, he looked at them all, still locked arm in arm.

He knew there is a human sense of comfort and relative safety when you are sheltered under the umbrella and fellowship.

Even the uncivilized knew this too be true.

He found Serena Tennyson, Danielle Rohm, and three other Pandora agents dining at one of the upscale restaurants lining the cobblestone streets three miles from where his route began. The stench of burning concrete and ignited fertilizer was replaced by the smell of grilled chicken, the sound of crying supplanted by laughter and a dozen different delightful conversations.

“Why didn’t you tell me that children would be inside of the youth center when the bomb was detonated?” Louis asked Serena with some gruff. He was gassed and struggled to catch his breath. “I specifically remember our simulations involved detonating an explosive at an abandoned building with a triggering device as merely a symbolic gesture during the early hours of 411.”

“I gave you instructions to be carried out, a target.” Serena Tennyson said coldly. The suggestion rattling around in her hushed tone that he should wisely sit down in the seat she was offering him and match her serene tone.

Serena Tennyson:

She was a long and athletic looking redhead in her early 40’s. In Louis’ experience, most men would say that she was more handsome than beautiful with her understated makeup and her hair tied in a bun; and she often looked more sophisticated than sexy in her tailored pants suits and short jackets. Although tonight she wore a gray sweat suit and had a ring of sweat drying in the area neckline and above her small breast. She had a long neck, accompanying freckles, and the next time someone stumbled upon a smile curving her thin lips, it would be a first. Hard is what her associates called her—in hushed voices well out of hearing, of course—and hard she was.

When Louis wisely sat down across from her she said, “The simulations were programmed to present you with many different variables that you could face as you carried out your assignment tonight. I kept the specific details of this operation confidential to guarantee Pandora’s success even if you were injured or captured—as you nearly were.”

Louis waved a trembling index finger up at her.

“Don’t play word games with me, Serena.” When Oracle’s gaze hardened, as the operatives often referred to her in the field, Louis felt his finger feebly fall back on the table. “Please. I don’t wish to be responsible for hurting anyone else.” He said, refusing to compete in her gaze staring contest any longer. “I am many things, but I am not a heartless killer.”

“That is a noble sentiment of you, Louis.” She said. She stopped long enough to take a long pull from a bottle of water. There were three empty containers in her vicinity. “And yet, you need to be aware and understand how pivotal your role is in this game we are playing; this game that Pandora must come through as victorious. I want you to relax your thoughts for one minute. I want you to imagine that you and I are sitting perched atop the highest snowcapped mountain in the entire world.” Serena raised her hand high above her red hair as if she were demonstrating her words to a dull child. “We’re high up here. We are at the top of the mountaintop. Tonight, we unleashed an avalanche—so devastating, so lethal in its power and intensity that we’re hopeful that it will crush our adversaries completely and absolutely while it is on a downwards path. As this game draws closer towards finality, we hope each choice we make will derail our enemy’s resolve, ensuring the least amount of casualties on both sides as possible.”

“An avalanche, you say?” He had to admit her crude proclamation made sense. “Yes, I guess I see your point clearer.”

“You’ve served our cause—your country’s cause, well tonight.” Serena suppressed a smile and got to her feet, her subordinates following her lead as if she had shouted at them. “We all thank you for your efforts. I know this was not an easy assignment.”

“I said that I see your point,” Louis replied, running both hands through his thinning hair. “I didn’t say that I felt any better about what I’ve done tonight. I feel so…evil.”

Serena flashed her first air of inpatients of the evening and planted her hands on her slim hips. The younger of the two women, Danielle Rohm smoothly stepped into the vacant space between Louis and Serena, pried his hands open with her own and squeezed his wrinkled fingers.

Danielle Rohm:

She was on the right side of 30, pale, petite, and wore her jet black hair in a single braid that ran the length of her spine. Louis knew she kept at least one pistol strapped to her thigh just out of sight. She was dressed entirely in black. She was always dressed in black.

“Louis, you do understand that you sent those children to a far better eternity than their lives could have been here, in this life.” Danielle Rohm kept her voice low so that any stranger nearby would hear. “And you did this without them suffering any unnecessary pain or suffering. Their deaths were likely instantaneous.”

Serena had frowned in irritation at the younger woman’s unsolicited input. “I’m sure he does.”

“Yes.” Louis said in a quiet voice. “I guess that I do.”

“Good.” Serena nodded in Rohm’s direction while never taking her gaze off of Louis. Although the younger woman had aided in restoring some semblance of order, Serena was likely to reprimand her for her unsolicited interference, especially in front of the others. Louis did not envy Shooter over the coming hours. “What do I require of you now, Louis? Remember our sessions, all of those hours we’ve spent together over the past six months readying you for tonight’s events and those that lie beyond.”

Louis stood a little taller and lifted his chin. “I am to proceed to our previously agreed upon location. I am to promptly finish setting up a temporary sanctuary for our coming visitors.”

“And,”

“And I am to continue mastering my meditation techniques. I should exercise balancing my breathing patterns with emphasis on calm and concentration.”

“Good, Louis.” Serena folded her arms. “And finally,”

He searched the starred skyline a second for guidance, buttoned his jacket against the night’s chill, and then nodded assuredly. “And finally, I should stay out of site and await your signal for me to reassume my work, Serena.”

“Good.” Serena raised his chin with two of her long fingers. “I want you to understand that I have the upmost confidence in you. Tonight, only solidifies my belief that you are the right man for this job…Hugh.”

Louis snatched himself away from her touch. An old anger—one that he long thought that he’d suppressed forever, rose up seemingly in his chest so abruptly that he wondered if he could maintain his discipline and contain it. One of the other agents’ noted Louis’ rapid change in demeanor and placed his palm on the butt of his sidearm, while Danielle Rohm did the same, while placing her tiny frame between Louis and Serena.

Louis,” He bit his bottom lip hard enough to draw blood. “My name is Louis. I’m Louis Keaton of Memphis, Tennessee.”

Serena placed a hand on Rohm’s shoulder and the younger woman slid to one side, eyed Louis the entire time, while never unlatching her fingers off of her weapon’s trigger.

“I guess we’ve arrived to this point where you would expect a heartfelt apology from me.” Serena twisted her long neck ever so slightly to her right, studying his ocean blue eyes that never seemed to blink. “Sorry, I don’t think I’ll be able to find the words. Hugh Keaton. He is who you are, your true self. And Hugh Keaton is a monster. He is a monster who, with the right amount of guidance or nurturing, can achieve greatness in the days to come. I was a fool for listening to Doctor Angel Hicks-Dupree when I allowed her to cage the real you, the complete you. This Louis caricature is but a seashell on a beach. Why would you accept being a simple seashell or even being the beach itself, when you can assume the identity of the entire ocean if you wish it?”

“Please refrain from calling me by that name.” Louis said to all who would listen. “I am Louis Keaton. I am but a shell of that seashell that you were mentioning before. I’m a seashell trying to keep from being washed away by that ocean.” Louis swallowed hard. “But I won’t fail you. You have my word, Serena, that I won’t fail you…”

Serena said, “We’ll speak on this matter again at length after your progress at the sanctuary is completed. Go now…my friend. Your work here is at an end.”

Louis felt all of their judgmental eyes upon him as he turned to leave. He decided that it was still in his immediate interest so serve Pandora overall and Serena’s wishes in particular. But that didn’t take any of the sting out of learning that many innocent, beautiful children were killed by his hand…and then to make matters worse, Serena addressing him by that terrible name.

We’re okay, for now, Louis. A voice inside of him said; a voice far too familiar for his liking, a voice that he’d hope never to hear again. At least we know exactly where we stand with the others especially that bitch Serena. We take care of our own. We are here for us, Louis. We won’t let anyone hurt us again.

And we will kill anyone who tries.

The Dragon must have been watching over Serena, because she had her sixth sense working and felt a sense of danger emerging in the night’s chill. Nonchalantly, she slid smoothly between Rohm and the other two agents, while they all conversed.

There is a human sense of comfort and relative safety when you are sheltered under the umbrella of company and fellowship.

Even Serena Tennyson knew this to be true.

Serena

Bank of America Plaza (40th Floor); Midtown Atlanta, 1st day

 

Serena Tennyson’s knees ached as she rose to her feet after she’d finished her prayer. Damn these knees, she’d struggled with bouts of arthritis, tendonitis, and inflammation in both of them since she’d turned 40. And the miles that she’d accumulated with her runs over the past six months of getting back into shape, had stressed them beyond any training she’d done before. Yet, Keaton’s success is a major step forward toward our ultimate goals. My turn comes soon. I must be ready. I will be ready.

Still, while the irony that Pandora’s founder, The Caretaker, had assigned her the field name of Oracle because of her gifts, yet her pediatrician from all of those years ago, and had rightly predicted the degenerative failing of her health from knee down when she reached middle age hadn’t sat well with her.

What she once would categorize as no more than a mere nuisance, was rapidly shifting into something far more serious. She could only hope that the knee replacement that that same doctor had predicted would hold off for at least a few years longer.

She toweled her forehead off, fighting chills. Serena’s body left her in the odd position of both warming up and rapidly cooling down after her run when her group had disbanded after her conversation with Keaton. In the past this sensation had caused her to feel anxious. She took another long pull of water from her bottle even after her initial thirst had been quenched. The drink’s temperature was at room temperature and she downed half the bottle easily down her throat. Oracle’s hydration would be critical over the next few days. She was a lifetime removed from being 17, and a three time state champion defending marathon runner.

It is time to concentrate on more immediate things. Serena tossed a hand full of sacred sand into the flames into her hotel room’s fireplace. The flames responded by rising as they had always had before. When she was on her knees, she’d asked the human god to spare as many lives as possible as 411 now had been enacted with Keaton’s attack on the Andrew Young Center now was two hours old. She’d prayed a Christian prayer, and the followed it up with the same appeal in Islam. She’d studied both religions as well as dozens of others for a general understanding and some…entertainment they often provided her. She didn’t believe that any of these superstitions had any true substance at their core—of course not—but she felt it was necessary to honor the fallen…and those who were still to fall in the tongue of their own faith.

She was loyal to the calling of the Dragon.

And in the Dragon’s inferno, Serena saw all of the vision, clarity, and sense of purpose she deemed necessary.

She was no longer alone in this room—

“Speak your mind, Rohm,” Serena said without turning away from the Dragon’s flames. “Speak your mind or leave me in peace.”

Rohm cleared her throat. “If you have a moment to spare, I’d like to speak to you about Louis Keaton.”

“What about him?”

“You’ve done a masterful job with him, Serena.”

Serena finally spun away from the fire. “And you came to this conclusion all by yourself, Rohm.” Serena didn’t attempt to strike the sarcasm from her tone. She’d never had much use for professional assassins; even this highly recommended killer who murdered on demand, yet looked the part of a high school senior. Anyone with training could be a cold calculated shooter. Serena admired those who were far more intimate and personal with their murdering. “How wonderful for you, Rohm, I’m impressed. You’re future in this organization certainly is very bright.”

If Rohm had been embarrassed or even angered by Serena’s tirade she didn’t express it on her pale face. And in truth, that only angered Serena further.

“May I speak freely, Serena?”

Now this should be interesting. “This is still America, Rohm, and you haven’t been drafted. Say what you will.”

Rohm cleared her throat again. This child is serious.

“There are more than an a few agents in important positions within our group who are…apprehensive about Louis’ further participation in our plans.

“Really,” Serena asked in a serious tone. Many of these men and women who served the cause of the Caretaker had come from all fields of professional service to their country: Some were former and other current military, secret service, FBI, CIA, and other experts who joined Pandora in droves and now had been placed under her command. How others measured her skills in handling Louis Keaton had honestly never crossed her mind. But perhaps it should have? “What do you think, Rohm?” Serena wanted to know.

Considering how Serena had treated Rohm since she’d entered the room, in addition to the one sided chat she had with her for interrupting her conversation with Keaton back on the street, there was little wonder to why the woman dressed in black hesitated to answer her now.

Serena unfolded her arms and relaxed her stance as to not appear confrontational. “Talk to me, Danielle. I want to know what you are thinking.”

“Alright,” Rohm said. “I’ll be perfectly honest, Serena, I wasn’t convinced Louis Keaton would able to hold his emotions in check long enough to complete tonight’s assignment, even if he wasn’t aware of every minute detail.” She added “I wasn’t convinced until he stood up to you both before and after your comment about needing Hugh to take the lead for his upcoming responsibilities.”

“That little detail changed your mind?”

“Actually, Serena, you changed it?”

“Me? How do you mean?”

Rohm seemed to relax a little, letting her guard down. “You’ve been giving him strenuous mental exercises over the past few months. You’ve been building up his poise from the inside out, boosting his confidence. Tonight served as a marker for you and for him on his progress.” Rohm eyed one of the plush couches that populated the Bank of America Hotel and Suites living area in this room. Serena could never get comfortable on the damn thing. In fact, other than the fireplace and the piano, she neither had little use nor desire for such luxuries.

“Please Rohm, sit down.”

“Thank you.”

Serena beckoned the other woman to continue.

Rohm crossed her leg, exposing her pistol for Serena to see it in its full glory. “I’m guessing that tonight was very important to see how much growth Louis had actually experienced. Your ultimate expectation of him will likely drain him both mentally, physically, and especially emotionally. If I know you like I think I do, you likely have one or two more tasks for him to complete before he is to begin his work as you say.”

Serena planted her butt on the arm of the loveseat next to Rohm.

“Damn. I’m impressed.” And she was. “You’ve hit on all of the finer points, Danielle. Every accomplishment aids in him building a solid psychological foundation and more importantly, drives a caged Hugh to the surface.”

“I have every confidence that you both will succeed.”

Both women drink in the silence of the next minute. Rohm had earned Serena’s respect tonight, if only begrudging so. Rohm had a deeper intellect than just that of a cold hearted killer. The grown woman with an adolescent’s body was marinating in those good feelings. Serena thought she noticed an eyebrow cock with an unasked question on the younger woman’s face.

“You want to ask me something,” Serena said. “Perhaps you want to share another observation?”

“I’m not sure if I want to tear down the goodwill we’ve built tonight, Serena. I’m not interested in embarrassing you.”

“Go ahead, Danielle,” Serena said. “It’s alright. I promise to keep an open mind.”

“Okay,” Rohm hesitated, and then seemed to find her voice again. “I was standing here in the doorway a lot longer than when you finally felt my presence. I saw you…praying.”

Serena stood up again, as tall as her thin frame allowed in defiance, but this attempt at toughness was empty, because she felt her cheeks flushing. Hard is what her associates called her—in hushed voices not as well out of hearing as they’d might of thought, of course—and hard she was.

“I was.” Serena explained her point on respecting her enemy’s religion even if she obviously didn’t share that faith. When she had finished she said, “Does my position upset you in any way?”

“No, Serena, of course not,” Rohm answered quickly and reached her shooter’s hand down into her blouse pulling a gold cross out from beneath her tiny breast. I’m a devout Christian. I love our God.”

“You’re a Christian?”

Rohm let out a giggle, “Don’t sound so surprised, Serena.”

“Forgive me, Rohm,” Serena said in all seriousness. “It’s not every day that someone who earns a living from killing people claims Christianity as their faith of choice. Somewhere in that Bible of yours there is a passage that says: thy shall not kill.”

Rohm nodded. “That’s fair enough point, Serena. I’m a shooter. It’s a skill I’ve developed over the years. Yet, since I’ve joined Pandora, I feel that ultimately I’m in the business of saving people.”

“Aren’t you mincing words?”

“Am I?” Rohm asked. Rohm stood in the space directly in front of Serena, her fragrance smelled expensive. Serena didn’t wear perfume—it felt sticky and disgusting when it dried on her skin. “Working for Pandora isn’t all about the money…well most of it isn’t, at least not for me. I believe in you, Serena. And because I believe in you, I have faith that our cause is a just one. “

Rohm took another step, violating Serena’s personal space as few who still lived had, if she saw the older woman’s discomfort level grow it did not stop her. In fact, Rohm enclosed Serena’s long fingers in her child like hand. “We’re doing God’s work. This is a holy war for our time. We are in the business of reaching hearts and minds, of saving lives, saving a nation.” Rohm’s voice fell into a near whisper. “Pandora is not an organization of hate mongers as some in the media claim that we are. We’re patriots. A House in Chains is a real threat to destabilizing all that people of all races and colors have fought and died trying to build.”

Before tonight, Serena would have dismissed this younger woman as some type of religious zealot with a fantasy of serving her god with missions of grander. But Serena knew that Rohm actually believed in what she had said to her. First, this cold hearted killer exhibits a degree of intellect and now she expresses that she has a foundation based in spiritually, will tonight’s wonders ever cease.

The handle on the front door twisted open and Rohm had her pistol detached from her thigh, the safety off, and the barrel pointed at the figure that was walking it. Serena marveled at the woman’s efficiency, yet felt taken aback that this same woman, who was speaking about her love of her lord, was prepared to send another human being to His judgment in one fell swoop.

“I’m interrupting.” Pilot said.

“Of course not, sir,” Rohm answered first. She lowered the barrel of her pistol. “Just engaging a little girl talk to past the time until you arrived.”

“I could come back—“

“Nonsense, sir, as Danielle said, we were expecting you.” Serena said smoothly. We were done with our talk.”

“Yes. We were.”

Rohm started to dismiss herself when Pilot steeped into her path.

“Champion’s back on the radar, Shooter.” Pilot said, and then he looked up as Serena. “He turned up right where you said that he would.”

Rohm’s big brown eyes brightened a bit with a task, a target, and her hand went to the holster on her thigh almost automatically. “If both of you will excuse me, I have work to do.”

The lock on the door snapped shut behind Rohm. Serena folded her arms, all business again after the song and dance with Rohm, and she waited in patient silence for Pilot to drive where this conversation and their movement went next.

Pilot stank of stale cigarette smoke. He took a sip of his coffee. “What’s our status, Serena?”

She gave him a brief but detailed synopsis of what has transpired over the past 18 to 24 hours. There are anywhere from 35 to 50 unconfirmed deaths from the car bomb explosion at the Andrew Young Youth Center and the first night of the Siege at The Fox Theatre. The big four networks and CNN had rightly named Pandora as the primary suspects, though at least half of these news outlets weren’t aware of the siege at the Fox theatre as of yet, or they were slow to get around reporting it.

A small minority of journalist and talking heads believed that this was terrorist attack from another extremist domestic group, with a handful of reporters saying this is but a first strike in a larger offensive by Al Qaeda or Isis on US soil.

Pilot had to laugh at the absurdity of their conclusions.

She told him as a side note, that Atlanta’s city officials were planning a memorial hours from now near the youth center, but as the siege at the Fox Theatre gains footing, they’ll be putting such activities on the backburner for now if not definitely.

“That’s the right call on their part.” Pilot said, draining the last bit of coffee out of his cup. “People of Color should be weary of assembling masses of people in a single place.”

Serena said, “Everything considered, this operation is going even better than we could have expected at this point.”

“I’m counting on a snag along the way; in fact Benny Stanton should have had his folks out of that theatre by now.” He pointed the coffee cup at her. “Has then been any response from Xavier’s people? I would have expected to at least hear from members of The Circle by now.”

Serena shook her head. She’d counted on at least a verbally prepared response herself by now.

Pilot looked as if his brown suit was squeezing him in a tender area.

“I don’t like all the risk your plan entails, moving forward.”

“You signed off on it, sir.”

“I know what I signed off on, Serena.” Pilot said with some gruff. He let the moment of anger pass and gathered himself. “And I stand by my signature and my word.

Pilot had been an effective leader. He wasn’t the Caretaker to be sure, but men who were like the founder of Pandora were few and far between.

Pilot:

He was a…no, Serena thought to herself. He was an anonymous figure to her, nothing more. He was a shadow, a thought, a memory. If she were captured or tortured by any a number of adversaries, she couldn’t be threatened or compromised to give up Caretaker’s successor, because she couldn’t readily identify a man she’s never truly seen.

“I still don’t have to like your plan, even if it strategically makes a hell of a lot of sense.”

“I’ll respectfully remind you that Caretaker specifically left me in charge of the planning and fulfillment of 411, sir. Ultimately, this entire operation is my responsibility. He also left explicit orders for Pandora to accomplish all our objectives with as little bloodshed as we could reasonably manage.” Serena said. “My proposal raises the odds that we could reach our objectives while simultaneously honoring all of Caretaker’s wishes. With your blessing, I mean to see this through to whatever conclusion that my plan leads me to. I’m not afraid.”

Pilot had no answer for that; instead he became restless as if the spot he was standing would hold him there no longer. “Your proposal is bordering somewhere between crazy and suicidal.” Caretaker never intended for Pandora to function with you in the field and having a maniac like Louis Keaton unleashed on the public at the same time. Tell me he would have wanted this?”

“Maybe not,” She had to admit. She turned and made her away to the giant window and peered out into Midtown and the suburbs of Cobb and Gwinnett Counties far to the North of their location. This night would be the end of the world as so many had known it. The end, she mused, or perhaps the beginning of a new world order starting here, starting now.

And if The House in Chains did not stand down, as she feared they would not, even she could not guarantee if anyone involved would be left standing once the next offensive began. And what if her enemies forced her to unleash the full-fledged wrath of The Whirlwind? What is the shape of things to come? She asked herself. And when the day arrived that her nemeses would reach their end and it was as terrible as they imagined it would be…after all, we are all given to the flames.

Pilot surprised her by taking his place next to her, standing in front of the fire. He even ran his hands through the sacred sand, allowing the texture and roughness of the gravel massage his knuckles. Ordinarily, Serena would have taken offense at a non-believer violating tradition by touching the sacred sand without invitation. But this night has been full of wonders already. And she was otherwise fascinated watching his reactions.

“You’re not a believer in the ways of the Dragon.” Serena said without anger.

“No, I’m not,” He said, and removed his hand from the sand and took a respectful step back away from the fireplace. “You do believe, Serena. That makes all of this meaningful enough for me.”

She grabbed half a handful of the sand and tossed it into the fire. The flames came to life, twice as large as they did when she thought she occupied the room alone.

“What do you see?” Pilot asked her.

“Death,” She said. “Death is all the flames ever show me, sir. It is in the air all around us.”

“Oh, yea, I’m sure.” The non-believers always took the gift of prophecy far too lightly. She pitied him. She pitied all who did not grow to learn and love the ways of the Dragon. “Do you see anyone I know in there?”

She studied the flames for a minute then. She never blinked and the intensity of the flames caused her eyes to tear. Pilot wiped at his brow and loosened his tie. He was unsure how to take her reaction. Serena failed to care.

“Xavier Prince.” She finally said.

“He has been resourceful. He has escaped us.”

“He has escaped us so far.” Serena added, and then tossed another handful before the man could comment again. The flames jumped to even a higher level…and its revelation startled even her, left her breathless for a moment.

“Who did you see, Serena?” He asked, and when she failed to answer immediately. “Damn you woman, I asked you a question.”

“Dr. Angel Hicks-Dupree.” She said more to herself than to Pilot.

“You sound surprised.”

Serena nodded. She did not say aloud, Angel is going to suffer from something far more traumatic than even death is before her end. Something compelled Serena to toss in one more handful of sand.

The flames popped and crackled and a flicker jumped out of the fireplace and landed on the forearm of her left hand.

“Are you are alright?” Pilot said, and reached across to her to fan the budding flame. “You’re burning—“

Serena planted a firm right hand into his chest to stop his advancement. She threw her head back and the smallest smile grazed her lip as she mouthed out of gasp what could be described as a bout of intense pain—intense pleasure wrapped its arms around her.

“I saw an imminent death.” She said when she had opened her eyes again, the moment of…near orgasm passed into infinity. “That is why the flames were so intense.”

“Who did you see?”

“Our esteemed Mayor Ernestine Johnson may not survive till dawn. And when she reaches her end, and it is as terrible as she imagined it would be, she will be given to the flames.”

Thomas

Mayor Jonson’s Private Estate; SW Atlanta, 2nd Day

 

He checked the clock’s time on the jaguar’s dash, spun the wheels in a perfect motion, and fit the car in the last open parking spot reserved for the media in front of Mayor Johnson’s estate in southwest Atlanta.

He bumped his head getting out of his car which added to this morning’s frustrations. He checked his Rolex, 7:50 AM; at least he had a few minutes more to spare before the 8:15 presser, although he’d earned a $300 speeding ticket for his efforts. Damn.

Thomas Pepper:

He was a big man the way sports fans considered retired hockey players big men. He always stood fully erect, totally comfortable and satisfied with his height and weight. He had a squared jaw, with a spectrum of salt, pepper, and oregano colors running through his curly hair and his day old beard that looked like a two day old beard on most other men. Although he was wearing a fresh custom-made suit it couldn’t mask the faint stench of perfume and stale sex leaking from his pores.

At 6’3”tall he fit better in his other vehicle, the Escalade, but enjoyed the speed and the thrills of driving the Jaguar more. Besides, he always caught more female attention when he drove up in this ride. Last night Sheila, at least that’s what he thought he remembered her name being, had been crazy about this car and begged Thomas for a ride around town. She was a real cutie too. She even insisted that he park the Jaguar in front of her house she and her husband, an architect who often worked well after midnight as deadlines on projects approached, where he spent a night a passion with her.

Thomas had been to the mayor’s estate countless times now. He’d grown accustomed to seeing the atrium double as the entrance to an impromptu press room. What did surprise him was the near standing room crowd of press, well known athletes, entertainers, and local business people who had been invited to whatever in the hell was going on here.

It didn’t escape Thomas that most of the attendants were People of Color.

Thomas flashed his press credentials to a chicken legged servant who knew him by face and who barely scanned the paperwork over at all. Yet, another stone faced man wearing a khaki suit and sneakers, a Peacekeeper, asked to see the identification for himself, studied it with more of a sense of urgency, smiled, and asked Thomas to take him to take his numbered seat in the gallery.

Thomas thanked the second man carefully, read his number nine aloud, and identified his chair in the front row — right next to Lucy Burgess.

“Thomas? Good morning, Darling.” She patted the tin, unpadded seat next to her when he arrived at the front row. “I saved a spot for you, do sit down.”

Lucy Burgess:

She was a mid-sized White South African, who had golden shoulder length hair and had a huge overbite.

She dropped her sharpie just as he fit himself in the space around him that was designed for man nearly half his size. Alright, he’d play the part of a gentleman and pick up her pen for her…and saw that Lucy had parted her legs just enough for him to see that she was wearing blood red panties underneath her skirt. He couldn’t help but grin—and take a small gander—before working to reseat himself and hand her the sharpie back. Lucy, he thought, you haven’t changed a bit have you?

She showed the good sense to cross her leg before any of the pack of people on the podium could notice. “I was starting to believe that you were hiding from me, Thomas.” Lucy’s eyes darted down to her lap. “We’ve missed you so much. How long has it been now?”

“I don’t honestly know, but you know me, Lucy,” Thomas replied. “I’m always so busy, you know working.”

“Working,” She drew close enough to take a deep whiff of his jacket. “I can tell. She wears Channel Number Five. This fragrance was a limited edition back in the spring catalog. At least she has good taste…or perhaps her husband does. And you, my darling Thomas, you never fail to impress me with your tenacity. She never stood a chance of you not bedding her did she? The Jaguar drove her over the edge didn’t it; your slightly wrinkled suit should have given that fact right away. And I call myself a reporter.”

Thomas felt himself redden a little, the anger catching hold. He shifted his weight in the little chair.

“How is Bill?”

Now it was his former lover’s turn to squirm, and he felt a perverse pleasure in her discomfort in spite of himself.

“My husband has taken up residence with a 26 year old. So happens she has lost all of her baby teeth and happens to be the daughter of a self-made millionaire.” Lucy said with a smile that held no humor, smoothing out her skirt as she spoke. “You see, Thomas, you are not the only man in Fulton County blessed with the finer taste in life.”

“So was our dear William forced to endure you’re patented sad face or maybe even a round or two of crocodile tears falling from your eyes? Or did you go so far as to unleash full-fledged tantrum this time and pick up something irreplaceable in the house and throw it at him?”

One of the men on the podium tapped at the microphone, an equipment check, and used the opportunity to tell one and all that proceedings were running a few minutes behind schedule. And that everyone’s patience was greatly appreciated.

Meanwhile, even Lucy’s humorless smile had vanished. And it looked as she remembered something that made her uneasy when she looked down at her flats. “We’re selling the house. Bill has chosen to keep this conquest. My services as his token wife are no longer needed. I’ve been staying at the Ambassador Hotel in Midtown for the past three weeks.” Lucy slid over closer to Thomas and then a sly, familiar smile lit up her face once more. “At least he’s footing the bill. And I didn’t throw a damned thing at him. I refuse to play the part of the unsuspecting wife that my poor, pitiful American counterparts fail so miserably at. He has had his affairs. I have had mine. In fact I told him about you.”

Thomas sat up straight in his chair. “Why in the hell would you do a thing like that?”

Lucy ran a manicured fingernail over his lips. “As you people say, do turn that frown upside down, darling.” She said. “Believe it or not, not everyone in the known universe or here in Northern Georgia knows who Thomas Pepper, journalist, blogger, and best-selling author is.”

Still, Thomas swallowed hard. “Well, I hope that everything works out, you know, with your marriage, the way you wish that it will.”

Lucy glanced away and her sly smile vanished as if it never existed. “I sincerely doubt that it will.”

Thomas followed her gaze. Two men dressed in white lab coats were being escorted to the podium with some haste. Thomas grabbed Lucy’s wrist and pointed with his other hand, to the mayor’s husband who was standing and looking miserable near the podium as well. Lucy nodded an agreement at his silent observation. The poor bastard looked as if he hadn’t slept in weeks.

“Do you have any idea what this is about?”

“Well, darling, a bombing in your city where you are an elected official might prompt a press conference or two.”

“That’s not what I mean.” Thomas rubbed at his day old beard, he haired up so fast. “The Doctors…Antonio Johnson…the almost alarming presence of the Peacekeepers in the room, it all feels so very… personal.”

“Personal, darling,” Lucy said. “The end of the world as you and your American cohorts has that effect sometimes.”

“The attack on the Andrew Young Center while tragic, doesn’t qualify as the end of the world, Lucy. President Sweet’s assassination caused days of violence in the streets, but somehow order was reinstated and that peace has held the course since.”

Lucy said, “Tell me you are not that naïve.”

Thomas grunted and shifted in his hard little chair growing smaller and harder by the minute. He does know better actually. Speculation was growing that Serena Tennyson and Pandora were behind this attack at the Andrew Young Center. They had yet to officially claim responsibility, but that was just a simple matter of time. Thomas had been granted several interviews with Serena before he published his second book on race relations in America. In the hours they’d spent together, Thomas had took the red headed woman to be ruthless, efficient, and very organized.

Thomas had also noted that she was very attractive.

“And this is the exact moment…the opportunity that they’ve been waiting for.” Lucy pushed her chin out at the room that was filled the hilt with People of Color.

Thomas shifted again. Lucy’s words had found some potentially unfriendly ears a few rows back and had drawn attention from two female Peacekeepers standing near an exquisite painting gallery that housed renditions of several famous Black leaders: Martin Luther King Jr, the leader of the Civil Rights Movement; Malcom X, the rigid head of The House of Islam; Isaac Prince, the founder of a House in Chains; and President Adolphus Sweet, the first elected Black President in American History.

Thomas looked for clarification of her statement, since there wasn’t a way safely out of this room. “Perhaps you might want to rephrase that?”

Lucy wasn’t stupid. She caught his hint, flashed a careful smile highlighting her overbite, and inched close enough to kiss him.

“Perhaps that wasn’t very…prudent of me, Thomas.” Lucy said. “But I believe that you know that I am not a racist.”

“I do.” Thomas replied in all seriousness.

“Good. But being a foreigner, I possess objectivity and impartiality that you Americans lack.”

“What are you talking about?”

“I’m an outsider. I haven’t been overly influenced by your country’s culture or its history either way.” Lucy said in a whisper. “Slavery, Reconstruction, the Civil Rights Movement have all pushed these people to an emotional brink. The House in Chains has capitalized and exploited this moment to their advantage.”

Thomas frowned at her reasoning but did not interrupt.

“I’m not saying that People of Color in this country haven’t had to overcome obstacles; that would be shortsighted of me. But look around our planet, Thomas. Has there journey truly been so troubled? Have minorities in this land, especially in comparison to how smaller factions are treated by majorities in other countries, been treated any worse throughout history than anyone else?”

“Americans tend to look inwards at times like this.”

“You are such arrogant bastards in that regard.” She replied. “And that arrogance blinds you, darling. If you want to see real atrocities, in this past half century alone, look no further than in Kosovo, Rwanda, Burma, and Southern Sudan. These are true examples of a powerful majority exercising its power, its influence and its hatred of a minority and attempting to remove that minority from existence forever.”

“I’m sure your people in South Africa would know nothing about this sort of thing would they?”

Lucy nodded two times, smiled tiredly, and nodded once again.

“You’re right, of course, darling. Your keen observations never fail to astound me.” She said, struggling to keep her voice level. “My point is that the minority in this county don’t understand how good they have it here. Where People of Color in this land face bouts of discrimination, a right leaning justice system, and the occasional unlawful police shooting or beat down, people with similar skin color around the world are facing genocide and eradication.”

“Understood,” Thomas said. Does that mean that The Circle, the leaders of A House in Chains, shouldn’t continue to better the lives of their people in this country?”

“I applaud A House in Chains efforts. I applaud their organization and their ruthlessness even more. They’ve grown to rival Hamas and The IRA in power and influence. No one in the Western Hemisphere has ever seen anything like the power structure they’ve built here.” She lowered her voice further. “Perhaps they’ve grown too powerful. As corny as it may sound, darling, the saying with great power, comes great responsibility, still applies even in this case. Since President Sweet’s assassination Xavier Prince and his brood have done nothing short of proclaiming a Jihad against Pandora. The Circle is supposed to be a governing body, then they should damn well govern, and not foolishly challenge the bully to fight they obviously can’t win. A House in Chains, and People of Color everywhere, should be thankful that Pandora has chosen not to oblige them so far.”

I wish you were wrong, Lucy. Thomas thought. I wish you were wrong because Pandora may have obliged them with the attack last night. Thomas let out an exasperated exhale, felt suddenly tired and sat back as far as his chair allowed.

Lucy slapped her coat over his lap and began to discreetly squeeze his manhood, gently at first, then with more force as the minutes passed along.

Hey.”

Lucy leaned over and stuck her tongue in his ear. “So when can I can expect you to drop my hotel room?” She said between bouts of licking. Lucy’s breath was a hot summer breeze. “I’m soon to be a divorced woman. I do deserve some measure of comforting don’t I?”

Thomas was saved from her question and erotic bombardment when a spokesman stepped to the podium and asked a growing impatient crowd to settle down, that the press conference at long last was beginning. The platform was filling with known members of a House in Chains including two members of that principal governing party known as the Circle that Lucy had just mentioned, Grace Edwards, who was looking professional in a suit and stockings and Warren Washington, who wore his standard condescending smile on a handsome face, were standing atop the highest step. The next row was filled out by what Thomas could only surmise as The Board, a secondary political body which included Councilman Vanessa Davis, who was wearing one of her signature wigs, and at floor level stood a half dozen Peacekeepers and other friends and allies of a House in Chains. What is all of this? And then the same spokesman introduced the primary speaker for the presser.

Thomas Pepper couldn’t believe who he saw take the microphone.

Senator Terence Lavelle:

He was a bright skinned black man of 55 years old. He was above average height, below average weight, and looked as if he’d been born with a frog in throat and a permanent scowl on his otherwise good-looking face. “Good morning,” He said with little enthusiasm. It reminded Thomas of the other man’s demeanor when he lost the Democratic bid in the last presidential election. “I’ve been authorized by Mayor Johnson to speak on her behalf. Afterwards, I will allow a handful of questions only from our esteemed panel of journalist who were issued the numbers one through 15 and are seated in the first two rows in front of me.”

Lavelle allowed the first round of information to sink in then he continued on. “First, I feel it is necessary to extend a moment of silence for the victims of last night’s events.”

The room fell silent.

“Thank you,” Lavelle said in the instant afterwards. “As a member of The Board, I have been instructed to say, and I personally hold the belief, that Serena Tennyson and her illegally mandated organization of outlaws and hatemongers have moved against A House in Chains, People of Color, and specifically the citizens of Atlanta in the past 12 hours. A car bomb exploded last night at The Andrew Young Youth Center. 42 young men and women have been confirmed dead, although at least a half dozen more are as of this moment been unaccounted for. One of the first responders, a firefighter from the fifth percent has also perished. His name is being withheld until his family can be notified of his bravery and sacrifice while performing his duty.”

Thomas noted the number of casualties had risen twofold since Sheila had shut off the television with the remote and pulled the covers over both their naked bodies last night.

“Details are arriving in from The Siege at The Fox Theatre in pieces and fragments and unfortunately very little can be confirmed at this time.” Lavelle was saying.

Thomas Pepper, Lucy Burgess, and apparently many other people were caught unaware that a significant event occurred blocks away from the youth center as well. Lavelle scowled and swallowed a drink of water until the loud and nervous chatter died down. He straightened the clip on his tie and pressed on. “And finally, as many of you have long suspected, and now with the heavy A House in Chains presence in this room can confirm, I will announce that Mayor Ernestine Johnson, like me, like most People of Color in the room, is a standing member of A House in Chains. In fact she is a dignified member of the Circle. She has the mark on her body, and more importantly our vision of our people’s future in her heart.”

Thomas noted that this time the conversations don’t cease and desist. Thomas had long suspected that Mayor Johnson had ties to A House in Chains just as the senator said, but not only is she a member, but a card carrying associate of the governing body. Wow.

Finally, Lavelle raised his hand for silence. “Please, everyone.” He said. “Please. Let us move on.” Lavelle’s persistence and his booming voice won over the boisterous crowd at last. “We’ve invited you here, into Mayor Johnson’s home, so that you would understand and acknowledge that the attack on Atlanta’s mayor was the final leg of a well calculated three tier assaults that occurred last night.”

“How exactly was the mayor attacked?” Jack Manning, lead columnist for the Constitution and seated in chair number three asked. Every eye in the building burned through Lavelle awaiting an answer of Manning’s question. When Lavelle failed to respond right away Manning compelled him to explain his previous statement so that everyone would understand. Manning concluded by asking, “Was the mayor stabbed, Senator, was the mayor shot? What are her injuries? Where is she now?”

“Mayor Johnson is not suffering from any type of traditional trauma or medical condition.” Lavelle said quickly before a thousand theories and conversations could begin again.

Lucy brushed her breast against Thomas as she stood. “Senator please enlightens us. Please tell us what has specifically has happened to Mayor Johnson?”

Lavelle looked as if he wanted to be anywhere in the world but up on that podium. “Her doctors have every reason to believe that the mayor has been poisoned.”

Once again, Senator Terrence Lavelle was not allowed to continue his monologue thanks to several dozen conversations breaking out simultaneously. Thomas could feel the anxiety building in the room. You could cut the tension with a knife. Lavelle tried, futilely this time, to talk over the mass. Grace Edwards smartly handed him a gavel and he banged it until silence once again ruled the chamber.

Thomas noted the facial expressions of many involved. Edwards looked as if she’d lost a sister. Washington couldn’t hide a smirk. Councilman Davis’ eyes looked…high underneath her new wig—

Lucy had shrouded their lower half’s with her coat after she’d finished her question and sat back down in her chair. She squeezed his manhood again and again until it ached— until it felt just right. He stuck his own hand underneath the coat, found her hand and gave her a squeeze of his own. “Why don’t we just hold hands?”

Lavelle was saying, “Mayor Johnson’s primary doctor has provided us with two of his colleagues who will be able to answer your general questions while he attends to his patient.”

The doctors, who Thomas had noted in the lab coats earlier, worked their way past the score of a House in Chains members. The taller of the two took the microphone and raised it four inches. Well, at least Lucy is behaving for the moment. In fact, Thomas noted that she let go of his hand, had produced a notepad and was using the Sharpie to take of notes as the doctor began to speak.

“Senator Lavelle is speaking the truth. Mayor Johnson has been poisoned. We’ve run dozens of tests over the past 10 hours they all come back positive for foreign antibodies running rampant in the Mayor’s bloodstream.”

“Is Mayor Johnson at risk of dying from this poison?” Richard Daily, a crime reporter from the local Fox affiliate asked.

The doctor glanced at his colleague, flashed the senator a hard gaze, and then said, “Yes. I would say that is highly probable, at least from what we know right now. I’ll take another question or two.”

Thomas decided by the time the doctor had finished, that he could have concluded his portion of the press conference after he answered the first question because he said little else of substance after that. He refused to answer what kind of poison the Mayor had contracted. He neglected to answer when or more importantly, how this poison, whatever it was, was introduced into her system. And finally, to the chagrin of many in the room, the doctor declined to assure anyone if this poison was contagious or not.

Lucy Burgess and Thomas Pepper were gathering their belongings together by the East wall a short time later. The chamber was still a mountain of activity although some of the energy had leaked out with the combination of the sobering news and only a third of the habitants from the press conference still mulling about. Lucy took advantage of sparse crowd and brushed a breast against Thomas’ arm.

“I’ll be waiting on you with bells on, darling.” She handed Thomas a standard hotel issued key card. “Yes, bells, and nothing else I might add,”

Thomas dropped the card into his pants pocket without looking at it. “Is sex all you think about, Lucy? A half hour ago, you pointed out to me that my city…my country is headed for a crisis on a social front for which it may not recover. People are dead and dying as we speak.”

“Not us, darling,” Lucy said and gave the whole of him a look over. Her breathing intensified. “I plan to live forever, and so do you. You and I are one and the same and more alike than you would care to admit. We are two birds of the same feather. Only I have a cunt and you have a cock.”

“Maybe—“

“Thomas Pepper,” Senator Lavelle had approached the two of them undetected with two of the Peacekeepers shadowing behind him. Thomas wondered how much of his conversation with Lucy had the other man heard.

“Good morning, Senator.” Thomas smoothed out his jacket and then offered Lavelle his hand.”

“Mayor Johnson has asked to speak with you personally,” Senator Lavelle said after the two men shook hands. “That is,” He gave Lucy a purposeful but short gander. “I hope you can spare time out of your schedule.”

“Of course, Senator,” Thomas Pepper buttoned his jacket up. “I’m ready when you are, sir.”

Lucy threw her jacket over her left arm and proceeded to follow the two larger men. A Peacekeeper with deadpan eyes silently stepped into her path.

Senator Lavelle flashed a taut smile. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Burgess. It is still Mrs. Burgess isn’t it?”

“It is.”

“This is a private meeting. You may stay here in the conference room as long as you like. In fact, there are refreshments down the hall if you find yourself thirsty.”

“I told you that I’m always busy.” Thomas said to her and raised the key card up out of his pocket to give her the chance to take it back from his possession.

Lucy snatched it from his grip, opened his pocket once more, and dropped the key card back from where it came. “This is not about work and you damn well know it, darling,” Lucy called out to him as Thomas turned his back on her and met the other men’s strides as they walked towards Mayor Johnson’s private quarters somewhere in this maze of a mansion. “You aren’t interested in me anymore because you are attracted to wedding rings, and not to the women who wear them.” She made her words bite even as he must have disappeared from her view. “It’s wrong. You are immoral. I’m immoral. It’s what turned you on about me.”

When the four of them reached Mayor Johnson’s private residence ten minutes later Thomas wished he had stayed behind with Lucy.

The room stank of death.

The staff had tried valiantly to cover the smell with disinfectants, air fresheners and scented candles but nothing had worked. Whatever this poison was, whatever infections the Mayor was suffering through, almost had seemed to take a life of its own.

The only thing Thomas could compare the stench to be how his father’s room had smelled during his final days of life when Thomas was a freshman in college. So when Lavelle had excused the Peacekeepers and Thomas saw Mayor Ernestine Johnson lying in a transportable hospital bed in the corner of this room, he morphed into that younger man, if only for a few seconds, the past he’d thought he’d left behind so many years ago. Thomas wanted to believe that the tears stinging the corners of his eyes, and the reason he openly covered his mouth with his shirt, were because of the pungent smells attacking him at his core, and not some makeshift memory of his dead father.

“Thank you for coming on such short notice, Thomas.” Mayor Johnson said. She used her index finger to beckon him nearer. “Come closer, Thomas. I don’t want to have to talk over all the beeps and whistles of all this medical equipment.”

Thomas attempted to lift his size 12’s, but his feet were lodged to the floor as if they were in quicksand. And for the first time he recalled how people in the room downstairs reacted when the doctor who spoke at the press conference declined to assure anyone if this poison was contagious or not.

Mayor Ernestine Johnson:

She had been a chestnut colored black woman who spoke with a deep, mannish voice, but had been blessed with the curves of a woman half her age. He could see her shape clearly, even silhouetted underneath the bed sheets.

And yet the poison had stolen most of her good looks from her now. She wore purple boils and blisters on her face and neck, and blemishes of bruised blood and scars existed in the areas that the boils and blisters did not.

“Close enough,” She called out to him. Consciously, he never remembered getting his feet moving and walking towards the bed. Senator Lavelle had disappeared without a trace, surely attempting to escape this smell. The two Peacekeepers had joined two others by an open window and were following events transpiring by the Mayor’s bed with a vested interest. Thomas noted something else for the first time: The Peacekeeper’s were armed.

“Doctor Cavetti, my personal physician, tells me this unpleasant odor is the result of a chemical reaction between my pain medication and the poison. I apologize.” She said.

“Save your apologies, Mayor. None of this can be blamed on you.” Thomas curiosity won over his disgust. With concentration, he inhaled and exhaled deeply, and smoothed out his edges of his coat out of habit. This woman may not have much longer to live. Pull yourself together, son. It was his father’s voice, calm and strong and alive. “How may I be of service?”

Just then, Mayor Johnson suffered through a coughing spell that doubled her over. The one lab coat in the room, the man Thomas assumed to be Doctor Cavetti, sprinted over to the mayor’s bedside with her husband a footstep behind him. The mayor’s coughing episode passed as quickly as it came, and everything considered, she looked no worse for it.

Doctor Gregory Cavetti:

Mayor Ernestine Johnson announced to Thomas that her doctor had been enjoying a semi- retirement and was only seeing a few choice patients a week when she called him up last night. He was a walking beanstalk of a man with a banana for a nose and a catcher’s glove for hands. He was methodically reading her vitals, comparing them with the data on her charts, and then checked his watch.

The doctor said, “Promise me that you two will keep this conversation short.”

“Scout’s honor,” Mayor Johnson raised her right hand for effect and managed a grin. Thomas admired the woman’s courage and her good humor.

Cavetti gave Thomas a long hard look, flashed Antonio Johnson, the Mayor’s husband, a sympathetic gaze, before finally trailing off to his work he was previously performing on the far side of the room. Some thought stopped him in his tracks, and glanced at the mayor of one of his bony shoulders.

“I’ve been your doctor the better part of your whole life, Ernestine. You never were a girl scout.” He said and grinned in spite of himself. Mayor Johnson barked out of laugh. Thomas smiled genuinely.

Mayor Johnson’s husband did not smile or laugh.

Antonio Johnson:

He had big, pouty lips, razor bumps covered his lower cheek and jaw, and he wore gold rimmed glasses that looked almost fluorescent against his dark skin, and didn’t fit as he continually pushed them up off of his nose.

He planted himself in the space between Thomas Pepper and his sick wife protectively as if he were a Doberman, with his fur ruffled, ready to spring into attack mode at any given moment. “I will not cry.” He announced to Thomas Pepper out of nowhere. “I will not cry.”

“Never mind my husband.” Mayor Johnson said. She massaged the skin around her husband’s knuckles, smoothing out a fist that the other man had made. “It’s alright, sweetheart, I’ll be fine. Give me a moment with Mr. Pepper. We have much business to discuss and we don’t have a lot of time.”

The mayor’s husband stiffly began to back away to an area of seclusion on the opposite side of where Cavetti was standing. It was far enough away for his wife to conduct her business, but close enough for him to rush to her immediate aid if she had another attack or came under one.

“Circumstances in our world present unique opportunities, don’t they, Thomas?”

“I’m sorry, mayor. I don’t think I catch your meaning.”

“It is amazing the bond that is forged between the dying and those who will be left behind when that fateful moment is at our doorstep.” She’d watched her husband without interruption when he finally took his place of solace. Mayor Johnson turned her attention towards Thomas and he noticed that her bruised face had taken on a harder edge to it. “Make no mistake, Thomas. I watched Senator Lavelle’s press conference. I saw when Cavetti’s aids refused to announce to the world what the truth is: I am dying.”

“Do you have any idea how this happened, Mayor?”

A spasm of pain hit her, lifted her torso slightly off of her bed, but she masked it well and neither her husband nor her doctor noticed.

“I wish I knew. I am confident that if there is an answer, Doctor Cavetti will find it. I’ll leave to details and the medical diagnosis to him. I’m more interested in the questions that you have for me, the ones that you truly want to know.”

Thomas studied her face for a minute. His legs had grown weary so he pointed at a nearby chair. “May we continue this conversation after I sit down?”

“Sure.”

The chair was far more comfortable than the ones the press had been assigned to downstairs. He sat on the chair’s edge to keep himself alert and the conversation formal as it should be. He’d taken in other observations, the journalist seeping out of him, after he’d finally gotten over the room’s unpleasant odor and Mayor Johnson’s scars: He was the only white face in the room besides Dr. Cavetti. It had been a long time since he’d felt so alone. But as he watched Antonio Johnson continuing to birddog him he felt just that, isolated and …vulnerable, and with a fresh bout of fear topping his feelings off.

Mayor Johnson must have felt his budding anxiety so she blew her husband a kiss which seemed to soften Antonio’s hard gaze, if only for a few minutes.

“We had a son together.”

“I knew of him.” Thomas said. “Wasn’t he around 19 years old when he died in the Middle East during the first Persian War during Operation Desert Storm?”

“Desert Shield, actually.” She said in a quiet voice. She was still maintaining eye contact with her husband. A small, subtle coughing spell rose up out her chest but she waved off any assistance from anyone including Thomas who had jumped to his feet faster that he’d thought was possible.

“Oh how I loved my Sean,” She said as if she had never been forced to stop talking only a minute earlier. “I can still remember how he looked the day he left for boot camp, as if I saw him passing through this room only an hour ago.”

Thomas heard a story stirring inside the mayor’s mouth. So he sat back, crossed one leg over the other and prepared himself to listen. He owed the dying that much. Perhaps, Thomas hoped that many years from now, someone who listen to one of his tales when he was an old, dying man.

“Tell me about him.”

“He was taller than Antonio is now, and may God bless my husband’s heart, a lot more handsome than his father. But his good looks alone are not what made me so proud of him.” She said. “Sean was so smart, Thomas. He had an intense fascination for learning and love of books and reading.”

“You must have been very proud of him.”

“One of us was.” Although Mayor Johnson never allowed her thick lips to waver, yet her smile lost all of its warmth. “My husband began to wonder if Sean’s love of words, art, theatre, and music were somehow unnatural. Up into the day Sean left us for boot camp, I had never seen him show interest in a woman, not once. It never dawned on me to ask Sean about that part of his life.”

“Your husband’s own manliness came into question then. What kind of father— what kind of man raises a gay child? Those are the type of questions the father of gay boys asks themselves. What happened then, Mayor? Did he threaten Sean in some way?”

She nodded. “He offered Sean the chance to man himself up, as he put it, by joining the army. In exchange our son would be allowed to have the hefty college fund we’d saved for him. If our son showed some natural interest he would be allowed to indulge in all of his other activities upon his return to the states.”

“And this thing went on between your husband and your son without your knowledge or consent.”

“I was running for reelection of a lower seat of power earlier in my career.”

“And Sean took you husband’s offer, and opted for military service.”

She nodded again, as tears began to litter her face. “And he never even got to prove his worth in battle. He was killed when he was blindsided by a Humvee while he was unloading a supply truck in Kuwait.”

Thomas lowered his head. “Even after all these years, the memory of how this all came about must be devastating for you.”

“If only I had these years you speak of, Thomas,” She said. “My beloved husband told me this tale this morning, after my conditioned worsened from the effects of the poising. My husband told me that he felt responsible for Sean’s death. As if he had killed my son himself. And then he asked for my forgiveness. ”

“I will not cry,” Antonio Johnson said aloud as if he’d heard the mayor’s conversation with him. “I will not cry.”

Thomas got to his feet as if sitting any longer would drive him insane. He allowed the mayor a respectful moment of silence then he said, “I’m sorry, Mayor, for everything that has happened to you. And yet, you called for me. I’m not sure if I understand the reason why. What is it that I can do for you, Mayor Johnson?”

A third coughing spell, and by far the most intense one to date, came on her suddenly. Mayor Johnson’s torso convulsed once and again and Thomas guessed that she was having a seizure of some strength and magnitude. The medical equipment beeped and whistled loudly, Cavetti ran to her side, and Antonio unleashed a wail that sounded anything but human.

Alright, I’ve had enough of this, Ernestine.” Cavetti spat out angrily. “This stops now. I’m terminating this visit.” He pulled her eye lid open and shined a light in there. “Ernestine, can you hear me?”

After what seemed a long time she finally responded with a nod. Thomas thought when her body relaxed with the suddenness that it had bent in horrible pain that the Mayor of Atlanta had died.

Instead, he watched her grab the doctor’s wrist and forearm with a devastating vice like grip. “I must finish this, doctor. Promise me you’ll let me finish this.”

Cavetti looked from Mayor Johnson, to her husband, to the Peacekeepers who were at full attention, to Thomas Pepper, then to heaven up above for guidance.

“Alright, Ernestine, damn you, make this quick.”

When Mayor Ernestine Johnson turned to Thomas, her facial features had worsened as several of the purple boils and blisters had burst, leaving pus and blood leaking around her cheeks and jaws and onto her bed.

“You are not moral man.” Mayor Johnson’s mannish tone had grown darker still; if it were because of her condition or if she were angry, Thomas could not say.

And yet he had enough of women telling him how immoral he was today, thank you. “You asked for my help, Mayor.” He said, sharper than he had intended.

“The most immoral of men are often the most honest. They have a clear understanding of who they are. They know what they want, and they prepare to sacrifice whatever they feel is necessary, even their very souls, to get what they want.”

“I haven’t sacrificed anything, Mayor. Maybe you’re mistaken. Maybe it was a mistake for you to ask me here—“

“We are all in the path of darker days, Thomas. And although it hasn’t rained in Atlanta in over a year, the storm clouds are upon us. I can smell them. I can feel them.”

“Are you talking about the Whirlwind?”

“Yes,” She said. “The Whirlwind may be upon us all.” Mayor Johnson found her indoor voice where she left it minutes before. “And if an immoral man must be our beacon of light before the approaching storm then so be it. You are the truth teller. You are our beacon of light.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Yes, you do, Thomas. You’ve taught me, you’ve taught all of us in your books and on your blogs. I want you to think Thomas. I want you to truly understand what I need from you.”

“Where Thomas Pepper went, the truth was never far behind.” He said. An old lover had christened him with the stupid phrase after he promised her that would give her an intense orgasm during their lovemaking …and hence, had given his pet phrase that would become his calling card that he now always signed off on his blogs with.

Mayor Johnson was struggling for breath. “Truth…”

“You want the truth about who poisoned you.”

She shook her head. He still wasn’t getting it. “All of this is much bigger than just about me. I knew that there were inherent risks when I took the mark, when I became of member of the Circle, the governing body of A House in Chains.”

And for the first time Thomas noticed the he saw a tattoo of a chain on the lowest part of her neck. She was wearing the mark. Thomas thought long and hard before he spoke again.

“There are three questions that every Person of Color in this country wants to know.” He said with renewed confidence.

“What are they, Thomas?”

“Who killed President Adolphus Sweet?” Four years after the president’s murder, and the second largest investigation in American History behind the 911 attacks, still had brought no one to justice for firing the shot that killed the first Black president.

Mayor Johnson nodded.

After another minute Thomas said, “Who is the Caretaker?” No one knew if the first leader of Pandora had gone into seclusion years earlier or was dead. He was said to be a man without feeling or remorse.

Mayor Johnson nodded once again.

Finally, Thomas Pepper said, “And what is the Whirlwind?” Rumor said that the Caretaker had birthed an ingenious, diabolical plan to destroy People of Color before he went into hiding or before he died. Many Americans, including Thomas Pepper believed Serena Tennyson knew what this plan was.

Mayor Johnson nodded one final time, but instead of relaxing her body, she pressed all of her weight on her knuckles and gazed long and hard at Thomas, ignoring everyone else in the room including both her doctor and her husband who were pleading with her to stop this now.

“All that I ask from you, Thomas Pepper, is for the truth, nothing more.” After she mouthed her last statement, Mayor Johnson lay flat on her back at last. Thomas stood still, unable to move as he had when he first was asked by the mayor to approach her bed. She surprised him by adding, “If you help me, you will gain enemies on both sides of this conflict. They both will harass you. They will threaten you. They may even kill you. Yes, Thomas, they may try and kill you.”

“I understand.” And he hoped he truly did understand what he was signing up for. “You have my word, Mayor that I will find the answers to your three questions, or die trying.”

She smiled one final time. And Thomas Pepper knew it was that pictorial of her that he would someday take to his own grave.

Mayor Ernestine Johnson’s was engulfed in a final spasm that yanked, twisted—and ultimately broke her body and her spirit and she died a very a loud, a very violent death.

Doctor Gregory Cavetti cursed loud enough to alert security.

Antonio Johnson was proven to be a liar after all, for he finally did cry.

And Thomas Pepper exited the room a shaken man, but a man with a mission and a promise to keep nonetheless.

Where ever Thomas Pepper went, he hoped the truth was never far behind.

Chapter Two

 

A dysfunctional family is still a family nonetheless.

-Saul Pepper tells his son Thomas over dinner in 1972.

Angel

Blanche Coffee House; Griffin, Georgia. 2nd Day

 

Outside the Blanche Coffee and Pancake House in Griffin, Georgia, two FBI agents were securing the buildings perimeter, pretending to be a vacationing couple holding hands, while out on an early morning stroll. 50 feet closer, a third agent lit a cigarette and leaned back against a light pole. Inside the restaurant, a fourth agent scooped the last morning newspaper out of the machine and secured it under his arm pit.

Dr. Angel Hicks-Dupree knew that the Blanche Coffee and Pancake House had survived a fire that gutted its infrastructure in the late 1960’s, a change of ownership 1982 when the founder died of Lupus, numerous recessions, and the Great Recession of the last few years. But will it survive a federal incursion this morning?

She watched a fifth agent enter the premises, order breakfast at the register, and angle towards where she sat alone. It was far too early in the morning to play hide and seek with the feds, even one as good looking as this one, so she crossed one pants leg over the other and waited for him to approach her booth. She also knew that it was also far too early for most human beings to pour gin into their coffee so she doubled the content in her cup to improve her odds of getting it right.

Dr. Angel Hicks Dupree:

She was a curvy brunette in her mid-thirties. She had heavily arched brows curved above her big brown eyes. She wore rose colored lipstick over exaggerated thick lips and walked with a limp that grew more pronounced as she stressed. Angel’s lips were a gift from a former lover who had had bottomless pockets and an erotic imagination. The limp was the result of brief but wicked bout of polio when she was ten. She wore a pungent fragrance of perfume to douse the smell of alcohol rising up out of her pores.

“Dr. Hick-Dupree, my name is Special Agent Nicholas Sheridan of The Federal Bureau of Investigation.” He said, as way of greeting her. “Would you mind if I share this booth with you?”

Angel flashed him a wicked, playful smile.

Special Agent Nicholas Sheridan:

He was of medium height and weight, tanned to a tone that Angel wondered where his previous assignment had been, clean shaven, and had grayed early in life and now wore the snowcapped hairdo like it was a badge of honor. He wasn’t wearing a wedding ban. Angel kept the wickedly playful smile on her thick lips for a bit longer than she usually would, the one she reserved for attractive me she could sleep with, but probably would not.

“It’s your ass.” And a fine one, she did not add. And just as Sheridan’s backside hit the chair she did say, “Champion didn’t tell me where he was going.”

“Excuse me?”

Angel drank from her coffee cup for a taste of her gin laced liquid courage. “You and your people have been out searching for Joseph Champion. Whatever lead you may have had has led you here.”

Sheridan exhaled and arched a bushy brow in curiosity. “What gave us away?”

“You people are always so busy. I’m sure you don’t have enough time for me to explain.”

He glanced at his watch. “Damn. You are probably right, but I’m curious anyway.”

Angel explained the agent’s faulty positioning before the waitress arrived at the booth with Sheridan’s cup of coffee, with packs of cream and sugar in a saucer. She automatically started to refill Angel’s cup but the doctor shook her head and thanked her all the same.

“So are you going to explain to me what your involvement with a federal fugitive might be, Doctor? Joseph Champion is a person of interest in the shooting of President Adolphus Sweet. He is the most wanted man in the world. ”

“Alright, Nicholas, where do I begin?” She asked, and stole another sip of her drink. “Joseph has made overtures about turning himself over to your people. He told me that he is prepared to produce prudent and specific information on Serena Tennyson’s strategies and Pandora movements.”

“Champion’s made these so called overtures before.” Sheridan said with a trail of bitterness in his voice.

“He wants to turn himself in. He told me that.”

“Which brings me to my next question, Doctor?” Sheridan said. “Why did he come here? Forgive me, but you are living here in the middle of nowhere in South Central Georgia.”

“Joseph and I share ties, Nicholas. Check your records. We were both recruited and became card carrying members of Pandora. It didn’t take long for me to realize what madness Serena is capable of. I resigned after only a few months. Joseph Champion wasn’t as bright.”

Sheridan smiled. She recognized the gesture for what it was: She’d saved him some time and energy for having to extract that information, that he should have already had filed on from her.

“Okay, then back to my original line of questioning, Doctor, If Joseph Champion really wants to do the right thing and turn himself in to the authorities, then why won’t he?”

“He doesn’t think you can protect him.”

The waitress had returned with Sheridan’s breakfast of bacon and eggs cooked over easy. Sheridan excused himself and took three bites of the eggs, and a single bite of the crispy bacon, wiped his mouth, and urged Angel to go on.

“There honestly isn’t much to tell, Nicholas,” She said. “He called me on my cell at my practice and informed me that he was in town to see a local man, another former Pandora agent who was running from Serena as well. After I arrived at the hotel we argued about him turning himself in. He was emotional. We drank a lot. We had sex. It went back and forth like that for a while. I don’t remember a lot of specific details other than our sexual chemistry haven’t eroded over time.”

Sheridan struggled to keep a straight face. “Did this man, who Champion mentioned, ever show? Did you even overhear a phone call he may have made?”

“No. Sorry. Joseph never even gave me his name or what his function was in Pandora’s organization. I could tell that they had important business though. Like I said, Nicholas, other than what I’ve told you, last night was a blur on my radar.”

“That’s too bad.”

“Is it? He can’t have gone too far. I’m sure with all of your resources and influence you will track him down sooner or later. In the meanwhile, you are stuck with little old me?” Angel spread her arms over her head for effect, the gin working its old magic in her bloodstream.

“Yes, Doctor, little old you, a former Pandora recruit who happens to be the real reason that we ventured down to this shithole in the first place.” Sheridan said to her surprise. We she cocked her own curious brow he added, “On two different occasions this agency had retained your services in a consulting capacity, the results have been…productive on each case. You are very good in your field of expertise.”

“Thank you,” Angel said seriously. “My work in Clinical Psychology means everything to me. The Deputy Director seems to respect my opinions.”

“He does. He speaks fondly of you, almost if he has a very soft spot for you in his heart.”

It’s probably a hard one and it hangs around a little further South than his heart. “Listen, Nicholas, you say that you and these other agents came down here looking for me?”

“We did.”

“Then this must all be about that phone call I had with Louis Keaton around ten days ago now. Again, during that little season of madness that I spent as an operative in Pandora, Louis was a patient of mine. I’m sure you already know this as well.”

“I am aware of your relationship with Keaton, Doctor.” It was time for Sheridan to flash his own mischievous grin at her. Angel surmised that mischievous looked good on this federal agent. “And your phone records indicate it’s been 11 days since you last spoke to Keaton, actually. But forgive me, I’m interrupting.”

Angel sat her cup in a saucer and read the statue that Sheridan had produced from The Justice Department reminding her of federal regulations to allow wiretapping of phone lines to prevent terrorism in by foreign and domestic means. The waitress returned and filled Sheridan’s cup once more. He paid his bill with a government credit card and tipped her with a ten dollar bill to finalize her dismissal.

“Louis Keaton was a troubled man.” Angel heard herself say.

“He is still a troubled man.” Sheridan unlatches his briefcase, produces a laptop, which he has up and booted with the care and precision of a man who has more than a familiarity with contemporary technology. “I want to get your opinion of what you see here.”

Sheridan’s computer is equipped with a split screen. The video feed on the left side is from one of the big networks documenting the bombing of The Andrew Young Center upstate in Atlanta with the usual coverage angles. The one on the right side, while not as nearly a clean feed, is far more interesting, and catches Angel’s attention. This feed is from a surveillance camera perched on the side of an adjacent building. It is time stamped. Angel recognizes the figure of an undersized man who was wearing a denim jacket, flannel shirt and faded jeans and ankle length cowboy boots. Louis Keaton.

“Oh my, God,” Angel ignored her coffee cup and nearly reached for her gin stash itself almost out of habit, but thought the better of that decision. “I haven’t watched the news this morning. How many more casualties were added to the list during the night?”

“I didn’t get an update. And I don’t like to speculate specifics on such things, though I suspect the number will grow over the coming days.”

“I’m sure it will,” She settled for a subtle sip out of her cup. She watched the time stamped footage once again with it showing Louis holding something in his hand, then the youth center exploding into a ball of fire. “I am not going to argue with you about what that camera implies, Nicholas.”

“That footage doesn’t imply anything.” Angel heard Sheridan’s voice take on a stern tone. “Keaton’s there on scene. He is a known operative of Pandora. They have taken openly taken responsibility and credit earlier this morning for the terrorist act known as 411.”

“Give me some latitude here. We both believe Keaton to be a troubled man. But he is a man known to be a pedophile, a man who has repeatedly molested children, especially young boys.” Angel said. “Blowing up buildings has not been his MO. That is not who this man is.”

Sheridan eyed Angel a second or two after his cell phone rang. He begged the doctor’s pardon and began to listen to the party on the other end, an agent named Green. He makes a sudden decision that she should be in on the conversation and he puts the speaker on and lays the cell, face up, on table.

“…We’ve been monitoring your conversation, sir, and there is no sign of Champion.” Agent Green was saying. “I have received intel that a dead body had been discovered four blocks from your present location. He is a white male who was either in his late 40’s, or early 50’s. There was no ID on him.”

“Is there an immediate cause of death?” Angel asked Sheridan, as she was familiar with FBI procedures in the time she’d spent working with them.

“Agent Green,” Sheridan said. “Answer the doctor’s question.”

“Yes, sir,” Green sounded unsure of whether this violated protocol or not. “He suffered a gunshot wound to his forehead at close range. It was a small caliber weapon. The body is still warm so the evidence points that it occurred in the past six to 12 hours. It will take three to four hours before we get the ballistics back from the lab.”

“Expect those reports back in no more than two hours. Walker’s crew is known to pull miracle off from time to time, especially with proper stimuli to motivate them. I will have The Deputy Director to give them a call as soon as I’m finished here.” Sheridan powered down his laptop. “Agent Green, does any evidence support a theory that this gunshot was self-inflicted.”

“Unlikely. There is an absence of residue on his fingers and his wrist. You’ve trained us not to speculate—“

“I have at that, Agent Green. Let’s make an exception this one time, go ahead”

Agent Green said, “I think it was a robbery. As I already told you he has no Id or wallet at all. His pants pockets were turned inside out. And a couple of his fingers are discolored as if there were rings there once. I believe the perpetrator lifted the jewelry off him before he got out of dodge.” The man concluded by saying, “I would advise Agent Walker to report her findings to the local police department.”

“I disagree, Lance. We will stay on top of this ourselves and examine it closer.”

“Yes, sir,” Angel could hear the younger man groan in the backdrop before the line was severed.

Agent Sheridan drained the last of his coffee. “As I said, Doctor, we came looking for you.”

“Why? I don’t see where I can help you.”

“I need you in Atlanta. I need you aiding in the 411 investigation.”

“What could I offer you in an investigation like this?” She wiped sweat from her brow, grabbed her gin stash out of her purse for Sheridan to see, and stood to leave. “And as you can see, Nicholas, I’m in no condition to help you. You have good people in there, in Atlanta already. Christopher Prince is personal friend of mine, he runs the field office, and most importantly is one hell of a Special Agent…”

Sheridan breaks eye contact for the first time in the past few minutes. He pushes his coffee cup away from him in disgust.

Angel abruptly sits down and flops back in her seat.

“Something has happened to Christopher hasn’t it? Sheridan compounds her concerns when he fails to reply immediately. “Where is Agent Prince?”

“No one has seen or heard from Agent Prince since yesterday morning.”

“He’s notorious for not answering his cell.”

Sheridan nodded in agreement. “He is notorious for not answering his private cell phone. Agent Prince’s partner told her superiors that Prince had an appointment with his private doctor for a follow up from an annual examination. He never showed. Agent Tabitha Blue hasn’t been able to raise him on his company line. Agent Prince never misses a call on this line. No matter what time of day he receives a call he always answers this phone.”

Angel searched the ceiling of the restaurant and then the floor for answers. Where could Christopher be?

Sheridan: “There is more.”

Angel exhaled. “There always is.”

“The 411 attacks are not centered on the bombing of The Andrew Young Center alone. Atlanta’s Mayor, Ernestine Johnson has died of complications stemming from some type of poisoning. And currently, there is a siege still underway at The Fox Theatre in Midtown Atlanta.” Sheridan hesitated for a long time, and Angel’s dread grew. “Agent Blue told her superiors that Agent Prince mentioned that he had ticket to show there the night the siege began. He had a date. I believe he is there and is amongst the hundreds of hostages that are being held inside.”

Angel felt her teeth chatter. She suffered through a spell of nausea that fortunately passed as quickly as it came.

She stood again.

“I’ll need to run home. I’m going to grab a hot shower and grab some personal belongings.” Angel looked down at him squarely in his eye. “And I’ll need some time to sober up.”

Agent Sheridan stood next to her. “I’ve anticipated your assistance and have a car waiting outside for you to handle in private business you may have.”

“I’m in,” Angel muttered to herself than to the man standing next to her. “I’m all in.”

“Be careful what you are volunteering for.” Sheridan rubbed the back of his snow white head. “I’m under orders, by Deputy Director Rice, to solicit your services. I follow orders, Doctor Hicks-Dupree. Still, I want you to know that I didn’t ask for you. And my boss has left it to my discretion how long you assist on this case.”

Angel nodded soberly. “I understand, Nicholas.”

Agent Sheridan brushed off his suit and straightened his tie. “No, Doctor, I highly doubt that you. Let me explain myself further. What others in my field of work call taking initiative I call being insubordinate. What another man in my position may proclaim someone as being a free spirit, I would name that same person reckless.” He leaned over her. “You are reckless, Doctor. You’re past ties to Pandora, the way you lead your personal life, everything that encompasses you presents a clear and present danger to the honorable men and women who still serve their country through this bureau. I will not tolerate any screw-ups from you.”

Sheridan reached down into her purse and scooped the tin flask of gin out of it. “I hope that I have made myself perfectly clear on my expectations of you during your consultation.”

“Crystal clear, Nicholas.”

“And from this point moving forward you will address me as Agent Sheridan or Sheridan.”

“Yes, Agent Sheridan.”

She had lived a reckless life. And Sheridan was right, for both personal and professional reasons; her presence during this investigation was a clear and present danger to all involved including Christopher Prince, assuming he still lived.

But as long as Angel Hicks-Dupree loved, her redemption was possibly still at hand.

She was alive.

As she turned towards the exit of the restaurant she gathered that one of Sheridan’s agents hadn’t gotten the message that she had joined their ranks, or that Joseph Champion was nowhere to be found in this vicinity.

“Agent Sheridan, I pointed all of your people out. Why is one of your men still sneaking around outside?”

Agent Sheridan straightened out his tie again and looked as if something on the floor had gained his attention. “He’s not one of my men, Doctor, he’s one of yours.”

Angel glanced in the stranger’s direction and then took a second, longer look at the man who was standing outside the restaurant. She sighed in disbelief to the fact that what Sheridan said was true.

Doctor Seth Dupree was peeking through an open blind of the Blanche Coffee and Pancake House.

As long as Angel lived, her redemption was possibly still at hand.

She was alive.

She was alive and she had an angry husband to face.

Seth

The Dupree’s private family residence, East Griffin, Georgia, 2nd Day

 

“We’re not done talking yet,” Seth watched his wife drop to her knees and reach along the side of the bed for her travel bag she’d always kept packed and ready to go on a moment’s notice. “And now where do you think you’re going?”

Angel looked back at him, sighed, and rolled her big brown eyes at him. “Atlanta. I’m needed in Atlanta, Seth.”

Seth pointed at the carpet. “You’re needed here. We’ve got to fix whatever is wrong with our marriage.”

Angel, impervious, went back to the business of what she was doing as if a word hadn’t been exchanged between them. She got to her feet, switched on the widescreen with the remote and pumped up the volume past 40. The sound faintly echoed as their bedroom and seemingly every other room this Victorian styled house was oversized for two people and even with the expensive furniture loitering throughout, looked as if no one lived there.

There have been too many big fights that have taken place under this roof as well, Angel, too many tears shed. Tonight, if only for one night, he promised those tears would not come from him.

Dr. Seth Dupree:

He was six feet tall and still fit even now that he was in his early forties. Friends had started calling him The Gray Man about ten years ago. He had sparkling gray eyes and had more streaks of gray in his hair and whiskers than he liked. He had always possessed the unique ability to look comfortable and relaxed, yet professional, whether the day dictated him wearing a three piece suit or a golf shirt and slacks.

He wasn’t looking comfortable or relaxed right now.

“Make me understand what any of what has gone down in Atlanta has to do with—“

Quiet.” Angel planted her long, manicured fingernail close enough to his full to his thin lip to touch. “I want to hear this.”

A razor thin blonde stood as close to the barricades of a building. Seth scanned the area immediately behind her, an electronic sign noted the structure as The Historic Fox Theatre. Historic, it just plain looks old, Seth thought. Some of the roof’s paneling had torn from the hinges and looked if it would completely off if a strong gust of wind whipped in right now. Well, knowing how the city’s luck rolls these days, a wild wind event would be the only type of storm they would get. Seth reasoned to himself. Atlanta and most of northern Georgia was suffering through what some meteorologist experts were calling the Drought of the Century. There hadn’t been significant rainfall in metro Atlanta in nearly a year. And wildfires had begun running rampant on the outskirts of town, especially to the North and West of downtown. Some days the city looked more like LA encompassed in thick soup bowl of smoke, instead of the smog America’s second largest city suffered through.

Sections of panels and tile were torn from the right side of the building as the camera scanned the protestors who’d begin camping out of there. Seth rubbed at his day old beard, and shook his head at his own stupidity. Of course there are torn panels and patches of damage in those spots, he thought, how could I have forgotten about the tremor the region suffered about two weeks ago. Seismologist had measured the quake at 3.3 and the center of it near Columbia, South Carolina, the Atlantic fault shifting again after lying nearly dormant for half a century.

And now Atlanta was suffering through this latest challenge.

Heavily armed police units, armed with high powered rifles struggled to keep citizens behind the barriers. Seth’s gray eyes took notice of a group of half dozen young men and women of color who chanted the same theme over and again, especially when the television cameras focused on them. One of them would ask, Brothers and sisters, what do you see when visualize our people’s future? And the others would answer in chorus, we see days filled with misery and pain. Most of the protestors were ordinary, everyday Joes, but the camera seemed to highlight the presence of clans of young men dressed in Khaki suit and sneakers. The Peacekeepers; the media is focusing on them to stir the pot…and yet he endured a chill strong enough to burn at his shoulder blades, or are these vigilante numbers higher than anyone assumes they are.

Seth rushed to widescreen, located where the power button was, and slammed the set off.

Angel swore at him.

“You got in an unmarked car back at that restaurant with federal agents didn’t you, Angel. This,” He pointed his thumb back at the blank television screen. “This is about Christopher Prince isn’t it?”

Angel had folded her arms, which tugged at her blouse, exposing a little cleavage. Knowing his wife as he did, Seth was sure the act was intentional, to throw his concentration off. “The FBI believes that Christopher is one of the hostages being held in that theatre. Agents of Pandora are holding them there. Everyone inside that place is in danger. Sheridan got on a plane when we left; he is putting his hostage negotiating team together, right now, as we speak. You know I’ve consulted with the feds before, Seth, you know I’ve worked directly with hostage negotiators. That car, as you spoke of, is outside waiting on me right now.

“This isn’t about those hostages, for you, Angel,” He heard his voice rise, thought about the FBI agents planted 50 feet or so from where he was standing, made him instantly regret doing so. “This is about Christopher Prince. You’ve always loved him.”

“Oh stop being so melodramatic, Seth.” Angel had opened her travel bag, replaced a short sleeved blouse with a longer sleeved one to protect her from the night’s chill up there. “Just stop it already. You know our story, our history together. Our fathers were cops, partners for ten years together. That partnership of theirs evolved into a lifelong friendship, where such relationships between black men and white men were rare and were frowned upon in the Deep South. Chris and I played together as children. My father even trusted him enough to babysit me. In time their partnership ended when my father moved on to the US Marshalls and then eventually to the ATF. And although their friendship fractured somewhat when Isaac Prince founded a House in Chains, their children still kept in touch.

She stopped with her activates for a minute and Seth watched her big browns mist up. “He’s my best friend in this world. Of course, I care about what happens to him.”

Seth inhaled, exhaled, and stood as tall as his 6”1 frame allowed. “I understand that, Angel. He is your best friend. I am your husband.”

Angel’s eyes lost the mist. “And for that, I pity you.”

“That’s not funny.”

Angel tossed a bra into her bag and stepped in his direction. He thought she would embrace him, but she stopped just short of where he was standing, and brushed the back of his cheek with her soft hands. He felt aroused in spite of himself. He wanted to be angry right now. “You’re a good man, Seth Dupree. You’re a damn good husband. You deserve a damn good wife. I’m not a good wife. I’m not…she struggled to find the right word…I’m not sure that I know how to be one.”

She turned her back on him to resume her packing. He wrapped his arms around her with such suddenness, that he engulfs her smaller frame with his own. The scent of her perfume, the relaxer in her hair is intoxicating. She throws her head back and exposes her neckline…collarbone…and the top of her breast to him. She reaches back and finds his manhood already stiffening against her buttock.

She was the one usually seducing him during times of crisis in their marriage. And honestly…she is at it again. She’s been seducing me from the moment we walked into the bedroom. I’m just late to the gathering. But he would let her claim another victory in this war between them, if only she didn’t go. “I’m begging you to stay,” Seth said as he ran his lips along her neck line. “We can fix this.”

Angel gently but firmly removed herself from his embrace, spun around, and smoothed out her clothes. “I have to go, Seth.” She announced to him. “I’ll call you as often as I can. I’m sorry.”

He snatched at her arm with quickness beyond reason, beyond relief. Anger had superseded reason and he found himself in unexplored territory and it was lost of him exactly what to do next.

Angel gave him his answer.

He needed to defend himself.

Angel pushed his hand off of her and attempted to knee him with her right leg in the crotch. Perhaps it was some type of male intuition that caused him to be prepared for such a maneuver as he blocked her first and second attempt successfully with the lower half of frame. Unfortunately, that left his topside vulnerable for a counter attack and Angel took full advantage. She jabbed him twice above his right eye socket with her left fist.

She’d proven herself ultra-flexible and even athletic during their exotic romps in bed, but here physical strength was proving far more just a nuisance as she connected again with another punch that hurt, this time on his jaw.

He found an opening as she swung wildly and missed, and used all of her 125 pounds against her and shoved her at the top of her arm, sideways on to the bed. Don’t escalate this, he thought, whether it was intended more for him or her he could not say. She cursed at him again. Angel’s big brown eyes were full of fire and brimstone and focus.

This time she kicked at him and found success as the inside of his thigh and crotch paid a steep price. For the first time since this episode began Seth felt the bite of almost unbearable of pain.

He backhands his wife.

The world stops…and so does Angel…and her suddenly frail body lands on the bed flat on her back.

Oh, my God,” Seth dove on top of the bed and on top of her. “Angel, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” And he is filled with dread not only in the fact that he has struck a woman for the first time in his life, but he has struck a woman with federal agents parked on the curb outside his house. He has allowed his anger and more so his pride to put his career, to put his freedom in jeopardy.

Get. Off.”

“I’m sorry.” Seth said pointlessly again. He wished he could take it all back.

They stayed in that position, that odd position with him on top her, almost pinning her down for what had seemed a long time. He took some assurance, selfishly so, that the FBI didn’t hear this exchange, because the doorbell hadn’t chimed, or they hadn’t knocked the door down and a score of agents hadn’t piled in the room and jumped on top of him.

Instead he and his wife looked into one another’s eyes. He looked into her magical big browns, and he could see his gray’s reflected in hers. She didn’t try to punch him anymore, or head butt him, or even bite him. In fact, her body went lax; she exposed the other side of her face, the one that wasn’t slightly swollen to him.

“I deserved that, Seth.” When he tried to speak, she shook her head slowly, and shushed him as softly as one of her kisses on his cheek might have been. For the entire dishonor I’ve brought to our marriage, I deserved it.” A single ran down her smooth cheek and it frightened him more than any moment during the fight. She didn’t cry at their wedding. She didn’t cry when she suffered bouts of pain in her leg as the result of her bout with polio as a young child. She didn’t even cry when they buried her father. But she was crying now. Go ahead, Seth, you get one more shot at me, for the future dishonor I would bring to you if I stay.”

He felt suddenly ill. “I don’t want that, Angel. I don’t want to fight with you at all.”

He backed off of her and she sat up and perched her weight on her elbows. “I’m allowing you a free shot. I’m advising you to take it.” She said, in a low dangerous voice. “Because if you ever lay a hand on me after my offer expires, I’ll kill you Seth; you know what I’m capable of. There are already three people buried because of me.”

Angel pushed herself off of the bed. Seth reached to help her, but she slapped his hand aside. He guesses that she has decided to shower after she reaches Atlanta because she limped over to the bedroom mirror, touches up her face, brushes her hair, and changes from one button up blouse to another. Seth saw his reflection close in behind her, but he keeps a cautious distance between them.

“You’ve always told me that you have been responsible for two deaths, Angel.”

“There’s Brody.” She said, her blouse still fully open, exposing her bra and cleavage to him in the mirror.

Seth nodded. “He was the fugitive who came looking for your father during one of the times he left you in that old house alone. After three days of being his hostage, he made a sexual advance on you and you stabbed him to death.”

It was her turn to nod. “Eight years later, a young man named Kenny Traylor learned his valuable fatal lesson.”

“He did.” Seth said as she buttoned the blouse at last, doused perfume on each wrist and put her trinkets in place. “He learned that when a woman says no she means it. You defended yourself and your actions were cleared in a court of law.” When Angel spun around she grabbed her bag and began to exit their bedroom. He stepped in her path but retained the separation between them.

“Angel, what is this third incident?” He asked his wife. She had shared the other two instances with him…again, tearlessly…on their wedding night.

“My mother died birthing me,” Angel said as a matter of fact and without emotion. “So I’m responsible for killing her too.”

Seth lost all of the strength in his leg and tumbles to the edge of the bed and seems paralyzed in his attempt to move thereafter.

Angel limped to the mouth of the doorway and spokes to him without turning to face him; perhaps the tears have found a home on her face again. “I’m screwed up, Seth. I am a drunk…a functional one considering the detail I pay my work, but a drunk nonetheless.”

“Are you a whore as well?”

Now she did face him, and did she have the audacity to for anger to be plastered on her brow or was the look lodged there meant to mean something else? “I don’t like to be alone.” Angel could nothing more as her look softened.

“And us?” Seth asked. “You specialize in Clinical Psychology, Dr. Angel Hicks- Dupree. You specialize in the integration of the science, theory and clinical knowledge for the purpose of understanding, preventing, and relieving psychologically-based distress or dysfunction and to promote subjective and behavioral well-being and personal development.” He’d memorized the definition over the years. “What is the diagnosis for us moving forward?”

An hour later Seth learned that even the king sized mattress couldn’t hold his weight on its edge and he’d slipped aimlessly to the floor. He had a bed, bedroom, and a home that was already too large for a couple, grew exponentially larger and lonelier still now that he was alone after Angel had given the best answer she could muster to his last question and had left for Atlanta with the FBI. He was still staring at the bedroom’s doorway where she’d stood, even now.

There was a pop, and then a bang rising from the surround sound in their bedroom that startled him. And for the first time Seth realized that during his scuffle with his wife, they had somehow managed to switch the television back on. He was now viewing how a scene had played out from the first night of the siege that had been caught on amateur video. Shots had been fired from inside the Fox Theatre in Atlanta, and some of the protestors and other curious citizens were scattering for cover. Half dozen Peacekeepers had drawn their weapons in response and had taken what Seth surmised as strategic positing around the building. Where are you going, Angel? He asked himself. What are you getting yourself into?

For all of his life, Dr. Seth Dupree felt he was holding his breath—waiting; he hoped to still mend his broken heart.

He hoped to breathe again.

He hoped.

Seth reached for his cell phone and hit a private investigator he had on speed dial. The man was a pig both in size and appearance, but had proven professional, trustworthy and damned good at finding Angel’s whereabouts over the years. He finally answered on the third ring. He spoke in a sleepy voice. The other man, Lawson, listened to Seth’s latest complaints about Angel. Seth knew putting the man up in motels in Atlanta would be expensive—but instead of the private dick quoting him a rate on his retainer he said, “Doc, why don’t you invest that money in a good lawyer. Or even a bad lawyer.” Seth felt the phone slip from his fingers and fall to the carpet, but the speaker had been engaged. “Man, you’re a surgeon. I know you are used to fixing things.” The other man hesitated, clearing morning bile from his throat. “You’re not going to fix her, Doc.”

The private detective hung up the phone without saying goodbye. Seth got to his knees, crawled to the nightstand, got the phonebook out to find Lawson’s replacement. He flung the phonebook and toppled an expensive vase from the other side of the room instead and found himself sitting on the carpet as he had before.

Another hour later Seth had gotten himself together enough to make two more phone calls; the first was a straight forward call to the HR department of Atlanta’s General Hospital. Dr. Seth Dupree had been assigned to a statewide trauma team. They’d already seen action after last month’s earthquake and subsequent tremors. He was required to train with the team out of their main base of operations at the Atlanta General Hospital location for four weeks out of the year.

He couldn’t see a more ideal time to train than right now.

The General’s HR department would contact his own workplace and finalize the deal. If he needed more time in Atlanta, he’d had some vacation weeks available to him.

He began dialing the second number…stopped with four digits still remaining…thought long and hard about completing the call…and pressed the end button, terminating his call to the other party, for now.

The Gray man got to his feet, grabbed his own travel bag from his side of the walk in closet, pulled out the pistol that he had stored inside of the bag, filled the chamber with bullets, set the alarm on the door and remembered his wife’s answer to his formal question about them moving forward before she had turned and walked away from him.

Our vows say through sickness and health, Seth. She had said. I think I qualify for well beyond sick. I want a divorce, Seth. Please grant me one.

For all of his life, Dr. Seth Dupree felt he was holding his breath—waiting; he hoped to still mend his broken heart.

He hoped to breathe again.

He hoped.

And then he locked the front door behind him.

Chapter Three

 

We as men of color have put ourselves in a poor position to demand anything from anyone. So we must first and foremost always practice self-respect, self-restraint, and self-reliance. Responsible behavior commands admiration from our families, our communities and our countrymen as a whole. Only a righteous man may seek retribution for the rooster’s sins that he has committed against our brethren.

-Isaac Prince, leader of a House in Chains in July 1976

Chris

Fox Theatre, Midtown Atlanta, 2nd Day

 

He realized that the events that had transpired first thing this morning had mirrored the final, traumatic events of the previous night. He wished, not for the first time that these events have fared differently— without the loss of life especially, and yet the civilian…the human inside of him wished he’d attempted to run to freedom with the one female who had made it out alive.

A pregnant woman and her mother had used the need to go the bathroom as their excuse to disappear out of sight for a few minutes. The lounge in front of the ladies bathroom bore a fountain for decoration sitting in front of it. There was a pool of blood now flowing along with the water. A significant trail of blood and brains and marrow led back to the great room he and the other hostages were being held.

In his mind’s eye, Chris could see that woman’s mother stuffing her daughter, who was in the latter stages of her pregnancy, out of one those windows in the bathroom. But you folks took too long. Pandora became suspicious. They sent a guard to find you. Agent Christopher Prince remembered hearing the shots clearly. He also remembered feeling knots tie in his gut when two of these guards drug the mother’s limp corpse back into the great room.

The next thing that transpired next frightened him worse.

Luna Belle, who he had come to recognize as the second in command of this operation, fired a handful of rounds into an already dead body as an act of imitation. It worked. Chris could see the shift in attitudes from the hostages. It wasn’t about the pleas and prayers for mercy, or even at the maddening screaming at the act of horror they’d all witnessed, but an overall sense of hopelessness and dread that fell over the crowd was like a dark cloud hovering above the theatre. The hostages thought they might die before. They knew it now.

“Prince,” He heard a voice whispering his name.

He didn’t look around right away. Instead, he got a feel for where the dozen gunmen…or women were. All of the Pandora agents involved in the operation, with the exception of the leader, were all women. That is one reason they took this building with such little resistance. Who would have expected a group of ladies who had gone out for an evening show capable of such violence they’d truly had the element of surprise on their side. In fact when they begin roping in from all areas of the theatre, Prince, like many others in attendance, thought the act was part of the show. They looked like bats flying around a belfry.

Chris turned around at last to put a face to the voice that called his name.

“My people are positioned the best they can be under the circumstances, they are prepped, and ready to counterstrike on my command.” The man said, Chris cursed to himself, unable to place the other’s name with the dark, hard face hovering ten feet in front of him. “Are you with us?”

“Your people,” Chris made the statement a curse. “No. Call off whatever you have planned. There are too many guards here and they are armed with semiautomatic and fully automatic weapons. What you are planning is nothing short of suicide, not only for your followers, but these innocent civilians as well.”

Special Agent Christopher Prince:

He was of average height and was 39 years old now. He’d gained twenty pounds around his middle but most friends thought he carried the extra weight well; which means that I look worse than I already thought. He was one shade darker than midnight, his shading so absolute and finite it was almost beautiful in its own opaqueness. He was clean shaven from his Adams Apple to the nape of his neck: No mustache, no goatee, and no eyebrows; No hair of any type adorned his skin.

The other man rested his weight on his elbows before laying all the way back on the floor and closing his eyes for a moment. His people, Chris thought. Okay, so you’re one of the Peacekeepers…no…you’re something, somebody even further up Xavier’s chain of command than even that.

“I only wanted to know if you stood with us or not. I wasn’t asking for a tactical analyst of the situation or your consent, Agent Christopher Prince.”

“You know who I am?”

His smile betrayed the confidence of someone who was in clear control of the conversation. He reopened his eyes, carefully pulled a penny from his pocket and began tossing it up once and then again and again. “Number One suggests that the other members of The Circle familiar ourselves with all of our adversaries. Even if one of the antagonists is his own flesh and blood. The enemy of my enemy is my friend, especially tonight. How are you holding up?”

Chris finally put a name to a face and cursed in a low voice. “You’re Morgan aren’t you, Quincy Morgan?” He scanned the room’s perimeter to update himself on the female guards positioning. The hostages had been allowed to converse amongst themselves but Chris wasn’t willing to risk them spying in on this conversation. He lowered his voice until it was damn well soft and faint as if he were singing a lullaby to hush a crying baby. “You are The House in Chains Sargent at Arms, and the number three in command of The Circle. Well, at least that’s the hypothesis being shared back at the field office.”

Morgan nodded.

Quincy Morgan:

He was an olive skinned black man who Chris thought was the picture of fitness and all the handsome features of Man of Color could wish for. He had big thoughtful eyes, a clean shaven face, an expensive diamond stud in each ear and a fresh haircut. He kept tossing that penny in the air once and again and again. You don’t come off as the nervous type, Quincy; the experienced investigator inside his gut told Chris, that penny represents unfinished business with something…or someone. I’d give a king’s ransom to know who. Chris found himself staring at the other man’s physique longer underneath his silk shirt longer than he intended, hoping Morgan wouldn’t take his interest as anything sexual. I was you once, Quincy. Instead, he was again reminded that how he was bulging along his own midsection. In fact he’d made an appointment and finally seen his private doctor a few days earlier. The follow up appointment was scheduled for today. He’d been from suffering occasional stomach pains and his energy level hadn’t been up to his usual standards.

Concentrate on the present, he told himself. The holding area stank of piss and other waste as the remaining hostages had been forced to urinate in the flower pots that were located within. Again, Prince reminded himself they’d been allowed conversation and even some movement, but they were encouraged to keep their voices low and absolutely forbidden from standing up. A weighty gentleman asked for permission to approach one of the makeshift toilets, one of the lithe shaped guards sneered, patted him down, and used her rifle to point him towards one of the flower pots.

Chris thought it ironic that this room was designed to give life to a recreation of the temple for Ramses II, the Egyptian Pharaoh who set Moses and the Hebrew nation free only to hunt them down, if the old Bible story could be believed. Now, today, mostly People of Color were waiting to be set free from this building.

Quincy Morgan scooted along the floor past of two sobbing young women and found an open spot amongst the humanity, and sat next to Chris. One of the female guards took notice, but seemed more interested at the length of her fingernails at that moment. Chris only offered her a moment’s glance in return. He only had eyes for Luna Belle and another man Chris had recognized immediately when he first laid eyes on him last night: Benny Stanton, a former ATF guy who Chris had worked together with on an investigation in Alabama a few years back when the latter man was still on the right side of the law.

Luna Belle:

She was an angular and lissome shaped blonde whose hardened gaze seemed fixed permanently on her face.

Benny Stanton:

He was of late middle age with white blonde hair, deep blue eyes and spoke with tied tongue.

When Morgan settled next to Chris the Special Agent said, “My brother would advise against whatever you are planning, Quincy.” Chris said.

“Perhaps,” Morgan said and pushed the penny deep down into his pocket. “We are outnumbered and outgunned, but I take using my small advantages where I can find them. And since you people believe in the chain of command, you’ll understand when I say I’m going to use my seat in The Circle to advocate change to our current status as helpless sheep.”

“Stanton should have issued their demands by now. The wolf wants something or we would all have been killed last night during the initial siege. Yes, they would have all been killed like poor Catherine over there. Chris Prince’s date had been mowed down by the indiscriminate automatic weapon’s fire during the first few minutes of the attack. It was a precipice of the siege. The gunfire was designed to start a mass of people running in a single direction so that Stanton’s team could better control them.

I’m so sorry, Catherine. I never even knew your family name, but it doesn’t mean that I won’t mourn for you when the time is right. He gave her slender figure, her corpse lying face down in a pool of her own blood, one last respectful glance before he turned his attention back to Morgan.

“Negotiations won’t favor these hostages.” Morgan stopped and cursed. “I believe Stanton is acting independent of Serena’s authority.” Chris failed to mask his reaction. “I see you believe that as well. Tennyson’s orders run more direct and straight forward than this operation is being carried out. You were right when you said we should have all been killed last night like that woman you knew lying over there. We weren’t. This whole siege is about the release of James Carter. Stanton is tight with him. They’re trying to exchange the lives of these hostages for the freedom of that racist son of a bitch.”

Chris nodded, Morgan sharing most of his views as well. “Alright, will whoever is still in charge of The Circle release him to Stanton’s custody?”

The veins in Morgan’s neck rippled and he swallowed hard. Yet, there was a sadness that clouded his eye, if only for a second. There had been a change in leadership on The Circle. Chris could feel it. “We are no different than your FBI brethren, Agent Prince. We don’t negotiate with terrorist.” And then for the first time since this conversation began, Morgan looked away. “Anyway, we don’t have Carter or know of his exact whereabouts.”

“Great.”

In the meantime Stanton and Luna Belle nodded at one another, looked directly at the two men, seemingly coming to some type of agreement on how to proceed with an urgent matter. Two of the brunette guards met them along the route and escorted them through the hall of the great room, parting the frightened hostages who gasped and ducked their heads as the group approached and then passed them by, afraid that they would halt their progression where they sat and would had singled them out for execution.

The group headed straight in line to where Special Agent Christopher Prince and Sargent at Arms Quincy Morgan were seated.

“Listen to me, Chris, because we don’t have much time left. Your brother loves you.” Morgan said. “Men of Color don’t express these feelings to one another enough. I will protect you. He would want that. I’ll make sure that our true enemies regret what they’ve done here today.”

In his mind’s eye Chris could see an embodiment of himself last night. When he first heard the shots rang out and people around him started dying, he’d silently vowed that somehow—someway he would find a way to survive the madness.

Chris Prince had decided that he was going to live.

He was a highly trained FBI Agent, but that hadn’t numbed him from his human traits of fear and anxiety. Life was God’s most precious gift. He wasn’t going to throw his away over a hyper sensed sense of duty or arrogance, or stupidity. He had tossed his concealed weapon into a nearby flower arraignment after a counterattack seemed implausible last night. The location was far enough away that if the gun were found that it couldn’t be tied directly to him, yet close enough to make a run at it if his life depended on its use.

Now he knew he wouldn’t reach the weapon in time.

Stanton stalked over him while the women made a perimeter around him. There would be no escape. “Choo are Christopher Prince. Choo are guilty of being a FBI Agent, choo are guilty of being the lone sibling of our sworn enemy, Xavier Prince, and frankly, choo are guilty of being the unluckiest bastard I know.”

“I am.” He carefully said in response. “I am all of those things.”

Luna Belle stepped in front of Stanton in one, smooth motion and pointed the barrel of her automatic weapon at his forehead. “You will come with me.”

“Where,” Chris raised his hands, but struggled to keep fear out of his tone. “Where are you taking me?”

Luna Bell disengaged the safety on her trigger in another smooth motion. “You will get you ass up and you will come with me with no questions asked, Agent Prince, or you will die right here, right now, in front of all these people.”

Morgan said, “Why wait?” And then his voice boomed throughout the great room. “What are you waiting for woman? Kill him now.”

What are you doing, Quincy? Why—

Stanton snorted and joined Chris in rolling his eyes at the other man. “Chiss matter doesn’t concern choo, sir. Obviously we are all under a great deal of stress, but why don’t choo dial it back a notch and try to relax.”

You are beyond incompetent! Serena should have taught you never to make threats that you are unwilling or unable to carry out.” Morgan stood and waved his arms long and wide like a maniac. “The only way to maintain your control over such a large crowd is through fear. You need to do what you say you will do. If you are to kill this man, then do it right now!”

The hostages went into fervor. There were spasms of crying and one woman screamed for her God to save her. Even the two men who Chris had seen engaging in friendly conversation with Morgan earlier, looked at him with trepidation and uncertainty now.

Belle had had enough and turned the barrel of her weapon away from Chris to a newer, slender target. “Shut up.” She cursed Morgan. “Sit down and shut up or I’ll—“

“Kill me?” Morgan’s laughter roared through the ball room, the hallways, throughout the entire Fox Theatre. Perhaps all of Atlanta heard the man mocking these two to their faces. “I am Quincy Morgan, Sargent at Arms of a House in Chains and I am already dead. Do what you will with my remains. I have taken the mark. I have visualized my people’s future and I see days filled with misery and pain.”

Chris studied Stanton and Belle as they breached their own protocols and openly argued about how to proceed in front of all the others. He scanned his perimeter and saw the female guards shifting in their stances as if their boots won’t hold them in place much longer. He prayed that Quincy won’t go for Belle’s gun, but prepares himself to disarm Stanton or whichever of the guards poses the most immediate threat and defend these remaining hostages if this situation continues to erode or die trying.

Stanton announces his decision with a tenacity that dares anyone to challenge his authority. “Cheeze that man,” One of the women guards points her weapon at Morgan’s skull while the other uses the barrel of her gun to nudge him towards the back of the room.

“The rest of you strip down, right now.” Luna Belle commanded.

Stanton raises a brow embedded more in curiosity than in anger as his second ushers the command again with more urgency. “What are choo looking for, Luna?”

“I want to know if any more of our guest have taken the mark.” Belle’s tone takes on a more respectful tone. “We should isolate members of A House in Chains from the rest of our captives and execute them first if our demands aren’t met in a timely manner by the FBI.”

Stanton nods silently in agreement.

Christopher Prince struggled to hold his trembling hands still as he is forced back into sitting position while he watches Stanton and Belle haul Quincy Morgan towards the back of the theatre and the certain death that awaited him out of sight of the others.

One by one the hostages begin to disrobe. They have gone from losing their freedom to losing their hope to now losing their dignity as piles of clothes litter the great room’s floor. Many of them stared up at him as hope for all their very survival dwindled. You were supposed to serve us; their gazes appear to say and burn hot as fire. You were supposed to protect us; their looks beg to say and run cold as ice.

“Do what you must,” Quincy Morgan’s voice falters as he passes nearly out of audible range and at last Chris can no longer see him. “I am unafraid to die. That makes me the most dangerous man in the world.”

That is where you are mistaken, Chris thought, removing his shirt and pants, flinging them angrily into the growing mound on the floor.

He knew that Thomas Pepper, a noted journalist and blogger had christened another with that designation in his last book.

The most dangerous man in the entire world is my brother, Xavier Prince.

Xavier

Calhoun State Prison (Alpha Wing); Morgan, Georgia, 3rd Day

 

Xavier heard a platoon of correctional officers angling down the cold corridors, coming for him at last.

They came for him while he inhaled the last of his Newport, and thumbed through the last chapter of a biography about his father, Isaac Prince, the founder of A House in Chains.

By the sounds echoing down the hall, they came for him in force, so Xavier shelved his book in alphabetical order next to the dozens of others in his cell, exhaled the smoke in one long, blue stream and began undressing. He had an odd sense of déjà vu but couldn’t explain the sensation to himself. He was tugging at his boxers with only his chill bumps to warm him when he heard the master key twisting in the lock allowing his visitors inside.

Xavier showed him his back and spread his arms against the nearest brick wall in preparation to be frisked, his tell tossed. In whatever manner this frisking or tossing was carried to completion was entirely up to the guards. Four inmates had died in recent months under suspicious circumstances here at Calhoun State Prison and Xavier Prince had no wish to add his name to that list.

“Good morning,” Xavier said, his head locked in the forward position.

No one returned his greeting, once again. Instead, he heard a woman’s voice with a throaty tone and carrying an enormous shadow as she instructed her cohorts to toss his cell and pat him down for weapons. He nearly broke his own protocol in an attempt to match the husky voice to a face; women were not uncommon at Calhoun, but to see woman with her sheer size would have been an unexpected treat before breakfast.

One of the guards asked what the need in patting him down was. He was standing in his birthday suit for Christ sake. Xavier kept his eyes trained forward throughout the entire process, but his curiosity made this unusually difficult. The woman stranger asked for his permission to do the deed herself and when he nodded his approval, she did began to feel around his crotch, while one of the other guards went through his belongings scattered around the cell.

“Turn around, Prince.” She commanded after she stepped back to an adequate distance. “My name if Officer Rose Dixon. The new warden, Donald Bright, is expecting to see you in his office in his office immediately.

Rose Dixon:

She was at least 6’4” tall. She was thick of neck, triceps and calves and despite a pleasant enough face and a dirty blonde ponytail, Xavier guessed she was often mistaken for a man.

She was a magnificent specimen; he stood there stamped to this spot as naked as the day he was born and couldn’t take his eyes off of her.

“Warden Bright?” He’d asked after a moment of composing himself.

Officer Dixon shifted her weight in impatience. “In the past 36 hours, Warden Bright received his orders from the State of Georgia, to govern this prison and all the populace that reside inside its walls.” She said in a deep voice. “Warden Fain has been reassigned.” She cut her brown eyes at him. “Reading your file, I’m sure you’re already familiar with the change in power.”

Reassigned or have you gotten yourself fired, Farris, Xavier wondered. She was correct in the assumption that he was privy to the information that she’d shared with him. Yet, The State of Georgia moved Warden Fain out of Calhoun faster than even I thought possible. Good. They’d probably spared themselves thousands of dollars in covering the brute’s funeral sources if he stayed at Calhoun much longer.

Officer Dixon’s dark tone grew sardonic. “If you don’t have any more questions, Inmate Prince, you should get your clothes on. I don’t like to keep the warden waiting.”

“Then let’s go.” Xavier said.

An entourage of eight more guards had been waiting outside the cell and received the four people who stepped into the cold, dark, corridor. Xavier matched their pace until he halted his progress and squatted to speak to an old jailbird who was camped on the floor of his cell. The old man was rumored to be 90 years old and had been in The Georgia Correctional System for over 70 years now. He was blind and nearly deaf and grunted and squealed more than he talked these days. Xavier gave the man a wide smile, “When I return from my visit with the new warden, I want you to tell me another story of your escapades when you ransacked Valdosta when you were a teenager.”

The old man leaned closer, not hearing Xavier, the younger man repeated himself and the old man let out a laugh that would lift the spirits in a graveyard. He said something to Xavier unfathomable, grunted, and laughed again.

Xavier Prince rose to his feet, waved his hand at the old timer and fell in step with his escorts.

Xavier Prince never could say goodbye.

Warden Donald Bright:

He was a well-built man who had high cheek bones, straight teeth, and blonde hair that screamed to strangers that he could have been a successful salesman or second tier Hollywood actor if he had wanted, instead of being a simple prison warden.

He was completing some forms, writing with his left hand when Xavier, Rose Dixon, and two of the guards entered his office, the final guard closing the door behind him without being told. Xavier took a familiar spot in front of the warden’s desk. The office was rectangle shaped, with cracks lacing the walls and floors. There were boxes scattered everywhere. Warden Bright hadn’t had the chance to unpack his belongings yet.

Xavier waited.

After ten minutes, Warden Bright tossed his pen aside, dismissed the remaining two guards with a Louisianan accent, while Rose Dixon took a few giants paces forward and secured herself at the warden’s right side. Another minute passed and finally the younger man acknowledged Xavier’s presence.

“Somehow, I expected you to be taller.” Warden Donald Bright announced. “Sit down, Prince.” Warden Bright waved the back of his right hand towards where Rose Dixon was standing. “I’m sure Rose—I mean Officer Dixon—introduced herself to you already. We must follow those mandated protocols mustn’t we, Rose?”

“Yes, sir,” The large woman actually smiled.

“We’ve served The Georgia State Correctional System together for what…Rose, nearly ten years now haven’t we?”

“Actually 12, sir,” Xavier acknowledged a color in her otherwise pale face and a gleam in Rose’s dull brown eyes that hadn’t existed when she extracted him from his cell. This was more than a working relationship—in her mind at the least.

“My, my, my,” Warden Bright flashed a million dollar smile at her. She melted. “How time flies when you are having fun.”

Xavier needed a cigarette. He crossed his legs and sat back in his chair instead. “You have your own private shield, Warden, how convenient?”

Warden Bright didn’t waste further time denying the obvious. “Rose here has helped me out of some tight spots here and there.”

Rose face shifted back to its normal mode as she folds her arms, eyeing Xavier Prince the entire time. Alright, I get it, you are prepared to defend him against in threat I may pose. If he weren’t scheduled to be released over the next day or two he might…just might…find this new relationship between the three of them interesting. “Why am I here, Warden?” Xavier asked into the room’s silence.

“You are direct, Prince. I can appreciate that, so I won’t delay the inevitable any longer: My predecessor’s formal inquiry concluded that the death by beheading of inmate Michael Davenport and three prison guards could not have been carried out alone by the other two inmates who also perished that day.” He said, looking from one page of the report to another. “You know, I don’t believe it either. At least one, if not two other men were on that floor when this all went down. And somehow the weapon used to cut Davenport’s head off has yet to be found.”

Xavier and Julian Moore sprinted back to their cells while the two bigger men stayed behind and bought them time, dealing with the mass of humanity exiting the mess hall after lunch after Xavier failed to get Intel from Davenport. Xavier wasn’t a praying man, but had stopped by the chapel every day since to pay his respects to all of the men who lost their lives that afternoon.

“How does any of this connect to me?”

Warden Bright slid two black and white photos from his stash of papers over to the other side of desk where Xavier could reach them. Xavier felt his pulse quicken. So he reached, ever slowly for a toothpick from a bottle, stuck it in his mouth, since having a cigarette would be impossible right now and studied the photographs.

Warden Bright was saying, “I find it…interesting…that both of the dead black inmates at the scene wore the mark on their necks, a mark terribly similar to the one tattooed on the side of your neck as well. Help me out here, Prince; the tattoo is of a chain for A House in Chains? Or am I off track here?”

Xavier chewed on his toothpick, studied the photos a minute longer and pushed them back to Warden Bright’s side of the desk. Rose Dixon shifted in her stance. Satisfied in his silence, Xavier sat back in his chair. “Surely, I can’t be held responsible for the violence perpetrated by two deranged individuals,” Xavier said smoothly. “There are millions of People of Color across America who has taken the mark. I’ve met with at least 50 men in this prison alone who have sworn an allegiance to our cause, who have visualized our people’s future.”

“Yes,” Warden Bright said carefully. “They have seen days filled with misery and pain…or so I’ve heard.”

“Anyway,” Xavier continued. “Should I be held responsible for the misdeeds of any man who bears the mark in this prison?”

Warden Bright’s brows curled. “Come now, Prince, and be reasonable. You wouldn’t dismiss this event as if it were mere chance would you?”

“Life is God’s most precious gift.” These were Chris’ words. Xavier’s brother had the gift of expression that he would never have. “Even the life of a lesser form of human like Michael Davenport means something to me, Warden. Still, I’m sure your predecessor’s reports that I was in my cell and otherwise detained when this went down?”

Warden Bright flipped through a few pages…and back again before he finally gave up looking for the specific citation. “21 inmates and four prison guards testified that they saw you in your cell at some point when this carnage was taking place if my memory serves me.”

“Well there you are,” Xavier went to stand, putting this meeting to an end.

“Sit down, Prince.” Warden Bright said with some bile. “There’s more.”

Xavier tugged at his pants legs and sat back in his chair and resumed chewing on his toothpick. We didn’t miss a step in planning our escape back to the cells. Be cool, Prince, and play this man’s game until he is satisfied.

It was Donald Bright’s turn to sit back in his chair. He rocked back and forth and back again until the chair would no longer hold him down. “You do know, as old as Calhoun may be that this prison has a sophisticated surveillance system. What’s unique about this system is that if there are any disruptions in the feed, alarms are set off and those who monitor the system are immediately alerted.”

“A wise precaution,”

“But the most ultra-modern system can’t compensate for tampering. Come over this side of the desk, Prince. I want you to see this.”

Prince slid his petite frame to the opposite side of the desk, to Rose Dixon’s displeasure. “What am I looking at, Warden?”

“Just pay attention to this section here…right behind where the two large inmates were standing, just before they rushed Davenport and beheaded him with, what I’m guessing was probably was a machete.”

Xavier did as he was bid without comment. The video played back showing exactly as Warden Bright…and his own memory recalled. Once Davenport refused to give up the when and where of what turned out to be The 411 attacks in Atlanta, Prince ordered the man killed. Julian Moore, like Xavier, just out of the camera’s visual snapped his finger and brought a guard—who’d taken the mark as well—onto the scene who provided the weapon to behead Davenport.

The two other inmates, a homosexual couple nicknamed Sampson and Delilah, intentionally and voluntarily standing in the camera’s view, stayed behind to distract the coming guards while Xavier and Julian Moore made their escape along a preordained route back their individual cells.

Xavier finally observed what the warden had noticed was off about the playback: A small bird that had flown outside the window and provided a shadow against the bright sunshine of that afternoon.

“You saw it too, Prince.” Warden Bright said. “As I said before, the system is designed to identify any disruption. It can’t compensate for someone intentionally giving it the same feed over and over. The shadow of that bird passing not once but again and again gives that away.”

“I’ve been in this business almost my entire adult life, Prince. I’ve seen it all, or at least I thought I had.” Warden Bright spat. “I‘ve seen inmates kill other inmates or guards out of fear of reprisal, or out of a blind sense of loyalty to a group or cause. I’ve never seen what is going on in the short time I’ve been here. Who are you really, Prince? Who are you to command such respect, authority and even…love from what amounts to strangers blindly doing your bidding?”

In the long term, Xavier Prince had neither the time nor the desire to have a prolonged conflict with this man, but he dared not appear weak in the presence of any Rooster at any time. His time in this hell hole was drawing to a close; he might as well test the waters of release right now. “Fortunately for everyone involved, I will be out of your hair in just under 48 hours. This complex web of influence that you swear that I weave at this facility will be at an end.”

Warden Donald Bright spun around and gazed out of his window into the courtyard and then the highway beyond. “And where will you go, Prince.” All of the enthusiasm of the warden’s discovery had evaporated from his voice. “And what will you do…with so much power?”

Xavier surprised himself by answering. “I’m headed…elsewhere… nowhere…I’ll guess I’ll know when I get there. I’ll always go where I’m needed. I’ll continue to pursue equality and justice for my people.”

The other man spun back around and swiped at the folders on his desk in one motion, and knocked most of them to the floor. He hopped on the floor and flipped again through the mess in hot pursuit of something that Xavier cannot name. Finally, he pinched another photo between his fingertips, Rose Dixon ever present at his side when he stood at full height again.

“This is the photo of Larry Gleason, security guard. He was a husband and a father to three children.” The warden said. “All life is precious, Prince, didn’t we both agree to that point a second ago.”

“We do,” Xavier said in a calm tone. 48 hours, Prince. In two days this entire conversation will be but a footnote to my stay in this Godforsaken place.

“Do we really? Or do you consider Gleason a lesser man like you called Davenport simply because of the color of his skin? Is he—what is the term your people have coined these days—just another…Rooster, just another White Man that rises before any other animal on the farm, searching for a fresh way to keep a Person of Color down and out. ”

“Don’t put words in my mouth, Warden.” Xavier said in a dangerous voice that Rose Dixon caught breath of immediately. “I mourned for his family’s loss like I did all the others involved.”

“He had a mortgage to pay, Prince. He had hopes and dreams. He had three children, for Christ sake.”

Xavier turned on him, his anger rising to the surface like an erupting volcano. “I have two boys as well, Warden.” Just as suddenly Xavier willed his muscles in his neck to relax. He had heard Rose Dixon grab her nightstick and he doubted she would return it to her holster before his visit was completed. “This justice system of yours has stolen fourteen months of my life over trumped up charges of Grand Larceny. Our government is convinced A House in Chains is dealing weapons to Western African nations like Liberia and Sierra Leone for a profit in funding its cold war with Pandora.” He leaned into the warden’s face. Neither man broke eye contact. “They’ve stolen 14 months from my time with my boys, Warden. They needed me out of the way, while Pandora tried to destroy everything my father built.”

Rose Dixon stuck her baton into Xavier’s chest and forced him back.

“You were a lawyer, Prince. You should know that trafficking weapons to foreign agents is illegal under the law.” Warden Bright reminded him.

“As it should be,” Xavier felt a throbbing in his temple come…and subside just as quickly. He sat back down, needing a cigarette more than ever before. “How convenient for your system, that these weapons or all of this cash were never found.”

“Just as the weapon that beheaded Davenport will never be found; or justice brought to the real men who were behind what happened that day ever will be found either.” Bright said with a trace of bitterness in his tone.

The warden chose to remain standing. Rose Dixon planted her large frame in the space between Xavier and the warden.

“What is it that you want from me, Warden?” Xavier asked.

Respect of self,” The warden said with a blank look on his face.

“What?” Xavier asked as the land line rang four times before Warden Bright seemed to acknowledge its existence at all. “What did you say?”

“Those were your father’s words. That was part of his first mandate after he founded A House in Chains all of those years ago.” The phone on the warden’s desk rang itself out. “Respect from family and then respect from the community—“

Xavier heard an urgent banging on the warden’s door.

“I’m busy right now.” Bright shouted in the door’s direction. He never unfixed his gaze on Xavier. “I’ve read both of Thomas Pepper’s books on race relations in this country. I’ve fixed his interviews and subsequent chapters on you to memory.”

“Have you, now?” Xavier asked. “I remember those interviews with Pepper as well. He is a…interesting man.”

Whoever was outside of the door hadn’t left. The voice pleaded with the warden to admit him. For the first time since Xavier sat down in this room, Rose Dixon looked unsure of whether the warden was in full control of himself or the situation at hand.

“Thomas wrote that one of your most compelling traits is that you had a sincere since of honor. He said that you always told the truth.” Warden Bright leaned over his desk. “Why don’t you put this charade and fill in the gaps of what this video doesn’t reveal. Why don’t you tell Rose and me the truth of what really happened that afternoon a couple of weeks back?”

The two men stared at one another a long time—when the prison’s alarm blared.

Xavier Prince and Rose Dixon jumped at the sound. Warden Donald Bright kept his gaze fixed on Xavier, almost oblivious, a bitter smile beginning to grace his lips. He’s cooler than even I am. He truly has ice running in his veins. Circumstance guaranteed that Xavier could never call this man a friend, but he admired the collective way he carried himself. “Did you have Davenport killed?” Bright’s voice was barely audible through the wailing of the alarm. “I want to know if Pepper had you judged correctly.”

Three officers from Xavier’s escort used their passcodes to bypass the lock and let themselves in, their weapons drawn. “My apologies, Warden,” The most senior of the men had blood dripping from a gash of his forehead, and sweat was pouring from his armpits. “We had no idea whether you were in danger or not—“

“It’s alright, Thompson.” Warden Bright said. “What is going on?”

Thompson took a deep breath and steeled himself. “We have an emergency situation up on the third floor. A full-fledged riot is on. We’ve estimated that 70 to 75 percent of Calhoun’s population is loose. Our situation is critical.”

Warden Bright stood, but if he was in panic mode he wore the look of anxiety well. He pulled his jacket off, kneeled at a safe besides his desk, zipped through the combination and produced a nine millimeter pistol. He checked the chamber for rounds, disengaged the safety and tucked the weapon into previously concealed shoulder holster. “Do we know what happened?”

Thompson shook his head. “Most of the details are sketchy as of right now, sir.” The officer seemed to hesitate a second, and Xavier gathered that Thompson was trying to measure what he should say in front of him. “We do know that members of the Black population initiated the hostilities.”

The warden asked for a map of this facility and one of the younger officers thought he remembered where one was. He returned to the office after leaving so quickly that it was difficult for the others to remember that he had exited at all.

“Where can I be of the most use right now, Thompson?”

“Their leader,” Thompson hands a torn piece of paper with the inmate’s name jotted down on it to the warden. “A Julian Moore is asking to meet with both of you on Alpha Wing.”

The warden pats Rose Dixon’s shoulder with his left hand. “Alright, you heard the man. Let’s go, Rose.”

“I’m sorry, sir,” Thompson stepped into their path from exiting the room. “I probably didn’t make Moore’s instructions clear enough. The two of you that the prisoner was referring to was yourself and this inmate, Xavier Prince.”

The warden cursed. Xavier would have sworn on a thousand Bibles that Donald Bright’s skin lost one tone of color at that exact moment. Yet, the man recomposed himself and Xavier saw him working muttering something, working out a plan in his mind.

Warden Donald Bright shook his head, no.

And Xavier noted another sense of déjà vu—at this scene played out eerily similar to his own moment of decision a few weeks back.

“You take three other guards and escort inmate Prince back to his cell.” Bright pointed at the junior man, the one who had fetched the map and had returned to his office so swiftly.

The junior man whose name was Stuckey frowned in confusion. “Sir,”

“You men have your orders. Rose, you and Mr. Thomson are both with me.”

“Yes, sir,” The two said in chorus.

Two hours later, back in his cell, Xavier could hear many pairs of footsteps echoing against the stoned floor. He pulled an unlit Newport from his lips and planted a toothpick in his mouth instead.

Warden Donald Bright had come to his office.

“Julian Moore and about three dozen other inmates, mostly former gang bangers from this group that called their selves the Black Knight, have barricaded themselves up inside Alpha Wing up on the third floor.” It had only been a couple of hours since their meeting, but Warden Bright looked as if he hadn’t slept in days. “They have managed to get their hands on a handful of civilians and are threating to kill them if I don’t meet their demands.” Warden bright caught site of Xavier’s pack of smokes sitting in his shirt pocket shook one of the Newport’s loose and watched as Xavier lit the cigarette for him. Once again, Xavier was reminded that circumstance guaranteed that he could never call this man a friend, but he admired the collective way he carried himself. “Moore’s still asking for you.” The warden said after he exhaled his own long stream of smoke. “They are calling this their great campaign: A Riot’s Last Gleaming or some bullshit like that.” He shook his head dismayed. “I’m willing to provide you with any resource available to me, whatever you need to help free those captives up there.”

Xavier grabbed the prison bars with all of his strength. “Take me to where Julian is, unbounded.” Xavier said. The guards began to mouth a protest, Rose Dixon especially, but Warden bright pointed his cigarette at them with his left hand for silence. Xavier continued when the corridor had quieted enough to be heard. “I don’t know what Julian and his Black Knights are up to, but I give you my word on my father’s grave that I will not try to escape…and I’ll do whatever I can to help you resolve this.”

Xavier Prince was unsure of whatever answers the immediate future held for him. A part of him wanted to pray, but he was unsure of the words that God wanted to hear. And he knew even less what the dreams he’d been having of his father meant though he was sure they meant something important was going to happen to him, and soon.

The one thing Xavier Prince did know for a certainty is that when Officer Rose Dixon approached his cell with the keycard and he heard the bolt unlatch with an audible click, he knew he had heard that revolting sound for the very last time. He could feel it in his marrow. He swallowed hard.

Xavier took his rightful place at the head of the pack, the warden struggling to match his purposeful stride. Rose Dixon hung several paces behind them, with intention, Xavier surmised. She wanted to guard Bright’s life from any enemy that may threaten him. Those threats include me, I suppose.

“You were scheduled for release in a day or so, Prince.” Warden bright doused the cigarette by stepping on it and caught back up with Xavier. “It looks as if that will be impossible now. Look, I’m not ignorant to what is going on upstate in Atlanta right now, The 411; I know how important it must be for you to get home to your city and to your sons.” He paused until they turned the corner where the old timer’s cell was. Prince wanted to stop and speak to the man one last time. “We’re stealing more of your time. What can I offer you as compensation?”

Xavier halted his progress, turned and caught a whiff warden’s dragon breath. “The damage has already been done. Atlanta will keep. And my son’s understand their father’s role in this life.” He took a small step towards the other man. Out of the corner of his eye, Xavier could see Rose Dixon rest her hand on her nightstick once more. “That look of uncertainty and…fear you are wearing on your face is providing me all the compensation that I’ll ever need.” And just like in the warden’s office the two men stared at each other for a long time, until it was Warden Donald Bright who broke eye contact.

Xavier kneeled down to where the old man was usually seated on the floor in the cell nearest to him. He found him sleeping. He didn’t want to disturb the old man, but Xavier was sure he would never pass this way again so he shook him at the shoulder…and then he shook him again. Slightly alarmed, Xavier Prince reached both of his hands through the bars and laid a hand on each side of his neck, measuring for a pulse.

But the old man was dead.

Xavier Prince lay the old man back down, eased his arms and hands from out of the prison bars, got to his feet and straightened his tunic before turning back to face the warden.

“After this is all over, I will pay for this man’s funeral arrangements. There will be no cremation as mandated by this state for inmates who parish while incarcerated.” Xavier said. “I’m holding you personally responsible that my wishes are met.”

“I’ll see to it.”

Xavier twisted back around and began walking towards the stairs, towards his an uncertain destiny and the others followed him in silence.

He didn’t look back at his dead old friend.

Xavier Prince never could say goodbye.

[] el

Fox Theatre (Peachtree Street Command) Midtown Atlanta, 3rd Day

 

“Why in the hell is he here?” Dr. Angel Hicks-Dupree asked Agent Nicholas Sheridan of the man who exited the Chrysler with him a minute ago.

Justin Ryan:

He had grown a pot belly on an otherwise slim frame. He was shitfaced and wore too much moose in his hair, but Angel had to admit he was ruggedly handsome in his silky, black suit.

“Mr. Ryan happened to be on personal business up the street in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Doctor,” Sheridan shot her warning glance for her not to start, not here, not now. “Justin Ryan was The FBI’s Chief Hostage Negotiator for many years and Deputy Director Rice asked to consult here, for him to be a part of this team, like he asked for you to be a part of the team.” He checked his Rolex. “In fact, the director himself should be arriving himself any minute now.”

“Benny Stanton sent us a list with specific FBI personnel that he would not negotiate with. I’m not on this list; this man is at the top of it.” Ryan had extended his hand to her, but she left it hanging there naked and exposed in the morning chill. And if you saw how this man single handily cost lives at Waco you would see my point.

“Stanton or no one else dictates terms here, Doctor.” Angel was unsure whether Sheridan had raised his voice because to be heard over the circling helicopter flying into place, or to make his point of emphasis clear to her. He glanced at the Rolex again. “At first light, Stanton agreed to release several of the oldest women and youngest children in exchange for the talks beginning. Eight people have already walked out of that building alive. I call that progress, Doctor.”

A strong gust of wind whipped through from Peachtree Street, the helicopters’ blades making it all the worse. Angel hugged herself, pulled her hoodie back over her head and hunched her shoulders. “He agreed to those releases as an exercise in good faith, Agent Sheridan. He messaged us that he would begin talking only after one of the individuals he asked for showed up. He’s tied tongued, Sheridan. He’s no dummy. This is sure to provoke him.”

Angel is saved from another round of Sheridan’s undressing as all three of them notice a black Chrysler swerving through the maze of idol police cruisers, government vehicles and barricades until its breaks squeal and two more men exit out each of the back seat doors and a young woman rises from the passenger side. A uniformed APD officer nods at their questions and points them both in the vicinity where this party is bracing themselves against the biting cold.

Angel recognized the older of the two immediately, smiled when the other man’s features became familiar to her, and pitched an educated guess to who the younger woman was.

Deputy Director Rice:

He was pale and thin and wore brown rimmed spectacles and reeked of coffee and cigarette smoke when he shook her hand and passed a container of coffee in her direction. He never took his eyes off of Angel as he shook both Sheridan and Ryan’s hands and patted the latter man on the back with some affection. You haven’t changed a bit, have you, Ray.

Special Agent Romeo Kendall:

He was a panda shaped Black man with a slow right eye and a too lively twitch of his upper lip and he still was wearing a hairstyle better suited for the late 1980’s. He’d been promoted to Commander of the Lead Rescue Team in the past six months, or so Angel’s sources inside the bureau had told her.

Special Agent Tabitha Blue:

She was a skinny brunette in her early thirties with big ears sticking out from underneath the thin hair and she had a noticeable overbite. Angel smiled inwardly that Christopher’s partner was the quintessential girl next door carrying a badge and a gun. Agent Blue referred to Angel as madam and extended her skeleton hand enough for the doctor to squeeze her fingers.

After introductions were made and the stressful reality of the moment engulfed her once more, Romeo’s appearance in particular, caused Angel to reevaluate her surroundings. She’d been involved with enough of these scenarios, both in simulation and in the field, to readily identify what she was seeing. She heard another FBI copter arrive on the scene as she stole a sip of her copter, fighting the cold winds thrashed up because of the copter’s blades.

She knew that each copter served its own unit of three or four agents in the copter itself and another six sharpshooters on the ground. Angel knew that the FBI liked to conduct operations in threes…and over there, just past those pine trees, she saw yet another helicopter had been dispatched and was skimming over the horizon. So there were at least nine if not more sharpshooters sitting, almost invisible around the theater ready to strike when called upon.

In addition, if memory served her, there were Mobile Tactical Teams of Logistics, Intelligence, Communications, and Command Staffs making up the bulk of the personnel squeezing into a one mile radius surrounding the theater as well. Serena, what web have you spun here? Angel had already worked out the theory that the siege part of Stanton’s maneuver here at The Fox Theatre was of his own doing and ad live of the events of 411. However many operatives you have with you, Serena fixed you with the task of indiscriminate killing of everyone inside and then you were supposed to get out. If Stanton somehow managed to survive the next few days or hours in this standoff and extract what he wanted from the FBI, he was likely to die as Serena’s hands for disobeying orders.

She burned Ryan with a look that would have warmed her coffee and cursed him in her mind. One screw up holding a gun and hostages inside didn’t deserve another on the outside holding a bullhorn.

“Sheridan, listen.” Angel grabbed him by the elbow, deciding that now was not an ideal time to breach protocol. I will follow the chain of command. She then shared with the group, through talking directly with Agent Sheridan, her theories about Stanton breaking ranks from Pandora and acting on his own.

“I don’t totally disagree with your assessment, Doctor.” Sheridan said. “That’s Stanton’s MO alright.”

Chief negotiator Justin Ryan finally chimed in. “Is that your final professional analysis of this situation, Doctor.” He spat her title at her. “Or is that some type of psychological analysis of a situation that you have no technical expertise in. What I’m saying is perhaps this is evidence of you letting your emotional investment govern your thought process.”

“No, Justin, that isn’t evidence at all.” She gave him the finger. “This is.”

Ryan snorted and through his hands up. “Son of a bitch,” He said. Raymond, you actually keep people like this on the government’s payroll.”

The Deputy Director downed the last of his coffee and slapped Ryan on his shoulder again. “Calm down, Justin.” He pointed his empty coffee cup at Angel. “And play nice, Doctor.” He then pointed the coffee cup at Sheridan to give him the floor once more.

Sheridan cleared his throat and assumed command. “Each one of you is here because you bring a unique talent and area of expertise to this crisis. I’m going to need a mixture of these talents, expertise and experience to get us through this and ultimately save those people inside that theatre.”

“That is what I’m trying to do.” Angel said. “Forgive me, sir, but we all do remember a little historical blunder called Waco don’t we?”

Sheridan said, “Doctor, please. I don’t think we should—“

“And why shouldn’t we?” Angel folded her arms, drawing her line in sand here and now. She put all of her focus on Ryan so there would be no mistake of who she was referring to. “This man was personally responsible for the firestorm that engulfed the Mount Carmel Center in Texas and the 70 some odd deaths of the Branch Dravidians that resulted from it.”

Ryan tossed the last of his coffee from out of his cup into the breeze, pulled in his gut and bowed his narrow chest out. “Don’t you dare lecture me on what you perceive you know, young lady. I have no regrets for the decisions I made that day. Every action I ordered served a greater peace, a greater security for the country I served and the country I still love.”

“Peace?” Angel cocked a brow at the referenced word. “My father was on the ATF team that had been there for 51 days before the FBI allowed you to run the negotiations.” She heard her voice soften. “My father wasn’t a good man. He was a turd in fact, but he stayed behind for days after the siege ended and helped dig those people’s carcasses out of that rubble. He took those singed images…and the smells of those babies, of your peace, he found to his grave with him.”

“Many lives were lost that day, that’s true. I’ve never denied it. But my focus lies in the days and years that followed since that fateful day. I would give the order again today. I will give the order again today. I will sacrifice every man, woman and child left inside that theatre if it gives some assurances that this situation doesn’t happen again for another 15 or 20 years.” Justin Ryan cursed aloud. “It means that I am doing my job.”

“Hopefully, you will be dead long before an event happens like this again.” Angel said and meant.

That’s enough, both of you.” Rice said in exasperation. He took a deep breath and swiped at his mouth with the back of his hand and made contact with Romeo. “Are all of your people in place?”

“That’s an affirmative.” Romeo Kendall pulled out an architectural blueprint of The Fox Theatre and adjacent buildings and nearby streets. “We have snipers positioned here…here…and here. Their weapons are hot and they only await targets to fall into view and a go.”

The smoky haze that had been an Atlanta trademark over the past few months blew in without little warning. The dry area stirred up a coughing fit from Romeo. He collected himself, said, “Two mobility units are stationed on the upper southeastern edge of the structure. They are lightly armed and as their name imply and are extremely mobile. They are moving into place and await further instructions as you and I speak, sir. Our three helicopters have jurisdiction over the skies for the mandated six miles out. No one will enter this zone. That means limited media coverage. That also means that if Stanton has some visual of what is going on out here, it won’t be a panoramic enough view to give away our movements. Even if he has an escape route mapped out of this theatre of operations, pardon the pun, we will be able to pinch him and finally take him down.”

The Deputy Director nodded, pleased. “Excellent work, all of you.”

Angel felt a tingling in her neck, as if she’d been stuck by a bee signifying her defeat. She faced Ryan down. “So what is your plan?”

“Bob Tate is speaking by phone right now with Stanton. He is acting as if he were leading the ‘dummy’ negotiations as that little shit inside that building wanted.” Ryan spoke to the group. “In the meantime we’re going to allow those inside that building a little downtime. Let Stanton bask in the glory of letting him believe he is in control here. Let’s let him take a little breath while we let him gain a false sense of security. More importantly, we’ll wait on darkness to fall over the city.” He then, with a purpose, found Angel’s eyes and took two steps towards her. “And then we’re going to gas everyone inside, have Commander Kendall’s people storm the building and take back what is ours.”

Angel cursed. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”

Ryan countered. “It’s the only way to be sure.”

Angel’s big brown eyes pleaded with the group of five who had gathered on this chilly, smoky afternoon with her on Peachtree Street. “Does anyone else think this is a bad idea?”

When no one spoke up initially Angel snorted and kicked at a rock with her boot. Romeo Kendall searched the sky for guidance, found what he was looking for and spoke up. “The agents on the roof are scheduled to blow a hole in the theatre wall and pump sleeping gas to incapacitate the terrorist.” He looked at her with his one good eye, but spoke loud enough for it to be intended for the group. “The gas is an odorless, invisible proxy we modeled after an ingredient we lifted off the Russians a few years ago.” He squeezed Angel’s shoulders with some affection. “It’s a good plan, Angel. And it gets better.” He released her and turned back to his superior, Deputy Director Rice and the others. “We are coordinating our efforts with a specialized force that have entered the sewers and narrow underground shafts and are setting up listening devices.” It was time for Romeo to check his watch…or better yet a stopwatch. “In about an hour we’ll have those systems online. We will be able to hear and any and all conversations that are going on in there. More importantly, we will also have the ability to ascertain a better estimate to our enemy’s exact numbers, the condition of the friendlies, and exactly where in the hell everyone inside is located.”

Sheridan said, “There will most certainly be civilian casualties, Doctor. We’ve taken every necessary step to keep those numbers at a minimum.”

“I know that you believe that you have, Agent Sheridan.” Angel said. This is a damned foolish thing that you all are doing here, a damned foolish thing. She tried another angle. “And what if they spoil your perfect little scenario and throw off your timing by not waiting through your downtime. What if Stanton loses his patients and starts killing people before dark.”

“He won’t.” Justin Ryan said with an absolute certainty. “He could have killed every poor bastard in there and been on his way hours ago, before anyone arrived to stop him. The man wants something. I know this. So do you. Another few hours is not going to make one helluva difference to him.”

Angel let out a curt, maddening laugh. “This is insane.”

“It is,” Sheridan agreed and looked at Agent Blue, who looked as if she wanted to say something. “But it looks as if it is our best shot… if you have something constructive to add, Tabitha?”

“Respectfully, I do, sir.” Agent Blue shifted in her stance. “We all believe my partner, Special Agent Christopher Prince, is amongst those being held inside. I believe that I’ve worked with the man long enough to know that he would be asking some of same questions that Doctor Hicks-Dupree is asking if he were out here with us. Are these risks we are all taking worth the price those inside may be asked to pay?”

Just as Angel breathed a sigh of relief for someone bringing sanity to the conversation she heard Justin Ryan answer for Sheridan. “They are, Agent Blue. Yet, the doctor’s point is a good one. What if Stanton enacts some type of offensive before sunset? That’s why we can’t afford to waste any more time. Ray, I need to finalize a couple more details with Commander Kendall—“

“One last point,” Angel waited for either Raymond Rice or Nicholas Sheridan to give her the slightest hint that she would be allowed to go on. The Deputy Director ran his fingers through his hair then glanced out of the corner of his eye, one last point, Doctor, it seemed to say.

“I want each of you to think about the political ramifications of what you are proposing.”

“I’ll take that one, Doctor.” The Deputy Director said. “The world and more importantly to me, the citizens of this city are watching every step of this process. As a governmental agency, we must strike at a subsidiary of Pandora with as much vehemence as we would if A House in Chains or the revival of The Black Panther Party, Branch Dravidians, or any other extremist militant group would.”

“And by definition, these people holding those captives inside are our people.” Agent Blue said with an air of venom that gave Angel another chill. “I’ve heard through the grapevine, that Stanton recruited women as pawns to help take this building. Many of these women went through the FBI Training Program with me. They are traitors to their country and to us as an agency. Ultimately, it should be up to people like us to decide their fate.”

“I understand that, Agent Blue. But what if the Black community,” She corrected herself when Romeo flashed her one evil eye. “What if People of Color views the FBI’s actions the opposite way of what your true intentions are?”

Sheridan cocked a bushy brow, appearing more fascinated with her question than annoyed with it. “How do you mean?”

“What if they view this as a hyper active action that disregards the lives of their citizens?” It was her turn to give Romeo a devilish look. “It is a group that looks out at the world and sees it undervaluing the lives of People of Color already. What if you all are all wrong, what if all of this planning is truly a grave mistake in judgment of our parts?”

Sheridan blew out a breath he’d been holding. “Then, we will have to live with it.”

Justin Ryan nodded at Sheridan, then face downed his old friend Raymond Rice. “Ray?” He got The Deputy Director’s attention. “I’ll fall on the sword if this one blows up in our faces. All I need for you to do is sign off on granting Commander Kendall’s men the right to use any necessary force he deems necessary. The public will learn only what we choose to disclose to them. The public thinks they understand that types of terminology like provocation, escalation, and prevention, terms that we work under everyday of our lives.” He turned his full gaze on Angel. “They don’t know a damned thing. That’s why I am here young lady. I’m going to give them a quick lesson in how to deal with extremism.”

Angel ignored Ryan and turned her attention and focus on The Director of The FBI instead. “Christopher Prince is inside that theatre. I can feel it. He’s more than just your federal agent. He’s my friend. I don’t want him to die.”

Rice said, “He is all of that, Doctor. Special Agent Prince has served this agency with honor and distinction on more than one occasion. And though I don’t know him personally, I hear from people like Sheridan and Blue here, that he is an even better man, which is obviously just as important. Still…he understands what he signed up for…”

Sheridan allowed the silence to have its moment as a smoke filled wind shifted yet again. Will this drought ever end plaguing Atlanta ever end? “Time is not our ally, sir. If you ae going to give Mr. Ryan and Commander Kendall their authorizations then the time is now.”

Angel’s head went on a swivel, intently watching all of those involved as a collective and eventually as individuals.

And then she only found eyes for the One.

The Deputy Director of The FBI opened his mouth…and closed it again.

Sheridan said, “Sir?”

Justin Ryan said, “Ray?”

Raymond Rice looked as if all of his remaining years he had left on this planet had been sucked up into a vacuum and dumped into the look he had on this face when he finally to spoke aloud for all the others…and Angel specifically to hear.”

“Do it,” He said.

[] Chris

Fox Theater (Central Concert Hall) 3rd Day

 

They came for the hostages under the cover of darkness.

Special Agent Christopher Prince heard the FBI blow open holes in the ceiling twenty feet behind him. He felt the theatre tremble as another hole opened up in the distance to his far right. And finally, with a spectacular eruption of both light and sound within 20 feet of his line of sight, he received his final signal that the cavalry was seconds away from arrival.

One way or the other, the third day of The Siege of the Fox Theatre would be its last.

We are on a stage here, thought Chris. Shall we dance, ladies?

Chris struck one of the women guards with a lethal chop at the nape of her neck when she was distracted by all of the commotion. Chris had never struck a woman before in his life, even while performing his duty, and for an odd instance in time the woman’s collapse shook him. Even though that his very life may depended on his actions…and actions still to come, he realized that he’d crossed a threshold that he would never be able to return from.

Chris didn’t let that fact hold him back.

A second guard had recovered from her initial surprise long enough to get her semiautomatic pointed in his general direction. He sprinted at full speed towards her, used his momentum to slide beneath where she was standing and snapped a bone in her left leg, while dislodging her firing weapon from her grip in one swift motion. He had kicked himself back on feet in a split second. He balanced his frame and the accursed added weight around his middle on one leg, while crushing the soft tissue around her throat with the other.

Chris bent over, winded and cursed himself for his damned gut slowing him down. My lapses in discipline in maintaining healthy eating habits over that past few months may cost me everything today.

Chris took a deep breath and got to his knees, semiautomatic in tow and nearly crawled from room to the next as he caught the scent of tear gas that was beginning to sting his eyes. The fountains, Chris stood erect, taking his chance with inhaling more teargas for the sanctuary of the fountains on the far side of this area. He washed his face while the water flowed over his baldness down into his shirt. At least Luna Belle had enough decency to allow us all to redress after she’d discovered a dozen more of the hostages who had taken the mark and were segregated from the other People of Color.

Chris whipped his head around in time to see scores of Mobility Team members swinging in on ropes to the floor level. If these guys were the local unit, then they were Romeo Kendall’s boys and he knew personally how damn well trained they were. He knew he was going to be in a tight spot trying to escape this place in one piece, but felt better in his gut that these men were going through the hellfire with him. Bless you, Romeo. He took a quick glance behind him. I owe you one.

Kendall’s unit was making relative short work of a half dozen female guards over by the East Wing. A couple of the desperate women even grabbed a hostage or two as a human shield, but Chris saw the sniper’s red beams, death rays as bureau guys sometimes called them, light up an inch or two of the female’s foreheads, as a deadly round of gunfire followed in haste. One hostage dropped with his kidnapper and Christopher’s heart sank…only to watch the middle aged woman roll herself off of the dead Pandora Agent, and resume running away, screaming.

This wasn’t supposed to be a prolonged event at all, Chris surmised, watching the females being shot to death, one by one, soul by soul. Stanton’s people weren’t inept; they were ill equipped to deal with a prolonged siege, or the probable federal incursion because of that siege.

I don’t need any more motivation to find and bring you to justice, Stanton. He thought. But your moronic thought process that brought this unnecessary loss of human life…this rapture, as Chris sometimes called it, upon us all makes you all the more expendable.

Special Agent Christopher Prince arrived near the booths that housed the ticket box office near the front entrance. What he saw there sickened him. He saw the first casualties of the siege three days earlier and the odor reeking from the bodies punched him the gut as well. At least ten People of Color had made a quick dash for this exit when Pandora’s gunfire intentionally drove the herd of humanity in towards the dead end. The exits had already been chained and when the people had panicked after learning of it, they’d reversed course and ended up here, in this room. Stanton had the carcasses piled in an undignified matter, one on top the other.

The air around Chris grew thicker with tear gas. He could find no more water fountains or anything else for that matter, to shield his self against the fumes. Chris suffered through spells of choking and coughing that took turns gnawing at his ability to move or concentrate. Sporadic gunfire could still be heard from the other wings of the building. The cries coming from the mouths of the victims had elevated itself to being the most dominant…the most tedious noise most of all. He held his weight up with one hand against a door’s opening, while he used his other hand to cover his nose and mouth with a scarf he’d picked up off one of the dead bodies. How many more will die tonight before this madness had run its course.

And then for the first time, since this rapture had begun, Chris wondered exactly where Luna Belle and Quincy Morgan were. Was the Sargent at Arms of a House in Chains and brother’s third in command still alive or—

Someone or Something struck him over the back. The object, thankfully, turned out to be weighty and not sharp and didn’t tear into his skin as well. He twisted his torso as quickly as the pain and his added weight allowed him to allow his vision quicker access to his attacker or attackers. I can still dance with you, bastard. Chris back hurt like hell. Please let it be only a single attacker, he prayed. Even in his weakened state he should at least be an equal for any of the female guards that may have survived the assault team’s initial onslaught.

But Agent Christopher Prince’s luck did not hold.

Benny Stanton had found him.

Chris searched high and low for the weapon that had been knocked away from his possession when Stanton had struck him in the back.

He rummaged in front and behind him for a possible retreat to allow himself a minute to inhale some clean oxygen through his lungs so it would flow up into his brain, so he could gather his thoughts and retool his strategy from retreating and surviving to how to launch an impressive counteroffensive.

He searched for a sign that he would receive absolution from all of his past sins.

All he found was that Benny Stanton had killed a Mobility Team member and was wearing his head gear, which insulated the other man’s lungs from the poison of the tear gas. Stanton would enjoy having enhanced vison thanks to the Virtual Vision Technology installed in each of those helmets as well. And my predicament on gets worse from here, he crouched into combat position, he’s in ex ATF Operative, meaning he’s received at least the same amount of combat training that I have. And worse of all, the bastard was in shape and wasn’t carrying around a spare tire around his middle.

With the odds weighed against him, Christopher Prince stepped on the dance floor first, hurling himself at Stanton. That was a bad move. Stanton used Chris’ own momentum to throw him against a row of chairs to the near side of the ticket concession stands. It didn’t take rocket science, or his personal doctor, for Chris to instantly know that his already aching back had been damaged further. There was a tingling sensation in the thigh areas of his right leg that was nothing to write home about either.

Piss on you,” He screamed at Stanton.

“I’m going to kill choo.” Stanton replied back.

“Why don’t you come over here and let me untie that twisted tongue of yours, Stanton.” Chris picked himself off of the floor. “I’ll be happy to do it for choo.”

Mocking Stanton had at least succeeded in angering Stanton to the point of the other falling into stupid mode. He pulled the helmet aside and threw it at Chris, who easily side stepped it. Stanton dove at him with an attack that was part clumsy part stiff.

Chris sprinted at Stanton and made his second attempt at a slide and tackle that had worked successfully on one of the female attackers a few minutes earlier. Stanton didn’t leave his leg as exposed and vulnerable as the woman did…and the other man tried to counteract Chris move with a slide tackle move of his own.

Chris won the war of attrition. He got to his feet faster than either man would have thought humanly possible. He used Stanton’s frame for partial balance and unleashed a left jab and then right cross that returned the tactical advantage back to Chris…at least for the moment.

Whether it was from Chris’ punches or tear gas beginning to wear on him, Stanton withered more quickly than the special agent might have hoped or prayed for. This had better work, our song is nearly done. Chris called up the last of his energy reserves and let a series of lefts and rights that found their targets on Stanton’s cheeks, jaws, lips, eyes, and nose.

And then Chris spun in a 180 degree circle and unleashed a judo kick maneuver he’d saved for last.

And the dance, at last, was at an end.

Chris didn’t get to enjoy the fruits of his labor, however. He collapsed on top of Benny Stanton. He fought off unconsciousness with every fiber of his being, as he had fought for his life since the sun had set in Atlanta’s evening sky.

He fought off the memories of being taken by Louis Keaton all of those years ago.

Chris cried. He lost all control of his muscles. He threw up. Well…at least…my back…has…stopped hurting…

And yet his eyes focused long enough to see Quincy Morgan.

The unmistakable silhouette of the member of The Circle walked with some urgency over on the Westside of the room. Or are my eyes…or mind…playing tricks on…me. A second figure slowly came into full focus, one that was even more slender and far more feminine than the first one. It was Luna Belle. He was certain of it. Unless you two…have joined me…in eternity, he thought.

Belle had a long butcher knife in her hand and repeatedly tried to stab Morgan with it. She swiped at his sternum, at his face, and finally at his throat. As he dodged each blow his grin he was wearing on hip lips only widened. He possessed no weapon of his own, except his own extremities of long legs and arms, but he seemed content to prolong his own dance a while longer.

Belle gritted her teeth and left her feet as she pushed at an area she’d targeted between his eyes with all of her strength…and failed.

Morgan had knocked the knife harmlessly to the floor.

And what…will…you do with your…victory, Quincy?

Morgan had lost his smile and mouthed something that Chris could only dream to articulate considering this distance…and his worsening condition.

Morgan glanced in his direction for a single moment in time, then moved with quickness and agility of a born acrobat, flipped behind Belle, landed at her heels, grasp her slender neck with his left hand and snapped bone after bone in it with his right.

Luna Bell’s body collapsed.

Quincy Morgan glanced in his direction one final time.

And then Christopher Prince saw angels.

And then he saw at least one Angel.

“Christopher. Christopher.” The Angel he’d know so very long was speaking, her big brown eyes nearly tearing up. “Thank, God, you’re alive! You are alive.”

And he believed it for certain when the spasms of coughing and choking worked him over again. Don’t complain, Chris, it could have been far worse. In addition to his back being sore as hell, his legs, side and his chest were burning as well.

A medical team full of faces he recognized moved him further away from the theatre out into the open air. He reasoned that it was the only way he could have made it there. “What are you doing here?” He smiled, thankful for gift of painless lip and mouth. “And what have you screwed up this time?”

Chris best friend in the entire world laughed in spite of herself. And fresh tears threatened to fall from her eyes. Through all that the woman had been through, he’d never seen her cry before.

“I haven’t gotten into trouble yet,” She rubbed his cheek. “But the night is still young and so am I.”

Chris caught her hand and gave it a couple of long squeezes. She must have noted the seriousness etched in his face, the agent in him filtering through, so she gives him the edited version of this genesis of this operation that had extracted him and the hostages from The Fox Theatre. She told him how Romeo Kendall’s plan evolved from the way the FBI initially conceived it. Agent Nicholas Sheridan, in the overseer over field operations, thought that using the specialized gas they’d taken from the Russians probably was a dangerous overreach. For that plan to have worked, everyone and I do mean everyone would have had to unconscious at the same time, or Chris realized that any captor remaining conscious would have panicked and started killing hostages as a preemptive measure for a likely incursion from FBI and ATF agents.

Out of the corner of his eye Chris saw his partner Tabitha Blue approaching. She halted her progress at a respectful distance, stuck her hands in her pockets and allowed the two friends to complete any private conversations they were having, Blue being Blue, he used some of his reserve strength to beckon her closer.

“You are a sight for sore eyes, Tabitha.”

She kneeled next to him. “I’m glad to see you made it, partner.”

Chris knew this personal exchange was Blue’s equivalent of crying. If Angel had a tough exterior then Blue was made of steel. No matter how many more years they might work together he doubted he’d ever break through to see what feelings Tabitha Blue might have buried on the other side and that was fine by him. Though he suspected that his partner looked at the FBI like her family, and took the desertions into Pandora personally

“So this was all Justin Ryan’s master plan, huh?” Chris asked. “He’s a son of a bitch alright. I can just imagine he and the good old doctor got along just fine, while I was busy right, Blue?”

Blue flashed her overbite and nodded. “Perfectly,”

“Tell me you didn’t try to intimate him, Doc?”

Angel matched Blue with a smile of her own. “Yeah, well, someone had to keep him straight.”

“Waste of time, Doc,” Chris took a deep breath and tried to mask the pain he was feeling from two very important women in his life. “Don’t you know you can’t intimidate a man who has raised seven daughters?” He said as his memory continued to unclog he asked, “I had one helluva run in with Stanton, did he—“

“Well, that explains all the bruises on this face. Anyway, he’s dead.” Blue said without emotion. “Somehow he survived his fight with you long enough to pick himself up and shot right between the eyes by one of the Mobile Team members.”

But how could have that happened? Stanton had been unconscious just as Chris had been. Federal training or not, Biology is biology, so he couldn’t have recovered fast enough to become a menace again. And if Stanton had gained consciousness even for a few minutes, he would have finished me off.

What?” Blue wanted to know. “You look as if you’ve seen a ghost or something, Chris.”

“Yeah, it was probably a ghost or something to that effect,” He agreed, then shook his head to get further cobwebs out. “Luna Belle was his second in command. Have the medics recovered—“

This time it was Angel’s turn to nod. “Yea, they’ve recovered something alright. The medical examiner is unclear yet on how she broke her neck but she had a bullet hole in her forehead as well.”

He wanted to know if what he’d seen had been accurate. I’m not going to put my voice to any official report about the last moments in there until I’m clearer about what I saw.

Suddenly exhausted, Chris turned away from both women as if the conversation has zapped away the last of his strength, which in truth, it has.

And then he saw body bags.

He saw piles and piles of body bags.

“How many,” He asked without turning back to face them. He knew that Catherine, the woman of Indian descent who had been his date, who he was responsible for protecting, was one of those lying dead in one of those body bags. And he couldn’t even supply the medics her damned last name.

Blue Answered. “At least 18 confirmed civilian casualties, but expect that number to grow in the coming days by at least another handful. If you count both Stanton and Belle, then 14 Pandora agents also perished, while I know personally that two of Commander’s Kendall’s men bought it as well, while a third clings by a thread as we speak.”

Damn.

The human part of him…the part that defied death, at least for another day, selfishly turned his thoughts away from the dead and dying to…his own little world. Chris had to admit he was looking to getting home to his condo for a warm shower and a meal after a debriefing from Sheridan and a mandatory visit to a company doctor.

And yet, he felt the need to answer some of the unanswerable questions, especially before he made any official statements to Sheridan. What really happened to Benny Stanton and Luna Belle? Was he dreaming or hallucinating when he saw Quincy Morgan kill Luna Belle, did the man have something to do with shooting either one of them? For now, at least, he was forced to swallow those questions, especially in front of the partner, Tabitha Blue.

Chris personal cell phone buzzes. What? How and when did I get my phone back? Cell phones and any and all other means of communication were taken by Stanton’s people as soon they had secured the theatre as their very own. His screen was telling him that he had multiple messages awaiting his password to retrieve them.

I’ll add this to the list of mysteries I have to solve, he thought. And as thrilled as he as that he had recovered his personal cell phone, he hated loose ends even more passionately. Wincing in pain, he lay flat on his back and handed his phone to Angel and gave her the ten word password that put a smile on her thick lips.

“It’s wonderful that even after all these years, that you still honor your father’s memory.”

“Yea,” He said looking for a quick change of subject. “Angel, scroll back at far as you can to see who left the last message or two.”

“Sure.” She did as he had asked her, then handed the phone back to him without reading the actually message itself.”

He read three messages; two were from his personal doctor, who he had missed the follow up with today with the message saying that it was vital that he spoke with him at Chris’ earliest convenience.

And yet it was the latest text, sent nearly 24 hours ago, that parted Special Agent Christopher Princes’ lips into a visible O and rewarded him with a new pain in his gut and around hit heart. This evenings plans of returning to his condo for a shower and meal would need to be on hold, as well at visit to the company doctor… and even Sheridan’s debriefing would have to be rescheduled.

The message said:

On the day that you escape The Fox Theatre Siege, meet me at 2:00 AM in Piedmont Park. Come alone. Your prudency and cooperation are appreciated in this manner. And your stepdaughter’s life may depend on it.”

FBI Special Agent Christopher Prince searched for a sign that he would receive absolution for all of his past sins.

After he read the text again, he now wondered if that sign would ever come.

Episode 2 Deliverance

Chapter Four

SHOOTER: I have an unobstructed visual of contact. I am awaiting the authorization to terminate contact.

COMMAND: Negative, Shooter. Hold your fire. I say again that you are to hold.

SHOOTER: Contact is moving expeditiously. She will be out of my range in 8…7…6…

COMMAND: Shooter, you are to hold, damn you…Alright. We have been given the authorization for immediate termination of Contact. Kill her now.

SHOOTER: You re authentic authorization has been received and acknowledged. The termination of Contact is commencing—

-Danielle Rohm speaking with an unidentified Pandora Agent on a secured wireless transmission on April 3

Roxanne

Piedmont Park; Midtown Atlanta, 4th Day

 

Using the cover of darkness, she could have killed Special Agent Christopher Prince when he entered Piedmont Park from the south entrance without scanning the shadowed area off and to the right of him, or when he failed to glance in the silhouetted spectrum of corridors above his head when he passed under the water slide, or when he walked too close to peach trees boarding the skating rink.

He appeared to be alert, especially considering it was 1:00 am and the hell the man had suffered through over the past 36 hours. In fact, other than favoring his lower back when he walked, Roxanne Sanchez thought that Chris looked no worse for the wear, at least on the surface. Still, she needed him to be sharp both mentally and physically, with the horrors she was bringing to his life.

She had sent him a series of texts after she was certain that he had finally opened the first one and he had followed her instructions to the letter: Come alone. After you pass underneath the standing area beneath the skating rink, wait ten minutes, and approach the kiddies’ playgrounds from over by the bicycle trails. Sit in the swing that is farthest to the right. This will position you in a wide open space and protects both of us from ambush. I will approach you from the merry go round. Do not get up from the swing. Do not attempt to call me.

Roxanne Sanchez:

She was a coffee-colored, shapely Latino in her mid-thirties. She had dark shoulder length hair and dark eyes, a crooked nose and black lips stick on thin lips that curse words seemed to flow from between them far too often. Or so her mother had said. She’d paid too much for her body spray, her selection of panties was too risqué, her boots too long and her slacks hugged her hips far too tightly. Roxanne knew this and didn’t give a damn what anyone thought of her or her choice of attire.

She used a long fingernail of her index finger to chip away at the bark from a tree trunk, while she stole a panoramic view of the entire park. Piedmont had been grand enough to host an Olympic celebration all those years ago, and yet had remained small enough to retain a good measure of its intimacy. Mayor Ernestine Johnson had been the latest of Atlanta’s Mayors to use tax revenue to refurbish most of the picnic areas, plant new trees and spice up the other shrubbery, and extend three of the walking and bike trails.

And now she was dead.

Two men were out for a late night jog in the murky air. How are you two standing to breathe this air? They seemed to circle back towards her and she lifted the cell out of her back pocket with one hand to check the time. It read 12:45AM back at her. She rested her other hand on her gun that was sitting in the holster inside her jean jacket. Don’t corner me; she silently spat the words at them. If I’m enough of a monster to place this steel at the temple of two innocent little girls and threaten to kill them both, then what would I do to you two?

When Roxanne left the bureau training program for her gig in private investigations, she first took on work where she could get it: She found an unfaithful husband in Albany, uncovered how a shady business was cheating its customers in Montgomery, and investigated faulty disability claims all over Louisiana, while brokering her services for one of the state’s most prestigious insurance companies. As both her reputation and bank account grew she ventured further away from her childhood home of Atlanta.

Six months later Roxanne finally settled in one of the small border towns near El Paso, Texas, doing some missing person’ s investigations on both sides of The Rio Grande. Most of these were simple runways cases.

She began working with a Mexican Police Chief after a couple more months, sharing professional duties during the day…and falling in bed with him during the night.

Victor Castillo:

He was a 35 year old brown skinned man. He had a slim but muscular torso, a bald head and spoke with a deep, raspy voice. Roxanne found him to be the ultimate study in contrast…the moon and the sun, the squall and the tranquil… the darkness and the light. He and his partner Gonzales fought injustice, or at least their vision of it, with a steel hand of viciousness and ruthlessness that almost…frightened her.

Yet, he could be so very tender when he touched her. She told herself that she didn’t love him. She didn’t need his love. Those feelings were left reserved for a man back home that she could never have. Victor, however, was a man of vices like most men who were cursed with them: He liquored too much, puffed like a chimney on his Cuban cigars and gambled at craps and poker and roulette. Vices had destroyed Roxanne’s her father and her only sister. No, she reminded herself, Rachel’s addictions ruined her life for sure, but it was Dr. Angel Hicks Dupree killed her. She had vowed to never forget the woman’s role in Rachel’s demise.

And someday Roxanne Sanchez would make the good doctor pay for her sins against her family.

As for Victor, Roxanne had been content with his company, his silly serenades in her ear as they showered, his rock hard abs, and the way he held her lower back in place when he cojamosed her from behind. One night, after a particularly intense session of lovemaking she noted the look in his dark eyes that told her that he’d crossed his own private border, although his pride did not allow him to verbalize it to her. He did say in that raspy voice: I know that you are a big girl, Senorita, but always watch your back when you are down here…down below. Never allow yourself to dip in Cartel business…ever. You Americans think you understand them, but you don’t. You think the cartels are about weapons and drugs or money…no, they are about property. The cartels are not satisfied until they own your body, your soul; they want to own all of you.

She rolled on top of him and showed appreciation for his concern for the rest of the night until she serenaded him with moans of her orgasm.

For 30 more days her days were productive and profitable and her nights for a passion and pleasure.

On the 31st day she met a man who would change her life forever.

Julio Vargas:

He was a pie faced, pallid colored Mexican man who wore a toupee to cover his naked scalp, a thick moustache covered his top lip, and he looked as if he had been well fed to this point of his middle aged life.

He sat on his lush couch and told Roxanne that one of local cartels had kidnapped his two oldest daughters who were only 14 and 12 years old. Vargas’ wife gnawed at her fingernail and burst into tears when her husband had mentioned the girls ages.

Lying in bed together later that night, Victor told her that by now the girls had been repeatedly raped and even worse had been branded with the cartel seal on the nape of their necks. Vargas fronts as a small time business man but behind the scenes he’s a hood who deals guns for the cartels. He’s not very good at either one. And his accountant is a moron. He’d gotten pretty deep in the red for them to take the females though. Still, Vargas served as an unofficial mayor of a small village of about 50 families or so just west of where they were now. They call it the Hill. Those villagers depended on Vargas to maintain peace with the cartels. He finished by telling her that whoever the cartels regional leader was he considered the debt paid in full now. Victor had gotten to his feet then, his vice of Bourbon calling him from her bed. The girls are property now, Senorita, he had said as if the manner was a matter of fact and nothing else. This man who Roxanne had given herself to could be a study of contrast, of darkness and light. Vargas only called on you to save face in front of his wife for his screw up. He can’t take his girls back even if he wanted to. Besides…he had turned and became one with the shadows, but his voice rasped the truth out at her…he still has three other daughters left.

So Roxanne poked her head in a few doors for a few days and knocked on a few more…to play the game with Vargas was playing with wife…or so she told Victor.

In actually, she was twisting arms and bashing skulls in the way that her lover had shown her over her tenure down here.

Roxanne should have heeded Victor’s warning.

She found them. And within an hour or so of their discovery she’d snuck them off of the compound without setting off an alarm or firing a shot. She brought the girls back to Vargas at his home, his wife running as fast as her weight allowed her to greet her children in the foyer. Two of Vargas’ men wrestled Mrs. Vargas to the ground before she could touch their faces. Roxanne heard the woman’s shoulder pop when her arm hit the tiled floor.

Vargas stood motionless. He looked surprised. The surprised bled into a pained expression. The pained expression died a fast death and anger replaced it.

This is cartel property. He pointed a fat finger, one for each daughter. Take them back from where you found them.

Mrs. Vargas’ grief took her back to the tile as she screamed for all who were the house to know her displeasure, to share a mother’s misery.

When Roxanne didn’t immediately move, Vargas’ men stepped in the girls directions to follow his instructions themselves.

That is when Roxanne had put her gun to the temple of the oldest girl and pressed the head of the other so tightly against the first, that when she squeezed a round off the younger girl would likely share her sister’s fate.

You know not what you do here. Tears dropped from Vargas’ eyes where they had been absent when he told Roxanne of these same girls’ abductions days earlier. They are the cartel’s property. You do not damage cartel property. And then he added: I have three other daughters

She backed out of Vargas’ residence…and out the country without another word and stuck the girls with a family in a remote corner of the world where they would never be found.

24 hours after she left Vargas the cartel’s incursion into the Hill began. Those 50 families or so were slaughtered and the Hill was burned to the ground.

Roxanne Sanchez never saw Victor Castillo, or heard his silly serenades in her ear or any of the rest ever again.

He did send her a text in the same manner that she’d sent Christopher Prince earlier tonight. It said:

You did not heed my words, Senorita. You dipped your hands in cartel business. Someday, when the time is right, Gonzales and I will stop what we are doing here…and find you.

I will see you suffer for what you have done here down below.

I will see you suffer before your end.

The two men had jogged past her without incident. She noticed sweat on her brow even though the night was cool and crisp. She pulled her cell out of her back pocket and it said 1:00 AM. She got her boots beneath her and walked towards the swings where Chris was seated.

“Sanchez?” Chris said and it warmed her heart that he would remember her face so quickly. It had been 6 years now. “Roxanne Sanchez, my God, is that you?”

“It is, Chris.” He stood up from the swing and found his footing in the loose sand. “How are you?”

He nodded his bald head once, made a quick sweep of the park with his eyes and then settled his focus back on her. “I’m good, or at least I thought I was. Look, our line of work has taught me not to believe in coincidences. I’ve been casing this park for the better part of 45 minutes. It’s 1:00 AM in the morning. Except for those two men I saw jog past you a few minutes ago, there isn’t anyone else here.” She watched his gaze turn serious, his opaque skin beautiful in the full moon’s light. “It was you who have been sending me the text messages. It was you who asked me here. What in the hell is going on here, Roxanne? What is the meaning of all this and what does it has to do with my step daughter?”

Roxanne pulled her hoodie up over her ears and stepped closer to him. She needed to gage his reactions to the news she was about to tell him about. Never again will I allow lives to be lost because I failed to judge people correctly. “Chris, your step daughter is missing?”

“Erica? And when did this happen?” He rubbed at his nose and mouth and she heard him whistle. “And if this is true at all, how did you become involved?”

She didn’t blink. “Your ex-wife hired me about two weeks ago.”

“Denise hired you a couple of weeks ago, that means that Erica has supposedly been missing even longer than that.” Even in the faint light, Roxanne could see his naked brow curl in hurt and anger. “And I’m just hearing about this tonight. Yea,” He nodded. “This would be very typical of how my ex-wife conducts her business.”

Roxanne let Chris stew in his anger for a minute or two. The night’s air had grown thick with smoke. Most of it, she figured, blew in from the brushfires that had plagued Atlanta’s metro area during the year long drought. A drought she knew, that had until the last 36 hours, had dominated the local news scene. Yet, at least a portion of haze was the gift of the explosion that had occurred originally at The Andrew Young Center three days ago. The fires had spread to the shotgun houses that sat adjacent to the center, but the dry conditions and the loose brush milling about, had caused an entire block or two to go up in smoke. Local firefighters told reporters that they had never seen anything like the conditions plaguing the city.

“Denise hesitated to involve you at all, Chris.” Roxanne said, remembering that fact alone caused knots in her belly. “She wouldn’t elaborate on what circumstances would cause her to think like that. Denise only told me that there had been some…difficulties in the relationship between the three of you. I finally convinced her that you needed to know what was going on. After all, you had helped raise Erica. You are her father, even if biology says that you aren’t. Despite any difficulties that you three might have struggled through, you had the right to know that she’s come up missing.”

Chris rubbed at his smooth chin, working something out in his mind. “You say that Denise hired you two weeks ago. How long did she think Erica was missing before that?”

“The official APD reports state that she went missing on or about the 10th of March.”

“Did anyone say where she was last seen?”

The born investigator in Chris had taken hold. Good, you are still sharp indeed. “The few people that I got to talk to me said she’d been hanging out with some of her friends in and around some neighborhoods in College Park.” Chris flashed an unsettling look. “And if you don’t mind me asking this, you give me the impression that you don’t truly believe that this young woman is missing?”

He exhaled a deep breath he’d been holding. “Erica is 20 years old and she’s been doing this kind of thing almost half her life. She first started ditching school at 12. And that was just a start of a laundry list of issues she’s put us through.”

“Word on the street is that trouble often found her?”

“Especially when you meet if half way,” Chris nodded, sat down in the swing and took another deep breath. She noticed that it was something about the swing that brought a pleasant memory up to the surface of Chris’ mind. “Did Denise talk to you about Erica, I mean on a more personal level?”

Roxanne sat in the swing next to him. “No, not really,” She said. “She gave me some names, you know a list of family members and friends that she liked to hang out with. She did state, like I heard in the street, that trouble could find Erica, but she didn’t elaborate on it further.”

Chris looked over at her and the skin around his brow curled as if he’d made his mind up about sharing something important with her. “Like I said earlier, Erica first ditched school at 12 years old. The school gave Denise a call. We went looking for her. We found her a few blocks from the house…giving oral sex to this older kid, a 15 year old in the back of a parked car.”

“Whoa.”

“I wish I could say these types of incidents were isolated and that this type of behavior ended there. By the time Erica herself had reached 15years old, she’d served two separate stints at the local juvenile detention center. She served once for a string of petty theft charges and she did a stretch for violence against another female minor with a knife.”

“What about running away?”

“She’d do the teenaged thing; get pissed about something or the other, and hall ass for a day two and show back up at our house when she got hungry or one of her so called friends grew tired of her act.” He said. “I think I remember four days as the longest time she’d ever disappeared without a single word from her: No phone call, or anything. So when you ask me if I’m surprised that she’s come up missing again, then I guess my answer would have to stand at no, I’m not surprised with anything that Erica gets herself into.”

“Are you worried about her?’

Chris considered her question a moment. “Yea…maybe a little,” He got up out of the swing and began walking towards one of the trails, downwind of the smoke. “Look, I know how my reaction may all appear to an outsider.” You don’t know a damned thing; Roxanne thought, the image of Vargas, his screaming wife, and those precious girls buried in her head, but let him go on nonetheless.

“Every family has issues, Roxanne. But those difficulties, as Denise stated to you, cut far deeper than a half dozen families endure. When the three of us were together, especially the last year or two my marriage, we defined what a dysfunctional family meant.”

I know about dysfunctional families as well, Chris. And she was thinking about her own family, not the ones that she had interfered with across the border. This wasn’t the time to dwell on her mother and sister right now, though. She needed to focus her energy and thoughts on the case at hand. “I see.” She stopped walking and turned to face him. He had gained a little weight around his middle, but he was still a handsome man. “Before we go on about Erica, are you okay?” She wasn’t showing any real weakness by simply asking. It was simple courtesy, nothing more. “You know…after what happened to you over the past several days?”

“I’m going to make it, Roxanne.” He smiled at her and something inside her melted as it always had before. “You haven’t changed. I wondered what became of you after you left the academy.”

“Yea,” She smiled back. “I’ve moved around a bit. I’ve seen a lot of the country. I went and did my own thing. I’ve been doing professional investigative work ever since.” The hard lessons she learned in Mexico doused her smile just as quick. Chris had to wonder what if had been the cause of the smile’s dismissal.

“Professional investigator, I like the term, though I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone use it in that manner before. Good for you, Roxanne.”

“Thanks. And the road from falling out of the FBI’s academy to all of this wasn’t as narrow as you think.”

Prince nodded at that. “It never is.” She saw something stir in his face, stood in silence and let it flow. “During my marriage with Denise, Erica and I were never close. Like I said before, she’s pulled disappearing acts before. She’s also grown and not responsible for letting Denise or anyone else knows her every movement. I haven’t spoken to Erica in months. I’ve had a lot on my plate.” The FBI Special Agent peered out over the horizon to the space where The Andrew Young Center once stood. “And after 411, I expect this plate to only grow with responsibility.”

“I know that.”

“What you don’t know, Roxanne, if that the relationship between my ex-wife, my step daughter and me goes well past the point of dysfunction. It goes past the point of toxic. That’s all that I can say about it for now.”

An awkward silence fell over them before Prince broke in again. “You have my number; I expect daily reports on your findings.”

“I will.”

Christopher Prince put his hands in his jacket pockets, turned again towards the heart of the city, glared at the moonlight, and then turned his clean shaven head back towards her as he stepped closer.

“Roxanne, I’m holding you personally responsible for bringing Erica back to her mother…whether she is alive or not. She is her only child, her baby. And every mother should know whether their baby is alive or not.”

I know that truth all too well. Roxanne stood there a moment longer and gazed into his eyes, searching for what exactly, she could not say. She finally heard herself saying, “That is how it should be.”

Prince’s cell phone interrupts the silence that occurred between them afterwards. He excuses himself, doesn’t seem to recognize the number at first glance, and then steps over to the side to take the call, then makes his way back over to her at last five minutes later.

“You kept texting me,” He continued on as if the conversation they were having before had never been interrupted. “I never responded to any of your first half dozen texts. After some time you must have realized I was involved in 411 in some capacity.”

“Yea, I knew about the 411 and I was aware about the siege specifically. And I knew you had a date and tickets to the show.”

The look on his face said that he recognized she was an investigator, but he was unsure whether he’d appreciated her keeping tabs on him. Instead he asked, “After the carnage of the first night, how did you know that I was still alive?”

The monster that raged inside Roxanne Sanchez – that allowed her to escape her own siege at Vargas’ home shrugged into the early morning darkness, “We’re survivors, Chris,” She finally said. “You and I both know how to survive.”

Though I’ve survived by being a monster, Chris; how can anyone ever love a monster?

Thomas

Dunwoody, DeKalb County, 4th Day

 

He went to slide the key into lock on the front entrance to his townhome in Upper Dunwoody—

The door was already unlocked and opened slightly.

Fighting back panic, Thomas decided against calling 911 from the cell phone in his hand—at least not yet, and peered inside.

He took as a small of a step as a man his size could manage and opened the door the entire way. He was unarmed. He only owned one weapon and knew he would never reach it in his bedroom, if a prowler was somewhere in the living quarters between here and there—

“Hello, Thomas.” Serena Tennyson, leader of Pandora, was sitting on the edge of an easy chair that Thomas often dozed in after a long day of writing or interviewing. She was wearing a dark blue pants suit with her feet planted firmly on his hardwood floor. The suit highlighted the rich texture of her red hair. “Hopefully you will remember who I am. I don’t want to waste the little time we have together with us having to reintroduce—“

“I know who you are.” Thomas slid along his front door to an adjacent wall, sweating worse now that he knew who had invaded his home.

He’d just made it home from a particularly raunchy session with a woman named Darcy. They’d spent half the night together when her husband had surprised them both by taking an earlier flight and returning to their suburban Atlanta home nearly a day sooner than he was expected. Thomas had to squeeze his large frame into the couple’s walk in closet and stayed there until the man had fallen asleep, nearly an hour later, and only then was allowed to escape into the Escalade that experience had long taught him to park smartly a couple of houses down the street.

He hadn’t had the chance to shower, and he was sure that Darcy’s scent was all over him, especially with the perspiration pouring from underneath his armpits with this discovery. “I know what you are capable of? The whole world has been reminded over that past few days, what you are capable of, Serena.”

“Then my appearance here shouldn’t come as a real shock to you, Thomas.” She swallowed a mouthful of bottled water that she’d brought with her. Other than a case of beer, Thomas was sure there was very little to drink in the fridge. She was sitting perfectly still. “Try to relax, Thomas. Breathe. The first thing I need you to do is to assure me that you won’t do anything volatile. I can guarantee your safety during the duration of my visit only if you promise not to dial 911 or try to leave this place until we are finished with our business.”

Thomas found a spot in front of his bar and halted his motion there, his pulse racing in his ears with a new thought. If you help me, you will gain enemies on both sides of this conflict. Mayor Ernestine Johnson had said in the last minutes before she died. They both will harass you. They will threaten you. They may even kill you. Yes, Thomas, they may try and kill you.”

“You, of all the people in the world, are going to guarantee my safety, huh?” Thomas snorted and then pointed at her. “Right now, lady, you are the most hunted woman who ever lived. I’m standing her in the same room with you. How safe can I actually be?”

Serena sat back in his chair a moment. “I guess we will see.”

Thomas’ heavy breathing slowly subsided, oxygen beginning to feed his starving brain allowing him to regain some his wits… and then a revelation. “Sophie?” He began to scanning the hard wood floors and moving the couch, coffee table, bookcase, and stereo player aside in frantic search for his pet. “Sophie?” He called again, growing distraught that she would ever answer his call again. “What have you people done with my dog?”

“That…thing is being kept at a nearby kennel.” Thomas could see the distaste written as Serena’s thin top lip lifted into a sneer. “It is being detained there, but otherwise is not being mistreated.”

She,” Thomas said. “Her name is Sophie. She is a living, breathing animal with feelings.”

“Whatever.” Serena sat erect again, as if her real discomfort came from any relaxation that the chair may have provided her. “I would advise you to be more immediately concerned with your own health and well-being.” She paused to allow him to swallow that dose of reality. “If we have an agreement, then please sit down. We have much to discuss and we’ve wasted enough time as it is.”

Standing on these hard wood floors for long periods of time had recently started his lower back and feet to ache. He put one hand on his side and continued to stand despite his discomforts. “What could you possibly want from me, Serena?”

“I’ve had you followed. I know that you spoke candidly with Mayor Ernestine Johnson before her passing.”

“Ernestine who,”

“Don’t fuck with me, Thomas.” Serena stood. She drained the last ounces out of her water bottle, walked over and dropped the empty plastic into the recycle bin, retrieved another from a pack she brought with her. “I’m sure you and the city’s former mayor spoke at length on several matters, including the three questions that every Person of Color in this Color wants to know?”

Thomas laughed, a sickly sound that he hoped drowned out all of the anxiety and fear he was actually feeling at the moment. Yes, Thomas, they may even try to kill you. They might at that, but he had made a promise to the dying woman. He tried to push the conversation in a different direction. “So if I’m guessing correctly, you are here to use me as a propaganda tool in denying portions of what has transpired in this city over the past 36 hours?”

“You have it backwards actually,” She sipped at her water bottle, looking as if she were savoring its taste. “And I’ll let you get away with changing the subject only long enough to verify that Pandora, under my orders, did launch all three attacks that the world has come to know as 411, as these operations began on April 1, 2011.”

“Why do you need me to confirm this for you, Serena?” Thomas asked. “Through whatever channels you chose to use, your people already established that you perpetrated these offensives to the media.”

“You’ve been an esteemed journalist a long time, Thomas. You know, as well as I do, that those channels do serve a purpose,” She glided over to where he was standing. He wanted to step away, but found himself paralyzed in a single block of space. She put a hand on one of his shoulders. “But when America hears these same words utter from my lips, and when they see my face today they will know once and for all that everything they’ve feared is true. That’s why I am here today.”

“You’re talking about my online show. You’re going to appear on my blog.”

“Two million hits a day. I surely don’t miss an episode.” Serena took another hit of her water and pushed her red hair out of her pale face. “I’m going to give your viewers…I’m to give the whole world all the truth they can handle.”

For the first time since he saw this woman sitting uninvited in his home, he felt a rousing of curiosity that thrust some of his fear aside. Maybe this doesn’t have to be a deadly invitation after all. He folded his arms, relaxed his breathing, deciding that it was ill advised to push his luck any further. And I’m interested in how much you truly know about what is said during my coming and goings. Serena had more than enough resources at her disposal to have him followed, no doubt that she knew that he’d been asked to the mayor’s estate and subsequently to her chambers to confer with her before her unfortunate passing…but you don’t know what was said between us or you wouldn’t have asked.

“There are three questions that every Person of Color in this country wants answered.” He echoed what she had said a few minutes earlier.

Serena nodded once. “Who killed President Adolphus Sweet? Who is the Caretaker? And, of course, what is the Whirlwind?”

He imagined he was struggling to keep the shocked look off of his face. “Are you going to tell the audience the answers to those questions today?”

“No.” She replied without anger. “I will say that once the answer to one of the first two questions is revealed, the other two answers almost will reveal themselves. I’m hopeful that it won’t come to that.”

“You’ve already shown that you have the power to stop me from learning the truth, Serena.” He said cautiously. “My question to you, is will you stop me?”

“I’m hopeful that it won’t come to that.” She said again and then quickly added, “Our time together grows short, Thomas. May we begin this interview?”

“I record the show from a studio in my basement.” He flashed Serena his best goofy smile. “I’m sure you already know where it is.”

“Of course I do, Thomas,” Serena waved her arm towards the appropriate door and his nerves flared up again. “It’s in your best interest to go first.”

The studio was a box shaped room which is more wide than big in its owner’s eyes and he kicked himself again for not having it painted beyond the bland white it was originally assigned. He also could have had piped the central air and heat down here but decided against it at the time to save a dime. Serena went about shivering almost immediately, sitting her water bottle down for the first time. He had to fight against his own instincts and not give her his jacket top, unknowing of how Pandora’s leader would take to his gentlemanly offer of goodwill.

Instead he got down to the business at hand. “I don’t normally operate this equipment myself. It might take me as long as 20 minutes to half an hour to set up everything.”

Serena pulled a stopwatch out of her pants pocket, synchronized it with the time on her wristwatch and pushed the top button. “30 minutes, Thomas,” She sat on one of the two stools he used in his interviews. “I’m holding you to that timeframe.”

If Serena had made that last statement as some implied threat, he hadn’t had the time to concentrate on it. Instead, he glared at a nearby magnetic calendar he had stuck on a makeshift bookshelf over by where his main camera rested on a lanyard.

“What is it, Thomas?” Serena asked. She looked more comfortable sitting atop this stool than she ever did in his easy chair. “What’s wrong?”

Thomas sat back on his own seat without looking back at it, dumbfounded. “I have a maid, her name is Eloise.” He glared back at the calendar to be sure. “She comes in once a week to clean the townhouse for me.”

Serena rubbed her shoulders for warmth. “Again, Thomas, you haven’t told me anything that I already don’t already know about you and your life. She is scheduled to clean this place tomorrow.”

Thomas slid his stool nearly on top of Serena. He dared put his hands on hers so she could not back away from him. “Did you know that Eloise needed to clean a day early this week.” He ducked his head, searching his memory banks for confirmation of what his mind was processing. “There was something…maybe a midweek vacation with her husband who had requested some days off.”

“I’m sure that she told you the last time you slept with her, Thomas. That is what you do with her after she finishes cleaning—“

“She has a key.” He dared lurch his head closer “She normally would have been here by now and she’s never late. Where is she, Serena? Is she being detained as well?”

For the first time since this particular conversation has been struck, Serena’s expression flashed blankness at Thomas and caused him to blink rapidly in panic.

Then he watched Serena tilt her head ever so slightly to the right. If he weren’t sitting this close, sitting so dangerously close to her, he might not have noted the small movement.

“Are you hearing this?” She said with a hushed voice into some type of communication device clipped to her collar. He had never noticed it was there before now. “Roger.” She listened to what the party on the other end had to say. “Contact, Shooter. I need this data ASAP.” She paused. “Understood; Oracle out.”

Still locked in by his vice grip on her stool, Serena leaned in towards Thomas close enough that their lips were close enough to touch. “I’m sure we are well within the 30 minutes I gave you to ready us for this interview, Thomas.” She said in a low voice that reminded him who was in control here. “Shall we begin?”

Serena

Dunwoody (Inside Thomas Pepper’s Basement Studio); DeKalb County, 4th Day

 

The field leader of Pandora watched one red light flash above the largest of Thomas Pepper’s tabletop computers. He’d finished the setup with still over six minutes to spare. Well done, Thomas; It was time.

Thomas’ intro played with its usual dramatic flair, one Serena Tennyson though was full of preamble, but contained very little true substance. I might fault his methods but his madness holds much merit, his popularity and most importantly to me today is, his ratings don’t lie. That is the specific reason that I am sitting in this icebox of a room.

“Please introduce yourself and state the purpose of your visit to my program today?” Thomas asked and took his seat beside her.

She glanced one final time at the stopwatch hanging from a nail just out of sight of the camera. She had set it for the exact time that this broadcast would begin. She had committed the remainder of the countdown to memory. The FBI would have this transmission signal decoded, itemized and her exact location transmitted to local law enforcement within minutes. She had that much time…and little more, to honor one of her final promises made to Caretaker before he died two years ago.

After you enact 411, give a moment’s pause, so that your adversaries have one last chance to save their selves from destruction. She remembered his words as if the greatest man she’d ever known had said it to her just yesterday. Allow them a chance to save face, allow both sides to back away from the brink. Remember the sacrifices that I have made, Serena. I order you to save as many lives as you can

“Serena…are you still with us,” Thomas was saying.

“I am and thank you for this opportunity to join you today on your show, Thomas.” Her smile would not bare its fruit, but she ran her fingers on his knee in an act of humanity that the television cameras liked. Even these micro sized cameras that they were using here in Thomas’ igloo of a studio. “My name, as most of you out there know is Serena Tennyson, and I come today to speak on behalf of Pandora.” It often troubled her to misrepresent Pandora and its followers as if she were its lord and governor. Yet, she reminded herself that just as Pilot’s features had to remain near anonymous to her that his very existence had to remain a secret to the outside world. We did agree that he will reveal himself if I fail to make it back—

For those who are watching or listening to the podcast, Serena, would you briefly elaborate on what Pandora’s mission statement is and perhaps a small origin of how this group came to be?”

“I will, Thomas. Thank you.” Serena sat up a little straighter. Thomas was reading from a questionnaire that she had prepared in advance. Off camera, she informed him that this was his show being broadcast from his home, and so his large personality and ego during the filming of this episode was not only permitted but encouraged. However, he was not allowed to deviate from the prepared questionnaire. If he defied her wishes, a technical difficulty sign would flash across his viewer’s computers screens, static would infiltrate the podcast…and Thomas Pepper would be killed minutes later by Pandora agents nearby. “In layman’s terms Pandora is attempting to preserve the fragile harmony that exists between the most influential races in our country maintaining the status quo.”

Thomas squirmed and did a half turn on his stool that already seemed to buckle under his weight. “You did say status quo?”

“I did.”

“I find your response and use of terminology interesting; as I’m sure many in my audience would as well.” He split equal time looking at the camera and at her. He’d mastered the technique. He’d surpassed Oprah Winfrey and Barbara Walters as the nation’s most trusted interviewer over the past number of years. If he were as skillful at researching then he would do Mayor Johnson’s dying wish honor. She had chosen well. And so have I.

“Some in tonight’s web audience would argue that a dominant race, a race that both you and I belong to, have diligently, and sometimes forcefully attempted to keep the prominent minority in this country disadvantaged, if not oppressed?”

Very impressive, Thomas, he nearly read her passage word for word without a prompter or looking at his notes. Still, she fixed Thomas with one of her trademark hard stares that would infuriate some in the audience, and intimidate the rest which was far more important, of course. “I would call that response ignorant.” She took a staged deep breath and spun her stool slightly to face the camera to her left and allowed what youthful features she still had remaining, to highlight her face. “And I truly find it sad that such lies and innuendo have left so many misinformed on various fronts vital to understanding our position.”

“Please educate us,” Thomas said in a deadpan voice.

“People of Color and their culture have blossomed in both status and standing since the twilight of the Civil Rights Movement. Do discrimination, prejudice, and blatant racism still exist in today’s world? Well, of course if does. And unfortunately, Thomas, in all likelihood, despite our best efforts, you and I will not live long enough to see a complete eradication of hatred from either side in our lifetime. Even here, in the melting pot that is America, living amongst the most civilized people on this planet, pockets of close minded individuals and groups of individuals continue to carry the banner of hatred around with them.” Serena paused for breath and a drink of water. She fought off chills with all of the concentration she could muster. A first impression still meant so much. She knew she would have one opportunity to get this next passage perfect. “Pandora does not endorse, support, or encourage hatemongering on any level, whatsoever. Pandora was founded by a man who cherished all life. Everything thing that I do, have done, and will do is based on the Caretaker’s ideals and principals.” She straightened a bit and twisted her long neck so she would deliver the next part of her monologue to the camera facing her from the right. “That being said, make no mistake, Pandora will not tolerate the further deterioration of an already tedious relationship between our race and those who now proclaim themselves People of Color. Extremists’ elements, such as those who populate separatist groups like A House in Chains, are the prime offenders of this hatemongering.”

Thomas slid back in his chair. “I see.” She watched a question form on his bearded face. It was not a matter of when he would ask it, but how he would form his next question. “So you would proclaim the simultaneous and highly choreographed April 1st attacks on The Andrew Young Center, The Siege of the Fox Theater, and the blatant murder of Atlanta’s Mayor Ernestine Johnson by poisoning as what, Serena, and an act of extending the hand of friendship?”

“Even I wouldn’t be so bold.” Serena said and took another deep breath and hoped Thomas Pepper would wisely follow her lead. “I will say this: While each and every life is precious in the eyes of your God, the alternative for this continued defiance by forenamed parties will only result in more People of Color rushing to greet Him.”

Thomas looked uncomfortably shaken, as he should be; he tugged at his collar, glanced at the center camera a second, and looked back in her general direction, but whether he was afraid or disgusted by her, he continued to make eye contact with her all the same.

“You speak as if an escalation is coming?”

She took the time to steal a hard gaze at the stopwatch hanging on the nail near the center camera. Serena guessed that she came across as a farsighted middle aged woman to the audience, who had left her spectacles home, but that was a price she was prepared to pay. She no longer wished to trust what little time they had left before the authorities arrived to intuition only. We are running around two minutes behind schedule even with the …distractions set in place. She’d come too far now not to finish delivering Caretaker’s message. They must hear this, no matter the cost. I must keep my word no matter the personal price I must pay.

“People of Color always ask the same three questions, Thomas.”

He spoke out of turn, but that was fine by her. “Who killed President Adolphus Sweet? Who is this Caretaker than you speak so fondly of, and what is the Whirlwind?”

“And they are all worthy questions, Thomas.” It took every fiber of her being not to warm herself. She was so far away from the Dragon’s flames, so far away from its love. “The first is immaterial, in fact most people are asking the wrong question when it comes to Sweet’s murder. The second question is inconsequential. The Caretaker is dead, is identity died with him. I will never give up it up unless it benefits those of us he left behind. And the third question…oh dear, Thomas, You, I, no one in your audience, no one in the entire world hopes to learn what the Whirlwind is.” She considered something that was off script. “I will tell you this: the wraith of The Whirlwind has already been exhibited twice before. You saw it the second time it was showcased, but you missed it with your eyes wide open the first time.” Serena nearly smiled.

Thomas recovered from whatever state of stun he had fell into. “Back to these conditions you were speaking of?”

“They are very simple, Thomas.” Serena knew she was nearly out of time. “And they are no different than what we have asked before 411 was enacted.” Serena saved the center camera for the epilogue of her interview with Thomas Pepper. “First, Xavier Prince is already an inmate at Calhoun State Prison in southwest Georgia. He is scheduled to be released later today. He is to voluntarily rescind this discharge, plead guilty to further charges that include terrorism, munity, collusion, and hate crimes, and remain at this facility until a new trail of his peers can be assembled. Secondly, the other surviving members of A House in Chains governmental body, The Circle, is to turn themselves over to authorities, and share in the guilt and the charges I just laid out to you of their beloved leader. Lastly, A House in Chains is to be unconditionally disbanded, as I and my Pandora associates are prepared to disband as well. We can all turn away from an inevitable conflict before it, as you stated earlier, before it escalates.”

“I’m sure that if Xavier Prince can hear this broadcast that he and his associates are considering your offer as we speak.” Thomas gave his last statement the proper dramatic pause its implication deserved and then carried on smoothly. Serena’s answer to the specifics of what this provocation is was to be featured last. “You admitted to me off camera that at least part of the operational portion that went on at the Fox Theatre suffered through …tactical errors as you put it, Serena, would you care to elaborate.”

“It did,” Serena found the left camera again. “Benny Stanton, Luna Belle and their associates were ordered hold the theatre for a signal night, then to proceed in killing as many patrons as their ammunition had allowed, exit the premises, and then torch the building.”

Thomas Pepper looked ill. “I hope that you don’t believe that this acknowledgement of a breach in your orders doesn’t comfort the families and friends of those who lost loved ones there?”

“Of course not,” Serena said dispassionately. In fact this breach of my orders, as you so eloquently put it, saved lives of People of Color because a mission that was never intended to go on nearly as long as it had did just that.” She found the camera sitting to her right once again. “What I am saying is that Stanton was under my command. His actions are ultimately my responsibility. And Stanton’s and his failings fall directly in that pocket of small minded people we spoke of earlier, Thomas. Pandora would have never bartered, therefore extended those civilian’s suffering, for a hatemonger like James Carter.”

“Let’s talk for a minute about James Carter now that you mentioned him.” Thomas said in a rush. He’d finally gone off script. And Serena knew that her people, specifically Rohm had vacated this theatre of operations, per her orders. And unlike those idiots Stanton and Belle, Shooter had followed orders so far to the letter. “You stated earlier in this interview that Pandora is not blatant hatemongers, yet you ally yourselves with a man like James Carter who has been notorious for exercising bigoted behavior such as being involved in intimidations, lynches, and beatings of People of Color. In fact he is solely responsible for the whip marks that are rumored to be on Xavier Prince’s back right now in some hideous incident when these two men roomed together at Princeton.”

Serena snapped back at him. “Carter and all the people who share his narrow mindlessness will not be welcome once the new world order that the Caretaker died trying to create finally comes into existence.”

Thomas raised his voice to match hers. “And yet, he serves a purpose right now?”

“He does.”

“So you would have us believe—“

“Believe what you will, Thomas.” Serena was standing, and silently cursed both Thomas and herself for her burst of anger. “I’m disgusted with the losses suffered in the Black Community over the past three days. But parents, children, and friends of those who have fallen can be comforted that their loved ones deaths were not in vain. Pandora has suffered losses as well. But we all can bring this…season of death to a close. I have laid out Pandora’s conditions for this to happen, the ball, as they say, is in their court to comply.”

The stopwatch beeped.

Their interview…and their time had come to an end.

Serena sat back on her stool and took the longest pull Thomas had seen from her water and acted as if the heated exchange between them had never occurred. She found the precious center camera, one last time. “I am sure by this point of this broadcast, that members of various law enforcement agencies may feel compelled to act against me. I’m sending out me sternest warning against such a hasty and futile exercise. Pandora has not left me unprotected against such retaliations. Contrary to what had been written, said, or speculated about me, I have no desire to see needless bloodshed. Allow me to conclude my interview with Thomas Pepper, leave his residence, and return to Pandora without incident, and you have my word that no law enforcement official will be hurt. Defy my wishes and you only have yourselves and your foolish pride to blame for the losses that you will suffer.”

Thomas was still standing, nearly on top of her. Sweat had begun falling from his curly hair. “What is this escalation?” He asked. “Damn you, Serena say something.”

“For years People of Color have wanted the answer to the same three questions: Who killed President Adolphus Sweet? Who is The Caretaker? And what is the Whirlwind?” Serena said in a monotone voice. “Three days ago, Pandora answered the one question that had been brewing for several months: What is the 411?” She took a deep breath, closed her eyes, blocked out how cold she really was and filled her thoughts with the warmth and love of the Dragon. “It is highly probable that I will be dead soon. What is more important is that in after the days that I am gone, after I am caught up in the Rapture of the Dragon, that you, People of Color have turned away from wickedness, turned away from you vile leaders.”

Serena walked off of the set at a steady pace while the cameras still rolled on. She only quickened it after she heard the first explosion in the distance. Thomas nearly fell to the floor and looked around wildly. She picked up a yellow rose from off of the shelf where she had left it the previous night when Pandora first started its incursion of Thomas’ home.

She placed the yellow rose on an empty space on the table inches in front of the camera and then takes her place next to a shaken Thomas who takes an involuntarily step back from her positioning. She finds the center camera and a subtle, dignified calm in her tone once again. “If you choose to side with the likes of Xavier Prince, the Circle and A House in Chains, then this local community will have a new, pressing question to ask. Thank you for your time and attention.”

“What?” Thomas said stupidly and turned the cameras off as a second explosion erupts, one whose epicenter was closer than the first.

They sprinted up the stairs, returning to Thomas’ main living quarters. And though the temperature is instantly ten degrees warmer than that in the basement, Serena can barely contain her trembling. Thomas seems to be oblivious, or he is occupied with the detonations occurring outside.

“What in the hell are these explosions, Serena?”

Serena begins to unbutton her blouse. “As I said, Pandora was prepared for my peaceful exodus from your townhouse, Thomas. It is apparent that A House in Chains is not the only association not heeding my words these days.”

A third explosion, this one the loudest and closest to his townhouse, rocks the building’s foundation, breaks his living room windows, and knocks both of them to his wooden floor.

God almighty, what is that?”

“I had every street that leads to this residence mined.” Serena stopped long enough to unbuckle her pants and folded them neatly on top of her jacket and blouse after removing them all. She kicked off her flats. “The last few explosions you heard were the ones laid closest to this property. There were a dozen or more scattered about the five mile radius. They were activated only after I made my plea to the authorities not to come here. I told you, Thomas, Pandora values civilian life.”

“God almighty,” Was all that Thomas Pepper could offer as he neared tears.

Serena turned her back on him, unfastened her sheer bra and stepped out of her white cotton panties. She could feel the man in Thomas staring at what men stared at in nude women, her long legs, her curt but shapely buttocks…but she guessed through all of his lustful thoughts that he gazed longest and hardest at the tattoo of the Dragon that encompassed her entire back, featuring the Dragon’s tongue licking the side of her neck.

When she spun back around, Thomas verified her theory two fold as he sat on his wooden floor with an astonished look plastered on his bearded face.

They both heard the blades of a helicopter beginning to hover somewhere outside of his dining room window.

“What am I doing?” She asked the question out loud of what he must have been thinking at the moment. I’m doing what all field generals must do in wartime when the battle is lost.” She lay flat on her nonexistent stomach and spread arms as wide as each extremity would go. “I’m surrendering so I can live to fight another day.” She looked up long enough to make eye contact with him. “Although you are not the object of the FBI’s attention or wraith, I advise you to undress as I have. They may not enter this place with the idea of restraint in their hearts.”

Thomas must have figured her for being right, because he undressed as quick as his sizeable fingers allowed and joined her…at a cautious distance on the hard wood floor.

She could hear the first wave of men pushing up the stairs. Thomas must have heard it too because he tried to bury his face as far the unforgiving floor would allow him. Perhaps this is a suicide, Serena thought about Pilot’s words when the first pang of fear hit her in the chest. At least her fear had a warm element to it as she felt it rush though the rest of her body.

“Am I all that you thought I would be, Thomas?”

“What?” Thomas asked as she heard three, four, and uncountable number of vehicles breaking at street level. The chopper had taken residence outside of the front window now.

“What did you day?”

She poked her head up again and pointed her chin in the direction of Thomas’ spare bed room that served as an office. “I’ve been waiting here for you to arrive last night. I made myself at home. I saw the office…the pictures that you’ve clipped from magazines and printed off of the internet. You have many that even I didn’t even know existed of me. It is quite an impressive shrine.”

He reddened from either embarrassment or fear. “We are the beautiful and the bold,” He finally said as heavy footsteps push their way to the top of the stairway.

Agents of the FBI announced their obvious presence and have busted down his door by the sentence conclusion. Three…four…ten armed agents pour into his townhouse with pistols and rifles drawn in every direction. A dozen more agents slide in behind them once an alley was created. Serena was sure that Thomas never knew his place could ever fit so many human beings inside its walls.

Special Agent Christopher Prince is amongst the second wave of FBI who entered the townhouse.

“Agent, Prince, welcome.” Serena announces conversationally. He, like most of the men in this room, wearing the cursed vest with FBI stenciled on the back. It is the one that she has loathed so much when she slaved for the bureau all those years before Pandora summoned her to serve, before The Caretaker called her home. “Your brother must surrender to the authorities at Calhoun Prison. Time is short. If you want to truly serve your people. You will make your younger sibling comply, his time, all of our times are running out.”

Christopher Prince and the room full of agents seem to be almost mesmerized by her words. She used the silence to her advantage. “I’ve said enough for now. I’d like to evoke my right of silence as it is presented under The United States Constitution.”

“Whatever you say,” Agent Prince kept his gun trained on Serena’s forehead as he spoke to a younger female who was just arriving through the open space where the front door once stood. He scanned the room, snatched Thomas Pepper’s jacket off of the floor and through it across her buttock and the upper part of her legs. “Agent Blue, read this woman her rights, get her up, dressed, and then get her the hell out of here.”

Agent Blue does as she is commanded and cuffs Serena quickly. Prince helps her to her feet while another female agent shields her womanhood from view.

Four agents begin to escort her from the front while two more agents join Prince and the two women behind her.

Three male agents are helping poor Thomas Pepper to his feet. He looked as he has some of his curly hair has fallen out, and as if he has lost five pounds since before the interview began. There are dark circles under his eyes. “Serena?” He calls out to her and then: “Serena,” He said again with enough urgency to stop her…and the FBI agents in their tracks. “No more games,” Thomas said “Tell me…tell us what is this new pressing question that People of Color will be asking in the days to come. Tell us now,” Thomas pleaded, Serena thinking she did see tears misting in his eyes. He was weak. Outside of men like Caretaker and her father, they were all so weak. Still, she had nearly gotten the man killed in his own home, so he was entitled to something out of this deal. He deserved to know. They all deserved a chance to know the truth. So she lifted her head high enough so everyone in the room could see another yellow rose resting on top of Thomas’ artificial fireplace where she kept company with the Dragon while she waited on him to return home.

“A yellow rose,” Thomas said in a low voice, but everyone in the room was perfectly still, they could all hear. “A yellow rose stands for sympathy. You said it was to be another localized event. Who do People of Color in Atlanta need sympathy for, Serena?”

“Themselves,” Serena said. “What is the 411 is now in the past. What is The Whirlwind is in our probable future…but for now the immediate question they all will be asking is, where are our children?”

Chapter Five

 

One Man shouldn’t wield so much power.

-Ferris Banks, the former warden of Calhoun State Prison’s final log entry before his reassignment.

Xavier

Calhoun State Prison (South Floor of Beta Wing); 5th Day

 

“It’s alright, I’ve been expecting them,” Julian Moore waved Xavier Prince, Warden Donald Bright, and Rose Dixon towards the crude checkpoint of file cabinets and high chairs with his pistol. “Shake them down, make sure they aren’t armed and then let them through.”

Julian Moore:

He was a brown skinned, wiry shaped Black man, whose eyes were large and very intense. He was tattooed from neck to foot and wore too much hair on his head for Xavier’s taste.

He’d chosen an ideal location here down on the South end of the first floor for keeping these hostages safe, but well secured. The library was Calhoun’s oldest structure in an already aged composition more wide than deep, with ten foot ceilings and was windowless as far as Xavier could see. He himself had spent many hours in this place during his in incarceration. This morning, Xavier could have lived without the musty smell that reminded him of old socks waiting to be washed in the laundry room. He tugged at his tunic as well; damn, you would have chosen the only area in this whole prison that gets consistently warm this time of year, it is steaming down here. Xavier knew that this zone set right on top of the prison’s furnace. And Julian had his people intentionally turn the gage up to its highest setting.

Julian’s Black Knights admitted Xavier and the others after an intense round of pat downs. Xavier heard one man, whose chest hair pushed up out of his tee shirt yell, what in the hell he was doing here? Xavier was unsure whether the question was directed at him or the warden. The hostages, and it looked to be near a dozen civilians and a host of Calhoun’s guards among them, were bound, gagged, stripped of all clothing except their under clothes and being kept together on the floor of the Fiction section of the Reading Library, packed tight and undignified in some type of cage.

“Julian,” The wiry man lay his gun down on the table and embraced him like a brother. “What are we doing?”

“We wanted to see you before you left for Atlanta, left here for freedom.”

“I was told that you demanded that I take part in any negotiation.”

Xavier planted a hand on each hip and rolled his eyes back at the warden who was shifting in his stance and finding something more interesting to look at on the dirty carpet. So you lied to my face, Donald. Even in Warden Bright’s darkest hour he was still cool, the ice still flowed through his veins. Circumstance had certainly dictated that Xavier would never call this man a friend, but he could respect the way he carried himself.

“I couldn’t accept a release with these people’s lives hanging in the balance.” Xavier would play the warden’s game, at least a little while longer. He turned his focus back to Julian. “I needed to stay around long enough to see you get through this.”

Julian flashed his associates a look, perhaps 20 armed men in this room alone. “I tried to convince them to wait a few days longer, but the visitation from the Georgia State Council on Prisoner Safety and Welfare was too ironic, and to great an opportunity to let pass. And Riot’s Last Gleaming was upon Calhoun at last.” Julian said and raised his pistol high to the ceiling. The other prisoners cheered loudly.

The warden stepped in behind them after the applause died down. “Let’s cut to the chase shall we gentlemen?” He said in a low voice. “You two know that I can’t allow this…this insurrection to stand.” He lowered his tone even further when he addressed Julian directly. “Inmate Moore, I must demand that that you release those state employees and prison guards into my custody immediately, return Calhoun to my control, and then return peacefully to your cells while you still can.”

A dozen black Knights laughed behind them.

Julian’s tone matched the wardens. “You aren’t in a position to demand anything here…sir.”

Warden Bright pushed past Xavier and Julian and then two Black Knights to where the hostages were being held. Half a dozen inmates trained their guns on him and Rose Dixon took a large step forward as if she would defend her warden…or die trying. Julian raised his right hand in the air for peace. He knew the warden’s actions were truly of no consequence here.

“Is everyone here okay?” Warden Bright squeezed the bars with his fingers. “Does anyone need medical attention?” The ten men and two women made eye contact with him as best they could, but all shook their heads. The prison guards were being kept closer towards the copy room. “I need each and every one of you to trust me. I am searching for a way to secure your release as soon as possible.” One of the women started crying, her pleas muffed by the gag over her mouth. “Be strong for your families. I won’t let you die here. You have my word on that.”

Julian hopped up on a desk and sat down. “Then, Warden, you must be prepared to give in to our demands.” He said. “This prison that you inherited is a hell hole. You are a Prince of the damned.”

“Look…Julian is it?” Xavier watched the Black Knight nod. “I’ve read my predecessors logs. Warden Fain’s decade long rule here was nothing short of a travesty, to say the least. That, in part, is the reason I was brought in.” Bright took his place next to Xavier and Rose Dixon. “But you haven’t given my administration a chance to settle in. We haven’t had a fair opportunity to fix what’s broken here.” He pointed towards the cage, the hostages hanging on his every word. “This gets us nowhere.”

Rose said, “The National Guard and The Georgia State Police are in route as we speak, Inmate Moore. What kind of mood do you think they will be when they arrive and find out that not only that you have taken state employees hostage, but have them caged like common animals?”

“Look at the concern etched on my face, fat girl.” Julian gleefully hopped down off the desk again. Xavier had known the man almost from the day he started his sentence. This wasn’t an act, but Julian had been known to let his passions govern his thinking patterns. He turned his large eyes on Xavier. “You should have gotten the hell out of this place when you had the chance, bro.” He said to Warden Bright. “And beyond our grievances we have nothing to talk about.”

The warden cautiously pulled Julian’s list out of his shirt pocket and read some of the list aloud so that the hostages specifically could hear them. “Every issue on your list is solvable or at least correctable, given adequate time an attention.”

“Time’s running low,” Julian sprinted over to the cage and waved his pistol at the state workers. “These good folks over here don’t have a lot of time.”

Xavier swallowed hard. Up into this point he had been satisfied to lie back in the background of this crisis and observe. Now that he had attainted at least a little information, he knew it was time to start keeping his word to warden. He stuck a toothpick in his mouth.

“Julian, you are too smart to let a tremendous opportunity to advocate change—real change in this place, pass through your fingertips.”

Julian’s large eyes sunk a little as he tried to mask the hurt, the betrayal he’d obviously felt at that moment. “What in hell are you talking about, bro? And whose side are you on anyway?” He kept his pistol out, but thankfully with the barrel pointed towards the floor as he approached Xavier. “Your father taught us to seek retribution for sins committed against our brethren. This is what we are doing here.”

“Isaac Prince did say just that.” Xavier stood on his toes and said it loud enough for the entire room to hear. “And I thought I taught you better than that, Julian. Have you completed the first to parts of the mandate? Have you and these Black Knights of yours gained self-respect first, respect of your family after that, and finally the respect of your community. Have you really?” When Julian failed to answer immediately, Xavier said, “My father taught us only after these tasks are completed in full, may we seek the retribution against those who have sinned against us.”

Warden Bright finally spoke into the silence that followed. “Julian, you have my word that my office will bid out three or four of these maintenance issues by the close of business hours today.”

“I’ll hold him to his word, Julian.” Xavier said.

Julian kept his pistol raised but dropped his head. Xavier knew from his long conversations with the man that the former gang banger was giving their proposal a long consideration. And where Julian Moore lead the Black Knights were likely to follow—

And then it all went to hell.

Rose Dixon moved quicker than any woman her size had the right to. She snatched Julian’s pistol out of the grasp out of an inmate idly standing next to her, batted Julian’s pistol from his hand, and had the first man’s pistol lodged against Julian’s head in one lighting motion.

“Damn you, Rose,” Warden screamed at the woman. “What are you doing?”

Rose backed both her large frame and Julian, who she had in a choke hold, to the wall so no other inmate could slip in behind her. “Inmate Moore, you will order these men of yours to release these civilians right now or I will blow your brains all over this library.”

Two of the Black Knights grabbed Xavier and he could feel the cold steel of guns planted on each side of his temple. A shiver ran down his spine. He had known fear before, but rarely had he experienced an episode bathed in such urgency. Warden Bright wasn’t doing much better as three inmates surrounded him. The two guards that had accompanied them down here had drawn the remainder of gang bangers attention.

“Everyone,” Xavier struggled to keep his voice from quivering. “Lower your weapons.”

“Rose,” The warden used his indoor voice, ironically suited for a library. “Mr. Moore and I were very close to reaching a gentleman’s agreement weren’t we, Julian?”

“How about it, Julian,” Xavier asked, he tried to tilt his head away from at least one of the barrels trained on him. “Do we have an agreement, or are you going to sit back and allow a slaughter to begin over cold cells, clogged toilets, and frozen meals?”

“Sure,” Julian struggled to say through the choke hold. Rose loosened her grip some. “All of the hostages we are holding here and the security personnel that are being held near the copy room will be released only after the warden here agrees to all 31 of the issues that I’ve written on that paper.”

Just as a victorious grin begins to play on Warden Bright’s face it disappeared as if it never existed in the first place. He scanned the list again…and again from top to bottom with a trembling hand.

“Julian, you must be in error, son.” He said. “You’ve got it numbered. I only count 30 requests on this paper.”

Julian makes a hand motion for Warden Bright to flip the paper over to the other side.

The Warden exhaled in exasperation and looked away. “You can’t be serious.”

“I’m dead serious.” Julian didn’t blink. Rose had released her grip enough for Julian to walk away from her without incident. The Black Knights still had their guns pointed at the three of them, but Xavier felt as if the chance of a slaughter had been downgraded a notch or two. He hoped that trend would continue. A lot depended on what Julian said next. “In exchange for the lives of your sweet, innocent civilians, Warden, I want these five known Klansmen brought here from the west wing. They were found guilty in a court of law and are now serving life sentences for the lynching and murder of three Black activists over in Albany seven years ago.” Julian finally found his place, directly in front of Xavier Prince.

“You just said it, Julian,” The warden said. “They were convicted in a Georgia court of law. They are serving life sentences, justice has been served. What else could you possibly want from these men?”

“I want justice for what they’ve done here.”

“What in the hell are you talking about?”

Xavier said, “Do you really want to do this, Julian.”

“I tried to wait until you were released, my brother.” Was all that Julian Moore could manage, he hugged Xavier Prince around his neck and whispered in the other man’s ear. “You’ve done so much for me. I owed you this. I owed you…justice.”

Julian released Xavier and turned back so that every inmate, prison guard, hostage and…every warden would hear his words…and remember.

“Let me tell you all a story, a true story, a tale full of glory and sadness. A few years ago a young man by the name of Xavier Prince was accepted into Princeton University prestigious law school. He was only one of 138 who were accepted into a small, but impressive class that included another name that would be familiar to most people in this room, a hatemonger named James Carter.” Julian Moore said, letting the names and faces burrow themselves in his listeners conscious. “Two men with very different roomed together, but rarely interacted, or at least it appeared that way to the other members of the freshman class and staff at the law school. Xavier and James Carter even roomed together.” Julian looked back at Xavier with large, sympathetic eyes. “This man was the only Black man in the entire law program at the time; we are talking about Princeton here. Xavier Prince thrived during the day. He quickly rose to the top of his class. Some of his instructors have commented, even when they are interviewed now, that this man may have had the brightest law mind they had ever seen. I only wish he had done as well after dark. There were nights when he did feel…isolated. There were nights when he felt so very alone.”

Julian began to pace the floor, slow at first, but soon his stride quickened until it was nearing a fever pitch. “James Carter hadn’t had a whole lot to say to Xavier over the first year. In fact, there were times that the other young man seemed downright hostile to the young Georgia native, the son of a renowned Black activist, who had founded A House in Chains years earlier. Carter had grown up in Georgia as well. He’d been raised as the son of a man who ran a local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan.”

Julian Moore had stopped in one sudden motion. All eyes in the room were fixed on him. Even Xavier Prince watched his every move.

One night, one very fateful night, Carter finally spoke at length with Xavier Prince. Carter knew about the other man’s past and told Xavier that they should not allow their father’s decisions affect how they lived their lives moving forward. They were going to be lawyers if not judges someday. They were going to change the world! Why should they not act like friends and go out and celebrate the future.” Julian said and looked at Xavier Prince for a long time. It was Xavier who gazed away at last because he already knew how this tale ended, the horror that soon followed. He had lived it, of course.

“Carter had laid an ambush in waiting for Xavier Prince. Four local men from a New Jersey chapter of the Klan helped Carter beat the black man within inches of his life.”

The woman hostage who had cried earlier looked as if a fresh round of tears were building in the corners of her eyes. An inmate cursed. Warden Bright said, “God Almighty,” and looked away.

Julian continued when the room quieted again. “This is all heartbreaking but true. Yet, friends and neighbors, we haven’t reached the tragic climax of this story just yet.” He put a long emphasis of his pronouncement of the word just for effect. “The four local men stripped Xavier of his shirt, then they stripped him of his pants and his underwear…and then they stripped a Black man…a Man of Color…of everything left that was meaningful to him. They stripped Xavier Prince of his dignity.” Julian stopped for breath. This was a harrowing tale for Xavier Prince to hear. And if he hadn’t experienced it…lived through it himself…he might not have believed such a horrible thing could have truly have happened.

“James Carter took a bullwhip that was a going away gift from his father, and whipped Xavier with it. He lashed him…once…twice…thrice…again and again…and again. He told Xavier that he was in control here. The man on the wrong end of the bullwhip was actually the governor of his own fate. Carter told him that the lashes would only continue until the beaten man screamed.”

One of the inmates, a man who looked the part of a fish out of water, walked behind Prince, gave him a hard measured look…and ripped the shirt from Xavier’s body. He had to see for himself if Julian Moore’s story were true.

Xavier Prince stood motionless in the middle of the library, lonely once again, except for his scars and the mark of A House of Chains to comfort him.

“32 strokes later, for each year that Sarah Woodward, Xavier Prince mother had lived, he finally did scream. Some neighbor residents have testified years later that they heard it. They say that this scream…this sheik that went on, what sounded like forever…sounded inhuman.”

Julian Moore stopped long enough to center his attention on Warden Bright. “This inhumanity hadn’t written its final chapter and verse just yet.” Julian stressed the just one last time. “The four local Klan’s men had planted a cross in an empty lot just off campus. However, Carter, the young brilliant mind that he was, had the men dig the cross up and alter its shape. After all, Xavier Prince was the son of the founder of A House in Chains. He deserved better than to have his wrist and ankles strapped to a cross like lesser Black men.

“A half an hour later the other men had reshaped the cross into an X…for Xavier, of course.” Julian suddenly stopped, choked back tears. Three other hostages, several inmates and one prison guard, who had a dash of salt and a pinch of pepper in his beard failed to hold back theirs. Xavier drunkard eyes only misted. “He was nude and beaten, so it took the strength of three men to rope his wrist and ankles to the X. Carter watched the entire scene with his own arms crossed…and a satisfied grin on his face.”

“Xavier was up against a wind. He hung there until an 11 year old white girl saw him while she was walking to the bus stop two days later. Neighbors say that she had unleashed quite an impressive scream out herself.”

Warden Donald Bright rubbed at his nose and mouth again and again until Xavier thought the man’s face would chafe. Rose Dixon never moved, and her pretty face showed little reaction.

Julian Moore finished the story by saying, “For a long time, Xavier Prince never revealed who did it. The Four local men went back their lives. James Carter suddenly got homesick, quit school, and went home to work in the family business.” Julian Moore said. “But the walk of death and life would not take Xavier Prince without a fight. He recovered from his wounds in a local hospital over the next several weeks, returned to Princeton…finished at the top of his class, and earned and graduated with a law degree.”

“And these men you are asking for that are in this prison?” Warden Donald Bright asked while the room still sat quietly, in a stunned silence. It was such a quiet moment that it felt it the Earth herself was holding still. “What do they specifically have to do with the disturbing story you just told us?”

“I have proof that these types of men can’t be rehabilitated. I have proof that that these types of men have the culture of hate for Men of Color imbedded in their hardened hearts.” Julian Moore scooped up Xavier’s shirt from the floor and handed it back to him. After he put it back on Julian said to the warden, while never taking his eyes off Xavier. “Most importantly, I have proof that James Carter had paid these men to kill Xavier Prince as he was originally scheduled to leave Calhoun Prison today.”

Serena

Fulton County Jail; Downtown Atlanta, 4th Day

 

The FBI hoped to sneak her into the courthouse after midnight and under the cover of darkness.

Serena Tennyson estimated that at least a 1000 Atlanta resident had proven their logic flawed.

They had camped out in the parking lot across the street from the courthouse, in the bowels of the parking garage behind the building and had begun sitting on the curve beside the road. Most were baring picket signs, screaming obscenities, humming old Bible hymns and chanting. The boldest of them had flung eggs and pebbles and stones at her, before the APD identified the offenders and launched their selves into the mob to apprehend them.

Serena could barely breathe in the bullet proof vest that covered her from just below her neck to her shins. The FBI has stuck a helmet, something what a gladiator would dawn before entering the coliseum for battle. Special Agent Christopher Prince continued to keep his vice like grip on her already chained wrist with his left hand, while shoving the back of her hair and head as far down as her tall frame could manage. His partner, Agent Tabitha Blue, pushed her forward by the base of her spine. Serena had never felt so irritated and so…comforted by another human being’s touch.

“Make a hole people,” Agent Blue screamed at the mass of uniformed police and members of the press that had clogged the walkway that led to one the side entrances of the courthouse.

Serena felt nauseated…discombobulated…as if he were now floating and not walking. For a single moment in time she was transported back in time, back in place. This scene played out so very much like the way her marathon races would end when she was in her freshman year in high school. Reporters, teammates…and most importantly, her father, would be waiting for her as she led the field after a long race.

I want you to remember how you feel right now; he had told her after winning a particularly grueling contest. When life throws you its most tormenting curve, when mankind is at its ugliest, I want you to think of how you overcame it all to achieve this triumph. I want you to always treasure this moment right here, right now; and never forget the Dragon’s call: You’ll do fine, you will be good, and you can still fly.

A stone found the tiniest gap between the lid and the protective visor and stuck her near her left cheek.

“It came from over there,” Blue stopped long enough to tug at the shirt tail of one of the uniformed officers. “I want the person who threw that arrested right now.” Blue stood back to back with Serena, and wrapped her arms around the other woman’s hips killing any gap between them. “Stop this madness, now. I promise you that Justice will be served if you allow us to do our jobs.” She spun back around and quickly restarted where she left off shoving Serena forward. “Make a Goddamned hole, people.” Blue said. “Move it.”

The processing portion of her detention was an exercise in time consumption and humiliation. First, a butterball of a man drinking from a coffee mug, greeted Agent Prince, shook his hand, and told him that they would be assigning two female officers to stay with the prisoner at all times while they process her. Secondly, the two women joined the FBI ensemble, walked her to the area where they fingerprinted her, snapped several mug shots, and unlocked her wrist and ankle chains and made her shower. “It’s so cold in here.” She hugged herself, twisting around so the Dragon showcased its power and beauty to all the nonbelievers in the low lighting, until the two female officers protected her privacy by blocking anyone else’s line of vision with their own frames.

“Your processing will be concluded soon enough.” Agent Prince signed a form for one officer whose hair was a matted mess, and then entered his authorization code on a data pad for another one who had a grease stain on his chin. “They’re scheduling you for a very early arraignment in the morning—he looked at the digital clock on the wall—later this morning.”

“Thank you,” Serena said with her lip quivering, her body warming at a glacial pace. Agent Prince ignored her and had already taken steps toward the exit. “You have proven to be every bit the opponent that your brother has been.”

Agent Prince spun back around. “I’ll say this to you this one time, Serena,” He said. “Don’t talk to me, don’t ever talk to me.”

Serena lowered her head, letting the warming water wash over her red hair. “As you wish,” He turned back to exit again when Serena added: “But you and I will fellowship again before my end, before the Whirlwind begins. I have seen it in the flames.”

Serena’s words had halted the special agent’s progress in the middle of the doorway. You are a strong man, Christopher…stronger than your brother is in fact, but at the end of the day, if you do not turn from your nonbelieving ways and accept the Dragon…

And yet, Agent Prince did not accept the Dragon into his heart then and Serena doubted that he would anytime soon, as he walked out of the door without responding or looking back at her.

An hour later it was all over.

Serena lay on the hard tile of her jail cell. When Serena parents died weeks after she’d won that marathon, she’d lived the remainder of her adolescent years moving from border home to border home. The family’s changed. The rules and regulations changed. The rooms changed. The beds changed. The floors never changed. She had found a stability, familiarity and comfort in them that had stayed with her all the way through adulthood. Lying on this floor was no different than the one in her condominium in suburban Atlanta home and no different than luxurious hotel suite that Pilot had leased for her at The Bank of America Hotel where she was staying when she unleashed 411 on the city of Atlanta.

Agent Tabitha Blue and the two other female agents had long abandoned her for other duties. She knew, from research, that the courthouse and adjoining jail housed at least 50 female prisoners but they had isolated her from the other inmates. The room was too cool to her liking, the lighting low, and she was far from the Dragon’s flames…or its love.

They had assigned her three uniformed officers, one of them female, the other two males, all three People of Color on the other side of her bars. Serena was sure that there were countless other officers on the other side of the door, down the hall, and guarding the sides of the building. The FBI wanted to guarantee that no one would try to extract her from the courthouse and no one was getting in either.

At last, a blessed sleep threatened to pull her up into its bosom, she prayed it would be without nightmare…or visions…

Serena Tennyson was wrong.

She was so very wrong…

The light that greeted her on the other side of sleep, or wherever this was, nearly blinded her. She had to shield her eyes from the brightness as she walked towards the lone figure that she saw. Someone…it looked like a man, was sitting cross legged on a wooden bench in a park. There were no birds humming or flying, no bees buzzing about, there didn’t even so seem to be ants crawling in the dirt. Outside of Serena and this man, there didn’t look to be anything living in the park besides the trees and bushes and flowers scattered about.

She walked up to the bench.

Thomas Pepper looked back over his shoulder at her.

“Hello.” He said. “I thought you would never get here.”

“What are you doing here?” Serena asked. She would not panic the way a non-believer would. The Dragon had exposed to her to an abundance of stimuli since she had accepted his calling after her parents death. Visions and prophecy had been introduced her in dreams before…this was no different.

“Your contact with Pepper at his home, that intimacy you experienced with that man led to this. I am but a shadow, an echo of that man you know on the other side.” He beckoned her to sit next to him. After she obeyed, he said, “Serena, I’m here today…tonight in your world, to offer you the opportunity to turn away from the path you are walking. This is your last chance to avoid disaster. This is your last chance to avoid The Whirlwind.”

“The Whirlwind,” She laughed the sound of it foreign in her own ears. “The Whirlwind is something that Caretaker conjured up, something that I will implement of my enemies if it—“

“The Whirlwind is something a great deal more personal than that, Serena.” Thomas Pepper or this entity that wore his guise said. “Serena, every human being, even those who follow the teachings of the Dragon like you do, potentially suffer from their own Whirlwind if they are pushing too hard…if they are reckless. You have been reckless, Serena.”

She sat back on her heels. “I have followed the teachings of The Dragon. I have followed the wishes of the Caretaker.”

“You have not exercised free will. Your recklessness will result in destruction beyond repair and the death of a great many people. From this point forward you will bring out the bad in good men. And bring out the worse in bad men. Yet, if you turn away right now, then your Dragon is little more than a metaphor…your Caretaker in error, or a liar.”

Serena had no response for what Thomas Pepper said. He was on his feet; a big man dressed in one of the other’s signature tailored suits and extended a big left hand to her. She avoided human contact as often as he could…but he wasn’t quite human was he? And until Thomas Pepper, the real Thomas Pepper had seen my nakedness as I undressed in front of him at his townhouse before the Feds arrived…no man had ever seen all of her. Serena had kept herself pure as the teachings of the Dragon had expected of her. She accepted his hand and walked with him.

One minute all of the light in the entire world was behind them, while darkness ruled the realm in front of them. After another minute, three doors appeared out of the nothingness. Serena waited on Thomas to explain…but all he did was squeeze her hand…touch her unlike she had ever allowed a man on the other side to touch her before.

He wore a tired, sad look on his squared jaw. “As you can see, Serena there is three doors in front of you. Behind each one is a point that you can avoid your Whirlwind, here and now. If you choose not to…if you choose unwisely, then you risk the probable outcome of what you see evolve from behind each door.” He said. She nodded in understanding, but did not interrupt.

“When you are exposed to each scenario, I will ask you to turn away and that door will close to you forever. Again, if you choose not to…again, if you choose unwisely, we will move to the next door and so on. If you have not turned way back the time the third and final door shuts, I will simply ask you to turn around, so you may continue you’re walking your path towards your own personal Whirlwind.” He paused for a very long time. “Do you understand, Serena?”

“I do.”

Thomas released her hand and she let it fall to her side.

The first door opened and a tiger…albeit it a paper tiger leaped out. She drew back, fearing at first that she would be the object of its attention. It swerved around her, lay on its stomach for an instant, snarled and let out a mighty roar. Then it repeated the same action, but when it opened its fanged mouth this time it purred like a common housecat would. In fact, Serena took notice of its stripes and how the stripes altered color and shape and number with each blink of her eye, as if the thing didn’t know what type of tiger it actually was. Finally, the darker stripes remained, the snarl intense, and Serena imagined the roar would be frightening when it decided to unleash it again.

Six chocolate covered paper children began walking hand and hand down a paper street. Serena watched the snarl from the paper tiger intensify. At the right moment he pounced on the children…one…and then another…and another, until he was standing with all of his weight on top of them. The chocolate children flapped their arms and legs but the tiger was too heavy, too powerful to remove. Their mouths opened to scream and either Serena couldn’t hear them or the sound wasn’t coming out.

Another minute passed. In the second minute, one of the paper chocolate children stopped waving his arms and legs…he stopped moving at all. The next minute saw another child repeat the action or inaction of the first one. The remaining children opened their mouths wider, but again Serena heard nothing ushering out.

Thomas Pepper said, “What is your decision, Serena?”

She folded her arms and stood flatfooted in defiance. “I understand the symbolism here, Thomas.” She said in a confident voice. “The Paper Tiger is Louis/Hugh Keaton. Those children are caricatures of Black children in Atlanta. Although the two deaths are unfortunate, Operation Where are our Children looks as if it succeeded as I planned it.”

So Serena nodded her head, no.

The first door closed, she heard an audible click of a lock bolting and second door opened immediately thereafter behind her.

Thomas Pepper said, “You should turn away.”

And Serena was surrounded by flames.

The Whirlwind was all around her. Thomas looked unfazed. She fanned the flames as best she could, but they only seemed to grow in intensity and heat. She ran back into the light and seemed to find some relief from the inferno there. Thomas was standing next to her at this point as if he’d always been by her side.

In the distance, Serena saw a small scaled replica of Atlanta. The flames had encompassed the city from the sides and from areas both front and behind it. Paper people ran one way and then another. She could hear them screaming this time. The shrieks of fear and pain nearly overwhelmed her. Some of the cries cascaded from people that she knew.

Am I signally responsible for all of this death and destruction, Serena thought, but dared not say aloud.

“You are,” Thomas voiced the answer to her thought. He turned to her but never lost his eye for the flames. “Turn away from your path here, turn away right now and this destruction stops before it ever begins.”

Serena neared tears. Her father had sacrificed so much. The Caretaker had sacrificed so much more.

“No.” She said again.

The second door closed, and once again she heard an audible click of a lock bolting and the third and final door opened immediately thereafter behind her.

Thomas Pepper said, “You should turn away.”

There was a huge paper chocolate man stomping about. What Serena noticed most about him is that he wore a crown on his brow that grew larger and larger…and larger as the minutes passed them by. He had a flock of paper people walking behind him. And there numbers grew so big, so fast that Serena quit trying to count them all.

Across a street, a group of paper pasty white people were marching towards to where the huge chocolate man with the oversized crown and his flock were standing.

The crown eventually grew too large for the chocolate king and Serena heard it rattle as it fell around his ankles. He clumsily marched on and tripped over his own crown. If he was dead or injured from his fall, Serena could not tell.

Both the chocolate colored paper people and the pasty white paper people paused for only a minute as if they were honoring the fallen, drew out paper sticks and charged each other.

Many of the chocolate covered people fell from what…some type of an illness or disorder …even before the battle had been engaged.

When the combat had ended there were scores on both sides who had been slaughtered. Serena saw such much red paint…so much blood, that she felt the same sensations in her gut, chest, head and face as she did when The FBI rushed her into the side entrance of the courthouse.

She hugged herself, and felt her body trembling.

Thomas had to stop himself for reaching out to comfort her. He bore a look mixed of frustration, disbelief, anger and sadness.

He said to her, “You should turn away.”

“I can’t, Thomas.” She yelled over the cries of the dead and dying. “Even if I wanted to, I’ve come too far to turn back now.”

The final door closed, and Serena found that after she blinked again that she and Thomas were seated on the wooden bench as when this whole episode started. This time, however, she saw birds flying in the sky, she heard bees buzzing about, and a school of ants crawled on her shoe.

Thomas Pepper had changed with the scene as well.

He had lost a lot of his weight, his hair had thinned and most of the life had drained out of his eyes.

He was watching children playing in the distance…what appeared to be real children, not paper caricatures, playing together in a space perfect for viewing although he couldn’t reach out to them as he might have wanted to.

He slowly turned around and found her eyes with his own tired, sad eyes.

And Thomas Pepper or whatever this entity had been said, “You should turn around, Serena.” And when she did not right away he said again with gruff in his tone. “You should turn around…”

…And when Serena did finally turn around, she was back on the jail’s floor and had tuned in time enough to hear one of the male uniformed officers’ call out to the other one. “Hey Freddy,”

Officer Fred Dennison:

He was a brown skinned Black man who was all chests, shoulders, afro and beard. Since his friend had broken his concentration, he stopped doing his paperwork long enough to stretch and yawn. The lone female officer noisily pushed her chair back from her own desk and told the other two that she was stepping out back for a smoke and would make another pot of coffee, if they wanted some, when she got back.

Dennison called out to her: “Please do, Pam. Just make sure you wash your nasty ass hands before you do.” Both men laughed. She removed the cigarette from her fingers long enough to give her co-workers the finger before closing the door behind her.

Fred stretched again and said to the other officer: “And Joe, I ain’t got time for your bullshit. It’s almost 7:30 AM. The sun’s already up. You see all this paperwork I still got to finish before the end of our shift an hour from now. The old lady’s about sick of all the overtime I’ve been working. I’m going to get this shit done, and work a little somethin’…somethin’ this morning with her before she’s off to work herself.”

Joe Wilson had ignored his friend and edged himself closer to her cell. “Yea, you’ll tell me anything, Freddy. But I’ve seen you watching this one since they brought her ass in last night.” Wilson said to his friend Fred Dennison without looking at him. “Why don’t you come a little closer and take a closer look at this.”

Officer Joe Wilson:

He had a small build, golden brown skin, green eyes and his hair could not decide whether it was brown or red when the sunlight hit it from above.

“She’s a little bony for my taste, man.” Officer Dennison replied and went back to his paperwork. “I know you like them types though. I’ll tell you what…why don’t you look enough for the both of us while I finish this—“

“Why don’t you come over here?” Joe Wilson waved a single finger at her.

Serena’s heart thumped louder in her chest as she sat up and slid her frame into the corner of her cell as far as she could from Officer Joe Wilson and his little probing green eyes. He kept summoning his friend to his side, the other man finally giving in to the adolescent chiding.

“You know, I was talking to one of the reporters outside, you know after the cameras finally went dark last night.” Officer Wilson said. “Patsy Clark, you know the brunette who looks like she needs a new hairstylist, actually allowed the word brilliant come out of her mouth when she went to describing this bitch. Patsy thought that even after what this woman said on that web program with that other reporter…what’s his name…the big guy?”

Dennison nodded his fat head. “Yea, you are talking about Pepper, Thomas Pepper who used to write for The Advocate.”

“Yea, that’s him.”

“And now that you say it, I remember what you told me that chick reporter said to you last night.” Dennison’s frown grew intense. “She thought it took a superior mind to conjure up mining those streets that led to Pepper’s crib like that.”

Wilson shook an oversized key ring out of his pocket, sifts through them until he has found the correct one, and unlocks her cell…and steps inside. Dennison takes a long hard look over his shoulder for Pam, gazes back at his partner and ask him what in the hell did he think he was doing.

“If she’s so smart I need her to educate me some.”

“What are you talking about?”

“You know Johnathan Boatwright?”

Dennison had to search his memory. “Yea, I know him; he’s a skinny dude who worked Buckhead a lot last year.”

“He was a skinny dude, man.” Joe Wilson said. “He was one of the first patrolmen to get the call when the feds learned that she was up at Pepper’s townhouse.”

Boom,” Fred said and threw his hands towards the ceiling to highlight the effect.

Serena jumped. She steadied her left hand as Fred Dennison laughed out loud at his own stupidity. Stay calm, Stay focused, she thought, let them have their fun. They aren’t stupid enough to try anything with you.

Under normal circumstances her training would provide her with more than an adequate chance to disarm and kill both these men with simply her bare hands. But she’d been weakened by her processing, her lack of food and proper rest. And, rather she wanted to admit it or not, shaken to her marrow by the vision she’d experienced with the parody of Thomas Pepper and his three doors to prophecy.

And that hard look…the look of hatred, especially in the eye of the big one, Officer Fred Dennison unnerved her.

“A blast like that normally would kill a man on the spot.” Officer Wilson was saying.

“What, Joe, don’t tell me that he survived?”

“Nah, man…Boatwright died last night.” Wilson sounded remorseful. “He lived long enough for me and some of the guys to see him at the hospital.”

Wilson began to approach her again, while his partner backpedaled towards the door where Officer Pam Greer had walked out of to smoke her cigarette. Serena felt the cold steel of the bars behind her massage her shoulders as he leaned on them. Her lips trembled and she tasted something sour in her mouth.

Joe Wilson stood nearly on top of where she was seated.

“I’ll never forget the look of uncertainty plastered in Boatwright’s eyes even as his face couldn’t be seen under all those bandages.” Joe said in a low voice that only she could hear. Fred Dennison was well out of hearing range. “He was so scared.”

Serena had hoped that Dennison, at the least, would come to his senses when he reached the door. But instead of looking out of it for Officer Greer she heard him lock it, the bolt sliding true with an audible click.

The sound reminiscent of the closing doors of prophecy in the vision she experienced earlier.

“What I like is that the same look my friend had in his eyes before he died,” Wilson continued. His friend Dennison had reentered the cell and locked it behind him. “I really like that you… you little brilliant bitch, you have that look on your face right now as well.”

Joe Wilson shook his red head once and then again. “But I’m going to wipe that look off of your face; there ain’t any reason for you to be scared of old Joe.” He slid his belt through his loop, handed his gun to Fred and began to unbutton his pants. He asked about Greer, while he kicked off his shoes.

Dennison’s hard look held up. He told Wilson that Greer was probably running her mouth with the detectives who were arriving early for their shift. She ain’t had a steady man in months.

“Well, that fact is gonna change real fast for you isn’t it, Rooster?” Joe said to her as he lifted her chin. “Even after you threatened Black children in front of the entire world, it wasn’t a guarantee that our justice system would convict you. Even after you admitted that you gave the order to kill innocent people on 411 there was still no guarantee that they would toss you in a cell like this one and throw away the key.”

“You’re right, Joe.” Dennison agreed. “They always get off.”

He squatted down next to her and Serena turned her head away. “What I am going to do right now…I’m going to be brilliant. I am going to prove once and for all that rape is not about sex but about power. I’m not the least bit attracted to you. But I’m going to guarantee that you never forget this moment of my total control over you.”

Wilson ripped at her jail issued gown, while he fumbled with releasing his manhood from his trousers. Dennison had his own gun out and pointed at her head and the look of hatred on his face is unnecessary because Serena was already convinced that he will shoot her if she makes too much of a fuss.

Serena struggled, shook her head wildly in denial, and managed to flip over, ending up on her knees.

That didn’t work in her favor however. Wilson used the bars of the cell…and then his own body weight to pin her in the corner.

Serena had exhausted her last avenues of escape.

If she dared to scream, she knew that Dennison would shoot her.

She could feel Wilson’s hand ripping at her underwear…she could feel him hardening as it begins to part her thighs and grace her pubic hairs.

Serena remembered her conversation with Louis Keaton, in what feels like a lifetime ago: And often too many of them are uneducated, unreliable and act too uncivilized to contribute to society.

Wilson slapped her once across her head and when her face took the brunt of an impact with the bars all of her resistance at last came to an end.

As the first tears ran down her face, Serena Tennyson looked past the bars, and in her mind’s eye she saw her father waiting for her at the end of a grueling marathon. I want you to remember how you feel right now, his voice resonated lovingly in her mind, when life throws you its most tormenting curve, when mankind is at its ugliest, I want you to think of how you overcame it all to achieve this triumph. I want you to always treasure this moment right here, right now; and never forget the Dragon’s call:

You will be fine.

You’ll be good.

You can still fly.

Serena heard a gunshot.

And then she heard the glass on the topside of the door where Officer Pam Greer has gone to smoke shattering.

Officer Joe Wilson stopped before he could finish entering her, before he could go where she had allowed no man to go before in her life. The woman was calling for them.

Dennison said, “Turn your ass around, Pam, and walk back out of here right now.”

Pam Greer held her nine millimeter out in front of her, her feet planted squarely on the tile, and didn’t move, not with eight shots still left in her gun.

“Back off of the prisoner right now,” She commanded them. “If both of you idiots want to live you’ll do as I say.”

Serena could hear the cavalry—dozens upon dozens of uniformed officers running towards this block. Wilson yells back at Greer that Serena deserves this and so much more. Dennison turns his own gun on Pam—a mistake in which she makes him pay with his life, when she fires two rounds into the skin just above his left eye before he completed his turn.

“Joe, don’t make me kill you too.” Pam said, tears streaking down her cheeks.

Officer Pam Greer:

She was a petite brown skinned black woman with big brown eyes, big lips and a stylish haircut who was holding a big nine millimeter handgun in her small hands.

Wilson knew that he wouldn’t be able to reach his gun that was trapped underneath Fred Dennison’s dead body—so he must have decided right then—that if he was going to die this morning that he would serve Serena her breakfast first.

He grabbed Serena by her head and decided to shove his manhood between her other lips instead—

And Officer Pam Greer dropped him where he once stood by shooting him in his head.

Serena never moved from her seated place on the tile, while she watched the room fill with uniformed officers. One of the senior voices called for Officer Greer to stand down, first in a commanding, then a more sympathetic tone. She lowered her weapon but did not holster it.

Instead, she unlocked the cell door, entered, and kicked both weapons away from the carcass that was once Officer Fred Dennison. She choked back further tears and placed two fingers on his neck and checks for a pulse. Serena notes that death has robbed Dennison of his hard look that he must have learned to master over the years.

Next, while the other officers stare in a stunned silence, Officer Pam Greer moves on to Officer Wilson, performs the same ritual on him and finally stood up at her full height, finally relaxing her grip on her gun enough for a comrade to lift it from her fingers with a pen.

Three more officers entered Serena’s cell and began to escort Greer out, as quickly as the woman who saved her, could manage.

“Officer Greer?” Serena called out to the other woman. Two plain clothed detectives began to attend to Serena’s needs and sat her on the cot. “Officer Greer?” She said when the petite, uniformed woman failed to answer her call the first time.

It took all of the strength and some time for the group of women to turn Greer so that the two women could see each other’s face.

“I should thank you.” Serena said.

Greer screamed.

When she had finished at last she said, “I’ve worked with both of those men for over five years. I know Joe’s brother. I’ve met Fred’s wife.” She began to sob uncontrollably. “And now I have to go home this morning and explain to them that I killed them…for you.” Pam’s head lowered in shame. “I killed these men because of you. So… don’t…thank…me.”

An hour after Officer Pam Greer was escorted out of her cell, Serena watched a half dozen detectives begin to mechanically examine the crime scene. Another group of three detectives took care of her needs. Serena was told by one, who knew his way around a buffet, that they would need a statement before the FBI arrived and took over the investigation. Her appearance in front of the Judge would be postponed for at least a day now, maybe two. She also was told that she had to refrain from showering until medical personnel could examine her.

Two hours later after she had made her statement, showered and changed, Serena lay on the tiled floor of a new cell with one window high above, and traded local law enforcement for a team of federal agents who were tasked at guarding her this time.

Serena shivered.

Behind her, rays of sunlight were glowing from the window. She wanted to warm herself…yet she remembered that once someone very dear to her saying that beams of sunlight radiating throughout small pockets of space, like in this room, were like the eyes of God piercing through. And that the guilty shied away from this light for fear of His judgment raining upon them.

If she didn’t believe it the human deity…then why was she so…hesitant…Perhaps he did exist after all?

She crawled backwards, lay in the trail of the light and let God’s judgment rain upon her.

Xavier

Calhoun State Prison (Delta Corridor) 5th Day

 

“So deep down, at least a part of you knew that Julian would do something like this all along?”

Warden Donald Bright’s blonde hair had darkened with sweat and his cheeks had reddened into a fine color of cinnamon. The entire search party: Xavier Prince, Warden Bright, Rose Dixon and two other uniformed were winded after a trek up to the sixth floor produced empty results. All five of Carter’s men had escaped with many of the inmates on that level when A Riot’s Last Gleaming started.

Xavier kept walking and didn’t provide a response. Warden Bright quickened his pace and circled in front of the smaller man and blocked his path. Prince drunkard eyes flashed him a look or irritation. We don’t have time for this. “Alright, Warden…so I guessed that he would.” Xavier cut his eyes at Rose Dixon who was hanging on every word exchanged between the two men.

Warden Bright caught his silent messaging. “Ah…Rose, take these two men and begin a search of the southwest block. When I studied the diagram of this place, I saw some isolated points over there that might provide a man some hiding spots.” He pointed a finger at her. “Tell no one any specifics of what you are searching for.”

After this search party had concluded their meeting with Julian, Warden Bright had gone alone to speak with representatives of both the Georgia State Police and the National Guard. They had agreed, at least for now, to abide by his wishes and provide tactical support and a perimeter defense and not allow any convict to leave the interior of the prison itself. Bright told Xavier that they were on a time frame of two or three hours, no more, to bring this matter to a head. The woman who led the Georgia State Patrol assemblage told him that there had been an incident at the courthouse in downtown Atlanta already during Serena Tennyson’s arraignment. She wouldn’t go into further details with him, but privately mentioned that state couldn’t tolerate any more screw-ups.

Rose Dixon hadn’t moved. “I won’t leave you alone with this man. I don’t trust him and either should you, Warden. For all we know, he may have been on this riot business with inmate Moore all along.”

Warden Bright squeezed her big hands with some affection and smiled at her, the woman’s own overreaction back in the library that nearly cost all of their lives forgiven. “I’ll be fine, Rose.” He said. “By splitting up, we will cover more ground this way. We need to find Carter’s men before Julian’s Black Knights get their hands on them. We’ll be in a better position to bargain for the hostage’s lives if we do.”

Rose Dixon reluctantly agreed with a curt nod. After she and the two uniforms vacated the scene Xavier said, “Make no mistake here, Warden, the grievances on the front side of your list are all legitimate. Fain’s rule here was a reign in Hell.” Xavier stopped to rest and leaned his back against a nearby brick wall. “For the flip side of that paper, I suspected that the opportunity for Julian and his Black Knight’s to strike back at Carter’s associates would be too great to pass up once he figured I was safely off the premises.” He stood up straight again. “You said you want truth from me. Well, the truth is I didn’t know the specifics of this plan, or whether there was a plan at all, despite what your bodyguard thinks. I do know that Julian is carrying out his plan the way that I would, if I were in his place.”

“Fain, that freaking idiot,” Warden Bright spat on the floor. “How could he schedule this inspection, allow any unnecessary civilian passage through this place, especially the day of your scheduled release, knowing how volatile this situation had grown here.”

“Did you get a radio off of one those uniformed officers before we left?”

“Shit, I didn’t,” He peered down the hallway, whistled at two uniforms within a patrol group and commanded that someone fetch him a radio. A bucktoothed sergeant gave Xavier a hard stare, but handed the Warden a radio anyway. Xavier took it and turned to channel four.

“What are you doing, Prince?” The Warden wanted to know. “Who in the hell are you calling?”

“Backup,” Xavier grinned. “Julian has his plans. I have mine.”

The Warden listened as Xavier disguises his voice, making it darker, richer as if he were of Mexican or Columbian decent and called for a guard named Evans.

Xavier completed a list of commands in Latin.

The man, Evans, on the other end responded in Latin as well, Xavier turned the dial to the off position and handed the radio back to the warden.

Warden Bright was struggling to keep his mouth closed and the look of astonishment off of his brow. “Who was that? What did you tell him?”

“Lieutenant Vincent Evans has been one of the most decorated guards at this and other state facilities for over 25 years. In the past year, however, he has taken the mark of A House in Chains…he has visualized our people’s future and wishes to amend what he has saw.”

“God, Almighty,” Was all the warden could manage. After another second spent in disbelief he asked, “Are you going to share with me what you said to him?”

Xavier looked to each side to make sure the bucktoothed man who had brought the radio had returned to his post and that no other guard was coming. “I instructed Evans to gather up more help…more Peacekeepers, and search every crack and crevice of the western wing of the promenade and the first floor. Carter’s men still don’t know that I am not leaving per schedule. I would have had to exit through those sectors to complete my processing before my official release.”

Yet, Warden Bright only could find the energy, the resolve to rest his bigger frame on the opposite wall from where Xavier had paused only minutes earlier. “How many are there,” The Warden asked. “I want you to tell me how many of the state’s men…how many of my men share your vision of the future, Prince?”

“Enough,” Xavier said and pulled a toothpick out of his pocket and stuck it in his mouth. I need a cigarette. “What is more important to you right now is that these prison guards know the layout of Calhoun better than Julian and his followers do. And I’m convinced that James Carter’s hoods are where I say that they are. But we still have to find them. And whether it is because of an itchy trigger finger of one of Julian’s Black Knights, or the imminent incursion by The Georgia National Guard and State Police, we are running out of time, Warden.”

The warden shrugged. “Did you and Julian come to some type of agreement after I left to speak with the outsiders? Did you two already decide Carter’s men’s fates before they are even found?”

“We agreed that if I found them first that I would decide their outcome. Those men’s lives belong to me in Julian’s eyes anyway.” Xavier felt the other man glaring down at him “I never told him exactly what I do if I found them first, Bright. But it was the best solution that I could come up with at the time.” He said and started to walk again—

The warden grabbed him by the forearm, but as soon as he gained his attention, he aptly let go. “I don’t get this. I have to ask you the same question Julian did back in the library…whose side are you on, Prince?” Xavier only answered by swerving the toothpick from one side of his mouth to the other. “I believe that horrible tale Julian narrated to the room back in the library. I believe that Carter’s men had their sights on killing you later on today as you left the prison. What I don’t believe is that you will find these men and simply let them…walk away from all this and potentially anger the Black Knights and allow those hostages to be harmed.”

Xavier jumped in the other man’s face. Warden Bright must have seen a handful of guards reach for their sidearm and screamed at the men to put their guns away. “I’m not siding with you, Warden.” Xavier chewed on the toothpick and willed himself to take a half a step backwards. “I am trying to protect the lives of those civilians who have been threatened, if only partially, in my name. I want to lessen the chances that they will be slaughtered if we don’t find Carter’s goons first. I’ll worry about the ramifications, all the rest, once we’ve accomplished that much.”

“I get it now,” Warden Bright said three intersections and down a flight of stairs later. “In truth you don’t really give a damn about those civilians. This is all about you. This is about politics and protecting the image of your precious little House in Chains.”

Xavier snorted. “Of course, politics plays a role in every decision I make, Warden. You work in a governing position. You should know this.” He ran a hand through his short mane of hair, forcing himself to remain calm. They had loss enough time as it was. “Militant behavior should never be the first option for A House in Chains. My father taught me that when he was the One. He taught his followers to exhaust any and all other avenues before we turn to violence.”

“And your friend, Julian Moore, I don’t think all of the skulls and crossbones tattooed to his body comfort me into believing he shares you or your father’s views.”

“Julian’s been a gang banger for as long as he can remember.” Xavier admitted to the other man. “The stories he told me…he fights, he kills, and he does these things because he hasn’t learned how to do anything else. I will tell you that he has grown at least a little bit, because if he had not, then those hostages up there would already be dead.” It was Xavier’s turn to grab the warden’s wrist, but only to check the time on his watch. “Warden, we need to move. We have unexpected allies, but time is not on our side.”

“I know…but…” The warden placed a hand on each hip and shook his head in disbelief.

“What?”

“Like I told you in my office earlier, I’ve been in this game a long time and I thought that I’ve saw it all. I’ve seen men find truth and clarity locked inside these walls. I’ve seen men find sorrow for their victims and empathy for the families that have been left behind. I’ve seen hundreds of men find Jesus—if only because they had nothing else to do while they served out their sentence.” Warden Bright said. “And yet, Julian Moore found you.”

Just then, a stocky guard Xavier hadn’t remembered seeing before during his incarceration at Calhoun ran up to them with a rifle in his hand. “Warden Bright, is that you, sir?”

“It is, Sargent.” Warden Bright said to the man. “Report,”

“Lieutenant Evans and a group of four or five other officers are engaged in some type of standoff with some unidentified inmates on the promenade. Before I left to find you I saw a cluster of Black Knights closing on the section as well. Julian Moore was with them. If you’ll follow me sir…”

When the three of them arrived on the promenade Xavier noted that Evans men, those who had accepted the mark of A House in Chains, had barricaded themselves between Carter’s men and Julian’s Black Knights who were arriving in force on the scene. One butter ball of man, with his head nearly between his knees gasping for oxygen, had proclaimed that Julian’s people had found Carter’s men first.

“Liar,” Warden Bright shouted loud enough that every man on this floor knew that he and Xavier had arrived. “These prison officers are friends of A House in Chains. They share Xavier’s vision for their people.”

Julian walked, ever slowly towards where Warden Bright and Xavier Prince had made their stand. “I don’t see it that way, Warden.” He grinned for the first time that Xavier could remember since this crisis began. “I do see that my men out number your men, what, four to one—five to one.”

Xavier slid smoothly between the warden and Julian Moore. He said: “Stand down, Julian. This is over. You have been a thug. You have been a murderer who has killed without thought or conscious. Don’t be a liar as well.”

Julian stretched his amazingly large eyes to a full bulge, and Xavier inwardly braced himself to be struck by this gang banger that he had learned to call a friend and an ally in this hell hole.

Julian simply said, “Respect of self, Xavier…respect of family, and finally of community, yes I can recall your words to me as if you said them a minute ago.”

“Then stand down, Julian,” Xavier placed his right hand on a tattooed shoulder and rubbed at a particular area of skin that showcased the mark of A House in Chains amongst all the other body art. “You told me that if I found Carter’s men first and Evans is my man, then we had an agreement that their lives…or deaths as it may be, belong to me.”

“I told you that I wasn’t worthy of a seat in your house.” Julian said in a remorseful tone. “I’m not as strong as you are, Xavier. I can’t let go of what was done to you before. I can’t push the thought out of my mind when we learned what they were planning to do to you on this day.” Julian’s voice cracked. “I’m no better than James Carter or these other fools locked up in here. I can’t let go of my hate for them.”

Xavier hugged the other man then and gave his wiry frame a brotherly squeeze. “I’m here for you, Julian. I’m here. There is no need for you to avenge me. You can’t retaliate for a murder that has yet to occur.”

Julian returned Xavier’s embrace and cried for a long time.

And then he pushed the other man away and cocked his pistol once more.

“You are a great man, Xavier Prince. You are the man that I wish that I could be.” He said “But you are wrong today. These men are too dangerous to not to kill here and now.”

The Warden moved with the speed and precision that men half his age weren’t blessed with. He was a blur. He was a thought. He was a ghost. He snatched a gun out of one of his own men’s hands, so that he now possessed two, and drew it on the area where Carter’s men had been forced to kneel. He shot and killed three of Carter’s men before they had a chance to get to their feet. One of the Black Knights took the aggressive posture of The Warden as if he were acting against Julian and twisted his frame and placed it so he could get a clean shot off at Bright. In his mind’s eye, Xavier could picture the lone uniform that had accompanied them down here targeting the gang banger and the remaining Peacekeepers aiming at him. So he used his small stature and strength to get underneath Julian’s man just enough to make contact with his elbow, pushing the gun’s barrel to the ceiling when the man fired off a round.

Meanwhile, the warden found his fourth target as one of Carter’s men had lifted himself off his knees, charged past a Peacekeeper and lunged at Julian. Time’s run out, Xavier thought, everyone within a hundred feet of the promenade had to hear those shots. Soon, this corridor would be overrun with trigger happy Georgia State National Guardsmen and State Patrol Men. God help us all.

Somehow the fifth and final hatemonger had stolen A Peacekeeper’s weapon from him, shot the original owner, the man next to him and fired a third round that grazed Xavier’s skull.

The bullet had struck the officer who had accompanied him instead, killing the man instantly.

Julian unloaded half a clip into the man, each bullet holding his frame up, so the one behind it could find its mark on the man’s torso.

A second or two later, Warden Bright moved like a man on a mission needed to; he instructed Xavier’s surviving Peacekeepers to place to place a gun that had been used in the exchange in a dead man’s hand. Initially, no one moved so Warden Bright explained again louder but slower in case anyone was having trouble comprehending.

The deed was done as Rose Dixon led a group of nearly uniformed men and women onto the already crowded promenade. She was struggling to catch her breath, but her face brightened when she saw that Donald Bright was very much alive.

“Sir, are you alright, are you hurt?”

“I’m fine, Rose.” Warden Bright squeezed the woman’s arm. “All of you lower your weapons.” He commanded to everyone in the room, Julian’s Black Knights in particular. “There are hostages up in the library who are waiting to be freed and a few people here who need medical attention, including myself.”

Rose looked around the area at the carnage. Blood had been splattered on the walls and the floors. Xavier had lost his toothpick. “What happened here?” She asked.

Warden Bright pointed in the general direction of the five dead men who once belonged to James Carter and kept emotion of what sounded like a rehearsed answer to Xavier. “These men were operatives of James Carter and perhaps Pandora. They nearly ambushed me and Xavier Prince when we entered this section. Inmate Julian Moore in his Black Knights had already signaled to me that they were prepared to lay down their arms, release the captives and return control of the prison to my control. But they rushed to our aid when they first heard shots down here and Julian Moore killed the last assailant who would have shot me or Prince without his assistance.”

Warden Donald Bright let his lies breathe and waited to see if anyone, including Xavier Prince, was stupid enough to deny his claims. Julian Moore swallowed a response he might have made and silently rolled his big eyes at Xavier.

Rose couldn’t stop shaking her head. “I never should have left you, sir.”

“There are plenty of questions that could use answers, Rose. I’m sure you don’t envy the report that I’ll have to write on this one.” His smile was infectious as Rose and a few others let out a chuckle. Xavier folded his arms instead. Circumstances dictate that I could never call you a friend, Warden Donald Bright. He could admire to collective way that the other man carried himself.

The warden and the gang banger stared at each other for a long time. This all wouldn’t be truly over, until Julian relinquished his weapon and called on his Black Knights to do the same.

Julian broke eye contact first and headed his gun to the warden, butt end first.

It took less than two hours after that moment to release the hostages from the library where they had been caged like animals, to return the control of Calhoun State Prison to Warden Donald Bright, and have all of the convicts return peacefully to their cells.

All of the convicts save for one, Xavier Prince, the One, the leader of A House in Chains.

He was released into the custody of his two grade school aged boys who had to kneel on the concrete and brace himself as the leap into his arms for an extended embrace in the alley that separated the prison walls from the highway that led far away from here. Both of his children’s mothers kept their selves at a polite distance away to allow him the moment with his children. He had never loved either of their mothers, but he had respected both of them more than ever before for their gesture.

As he walked down the alley with a son on each side of him he stopped his walking, to gander at a crowd that was massing at the end of the alley that seemed to be growing in number by the minute—by the second.

He must have seen a thousand People of Color standing there.

He handed his boys off to each of their mothers so they would not be separated in this throng of people. He blew a kiss at each of them and promised that he would be theirs…just theirs in the days to come.

He turned back to the crowd that began chanting his name. He inhaled a deep breath, wished for a cigarette or toothpick for which he had neither…and begun the long walk he’d always been destined to take.

Young kids hopped on the shoulders of adults for a better look at him. Women and even some teenaged girls giggled at him and hugged him and kissed him on his cheeks and jaws as he passed. He was lit up with the light from the flashes of cell phone cameras. Men his age and older waited patiently for their turn to shake his hand, pat him on the shoulder, or speak words of encouragement that the large crowd didn’t really allow him to hear.

His walk didn’t last as long as he might have imagined. Two very large Peacekeepers, who were dressed in the traditional garb of khaki suits, hoody’s and sneakers, plucked his small frame up as if he were a child himself and placed him on their shoulders. He had protested but his cries fell upon deft ears, especially when the crowd saw what was happening and roared louder and louder with their approval.

At long last, the crying out, the singing, the chanting of his name ceased long enough for him to speak to the mass, while he sat high on these other men’s shoulders. He asked, “Brothers and sisters, what do you see when you visualize our People’s future?”

He heard the mass yell back to him in near unison. “We see days with misery and pain.”

With the exception of the two Peacekeepers who continued to hold their leader up high, the crowd broke into the largest cheer so far…and then began to jump up and down in place.

Xavier Prince smiled for them and urged them on. That is what a leader sometimes has to do for his troops, even if he doesn’t feel like smiling. He found the four figures of his two boys and their mothers some distance behind them and his smile grew wider and more genuine.

Warden Donald Bright had joined Rose Dixon and several other uniformed prison guards at the foot of the alley. And even at this great distance, Xavier Prince could read the question burrowed on their faces and answered them silently with a look of his own. These People of Color before you are engaging in what we have come to know as the stomp.

It is the ultimate sign of pride, love of our people and cause…and the ultimate act of defiance against all of those who would dare try and hurt us.

Xavier Prince muttered a prayer on his lips that his people’s defiance would be enough to save them from what may be coming.

Angel

Fulton County Courthouse, 5th day

 

She stumbled, ever so slightly, as she sat down in one of the chairs that encompassed Interrogation Room Number Eight of The Fulton County Courthouse.

Dr. Angel Hick-Dupree had only three shots of Tequila the night before. That wasn’t enough to even start feeling good. She’d seen a shitload of patients running her practice down in Macon drinking heavier than that and with hours less sleep. She sipped at the mug of black coffee, and it’s just coffee only, she’d keep her word to Agent Sheridan about that part at least, and pulled her chair tight against the table.

She just needed an extra minute or two so she could stop feeling the world would stop spinning on its axis beneath her. I’ll be fine. I am fine.

The room was a box shaped, cool, had a piss poor paint job, and had her friend Special Agent Christopher Prince, Sheridan and Agent Tabitha Blue hidden behind the mirror that served as the classic two way glass like they did in the movies. I’m sure they’re still getting set up back there. She gathered together and then sorted the notes that the FBI wanted her to question Serena Tennyson about when she was brought in. No one saw my stumble. I’m fine.

Two female agents followed by two uniformed female officers had escorted the leader of Pandora into the interrogation room. Angel could hear the prisoner’s shackles with every final step she had taken before the door swung open and they began to methodically disconnect her from bondage.

Deputy Director couldn’t in his wildest wet dream imagine that his troops would have bagged such a prize, but here Angel was now seated across from her in an orange jumpsuit that mandated that she was an inmate of The Atlanta Justice System. Angel smoothed out her eyebrows, pushed the collar of her silk blouse down into she felt it was perfect, took one last drink of her flavorless black coffee and focused on the moment, as she had always successfully done before. The FBI needed as much Intel as they could about Pandora’s current and future operations. It was time for Angel to earn her keep.

“Hello, Angel,” Serena initiated the conversation. “How long has it been now… a year…two? I’ve looked so forward to seeing you again.”

Oh no, Serena, we need to keep this conversation professional, impersonal…and focused on you, at least for now. “I’ll remind you that you have waved your right to be represented by legal counsel at this time.”

“I have.”

“I will also remind you that anything you tell me, you are sharing that information willingly with representatives of Federal Bureau of Investigations,” Angel made a slight inkling of her head to left where the mirror sat on the wall. “And they have representatives present on the other side of that glass.”

“I’m fine, Angel.” Serena said without looking at the mirror herself.

Angel scanned the other woman’s face; she had the slightest discoloration building underneath her eye and some purple bruising on her forehead and a cut by her left ear. The mastermind behind the vicious and cowardly attacks that had killed scores of innocent Atlanta residents deserved to be tried, convicted and even potentially executed for her crimes. I will gladly pay to reserve a seat at that party.

Still…no woman, not even this one, deserved to be whipped…and nearly raped, especially when she was supposed to be under the protection of the Atlanta legal system. I know that everyone from Rice to Sheridan to the APD is taking a beating by the media and women’s group for the two men’s behavior.

And now she and Serena had another bond that tied them together.

Angel reached for her coffee out of habit, the cup lukewarm against her fingertips. Serena matched her movement and swallowed a third of a cup of water in a single gulp. Since the incident Serena has been assigned a shift of four female guards to stay with her at all times. Sheridan shared the report with Angel as she arrived at the courthouse this morning: Serena was eating very little, only the fruits and vegetables that came with her meals. She was consuming water by the gallons. And she was seen muttering prayers from time to time in her cell.

Angel cleared her throat. “Both the FBI and the Atlanta Police Department extend a full-fledged apology for the trauma that you experienced at the hands of state employees.” Angel said. “I assure you that either association condones such behavior, in fact it is unacceptable and intolerable in their eyes. A full investigation is taking place, even now as you and I speak.”

“It’s not your fault, Angel.” Serena said quietly.

Angel stole a peek at her associates standing behind the glass. She could imagine Christopher pacing like a caged tiger. Sheridan probably was standing stoic, almost a statue in concentration. And she didn’t know Tabitha Blue well enough to give a fair opinion on the younger woman. Remember to focus, Angel, she thought to herself as she planted her two inch heel on the floor.

“I’ll share this with you, Serena,” Angel leaned close. “It took some prodding to convince the FBI to allow me to conduct this conversation with you, especially considering my short stay in Pandora.” Actually, it was Sheridan’s idea, but Angels’ lying, especially to herself over the years about the booze and the men, flowed so naturally that sometimes she couldn’t help herself. “If you have any statements you would like to make, if you have anything meaningful to say to me this would be one hell of a time to start.”

“All in good time,” Serena sat back in her chair far enough to cross one matchstick of a leg over the other. “How is Thomas Pepper? Are your associates, as you call them, treating him well? And try telling the truth this time.”

Angel shifted her feet under the table. “I’m not at liberty to speak about him at this time.”

“How deeply do they suspect that he is involved in this?” Serena acknowledged the people behind the mirror for the first time with a quick glance.

“How deep,” Angel said in a quick burst of anger. “Eight APD officers and two federal agents died from the result of you having the roads to his townhouse mined during your little visit. He is involved in this, Serena. In so many words you threatened to have black children kidnapped if Xavier Prince and the others in A House in Chains don’t disband and turn themselves in.” Angel felt a snarl curl on her surgically enhanced lips. “That means you will be involving Louis Keaton, a known pedophile, which also involves…me, because I treated his sickness when he was a patient of mine when I served under you.” Angel got to her feet and made quick circle of the room. She combed her brunette hair with her fingers. “We’re all in this thing together. The feds will have to make their decisions to who is truly involved and to what extent.”

Serena sat back in her seat in silence. Angel sat back opposite her and examined her facial expression for any sign of …anything. Serena had always been a glacier. Angel had rarely run into anyone that was difficult to gage their emotional state, if at least on an introductory level. That is why Angel had felt that she was reaching Louis Keaton, getting at the core of where his real issues were.

But Serena Tennyson was either asking about Thomas Pepper because she hoped to distract Angel from conducting her interview at her pace and with the subject matter she wanted or did the woman truly has a concern over the man’s well-being? Did anyone truly know the extent of the two’s relationship? Christopher had told Angel about the shrine Thomas had dedicated to the wall of his spare room. Angel glanced at her wristwatch. Maybe, they’ll get more out of him that I’m getting out of her. Christopher and Agent Blue should have left from behind the glass by now so that they could conduct their own…debriefing, she wouldn’t call it an interrogation, with Thomas Peeper down the hall.

Now it was Serena’s turn to lean over…and she locked her long fingers with Angel’s.

“Emissary, when have you last had a vision?”

Angel snatched her hand back with such suddenness, with Serena’s grip so tight, that the retraction caused the other woman to scratch her enough to draw blood.

Angel grabbed a nearby napkin, dabbed it in Serena’s drinking water and put slight pressure on the wound which was clotting already. The truth of the matter was that the doctor wasn’t sure what exactly disturbed her more: Was Angel upset that Serena had used her old Pandora call sign that she’d been issued during her brief stint with them, or did this woman somehow know about this dream that Angel had last night?

Angel had dreamed that she was in this same courthouse, sometime in the future she guessed, and she was walking around the building as naked as the day she was born.

What was worse it that she was all alone.

“I hadn’t had one in a very long time.” Angel lied and if the other woman saw through it then so be it. “I did have nightmares after I saw both People of Color and your Pandora operatives being pulled out of the Fox Theatre. I’ll never forget watching the construction crews finding a foot, arm or a severed head form a child at the remains of The Andrew Young Youth Center.”

“Perhaps you aren’t really sure when the timeline of your nightmare occurs. You think it might be about the present or hope that it was something in your past, when it is truly the future you see.” Serena told her. “Operation 411 is over and done with. We are dawning on a new hallmark, a new chapter…The Whirlwind. If The Circle doesn’t turn away from their wicked ways then that carnage you saw last night was not a nightmare but a vision and it is not about what has happened but will yet happen.”

“You are truly insane, Serena.”

“I believe in the power of The Dragon. And my visions never reveal themselves so simply, Angel. In truth, I’ve never seen you given to the flames. Although I know that we all are given to them eventually.” The other woman’s voice quieted as if she were in reflection. “But you are headed towards a pain and suffering that will make those days your father left you alone in that camper feel like child’s play in comparison.”

Angel got in the other woman’s face, tired of this game of words between them. “Let’s talk about fathers, shall we.” Angel pushed a single piece of Serena’s red hair that had loosed itself from her bun out of her face. “Your father was a believer in the flames as well. That’s where you learned this foolishness from.”

“Leave my father out of this.” Serena said, her thin lip nearing a quiver.

“We shared stories about our fathers, remember.” Angel remembered drinking too much scotch that night. Serena had nursed only on club soda. “A couple of weeks after you took the state title and set a record, if I can recall your tale correctly, in a marathon that your father had attended—“

“Leave my father out of this, Angel.” Serena said in a low, dangerous voice that would have frightened most people. Doctor Angel Hicks Dupree wasn’t most people.

“Two weeks after you won that marathon, your father had most of his stock options go south on him. He’d lost everything.”

“He made a mistake, Angel, but unlike most human beings, he owned up to it.”

“He came home from the office,” Angel continued as if Serena hadn’t spoken at all. “He had decided that it was time to sacrifice his body to the flames.”

“He was a brave man—“

“And how brave was your mother, Serena?”

“That…bitch…she never believed in Daddy’s visions, his callings. She ran like the weakling she was. But Daddy caught her, cornered her.”

“Yea, he did, Serena. She’d made it as far to the tool shed out back before doused her with gallon after gallon of gasoline. And then he struck a match and tossed it at her.”

“He did not want her to suffer over time for his mistakes.” Serena’s eyes had widened to full hilt, and Angel could imagine that the woman sitting across her was no longer the hard leader of Pandora, but the 17 year old girl who watched this entire scene unfold as she observed in horror from the kitchen door.

“He set her ablaze, Serena.” Angel sat back in her chair, exhausted as if she had ran one of Serena’s marathons for her.

“And then he glanced back at me,” Serena said in a reflective voice. “I’ve often wondered why he didn’t come for me as well. Perhaps, it was because the flames had danced their way over to his pants leg and licked at his thighs, his groin…he could have ran but he didn’t. The flames had come for him at last and he stood there and let them. I recall it being a slow burn. He screamed in ecstasy. He sacrificed himself so I would be a better person. I will always remember them as flames of disclosure.”

“You are truly insane, Serena.” Angel said.

“No, I’m being quite reasonable considering the opponents I’m up against.” The Serena Tennyson, the hard one who was the leader of Pandora had returned in earnest. “I’m trying to save People of Color from themselves.”

“Save it, Serena.” Angel spat. “Take another look around you. A House in Chains is not our father’s NAACP; they are not our grandfather’s Civil Rights Movement. For the past 20 some odd years they have lifted the Black Community to heights never seen in this country’s history. Isaac Prince’s vision has transcended an entire race. You know better than I do, that their strength comes from their unrelenting resolve…and their numbers. A House of Chains got away from the old school mentality of basing their movement around Christianity, Islam, or any other religion. They don’t care if you are a smoker or a casual drinker. They accept people into their bosom and value them whether they are rich or poor whether they are college educated or ride on the back of a garbage truck for a living.”

Angel got to her feet again, and rounded on the other woman, ending up behind her left ear. “Respect of Person, Serena,” Angel said. “For the first time in this country’s history, the numbers show that there are more Men of Color enrolled in college than there are in prisons. Respect of family, Serena. Black women having children out of wedlock is at 35 or 40 year low. The divorce rate has been cut in half. Respect of Community, Serena, cases of rape, domestic violence, gun violence, poverty, and drug convictions are all at or near historic lows in what we still consider predominantly black neighborhoods.”

“They can still be cruel, unreliable…and uncivilized,” Angel imagined that the other woman pictured her two attackers with her doe eyes as the words parted her lips.

“The Great Recession set them back. It set all of us back.”

“They are doomed to eventual failure, Angel. I’m trying to save them from themselves. This progress you speak of has come too hard to fast. Isaac Prince’s vision was an honorable one. His son and those in The Circle who do his bidding have perverted his father’s vision. Even their name, People of Color speaks to their arrogance.”

Angel stooped and wrapped her left arm around Serena. She seemed not to unwelcome the doctor’s touch, at least for now. “You’re wrong, Serena, it truly speaks to how people of Latino and Asian, and Middle Eastern…and hell, Caucasian people have joined their ranks, have taken the mark. Some government officials estimate that there are 10,000 Peacekeepers in America. This young men and women are drug tested, trained, and eventually set loose on the streets of urban America, taking back neighborhoods from prostitution, corrupt cops, thieves and drug pushers.”

“That would be all good and well, Doctor, but remember the threat that is not so subtlety implied at the conclusion of that passage.”

She did know it: And when our homes and our Houses are secured at last we will turn our attention to the Rooster, for he must make reparations for all that he has done to us; this is the ultimate Vision of our Future.

“And I guess you mean to stop them by any means necessary.” Angel asked her.

“No. I suppose not.” And just as Angel’s eyes flicked ever hopeful, if Serena Tennyson would turn from this destructive path, she knew Pandora would fall apart. “I’ll be dead soon.” She peeked over at the mirror on the wall. “They won’t let me live much longer.”

Twenty minutes after Serena abandoned Angel and the interrogation with for the return of her security detail…and her chains, the doctor watched as Christopher, Agent Sheridan and Agent Blue took her spot in the room that was warming as the afternoon sunshine moved in.

Christopher spoke up first, “I’m a little worried about your safety from reprisals from Pandora, Doc, I think we should have your hotel room monitored at all times moving forward.”

“I agree.” Blue said. “I think we got a lot of your interview with her, but she is trying to use you the same way she used that reporter down the hall.”

Agent Sheridan nodded, but looked a little shaken. “That whole bit about her parent’s murder suicide. It was just a footnote in our files…but to hear both of you recanting the story. I think her entire ideology is based on her relationship with him.”

“Yea,” Christopher agreed. “Her attachment with him and whoever this Caretaker character is partly why we are all in this mess right now.”

Angel nodded in her head in agreement. She reached for her coffee cup out of habit; the coolness of the handle reminded her that it was undrinkable for more than just one reason. Her childhood friend and Tabitha excused themselves, anxious for another round at Thomas Pepper, with Chris putting up a phone sign with his hand mutely saying that he would call her later.

Sheridan remained behind. The doctor consciously using the gathering of her paperwork as an excuse to remover herself from his shadow just in case the whiskey betrayed her by leaking through her pores with the perspiration that had built up with the tension of the interview.

Yet, in that same exact moment, Angel decided that she would go out and by bottle or two of gin or whatever else she chose after she left her. She would keep her a small irrelevant stash with her at all times in case the stress became overwhelming. Fuck Sheridan and his expectations. She could function with the booze. She had always functioned with it before, that wouldn’t change now. Damn. A part of her wished she had listened to her husband, Seth, and stayed home with him and her patients back in Macon.

“Doctor, did you hear me?” Sheridan asked. How long had she been tapped out of it? “I asked you for your professional opinion?”

“I’m sorry, Agent Sheridan, I was reading some of these notes in my file.” She said smoothly “What did you say?”

“I asked do you think Serena Tennyson is suicidal.”

Angel said, “Before the attempted sexual assault, I would consider the percentages very low to nil. But that kind of thing can break any woman, even a sociopath like the one escorted out here a few minutes ago.”

“Even after witnessing what her father did in front of her?”

“In her father’s eyes, he failed in his mission of raising and protecting his family when he lost all their money. She’s been caught sticking her hand in the cookie jar, but there are still other sweets in the kitchen that she may have an opportunity to grab undetected.”

Sheridan smiled at that one. Smiles looked good on the agent. “I can’t disagree with your diagnosis, Doctor.” He said and the smile still hadn’t dissipated yet. “Despite your little tantrum you threw at the Chief Negotiator, I believe you have been helpful so far on this case. Thank you, Doctor.”

She felt the first stab of guilt for cursing this man for trying to protect his people and his mission. “That’s why I am here, sir.” She said, maintaining her distance now more than ever.

“We have a lot going over the next half a day or so. I need that woman alive to answer for all the charges she’s facing and the lives she has taken. Tomorrow my concerns shift to someone trying to assonate her out when we transport her out of this facility to Federal Jurisdiction in Virginia. I’m already assigning every available hand I can spare to help with this transition.”

Angel halted all of her movement in one motion, as the delayed reaction of what coded message that Serena had said to her before she left. I’ll be dead soon.

What floored her even more is that the doctor believed Serena wanted her to decrypt her message. They won’t leave me to live much longer.

“However many people you are going to assign to this mission, Agent Sheridan it isn’t enough.”

“Thank you again, Doctor, but I already know that the leader of Pandora is a tempting assignation target for an agent of A House in Chains or even a private citizen and I have planned accordingly.”

“I’m not sure that Serena’s assignation is your biggest concern.”

“Then spit it out, Doctor what is my biggest concern?”

“She is anticipating an assignation attempt on her life. She is going to use the increased security against your people. Pandora has a stupid codename for everything. I believe they call it Operation Deliverance. Serena is plotting her escape.”

Chapter Six

 

Look, don’t get me wrong, Seth Dupree is a brilliant young surgeon. I’m honored to work under his tutelage, but the man seems almost aloof sometimes. He constantly acts like he is distracted or something. And I believe that the something may cost one of his patients his life someday.

-Two male nurses converse during an afternoon break outside the Georgia Dome’s Emergency Triage Center Exercise.

Thomas

The Office of the Georgia Bureau of Investigations, 6th Day

 

Lindsey Harmon Attorney at Law:

She was a slender former beauty with dark circles loitering underneath her green eyes. She had laugh lines boarding the corners of her mouth she reeked of stale cigarette smoke from her red hair and beige suit.

Thomas Pepper hoped for his sake that she knew her way around the law better than she did the bedroom. So far, so good, he thought, she seemed to be holding her own for round two against both of the FBI agents crowding him in this stuffy interrogation room.

Agent Tabitha Blue was about ten years to young…and by her naked ring finger, too single for his liking, but he couldn’t deny the woman a certain sex appeal. She tried to bury it behind her tough talk and that badge clipped to her hip.

And the fact that she may be attempting to link him to Serna Tennyson and Pandora wasn’t enduring him to her either.

“I was speaking to you about time, Agent Blue, especially in light of how much of my client’s that you and your partner are wasting with this so called interview with him.” Lindsey was giving her hell. “You have Atlanta citizens who have been slaughtered. Our esteemed Mayor has been assassinated. And now, there is some type of unknown threat that has been lodged at the children of this city. My client’s home was broken to, he did this interview with Serena Tennyson fearing for his life, and you two are busy trying to tie him to these terrorist.” She paused for effect, her wrinkled finger flicking a pencil back in forth. “Am I missing something here?”

“We’re trying to cover all of our bases, Counselor.” Agent Blue said. “I’m not sure why he even felt the need to call you at all. We are just having a quiet, civilized conversation.”

“Civilized,” Lindsey inhaled audibly and peeked over at Agent Prince who was sitting on the other side of the table, his legs dangling off of the floor. He was playing the role of The Good Cop in this game. “This conversation stopped being civilized, as you say, a long time ago.” His attorney used the pencil to flip through her notes and added: “Furthermore, Agent Blue, I see no formal charges lying on this table in front of us. So my client is exercising his rights to exit these proceedings at the time of his choosing. Either we move along to a different line of questioning or we will walk. Have I made myself clear, lady? ”

Blue smiled, highlighting her overbite, reached back, and handed Agent Prince a slim pile of documents. Thomas couldn’t see what they were…and not for a lack of trying. Prince scanned them without taking them. If it didn’t involve him directly, he would actually find this interplay quite fascinating in fact. Thomas knew hundreds of law enforcement across the country, this good cop/bad copy routine wasn’t a new thing, but the way it was playing out was something else entirely. Blue and Prince were more along the lines of impatient cop/ distracted cop. Since they’d reentered the room a few minutes ago, Prince had settled for sitting like a hermit on the other side of the table with a look of…preoccupation buried on his dark, hairless brow. He’d even gone as far to ignore two phone calls that had buzzed in his pocket.

“Okay Miss Harmon, you’ve made your point, let’s move on then.” Blue dropped those same documents within Lindsey’s grasp. Thomas’ mouth went dry and he felt a gnawing in his gut. “It has already been established that your client is at least of questionable character and these papers prove it.”

“What are these?” His attorney asked.

“The first one is a DUI. The next two are separate disorderly conduct citations.”

Thomas hopped out of his seat.

“What is this really about?” He asked. He snatched the papers from Lindsey who was pleading with him with her green eyes to sit back down and let her handle this. “The DUI was in college. I was a kid. These other charges were five and ten years ago.”

Blue pushed another sheet of paper with a government letterhead at him. “This audit done by our sister agency, The IRS, was just two years ago.”

“Again, that’s old news.” Lindsey chimed in from her seat. “My firm handled this case—

“And I’ve paid that money back, with interest.” Thomas stuck his hands in his pocket.

“In legal terms this is all ancient history, Agent Blue.” Lindsey scratched at the back of her left ear with her fingernail. Thomas knew from past experience that she was getting irritable and needed a cigarette. She gathered all her notes in a pile and rose to leave.

“I do in fact.” Blue thumbed methodically through a separate file of papers, sensing his attorney’s inpatients, for exactly what she wanted. “And in fact, knowing your client’s reputation, this doesn’t surprise me a bit. I have a sexual harassment claim against Mr. Pepper by a female columnist he worked with at The Washington Post back in January while they completed an expose.”

Thomas found his seat without looking at it, his anger hovering dangerously prevalent near the surface. “We worked jointly on the piece that ran in the paper over four consecutive weeks.” He said. “I wasn’t in DC for very long.”

Blue smiled, “That means you had to work really fast, Thomas. The harassment—“

“The harassment consisted of us going out and having a few drinks…a few sessions. She thought it was the start of something more permanent. She was wrong.”

“Thomas Pepper, she filed for divorce from her husband in the short time while you were in Washington.”

“Their marriage was already on the rocks, Agent Blue.” Thomas rubbed at the two day old beard on his face.”

“You’ll see two separate files for files of divorce, two more requests for legal separation, and half a dozen claims and counter of claims of domestic battery. That relationship was in shambles. Someone should thank Mr. Pepper for providing a public service by helping to finish sinking a ship that had been treading water.” Although Thomas could have lived without her last comment, Lindsey was doing his person and his wallet justice. “We’re done here.” Lindsey began to rise again.

“One last thing, Counselor,” Blue flashed her overbite again. Lindsey bobtailed into her seat, her smoke break denied again. Thomas fluttered in his seat, perspiration building along his thick neck and under his arms.

This time she slid some colored photos at Lindsey. She directed her conversation at Thomas. “After we apprehended Serena Tennyson and started our investigation, we took these pictures inside your townhouse.”

The FBI had dozens of pictures of his wall that he had dedicated to Serena Tennyson’s likeness. He had magazine clippings, artist renditions, internet postings, and the entire works there now apparently, for the entire world to see.

Lindsey was shaking her head. “What my client does in his place of residence—“

“It’s not just these pictures that I want you to see, Counselor.” Agent Blue supplied a packet apparently with more photos and dumped the stash on table, so many in fact that many fell to the floor. “This is the picture of the woman in Washington, DC, do you see the resemblance between her and Serena Tennyson. Look at the picture of this woman, Miss Harmon, who Thomas has been seen with socially on his frequent visits back to his hometown in Chicago. Again, the striking resemblance to the woman we have locked up in here.”

In the next five minutes Agent Tabitha Blue flashed three more women who shared at least some of Serena’s features or characteristics of pastel colored skin, a slim frame, long legs, or red hair…like even the style Lucy Burgess had worn for a time when they first began their affair.

“Even you share some of these features, Miss Harmon?” Agent Blue said as a matter of fact. “You’re a smart woman, Counselor. You weren’t out of line when you reminded me of what has transpired over the past few days. It is my job to help prevent more atrocities like these from occurring. And part of my job is questioning if this man has deeper ties to the most ruthless woman in the entire world right now?”

“My client is not the subject on your investigation.” Lindsey’s tone hardened with each word. “Furthermore, his private life, who he see, who he sleeps with, their marital status, and what these women look like are not your business—“

“It’s alright,” Thomas squeezed his lawyer’s wrist and focused all his attention and energy on Agent Blue. “I’ll take this one.”

Lindsey was still shaking her head, her green eyes cutting at him, reminding him to tread carefully; there was blood in the water…blood and a hungry shark.

“I’m attracted to Serena Tennyson. The shrine I’ve dedicated to her in my home speaks to that.” Thomas said. “And, in some cases, I have fraternized with women—especially involved women who share some of her features. I am a man who is energized by the prospect of bedding forbidden fruit.” The most immoral of men are often the most honest. They have a clear understanding of who they are. Mayor Ernestine Johnson had said in truth to him from her dying bed. They know what they want, and they prepare to sacrifice whatever they feel is necessary, even if it’s their very souls, to get what they want. “Though Serena isn’t married, her status in the world makes her the most forbidden fruit of all in my eyes.” His own inner voice said wistfully, you had me pegged correctly, Ernestine, I am indeed an immoral man.

“But, as you have pointed out, I am not hurting for female company and while I am attracted to Serena, that alone doesn’t mean that I subscribe to her religion… ” He locked eyes with Christopher Prince, who looked awakened from his stupor. “ Or do I share Pandora’s view on race relations in this country.”

“That, mister, remains to be seen.”

“I object to your tone, Agent Blue.”

“This isn’t a courtroom, Counselor.”

“And you are no lawyer and this is not a trial—“

“You’re both right,” Agent Prince hopped over the table and pushed his way just behind his partner. “Councilor, your client claimed that he wanted to help us save this city, perhaps this country, from any further escalation and bloodshed.” He leaned over and caught Thomas eye specifically. “You’re our man, Pepper. So help us out of this mess.”

Thomas scratched at his beard again and took a deep breath. Blue sat with on the table with her arms folded, while Agent Prince remained standing, his gaze intense. This was the Agent Christopher that Thomas thought that he’d known of, not the unfocused mess he appeared to be earlier. “Serena Tennyson was one of my test subjects that I wrote about in my last book.”

Chris nodded. “You did. You focused about 40 percent of your narrative focused on her.”

So you read it, Chris. What I would give to learn your opinions of what I wrote about your brother Xavier and where he has taken A House in Chains during his tenure as the One. “My Excel program says that it was closer to 35 percent, but analytics ’are irrelevant to what my overall point is.” Thomas said, feeling more comfortable in this type of physiological debate. He almost reached to take his jacket off, and not because he was hot. “The point is that when I writing it help to have visuals of that subject matter when you’re explaining their background, or expressing an opinion from their point of view.”

“That must have been damned convenient for you,” Blue tried to hide her overbite by turning away and feign as if she found something more interesting out of the window to look at. “A practiced womanizer has his prized project hoe show up in his living room. And she was naked when we got there. You both were, so you sure as hell hit the jack pot somewhere before The FBI arrived…to save you.” She made her last words bite, the shark swimming in shallow waters once more.

Lindsey through Thomas a life jacket, “You’re toeing a line, Missy,”

“What’s wrong, Counselor?” Blue got to her little feet and wailed her tiny arms about. “I’m sure you could extract any information out of any woman you please. I’m just glad that I’m asking you the questions and this isn’t happening the other way around.” Blue found Lindsey’s green eyes. “It looks like we’re dealing with a real pro here, a gigolo. Take my advice, honey, you better hold on to your pants.”

His lawyer fumed. Blue leaned close enough to both of the seated people in the room that you could smell the peppermint of her breath. “Or is it too late for that already?”

“You’re excused.”

Agent Blue turned on Lindsey. “What did you say to me?”

Lindsey only had eyes for Christopher Prince as she slammed her folder shut. “Either Agent Blue is excused or my client and I are.”

Agent Prince lowered his head and let his feet dangle on this side of the table. “Why don’t you take a short break, Tabitha, and get yourself a Diet Coke or something.”

Blue struggled to close her mouth. She looked from Christopher Prince to Lindsey, to Thomas Pepper, and finally at her partner again. Thomas doesn’t need to know the woman on a personal level to see the hurt leaking from her eyes and the twitch of her top lip.

“Yea, something,” She said to Agent Prince as she scooped up her files and stomped out of the door slamming it shut behind her.

“Forgive my partner.” Agent Prince said in the wake of his partner’s exit. “Tabitha Blue’s passion is what drives her to excel in her duties as an FBI agent. A high profile case like this one can get the best of you.

“You’re wrong, Prince, at least about that last part.” He was shaking his head and wasn’t sure why. That woman had just tried to bury him. Why should he care about her feelings? “This is personal for her. She’s looking for people to blame for the defections that have occurred. She’s bitter about your department’s shortcomings.”

“Shortcomings,”

Lindsey sensed the dangerous tone that Agent Prince’s tone was taking. She pushed herself forward into his line of sight, as if to create an artificial wedge between the two men.

“The FBI agents who abandoned this agency—that abandoned you are your responsibility and not mine. All of the reporting that I’ve done in my interviews and books and have uploaded on my blog is only the facts as they’ve been presented to me.” Thomas said. “You people are not going to crucify me for this.”

Prince tried to step through the artificial wedge that Lindsey had created. She stuck he palm into the other man’s chest and it stuck there like glue.

She said, “Careful, Agent Blue. We wouldn’t want Thomas to be involved in another harassment suit, would we?”

“Your involvement, as to its extent is yet to be determined.” Prince never looked at Thomas’ lawyer but eased off her palm just the same. “My people—or what is left of them is trying to understand every aspect of your relationship with Serena Tennyson.” He sat in the chair and faced them for the first time. “You better hope to God that you are telling us everything you know.”

If you help me, you will gain enemies on both sides of this conflict. They both will harass you. They will threaten you. Thomas squeezed the sides of his chair considering Mayor Jonson’s words as if she had just spoken aloud.

Lindsey asked, “I assume that we are finished here?”

Agent Prince grunted and nodded his bald head in the general direction of the door without fully looking up. Lindsey thanked him, gathered her belongings, tossed them into her briefcase without bothering to sort them, and snapped it shut. She opened the door for him and he recognized the expression forming in the laugh lines of her mouth. I told you that I would handle this. You owe me the remainder of the afternoon. I’m on top.

“Is there anything else you would like to add to your official statement, Thomas?” Agent Prince said, barely audible over the commotion in the hall. “Something, anything that could help us in our fight with Pandora.”

“I’ve told you everything.” He lied. He had been working two sources the day before Serena turned up in his living room. He was honoring his promise to Ernestine Johnson about answering the three questions that every Person of Color…including this man he was leaving behind in this interrogation room, wanted to know. I’m not sure that my information is prudent to your present investigation or not, Chris. More importantly, at least to me, I won’t allow you to use my information against me and try to keep me her any longer. Even with Serena Tennyson out of the game, the clock was ticking. He was going to be needed elsewhere.

Just as Thomas Pepper stepped through the threshold another agent nearly collided with him walking in. He was frowned up as if someone had kicked him in the shin. He made his way over to Prince and whispered something in the other man’s ear that caused Prince to wince and mutter a curse. He held his index finger up for Thomas and his lawyer to hold up for a sec. Just as quickly the special agent recovered his composure, nodded at the messenger who strutted off and then returned to the room a minute later.

“My apologies for all of the cloak and dagger, sir,” The still frowning agent said to Thomas. “But there is someone here who has been waiting to see you, sir.”

Thomas felt a pang in his chest and he and Lindsey exchange a look of anxiety.

Sophie, his Fox Terrier, struts in to the interrogation room.

Thomas kneels his large frame so that his dog and leap easily into his waiting arms. He called her name once and again as if to make himself believe she is here, that all of this is really happening. The Terrier licked unabatedly at the hair on his jaws and cheek, and then finds softer skin…and a tear underneath his right eye.

Lindsey smiled, folded her arms and relaxed her stance and allowed the couple to have their reunion in silence and without interruption.

Special Agent Prince wasn’t about to be so kind. “Unfortunately,” He said in a grave voice. “You two are one of the few humanoids who survived that encounter with Serena Tennyson.”

The hallway behind them had been a bustle of foot traffic, but Thomas Pepper noted that wasn’t the only reason for the sudden silence hanging in the air.

“What has happened, Agent Prince?” Thomas Pepper finally asked.

“Your housekeeper was found dead in a wooded area about four miles from your residence. She was shot in the head by a high powered rifle.” He added, “The Medical Examiner says that the time stamp on the body states that she was killed while you and Serena were conducting your interview.”

So you had come a day early, after all, Eloise because of the trip you were taking with your husband. Thomas bit back fresh tears. When Serena had spoken into her communication device on her collar when he mentioned it to her then, he had hoped that they would detain the woman as Serena had told them that Pandora did with Sophie.

Agent Prince was staring into Thomas’ blank expression. “Thank you for your time, Miss Harmon. We have your card. Someone will be in contact with you if we feel the need to take any further statements from your client.”

Outside Lindsey had walked a still stunned Thomas past the security checkpoint that led out of the courthouse and into an impressive courtyard of vegetation and color. It did stink of smoke and there was the all too familiar haze in the chilly afternoon air. Thomas pulled Sophie closer to his bosom and ducked his head inside of his jacket against a series of quick gust of wind.

Lindsey had her cigarette going and waved it at him in a goodbye. She had received a call on her cell on their walkout that delayed any erotic plans they may have tried to engage in, at least for now. He watched her drive off without before clicking her seat belt.

Thomas latched his own seat belt and was working out the details of an impossible task of securing an eight pound dog in the passenger side one when he noted again how the foot traffic picked up with agents storming out of the building.

He heard the sirens of first responders in the distance. If his ears didn’t betray him he thought he could hear a helicopter…and when he glanced towards Fletcher Street, he could see the bird circling around in search of something.

What is all of this mischief? He asked himself while he gave Sophie’s ear a gentle squeeze and felt his heart sink. What have you done now, Serena?

And then he saw Agent Tabitha Blue.

She was legging it for her vehicle in the parking lot as well. She wasn’t wearing the near panic look of the other agent’s; her expression was more of a subtle focus of singular intensity. He locked Sophie in the car and rushed to greet her before she sat in her Ford.

“Agent Blue,” He asked, pissed that he could be this winded with only a quick sprint across the street. “What in the hell is going on? What’s happened?”

Agent Blue measured her response for a moment. And then she must have decided that telling a civilian, even this civilian wouldn’t violate some type of protocol that she was under.

“While we were interviewing you, Serena Tennyson told our resident Clinical Phycologist, Dr. Hicks-Dupree that she wouldn’t live long enough to be prosecuted for her crimes against the citizens of Atlanta for the 411 attacks.” She said. “It looks as she was right after all.”

Thomas felt a lump growing in his throat. Sophie barked at a steady hilt at both of them from across the street.

“What do you mean?” Thomas asked, though he didn’t need to exercise his brilliant investigative skills to deduct the possibilities…or the possibility of what happened.

“The brass was concerned that someone may make an attempt on her life when we moved her from here to the DC area in the morning, so Sheridan came up with the idea to decrease those odds by transporting her out today to lessen that risk.”

“Go on, Agent Blue,”

“Shots rang out during the second leg of her transportation route.” Agent Blue said her overbite clear enough that Thomas Pepper could see her entire upper gum. “It looks as if your little girlfriend is dead.”

Chris

Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue (Street Level), 6th Day

 

“Serena’s gone.” Angel said after she exited her Land Rover. One other vehicle worked its breaks pulling in a space behind her. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard was a bustle of activity with a matrix of blue and red lights traveling in all directions.

“Damn.” Special Agent Christopher Prince said. She limped towards him after rounding the SUV from the front side. He felt a tingle of nerves in his neck when she fully entered his line of sight. “Are you alright—“

The doctor peered down at the red blotches on her blouse’s tail and her trousers and waved him off, the blood belonging to someone else. A rat faced agent who Chris knew but couldn’t put a name to face limped towards the curve as well. Chris noted that fact was news in itself, because the man usually moved about with the careful precision of a Siamese cat—and the blood caked on his bicep and thigh was his own. Chris slammed the passenger side door of the car he’d bummed a ride in and they dodged afternoon traffic to an area of seclusion so the other two could fill him in. He was breathing heavily by the time they’d reached a spot clear of congestion and where they could hear one another without shouting. After this is all over, Chris swore, I’m going to drop these extra pounds.

“Do we have an official time of death?” He asked the agent that he now remembered as Everett, Jimmy Everett.

But it was Angel who shook her head with some emphasis, grabbed both of his wrists and shook them. “You’re not hearing me, Christopher.” She cocked a brow and her big brown eyes looked hazel in the bright sunlight. “Serena’s gone. She’d disappeared. She’s vanished without a trace.”

“What?”

Angel glanced over her shoulder at Everett and gave him the floor.

“A half a dozen shots rang out in rapid progression.” Agent Everett winced in pain and put pressure on his wounded leg. “At least one of the shots appeared to strike the subject, Serena Tennyson, on her temple. One shot each killed all four of her female escorts to either side of her. Either a group of snipers had their timing down to a tee or there is one hell of a single shooter out there.”

Chris concentrated on the first part of the other man’s sentence. “You said that the shot appeared to hit her?”

“Yea, I was getting to that, sir.”

Everett and Angel shared a look until she finally planted a hand on each hip and cocked her brow at him. “Tell him, Jimmy.”

“Yea, Agent Everett,” Chris said. “Tell me.”

“In the chaotic mess that ensued we got a call out to the paramedics. Man, I got to tell you, I ain’t ever seen so many people scrambling in 50 different directions—at least since President Sweet got killed in Houston. Anyway, as soon as we put Tennyson inside the ambulance I felt a stinger in my arm here and one in my upper leg. “Everett pulled a rag out of trousers and wiped the perspiration from his forehead. He grimaced in pain, this spasm worse than the first one. Chris reached a hand out to help him, but the older man waves him off with one of his rat hands.

“I’ll live.” He said. “Anyway, I look up and my own piece is in my ear and I hear the voice of a man, Agent Feller, a guy I’ve worked with years telling me that I don’t have to die here like the others. He told me to get down, then stay down and I would live long enough to tell my grandchildren about this day, about Deliverance. I woke up…I don’t know, maybe 10 or 15 minutes later with some pretty ass blonde treating my wounds. My gun was lying next to me; I guess he left it there after he bashed me over the head with it.”

Pandora had struck at the heart of the FBI again.

Angel took her hands off of her hips and told the two men what she knew. A court reporter had been shot minutes after Serena walked out of her arraignment to get the ball rolling. Yea, Pandora used that distraction to throw us off our guards. She then said that an APD Deputy who was assigned for secondary support was shot in the back of the head and killed. Pandora went out of their way to strike behind where Serena was leaving a trail.

Agent Everett added that he guessed that Serena had her people lined up in strategic points all along her escape routes. It was going to be difficult to concentrate on retrieving her if you were ducking and dodging gunfire or potential gunfire.

Chris had heard on one of the deputy’s radios that a car that had appeared to have been stolen had driven up three floors at top speeds, dodging other parked cars and some civilian foot traffic. Chris hadn’t known what to make of that news at that time and still was trying to put the puzzle piece in place even now. Everett didn’t make that process any easier when he picked up where he left off, saying that Serena fled down the seven floors to ground level where two more deputies were found dead.

Why would she flee by driving up in the garage only to take longer to reach an intended spot by running back down?

Agent Christopher Prince let the puzzle hang there unsolved and peered as far as his vision would allow him down Martin Luther King Jr, thankful that the usual smoky haze had cleared, at least for now. I’ll take that as a good sign of things to come. King fed into the busy side street of Piedmont, which crossed Peachtree and led to both I 75 and I 85. If she made it to either interstate it was no telling how far she could have driven by now.

Chris’ cell phone, the one he reserved for bureau business only buzzed in his pocket.

Sheridan:

“Agent Prince, I don’t know how she got this far, this fast, but Tennyson’s been spotted heading northwest along Centennial Olympic Park Drive in a Carolina blue van. You would have thought she would be smart enough to pick a more anonymous color for her getaway vehicle. I am in a copter. We are in hot pursuit.”

Chris asked, “Is she driving?”

“It looks as if she has a male escort, but that is unconfirmed.” Sheridan said with some apprehension. Chris knew how much it pained the man to speculate. “Tell Dr. Hicks-Dupree that she was right. I should have listened to her.”

Chris disconnected from the call without questioning Angel about whatever conversation she had with Sheridan, but it must have been a doozy. Sheridan gave compliments nearly as often as he speculated on events transpiring in cases.

“You did listen to me, Sheridan,” Angel was hugging her shoulders and speaking in a low voice. “We were convinced that Pandora had committed their selves to a rescue operation for Serena’s scheduled move tomorrow morning. So we upped it up to today to minimize the risk.”

“Damn,” Was all Chris could add to that.

Angel went on and quickly summarized the first part of her conversation with Sheridan. The doctor told Chris about the several oddities in Serena’s behavior after her interview with her this morning. Chris had attended part of that meeting before he and Blue left to meet with Thomas Pepper.

“I understand all that, Angel.” Chris said after he let his old friend have her say, and for the first time he got a whiff of her. You can’t leave that stuff alone can you, Doc. “Maybe I’m just missing you or Sheridan’s point about something. None of this tells me how you knew she would try to escape?”

“I didn’t, Christopher, not really.” Angel said. “She kept going on about the coming escalation of tensions between Pandora and A House in Chains, about where are our children. I just guessed that it was all too big for her to just sit it out.

Two paramedics arrived and sat Agent Everett down and begin to treat the man’s wounds. Chris and Angel wave their goodbyes to him and hop into Angel’s rental, Chris planting his big ass in the Land Cruisers driver side seat, thankful for the space. Before Angel can slam her heavy door shut, his cell phone buzzes in his pocket again.

“What?” Chris yelled into the receiver. “That can’t be right.”

After they lock their seatbelts in place, he begins high tailing it in a northern to northwesterly direction. Angel pokes her lips out at him wondering what was said. He shakes his head and hits up Sheridan on the speed dial.

“Negative, Prince.” Sheridan said. “You’re information is in error. I’m still riding shotgun in the helicopter as we speak. I have a confirmed visual of the fugitive. There are half a dozen APD and three or four of our own people who are in a high speed pursuit of Serena and her companion as we speak. In fact, all mentioned have just crossed the Andrew Young Parkway.”

“That’s impossible, sir. I’ve just received verification that she’s on Magnum Street near Chapel Road, being slowed considerably by traffic.” Chris smiled over at Angel. “Thank God for the general snarl of metro traffic and specifically for The Atlanta Marathon that’s underway today. I should be in visual range of her in 15 minutes.”

Sheridan wasn’t convinced. “You’re Intel is wrong, Prince. I’m looking through my binoculars right now. The fugitive has the same red hair, the same orange jumpsuit.” He paused and Chris could only guess that he found something in that vehicle that got even more of his attention. “She’s picked up some sunglasses along the way, probably lifted them off a deputy that her people killed during her escape.”

“Why don’t we catch both of these people to be sure?”

“You’re on, Prince,” In his minds eye, Chris could feel the other man’s smile, albeit a brief one, through the line. “Looser buys a steak.”

In the minute after he disconnects Special Agent Christopher gets two calls:

He scanned the face of his personal cell. It is Doctor Phelps, his personal physician calling him again. Damn, this man has lousy timing. So far he had called him when he was still a captive inside of the Fox Theatre during the siege, called him again an hour earlier when he and Blue were playing tag interviewing Thomas Pepper, and now he was ringing him up at this inopportune time.

Chris lets the phone ring itself out without answering.

Almost immediately after his personal phone stopped its chiming, his business line buzzed in his pocket again. Angel reached over and quickly helped him hook up his Bluetooth and the speaker.

It was Tabitha Blue:

“I’m a little busy, Tabitha.” He darted around a Volkswagen that stopped in the middle of the street. “What’s up?”

“Put what you’re doing down and get your ass over to Baker Street near the Hyatt Regency.” Blue said. “I’ve got Parson’s with me, Witten in a car in front of me and Whitehead tailgating to freaking close behind. We’re closing in on Tennyson. She’s driving a stolen Mercedes Benz.” And she rattled off the license plate number, Blue being Blue.

Angel looked at Chris. “How could that be?”

Chris answered his old friend only by hitting the gas, maneuvering around several cars, the pressure mounting in his head and his gut. He only had the slightest error in driving to make and an innocent civilian could be killed with this light tank he was driving at 80 and 90 miles per hour.

The car that had been described to him, an older model Buick Impala, was now in his line of site. The pressures in both his head and gut ceased to exist as his adrenaline kicked in, the feeling that only people who did this type of work would understand. He swung in, making the slightest adjustment on his route, and fit the Big Land Cruiser right in behind Serena.

“That can’t be, Tabitha,” Chris finally told his partner. She’d been quiet herself, their own pursuit of…whoever, tightening her focus. “I’m on her tail right now.”

“Shit,”

“What is it, what’s wrong,” Chris said to his dash board. “Talk to me, Agent Blue.”

Chris stole a look at Angel then focused on the rear headlights of the Buick in front his trying to escape his pursuit. He guessed he was wrong about only people in his line of work getting that adrenaline rush. I see that Clinical Psychologist get it as well. In fact his old friend appeared to be having the time of her life.

“Sorry Chris, Tennyson struck another vehicle and blew a tire.” Blue said at last. “She’s one lucky, bitch though. The way that car banked, she should have flipped it over. Damn, she’s out. Tennyson is out of the Mercedes and is on foot. I’ve got to go, Prince. I’ve got to—“

“Tabitha, wait,” Chris was greeted a click and then the long tone of a dead line. He found solace in Angel’s company. “Damn, Angel, what is going on? It’s like we’re chasing ghost, like we’re after a fleet full of fugitives.”

Another call comes in on his business line.

Agent Sheridan:

“Prince, Agent Prince, can you hear me?”

The line went dead. Angel find’s Sheridan’s number for him and hit’s the speed dial again…and then a third time. They were getting nothing but a garbled signal for their efforts, damned cell phones.

“Prince, are you there?”

“Sheridan,” Chris had thought the last connection had been severed. “We got a bad cell. Sheridan—“

The other man said, “Stop yelling, Prince. I can hear you. Listen, my suspect went head on with a civilian in a F150. I think both drivers are dead, but Tennyson is one tough hombre, though. She’s out of her car…wobbling, but on her feet. Several APD squad cars are dodging a pile up the wreck caused and are closing in. Wait…now she’s running again—“

Prince made another sharp turn of Northside Avenue staying on his suspect’s heels. “Somebody’s playing games, Sheridan. I’ve talked with Agent Blue. She’s miles away from either of our pursuits and claims that she has Serena in her sights as well.”

If his superior heard Chris last transmission he’d acknowledged it in silence. Chris gave both of then the necessary time and space to fully focus on what transpiring in both of their theatre of operations in real time.

“Those half a dozen squad cars I was telling you about have quit fighting to drive through the log jam.” Sheridan announced as if he were doing play by play. “They are out of their cars and are continuing the pursuit on foot. She’s injured. She won’t escape us now.”

Chris watched as their Serena caused one civilian and one taxi driver to hit one another while evading the collision with her Buick. He didn’t think that the wreck caused an immediate fatality, but he couldn’t be certain. Angel nearly stood up to get a better view of it as they left the accident behind them.

“Hold on,” He warned her.

He banked again, to the left this time, shadowing her car’s movements and heard both vehicles’ tires screech in loud protest.

“Watch out, Chris,” Angel said and grabbed onto his arm for dear life.

Chris used all of his training, his timing, his strength in his right arm…and a bit of luck to avoid a clan of pedestrians who had just peeled off a sidewalk. He straightened the rental back out and pounded the gas as he had lost ground on Serena, but had her Buick still well in his sight.

“Watch out for what, Dr. Hicks-Dupree,” Blue said through the speaker. In all of the commotion and near fatal crash, Angel must have dialed Tabitha. He sat straight up in his seat, checked on Angel who had lost some of her coloring, and adjusted the mirrors more to his liking. In one of those mirrors he could see the pedestrians who almost lost their lives throwing their fists in the area, their mouths moving in what Chris thought were swears and curses.

“Blue,” He said. “What’s your status?”

“Tennyson bolted for an old, abandoned beauty shop. She’s surrounded. I should have something positive to report—“

This time Chris heard the cell beep. He told his partner to hold that thought.

Sheridan: “Goddamn,” He said. “Agent Prince, are you there?”

“I’m here, sir, tell me you got her.”

“Yea,” He said, but his lack of enthusiasm spelled trouble. Chris just knew it. “I’m on the ground now. Yea, we got something, alright, we got a goddamned body double.”

“What?” Angel asked.

“Please say that again, sir.” Chris slowed the Land Cruiser enough to bend the SUV around a sharp curve as Serena had. “Would you care to elaborate?”

Sheridan snorted. “It’s an imposter. It’s a woman who has the same exact build as our fugitive. She tried to kill herself when we approached her.”

Angel cocked a brow at Chris but her question was intended for Sheridan.

“She tried to kill herself? What does that mean exactly?”

“Her gunned jammed as she fired a round.” Sheridan snorted again. “She meant business too, had half the barrel in her mouth. We do have her in custody. I hope to God you are in pursuit of the real Serena Tennyson, Agent Prince. I’ve got plenty of room on my credit card for those steaks we talked about.”

“Maybe…the next time I call you, I will make sure to have something to report one way or the other.”

After Angel disconnected for him Agent Christopher Prince threw all of his concentration on the Buick still ducking and dodging their pursuit. The Bluetooth lit up again; Angel threw the call on to the speaker.

Blue said: “Someone piss on me.”

“Agent Blue, calm down and report.”

“Yes, sir,” Chris can hear her muttering 1…2…3… “We have a dead man dressed in a wig. And I ain’t kidding when I say that he could really go for being a female, you know the slight build, and nearly no body hair save the wig, skin smoother than mine, he really looks the part at a distance.” She struggled to keep admiration out of her tone. “We didn’t get to question her, ah mean him, though. He killed—“

“He killed himself.” Angel said. Chris pounded the steering wheel in frustration. “We know, Agent Blue.”

Blue added: “Yea, he did just that, Doctor. He pulled out his gun just after we had him surrounded, we all got defensive, but before anyone could get their own piece out he suck that thing halfway in his mouth and ate one. His brains are still oozing down the nearby wall right now.”

Chris instructed Angel to disconnect the line with a finality that said that he wasn’t taking any more calls.

“What are you planning to do, Christopher?”

“It’s time for this pursuit to end. If both these vehicles continue at this velocity we’re going to get some poor civilian killed.”

Angel nodded in agreement.

Then she saw him almost bracing himself and giving her the slightest look that she had better do the same. She flashed him a very wicked smile. “Go ahead; be my guest, Christopher, I signed up for the rental car’s insurance.”

Chris pressed the gas pedal to the floor and rams Serena’s Buick just as she was readying the car for a turn. Oh, no, he wasn’t expecting her to bank as such a drastic angle and at such a great speed when he struck her car.

Chris hit the brakes, but either he or Angel can take their eyes off of Serena’s two ton spinning wheel of a car that turned over…and over…and… over one final time before it settled on its crushed top.

They hopped out of the Land Cruiser as quickly as seatbelt and door would allow them to. They had to side wind around a handful of metallic pieces of what was left of the Impala. Yet, considering all of today’s actions, neither Special Agent nor Clinical Phycologist were taking any chances as they both slow their pace as they reach the car. Chris is comforted, at least some, by knowing that Angel is professionally licensed to carry a concealed weapon. What does concern him is in the matter that she has taken two lives already and may be itching at the bit to add a third to her list.

He could hear sirens arriving in the backdrop.

They both saw a detached red wig that had begun blowing down the street. A woman who could have been Serena Tennyson in another life had part of that slim body inside the car…while the rest was outside buried beneath the Buick.

“It’s not her, Christopher.” Angel’s announcement, however obvious, had finalized the little episode with a loss for the good guys. She put her weapon away and let her hair blow in the breeze for a second. “It’s just another goddamned double. This was just another part of the ruse and we fell for it, hook, line, and sinker.”

“It’s more than that, Doc,” Chris said quietly. “This whole thing is far worse right now than anyone would imagine.”

A host of FBI agents, APD uniforms and first responder units came on the scene in a rainbow of red and blue color. A helicopter soon joined the mass and Chris assumed it was Sheridan sitting on the co-pilot’s side. Out in the distance he could see the first round of news trucks form many local affiliates entering the area as well.

On the other side of the road, two dozen or so marathoners slowed to a jog, passing through the scene losing focus from their race. The sight of the joggers, and the potential of injury or death they avoided, might have been the only positive that he could have found in the past 10 or 15 minutes of his life.

Angel seemed to eyeing the media trucks exclusively as she brushed her brunette hair out of her eyes. “To them, and more importantly to the public, this whole thing is going to make the bureau look incompetent at best, negligent at worst in Serena’s entire handling.” Angel had a thing for stating the obvious. “And the repercussions of this aren’t likely to blow over anytime soon.”

Chris leaned up against the wrecked Buick. “It’s far worse that just that, Doc,” He thought he might trade one obvious statement for another. “We already know from Agent Everett that several FBI Agents were involved. They betrayed their agency, their country by helping a known terrorist escape.”

Chris stooped to the ground where the upper part of the body of this double was lying very dead. He peered into her bloodshot eyes that hadn’t shut.

“Her death was an accident, Christopher.” Angel placed a hand on each of his shoulders and gave them a squeeze. “I saw the look on your face when she made that sudden turn just as you attempted to ram her. You were trying to save lives.” She said and both looked up long enough to catch the final glimpses of the marathon runners as they jogged out of sight into the building haze of a late afternoon. “It was a clean maneuver. Everything you did was by the book.”

I know you should be released by now, baby brother. On a personal and family level, I couldn’t feel better, especially you being reunited with my nephews again. They’ve missed you. He took a deep breath and realized instantly how bad that decision was considering how fast this smoky haze was blowing in from the West. Yet, as a professional law enforcement officer, your presence on the streets makes my job all the harder. Chris had already seen first-hand what a member of the Circle could do. And he put it in his report to Sheridan after he’d let the cobwebs dissipate a day or so later. A House in Chains and Pandora are like giants in the playground. He took one final look at the dead Serena Tennyson and got to his feet. And everyone else isn’t anything but ants getting stepped on your march towards war with one another.

He knew there was only way for this to end before that evadible clash.

He would have to take a giant down.

He walked back towards the Land Cruiser without looking back at his childhood friend. He had a renewed purpose—and a new mission.

He decided right then that if he had the chance to kill Serena Tennyson—shield or no shield that was what he was going to do.

Louis

I-285 East (Emergency Lane), 6th Day

 

He heard someone coming up from behind him.

He dared peer over his right shoulder, the passenger side of his pickup truck in full view.

A voice:

“Turn your head back around. Do not look at me. Do not say anything. I want you to put the key in the ignition, start this old heap up, put the transmission in gear and drive.”

Louis wanted to obey. He really wanted to. But he could hear the helicopters flying in the distance to take him away…far away. And anyway, his hands were trembling and he was so very cold, yet he was beginning to sweat along his forehead and underneath his armpits.

He managed to get the old girl’s engine going after the second try and he and…she were underway. He gazed one final time into his driver side mirror and found the strength to put his boot to the gas pedal and pull the pickup truck onto the highway. At least Elvis Pressley was swooning an oldie but goodie on the classic rock station, the familiarity of the king’s lyrics sooth him almost to the point of relaxation.

Serena Tennyson reached out and switched the radio to one of those 24 hour news channels.

“Watch your speed.” She said

Fuck you, lady. The voice inside him said.

She grabbed one of the bottled waters from the packs on the passenger side floorboard and downed half of it in a single gulp. She was wearing a gray sweat suit on top of the orange prison garb they issued you at the courthouse. He could only imagine what fate befell the woman who had owned the sweat suit when this day had started.

“Serena,” Louis took the off ramp at Hudson. He remembered that this point right here, right now passed an important threshold for their escape, Serena’s deliverance. “How did you make it here? All of the reports coming on the radio said that you’d been shot. How did you escape?”

She wiped the spilled portion from her mouth with the back of her hand…and were those tears seeping out the corner of her eyes. She still didn’t answer at first, but when she did, told Louis a grand tale that is full of treachery, deceit, betrayal and finally, murder. The final leg of it found her falling in with the marathon participants and running right past Special Agent Christopher Prince and the traitor Dr. Angel Hicks Dupree after they had rear-ended and killed one of her body doubles. She had said to him that she was sure that all eight of the brave men and women who had sacrificed their selves for her cause were either dead or in custody by now.

Inside of him, Hugh Keaton giggled. You have to admire her attention to detail, and the tenacious way she goes about goes about her business.

Twenty minutes and no disruptions later they arrived at a wooded area in the western suburbs of Cobb County. Louis can hear his boots crunching the leaves beneath his boot as he steps down out of the pickup truck. He hurried as fast as his little legs can take him and opens the heavy door for his leader, ever the gentleman. We are far from being a gentleman. And this wench is your leader, not hours. The sooner we learn that the better we all will be.

When Serena opened the door to the cabin, a dozen or so Pandora agents greeted her as she stepped inside.

Serena took a step or two forward, Louis shadowing her footsteps like a grim reaper. The applause for their leader is long and thunderous enough to shake the foundation. They continue the cheering, the whistling, and the clapping of hands until they realize their efforts are wasted on her. Serena has yet to look up from the wooden floor, not to speak of not meeting or acknowledged that anyone had come here to greet her at all.

Unsmiling, Serena finally looked up and took in her surroundings even before she acknowledged the people who occupy the space in this cabin which is too small a space for all of these folks in the first place.

She hadn’t smiled once. In fact, her thin pale jaws looked as if they might swell up and burst in anger at any given minute. The leader of Pandora continued to peer around in silence. Louis noticed the buckets of Champaign chilling on ice, finger sandwiches resting on a tray waiting to be consumed, and brownies are lined up smartly on a coffee table.

Serena hugged herself, and for a second Louis thought the woman would fall where she once stood if she hadn’t had a wall to lean against.

“Whose idea was this,” Serena said in a dangerous voice and scanned the room pointing out potential suspects along the way. “I want to see a hand. I want a name. I want it right now or there will be hell to pay for all of you.”

No one volunteered to breathe, yet alone take the leap of faith by stepping forward and perhaps incurring the wrath of the Oracle.

No one dared take the leap except a pale, petite woman who wore her hair in a single braid that ran the length of her spine. She was dressed in black; she was always dressed in black.

Danielle Rohm dared to smile and pointed a skinny finger over her own head. “It was me, Serena. I take full responsibility for this.”

Serena left Louis’ petite shadow for Rohm’s. Some of the other agents looked at each other with anxiety budding on their faces, while others seem to stop breathing at all. Louis turned away but Hugh twisted his head back from which it came. We want to see this. Serena had been known to be hard, but could she be cruel as well—

“Then it is you that I should thank, Rohm.” Serena said to the younger woman, and then raised her head and voice at last for all of the Pandora operatives to hear her. “Thank you all…it feels…wonderful to be amongst all of you again.”

Pandora celebrated well into the night. Louis even saw Serena set one of her water bottles aside and accept a glass of Champaign that she nursed for thirty minutes before her glass was empty at last. Rohm drank enough for the both of them and it gave her enough courage to lift her small frame on her toes and hug Serena around her neck. Serena only hesitated a second…her discomfort with another human being’s touch lessening. She finally ran a hand along the small of Rohm’s back in small token of affection. Both women thought that Louis was out of hearing range when Rohm said, “He survived another of your test, when you had him meet you at the congregation point.”

Serena nodded in agreement.

The other operatives laughed and ate and drank mostly among themselves. They chatted about how the day had went, the battle won. Rohm had bragged about her half a dozen kills that had originally sprung Serena from her captives. A second voice patted her on her shoulder commenting that he’d never seen shooting like that. A last voice laughed about how incompetent the APD were and how inept the FBI was as they followed the doubles in all directions through the city.

And then Serena hushed them long enough for one and all to raise a glass in tribute to the fallen. She called each by name and thanked them for their service and for honoring the cause…and honoring her.

Louis did not raise a glass with them.

Two hours later, when the late night full moon watched him from overhead, Serena came to him as he knew she would. He was seated on the back step of the cabin watching the taillights of the last of the operatives leaving for wherever their lives took them next. There were three rooms in the cabin and Louis knew that Danielle Rohm had stayed behind to sleep off the alcohol and to stay close to their leader if her services were needed in the remote chances that either the bureau or Xavier Prince’s people found her here. And you stayed behind, little girl to keep an eye on us.

Louis felt the step give a little as Pandora’s leader sat next to him. He could feel her thigh and hip graze his own leg. He had a woman once. Even now, well over 40 years later, he still hadn’t understood what all of the fuss was all about. We’re sure this type of intimacy would excite an operative or…three that have already left the party

But he had a hunger for a different type of flesh.

And our need to feed grows with every passing minute, Serena. Feed us…feed us again as you promised that you would.

Still, there was a glow on her skin that hadn’t existed before, a perhaps it was just the moonlight. She’d washed her hair and the red came through bright and clear as she combed it out. Something was different about her. Something had changed. What happened to you while you were away from us, Serena? Louis knew about the attempted rape…he knew all about rape…yes, he did.

Still again, she was still Serena Tennyson. She was the Oracle. She was still hard, but something or someone had softened her around her edges at least. Louis didn’t know exactly what any of this meant for Pandora…or for him.

He realized that he’d been staring at her this entire time without blinking.

“I don’t have to explain to you how important your role is in the coming days.” She said. “So many have sacrificed so much for us to be where we are right now, here in our rightful place, leading others.”

He tried to nod, but could not find the strength.

She saw his weakness. She pulled out a cell phone out of her housecoat’s pocket. “There is something that I want you to see.” The cell phone came to life. She pressed a button and a video began playing…and although Louis Keaton had never met this man on the cell phone’s screen, he certainly knew his face.

“I’m Thomas Pepper,” He hesitated for a very long time while the camera panned out from his face to the familiar surroundings of his townhouse’s basement where he recorded these videos for his blog. Serena must have recognized the studio immediately. “And my demise has been greatly exaggerated.” Louis thought that he heard a giggle…and yes, there were children, four of them to be exact, sitting on either side of the journalist. There was a little black boy, another boy of Latino descent…Louis couldn’t be sure, and two girls, one white and another of Chinese or Japanese ancestry. None of the children were older than ten years old.

They looked delectable…especially the boys. Louis twisted in his seat so Serena wouldn’t see the stiffening in his groin.

Thomas Pepper was saying: “I vow and affirm not to speak in any public form again until I deliver the truths that I promised our Mayor, Ernestine Johnson before her untimely death several days ago.

“I invited these little ones here today as a reminder to us all that when we speak of the future, these are the ones that we are leaving it to. And when I look into their faces, I know that there is a God. I may not serve him as I should…but I know that He is there. And His spirit reminds me that their hearts are so naturally pure and so innocent that it is we and only we adults who teach them to hate one another.” Pepper’s tone turned dark. “How dare we teach them guidelines and rules that we adults ourselves are either too arrogant or too stupid to adhere to.”

Thomas Pepper took a breath. The little Asian boy became unruly for a minute. Thomas let the moment and the boy settle down again. “Those before us had Pearl Harbor and the JFK shooting. We have the 911 attacks. And now this generation has the Andrew Young Center and the Fox Theatre and…Deliverance.

“All of us have been raised in madness.”

The camera followed him as he stood. “I wonder how much longer before A House in Chains sees this future of sadness and pain that they’ve visualized for so long. I question how many more days will pass before Pandora unleashes its Whirlwind on us all.

“I hope that Xavier Prince walks away from this impending disaster. I pray that Serena Tennyson will turn away from prophecy.” Serena seemed to squirm in her seat as the man’s last words passed through his lips.

“And I hope never to ask the question: Where are our Children?” It was now time for Louis Keaton to shift uneasily in his seat.

He concluded by saying: “My name is Thomas Pepper, where I go—“

Serena silenced the cell phone. “You’ve trained for this moment, Louis.” She said to him. “You’re ready for this moment, Louis.”

“No…I’m not.” The tears fell without preamble. He shook his head violently and put his head between his knees, his manhood stiffer than he could ever remember. And he was unable to hide it.

He turned to expose them both to her. “But I won’t fail you, Serena. Thomas Pepper dares speak of God. We are the truth and the light. And while no man knew the day or the hour of our return, we at long last, have come back for the children.

And now the dust was settling on Deliverance and the Rapture would rise with the dawn.

Episode 3 Rapture

Chapter Seven

 

Deep down I know that I shouldn’t feel this way about him. I know that it isn’t right. But sometimes…well, sometimes I wish that Chris was dead, mamma. I wish that it could be just me and you again.

-12 year old Erica Lovings’ conversation with her mother Denise Prince, in 2004

Chris

Parker’s Soul Food Restaurant, 10th Avenue, 8th Day

 

Denise Prince:

She was a brown skinned Person of Color who had an hour glass shape. She had light hazel eyes, high cheek bones and wore her curly hair weave to her shoulders. He had always loved a how creative his ex-wife could be with her hair. Today she wore streaks of auburn and chestnut tinted strands that highlighted the color in her eyes. She was 35 years old, four years his junior, and was drawing her usual attention from male passerby’s, even dressed in hospital fatigues. He watched her slide into one of the last available booths inside Parker’s Real Soul Food Restaurant and then sat on the opposite side of her.

40 minutes later Denise was working on her last piece of today’s special, baby back ribs which had looked tasty and smelled better. Special Agent Christopher Prince stabbed at the one of his two chunks of grilled chicken from his salad. Parker’s had been around since he’d been a kid. No one in the Deep South did soul food better…but grilled chicken salad doesn’t quite fit the bill as soul food now does it? If the life and death episodes he’d faced at the Fox Theatre and the high speed car chase in pursuit of what he thought was Serena Tennyson through the streets of Atlanta didn’t motivate him to lose the extra pounds, then nothing would.

He had a pain in his gut. Damn. They’d been coming a little too often and to sharp in severity as of late for his liking. He tried to put his best face forward. He didn’t want to discuss any of his biological issues with Denise, though the alternative, the reason they had agreed to meet for lunch in the first place, wasn’t going to be pleasant either.

“No Pork chops, Chris?” She pointed a greasy finger at his plate before she wiped her hands with the wet naps. It took her several swipes to get her fingers clean for a final time. “Now I truly know the world is coming to an end.” Her hazel eyes found his glass of Ginger Ale warming in his hand. “I guess you’ll be giving that up next.”

He stopped picking at the chicken long enough to look up from his plate and forced himself into a smile. He seemed to always be doing that in the ten years they were married, gritting his teeth and trying to stave off another confrontation. “Just trying to scale back a little bit,” Despite his best efforts, he felt himself getting angry. “Why don’t we talk about something else?”

“Why don’t we?” Denise powdered her nose and cheeks and applied a very light shade of red to her thin lips. She’d gone from nine and a half on the beauty scale to a perfect ten in an instant. An instrumental jazz tune blared through the speakers that Chris knew his brother Xavier would have appreciated it more than he did. But this high paced horn solo with the dark overture served as a perfect theme song for the woman who sat across from him. Yes, you can be jazzy can’t you, Denise? “I haven’t heard from Roxanne today. It’s 12:30pm and so far she’s given me a daily report no later than noon. Would you happen to know anything about that, sir?”

Sir was Denise’s code word to Chris that she was on the fringes of being particularly irritated or being particularly playful with him. He always braced himself for the former until it was proven otherwise. “I spoke to her this morning.” Chris sucked the last of his drink from his glass and sat it down with some emphasis near her hoping that she his subtle message that Roxanne would be going through his channels first, from this point on.

“What do you mean you spoke to her?”

“Yes, I spoke to her.” Chris said without hesitation. “I was going to bring that up here, today. I believe that Roxanne should report directly to me twice a day until Eric is found. She’ll be calling me again around 10pm tonight. ” Denise rolled her hazel eyes at him, but so far all he could hear was Parker’s noisy patrons and the Jazz music that had moved on to a piano solo now. “I wrote her a check yesterday. I know you have a lot on your plate that includes a ton of bills. If and when she finds something I’ll let you know. I promise.”

Something won out inside Denise and her face softened. She nodded her head and rubbed her hands together, silently sending the message to him that he would take his advice and lead in this—at least for right now.

“Does she have your full confidence?”

“Scotty recommended her to you, Denise. Even if I didn’t already know her from her stint in the FBI’s Training Program, his recommendation alone would be enough for me.” Chris said. Benjamin Scott had worked 37 years for various law enforcement agencies. More importantly, he along with Angel’s father, Tyler Hicks, was the two men on the planet that Chris’ father trusted explicability. “In fact, Roxanne told me that she had scheduled an interview with a source tonight.”

Denise sipped at her lemonade through her straw until she found the bottom of her glass at last. Scotty told Chris that Denise didn’t give him any particulars about why she needed to hire a private detective when she sought his advice. Whatever the matter was, his mentor and friend had said to him last night, I felt she deserved someone who would work hard for her, who was honest and wouldn’t rip her off. And when Chris asked him why he didn’t share this information with him after she came to him for the recommendation he smiled tightly and said, because you two are still at point beyond dissolution if I recall. Her business is not your business, Old Man.

When Denise put her glass down at last the room had quieted enough for him to get on with his unpleasant business with her. He had already picked his ex-wife’s brain about the when’s and the where’s of Erica’s whereabouts and so far they’d come up empty. Now, he wanted some answers to the next obvious question rattling along in a parent’s brain. “Why didn’t you come to me directly when you thought Erica turned up missing?”

Denise shrugged her shoulders once. “Look, Chris, I know how you feel about my daughter.”

Chris felt a new wave of anger wash over him. “How I feel about her?” Chris exhaled threw his nostrils. “I want you to remember that I felt enough for her to help raise her since she was like six or seven years old, Denise. I care about what happens to her.”

“But you don’t love her, Chris. You never have loved her.”

“Of course I…” Chris’ words lost their traction and they fell off a cliff.

“You see what I mean,” Denise’s laugh held no humor. “You can’t even lie to me and say it. Damn you, Chris, Erica didn’t mean to hurt you the way she did.”

Chris leaned in close. The barbecue sauce on Denise’s ribs had been spiced in honey and he could smell it on her breath. “Then what other name would you have for it?” He asked her and noted that they’re little exchange had brought on some curious glances from the other the patrons whose tables and booths were closest to theirs. Chris stood up to wave the attention of the teenaged waitress down while flashing his bureau shield bright and shiny to anyone who might pay too much attention to their private conversation. “Check please,”

They walked the half a block necessary to reach their parked cars. A strong gust of smoky, cold wind hit both of them in the face. Chris tried and failed to distinguish whether this particular whiff was from Parker’s grill or from one of the dozen forest fires that continued to plague the metro area. No matter what you say, Denise, it took a well thought out process to attempt to pull what that girl—

Denise pressed a breast against his shoulder when they reached her Civic. “I prayed for you the other night.”

“Did you?”

Denise frowned and he knew it wasn’t because of the smoke or the cold wind. “Why wouldn’t I, Chris?” She folded her arms over and planted her butt on the Civics’ driver side door. “My God, you work for one of the most high profile agencies in the country, Chris. Between the explosion at the youth center and the hostages being held at the theatre, I knew that you were involved in all that somehow.” Denise’s gaze softened once again. “Of course, I had no idea you were one of those people being held inside Fox until after it was already over.”

“I’m sorry, “Chris put his hands on her shoulders. “I couldn’t have been easy for you not knowing where Erica was and then adding all of that madness to your life that involved me as well.”

“And we opened the Triage Center at Atlanta General for the first time since the quake happened a month ago. It hit me all at once how serious everything really was. All the RN’s were put on 24 hour call, but I never left the hospital once during the whole thing. The first responders kept bringing in bodies from both scenes…and then the nightmare recycled itself again when that crazy woman you arrested set off those bombs on the streets on the other side of town a few days later.”

“Yea, it’s been crazy…”

Denise had used the opportunity to pull his body closer to her. He got a full feel of her breast as she pushed them against his chest and his manhood responded to the exchange far quicker than he’d expected. He tried to take a half a step in retreat but she smoothly spun and pinned him to her to driver side door. She rested her head on his chest. He could smell her hairspray and perfume.

“I kept praying…hoping that I wouldn’t see you carried in on one of those gurneys.”

“I know…look, Denise,” He tried to peel her off of him and yet the feel of her breast, the smell of her was intoxicating to say the least. In the two years since their divorce Chris had known few women—by his choice. After he and Denise got over the initial furor that all divorces go through, they entered an interesting, if unorthodox phase that led to the present arrangement.

They began to have sex again.

Chris felt that he didn’t have the time or energy or interest to pursuit hardcore relationships with other women. Catherine Siegel, he finally learned the family name of the woman who had been his date who died at the Fox Theatre, had only been his fourth or fifth date since their divorce finalized. Denise had been the woman he had fulfilled his sexual needs with for the most part over the last couple of years.

“Denise, listen, I need to go.”

“That’s cool. Why won’t you come over to the apartment for a while after we both get off work tonight?” She asked and released in him just enough so that he could breathe his own air. “You said that Roxanne is supposed to call you around ten. We can be together when she does. You can pack a bag and spend the night—“

Chris was shaking his bald head. “I don’t know about that, Denise.”

Just as quickly she slid back in his arms again and everything had started all over for him, all the progress he had made a second earlier was gone. “Please Chris; I don’t want to be alone tonight.” She said, her voice purring with each word. “And it has been a couple of weeks since…since we’ve been together like that.”

Denise’s grip increased from a strong attachment to a vice grip and she twisted his head back in her direction to kiss him. She pushed her tongue between his lips, out again, and then nibbled at his ear lobe as she reached and found his fully responsive manhood in his slacks. Her tongue, her hands, all of her so inviting…but…

“Denise,” He said. “Stop.”

“What’s wrong with you, sir,” She shot back at him angrily. “Oh, yea, I get it. I fucking get it, Angel’s in town and suddenly you can’t find the time to spend with me.”

Chris raised his voice to meet her tone. “Dr. Hicks-Dupree is here in Atlanta at the request of the FBI.” He planted his fist on his hips. She had folded her arms. It was on, just like in the good old days of their marriage. “Besides she is a married woman. And I’ve told you, I’m telling you again this afternoon, that thing that occurred between us happened only once and it was years before you and I were married. Damn, Denise, we’ve been over this countless times. I don’t understand why can’t you get this through you head?”

Denise slammed her hands down on her wide hips. “Oh, I get it alright, sir,”

“Denise…” Chris looked at his watch. He had tons of work to do but no specific place he had to be at the moment, but she didn’t know this. “Look, Denise, I need to go.”

“Don’t run from me, Chris.”

“I’m not running.” Yet, he was walking as fast as his legs and a stomach full of grilled chicken salad and ginger ale would carry him a half a block over to where his car was parked.

“You know, you’re right, baby. I apologize. This really ain’t got anything to do with Angel.” Denise’s angered look had faded into something that looked almost like hurt. Hurt might as well been a foreign film in an American theatre when it came to Agent Christopher Prince’s ex-wife Denise Prince. She only seemed to know anger and annoyance and a little furor performances thrown in for good measure. “It’s about her isn’t it? It’s always been about the only woman you’ve truly ever loved.”

Chris ground his teeth together. They’d drawn a small audience of passerby’s on the adjacent sidewalk. A driver or two had slowed enough to hear a sentence or two before moving back on to the business of driving. Chris thought he saw a man who looked too young to walk with a cane hide his cell phone from his view when Chris spotted him.

Chris exhaled from his nose again, and knew his skin was far too dark to redden from embarrassment but he was embarrassed for the both of them all the same. Strife between a relatively young man and woman of color in a predominately Black neighborhood in the streets of Atlanta is nothing new or news worthy despite your efforts to change our image in the media, little brother.

“Leave it alone, Denise.” Chris said when he thought he had gained enough distance between them. “Leave the dead alone.”

But the rage was on her now. This show, friends and neighbors, was just beginning. “Fuck that, it’s you that won’t leave shit alone, Chris.” Denise screamed in his direction. “I could never compete with you dearest Hoshi. I know you, Chris. I know you don’t sleep around. In fact, I’ll even wager that you’d rather go home tonight and masturbate to one of your drawings of that woman then physically be with me.”

“That’s enough, Denise.”

“Angel Hicks-Dupree…Hoshi Givens…what’s her name, the woman you said died in that theatre the other night, yea I guess I don’t compare to any of them. I guess my skin is too damned dark for your taste.”

“That is enough, Denise.” Chris fired back and if bystanders heard the conversation then to hell with them as well.

Denise seemed to shrink a little after he had raised his voice to a near max. She seemed shaken and uncomfortable under his hardened gaze that he usually reserved for the vilest of humanity he’d investigated in his career. But Denise had crossed a line with him mentioning two women who had died so tragically and so young.

He loosed his fist and struggled to regain his sense of calm. This absolutely was the feeling that reminded him of his marriage to this woman who he still occasionally slept with; the one who had decided to keep his name after their divorce. Control, he chided himself silently and he took a deep breath and then another the way that Scotty had always taught him. You must never lose control around Denise or any other woman; because once you cross that threshold you’ll never able to be to look at yourself the same again. Scotty had preached to him. And I’m not just talking about the man in you who plays the role of the cop, Old Man.

“I’ll be in touch with you tonight, as soon as I speak to Roxanne.”

Chris sat in his own BMW afterwards, cracked the windows down half way, and tried to push the last of the heat he was feeling from his latest argument with Denise of its cracks.

Denise, apparently, had other plans for him.

She reached over the top of him and battered the back of his bald head with her fist over and again until he had regained his awareness of time and space, caught her fist and somehow unlatched his self from her assault, opened the card door, and pushed her off of him without injuring her.

He stood just outside of his car door and slammed it shut, rattling the glass, and exhaled loudly through his nostrils in exasperation. He was angry at Denise for sure for an unprovoked attack against him, but was absolutely furious with the FBI Agent inside that should have expected the possibility, knowing this woman’s history the way that he knew it.

Denise sat on the pavement and looked towards the heavens and took a few forest fire plagued breaths of her own. When she looked at her ex-husband again there were tears running down both cheeks. Chris took notice. For all of their confrontations of the years, Denise Prince was not a woman who cried easily.

“Why can’t you forgive?” She said. He knew from long experience that the forgiveness she referred to was meant for his step daughter Erica Lovings, not for her specifically. Through all of her faults, Denise Prince knew what kind of creature she was. “Why can’t you understand that no mother wants to believe that her child is a liar? Please believe me when I say tell you that I didn’t want to believe that my little girl was capable of what she tried to do to you. And I don’t know what I will do if I lose you both. ”

Agent Christopher Prince got back in his BMW, closed the door, and sat back against his head rest for what felt like a long time afterwards.

Denise had returned to his window, calm as an ocean’s breeze. He powered the window the rest of the way down, found Denise’s hand and squeezed it with genuine affection, politely asked her to step back, and fired up the ignition. He decided right then and right there in Parker’s parking lot, that the sexual escapades between him and his ex-wife had run its course and needed to end.

“I’ll call you tonight.” He said finally. “I’m sure that Roxanne Sanchez will have something meaningful to report.”

He put the car in gear, sped off and left her there.

Roxanne

Councilwoman Vanessa Davis’ Bedroom, College Park, Georgia, 8th Day

 

She fired a signal rifle round into the ceiling.

Councilwoman Vanessa Davis hopped her big ass off of the face of a white man that Roxanne Sanchez figured was a fellow politician or someone of note who held a lesser post in the Atlanta political scene. Davis nearly toppled over her bed onto the carpet from jumping off her lover so fast.

“What in the hell is going on here?” She asked. She reached for her robe and fastened it in one large bow around her waist. “What are you doing in my house?”

Roxanne, for the moment, ignored Councilman Davis and saved her attention and a taut smile for her guest. “Hi,” Roxanne laid the rifle on her shoulder. “You might want to leave us girls alone for a while. We have so much catching up to do. I’m sure you know how it is?”

“Okay,” The Naked Man said. “Sure.”

He was a butterball of man who wore only his glasses, wedding ring and smelly socks while he had handled his business. He stepped in the right direction but made his first critical error of the evening by reaching for his boxers, which were draped across the chair nearest the king sized bed.

Roxanne fired a second shot into ceiling to remind him of his slip-up.

“What are you doing?” Davis asked her.

Roxanne scratched her forehead. “I guess I’m not making myself clear. I mean for you to get out…right…now.”

“Okay,” The Naked Man said again. “Sure.”

Councilman Davis watched the younger man vacate her bedroom as unclothed as the day he was born. She muttered an apology in his general direction and asked him to call her. A moment later both women listened as he slammed the front door close. Roxanne still held the rifle over her shoulder, but kept the barrel pointed away from the councilwoman’s face—for now.

Vanessa Davis:

She was a full figured Black woman in her mid 50’s. Underneath the housecoat she’d been dressed in a panty less bustier, garter belt, and heels. She was sliding her panties back on right now and fitting one of her signature wigs on her scalp. She wore large hoop earrings and when she had spoken before it was with a raspy voice. Her teeth were darkened where they had been stained by years of caffeine and nicotine abuse.

She forced herself to sit back against her headboard, cross her legs and relax as much as a woman who had a maniac running around her bedroom with a rifle could.

“Alright, so congratulations, you have my attention, Little Girl.” Davis said. “How may I help you?”

Roxanne plopped her butt in a nearby love seat. She was dressed in what amounted to a body fitting cat suit. It was so black and snug that one could barely tell where the shadows ended and Roxanne’s curves began.

“You’ve got it all wrong, councilwoman; I’m here to help you.”

“Help me?” Davis thin eyebrows shot up. “How do you mean?”

“I’m going to ask you a series of questions. Trust me when I say that each subsequent question is more important than the one that came before it. You’re going to answer my questions, of that I have no doubt. But failure by you to answer them in a timely manner will result in me bashing you upside your head with this.” Roxanne emphasized her Smith and Wesson for the other woman to see.

“Alright,”

“Any omission will be considered insufficient. A blatant lie will be considered very insufficient.”

“Alright,”

Roxanne had watched Victor use these same techniques down below. Sometimes, Senorita, the mere threat of pain is enough to get the answers that you need. He had taught her well. “It’s been my experience that you will bleed a long painful time before you died of these head wounds.”

Councilwoman Davis asked and received permission to slowly reach into one of her drawers. Roxanne targeted her forehead with the rifle while she methodically pulled out a pack of cigarettes, and to Roxanne’s anguish got one going. Women have vices as well, Victor.

Roxanne laid the rifle across her lap. “I’ll take that as if you are ready to begin.”

Vanessa Davis nodded as she exhaled.

Roxanne wasted no time. “Where is Erica Lovings?”

“Who?”

Roxanne picked up the rifle and fired a single shot into Councilman Davis’ monitor of an old school PC that was resting on a computer stand on the far side of the bedroom.

Davis came unglued. “Stop that, Goddamn you.”

“Stop what?” Roxanne asked and laid the hot rifle back in her lap. “Oh, that business with your computer…I want you to think of it as my way of reminding you that we are going to reboot this conversation for the first and last time.”

Davis inhaled another hit of her cigarette. “Look, Sweetie, I know Erica Lovings was seen with my son before she went missing. I’m sure somebody, somewhere, told you that, that’s why you’re here terrorizing my guest and blowing holes in my roof.” She said and pointed the ash end of her smoke at Roxanne. “I don’t know where she is now.”

“Let’s say that I believe you,” Roxanne leaned forward in the chair. “At least for the time being, I do. Tell me where your son is?”

“He’s tucked away where you or no one else will find him, Little Girl.” Davis actually smiled. “Ever,”

Roxanne hopped up out of the chair, made her way through a cloud of cigarette smoke towards Davis who looked to hold her ground.

“Let me get this straight,” Roxanne said in a low voice. She’d placed the rifle’s barrel just below Vanessa Davis’ chin. “You sex men who should be home with their families. Even worse, that one particular man belongs to a race that you openly despise, at least in public. You’re always rumored to be stealing public funds in some shape, manner, or form. And now you’re hiding a killer.” Roxanne pushed the gun out of the other woman’s face long enough to feign applause. “Well done, Councilwoman Davis, we should display more of your wonderful merits for your followers to see.”

It was Davis turn to lean forward with a response. “My supporters are plentiful, rich, and see only what I choose to let them see.” Davis allowed her dull smile to showcase itself again. She shifted her wig to a better position on her skull. Nonetheless, Little Girl, you are wrong about one of your accusations. If Xavier Prince’s niece is dead, my Trey didn’t kill her.”

“How do you know that?”

“I just know.”

Roxanne eased back and tucked the rifle on her shoulder again. “Sometimes we’re blind to the failures of the ones we love the most.”

Davis shook her big head and stubbed out her smoke in the ashtray besides the bed. “I ain’t blind to shit.” She said. “Trey is far from perfect, but he is not some heartless killer.”

“Tell me about some of his imperfections.”

“He has some convictions. If your car isn’t parked in the garage he would steal it. If you tell him not go there he will trespass on it. If you can get high or drunk off of it he will try to sell it to you.” Davis rattled them off the top of her brain from memory. She combed her wig with her fingers and then snuffed the half smoked cigarette out in the ashtray next to all the other butts. “But more than any of that, Trey’s first love…and first failing, is that he loves a sexy hood rat more than anything else in this world.” She leaned in close to Roxanne again, to guarantee the younger woman wouldn’t miss what she disclosed next. “But he didn’t adore women any more than his running partner…Erica Lovings.”

Roxanne cocked a brow.

“Are you telling my Erica was bisexual?”

“Bisexual my ass, she was a stud.” Davis said and offered a hoarse laugh that lasted far too long. “My Trey told me he’d never been around a more sexually aggressive person in his whole life, man or woman.”

“Alright,” Roxanne wondered why either of the Prince’s mentioned Erica’s sexuality to her. “Okay, so what did go wrong?” Come on Councilwoman Davis, you and your son sound close. He had to tell you something specific?”

Davis slid another cigarette between her lips but had seemed to have misplaced her lighter in her bed covers.

“Maybe,” Was all that she offered Roxanne.

Roxanne eased the rifle down some ninety degrees to remind the other woman they were still locked under the terms of their agreement that she’d established earlier.

“Maybe you should finish talking, I’m all ears.”

Vanessa Davis cleared her throat. “Like I said, Erica was hyper aggressive towards other females and I just didn’t get this info from my son. That girl was the talk of the streets, especially in some of the rougher neighborhoods where she and Trey spent entire days drinking and hoe hopping. Where she may have bitten off more than she could chew though, is when they stepped to some young bitches from Carver.”

Shit. “Let me guess, one of these young women was a girlfriend of an Usher.” Roxanne didn’t grow up in the Carver Housing Projects, but she went to middle and high school with enough of the residents to know the territory and the stories that originated out of that hell hole all too well. Some in the media called Carver the most dangerous complex of its type in America to live in. A man who called himself the Bishop attired himself something that made him look nothing short of a Catholic Priest, ran the place pounding a bible with one hand and holding a gun in the other. He had deployed his lieutenants, his Ushers to establish and then maintain order in the project. The tenants living there were little more than modern day indentured servants. Their belongings, their homes, their very lives were subject to be taken by the Bishop, his Deacon or the Ushers if he were so inclined. It was recently rumored that he had his own harem of young women who were daughters and mothers and wives of other residents that he regularly fathered children with.

“Yep, I knew you were bright Little Girl, she bedded one of his main squeezes and bragged about it to anyone who would listen.”

Damn. “So your son believes this Usher killed Erica simply because he felt disrespected or the usual street bullshit young people swear by. Do you know any of this for a fact?”

Davis found her lighter. A fresh stench of cigarette smoke clouded the room. Roxanne shook her head in disgust.

“I only know that my Trey believes this to be true.” Davis said. “But sure or not, I couldn’t take any chances of any harm coming to my baby. Anyway, like I said before, he didn’t have anything positive going on here anyway. If it wasn’t this mess with Erica, then he was going to probably end up dead in the streets of Atlanta for something else. I wasn’t having that, no way.”

Roxanne nodded in understanding. “You could have gone to the police.”

Davis stood and pointed at the holes in her ceiling. “And you could have knocked. Anyway, like I said, he was facing other charges, and like you said, I ain’t terribly popular downtown. The APD wasn’t going to pin this murder on Trey simply because they can’t or won’t find the real killer. What you know, Little Girl, is what they know as well.”

Roxanne watched the other woman make her way over to her massive walk in closet that one end seemed to reach towards Augusta and the other end towards the Alabama state line. She dropped the housecoat and pulled an oversized nightshirt over her head, unhooked her bra and let it fall to the floor and slipped on some pajama pants.

“And anyway, I didn’t have a whole lot of choice. The APD was the least of my worries. The Choir Boys may have had Trey on their radar for different reasons. He has had ties to the Black Knights gang on near north side of town as well.”

Roxanne shook her head again. As much as she hated to admit it, Councilwoman Davis had done all of the things she would have if their roles were reversed. She didn’t know how rotten a kid Trey Davis was at his core, but he apparently was stupid enough to be mixed up in a lot of crap that put his life at risk.

And Roxanne knew all about stashing someone where no one would find them. All the roads seemed to be leading to the dead end which was Carver Street Housing Projects. She turned—

“Do you have any kids?”

“No,” Roxanne said and then added, “I don’t have anyone.”

Davis waved an accusing thick index finger at her. “Then don’t ever try to tell me what I should or should not have done when it comes to the safety and well-being of my baby.”

Roxanne switched the safety on her rifle and threw its strap over her left shoulder. She stood on the desk that seated the computer, disengages two wires above the window seal, betraying how she managed to get inside this mini mansion in the first place. She began to squeeze her thin frame—

“What are you planning to do with this information I’ve given you?” Vanessa Davis wanted to know.

“I’m going to Carver.” Roxanne said as a matter of fact. “All trails lead me there. I’m going to find Erica Lovings, dead or alive, and bring her home to her mother.”

Davis reached into her underwear drawer in the same cautious manner she did before when she found her pack of smokes. Roxanne has already disengaged the safety on the rifle just in case this woman gets stuck on stupid and tried something irrational. Although Roxanne can feel her pulse in her ears, she tells herself that she is calm and in control of this situation.

Roxanne Sanchez is surprised when the older woman draws cocaine from a zip lock bag onto a sheet of paper, and eventually takes a small hit up each nostril.

Roxanne’s stomach churned.

“Sweetheart, I’ll let you in on another secret besides all of my nasty habits I’ve displayed for you tonight.” Davis said. “You tough and all of that, but the Carver Housing Projects is as about as far from an ideal travel destination as you get in this city…if not this hemisphere right now.”

“I’m touched.” Roxanne failed to mask her sarcasm. “But I was born and raised in this city. And by all accounts I shouldn’t have ever made it back here from Mexico alive. I know the turf. I know how dangerous it can get over there.

“Then you don’t know a damned thing. I should show you something.”

The older woman had gained enough of Roxanne’s attention for her to climb back down to the carpet. Vanessa Davis pulls her blouse back over her head and exposes a heavy breast with Tell me what you see when you visualize our future, tattooed on left boob and I visualize a future filled with misery and pain, inked on the right one. A chain seemingly meant to connect the passages lies on her chest wall in between.

“I saw you at Mayor Ernestine Johnson’s press conference on the day that Senator Lavelle announced to the world that she had been a member of A House in Chains.” Roxanne tried and failed to keep astonishment out of her tone. “I thought you were playing for the camera. You’ve taken the mark. You are a member as well.”

Councilwoman Davis left her blouse in the floor where it was and reached for the housecoat instead. When she felt it was adequately secured, she opted to return to her stash and took another long whiff of her nose candy. When she raised her head again, blood had begun to trickle down her left nostril. She must have felt it dripping because she wiped the blood and the tears associated from the hit from her left eye as well.

“Listen, sweetheart, any fool with a right hand and a pair of lips can read Isaac Prince’s mandates and become a full-fledged member.” She said. “But to join the ranks of The Peacekeepers they put you through various mental and physical test and an extensive background check and training period before you are initiated. And to admitted to the Board, well, I’ll tell you that the secondary governing body is an honor only bestowed to 12 people nationwide and you must be unanimously be voted in by the Circle.”

“And you’re on the board?”

“Were would be the more appropriate term for it, Little Girl. It only takes one circle member who can prove you as unworthy to excuse you from the Board and Grace Edwards has her sources and exercised her authority in doing so a couple days ago.” They stood in silence a moment. “You see, I suffer in the ‘self-respect’ part of the mandate, as you probably can tell.” Vanessa Davis looked down at herself and then the plate of cocaine. “I’m sure these tattoos will take longer than those same couple of days to scrub off.”

“I’m sure recovering from your dependency will take more than a couple of days as well.”

“Amen,” Councilwoman Davis said gruffly. Her gaze hardened and she looked into the dresser side mirror and her eyes quickly darted away, ashamed at the truths the reflection revealed about her life. For a moment Roxanne felt a tremor of sorrow for her. “Perhaps I’d given myself into the audacity of hope…or whatever that means for me.” She refocused with some effort and found Roxanne’s dark eyes. “Listen, Little Girl, I know you all grown and have a job to do and all of that, but take this warning from me—you’ll want to steer clear of Carver.”

Roxanne ejected the rifle’s final shells and sat them on the nightstand. She found a spot right in front of Vanessa Davis. Victor Castillo wouldn’t have approved.

Someday, when the time is right, Gonzales and I will stop what we are doing here…and find you.

I will see you suffer for what you have done here down below.

I will see you suffer before your end.

But that was her own private apocalypse for another day, her Whirlwind. Tonight, she had needed an opened door when all others were slamming shut. She even had something to report in her phone call to Chris Prince a half an hour from now that she might not have without this conversation having taken place. And if showcasing the smallest bit of respect and pity for this woman was the price she would have to pay—

“Councilwoman, what is going to go down at Carver?” Roxanne asked and when the other woman didn’t immediately answer she added: “Please tell me.”

Fresh tears misted in Councilwoman Davis’ eyes. Roxanne couldn’t tell rather they were the result of the potency of the cocaine or from the information about Carver that the woman had learned from her tenure on the Board.

Yet, after a moment, Roxanne Sanchez realized that she’d shed enough of her own to know that these were genuine and true enough.

“Carver is going to experience a tragedy unlike any ever seen before.” And then Roxanne watched Davis’ face brighten with sudden mix of pride and wonder. “While as the same time Carver is going to experience a rebirth that will be glorious and long overdue.” And then Roxanne could not decipher if the hysterical fit that had taken hold of the other woman was laughing or crying. “Now that Xavier Prince is freed from prison, I expect Carver to experience a purging none of us shall ever forget.”

Xavier

Morehouse College, Activity Center, 9th Avenue

 

The Circle had scheduled a meeting for 4:30pm sharp.

The President of Morehouse College was wearing a new suit, new loafers but had forgotten to brush his teeth. He shook Xavier Prince’s hand for a second time in as minutes when he and his four associates stepped into the school’s administrative conference room on the third floor and began to seat themselves at the large spit shined table.

The president’s assistant, a gray haired man who had that old eagle eye going audibly objected to the use of this seat of higher learning for A House in Chains affairs. He reminded his boss of the attacks 0f 411 and Pandora’s promise of more reprisals if Xavier and his people did not turn themselves over to local authorities immediately.

The president slapped his assistant warmly on the shoulder as if to say that everything would be fine, but never unfastened his gaze off of the One. He explained to his friend and colleague those attacks were perpetrated against People of Color in general and not A House in Chains exclusively.

Outside the room Xavier noticed that the campus was a bustle of activity as the students continued their preparations for graduation ceremonies that were only weeks away. With so many people coming and going about the Peacekeepers will be challenged to secure our place here. Yet, it warmed him to his marrow to see so many people that looked like him succeeding at such a high academic level. No, this wasn’t Princeton to be sure, but he wondered if he had missed out on a life experience by not attending a predominately Black school here in the South. Dad, I think you would have been proud of what are people are accomplishing, despite all of the challenges that we continue to face.

Isaac Prince.

Xavier wondered if the dreams that he had been having of his late father, especially in the days since his release from Calhoun State Prison meant anything in the grand scheme of cosmic events.

I’ll leave that speculation for another day. We have much business to discuss, the Circle and I, and time is short on so many different fronts.

The president allowed his Second to talk him into only allowing the Circle use of a smaller ready room on the far side of the corridor where they sat now. Quincy Morgan grunted in annoyance but Grace Edwards and the others lifted themselves from their seats and silently began the trek to the reserved area.

It was tight to say the least. The space…or lack thereof, seemed to squeeze them around the collar and the waist with its closeness and stuffiness. Nonetheless, a spectacular mural showcased up on the wall just above their heads was a jewel. The artist was as nearly talented a painter as his brother Chris was at drawing. The mural featured men who had done much to farther the cause of People of Color in America: Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., John F. Kennedy, and Malcolm X, his father Isaac Prince, President Adolphus Sweet…and himself were painted from left to right.

I’ve done nothing to deserve to be placed on a pedestal with these pioneers in the cause of justice and liberty for our people. He found himself mostly disturbed with the artist rendition that showed him facing out with his palms up in a Jesus like pose. I’ll say that I’m closer to the devil with the way I lead my personal life: I smoke too many cigarettes, drink a little much malt liquor, and whore around too often. In fact, after he spent the first 24 hours of his freedom with his boys, he helped escort them both back to their mother’ s homes and their lives and school while he returned to the Circle. He spent his second day mostly on his cell conferring with allies, attending press conferences and tending to other Executive matters that concerned A House in Chains.

My nights were far more relaxing though. He had bedded two women…at the same time last night. The thicker of the two seemed particularly eager to please him. She would whisper in his ear as she rode him, what do you see when you visualize our future, baby, and the other woman would respond between sticking her tongue in either of their mouths, I see hours and hours of drawing a line between pleasure…and pain.

He bit back at the self-criticism. The numbers that Grace Edwards provided him from the rise in Black illiteracy rates and the lowering of unwed child births to falling murder rates, drug arrest, felony convictions all told him he had done much in raising his people to new heights of prosperity and perception on his watch. However, our greatest challenges still lie ahead…and so do our greatest opportunities.

He decided—and not for the first time, that the liquidation by any means necessary of his people by Serena Tennyson and Pandora would not stand while he still lived.

The five members of the Circle sat at their cramped table and got to it.

Xavier placed a toothpick in his mouth. “I appreciate everyone’s attendance on such short notice—“

“Excuse me, Xavier,” Quincy Morgan eyed the entrance from which they had come. Aren’t we going to wait for Senator Lavelle to arrive?”

Grace Edwards shook her braided hair and peaked up from over her glasses. “The senator has been…let’s say, uninvited from Circle meetings until further notice.”

“Who authorized that?” Quincy asked.

“I did.” Xavier responded.

Quincy looked at his leader with inquisitive but respectful eyes. “Xavier, Lavelle is a United States Senator. He is an important man to both as an individual and as a front man to our cause.”

“And he would probably have been the Democratic Nominee for president two years ago if would stop displaying his faults for the entire world to see. Anyway, he’s not an official member of the Circle, and if he isn’t careful he’ll find himself out on his ass the way we culled Councilwoman Vanessa Davis and her cocaine habits from the Board.”

“The senator has no such habits that I’m aware of—“

“I don’t like the man, Quincy.” Xavier fixed his Sergeant at Arms, and newly positioned number two, with a hard glare. You were a friend and an ally, Ernestine. I will miss you deeply. He asked that they stand up once again to honor the city’s former mayor with a moment of silence. When they sat down again Xavier opened his attaché case that he’d brought with him, picked up a stack off of the very top and slid them towards Quincy Morgan. “I have complaint after complaint after complaint from other House staffers and other support parties about how they are spoken to and mistreated by the Senator from Ohio. He is a bully. I won’t tolerate his arrogance one second longer in this organization. US Senator or not, Anthony Lavelle better change his spots or he is out.” Xavier swung the toothpick around in this mouth from side to side hoping to calm his nerves. “Think of it, Quincy, these same types of questions of character got brought up about Lavelle during the primaries. He was this close to closing in on the nomination. America almost told the world that a second Black man, even one with open ties to our House, could be voted to the most powerful office in the free world. Do you realize what better position we would be in today facing down our enemies if Lavelle were the first or even second in command of the country?” Xavier let out a long, low whistle. “All politicians are rich, Quincy. All politicians lie to some extent or the other. And all of them have dirt under their fingernails. But Lavelle cost himself…cost us a wondrous opportunity because people don’t like his personality not his politics. He’s a masterful public speaker, though no more so than my brother Chris would have been, but otherwise he has no innate value to our House. So I put his ass on a plane and sent him home to Cleveland or Akron or wherever the hell he’s from so he can hope to get his act together before the next election.”

Quincy Morgan searched the table for support…or at least a comment to dispute what Xavier had said but found that none was coming.

“Anyway,” Xavier Prince continued as if the Lavelle conversation had never taken place. “I want to say how proud of what each and every one of you has accomplished for our House in my absence. You honor yourselves and you honor my father’s vision. I am sorry; however, to inform you that this will likely be our final gathering as a governing body until this crisis concerning Pandora has passed.” He found Percy Harrison on his far left specifically. “I guess you picked one hell of a time to join our ranks full time.”

Percy Harrison laughed:

He was tall but slouched enough even when he was seated that he lost in an inch or so off of his given height. He was dark skinned though not to the brilliant opaque skin coloring that Xavier’s brother Chris was shaded with, but dark enough that his thinning mustache and patches and sideburns were almost luminous on his face. Xavier had asked for this man’s full inclusion into the Circle after he learned of Ernestine’s death. He felt that Grace Edward’s background with the FBI, Warren Washington’s ties to the sports and entertainment circles, Quincy’s controversial but successful run as they leader of The New Black Panther Party and his own background in law gave the Circle the versatility and credibility to command both loyalty from its base and a certain element of fear from its opposition. But you are the Everyman I believe that we’ve been missing, Percy. He should indeed feel comfortable even in these close surroundings considering he had come up through the education field.

“And at what point will this crisis pass, Xavier?” Quincy asked him.

“Yea,” Percy added. “Serena Tennyson is on the street again.”

Grace Edwards looked up from her notes. “Her wild escape from the APD and the FBI is a victory for Pandora’s moral alright and a devastation for all law enforcement. I wish I could say it any other way.”

Grace Edwards: The House in Chains number three was a smaller figured, dark skinned woman in her early 30’s who was pretty enough, but far too slender and sweet for Xavier’s exotic taste. She had big brown eyes made even larger inside her glasses and wore her hair in dozens upon dozens of small, slim braids. She looked professional, as she always did, in a brown business suit and pumps. Xavier knew that Grace’s Intelligence background and her friendship was his biggest assets offsetting the death of Ernestine.

He heard Warren Washington snort and slouch down in his chair as if someone had let air out of his personal balloon.

He was a 6’8” tall former hoops legend, who was high yellow in skin tone, still looked very athletic and had been graced with the sparkling gray eyes that most women could find themselves lost in. Xavier only knew the man had been slow to integrate his father’s beliefs as his very own, since he’d come over with Quincy and so many others from the New Black Panther Party.

“The fucking FBI,” He finally said. “They are such incompetent bastards.”

Quincy snatched a penny from out of his dress pants tossed it at eye level and tossed it again. “I hope you’re smarter than that, Warren. Serena escaped without a trace of her whereabouts. I know you don’t truly believe that was by mere chance. It was obviously a conspiracy. They were all in on it.”

Xavier shot out of his chair and got into Quincy’s face.

“So which party does my brother belong to, the incompetent or the conspirators?”

Grace played the part of the diplomat, as she had many times before. “We need to concentrate our efforts and our energies on the issues at hand and we have a host of them to consider, gentlemen. Firstly, we have Serena’s not so subtle threats against the children of our communities to consider.”

“You’re over Intelligence, Grace.” Percy said. “You’re people must know something about Louis Keaton’s whereabouts.”

Four sets of eyes bore into Grace. Xavier had to admit he was curious to what Grace knew as well. She had predicted the 411 attacks…at least the substance of some type of attack against Atlanta citizens’ weeks before the onslaught on the first day of this month. Evans and other Peacekeepers in Calhoun had fed the data to Xavier and the One did what he could from the inside to gain all the information for a defense…any type of resistance against what eventually struck Atlanta and their House; that’s why Julian, myself and his Black Knights approached Michael Davenport in the first place.

He had gambled and loss. Davenport didn’t know about the attacks, I’m convinced now—but he did know something, and he was confident enough with the information that he tried to bargain for his life with it.

Xavier wished he had a little more time to drag it out of him.

Grace was saying: “I don’t have anything, guys. I’m not picking up the levels of chatter that filtered out of the internet, in phone lines, and word off of the street like I did in the days before 411. And to make it worse, Keaton’s disappeared off of the map. Serena has him tucked away somewhere, until she’s ready to unleash that pervert again.”

“What’s your gut tell you, Grace?”

Grace gave her leader and the remainder of the room a once over.

“This so called escalation, where are our children, is no doubt about Keaton kidnapping Black children just like he did 30 years ago when this Caretaker fellow ordered him to do the same.” She looked as if she were searching for some specific terminology, and then decided to dumb it down for the boys. “I expect these abductions to be on a smaller scale. The first fireworks have already been lit by 411and then Deliverance when Serena made her epic escape.”

“I agree,” Xavier made his fingers into a cage and sucked on his toothpick. I need a cigarette. “We don’t know that Keaton will be involved at all. She may send an individual—“

“Or a group of individuals,” Grace added.

“You’re right, Grace, she may send an army of men or women to our neighborhoods trying to abduct of children for ransom…or worse.” Xavier finished his thought.

Warren and Percy both nodded in unison. Quincy tossed his penny up higher again and caught it. And what is the symbolism behind the penny, Quincy?

“I have a suggested course of action that I would like us to pursue but I am willing to follow and reasonable idea any of you may have.”

Warren slunk further down in his chair. Quincy Morgan squeezed his penny. “I apologize if I offended you before, Number One.” He said sardonically. “I didn’t mean to suggest—“

Grace intervened smoothly again. “What is done is done. We need to concentrate our efforts on the matters at hand. I’m thinking that with Serena back in the field that Pandora’s next attack is days if not hours away. I don’t want to be caught completely flatfooted again as we were with the 411 attacks.”

“Her escape did serve our cause in a manner of speaking.” Quincy pointed out.

“How,”

“Her threats against our children, Percy, caused a huge uptick in applications for admission into A House in Chains in general and the Peacekeepers specifically. We’re struggling to process all of the applications and background checks right now.”

“That’s good,” Warren sat up straight. “That means more ‘Keepers on the streets.”

Grace grunted.

“If you have something to say, Grace—“

She removed her glasses and chewed on the end of one of them. She was looking up, but not at him and it wasn’t the first time that Xavier had noticed it today. Something very bad has happened. A House of Chains was blessed to have arguably the finest Intelligence officer in the country seated at this table. She knows something she’s not sharing. Xavier made a mental note to ask her about it when the time was right.

“I have no doubt to what the Peacekeepers are capable of.” She finally said and looked streamlined at Quincy Morgan when she said it. As the Sargent at Arms, he was directly responsible for the recruiting, training, and day to day operations of the Peacekeepers. No one at this table, save Xavier himself, could override his authority in military matters. “But unless you have a personal escort for the 10’s of thousands of school aged children in the Atlanta Metro area then your numbers, no matter how impressive, are ultimately irrelevant.”

“But surely a heavier Peacekeeper presence will be a deterrent against Keaton or anyone else from trying to abduct our children?” Quincy said.

Percy looked if he had a point to make as well. “We’ve also set up hundreds of safe houses as well. These families can be counted on to help any child who runs into unexpected trouble. They’ve been asked to notify us first even before the police, if they come in contact with a child or a potential abductor.”

“These are all wonderful ideas.” Grace went back to taking her notes. “I don’t believe it will be enough.”

Xavier nodded in Grace’s direction. “She’s right. The safe house idea is a splendid one and I think we should implement it immediately.” Xavier found Quincy’s gaze. “Expedite the admission policy for a Peacekeeper position in the Atlanta area only. Do not arm these prospects until a full back ground check and gun training are completed as per usual policy. Still, these new recruits can serve us the front line defense against these potential kidnappings in our neighborhoods. Let’s hope that the sight of Khaki suits and sneakers will be enough.”

Surprisingly, Quincy was nodding in agreement. “I would love the opportunity to use our more seasoned troops in campaign directly against Pandora. I’m sure Grace can supply us with a target or two, a stronghold or a point of interest that we can attack while they are full of themselves and vulnerable.”

Warren’s face brightened even more as a large smile graced his pink lips.

“Hell yea,” Was all he said.

Xavier shook his head.

“And why not,” Quincy looked up at the man standing near him. “If these veteran Peacekeepers aren’t going to be used to supplement the recruits in the protection of our young—

“You will have your war with Pandora in due time, my friend.” Xavier sucked on his toothpick and patted his Sargent at Arms on the shoulder. He leaned down and spoke loud enough for all of them to hear, but his words were specifically spoken for Quincy’s ears alone. “I have a little somethin’ somethin for your Peacekeepers to handle for me first.”

Quincy’s eyebrows raised and a light seemed to go on in his eyes. The man’s interest had definitely been raised. “I can’t wait to hear what you have in mind, Number One.”

Xavier stood as large as his petite frame allowed. “I told you when we gathered in here how proud I was of each of you while I was away at Calhoun. I meant every word.” He eyed Percy Harrison first and the man seemed to shy away from his gaze. You are indeed a humble man, Percy. “You stepped into your role while I was away, and now you are filling the shoes of a great lady who has passed on to a better eternity than the fate that was given to her in life.”

Now he faced down Warren Washington and struggled to keep the sneer of contempt from curling his top lip. As a human being you are not much better than Senator Lavelle. You’ve been pampered, praised and highly paid your entire life. Still, he had almost single handily brought the Hollywood crowd to their doorstep. Warren had powerful friends with very deep pockets. Xavier lowered his voice a decibel. “You secured our business arraignment with the Liberians, Warren. And I can appreciate how difficult it was for you to keep the millions of dollars off the books.”

Warren looked apologetic. “It wasn’t good enough, Xavier. The IRS still found the pipeline that led them back to here…back to you.”

It did. But in Xavier’s eyes, the two years he served for laundering and racketeering money would prove well worth all he had gone through in that hell of a place. Chris, your government friends still haven’t figured it out.

And by the time they would it would already be too late.

A House of Chains had latched themselves to the Liberian people, or at least with an ethnic minority in their civil war. The government eventually found the channels that told them that Xavier’s people here in the states, were laundering money to buy weapons for this minority to fight their oppressors. Xavier Prince, the true leader that he was, fell on the proverbial sword and pled guilty to all charges and served time at Calhoun for the crimes of his House. But even finding me guilty, your sister agency was still sloppy in their investigation, Chris. They never found these so called millions that a House in Chains had earned for distributing these semi-automatic guns, these explosive devices, these rocket launchers and other weapons of war that the report said was enough hardware to arm a small army.

Your peopled didn’t find the money, Chris, because we weren’t selling weapons big brother…we were buying them.

“My arrest and incarceration was necessary to stop the investigation before our government found out what we were really up to.” Xavier’s voice was a whisper.

To Grace Edward he said: “You are the Circle’s rock, my lady.” She wouldn’t hold eye contact with him, but she could not help but blush. “Your efforts are tireless and your professionalism is unmatched of anyone who sits between these walls.” He heard his own tone alter to one of reflection. “I wouldn’t have survived my visit to Calhoun without you. It was you who kept me informed on what was going on the outside both professionally…and what was going on in my boys’ life. It was you who turned me on to the presence of Officer Evans and the other friends of this House who were on the inside. As I’ve said before, you are the Circle’s rock. You are my rock, Grace.”

“I am here to serve you, Xavier,” She finally looked into his eyes…and for the briefest moment, he thought he saw something there that she had somehow kept buried deep in her soul for no one to see. It can’t be. God bless your poor soul if it is. “I live to serve our House.”

He peered down at Quincy Morgan…and felt the other man steel himself for whatever words found their way out of his mouth.

“And you, old friend,” Xavier grinned and to the shock of all who sat in this room, of all who were members of the Circle, watched as the sitting man grinned as well. “It is not often that you and I see eye to eye is it, Quincy?”

Quincy pulled out his penny again and turned it over in his large hand to that each side of it came into view. “I like to think that we are opposite sides of the same coin, Number One.” He said.

“Perhaps,” Xavier nodded his head. “But we had a list of campaigns for your Peacekeepers to complete while I was away.”

It was Quincy Morgan’s turn to nod.

He told Xavier that the Peacekeepers had netted that asshole that was doing those home invasions in predominately Black neighborhoods near Six Flags about six months earlier. They also nabbed the cross dressers who were hitting small business owners and even some churches off of Simpson and Tyler streets.

“They were easy pickings.” Warren added.

“We were also able to finally locate the twins as well.” Quincy said.

Xavier nodded, remembering the Intel on them when his days sometimes grew particularly long…and lonely in that cage. Twin males who were originally from Jamaica were hiding in parking lots of Mom and Pop establishments and specifically were targeting single black women and the young kids that were riding in cars or walking with them. They would kidnap the women and force the kids, with the threat of murdering all involved, to watch why they raped their mothers. When they were being real nasty, they would shoot the mother anyway, even if she had fully cooperated, leaving these young children to fend for themselves for hours before help arrived.

“The APD wasn’t making in ground in their investigations. We found them first.” Quincy’s smile had gone the way of the telegram. “It was an honor killing them both myself.”

Xavier lowered himself in Quincy’s private space and said: “There is only one item that your people did not complete to my satisfaction.”

“Carver,” The other man made the word a statement. He slowly stood to face down his leader. “Forgive me, Number One, but I figured with what was transpiring between our House and Pandora that you had shied away from a campaign that we eat up so many resources, material and manpower. Bishop is not going anywhere. Carver can wait.”

Percy rubbed at the hair of his thin mustache. Warren’s gray eyes shifted back and forth in anticipation of what might transpire between the two men next. Even Grace had stopped with her note taking and looked as if she were holding her breath.

“Carver will not wait. In fact those poor people have waited far too long already.” Xavier pointed at the great men in the mural above the table. He walked over to the other side and stood directly underneath the figurine that had been his father, Isaac Prince. “Read my father’s three mandates again.” He said to all of them. “If you do you will certainly understand my rationale. We are to respect self, we are to respect family, and we are to respect community,” He said at the top of his voice. And when his Circle no longer dared to blink their eyes in his wake he added in a softer tone. “And the people of that community have suffered for years under the rule of hoodlums, the gangs, and lower life’s that came before, and those who would eventually displace the Choir Boys some day in the future. We gave our word that someday we would liberate them. I gave my word.”

“Respectfully, Number One,” Quincy said cautiously. “Pandora is a more immediate threat to the Black community as a whole than these lowlife gang bangers and drug dealers will ever be. If 411 is not evidence of this then I don’t know what else is?” Quincy took a few long strides and was standing next to his leader in no time. “We know that some type of provocation is launching soon if not already under way. Serena Tennyson represents a clear and present danger to our people,” It was the Sargent at Arms turn to look at each member of the Circle, one and then all. “Ernestine Johnson has already fallen, must we all die before we bring the fight to Pandora’s doorstep.”

Xavier stepped into the taller man’s shadow. Xavier knew that he was unlikely to last long in any physical confrontation with Quincy Morgan but he held his ground and the other man’s gaze all the same.

“Are you telling me that I am not performing my duties, Quincy?” Xavier didn’t give his Second a chance to respond. “I was an intended target of the 411 attacks as well.”

Quincy balled his hand into a fist…but turned away. “And someone is going to pay with their life for that transgression against you.” He said. And after a moment of weighted silence he pointed his long index finger at the portrait of Isaac Prince. “When your father founded this House he was the sole ruler, with the Circle and the Board serving under him. You, on the other hand, gave the Circle more discretionary powers on matter of state.”

It had been his greatest mistake in the ten years he had been the One. But it was the only way that I could convince The New Black Panther Party to put their outdated mandates and methods aside and join our cause. Xavier had needed their numbers and their money to keep his father’s fading dreams alive then. Now was the moment that he would find out if it was all worth the price he paid.

“Alright, Quincy, you’ve made a fair point.” Xavier said.

“I’m not interested in making any points,” He made the last word a curse. “I am only interested in the short and long term goals of what is best for People of Color and this House that your father built. That being said, I believe that you are playing this liberation thing with Carver far too politically. This campaign will cost us resources and lives of scores of Peacekeepers for sure.”

Xavier took one long and final look at his dad, who sat high, and looked low over them.

“Quincy, what did my father’s final mandate say?”

“Number One, please—“

“I want you to tell me what it says.”

Quincy Morgan inhaled deeply and then stood as straight as his athletic build allowed. “Your father said that only after the first three mandates are completed may we turn our attention to the Rooster.”

Xavier nodded slowly, Quincy’s words were like a beautiful musical score playing in his ears, but the One knew he was still far away from celebrating his triumphant victory just yet. “But you have respectfully reminded me of the way that I have chosen to run our House. So I will count your vote as a no to carrying out this campaign against the Choir Boys.”

“I know we’ve spoken of these plans for an incursion in that place time and again before you were locked up and even in the past few weeks with members of the Board—“

“So I will count your vote as no, Old Friend.”

“I respectfully submit it as just that, Number One.”

Xavier spoke over his shoulder to Percy Harrison without looking at him.

“I am with you, Xavier.”

Xavier breathed a sigh of relief. “I’ve already counted my vote as a yea, which is two votes for the campaign and one against. What say you, Warren?”

“I’ll stand with Quincy on this one, Xavier. Your heart is in the right place, but I believe my Second’s argument is a more logicality sound one.”

“That’s two for and two against. Grace, you will cast the deciding vote.” Xavier took the time to seek out his Intelligence Officer’s face to try to gage where she had stood on the issue. She had always supported him in this manner in the past.

Grace did not hesitate. “We will honor your father’s mandate and liberate the tax paying citizens of Carver Housing Projects by bringing those motherfuckers to their knees.”

The other four men all gasped at Grace’s…colorful choice of an adjective that she chose to express herself, but the tension in the room lessened because of it. And that was probably your intent, Grace.

If Quincy Morgan had been defeated he did not wear it on his sleeve. “If I may be excused, Number One, I need to contact Ronald Broward, he had always been my choice to lead any assault that we had planned on Carver.

Good choice, Xavier thought. The man looked like the type who would take your lunch money and dared you to stop him while he did it. He also had a long scar on each arm that stretched from elbow to his wrist. Xavier wasn’t aware of the tale behind his disfigurement, but the man was lucky to be alive if lost that much blood when this accident or this brutality was forced on him.

Yet, despite the man’s horrid exterior, he’d proven to Xavier that his business of killing was a trickling of his true personality. He was an engaging gentleman who had two daughters about the same age as Xavier’s boys. He wore a locket around his neck at all times with their baby pictures inside. The leader had watched him open the locket up and gently press his big lips on the picture more than once.

Xavier asked Quincy to hold his water for a minute longer. “Grace, are your people still at their post inside Carver?”

“They are.”

“Express to them that I appreciate all of their sacrifices, hard work, and most of all—their patience. None of it has been in vain. Tell them to hold on to the audacity of hope. We are on the way. Tell them that A House in Chains is coming to take back what is rightfully ours.”

Grace stood up from her chair as if she’d been launched by cannon and blushed for the second time today. “I will, sir.” Grace’s smile lit up the room. But then she began to gnaw on her glasses again. “If I may have a word with you in private once we are done here? I hope you remember the small matter I needed to cover with you before we left this campus.”

A small item she says. He would hate to know what qualified as a cosmic item in Grace Edwards’ world. “Gentlemen, if there is nothing more I will leave with this until we are together again. We will accomplish three goals while we carry out this campaign against Bishop and his Choir Boys: We will be keeping to my father’s mandates—and just as importantly in my eyes, we will be keeping our word to our followers which is a powerful recruiting tool as we move forward. Secondly, as I’ve stated countless times before, we will be ridding the citizens of Carver from a cancer. And finally…”

Xavier walked to where Quincy Morgan was standing.

“We will show Serena Tennyson and her Pandora cronies what they are up against if they do not stand down, if they do not disband their ranks, if they do not turn themselves over to local authorities.”

He wrapped his arm around Quincy Morgan so that he could face the rest of the Circle.

“Let’s show them all who runs this town tonight, tomorrow, and for years to come.”

The four of them who were his Circle cheered and whistled and called his name;

And Xavier Prince, the One, the most dangerous man in the world began to stomp and the Circle stomped with him.

“One last thing, Number One,” Quincy said before he turned to depart. “A penance must be put in place at Carver when our job there is done.”

Xavier peered sharply at the other man as if he’d spit on him.

“Without a penance, Xavier, we are pissing in the wind. We will revisit this road again a year or six months from now. It may be tenement in Chicago or a neighborhood in LA…it may be a return to Carver.”

“But the penance guarantees us that there will be no further Carvers.” Grace Edwards said in dark voice. “The deterrent will be very real and the mere memory of our response a stark reminder that some things come at too high a price to pay.”

Twenty minutes and two cigarettes later he met Grace Edwards on a balcony that overlooked the courtyard that led to the school’s auditorium, then out to half of Morehouse’s campus. Xavier felt as if this was a piece of the world existed outside of the real planet that they all lived in right now. The garden was full of color, life and fragrance if his nose could be trusted. He had slid his third cigarette out of the pack, but opted not to spoil the scenery or Grace’s fresh air with his smoke.

Grace introduced him to a young man and a younger woman who approached from over by the dorms.

Mario Stalls: He was a light skinned Black man who had dimples. He looked as if he could have been of mixed heritage. He wore both his hair and his shorts too long for Xavier Prince’s taste.

Tiffany Spores: She was a brown skinned 18 or 19 year old teenager whose body was on the fast track into blossoming into womanhood. She wore a tight shirt, tighter jeans, and had a stud earring in her nose.

Xavier shook the young man’s hand. Tiffany wouldn’t settle for anything less than a hug from him. He did the political thing and asked how they both were doing and what were their short and long term goals as they reached adult hood.

After the small talk concluded the two youngest of the group trailed off on their own separate paths. Though, Tiffany stole another hug from Xavier before prancing off.

Grace watched them for a long time after they walked away. “I appreciate that, Xavier. Mario just recently got his mark and joined our prospects program. He will be casing the neighborhoods near his house on the eastside. There are two elementary schools and a middle school nearby. Quincy and Warren already have him on their radar to fast track up the Peacekeeper ranks. His dad served two tours each in Iraq and Afghanistan. He understands the…sacrifices the military is often asked to make.”

“I understand. What about the girl?”

Grace eyes misted a little. “She has a good heart and a gentle spirit. She doesn’t have a ton of family and only a few close friends. She’s still a virgin. She told me that herself. No one will ever suspect her. They probably won’t suspect the two dozen or more of the others either. But none of the others are as an ideal recruit for what our House needs than she is.”

Xavier Prince and Grace Edwards watched the two young people, from two entirely into a crowd filled with youth. The world was so young at heart. Xavier couldn’t help but to think of his own boys. Suddenly he felt old and very tired.

Perhaps this is the last generation of color that will know strife like this. He found that he was having an issue steadying his hand at the prospect of what these young people would be asked to do if and when that fateful time came. I could really use that cigarette right now.

“I get the impression that you have something else on your mind.” He reminded her of what she said to him as the Circle disbanded for the day. “You didn’t want to speak of it in front of the others. I think it’s time that you spill it?”

Grace tried to put her best face forward but Xavier saw all of the light disappear from her eyes. “I wish it was that simple.”

“It is that simple, Grace. Try the most forward and direct path. It saves a lot of time. And it’s what you are best at.”

“I’m worried.”

“That’s understandable.” Xavier said. “A strong gust of wind whipped past them both carrying the sweet stench of an area brushfire that somehow ruined the serenity that the moment once had. Xavier lit his Newport and exhaled the smoke as far away from Grace as he could. “Quincy’s theoretically correct in his assumptions about Carver. The liberation of its residents is by far less strategically vital to us politically as our coming war with Pandora.”

Grace nodded. “I agree with you both, but that’s not the worry I was speaking of.”

Xavier took one more long last drag and doused the flame with his shoe. “I’m fine, Grace. You don’t have to expend any more energy than necessary worrying about me.”

Xavier followed Grace’s gaze to where Warren Washington had jogged over and was now conversing with a school of Peacekeepers near the basketball courts. He had changed into battle gear: He wore a black hoody, khakis, and black boots.

Grace said: “You won’t be fine if this Carver campaign as much as hiccups when the Peacekeepers go in. There is a reason why no one has tried to take Bishop, Deacon and all the rest. The way that place is configured. The locked gate to enter in the front; the way the driving lanes reduce themselves from eight, to four, to two in about half a mile. They have what could double as a prison wall bordering the project from the back. They pitch pigeons and have shooters guarding the top of the buildings 24 hours a day.”

Xavier had remembered sitting in some of the tactical meetings with Quincy, Grace and Ronald Broward before he had ended up in Calhoun. But the plan that his second had contrived was technically all-encompassing, strategically sound, bold, daring, and just audacious enough to work. There would be Peacekeeper casualties most certainly. But at the conclusion of the day the ends would definitely justify the means.

“Anyway, whether we succeed or not at Carver I am going to reiterate to you that you must not turn your back on Quincy Morgan or Warren Washington or anyone else closely associated with the former New Black Panther Party.”

“I won’t.”

She wasn’t satisfied. There’s more isn’t it, Grace.

“What else is wrong?”

Grace pushed one of her braids out of her eye. “Your brother’s stepdaughter has gone missing.”

“Erica? When did this happen?”

“I can’t pinpoint a specific day, but it was had to be just before 411 and your release from Calhoun.”

Xavier pointed Grace in the direction of an old wooden bench. After they sat down, he smoothed out his slacks.

“There is certainly no love lost between those two. And Denise often complicates things more than making them better.” He looked at Grace Edwards. “Is she still alive?”

“I wish I knew for certain, Xavier.” Grace said quietly. “Your ex sister in law hired a private detective, a Roxanne Sanchez, to find her daughter. Ms. Sanchez is ruthless. She is efficient. I like her. If Erica Lovings can be found this woman will find her; I’m certain of that.”

Xavier stood quickly and fastened the buttons on his jacket. He was struggling with the top button when Grace rose and helped him. She also straightened his tie for him. That look that Xavier saw in her eyes before had returned…and gave him pause.

“If there is anything more, I hope that you will share it with me.”

“Julian Moore is dead.”

“What,” All of the dread Xavier was feeling boiled to the surface. “How…we must not have gotten all of James Carter’s men. They must have moved on him after—“

Grace planted a gentle but firm hand on his chest. “No, that’s not it at all, Xavier. In his own mind Julian was trying to become a reformed gang banger. He had taken the mark, said the words. He had given you his word to follow your father’s mandates as best he could.” She said. “But he was still just a gang banger in the eyes of his enemies who shared the same skin color that he did.”

“Damn, are you telling me that the Choir Boys got him?”

“They did.” She nodded once and again and lowered her head. “You and I have spoken before about our need to rescue the good people who are suffocating under the choke hold of the Bishop and the Choir Boys. But I didn’t want to announce Julian’s murder in front of the others so they would wrongly think that you were motivated into acting by a sense of loyalty to a man who had protected you more than once while you were at Calhoun.”

Grace Edwards was right of course, she was always right when it came to matters of state. Now that Ernestine was gone he would lean on her consultation and her expertise more than ever before. Damn you, Julian, he felt tears sting at the corners of his eyes. They were unexpected and unwanted. He bit them back but Grace had already grabbed him and pulled him into her embrace.

“I appreciate you confidentially.” He said in a matter of fact tone and broke her grip. “I’m grateful for everything that you have done here today. You honor your House and you honor me.”

They found themselves staring at each other in the minutes that passed. He could see his charcoal colored skin, sideburns and drunkard eyes in the reflection in her eyes. Likewise, he glared at her dark skin, her braids, and the look in her big brown eyes. She was a little slim for his taste and he liked a little red beans with his rice…a little sleek and nasty in his female and he couldn’t imagine this woman being like that at all.

Finally, he said: “We are only to unleash this…what is it called… Scar campaign against the Rooster only in retaliation for the imminent threat of this Whirlwind being released on us.” He shook his head in mild disgust. “Although, even with all of your skills and resources, we still don’t know exactly what this Whirlwind is.”

“No,” She admitted it to him. “But we only get one chance…and one chance only for Scar to be as effective as it needs to be.”

“So it’s our only way of winning against Pandora.”

Grace’s voice took on that dark tone again. “Scar isn’t about winning, sir, it’s only about giving voice to a message that will be to grave for them to ever ignore our cause ever again.”

He exhaled deeply. “What an entangled web Quincy Morgan weaves for us.”

“Xavier, Quincy Morgan may has the greatest talent for controlled aggression and violence that I have ever seen. He is also very good for the originality of our campaign’s names.” She flashed the ever slightest look of pride in her eyes. “But the devil and the details in both our coming operations are all mine.”

Chapter Eight

If Louis Keaton were to be unleashed on the public again without proper, professional supervision, I am convinced that the results would be catastrophic.

-Dr. Angel Hicks Dupree’s patient notes (private) in October 2000

Louis

Red Wine Road (East Point), 10th Day

 

He watched.

He waited.

Moses Jackson’s grandmother dragged the 12 year old boy and his two younger siblings to an old crusty Baptist church early that cool spring morning. The routine hadn’t altered much since he’d started scouting this particular boy out about six weeks ago.

Felicia Jackson:

She was a fair skinned black woman in her early 60’s. She had dark circles under her eyes and wore her dentures and her stockings everywhere she went.

And the show would always begin as she was leaving the old shot gun house with her grand kids. The older woman saying to her daughter, Moses mother, that someone in this house needed to give God some time back in return for all that he had provided them. Tracy Jackson would argue back that He shouldn’t expect a whole lot of visits from her then. She cursed out loud. God or Jesus hadn’t provided her with much over the past few years except these begging ass children all ways in the need of something she didn’t have. Matter of fact, she yelled as her mother closed the screen door and walked away with the kids, she’d be fuckin impressed if he dropped off a man at her crib who had a good job. That would impress the hell out of her.

By the time that one sided conversation had ended Louis slid back into his Ford. A man is coming into your life, Felicia. And we do have a good job. You’ll see. Per usual, Tracy Jackson stormed out of that same screened in porch after her mother and the kids left, and was already out for her daily grind.

Tracy Jackson:

She was a shapely dark skinned Black woman in her early 30’s that had straight hair and she dressed the same every day: She wore a cut off shirt at the midriff that highlighted her tattoos and her stomach and lower back, tight enough pants to cause a yeast infection, and shoes bearing a six inch heal. The grind didn’t change as she continued her search where she left off from the day before…and the day before that—of a trick and then a hit of some crack or weed.

Sunday mornings were the worse for Tracy. That’s probably why she always had such an attitude with her mother before the older woman left for church. Traffic flowing through the neighborhood was the slowest all week on Sunday mornings. And if she did manage to get some guy off and pocket some money, then trying to find one of her dealers took some doing as well. Even the most religious drug pusher had to sleep some time or the other, especially with Friday and Saturday nights being so prosperous and all. And the weather was warming up too which was great for the drug and the skin trade.

Louis knew that Tracy was running low on cash with the days approaching the middle of the month. It didn’t take rocket science to figure that between her mother’s social security and Tracy’s welfare, that money was tight under the most ideal circumstances.

These weren’t ideal circumstances.

Louis abandoned his usual routine of following Felicia and the kids and stayed after Tracy this morning. She had walked down one of the alleys and behind the dumpster. The neighborhood was circular by design with rows upon rows of shotgun houses all in some need of work or paint needed on them. Louis had seen men of his color drive down here every so often. Most of these men were legitimate business types: Salesmen, Insurance Brokers, Bails Bondsmen, and even some undercover police. And it amazed Louis that no matter how dangerous the neighborhood was the drug pusher code was the same during the day: Hands off Whitey unless he backs you into a situation where you have no other choice.

Yet, all bets were off when the lights came on. It is the twilight and shadow syndrome. The voice inside him said. Four Pandora agents had to sprint down and rescue him when he got cornered by a group of gang members a week ago. Those young men never knew what hit them when the bullets tore through the soft tissue in the back of their heads. We weren’t afraid though. We would have handled ourselves…defended ourselves even if the cavalry hadn’t arrived. Louis told himself that the other voice was a liar. He had been scared. He still had the trembling hands, the cotton mouth and the piss on his pants to prove it.

Still, Danielle Rohm offered him a pretty smile…and more importantly a change of clothes as the other Pandora agents dragged the fresh corpses away. Shooter had taken the young men out from at least 200 feet away. Louis was thankful that Serena had put together men and women with such a variance of skills and talents within Pandora. But no one had the lethal range and the means to spout off kills like the little girl dressed in black.

The neighborhoods of downtown Atlanta hadn’t changed much since his first round of raptures 30 years earlier. He saw the same trash low income housing areas, the same potholes in the roads, and worst of all the exact same hopelessness imbedded in the faces of the people who lived down here.

One thing had changed though.

He saw young men and several women as well, dressed in khaki suits and sneakers running pockets of drug dealers off of the corners. The confrontations often were no match. The Peacekeepers were always victorious. Some of the residents would actually walk out into the streets and cheer them. One night, several weeks back before 411, he saw a group surround three Peacekeepers and started hopping up and down while they chanted we have a vision, we have a vision…

Louis drove away as fast as the F150 would take him that night.

Yet, he had always come back. He had been given a job to do by Serena Tennyson and it was very unwise to displease the head of Pandora too often. So he got to the business at hand.

He came close to grabbing Moses two days ago as he walked home from middle school. The opportunity was there, but he had blown it. Moses had run straight home as his grandmother had instructed him to. Since Serena’s announcement on Thomas Pepper’s blog, Felicia Jackson would often leave her home and begin walking towards the school where each child came home from. The walking was difficult for her considering her arthritic hip and other ailments. Also the younger kids got out of school an hour before Moses did and she barely got back home, caught her breath, before it was time to venture out again.

But that day, two days ago, had presented the best opportunity that Louis had yet to grab the boy. Moses best friend had stayed home with a bug. He would be walking alone and even if the old woman started walking to meet him, she would not get to him in time. What did save him is that some neighborhood kids were playing kickball on a side street about four blocks from his home. And no matter how disciplined a 12 year old may be, he was still just 12 years old and the game was too much of a good time to pass up.

The temptation earned Louis a spanking from Felicia that day, arthritis and all.

And it saved you from us…for now.

Tracy Jackson had been waiting all evening for a regular John to show up at the house so she sent Moses, as she often did, to meet her dealer for a rock. Moses had met the young man, who was probably four years older than he was, countless times before and knew right where to go. He had tears in his eyes and hated this task. He knew his grandmother wouldn’t allow it, but she had already left for her bible study meeting at the church, and wouldn’t be returning until it was late. Tracy knew this as well and that’s why she always scheduled these rendezvous at her house through the week on Wednesdays and Fridays. And Tracy could put it on them too. She could satisfy three of four men in the two to two in half hours his grandmother would be out of the house.

The John was driving up now, so Tracy slapped her oldest child upside his head and gave him another slap on his rump, cursed at him to get on his way.

When the screen door closed behind him, Louis vowed that he would at least never have to return to this specific hell again.

If Serena Tennyson and Pandora were going to exploit his talents the way she was exploiting Danielle Rohm and all the others then so be it. He would be happy to use their money and resources so he could engage in the pleasure that he had been born to engage in.

This was no different than when the Caretaker had commanded him to do the same thing 30 years earlier. In both cases, the political and social ideologies were well past his ability to completely understand them all. He did understand what to do with these boys after he had picked them from the streets.

And just as before, Louis Keaton had six of them already of his scope of vision. He had their routines and habits and their family’s routines and habits rounded into memory. He had the locations, the point of rapture mapped out and his necessary escape routes available to him whenever he needed to fetch them from thought.

Louis knew, just like years earlier, that he wanted…no, we needed…to capture his General first. He wanted a boy of outstanding character and discipline who would watch over the other boys once he had captured them all. The general would help keep them quiet, calm and safe.

Moses Jackson would be his general for this generation of abducted boys…just as Christopher Prince had been his first general when his first rapture began all those years ago.

When the boy had cleared the first street Louis Keaton made his move.

He waited patiently until Moses made his buy from the drug dealer. Louis needed him to advance quickly out of this little sector of hell and start walking down the block. This street, with its low lighting and narrow streets, actually would have served Louis better to grab the boy unseen but anywhere that significant narcotic activity took place, there was an increased opportunity of Peacekeeper interference. Louis didn’t need that kind of headache. He was running low on chances to get this thing started. Serena Tennyson had insisted on the operation beginning now.

Louis knew that snatching the other boys would be a breeze by comparison. It had been three decades since he had tried to hold a group of boys together. He had the pleasure of a single boy here and two brothers there, but not a collection as was needed to satisfy the Dragon Woman and her brood.

Suddenly all of the brief sessions that he had with Dr. Angel Hicks Dupree came back to him. She had asked him how he felt when these urges washed over him. She had instructed him on how he should fight back against them. She had smiled at him with her fake lips and told him that he was no less human for having these feelings, what dehumanized him was his inability to overcome them once he recognized they were on him in full.

Serena, on the other hand, balled up her fist the last time he saw her and told him to embrace his urges. She told the truth about us, Louis. We are a magnificent creature. We are a blunt instrument. But mostly we have been kept at bay for far too long. We need to feed. Dupree-Hicks would bury us forever. She is a fool. We will feed again. Dinner’s on.

The good doctor’s influence hadn’t waned however. In his mind’s eyes he could see her pleading with him to return to his F150 and drive away. She yelled at him to remember the dead and the dying that happened because of his miscues last time. She reminded him that he was a molester, a pedophile…a butt fucker, but he was not a killer. And if he took Moses Jackson here and now, he would get his pleasure but he would eventually have to kill them as he had been instructed to kill the other boys before.

Don’t listen to Dupree- Hicks. We won’t allow the situation to erode like it did the last time. Moses is stronger than Christopher had been. And what saved him…and started the ball of death rolling for the other boys was dumb luck anyway. That ain’t happening this time; it just ain’t.

Moses Jackson dropped his mother’s bag of rock on the ground, gave his dark surroundings a once over and stooped down to scoop it up—

And Louis Keaton was away from his F150 like a blur of light with his phony badge in his hand. He was yelling…but not too loudly about how much trouble the boy was in. Moses tried to drop the baggie again but it was too late for that. The police had seen you with it in your possession. And everyone knew what the police did with 12 year old Black boys who were in possession of rock cocaine. Moses cried and nodded his head. He probably didn’t know, but he surely had been taught to always agree with an officer of the law, especially when he caught you with the goods on you.

Moses Jackson was a smart kid; in fact the 12 year old was brilliant. Although he attended a failing school that was short of resources, funds, teachers who gave a damn and mostly illiterate kids he was excelling. And even though he’d been assigned to high school equivalent classes and arguably was the smartest kid in the whole school he allowed himself to get caught doing this.

But after Moses let the moment and his bad situation sink in…some of that intelligence seeped through. He asked Louis if he were a cop where was his gun? He asked why he wasn’t calling his back up in. And then he said respectfully, but firmly, why they would put a man as old as he was on such a dangerous beat in a neighborhood like this one.

Louis Keaton found the strength, quickness and resolve that he thought he left behind years earlier to snatch Moses and throw his ass into the passenger side of the truck. He worked quickly but steadily, he gagged Moses and roped his feet and hands together and stuffed him down on the floor board all without drawing any attention.

Louis got himself over to the driver side, closed the heavy door, latched his seat belt on and drove off without speeding. He turned onto one main road, then to another and then another at a moderate rate of acceleration. He checked his rear view mirrors and saw that no one was following him including Pandora agents. Serena had explained to him that they would no longer be sent out with him since the scouting phase had concluded and the rapture phase had begun.

Louis pushed the F150 harder when he drove the truck up on the entrance ramp and eventually onto I 20 heading parallel out of the main part of the city, towards the sanctuary that he had created for Moses and the other children. And He has built many rooms in this mansion. And after the rapture of his flock, they will spend an eternity together.

We’ve done so well.

Much later, hours after the Pandora agents helped pull a crying Moses Jackson from his truck, Louis Keaton allowed himself a deep exhale of a breath he hadn’t known he was holding and threw up. He walked inside the sanctuary. Serena had promised him that her hand full of agents would allow him adequate space to do what needed to be done. And we have held up our end of the bargain and we will make sure the witch of a dragon woman does the same. Serena Tennyson was proving to be as efficient as and even far more ruthless than the Caretaker had been.

And although no one would trade Serena’s cold passionless persona for Caretaker’s compassion and love of humanity, Louis had to believe that between the two of them that somehow they would be able to pull all of this off without the senseless deaths that occurred the first time around.

Yes, the voice inside said as the first stir of his manhood inside of pants this evening occurred. There would be plenty of time for that soon enough. You are stronger than Chris ever was, Moses. You won’t force Serena too command us to kill the other boys who will soon be joining us here.

We’ve chosen well.

We’re sure of it.

Roxanne

Carver Street Apartments (Summer Hill), 10th Day

 

The liberation of Carver had begun.

And while it wasn’t her war per say it would be affecting her if she didn’t move out of one its many apartments soon.

At first all she had heard were a few bangs and pops of scattered gunfire. Those sounds were more common around here than the sound of children laughing and playing. This was Carver after all. But then there was the screeching of tires followed by another round of bangs, pops, and cries of men dying. It some odd way it had reminded Roxanne Sanchez of her childhood growing up with Maria and her parents in the old broken down shack that had once been her beloved home a few blocks from here. This evening was like New Year’s Eve all over again. The closer to midnight the hour got the louder and more frequent the sounds of New Year’s Day drew closer. And that gunfire and the killing is getting closer minute by freaking minute, where is he—

So far Councilwoman’s prognosis of the offensive had been on target. The Peacekeepers had engaged in a full-fledged assault that senior militias across the world would have been challenged to mimic. The problem was that she’d been caught behind enemy lines when the campaign had been engaged and it had slowed her investigation to a near stall ever since.

And I was getting closer to some answers. Roxanne slid over to the window of the otherwise empty apartment for a quick look down the street. The usual early evening activities of drug sales, pimping out the younger hoes and maybe even a quick game of craps while you could still see the numbers had ceased to exist. She’d seen a lot of running back and forth. Mothers were grabbing their children and making a break for cover. The dealers were on the phone trying to find out what in the hell was going on up in the front.

And I’m stuck in here, waiting. The Prince family had paid well and on time but they both had been a pain in her ass. First, there was Denise Prince, who had originally hired her. The lady was a head case at best with her moodiness and downright hostility at times, especially around Chris. Her ex-husband was loyal maybe even to a fault to his former family, but it was clear that both of them were hiding a secret that might have been the final nail in the coffin of their marriage. And its and ugly secret too, Roxanne thought and pulled the curtain back further for a larger look see down the street. It was something that nearly destroyed you, Chris, not just your marriage.

And now Xavier Prince, Chris younger brother had deployed this offensive today…right now that made an already difficult search even more dangerous.

She heard the bolt on the lock unlatch on the front door. She brought her Nine up to greet in unwelcome visitor.

Andre Knight opened the door and slid inside. He locked the bottom lock, bolted the middle one and even swung the chain over into place. He was out of breath and looked as if he’d seen the mountain top for himself.

“They’re dudes dying out there,” He told her between bits of heavy breathing.

Andre Knight:

He was a scrawny dark skinned Black man who had graduated high school a year after she did. He was so long and so lean in fact, that Roxanne would have sworn on a pile of bibles that if he were any skinner she would be able to see behind him. He wore too much grease in his hair and a well-manicured goatee surrounded a mouth full of beaver teeth. He’d acted like a spoiled punk in high school and age hadn’t improved his standing with her one bit.

“They’ll be one dying in here if you’ve lied to me.” She had ‘Dre pinned to that same front door with all of the locks in place with the back of her forearm. She hadn’t pointed her gun at him…yet. “Where is this contact you promised me? You said that someone in him saw Erica Prince after the day that most people think she went missing.”

“Calm your nerves, Girlfriend.” Andre said and pushed himself away from the door and out of her grip in a single motion. “There is a shooting war going down in the hood in case you ain’t keeping up with current events. Things like that can add to a man’s travel time. I wasn’t nowhere near up front and struggled to get here. My man had further to go.” He closed the curtains. “He’ll be here.

Roxanne rolled her eyes at her old schoolmate and sighed in exasperation. She did not do waiting well. Patience is not a normal human virtue, Senorita. Victor had once told her after he’d made her body tremble with pleasure. You are good at what you do. Yet, you must make patience an ally if you truly want to excel. And her own inner voice countered: And I suspect that you are using that patience right now…in an attempt to find me, Victor.

And so his words that he had text her echoed in her soul;

Someday, when the time is right, Gonzales and I will stop what we are doing here…and find you.

I will see you suffer for what you have done here down below.

Roxanne Sanchez knew she would rather face a thousand Peacekeeper liberations than one Victor Castillo.

That was at least until ‘Dre had told her what he’d seen so far.

The Peacekeepers had used two old vans to ram through the check in point at the front gate. Everyone knew that ‘security’ was bought and paid for by Bishop and his Choir boys. Dre said that one of the fools even had the nerve to go for his pistol but one of the Peacekeepers’ riding shot gun in the opposite van shot just above his earlobe killing him on the spot. The other played it smart—at least at first, by hitting a silent alarm that notified the Ushers that they had company.

Dre stopped his tale long enough to pull a brew from his fridge and chugged half of it down in one gulp. Roxanne frowned at him when he dared offer her one. Men and their vices, still she urged him to continue. They might as well do something constructive while they waited on this contact to arrive.

He said that the ‘Boys followed procedure…but it didn’t help them much. Bishop had prepared himself for the one day that the APD grew a pair and came after him. He would use the narrow streets that went from eight lanes when you entered the complex that reduced themselves to four, two and eventually one for every two blocks of cross streets to his advantage. He also had some Ushers that would climb up to the top of damn near 12 or 15 apartment tops. They would serve two purposes while they were up there: They would pitch pigeons to help blind Ushers on the ground know where the cops were heading…and they could snipe any pig that was traveling by foot.

Roxanne felt a lump in her throat.

“That doesn’t sound to promising for anyone trying to flush Bishop out of here?”

“And you would normally be right, Girlfriend,” Dre finished his beer and missed the garbage can when he flipped it at the basket adding to the already filthy surroundings. How do you live like this? “But we ain’t talking about the APD or even Five-O. Bishop or nobody else ain’t ever seen nothing like this.”

Four school buses rushed into the open space that the van had created. Two went to the right side while the other two somehow made the curve and headed to the left. One Peacekeeper after the other, after the other…after the other marched off of those buses until, Dre couldn’t be sure, but there had to damn well 200 men and women in all were on Carver streets taking cover and taking names. They were dressed in the classic gear that world had come to know them for: khaki pants and black tee shirts or khaki suits. The difference today is that they all wore skeleton mask to protect their identities like they were some real life superheroes or something Dre guessed.

A gunshot fired loud enough that Roxanne jumped and Dre went to the floor. She stayed low enough not to be caught in any direct crossfire and got over to where the host was.

Roxanne, reluctantly, had often turned to this bastard since she’d been back in Hot Atlanta when her cases veered off the linear path. He’d proven useful…especially if your cash flow was right. And 24 hours ago he’d called her and told her that he had a contact who had mentioned Erica’s physical description to a tee, knew about her hoeing around with Trey Davis, and even mentioned her possible sexual relationship with a young woman who was hooked up with an Usher. Roxanne had learned that leaning of Andre Knight for information down here usually generated results.

It didn’t mean she had to like him.

“As long as you understand one thing,” She had forearmed him to his upswept tile this time. The dirt was shining in his greasy head. “If you’ve betrayed me or wasted my time in any way, I’ll make you wish you hadn’t lived long enough to regret it.”

Dre looked the part of a cockroach that had been flipped on his back. Yet, he had managed to escape her clutches again and had sat himself just under the window sill.

“Betray you.” He wiped the dirt off of his too big shirt. His greasy hair might take the rest of the decade so he let it ride for now. “Girlfriend, we go all the way back to elementary school. You wouldn’t give a playa the time of day back then but I’ve always had your back.”

“Let me correct you,” She crawled to where he was again and sat close enough to smell the booze on his breath. He would not escape her again. “I’ve know you too long and having my back has always been defined by me either paying you or fucking you. And I’d rob the Bishop himself first before I’d let that latter half happen, Dre.”

More shot rang out. Roxanne heard a window shatter. They’re getting closer; we are running out of time. Finding Erica and…potentially giving her the justice she deserved was running on fumes as well.

Dre soothed the moment and her nerves over again, if only momentarily when he finished telling his tale. Girlfriend, I ain’t got to the good part yet. Two dozen or so Peacekeepers busted through apartment doors and sprayed the inside with gunfire. Pockets of Choir Boys would show up from down the street or around a corner cursing and shooting…but they no match for the semi and fully automatic weapons of the Peacekeepers.

The campaign was far from flawless. One of the buses stalled before it reached its rightful destination and 20 or 30 of Xavier’s men had to run half a block to reach the next row of apartments. A couple of Usher’s who were still on top the rooftops picked a handful off as they tried to exit the idled bus. There were more than a few hand to hand, and knife to hand battles in the middle of the street, in the dark alleys and in private doorways. A civilian woman, whose weight was all behind her, was shot in the crossfire when she tried to rush what must have been her elderly father to safety. Another man with weenie arms, a beer belly and chicken legs was run over when he stepped out in front of the bus as soon as the driver got it going again.

But then the Peacekeepers took control of those first two sections of Carver. Three Wheelers rolled in by the dozen. There were two riders per vehicle. While one steered the other fired rounds at any and everything that moved that wasn’t wearing khakis and black tee shirts. With another wave of Peacekeepers on the ground the snipers were nullified and then eliminated with extreme prejudice. One was shot and Dre said that he fell from the rooftop nearly to the asphalt nearly where he was standing.

“But it didn’t stop there, Girlfriend.” Dre shook his head. His eyes were two unblinking street lights. For all of the things that Andre Knight was not, Roxanne Sanchez could say that he was cool. The punk in him wasn’t faking or fabricating. What he saw in those few minutes before he arrived here and sealed himself inside his apartment had scared the hell out of him.

Dre said that he watched a man bigger than most stand climb atop one of the vans that had crashed through the front gates into the housing project. “He was a pretty big man but that’s not what I remember most about him.” Dre said trying to mask the fear in his voice. “He was the only one of them wearing a sleeveless black tee shirt that had no ample room for a vest underneath. But Roxanne, he had a long scar on each arm that stretched from his elbow to his wrist. And he…”

“What did he do? Andre?” Roxanne wanted to know.

“He pulled a machete from what seemed out of nowhere. I look up again and there were, I don’t know, maybe 20 or 25 others who were carrying machetes too.”

Andre Knight said the scarred man pointed at all of those sneakers hanging from the wires marking Choir Boy territory, the way a dog pisses on a bush. And then The Scarred Man said at the top of his voice: Our adversaries proclaim themselves Choir Boys. They have Ushers…they have a Deacon…I even hear that they are blessed with the presence of a Bishop. The Scarred man’s words were greeted with laughter from his troops, his Peacekeepers. Well today I have visualized his people’s future. And Dre said he heard a single voice…with a woman’s tone ask from her skeleton mask: And tell us what do you see, Admiral. The Scarred Man found who had asked the question and his smile threw a shining light on the entire world. I see a day…this day, filled with misery and pain.

And the Peacekeepers one and all…all and one, begin to stomp.

But the Scarred Man was not finished. When his troops had quieted enough to allow him to speak into a setting sun, he said: If there is a Bishop and a Deacon and Ushers and Choir Boys…then this must be Paradise.

Andre Knight watched the Scarred man pull a locket from underneath his tee shirt, kiss it affectionately and say: Then I say that we should storm Heaven.

He hopped effortlessly off of the van and charged up a stairwell with his machete drawn. The others who possessed the blades matched his movement and did the same, pouring into one apartment and it seemed to the storyteller, at random to the next one.

And Andre Knight ran for his life.

That was 30 minutes ago.

What sounded like an explosion rocked the building underneath their feet. Roxanne Sanchez had gathered her druthers first. “What did they do with these machetes, Dre? How did they know what apartments to crash? I know that everyone in this complex is not a dealer or a member of The Choir Boys? Dre, are you even listening to me?”

“Of course I’m hearing you, Girlfriend.” Dre dared look out the window. Two Choir Boys darted by…but they were then cut down in a hail of bullets. “Look, I didn’t stay around long enough to see the end of the movie. The opening credits were enough for me as it was.”

She had enough of this man—so she snatched him by the collar and the skin underneath. He would not escape her this time for sure.

“Damn, Girlfriend, what’s happened to you?” He screamed over the gunfire drawing closer and closer still. “Look, Roxanne, we’ve done business before. You have never been this hard. You are starting to act like that crazy ass sister of yours. Don’t act like you don’t remember that crazy bitch fighting day in and day out. Anyway, whatever happened—“

Roxanne planted the butt of her Nine against his big lips in a quiet plea for him to be silent. “Look, Dre, we are not going to talk about Maria. We are not going to talk about what you had for breakfast this morning. We’re not even going to talk about the Peacekeepers who could knock that door down any moment and kill us both—“

And there was a knock on that exact door.

And the knocking became more persistent—and then desperate.

“Open the door, Dre, it’s me.” A voice said.

“My man,” Andre flashed a million dollar smile.

Roxanne allowed him to get to his feet and it took a minute for him to unlatch the door from all of its locks. He opened up the door…

…and a White man walked through the threshold.

There was a White man walking through the front door at Carver Street Housing Project…here…now.

Roxanne Sanchez said blankly: “You’re a White—“

“Champion,” And he put his white hand out for Roxanne to shake it. “My name is Joseph Champion actually not White. A dozen rounds of gunfire passed nearby. Roxanne thought that a couple of the bullets struck the front door where this…Joseph Champion had stood only seconds earlier. “Andre was supposed to explain to you who I was.”

Joseph Champion:

Roxanne thought that he was average height, weight, but he seemed smaller with his face buried underneath an overabundance of unruly brown hair, bush eyebrows, and a meaty goatee.

“I’m not interested in anything about you beyond what you can tell me about the disappearance of Erica Lovings.” She was interested in everything about this man in fact, and how he came to Carver, but she neither had the time or patients to pursue such an investigation.

Two more shots strike the apartment next door to this one. A third shot shattered the glass by the window sill. All three of them duck for cover behind the dining room table, Champion using his wits, turned the table over to shield them better against anymore bullets that could pop through that opened window.

Roxanne stood just enough to see…the three wheelers driving up with the white vans and the school buses slowly bringing up the rear. They’re here. She thought nearing panic. She spied the shadows of figures growing larger as they approach their position. The first rider off of a three wheeler was a loan man wearing a black tee shirt and cursed with a long scar running the length of ear arm from the palm of his hand to his elbow.

The Scarred Man had unsheathed his machete.

Champion was still talking. “I might be able to do more than just tell you about Erica Lovings, Roxanne. I may call you, Roxanne?”

“What in the hell are you talking about?”

Before Champion can answer a handful of shots strike the apartment above them. All parties accounted for push their selves as low to the floor as their individual frames allow. She makes herself larger—and more vulnerable to gunfire, so she can scoot over to where her old classmate was covering his greasy head.

“Andre…Andre, I need you to think harder than you ever have before” Roxanne said.

“What?”

“We know that A House in Chains sent the Peacekeepers to root out the Choir Boys. We know that many of them live here in Carver. We also know that many of these units are used in the production of crack cocaine.” Roxanne spoke slowly to Andre as if she had grown up but had left him back in elementary school. “There are no fools running the Circle. Just like you told me when you walked in here they are killing people out there. The Peacekeepers must be using some barometer to flag where their enemies are. They knew exactly where the combatants and the crack houses were before they even boarded those buses and crashed through that front gate.” Roxanne grabbed Andre Knight one last time. “I need to know what they are using to identify these enemy positions, Dre, and I need to know right now.”

Andre looked to the heavens in thought.

He blinked rapidly…his mind processing everything he’d seen…and anything he might have seen.

And then he had her answer.

“I saw red stripes painted on the front doors of the units. I’d never seen them there before.” Roxanne got to her feet, danger be damned, and sprinted as fast as her long legs would take her to the window sill. “I thought they were marking them some for a paint job down the road or something.”

Something is right, She bent as far as she could…nearly falling out of the window. A bullet sailed by her and struck the wall nearby.

And then Roxanne saw it.

There was a big red slash on the door where the three of them were hiding behind.

She was all the way back inside…and on top of Andre in a flash. She finally had her Nine pointed at him now.

“Andre, why is there a red painted stripe on your door?”

“There isn’t one.”

She hit him in the chin with the pistol.

“I just looked out of the door, Andre.” She said in a voice that far more patient and calm than she felt. She could feel Champion looking on, wanting answers from Andre as well.

“That ain’t my door, girlfriend. This ain’t my crib.”

“What?”

“Man, we were talking about Erica Lovings and her potentially having something to do with an Usher. Everybody down here knows you been asking questions about that girl. I couldn’t have anyone seeing you—no matter how fat your ass is—walking out of my place whiles you asking about that dyke. So I stole—I mean, I found this key and used this place only for show, until I could hook you up with old Stoney here.”

Roxanne helped him up partially. Then she crawled through the apartment that wasn’t Andre’s after all, and made it to the bedroom.

One hell of a large crack lab stared back at her.

“Son of a Bitch,” She yelled, nearing tears.

Andre Knight and Joseph Champion, thunder and lighting, ran into the room as well.

“I didn’t know, Roxanne.” Dre said. “I swear I didn’t know.”

“Let’s get the hell out of here.” Champion looked at her.

“No,” That single word drew both of their silent ire after she said it. “We’re not going anywhere yet. Roxanne was hot with Andre, but she at least understood why he did what he did. More shots rang out. Someone sounded as if they were right outside the front door. She drew her Nine on the other man instead. “I take back what I said to you earlier…Joseph Champion is it? Yea, sure, you can call me Roxanne if you like. I do need to know you. I need to know if I can take your word at face value and I need to know right this minute. First, what is your story, Champion? Tell me the extra short version.”

There was a cry from someone outside the door for God to save them but two gunshots later left the man heading towards eternity without an answer.

“I may die tonight, Champion.” Roxanne choked back tears. If she was going to join the man outside—and the many others who died in Carver today, she damned wouldn’t go weeping like bitch in front of a punk like Andre and some stranger who needed a shave and haircut.

“I am with Pandora.” His lip quivered beneath the hair. “At least I was.”

She cocked the hammer.

“Whoa,” Champion put his hands up. “You asked a question and I answered. Roxanne, I was a mole…I am a mole. I’m in hiding from Serena. You won’t need that gun…at least for me.”

Roxanne processed the information as fast as her brain allowed her to. She considered her limited options. She knew her time was nearly out. “Alright, Champion,” Roxanne said, but she kept her Nine trained on his forehead all the same. “If you truly are a mole, I can’t think of a better place in the world to hide from everyone…Pandora, A House in Chains and the FBI. I can buy that. I don’t buy why you are connected to Erica Lovings.”

“I know where she is, Roxanne. I can take you to her.” He said. “I’ll be straight with you: I didn’t have any reason to come forward to you or anyone else with this information before.” Champion peered over his shoulder when he heard a voice say, I am an Admiral in the Peacekeepers. In the name of Xavier Prince, I demand that you open this door and admit me…or I will have it torn from its hinges. “But as you can see, I will no longer be able to hide here. Even in the unlikeliness that we survive whatever is on the other side of that door, Carver will be filled with police and FBI and reporters for weeks to come. I will be discovered.”

Champion stepped close enough for Roxanne to see that there was plenty of salt to go with the cinnamon in his beard. “Give me your word that you will continue to hide me when we—“Roxanne heard the door knocked down in the front room. “If we survive the night and I will take you to Erica Lovings.”

“How do I know I can trust you?”

“How do I know I can trust you, Roxanne?”

Andre Knight kept a small pistol for the times his punk ass mouth wrote checks that his scrawny ass couldn’t cash. Roxanne gave Joseph Champion her .22 that she kept strapped to her shin in case she had exhausted her clips for her Nine in a pinch.

She turned towards the living room area again.

The Scarred Man had said at the top of his voice not so long ago: Our adversaries proclaim themselves Choir Boys. They have Ushers…they have a Deacon…I even hear that they are blessed with the presence of a Bishop. And when his troops had quieted enough to allow him to speak into a setting sun, he said: If there is a Bishop and a Deacon and Ushers and Choir Boys…then this must be Paradise.

Then he said that the Peacekeepers should storm Heaven.

Roxanne sprinted around the corner…gun in hand…and rushed to meet him there.

And then she let God have His will.

Angel

North Desert Drive, Atlanta, 11th Day

 

Make sure you secure the crime scene.

Special Agent Nicholas Sheridan’s instructions still resonated inside of Angel’s head nearly an hour after he had stated them to Christopher and her before they left the field office for North Desert Drive. Or is it the banging inside your skull from a whopper of a hangover you’re really feeling. Angel had retired early last night after some Jack Daniels, or was it that she had passed out?

Anyway, she now threw the newer rental car into park and buried her thoughts into the latest crisis in a series of them since she’d arrived in this city. A local camerawoman using social media had texted that a barrage of reports had flooded her station’s office with something big having been discovered in the lower eastside of downtown. Sheridan couldn’t or wouldn’t elaborate further, but dispatched the old childhood friends to the heavily wooded area they were arriving at now.

Camerawoman huh…maybe…just maybe, Sheridan wasn’t quite the Boy Scout who was only married to his work after all. Angel thought.

Christopher had already unbuckled his seatbelt and was preparing to launch himself up out of the seat when she grabbed him by the elbow—

“Ask Sheridan to reassign you.” She said. “Please, do it while there is still time.”

Christopher’s hairless brows shot up on his dark face. “Reassign me? What in the hell are you talking about, Doc?”

Angel nudged her head at the door; he got her silent message and slammed it shut. Uniformed cops had already done their jobs and roped the area off, probably setting the perimeter further out from ground zero more than they needed to. That’s a wise move. Civilians, most of them People of Color, were already starting to line up along the boundaries trying to get a closer look at what was on the other side. Angel leaned into her friend. “You should ask to lead the investigations that will wrap up the 411 attacks…anything but this.” She looked out of the window towards whatever secrets were hidden beyond those boundaries. “You’re not going to want to see what’s in there. I don’t have to remind you of what happened to you all of those years ago. You’re not as prepared as you think you are to deal with what you may see over there.”

“Angel, we don’t know—“

“We do know, Christopher.” She squeezed his wrist harder than she had intended. “We know that Rapture is Serena’s attempt to go after the city’s Children of Color. She showed Thomas Pepper the yellow rose and we both know all the symbolism and history that goes with that. We also know that she has a major tool in the box in Louis Keaton to pull this off. He’s done this before.”

Chris nodded slowly. “In speaking of the roses, Sheridan had a forensic team run some test on them. They didn’t identify any contraband. Serena probably picked them at random somewhere on the route to Pepper’s townhome that day.” He gave her a hard look. “But you don’t really deal in the substantive do you, Doc? You live and work outside the box. This is about suggestion and inquiry for you?”

A part of her wished that he was being sarcastic, but that wasn’t Christopher’s nature. He was also dead on. “It’s just a theory for me in a roundabout way. I can’t prove any of it beyond a reasonable doubt and I know that is the world that you live and work in.”

Christopher smiled and it gave her a warm feeling that only the booze usually provided. “You’ve been on target with everything that’s happened so far. Let’s hear what you’ve got.”

“I don’t have to remind you about the Atlanta Child Murders.”

“No,” She heard him suck in a breath. “But I’m sure you’re going to remind me anyway.”

Angel raised her long index finger with a manicured nail at the end of it. “I’m only stressing the point about the yellow rose. The roses and the symbolism as you named it a few minutes ago.”

“Alright, Doc,” Christopher said patiently. “I was a little occupied at the time, but the city adopted a policy of raising a yellow rose, one for each of the missing victims…that included me.”

Angel shook her head and it surprised Christopher. “That’s not the whole of it, Christopher. The yellow rose evolved into a symbol of hope for a city that desperately needed it at the time.”

“Yea, alright, Doc, but hope against what exactly? We now know, all these years later, that there was more than one kidnapper and more than one motive going on at once. We still aren’t sure who followed whom.”

Angel acknowledged Christopher’s accurate assessment with a curt nod. Louis Keaton told her himself that the Caretaker and a very early rendition of Pandora had recruited him to kidnap and molest Black boys with the intent to incite a race war in the city that would likely spill over into the entire South, and perhaps the total country.

Simultaneous abductions were being perpetrated by Muhammad Clark. He was a troubled young man who was sexually assaulting, just as troubled older teens and young men, and was tried and convicted of killing scores of them and throwing their dead bodies in the Chattahoochee River. Clark was now on the fringes of old age and was still serving time in the Georgia Prison System.

But Angel knew that her theories and innuendoes could wait. Five minutes and twenty feet later, Dr. Angel Hicks Dupree and Special Agent Christopher Prince found out how odd this investigation was going to get.

Agent Willie Collier:

He was a dark haired man who looked to be around 35 years old. He looked as if he’d recently dropped a significant amount of weight and his skin had yet to adjust to his body’s new configuration.

A helicopter had taken to the sky. It was close enough for its blades reverberation to be an annoyance, but still far enough away not to disturb her hair. A new truck from the local CBS affiliate had pulled up behind where they had parked earlier. More APD police cars were arriving on the scene and Angel surmised that it was no coincidence that they got here right after the media did. There were going to be a lot of spectators here. Tensions were already high. An increased attendance by the APD may be needed to help curb the tide. Or their presence may make matters worse thanks to the results of Deliverance.

What Angel knew for a near certainty was whatever they found here was going to nearly impossible to hide from the public.

“What in the hell is this?” Christopher asked when he reached ground zero. “Is this some kind of prank?”

Agent Collier held up his hands defensively. “We haven’t disturbed a thing, Agent Prince. This is exactly how the two civilians who called this in to that camerawoman at the news station found it.”

It was the damned oddest thing that Angel had seen in all the times that she had consulted with the bureau in the past. And she had seen a hell of a lot.

For the lack of a better description, someone, Angel could only guess a single person, had wedged a black doll into the concrete hole in the floor of this particular structure. They’d even taken the painstaking time and effort to place the doll partially inside of it without crushing the toy. They also had troubled themselves into clothing the thing to protect it against the dirt that would strike it because of today’s smoky strong winds. Angel pulled at the cuffs of her trousers and then kneeled to get a closer look.

“It’s no joke, Christopher,” She said. It is more of an illusion though. “Take a closer look at this.”

Christopher assumed a Johnny Bench pose of his very own to catch a better glimpse at what she’d detected. He saw it right away too. There were cut marks around the doll’s throat and the head had been squeezed so much that the plastic had refused to pop back out into its normal given shape.

“Did you see this, Doc?”

That same someone had presumably left a full sized bullet inside the dolls head. That wasn’t all however. A full size rope was tied, without much success, around the doll’s tiny legs. Christopher stopped his examination long enough to look at her probably to gage if they were thinking along the same lines or not, which would save a lot of time.

“It’s nearly identical to the real early crime scenes the APD found in the fall of 1979,” Christopher made his voice of whisper. “This was some of the heavy evidence that the State used in its prosecution of Muhammad Clark.”

Agent Collier had heard Christopher after all. “The State…Muhammad Clark, what are you talking about?”

Angel used the explanation to Agent Collier as a tool to refresh herself on what she had studied some years earlier. “The corpse of the 16 year old boy was badly decomposed, but the Medical Examiner was still able to recognize that he had been strangled to death and then shot post mortem.”

“Look at here,” Christopher had rubbed his thumb over the forehead and hair of the doll. “I believe this model hit the retail market about eight to ten years ago.”

“I think you’re right, Prince.” Agent Collier smiled with a pleasant recollection. “My boy must have been about four or five at the time. He carried that thing around with him everywhere. ‘Action Traction’ is what I thought the store people called it. I finally had to hide the thing to wean him off of it. He must have cried for days afterwards.” His smile soured. “Respectfully, sir, what is the significance of what model the doll is to all of this?”

“The significance,” Angel found herself saying evenly. “Is that these dolls went out of circulation two or more years ago. Am I right, Christopher?”

He nodded. “Yea…that means whoever did this has been holding on to this thing for a time or they troubled their selves with E-Bay or some other web site to order it specifically. You don’t find black male dolls everywhere. They wanted this scene to be a nearly flawless rendition of the real thing. They wouldn’t accept anything less than perfection.”

The chatter in the background had increased two fold in the background.

“It’s a Goddamn conspiracy.” One voice proclaimed.

“Hell yea,” A woman’s voice added her two cents worth. “We’ve seen the FBI’s handiwork already.”

“What do you visualize when you see our people’s future?” A third voice asked

“I see a future filled with sadness and pain.” A group of people answered in return.

Angel spoke to the two men over the crowds whooping and hollering. “I remember reading that the authorities who first found that young man’s corpse they thought that it was a horrible murder, but an isolated case. The prominent media attention, at least what passed as media attention in those days, really didn’t jump on board until a couple years later when—“Angel found her friends gaze. She honestly didn’t know who or how many agents within the bureau knew about Christopher’s abduction by Louis Keaton in the other half of this story. “They really didn’t hop on board until Keaton’s victims were taken.”

Christopher nodded curtly in Angel’s choice of discretion. He got back to his feet and brushed the dirt off of his trousers. “Do you think this is an isolated event, Doc, or do you believe that there will be more ‘scenes’ like this one to be discovered.”

Angel shrugged. “I guess are first order of business is to find out what it truly represents. Our answer lies in there somewhere—“

Angel was interrupted when the cries of the dissenting voices grew louder. It took a full unit of uniformed officers to move in to quiet the building ruckus. Two of the cops pulled out their batons and pushed their way on the other side of the dividing tape.

A young woman who Chris believed had been beautiful once, but the stress of adulthood had been most unkind to her face screamed at him. She was wearing the colors of a Peacekeeper. “You need to pick your side, brother. Either you are with us…or you’re with them. The Rooster if foul, the Rooster is no damned good.”

Christopher had seen and heard enough. “Sargent, get those people back right now. We cannot allow this crime scene to be contaminated.”

Angel watched as a mini melee occurred right before her big brown eyes. She couldn’t testify exactly who pushed whom and who punched the other first. But three uniformed APD officers had toppled five citizens and were striking them with their batons.

But the men lying on their backs weren’t going to have the APD have the last say in the manner. They punched at the officers. They scratched at their eye sockets. The largest of the cops was bitten on the shoulder hard enough to draw blood.

Christopher had lowered into a sprinters stance to intervene when the advantage shifted over to the crowd, but Angel caught him, planted her feet in the dirt, and used all of her strength to hold on to her friend to keep him from diving into the fray. “Don’t involve yourself in this, Christopher. It will stabilize itself.” Angel spoke loudly so he would hear her and suddenly she was right. “Look for yourself,”

And it had. At least for the time being, cooler heads had prevailed, along with the arrival of a new squadron of officers making their way around the curve from their cars.

“It’s all falling apart,” Angel said. “This situation is on the verge of exploding into something none of us may be able to pull back from.”

Christopher snatched his arm away from her and straightened his shirt and jacket. Angel hadn’t realized she still had him in her grasp. “And you seem to always be in tuned with those fools in Pandora’s thought processes. Where should we look for clues next, Doctor?”

“Like I said, Christopher, I have theories, nothing more.” Angel felt suddenly as if she had taken a defensive stance. “Most of what I feel is based on intuition. I worked with Pandora for a very short time. After you around Serena for a while you can’t help but understand some of her thought processes. She’s a complicated woman for sure, but she’s not impossible to read.”

A new voice called up from somewhere behind them. “That’s why Sheridan doesn’t completely trust you, Doctor, and either should you, Agent Prince.” Tabitha Blue said as a means of announcing her arrival.

Angel held her ground. “I’m not keeping anything from you that I’m conscious of, Christopher. I wouldn’t lie to you.”

Christopher rubbed his jaw and looked as if he couldn’t make up his mind about anything at that moment. He caught his breath, introduced Collier to his partner and caught her up on the few things they had learned and theorized from this crime scene.

Blue said: “So this is the escalation…the rapture that Serena Tennyson kept hinting at. I’m not impressed.”

“You shouldn’t be impressed, Agent Blue.” Angel crossed her arms. “But don’t be a fool either. This is just the beginning. Of this I have no doubt.”

“What in the hell is that supposed to mean?” Blue asked her.

Chris had returned to a state of calm. “It means that the doctor believes that this doll is a representation of a child that has already or will be soon abducted off of the streets of Atlanta. I know Louis Keaton. He is a serial pedophile. And we will have more serial dancing to do to catch him.” He finally said. “That child will be left alive as long as Keaton doesn’t feel threatened in anyway.”

Angel nodded at her friend’s input but reserved her statements for the agents Collier and Blue. “And if I had to guess, I would say that he will be abducting at least a half a dozen children or more to join this boy soon.”

Christopher’s business cell rang.

“Agent Prince,” He said into the receiver.

After listening to the party on the other end he sighed long and deep. There is more trouble, Angel thought. What could have possibly gone wrong now? “Yea, thanks, Ricky. I’m glad you called me first.”

Blue shifted in her stance, impatient for the news. “What now, Chris? Did someone find another doll? Or is it worse did someone find a real body?”

“Hundreds of bodies have been found.” Christopher slapped at the ‘off’ button feature of his smart phone. He may it his business to lookout at the crowd, chanting and singing, but relatively peaceful for the time being. “We keep asking if things could possibly get worse in this city, well it has expeditiously.”

“What is it, Christopher?” Angel felt the need for her first drink of the day. “What has happened?”

“The House in Chains has sent the Peacekeepers to infiltrate the Carver Street Housing Project.” He looked to the heavens and then down below. “There are hundreds of casualties.”

Roxanne

Carver Street Apartments, Atlanta, 11th Day

 

She jerked out a dreamless sleep, disoriented, sweating, and pissed off that strangers saw her in a state like this.

And a little hungry, whatever was cooking in the kitchen had either a wondrous smell to it or she had indeed been starving to death.

Joseph Champion flipped some eggs from one side of the frying pan to another. He waited until she gave him a visual conformation to approach where she had been lying on the couch—

Wait. Something’s wrong here.

There had been no couch…no kitchenette…and little else where they were before.

Champion must have read her mind, handed her a biscuit as a peace offering and said, “No Roxanne, we’re not in the same apartment before your lights went out.” She took the biscuit. “I got some bacon in the stove as well. It will all be ready in a minute, but I’m sure you want some answers.”

“I do.”

He stepped back over to the stove, as his eggs were on the fringes of burning. “First of all, I should say good morning to you.”

She glanced up and quickly out of the window and then sat back on the couch and tried to get her thoughts together. Have I been out all of that time?

“To answer the first of your many questions—this is Andre’s place, the real one that he didn’t want either of us in. With the Choir Boy threat…neutralized…he no longer felt threatened by having other residents seeing you or me come out of here.”

And Roxanne believed it.

It had his style or lack thereof. There were pictures of his mom who Roxanne had remembered meeting or more than one occasion when she had to come down to the middle school for parent-teacher conferences. She had grayed considerably but it was her. A life sized pinup of Beyoncé graced one wall, while a Nicki Manji featuring her fake breast in a tight shirt stared at them from another.

“I’m sorry I didn’t wake you …you were sleeping so peacefully, well you were, at least at first.” He handed her a plate and a plastic cup with water in it. She reluctantly accepted it. “I wasn’t sure how you would react to being awakened by a virtual stranger.”

A new question rose to the surface of her brain.

“Where are my—“

Champion pointed to both her guns and the small amount of bullets she had remaining. She put the plate down on the table and gave each weapon a thorough examination until she was positive they hadn’t been tampered with.

“Where is Andre?” She asked

“He’s around the complex someplace.” Champion said between three forkfuls of eggs. He wiped his mouth on his sleeve. “Are you alright, Roxanne? What, if anything, do you remember from last night?”

She flashed him a fake smile. “I’m fine…and not much actually.”

She leaned against the window trying to get it together, trying to gather her thoughts into something…anything nearing cohesion. Something was poking her in her pants pocket when she leaned on the wall.

She pulled a locket from inside of her pants.

She opened it and saw the face of two darling little girls.

And it all came back in a rush.

She’d charged around the corner in the apartment with her gun a blazing hitting The Admiral of the Peacekeepers with a shot to his upper chest before his forearm could get in her line for a kill shot to his head. He was close enough to dive on top of her. The landing took her breath away and any advantage she had previously gained.

Champion had stayed back using the bedroom door as a shield and fired hitting one…and then a second…and even a third Peacekeeper who tried to reach them through the narrow doorway. Andre had fired shots all over the place, his accuracy made worse by the punk trying to hold his pistol sideways like a gangster that he would never be.

Roxanne had struggled to breathe. The Scarred Man had bashed her head against the tile with one of his scarred forearms and kept her gun wielding hand at bay with his other.

Roxanne did use his strength against the man though. She used him to aid in her aiming the gun and she squeezed off two rounds killing a couple more Peacekeepers coming through the threshold as Champion had done minutes ago.

She remembered hearing Champion announce that he was out of ammo when he took an apparent stinger to his shoulder blade. Andre had wasted his bullets…and his time and was now involved in a hand to hand duel with… by her curves, what looked like a female Peacekeeper. Roxanne knew, female or not, training or not, Andre’s slight frame and fragile psyche wouldn’t hold up long in a fight.

Roxanne had used The Scarred man’s weight against him again and managed to slip a knee…and then the opposite knee into his groin. It was far from a perfect maneuver, but a man’s jewels were a man’s jewels. Impressive, Senorita, she recalled hearing Victor’s throaty acknowledgment. Now impress the hell out of me and finish him.

Roxanne had regained full control of her pistol but was unsure whether she had any shots left. The Scarred Man was vulnerable, but the clock for her to keep this small advantage counted down with each passing second.

So instead of shooting him, she used the pistol to bash his balls again.

The Scarred Man howled in pain as if he had a new scar in a tender spot to add to his two others. In that split second she could remember yelling, we are not drug dealers or Choir Boys, Admiral. But he lunged at her one last time.

And Roxanne snatched the machete off of the floor and beheaded the man who felt swoop of speed and power.

“You swung so hard that the hilt of the blade struck you in the forehead.” She could feel the tender spot and wondered how bad it looked…ever a woman to concern one’s self with aesthetics when your life had been on the line. “I don’t think that was enough to knock you unconscious, but your head striking the tile probably was.”

So Champion finished the tale for her. Andre had won his battle with the female Peacekeeper and had her blood dripping on a steak knife as proof. There was enough of an opening in the crosswalk and enough distraction of the Peacekeepers with the other battles being waged for them to make their escape.

“You weren’t light, I’ll tell you that.” Champion demonstrated the fireman’s carry that he used to carry her out and then eventually up the stairs to Dre’s place. “You do have the cutest tattoo on your lower back—“

“Zip it, Champion,” She cut him off. “I already hate the idea of thanking you as it is.”

He smiled when he downed the last of his biscuit. The crumbs were entangled in his goatee. “But you still will thank me, won’t you Roxanne?”

“Thank you,” She said with as acidly as she could manage.

She finished her food, her pride taking a back seat there as well. After they both had finished she asked: “You didn’t run away, Champion?” Her arched eyebrows raised in curiosity. “Why wouldn’t you run away?”

“Run where, Roxanne. Just as I told you before the Peacekeepers rudely interrupted our conversation: I have no place to go. I’m the only one in this housing project who is somewhat sad to see the Bishop and his men go.”

He beckoned her to sit on the couch with him so he wouldn’t have to speak so loud. Thin walls still had thick ears or that was the excuse the man used to have her sit next to him. I think you flatter yourself to much, Roxanne. She thought. She stank of perspiration, gunpowder, and other people’s blood.

Champion continued by saying, “I also promised you that I would take you to Erica Lovings in exchange for my safe passage out of Carver. I intend to live up to my end of the agreement.”

Roxanne stood back to her full height quickly. She didn’t need this stranger who had admitted that he was a Pandora agent to think for a single minute that he was scoring points with her. She had yet to take the mark but she had no love for Pandora or their twisted ideologies. They had killed innocent people. They had killed innocent children. And they had tried to kill the man who was the closest thing to any man that she ever loved—

Andre Knight unlocked the door, entered, and struggled to steady his hand while he put a single lock on the front door. He stood with his back pinned to the door as if he were holding it up. He was sweating in his greasy hair and his arm pits. And he was breathing very hard.

“The cops…Five-0…their working their way back here. They are knocking on every door asking for witnesses and the like. They ain’t taking no for an answer. We’ve got to get out of here now. I can’t deal with the APD right now. I’m one or two phone calls from having to stay downtown with them by default.”

Roxanne stepped towards Dre. There was more to this than just the police. She looked down at this hands which were both now shaking almost uncontrollably. She squeezed one and then the other.

“Dre, you’ve been arrested countless times. You know most of those uniformed officers by their first names. You don’t want to go downtown because people who get into the foolishness that you do never want to go down there.” She squeezed tighter and at least a small sea of calm washed over him. He wouldn’t make eye contact with her though, so she used the tip of her index finger to turn his chin until his big eyes were in line with her dark ones. “You’ve never been afraid to go down there, Andre. What are you so frightened of this morning? What have you seen that has scared you this badly?”

Champion had put his plate down and stood, wanting to know as well.

“Roxanne, have either of you been outside?”

Roxanne remembered what those killing fields in Mexico looked like. She knew Andre had seen a drive by or two, she knew that he had run from a few more, but the human mind may not be able to process the blood and the killing on a massive scale that Peacekeepers and the Choir Boys exhibited just yesterday.

Champion’s long legs began to inch him towards the window—

“No,” Andre said with a calmness that now began to unnerve her. “The way my place is configured, the view of the outside world is blocked by the rooftops of the other apartments. For you to see what I’ve seen, you’ll need to go out of the front door and then over to the top step.”

“What are we looking for, pal?” Champion asked.

Andre looked away. “You’ll know when you see it.” His head spun about quickly and his voice took on an authoritative tone that she’d never heard before. “It’s the only reason why the cops haven’t gotten back here already. I’ll meet you two at the bottom of the stairs.”

Dre left the door open after he had left. Roxanne grabbed her guns, secured them out of sight, looked behind to make sure Champion was still there and walked out.

The smoky haze had lifted a little today and Roxanne took that as a good omen. She took the eight or ten strides that her legs provided for her and reached the top of the steps that Dre had mentioned to them—

And then she saw what had frightened Andre Knight so badly.

For as long as Roxanne could remember The Choir Boys and the many gangs before them had hung pairs of sneakers to the electric wires in a unnecessary…not to mention dangerous way to symbolize to all who walked or drove by that this was their territory. Roxane had seen pairs of sneakers after pair of sneakers…after another pair of sneakers…

Now, for all the days she still had to live, Roxanne Sanchez would remember this morning and that all the many pairs of sneakers had been taken down…and new symbols of ownership and territory had taken their place.

She saw the severed heads of the gang members hanging from the electrical lines. She saw one head after the other…after the other…until these heads were stretched from one end of the project to the other.

Champion lost the breakfast that he’d taken the time and effort to fix. Roxanne could feel her mouth widen into it was a classic O.

In the twenty minutes it took the two of them to gather themselves and reach the asphalt level and catch up to Dre. Roxanne’s throat was still dry as she said to Champion: “How far is she?”

Champion stood on his toes and peered over to what Roxanne could only guess was due north. The bureau’s training program had always taught her to be aware of her surroundings and have an out navigated ahead of the time. Victor had agreed with the first part, but demanded two potential outs in case something sealed one of them off from her. But neither of those parties has to push their way out of a housing project where every building and street looks the same.

And Roxanne doubted that either had the fresh carnage of urban warfare on an American street embedded in their conscious mind either while they were trying to get out of dodge either.

“Around the next column of buildings,” Champion increased his pace. “I think it is at least?”

“You think?”

“Forgive me, Roxanne,” Champion sounded irate. “I’ve only been down this far in this place a couple of times.”

Andre added his thoughts: “If he’s heading where I think he is, we’re looking at 15 minute walk.”

And where is that, Dre, a sense of dread fluttering over her again. There was a very important question that every Professional Investigator should ask a potential witness in a missing person’s case. And she had not asked Joseph Champion. “Then it should be ten minutes if we hurry. Let’s go, gentlemen.”

Half way across the courtyard they slowed then stopped for a breather. At least they were beyond the view of most of the severed heads. Roxanne knew that the images that were burned into her head would give her nightmares that would rival the epic final moments of her confrontation at Vargas estate, and the fact that she had her gun trained on two innocent girls who had no means to defend themselves.

“Champion, I want to ask you something about last night?” She was winded but not nearly to the level of the two men who had accompanied her. “You didn’t really answer my question to how you ended up in a place like this.” Roxanne said, shielding her eyes from bright sunlight that fought through the haze. “You had to have made a previous contact to even dare coming here at all, someone you really trusted.”

“Yea, I did. Anyway, Roxanne, it’s a long story—“

Roxanne grabbed his wrist when the man tried to move forward. Dre looked aggravated by yet another delay, but had learned by now not to tempt fate by running off at the mouth in Roxanne’s wake. “I’m not going anywhere else with you until I at least hear some of this tale. I’ve gotten this far and this close to finding Erica. I’ve got a resounding fear that she’s not going anywhere.”

“You know this tough girl act grows old real fast you know.” All of the muscles in Champions face seemed to frown. “Don’t act like that shit with those severed heads didn’t bother you because I saw the look in your eye. And I also saw the fear on your face when the Peacekeepers were bashing through the door of that first apartment.”

Roxanne told her to save his psychological crap of evaluations for someone who actually gave a shit. And then placed her hand on her Nine and said: “Answer my question, Champion, or you are your own. You know what Pandora is capable of. You’ve seen what a House in Chains will do. And you have the FBI about 200 yards behind us as well.” Roxanne’s laugh was brief and hard sounding. “Let’s see how long you last out there on your own.”

Champion sighed. “Like I said it’s a long story. Years ago, I did some Intel for a gang task force on activity in this region. Of course, some of Atlanta’s gangs like the Black Knights, The Legion of Doom and The Choir Boys came up in my database. Believe it or not I was damned good at my job. I’ve help put away some high profile drug pushers from here to Texas, Illinois, California, all over the freaking country.”

“That’s a good start, Champion.” Roxanne countered. Obviously something went wrong. What was it?”

“I was born and raised in Houston.” Champion sighed again. “I collared what turned out to be a low life looser in that part of the state…or so I thought at first. He turned out to be the state’s prized witness against his former employers. My superiors and the District Attorney never seemed to agree on a hell of a lot, but they did come to the conclusion that this gentleman’s testimony was far more important to the tax payers of the State of Texas than a long term sentence for the gentleman himself.”

Roxanne nodded, wanting him to get on with the story. “They pleaded him out.”

“Yea,”

“Our Justice System can suck when it wants to, Champion.” And you and I can attest to it can’t we, dear sister. “Unfortunately, in high profile investigations these things happen—“

“Don’t tell me they just happen,” Joseph Champion pointed a finger of discontent at her. You are alive after all, Champion. “My new best friend had been freed. And he wasn’t quite in the mood just to be thankful that for not serving hard time.” Champion got close to her…real close. “He abducted, tortured and killed my wife four weeks later.”

“I’m sorry.” Was all Roxanne could say to a man that she had learned had an odd…kinship in their long journey to the end of this courtyard.

“He hacked at her face…her neck and breast…everywhere.”

“I’m sorry.” Roxanne said again. “Now connect the dots for me of how you ended up here in Carver.”

Andre stopped their conversation long enough to remind them about the time, the cops, so Roxanne started walking again and Champion took his strides next to her.

“I guess it was good timing or a blessing I guess.”

“How do you mean?”

Champion pointed to the left. He told her Erica was right around the bend. “On my last case with the task force, a Black man who testified against one of these gang bangers was killed when the case resulted in a mistrial. Let’s say his wife and I developed a totally plutonic kinship drenched in the blood of our dead spouses. She told me if I ever needed her she was a phone call away. Hard times hit her with her husband’s death with little insurance and then the Great Recession stripped her of a job she’d worked for 20 years. So she ended up here…in this God forsaken place.”

“Okay, Champion, let’s say that I believe half—“

“I don’t give a damn whether you believe me or not, Roxanne. What I am telling you line for line is the truth.”

Roxanne Sanchez honestly hadn’t made up her mind yet and told him so. He could put that in his pipe and smoke it for all she cared. “I’m interested in fast forwarding a bit. Alright, you felt betrayed by our legal system, check. You many have been driven into the waiting arms of Pandora because a man of color tortured and killed your wife, check. Now you are here…and the final piece of the jigsaw puzzle that wins us the prize is what you did to become so unpopular with Pandora. How did you piss Serena Tennyson off?”

“She started me off in surveillance, a little intelligence, cyber technology, and any other grunt work she could find me. I was desperate. I was angry. I was eager to serve…so long as it didn’t include murdering anyone.” He said. “I wasn’t Danielle Rohm or any of the other shooters. I wasn’t Dr. Angel Hicks Dupree who was working with that nut Louis Keaton—“

The doctor’s name drew Roxanne’s attention and ire. “You know the doctor?”

Champion said that he did, that he’d met the good doctor on a couple of occasions. “I was certainly angry that the system cost me my wife, but not upset with the people who still served her. I refused to cross that line into corruption and murder of government employees.”

Roxanne thought about his monologue for a few moments and voiced her won conclusion.

“But it wasn’t enough to satisfy your boss was it, Champion?” Roxanne asked him. “Tell me, who did you refuse to kill?”

“Serena’s consumed with the Circle…and Xavier Prince in particular. He’s a cool customer. If I could use one word to describe that little man then cool summarizes him pretty well.”

“So she asked you to kill Xavier Prince for her?”

Champion shook his head her, sad that she didn’t see as he had laid it out for her. “There have been times in the past that Serena has thought the best way to knock Xavier Prince off his block…is to kill his older brother Christopher.”

Roxanne had whipped out her Nine and bashed Champion across his temple with it with ridiculous speed. Andre saw what happened out of the corner of his eye, but Roxanne’s hard-edged glare backed him down.

“She wanted you to kill Christopher Prince, huh?” She stood over him. Champion was bleeding from the spot where she had hit him, but he would live…a little while longer. “And we all know that his step daughter’s ended up missing, and you seemingly the only one on the planet who knows where she is just one fat coincidence right?”

Champion felt for blood.

“Yea, Roxanne, it is just that, one fat coincidence as you say.” Champion got back to his feet and resumed his walk. “Erica made some powerful enemies in here. It’s like this place has its own social networking going on. She showed the ultimate disrespect to an individual or individuals who had the means and the will to do something about it. I’ve been in the business long enough to understand that these neighborhoods administer their own brand of justice. And Xavier sent his ‘gang’ and administered his too didn’t he? Anyway, I want to keep our agreement, Roxanne. I need it. Carver has gone civilized on me. That is wonderful for the good folks who suffered here. It is very bad for me. I need you to take me with you while I figure what my next move is.”

Roxanne stood in the bright sunshine, the heat making the smell from a nearby dumpster smell even worse than it normally would.

“Why should I do that, Champion?” She said evenly. “Why should I believe any of this?”

“Because I’ve done as I said that I would.” Joseph Champion pointed at the smelly dumpster without looking at it. “She’s in there. Erica’s remains are in this dumpster.”

Roxanne stared at the body of Erica Lovings for a long time after Champion and Andre unlatched the side opening of the dumpster so that she could walk inside instead of climbing over the top of it.

Erica Lovings:

She had been a petite, light skinned young woman who anyone would have proclaimed as a ‘cutie’ if not all of the earring holes in her ears and forehead, all of her tattoos that covered both arms and ran up the side of her neck. Her last day on earth she had been dressed in overalls that would have fit a man twice her side and steel toe shoes. Her hair was cropped low. Roxanne was sure that she’d been mistaken for a very small man when people approached her from behind.

Roxanne went for her cell to call 911—

She heard a woman…or perhaps a male child scream from an area that they had just left behind.

Andre…when did he leave us…was holding one of the Choir Boys…a true boy who Dre’ seemed to know by name and had probably been a scout before the Peacekeepers had marched on Carver and shown him and his brethren the error of their ways.

Andre smiled at and talked with the bleeding boy as he found the strength to carry the child who probably weighed as much as he did. Dre sat him down as gently as he can as to not rock the boy who has death written all over his face. It is the same look your face has just relinquished, Erica.

The boy died in Andre’s arms and to her old school mate’s credit, he honored the boy by siting him on the ground as gently as he had sat him in his lap and closed his eyelids for him.

Oh my, God, will this ever end.

The boy had not traveled this lonely road towards death alone. Another child was walking aimlessly…a staggered step to his left…three wobbly strides to the right…

His left arm was missing from the elbow down and he had a river of blood pouring from his nose and both his eyes

And he was carrying a pistol in his other hand.

Andre cried out in a voice that didn’t sound a human. Champion had semi blanked out, as if the only way he will survive this day is for his mind to exist far away from the city of Atlanta…far away from the Carver Housing Projects. Roxanne wished she could have joined Champion in that place. She wished it with every fiber of her being.

The boy fell suddenly on his own gun.

And there was a shot fired.

Andre Knight no longer attempted to hide his pain or his grief. And he released both in cry that may have been powerful enough to wake the dead, including Erica. He crawled on his knees towards where the second boy met his end…but either wielded the strength in his knees, or the will to press on had forsaken him forever.

Roxanne gently put Erica’s head down, she put all of her burdens down and ran out of the dumpster and carried Councilwoman’s prophetic words with her by the time she reached Andre. If you want to see me suffer, come now Victor, come now.

Carver is going to experience a tragedy unlike any ever seen before. The wig wearing woman had said. And Roxanne had remembered the woman’s fat face brighten with sudden mix of pride and wonder. While at the same time Carver is going to experience a rebirth that will be glorious and long overdue. And Roxanne had yet to still decipher if the hysterical fit that had taken hold of Vanessa Davis had been a bout of laughter or crying. Carver is going to experience a purging that none of us shall ever forget.

Andre Knight had cried for a long time on the asphalt floor of Carver’s Housing Projects.

Roxanne Sanchez wrapped her arm around the waist of her old classmate, held him close…and cried with him.

Chapter Nine

 

Goddamn.

I must say, Chief that was my first reaction when I saw it as well.

Don’t bullshit me. Don’t bullshit me, not on something like this. Are you prepared to bet your professional reputation and mine that this information is absolute and accurate?

Darling, I’m so sure that I would bet my life on it.

-Phone conversation between the Editor in Chief of the Georgia Times Union Bernard Lott and Head Staff Writer Lucy Burgess.

Seth

Denise Prince’s condo, 11th Day

 

After an initial hesitation, he had accepted Denise Prince’s invitation of dinner, coffee and company at the comforts of her apartment.

Sitting in the soft leather chair, Dr. Seth Dupree hesitated again…and again deciding that a second cup of coffee after a wondrous meal would justify a lengthy drive back to his hotel by the airport if little else. Originally, he had told her that he shouldn’t, that the hour was growing late, and he should be turning in to his hotel that was costing him a pretty penny after all.

She smiled but said that she wasn’t hearing that. She said they had been working hard for the last couple of days and deserved the chance to relax and let their hair down.

Now he was transferring the warmth of his cup to his lips, down his throat, in little swallows. Well, look at here; he had drained the cup to the bottom again. He uncrossed his legs and sat up as straight the love seat would let him. It was time for him to leave. It was time for him to go—

He heard the emergency vehicle speed by at the same time Denise did. By instinct he looked up at her as she cracked the blind to peer out ten floors down. He saw some of the life drain out of her hazel eyes and her mouth quivered. Erica Lovings, Denise’s adult child was missing. It had been one of the talks of the triage center since he’d arrived there. It wasn’t the only one, but the gossip about Erica was leading the pack of news items by a nose.

When she found his gaze again, he saw her need for human companionship rise to a new level, almost a palpable hunger. He didn’t need his wife’s background in Psychology or Sociology to understand that. He allowed himself to sit back until he found that comfortable spot in the chair again.

They had found a professional chemistry almost from their first shift working together. Seth had participated on these specialized emergency responses and trauma teams most of the second half of his career. He though that the cooperation of some of the state’s finest medical personnel was not only a good idea, but a necessity after the 911 attacks all of those years earlier. And then centering the state’s efforts in and around the capital in Atlanta made even more sense. The city was the home for the country’s defense against infectious diseases and likely was the lone target for any foreign terrorist plot they may involve biological, chemical, or nuclear weapons.

Still, no one including Seth could have expected to see what they’d seen happen over the last few days.

A doctor named Greenwood, who had the smell of salami and Italian bread flowing from his pores, had teamed Seth with the head RN over this particular unit which happened to be Denise Prince. She was an excellent nurse, yet, Seth found himself even more impressed with her leadership and organizational skills. And we needed every bit that you could offer. There were the burn victims that were flown in from The Andrew Young Youth Center bombing and the law enforcement personnel that ran over the mines when Serena Tennyson had been apprehended.

Seth had foolishly allowed himself to believe that the hostilities had ended when she was taken downtown. I can finally get on to my business of finding Angel, and trying to rebuild our life together. The Gray man had remembered saying then. He couldn’t have been more wrong.

He’d done countless surgeries in the days treating those gunshot wounds. Most of these victims came from the Fox Theatre after the siege there was ended by the FBI and then another round of cops were brought in when Serena made her daring escape during transport out of Atlanta…if the news people could be believed.

And then the impossible happened.

It got worse.

A House of Chains had sent…what they were called…the Peacekeepers into the Carver Housing Projects to attack some area drug dealers. Hundreds of mostly wounded young people were brought to the trauma center. Most never left…at least not alive. And my God, what was the cutting off of the heads about.

Three of his nurses had to be relieved of duty when the first torso’s arrived without their owners head. Medical people are trained to see and likewise treat anything.

They had no idea they were operating in the middle of a war zone.

He looked at his cell phone…there were no calls or messages from Angel again today.

But there was a call that he had made. He had almost made it from his home back in Macon but didn’t. But he had finally called her after all these years.

She had picked up the line after the house phone had ringed five or six times.

Hello. Hello, is anyone there?

He had only let her hear his breathing.

It’s you isn’t it. I thought that we agreed that you wouldn’t call me again, Seth.

He had finally responded, his breath still heavy in his throat. I’m sorry. I know he’ll hurt you if he catches you on the phone—

No, Seth, He’ll kill me if he catches me on the phone. Look…listen…I’m going to say this to you again, Seth, and then I’m going to hang up ok?

What? He had wanted to know.

It’s not your fault, Seth. You have to let it go. It’s not your—

And then he heard what sounded like a door that banged against its hinges. He heard a roar of disapproval from the man who had entered the room.

And then he had heard her scream before the line went dead.

It’s not your fault, Seth. You have to let it go.

But she was so wrong…so wrong indeed.

Seth had called the four of them up even after his parents had warned him not too. They didn’t mind him having his friends over to the seaside house, but no drinking, no drugs, and definitely no boating was going to be permitted over the weekend while they were out of the country.

By legal standing, he was 19 years old then, an adult, but he still lived under their roof, at least part of the time when he was home from Durham and Duke University. And where were you guys off to that time anyway? He knew his mom’s inheritance and his dad’s businesses and investments netted them an allotment of about two or three grand trips a year from their home in Savannah to the more exotic ports of London, Paris and Rome.

But they weren’t going to tolerate any nonsense from him, especially his love of boating, not with a late season storm brewing in from the Atlantic. Savannah was well in sight for nor’easter like conditions and some beach erosion only if they were lucky.

Seth had even had the audacity to pitch a fit and argue at the old man, even after the poor grades he’d posted his first full year off at school. He had to really buckle down the last six weeks of the semester to pass and advance or he could have kissed his academic scholarship goodbye.

Well, the entire first year at Duke wasn’t a total failure.

And when Pam Toliver, Antoinette Burner, Clint Sessions and Sam Casey arrived on his parent’s front porch, especially with their boating gear in hand, he knew they were in for a very special weekend, one he didn’t plan on forgetting.

The storm rolled in on top of them about four hours later. The weather man had predicted the system would wash up further south nearer to St Simons Island close to the Florida border. When Seth had heard the report, he made an executive decision that the seas would we calm enough for them to sail, especially if they left now. He remembered the wind tossing a twisting the 20 footer and for a brief time Seth wondered if the boat would be cut in half by the gust. In the never ending cloud bank above them he imagined the dark clouds being his father’s frowning face and the rain being his mother’s tears for her only child.

Antoinette went overboard somewhere in their fifth hour out to sea. The others called for her and looked over the side, Clint nearly spilling over in the Atlantic trying to find his friend. But Sam had great eyes and spotted her not too far out from the boat.

Seth didn’t hesitate. He dove in and reached her in a short time. And with the help of his other three friends, the finest people he’d ever known, they got her hauled back into the boat. They pulled Seth back in immediately thereafter.

Antoinette’s skin was clammy and she wasn’t breathing. Seth looked to his friends for answers. They looked to him for the same. No one knew CPR although Seth had taken some classes…that he had missed some days…and didn’t pay attention in others, when he had secured his boating license.

They tried to make it up as they went along…these four soon to be law students trying to emulate a medical procedure, but Antoinette wasn’t playing the role of a cooperative practice dummy very well…and died soon after.

“You didn’t answer my question, Doctor?” Denise Prince asked him. How long had he been out of it? You’ve been gone long enough for her to slip out of her work clothes and into a pink housecoat with a neat bow tied her waist. Seth noted that she’d showered, as her light skin had that same clammy appearance that Antoinette’s did before she…before you killed her, you moron.

The aroma of meatloaf still hovered in the room. He retreated to the relative safety of food conversation. “The meatloaf and everything else was excellent, thank you, Denise.” He raised his empty coffee cup towards where she was standing. “My compliments to the chef,” And it was a true compliment at that. Angel cooked meals on a semiannual basis back home.

“You should eat in more,” Denise said to him with a smile on her face. Her teeth were perfectly straight and white.

The first night together they had ordered pizza. The 12 and 16 hour days had taken their toll on him. Seth wasn’t much on fast food, even when he had been that foolish age when the boating accident happened. So the prospect of yet another meal of burger and fries was massively unappealing to him. Last night she had offered to grill him some chicken breast on one of those name branded grills. Tonight, it had been classic meatloaf and mashed potatoes. But I can tell by your slim enough waistline that it’s not about the food, it’s about the company…or the lack thereof.

She had been an engaging and thoughtful host. He was being selfish. What harm could come from listening to her. The woman’s only child still hadn’t been found.

“If you need to talk,” He touched his ears to signal to her that he was listening.

Denise sat in the chair across from him and put one leg underneath the other. He tried not to look at the gap that had wedged between her legs. “I guess I probably should, shouldn’t I?” She lifted one of the pictures of Erica off of the coffee table and stroked it with two fingers with affection. “I don’t quite know what I should or can say. I’m not sure where to begin?”

“I understand.” Seth sat next to her to break any further barriers that may have been blocking her from expressing what she felt. Two things happened that disturbed him: He got a clear look at Erica thanks to the LED lighting flowing from the kitchen…my God; I would say that that was a young man if I didn’t know better. The second thing got his heart pumping more blood. He got a whiff of her baby oil, and he would have sworn that she smelled even better than Angel did after her showers. Cool it, Seth, the Gray man scolded himself. You just miss your wife is all…but Denise was a beautiful woman as well.

“Tonight must have been especially difficult. I know it was for me. Even with all of our training, we’re human first, and I don’t think anything can prepare you for what we saw coming through into the triage center. My God, all of those young people, all of their lives thrown away like yesterday’s garbage.”

Denise nodded slowly. “During the 411 attacks, I kept waiting for my ex-husband to be wheeled in. I thought because of his profession, because of his bloodlines, I just knew that he’d been injured…or worse.”

Seth locked his fingers with hers. It was an instant reaction and an unplanned one. “The important thing is that he survived. He is a survivor.” And now Dr. Seth Dupree truly knew he was lost…at least in knowing what he wanted to happen to Agent Chris Prince.

He had to admit that a wave of disappointment washed over him when Denise told him the news that her ex-husband had indeed escaped the Fox Theatre alive and mostly unharmed. He’d come to Atlanta hell bent on what…seeing the man suffer for his profession pulling his wife away from him. Was I that simpleminded? Didn’t I learn anything from the boating accident all of those years ago?

And for a time, albeit a brief one, he even thought about trying to hurt Agent Prince himself. Now I don’t know what to do about any of this?

“And then today,” Denise was saying. “Today, I thought it would be Erica brought in on a gurney. Doctor Dupree, I kept seeing her face on all of the bodies of those headless victims…all of them. Roxanne Sanchez, the private investigator I told you about, she told Chris and he told me that Eric’s trail seemed to end at Carver Housing Projects.”

“Again, the worse scenario didn’t play out, Denise.” Seth said, and squeezed her soft hand tighter. “And I think it’s time that you start calling me Seth.”

“Alright, I would like that…Seth.”

“I want you to hold on to hope. I want you to take a leap of faith that everything is going to turn out okay.”

“I do, Seth.” She moved closer to him. “Sometimes hope and faith is all a mother has left to cling to during trying times like this one, especially when you are alone.”

Seth looked away.

“What?” Denise asked him. She scooted her butt so that the rest of her body was on the edge of her chair and so that their knees now touched. “I see a question forming on your face, Seth. Ask me anything you might want to know. I don’t mind?”

“Your ex-husband is one of the most qualified people in this state to be finding your daughter.” Seth said with an edge, the Gray Man getting to his feet, circled the living room, and reserved a spot standing in front of her. “He shouldn’t be relying on a stranger to lead this investigation. He should be out there pounding the streets looking for her. She’s family.”

Denise reached up and patted the knuckles of his balled up fist in reassurance. “He is, Doctor, in his own way. Chris is searching for her.”

She warmed up his coffee over his moderate objections and both of them sat back down. Seth picked up Erica’s picture and ran his fingers along the smooth wooden frame trying to push how the young woman looked to the back of his mind. Her sexual preferences were irrelevant to the fact that she was missing…or worse. “Angel told me a long time ago that you and Chris met when Erica was a little girl.”

Denise cheeks flushed with the warmth of a pleasant memory. “Erica must have been two or three years old. Chris adored her. He took my little girl everywhere he went.”

“Erica must have fallen in love with him about the same time you did?”

“No,” All of that warmth in Denise’s face washed away. She put her back to Seth and stood next to the fireplace. The symbolism was not lost on the Gray Man. “I wish to God that what you just said was the truth but I know that it wasn’t. You see, Doctor—Seth, Erica resented Chris presence in our lives almost from the very beginning.”

“She resented him,” Seth asked. “Why would Erica resent someone who, at least on the surface, made her life better?”

Denise peered over her shoulder just enough for Seth to see one of her hazel eyes. “Understand that up into that point of Erica’s life, it had just been the two of us. We struggled financially. I was trying to finish getting my nursing degree, keep food on the table, and raise her alone. But in part, because of those struggles, we developed a very tight bond.”

“So in her two year old mind, Chris intruded on that bond.”

Denise whipped around, facing him. “In her eyes he severed it beyond repair.”

Set sat his cup in the saucer and rubbed his face. “She eventually got used to the idea though? Things between Chris and Erica had to get better with the simple passing of time right?”

“Yea, maybe, for a short time, maybe it did.” Denise shook her head in agreement. “I would say that for about four years things went pretty well.

“And then,”

“And then…life happened, Seth. As Erica grew older she began to question me more and more about her biological father. You know how cruel children that age could be. Her classmates teased her about not having a real daddy.”

Seth swallowed any potential thought on that, but the look in his gray eyes must have betrayed him.

“Don’t be embarrassed, Seth. You were probably going to say something along the lines that most black children don‘t have their fathers in their day to day lives, or that many Black children don’t know who their father is.”

“It’s not my place to—“

“You may have even gone further and say that many fathers of Black children are in jail…despite what Xavier Prince and a House in Chains has been able to accomplish.” She said with some anger…and Seth noticed her eyes tearing up for the first time.

“Tell me about Erica’s father. Are you two still one speaking terms?” Seth’s mind was racing to find a positive point somewhere to end this conversation on. He hopped out of the chair and handed Erica his cell. “Does the man even know that she’s missing? You should call him. Perhaps he could help in the search somehow—“

“I don’t know who Erica’s father is.”

Denise’s words struck Seth with a fierceness of finality that he hadn’t expected. He felt himself slouch in his stance. This conversation wouldn’t end on a positive note after all. “I’m sorry, Denise. I shouldn’t have pride in your private affairs.” Shit, Seth thought. That wasn’t your greatest use of the English language either you moron.

Denise squeezed his wrist and then his hand, her touch wasn’t unpleasant and yet he shrank from it all the same. “I was a wild child. It was the spring time back home in Knoxville. I had a spectacular shape that had been hidden under all those heavy coats and sweaters all winter.” She laughed then, and Seth wondered how much humor was really in it. He found out quickly as her face became one with frowns. She tried to hide her shame and her tears and failed miserably with both. “It’s my fault, Seth. All of this is my fault.”

“Don’t do this disservice to yourself, Denise.” Seth used his free hand to pull her into his embrace. Her breast pushed through the housecoat onto his chest. “We all make mistakes when we are young.” You brought a life into the world, Denise, while I took one out.

He tried to apologize for her…for what, Seth Dupree was unsure and she wasn’t hearing it anyway. She pulled her head back far enough for him to resume eye contact with him. “Did you and Angel ever want to have kids?”

Seth’s smile held very little warmth to it. Despite the mistakes in his past, he always thought he would have made a good father. “We never seemed to get around to it.”

Denise grinned at him “Maybe your wife knows what I do: Mother’s love their children almost to a fault.” She hesitated and added: “I know that we Black women do. Many of us raise our children alone with little or no help from their fathers. We’re tired. We’re discouraged most of the time. We’re angry all of the time. So we focus all of the love that we have inside of us onto them.”

A tear chased another down her cheeks.

“Denise don’t do this,”

She held him tighter, and he felt a stirring in his slacks. He could feel her warmth. All of the oxygen went out of the room,

She said: “We’re so angry at the world for not loving our children the way we do: So, when it comes to our kid’s faults and shortcomings, we refuse to see them. Even the ones they inherited from us.”

“What are you talking about, Denise?” Seth got another full whiff of her baby oil and whatever she used in her hair. “What did Erica inherit from you?”

Denise pulled him to her with amazing strength and kissed him once softly on the lips. “She has my anger.” She parted his lips with her tongue. “She has my aggression.”

She must have felt his manhood and rubbed her body up against it. Dr. Seth Dupree had ventured to Atlanta with the goal of retrieving his wife and possibly hurting Chris Prince as a bonus. Angel claims not to love you…she sleeps with other men, you know this, Seth. Why shouldn’t he take this moment…and this woman for himself?

Seth found that he was kissing her back, seeing her brown skin against his pale skin hardens him further. He had never experienced—

Finally, he pushed her back, using his height advantage, and her shoulders for leverage. Both marriages still had a chance to be reconciled. This was a…romantic interlude trying to introduce itself where it could only do harm. He won’t hurt anyone’s chances by not being able to take back what he and Denise may have been engaged in minutes from now.

“I’ve overstayed my welcome, Denise. I’m sorry.”

Denise Prince spun him around, pinning him face forward against the wall. Her housecoat is unbuckled, how and when it got that way he could not say for certain. She caught the slightest glimpse of her clad in a beige bra and matching panties. “Don’t be sorry, Seth. Stay as long as you like. Your room is already paid for and will be waiting on you when you return.”

“I know that,” Denise whirled him back around with the same precision as before. The housecoat was completely gone and her bra straps were falling from over her shoulders. “Denise, we really shouldn’t do this.”

“We should,” She put his hands on her large breast, which felt magnificent absent the bulky housecoat. “Your hands, you have wondrous hands, Doctor, touch me all over.”

“I’m a surgeon,” He said unnecessarily, when she wasn’t drowning him in kisses. “Steady hands are the key to being successful at my profession. They could mean the difference between life and death.”

“You’re right. They may make the difference tonight.”

When she tried to reach for…it he halted her advance with his right hand. He tried to be both soothing but stern all at once. The memories still flashed in his brain of how quickly things spiraled out of control with Angel, especially during the few quite times he’d experienced since he’d been in Atlanta.

“Denise, I’m still a married man.” He said. “Despite our difficulties, I want things to work out with Angel. For better or worse, I still love my wife.”

“And I still love Christopher Prince.” She backed away a half an inch with the admission. Something in her eyes told Seth that it was the first time since their dissolution that she’d told anyone this. Yet, it didn’t stop her from using her free hand to break through his defenses…and squeeze him until it hurt…until it felt so right. “It doesn’t stop me from having a woman’s needs. Please…don’t make me beg for it.” Denise’s tears began to flow again. “That’s why I asked you to come over last night…so we could wait for Roxanne’s call together.”

“Huh? What are you talk—“

She kissed him again on the mouth…and worked her way around his neck and started whispering, barely coherently in his ear. “Is it too much to ask for a little pleasure from you, sir? It’s been too long. My little girl may never come home again. A little pleasure that we take from time to time may be all that I have left if you won’t come back to me for good.”

“Denise…who are you talking to—“

She looked mesmerized. As if she was under the influence of hypnosis or something even stronger. “I still love you…Chris.”

“Denise,” He used some of his strength reserves to push her to a safe distance but luckily, not to the floor.”

She lunged at him—and bit his lip.

He cried out in pain.

But it was her who was enraged as if she’d been attacked and not him.

“Goddamn you,” She yelled almost in a masculine tone, and it took all of his remaining strength and determination to restrain her. “Goddamn you, sir. You’re so fucking selfish. I’ll ask you again, Chris, do I have to beg for it?”

And then she collapsed to her knees as if she had truly been slapped back into this time, this reality. Seth made himself out to be a statue. He truly wished he’d had his wife’s expertise on case file like the woman who was kneeling before him.

He snatched a paper towel from the roll of out of the kitchen and dampened it with warm water. It stung when he wiped his bleeding lips, but he would heal in a day or so. But will you heal, Denise? She needed far more than a warmed wet paper towel to heal all of her wounds.

She cried for a long time until she had finally cried out. She was still only dressed in the matching bra and panty so Seth picked up her robe off of the floor and covered her shoulders against the night’s chill.

“You’ve been under a lot of stress, Denise.” He spoke to the top of her head, his one hand on her shoulder. “Give yourself some time. I’ll see you tomorrow if you show for work. If not, call me…we’ll talk. I don’t take any of this personally. I promise you that I’ll help see you through this.”

Denise looked up at Seth and he wiped the last of her tears away. When she stood he tightened the belt around her housecoat. “Take a leap of faith with me, Denise.”

And then there was an urgent knocking on her front door. Alarm graced her face, and the Gray Man was sure that he wore a similar look that matched his host.

“Denise…it’s me, Chris.” The voice on the far side of the door that belonged to Special Agent Christopher Prince said. “I have…I need to speak with you. I know I usually call first before I come over here. I need you…to…I need you to open up…please.”

Denise stared at the door for an extended time before she finally said, “Just a minute, Chris. I’m just getting out of the shower…let me put something on.”

She sprang into action—which included ushering Seth unceremoniously into her bedroom’s walk in closet. “Seth…Doctor, I need you to stay in here for a minute. Don’t say a word.”

Seth tried to make sense of all of this. One moment this woman is all over him, the next minute she is calling and treating him as if he were her ex-husband…and now she was trying to hide his presence from that same man. The right side of his brain tells him that he should walk out there and let the man see that he’d been alone with his nearly naked ex-wife. Hadn’t he accused him and Angel of consorting in the past? The other side, the rational one tells him to calm the hell down and not get stupid in here. Christopher Prince is a highly trained, highly skilled Special Agent of the FBI. And not to mention the man is probably armed none the less.

The coffee cups are still in there, Seth shuddered with his new thought. Both of those cups are still on that table. Prince is also an investigator for God sakes, and an investigator is curious by nature and suspicious by career choice. The longer he hangs around the more likely he would realize that someone had been here. Or is still here, I’ve got to go—

Denise cried out with a fierceness that made her first scream before her ex-husband arrived pale in comparison. Now he could make out what she was saying. “No, Chris, I don’t believe you…nooooooooooo.” A new round of cries rushed to greet the first ones. “Oh my God, Chris, not my baby…nonononono,” She said until Seth’s ears could no longer process the incoherent words falling from Denise’s lips.

The muscles in Dr. Seth Dupree’s neck grew tense. He’d never know the privileges of parenthood and likely never would.

Buy Seth’s Seven year old brother Todd had died in a boating accident when was but five himself.

And he recognized the agonizing cry of a grieving parent when he heard it.

Chris

Red Wine Road, 12th Day

 

They arrived at the second ‘murder’ scene in a wooded area off of Red Wine Road, two and a half miles from where the first one had displayed itself to them.

It looked to Special Agent Christopher Prince that although Agent Sheridan was on the site already himself, that the authorities in general, and the FBI specifically hadn’t got the tip first.

Two dozen reporters had lined up and leaned over the barricades that separated the vultures from another doll’s body. He saw his partner, Tabitha Blue, parked with her arms folded next to Sheridan. Both were standing in the shadow of a huge uniformed cop whose red cheeks looked as if someone had just pinched them.

The day was picturesque, warmer and the shifting wind had blown the smoky haze due west of the city. And here’s another good portent…The APD had learned from the near fiasco the other day and had dozens of off duty police officers mingling amongst the gathered crowd on onlookers.

He slammed the passenger side door of Angel’s rental and his childhood friend rushing to match his pace from the other side despite her limp. They quickly passed the reporters who were all asking the same type of annoying questions that reporters always asked for which he and Angel both were answering “no comment” until one of them matched them movement for movement behind the barricade with a query that he did not escapade.

“Agent Prince…Agent Prince, would it be fair to question your competency in leading this investigation considering your personal stake in what happened yesterday?” Lucy Burgess, of the Times asked him in her heavily South African accent.

Chris stopped his forward advancement long enough to acknowledge the woman’s question and her huge overbite but so far had remained silent.

“After all, the rapid firing events that happened at the Carver Housing Projects were a mixed bag for you: Your half-brother Xavier launches a devastating attack that nets him 61 confirmed Choir Boys although the Bishop and his deacon managed to escape…the executions. Eight Peacekeepers died as well” Lucy said pushing a recorder towards his face. “And yet, your step daughter is one of a hand full of civilians who were also found deceased when the authorities arrived. And although her the certainty behind her death has yet to be determined—“

“No comment,” He waved his hand at her and her device.

Angel must have felt his pulse racing in his neck and his ear. She put her small hand in his side and nudged him back in the direction that he had intended to reach before the other woman had distracted him.

“Christopher, calm down,” She said barely loud enough above the noise of the crowd. She cut him off so that once again he couldn’t get to the actual crime scene until he had. He stopped again, this time resting his hands on his hips and caught his breath. There was an untimely pang in his gut but he dared not reach to soothe it with all of these journalists present. He refused to throw more speculative wood for their fires.

Angel was saying: “Your step daughter’s death isn’t some nosy reporter’s death, I don’t care where the body was found—“

“I don’t think she was alone.” Chris answered an unasked question instead. “I can’t shake the feeling that someone else was inside Denise’s apartment when I arrived.”

Angel cocked a brow in confusion. Chris had tried not to think about the personal implications or Erica’s death on him or his ex-wife just now but Lucy Burgess had made that task damn near impossible now. He wanted to drop his professional demeanor and get angry. He wanted to punch something…or somebody for how rough this entire episode was going to be on Denise. He didn’t love her now…that time had passed, but he had no desire to see her suffering the way the woman had suffered over the past 24 hours. And yet, I can’t help but to feel as if you were hiding something from me the other night.

But there was more than one reason that this case needed him to get his act together and refocus.

At least a second child, 13 year old Mathew Clifton, had joined Moses Jackson in the missing category. He had been outside playing a game of pickup basketball at a local park and had been raptured on his walk back home.

Angel seemed to get his reference was about his ex-wife and not his dead step daughter at last. “Alright, Christopher,” She said shrugging her shoulders. She got in his wake so no one else would hear her. “You told me last night that Denise has engaged in a sexual relationship with another woman before. Even though she had come out of that particular closet with you doesn’t make her immune from the potential embarrassment about being caught red handed; especially, with her ex-husband calling on her with the worst news imaginable.”

“I considered that.” He matched her tone and flashed his index finger at Sheridan who looked to be growing impatient with their delay. “Denise told me that it happened about six months after our divorce. And that it was an isolated onetime event and a one sided deal that satisfied her curiosity and another woman’s aggressive posturing.” I’m likely to have believed that scenario was reversed though, knowing Denise like I do.

“Did you consider that Denise could have been bedding a man that you know?” Angel asked. “Maybe he is a mutual friend of yours and she was trying to save all three of you from embarrassment.”

Chris stared off into the bright afternoon sunlight. “I considered that too. I don’t know, Doc, but there is something more going on here.”

Angel massaged his arm and raised her voice back to a normal pitch. “Alright, enough speculation about Denise’s motives for right now. How is she doing?”

“She’s doing as well as any woman who’s lost her only child could be.”

Angel locked her gaze on him and he had known no other choice but to be mesmerized by her big brown eyes. “Would you mind taking some professional advice from an old friend, Christopher?”

“Shoot,”

“Spend some time with her. Regardless to everything that’s happened in the past, through all of the muck, the three of you shared a bond. That bond doesn’t snap just because you two aren’t together anymore. You were family.” A smile played on her enhanced lips. “Look, I know that my relationships define the term ‘complex’, but you may be the only one who can help her through this. She’s very vulnerable right now. Don’t let anything push her over the edge.”

Chris laughed and turned away. “You can’t begin to understand the complexity…the volatility of this situation, Doc.” He said looked back to where Lucy Burgess and her flock were still standing and he let out a low whistle. “If those reporters ever got wind of what Erica did…”

He turned back to Angel. “In speaking of complex, how’s Seth? You’ve barely mentioned his name since we started working together again.”

“What’s to mention?” Angel looked uncomfortable…and used the opportunity to get the head start on the final few strides if would take to reach Sheridan and the others. “My husband is an excellent surgeon and an even more caring sensitive man.”

“Angel, did your coming here throw some type of wedge between you two?” Chris rubbed at the day old stubble on the top of his head. “Hey, look, now it’s my turn to apologize for dipping my nose where it doesn’t belong. But you have told me before that Seth was a lot like Denise in that aspect, that he believed our relationship went far beyond a long childhood friendship and an occasional professional one.”

“Stop it, Christopher.” Angel stopped just short of where he others were and stroked his cheek with some affection. “I’m a difficult woman to live with. I know this. But I’m sure our situation will work itself out in the manner that it was always intended. These things always do.”

“You’re the Doc.”

They joined Sheridan and the others by the crime scene. He caught Sheridan’s eye and his boss greeted him and nodded curtly at Angel. He doesn’t appreciate being kept waiting but it couldn’t be helped. Chris could feel the tension between them. And the aftermath of Xavier’s bold decision to take Carver from the Choir Boys hasn’t scored any points for the Prince family with authority figures either. Blue flashed a brief, sympathetic smile at him. He knew all of this had been tough on his partner. He appreciated her gesture.

“So it’s another doll?”

Sheridan nodded. If there was to be a reprimand coming it would be handled later and in private. “And if I know my history, I would say this one mirrors another episode from the early 1980’s.”

It was Angel who was nodding. Blue planted her hands on her hips. Chris stooped down for a closer look.

“Has anyone else noticed the texture of this doll’s face and hands? And what about the exaggerated length of his extremities…I believe that his arms and legs are far too long to belong to this body.”

“Yea, Christopher.” Angel agreed. “I did notice.”

Blue said, “What about it?”

“I believe that this doll is a representation of a child that is older than the first. And although Mathew Clifton’s disappearance doesn’t put him officially missing for several more hours we can bet that this doll is a representation of him.”

“Interesting,” Sheridan got eye level with Chris. “And this texture you mentioned, it’s older, it’s dirtier. We do know that the Jackson kid was taken first right?”

“He was, Agent Sheridan.” Angel said over both their shoulders. “In my time that I spent with Louis Keaton I took him to be very methodical, very organized when it came to his passions. My belief is that although he kidnapped Moses Jackson first, he actually had his eye trained on the Clifton child before he took Moses.”

Sheridan nodded at the doctor—and then snapped his fingers in remembrance. “My apologies, Agent Christopher Prince, Dr. Angel Hicks Dupree, this is officer Bucky Branch of the Atlanta Police Department.” The big man nodded a hello to the two of them. “Would you mind repeating what your witnesses told you before?”

“Sure,” He said and pulled out his notes. “Two of them said they saw a two door pickup, Probably a F150, casing this neighborhood over the past two or three weeks. I don’t have to tell you people what goes in the woods around here, especially at night. Both of the witnesses just assumed it was a white guy looking for some crack or some head.” His red cheeks reddened further as he peered at the two women who were present. “Sorry.”

“A F150, huh,” Chris asked and stooped down again. “There were tire tracks to and from the scene. “It’s clean. There aren’t any oil leaks.”

Blue said, “The width of the track would verify a SUV or pickup truck of some type, but probably nothing more than that.”

“And since it hasn’t rained up here or anywhere else in a year, tracking this makes it even more difficult.” Sheridan said. “Are you sure that none of your witnesses saw the perpetrator make his move? We are talking a very high profile case. We are talking the likely involvement of Pandora. Those facts may scare some folks out of fully cooperating if their afraid of some type of reprisal as a result of speaking with the police.”

Branch shook his head.

Chris used the silence to say: “Moses was taken in the early evening. Mathew was told to be home just before the street lights came on…and his parents said they noted he hadn’t returned about 30 minutes after that.”

Sheridan looked as if he were getting a fresh measurement of the scene’s perimeter. He looked at his Rolex. “Yea, but as important as those two boys are I’m as interested in when he staged this scene. First, he had to practice over and over again to get it just right. Secondly, once he set this up, he had to escape without being seen.” He said. “Another bullet is incased in this dolls head. There is the presence of the rope just like before. This, boys and girls, is not an accident. There is a serpent somewhere in the ruins here. He’s telling us something.”

“Why are you looking at me like that, Christopher?”

He wasn’t actually. He felt a moment of what exactly…déjà vu, vertigo, but for a moment he felt it he were on the outside of himself looking inwards. Now, out of the corner of his eye, he could see Sheridan and Blue fixing their glares on him as well. Officer Branch looked confused.

Angel tried to help. “Now that you’ve seen both scenes you’re convinced that Hugh Keaton is responsible for this.

“Wait a sec,” Blue said. “You just called the suspect Hugh. All along we’ve been addressing as Louis or am I missing something?”

“You’re not, Agent Blue. Keaton was burn with his legal name being Hugh. We got some updated information from his file a day or so. That is the name on his social security card and on his birth certificate.”

Angel looked at Chris when she said, “Somewhere in the days after he turned 18 he turned in an application for a legal name change…and Louis Keaton was born. I had a half a dozen sessions with him during my stint in Pandora and I never could ascertain the absolute reasoning why he changed it.”

Blue snorted. “That’s an easy one, Doctor; he was trying to escape his past.

Angel rounded on her. “Or trying to embrace a new future perhaps?”

She must have felt all of their eyes are on her.

“That’s my theory.” She shrugged. “I don’t believe that he was escaping Hugh…he is embracing Louis, whoever that person may have been.”

“I would love to catch him and ask him that question, Doctor.” Sheridan said.

“But the problem about why we are here comes down to answering two questions?”

Angel asked them for him. “Did Keaton set either of these models up for us to find and just importantly why did he do it?”

Chris squatted down again. “With the notable exception of the local authorities involved, some historians, and a few hard core nutcases out there, no one knows the specifics of this case better than Keaton does.”

He felt someone…Angel was standing over him. “You’re wrong, Christopher. There is one other person alive who would know, because he’s the only living witness left to the first round of these horrible abductions.”

Now it was Sheridan’s turn to snort and he put his left hand in his pants pocket. “And he’s safely locked away down state.” Sheridan said, thanked Officer Branch for his time and testimony and dismissed him. The big man looked disappointed that he wouldn’t be allowed to hang around with the plain clothed types any longer. “I’ll vouch for the doctor on this one…and I know better than anyone what that surveillance around the Andrew Young Center told us on 411. I don’t believe Louis Keaton…or whatever we’re going to call him…I don’t believe that he’s a hardened killer.”

Blue slammed her hands down on the hips of her tight pants. “That was years ago. I was barely born yet. Who’s to say, especially under the influence and guidance of Serena Tennyson what this man is capable of now.”

Angel stepped away from Chris and towards the younger woman and fixed her with a stare that he recognized all too well. “I do know, Agent Blue. I supervised his therapy for over 90 days. I had his records in my hands. I studied and compared the notes of other physicians and therapist who treated him for his longings well before I did.” She softened her tone and decided that dressing down Agent Blue wasn’t really getting the group anywhere. “Louis Keaton is a troubled man. Both of the dolls we’ve discovered so far have a real bullet lodged into the doll’s head and the extremities roped together. I would bet my life on him of not being a direct threat to the boys lives and I don’t believe he is strong enough, courageous enough, or organized enough to build these scenes.”

“Are you prepared to gamble the life of these boys…and potentially others with your theories and conclusions, Doctor?”

Chris watched Angel look away from Blue and her question. He wanted to help his friend but he would have called himself a liar if he hadn’t said that he was thinking along the same lines as his partner. The four of them stood in the awkward silence for a spell, sucking in the dry air, when Sheridan broke the silence at last.

“Doctor, I’ve studied your notes on Bipolar Disorder and some of the other illnesses of the like. Your opinion seems to fall out of line with most of your colleagues.”

Angel nodded.

“You’ve written that some of the symptoms of Bipolar Disorder include depression, high anxiety, eating disorders and the victim having constant…sometimes recurring nightmares.”

“I did.”

“But you stated in one of your last papers, that he was as stable as you had witnessed, even when you spoke by phone to him recently. Have you considered the possibility that Keaton has had a major relapse?”

Chris spoke up first. “I’ve thought about the possibility that he is going through even a further internal conversion.”

“I would be irresponsible for ruling anything out at this moment, of course.” Angel hugged herself and Chris could tell that her leg was tiring. “I believe the Hugh persona capable of staging all of this. Agent Sheridan you’re right, most people in my field disagree with me on Keaton’s specifics. Look, the last time I saw him, I treated him as if he were suffering from Dissocialized Identity Disorder. If he were my patient right and now I would continue treating him for the same thing. That’s why I believe that he’s fully reverted back into his Louis persona.”

Sheridan frowned. “Louis?”

Chris knew that Angel was comfortable in her element here. And he could safely assume that she either couldn’t or didn’t get tore up the night before…and that added to her sharpness.

“It would be easier for you to understand and for me to explain if we back up a step or two.” Angel explained patiently like any good teacher would talk to her students. “Agent Sheridan, where I disagree with the other professionals along certain psychological levels is this: DID in theory is a clash between two or more distinct personalities. Each personality has its own patterns and perceptions and more importantly, its own voice. Keaton adapts and interacts within the stimuli he is given in any environment.”

“Speak English, Doctor,” Blue said with an air of inpatients. “What exactly does any of that psychobabble mean?”

“It means that you’ve pushed your FBI training away from the social sciences, Agent Blue. It also means that I believe in DID, especially in this case.” And since she had all of their attention, she added something more. “I believe that it is the number one rising social disorder or mental defect in this country.”

My God, has Denise ever suffered from something like this. He wondered if there was still time to help her. “And is it fair to say that you believe that this DID is often misdiagnosed as Bipolar Disorder?” Chris asked the question that needed to be asked right now.

“I do.” Angel’s hazel eyes sparkled, ever thankful for his support.

Sheridan said: “And Keaton? This entire equation leads back to him somehow.

“Let’s say that in the worst case scenario you’re right, Agent Sheridan. Let’s say that Serena Tennyson has turned him loose.” Angel said and stooped down where he had been before. “I’ll reiterate that in my sessions with him, I failed to reach the conclusion to whom or where this Louis persona was or where he came from. I’ll repeat that I don’t know him to be capable enough for of this type or organization that you see here. And if Serena Tennyson has mistakenly put her faith in him to serve her needs, she is walking around with a grenade with the pin pulled out.

Now it was Chris who took his turn at showing inpatients. “You told me over and over again that trying to reach this Hugh persona was the basis of all your work in Pandora.”

“It was and I tried.” Angel stood back up, but seemed smaller now. With all of the stress and the pain in your leg, how much will you drink tonight? “Hugh Keaton is the one true personality. He retreats into the Louis personality from time to time and even others, but it never last. Hugh always pushes himself back to the surface. Perhaps…perhaps Serena found an avenue, an opening that I didn’t see. She lacks my professional training, but I ‘ve never met anyone more ruthless in the pursuit of her agenda.”

Sheridan said, “She was involved in these therapy sessions with you?””

Angel looked Sheridan directly in his eyes. “Serena knows everything that I do.” She made her voice gruff. “And she’s had more time to steer him towards whatever methodology that she’s chosen.”

“Great,” Blue said.

Sheridan cocked a bushy brow. “Dr. Hicks-Dupree, in your expert medical opinion, are these two boys lives in immediate danger or not? How much time do we actually have to find them?”

Angel shrugged. “That depends on a lot of variables that I can’t account for, sir. I don’t know how much leverage Serena has gained over him. I’m unaware to how much self-control Hugh has learned since I last saw him. He may possess the power to switch back and forward from personality to personality by now. That ability would make him nearly invulnerable from capture.”

Chris made the rounds measuring his coworker’s faces after the punch of Angel’s last statement landed. Sheridan’s blank glare was only broken when his cell rang…and he waved a silent goodbye to the party. Blue trailed off to more comfortable surroundings and conversations by moving to conduct a second interview with one of Officer Branch’s witnesses in the only way that Tabitha Blue knew how.

With the scene clearing, Special Agent Christopher Prince resumed his inspection of the scene from his squatted position, getting as close to the data as the space allowed.

An image of a dead Erica…and then one of his 12 year old self flashed one after the other, but with some concentration he chased both of them away. He’d had his own therapy sessions over the years. He could recite those damned steps in the breathing techniques almost verbatim.

“They’ll be more kidnappings.” He said more to himself than he did to Angel. “One of these two boys will be set up as his general. He’ll be responsible for watching over the other captives. He’ll be used to help keep the other boys in line. Keaton will need him to help keep them all safe.”

He felt both Angel’s hands on his shoulder. It was her turn to support him. “Hopefully, one of them will be as strong as you were in their role as the general. None of them will survive the coming days without his courage.”

“I know that.”

“Well know this as well, Christopher: I’m sure that you, the FBI, and everyone else in the free world are convinced that Keaton is responsible for these probable abductions—“

“As he was responsible for the majority of kidnappings during what became known as the Atlanta Child Murders 30 years ago.”

“Alright,” She said as Chris stood and turned to face her at last. “Then let’s satisfy all of our theories so that we both can move forward. I know a way we can do just that. But I’m sure you’re not going to like it.”

“These boy’s lives are on the line, Angel.” He said. “It doesn’t mean one hell of a lot what I don’t like right now?”

“I only pray that if Keaton is doing this, that he will behave and keep his hands to himself over the next 24 hours while we’re gone.”

“Gone,” Chris asked. “What exactly are you suggesting?”

“You’re boss said that the only other one who would know this terrain and detail was safely locked up down state. I think it’s time for you and I get the unique perspective of the man serving time for many of the Atlanta Child Murders. I think we should pay him a visit.”

“Muhammad Clark.” Chris heard the disdain and defeat in his own voice. “You’re right, Doc. I don’t like your idea one bit.”

They needed a fresh prospective of the only other pedophile that had come close to accomplishing what Louis Keaton has accomplished. Angel was right.

And Special Agent Christopher Prince knew it.

Louis

Undisclosed Location, 13th Day

 

Mathew Clifton had tried to kill himself.

Louis had tried to warn Serena’s Agents watching them the boy was growing more distant. He attempted it while the idiots stood outside of the bathroom while he supposedly bathed.

The relationship, if it could be called that, between Louis and the guards had been dissolving ever since they arrived at the sanctuary. It was especially bad when the leader of Pandora herself wasn’t around. They called him all kind of names and made crude gestures at him.

The bathroom and the shower areas were one of many places where the close circuit cameras were running feeds 24 hours a day. Poor Mathew tried to drown himself in a pool of his own dirty water when Louis pushed himself through the door and pulled him to the surface of the tub. No matter, Hugh reminded him. The Dragon Woman will blame us for this. And then the other’s voice in his head became almost a whisper as if outsiders could truly hear him at all. Take the boys and go. Louis refused to listen to voice…he had little choice in hearing him, but listening and doing were different matters all together.

Anyway, Moses and Mathew were safer here. And he had more work to do for both Serena and—

These boys are ours. The Dragon Woman will not claim them as the Caretaker claimed our last feast.

Louis instructed the guards to bring Moses to his room. Louis’ room was square shaped windowless chamber with a single king sized bed. It was camera less, or so Louis theorized. He tested that idea last night when he masturbated time and again to see if the guards would add a new name to the list they already referred him by. They had not. Serena knew for him to be truly effective when the time for him…to show his passion for the boys, he would need at least a small essence of privacy.

Moses set as far away from Louis as could manage on the bed. But it wasn’t because of the distance that the boy appeared small. Moses had refused to eat anything offered to him so far. He was losing weight rapidly and some of the color was draining out of his face. Louis thought he was the ghostly mirrored image of the way his mother would look after one of his sessions with Uncle Templeton so long ago.

“Moses,” Louis sat on the floor to try to make the boy feel more secure. “May I have a few minutes of your time?”

Moses shook his head violently. “No…I don’t want to. Please don’t—“

Louis raised his hand for calm. “No, no it’s not that time—yet, but you can bet your bottom dollar it is coming and soon, my boy. “Don’t be afraid, son, I only want to talk to you. I need a favor from you. Will you help me out?”

Perhaps his tone or his words had won out because he seemed to have piqued the boy’s interest enough for Moses to look at him at least.

“What do you want from me?”

Louis slid across the floor to meet the child on the other side. “I’m sure you’ve heard what happened to Mathew the other day. I’m sure he talked to you about it.”

Moses nodded.

Louis glanced around the room…at his sanctuary. “My work here is far from finished.” He turned his full gaze and his magnificent blue eyes on Moses. “I’m soon to bring more boys here for you and Mathew to play with. I’ll be here as often as I can. Those mean guards will be here in shifts, but they will watch us 24 hours a day.”

Moses nodded some more.

“I need someone to look over our friends that are still to come. I want you to help me keep them safe from harm. I don’t want anything to happen to them…or you. Mathew could have died in that bathtub. And those stupid guards are just imbeciles carrying guns with those same weapons as their only solution for solving problems.”

“I’ve seen them. I’ve seen those guns you’re talking about.”

“They can’t be trusted.” Louis shook his head gravely. “I’m going to appoint you to be in charge of the other boys…the troops when I’m away. I’m looking for a man to be my strong right hand, my general.”

“I don’t know how.”

“You’ll learn, Moses. You’ll learn what to say them and when you should say it. You’ll know how to lead them—“

“Lead them where?”

Louis reached up and ran his fingers across through the boy’s close cropped hair on his head. It was intoxicating.

You are so ours, my boy. I can almost taste you already.

Louis shrugged off Hugh. “Darkness is coming to this sanctuary…to this compound like nothing you or I have ever seen. I’ll need you to lead the troops. Where you go they are most certain to follow.”

“How am I supposed—“

“How are you supposed to know?” Louis asked the question for young Moses. You just will. You are smarter than you know, Moses. You’re stronger than you’ll ever believe.”

Moses slid up the bed and away from Louis and started crying. “I just want to be left alone. I just want to go home to my family.”

So do we. “Like I said, Moses, I’ll be drafting others. They’ll soon be joining us.”

“I don’t want—“

“Listen,” Louis said in an elevated voice. Moses tears had rattled a nerve. “I need your full cooperation, Moses. I cannot accept a refusal. There is no time left for you to say no. Can’t you see…can’t you see that I won’t be able to fight him off much longer?”

“Fight off whom, what are you talking about?”

Louis abruptly got to his feet, smoothed out his jeans, and walked towards the only entrance/exit of the chamber. He turned back to Moses. “These children will cry for their mothers and that’s ok. They’ll be afraid of course, all new recruits are scared at first—“

Moses said, “I’m afraid too. How can I help them if I’m scared also?”

Louis turned to leave him there, but peeked over his left shoulder at him. “It’s ok if they cry sometimes.” He said as if Moses hadn’t spoken his last words. “There are some things we mustn’t allow: There must be no further suicide attempts. You know that suicide is a sin after all. More importantly, Moses is that your brothers in arms must not attempt to escape this place. If you do get outside of this compound nothing but death awaits you, I can promise you that.”

Just as Louis opened to the door to the rest of the compound he heard Moses Stand up.

“Why should they listen to me? I’m just a kid like they are.”

Louis made himself smaller by placing his hands on his knees. “Because you are the chosen one…my chosen one, you are my General and my right hand. They’ll see how much I lean on you. And they’ll begin to trust you as you begin to trust me; just like they trusted Christopher Prince before

“Why should I do this?”

“I’ll give you my word that if you do cooperate…that I will never touch you.” What…what kind of fucking deal is that? You’ll be spared what I have in store for the others.” Louis held up his fingers like a boy scout.

Moses looked doubtful. “I don’t know that you were ever a scout.”

Louis couldn’t help but to laugh. “You don’t actually. That is a fair point.” He wiped spittle from his lip. “You only have my word, Moses, man to man. We can’t fail here. Failure is not an option from this point forward. The cost to so many would be astronomical.”

Moses nodded and Louis knew he had his general at last. “I understand what the word failure means. My nana has apologized to me and my brother and sister more than once. She said that she was a failure for how she raised my mamma. My nana told me that we children were paying a high price everyday of our lives.”

And your nana’s failures and your mother’s drug addiction led you directly into our arms. Her failure may lead you to your death.

Louis tried to tune out Hugh while he listened to this special child that he had chosen so very well. It broke his heart to hear the little man speak like this. He called for the guards to escort him back to the holding area with Mathew. When they were out of site at last he turned around—

And found Serena Tennyson standing not five feet from his position.

He tried to mask the fact that she startled him, but the blotch of urine surely showing on his jeans surely betrayed that fact by now.

She said, “And who will pay the price for my failures I wonder?”

We told you that the Dragon Woman spies on us. She doesn’t trust us for one minute. We say that we should kill her…right now. We should kill the Dragon Woman and be done with it.

“Serena,” He said aloud in a sheepish tone. “You look well and refreshed. I’m glad that you joined us. Say hello to Moses Jackson.”

Serena spoke to the boy without smiling. “He’s your general.” She waved her hand at the guards just the opposite side of the room from her for them to take the boy back to the holding area.

“How are you today?” She asked when Moses was gone.

“I’m fine.” He lied and looked to steer any conversation away from his mental state. “I’ve chosen each of these children specifically. I did this on my own. Shouldn’t I be allowed to speak to speak to them every now and then without disruption?”

Serena smoothed out the pants leg of her suit, sat down, and crossed one leg over the other. “Of course you should communicate with them. I certainly don’t have a problem with that.” And although she oversaw the construction of this compound she seemed to pay close attention to this particular chamber where Moses had vacated. “You called all of your prospects special children, but I sense something more when you speak about this Moses child.”

Louis smiled a little. “He is more than just special, Serena. He is extraordinary.”

Serena’s brown eyes borrowed into his ocean blues. “Is he as extraordinary as Christopher Prince was?”

“He is a lot like Christopher, yes.” He has said neutrally hoping the conversation would end right here.

“He served as your first general?”

“Serena, you know all of this already.” He said. She flashed him a look that said, tell me the story again.

Dr. Angel Hicks-Dupree had been more than a competent Psychologist. She probably came the closest of any of the professionals that he’d seen over the many years, who truly understood his nature. Dr. Dupree-Hicks…that rhymes with licks; But Serena Tennyson was beyond methodical in her approach to everything…and that included him. That’s we won’t truly be safe until the Dragon Woman is a corpse. Do it now, Coward. The guards won’t reach this point in time.

“Chris served my needs well, Serena. He kept those children safe…and quiet for the most part. And after what Mathew pulled yesterday…I need him to grow into this roll expeditiously.”

“Any yet, after Chris escaped you the rest of if ended poorly.” Serena stayed on subject.

Our business usually does, Dragon Woman. You’ll find out soon enough if you don’t let us alone. “It did.” And it comforted him somehow to say it aloud. “Caretaker ordered the other boys killed after Chris escaped. He was frightened that Chris would lead the authorities back to the compound, back to Pandora.”

“He could have simply moved the operation.”

“The operation was near the bottom of list of concerns. His identity was endangered.”

“You’re right, of course, Louis.” Serena got up off of the bed and ran a smooth palm across his cheek. “You’ve grown so much since then…since 411 even. I’m more confident than ever that you will persevere.” She opened the door and took her turn at exiting—

“Then my I ask why you continue to spy on me?”

“I prefer to call them ‘simple observations.” Serena replied. “You shouldn’t overly concern yourself with it or allow it to affect your work here.”

“I call it spying.”

“Call it what you will.” Serena said in a voice that was ice cold. “As long as you understand that these simple observations will continue from time to time. Caretaker was nearly a god in my eyes. But the one mistake he made was allowing you too much time and space in completing your work. He lost his entire operation over it. The match that started the fire between ours and theirs should have been struck right then. Pandora would have crushed a House in Chains 30 years ago.” Serena’s tone almost became apologetic. “I won’t repeat his mistake here. There is so much more at stake now. There is so much more than you will ever realize. I don’t want have to summon up the Whirlwind.

Louis gave up his argument…for now. “As you’ve said before, I’ve passed every test so far. And as I’ve said before, I won’t fail you.”

“You’ve succeeded on so many levels, already, Louis. Look at this place: We’ve engineered this compound based on the specifications of models and designs of your ideas. You chose the location. It’s a brilliant sanctuary.” Serena said. “You should remain undisturbed from outside forces while you continue your work here. No one will find this location.”

“That is why Moses role is so critical. The others must not attempt to escape. It’s at least ten miles in any direction towards civilization once you leave this compound. Death awaits them outside these grounds. I need them to remain safe and secluded long after your people leave us after this Whirlwind of yours takes hold. That is why Moses is so important. I don’t care what they think about me if they trust Moses, it improves their chances of survival.”

Serena smiled at him.

And just as suddenly he began to tear up before the smile faded…possibly forever. Serena flashed him a look of mild concern. He began to feel a trembling in his shoulders…and when she reached for him, he shied away from her touch. We are so weak and pathetic.

“What is it, Louis?” She asked him. “What’s wrong?”

Louis got himself together and said: “For a moment, when you smiled, your facial expression reminded me of my mother.”

“Really,” Serena’s new expression showed that she was trapped somewhere between fascination and annoyance. No woman in her 40’s, no matter how hard, wants to be compared to nearly 60 year old man’s mother. “Why do you say this?”

“It’s just a look, a facial expression.” Louis said again. “My mother loved me, Serena, of this I have no doubt, but her approval was often difficult to come by. Yet, every so often I would complete a task that pleased her.”

Serena took a step closer. She was the leader of Pandora which meant that she knew all of Louis Keaton’s dirty little secrets. If she didn’t know every detail she had to be aware of the overtures of his life.

“Louis,” She said, “Why did you mother allow her brother to molest you?”

So the Dragon Woman does not see and know all. Yet, it was a straightforward enough question. It was one that he knew that this woman and her methodical nature would bring up time and again so why not answer her now. Leave us alone, bitch. Hugh fought reliving this tale again. It was his tale for the most part after all, Louis only had a secondary role…and it came a little later.

“I don’t have a simple explanation for it. I’m sure you studied Dr. Angel Hicks-Dupree’s notes.”

“I have at that. Her notes inform me of how your situation concluded. I’ve never understood how your life evolved before that point. But this isn’t mere curiosity on my part. I want to compete all the work that all of your past doctors, including Angel, who treated you. I want to help you.”

No…you want to manipulate us into completing you bidding, you bitch.

“My mother and I were very poor. She had me when she was 15.We traveled from place to place around western Tennessee, Missouri and Arkansas never staying in one residence or place for very long. Mom was a border line alcoholic. Either the booze, or showing up late because of the boozing, or not having adequate transportation cost her job after job.” Louis was amazed at how it still broke his heart to tell this tale of yesterday. “After many struggles my mother took to shacking up with anyone who would take us in. Like I said, Serena, we were very poor. She didn’t have much to offer anyone who we lived with.”

“So your mother sold her sex to these men to keep a roof over both of your heads.” Serena looked as if she would be ill.

“Yes.”

“Go on, Louis, tell me the rest.”

Louis exhaled deeply. “A few of the men were pleasant enough. I remember that one or two of them actually treated me with some kindness. They’d take me hunting or fishing or would play baseball with me during the summer months.”

“Did any of them touch you?”

“No.” Louis said and thought that his revelation surprised her. “It wasn’t like that at all…and my mother satisfied their needs well enough.”

“What went wrong?”

“Like I’ve told you, I was treated well for the most part by all these different men.” He felt his teeth chattering. “Mom wasn’t so fortunate. Several of these men slapped her around pretty good. One man in particular was brutal to her. Every three or four days I would walk home from school and see fresh bruises on her face or arms or on her back. She was a strong woman who rarely showed emotion, even during those difficult times. But there were a couple times that I saw her emotionally break down. I would get angry enough to launch myself at these men and fight them. But I was always too little…to weak and pathetic.”

“And this Uncle of yours,” Serena wanted to get to the desert without eating the entire meal first. “What finally led you to her brother’s place?”

Louis swallowed hard. “We moved in with him just before school started when things went very badly at our previous place. My mom spent three weeks in a county hospital after our last landlord split her head open with a wrench over his dinner being burned.”

“Bless the Dragon’s flames.”

“My Uncle reluctantly took us in. Mom was so happy to be back in her childhood home of Memphis, Tennessee however. And she had learned her lessons about the boozing. She quit drinking and found a job…a good job a few weeks later. The jobsite was actually within walking distance of my Uncle’s place. Life was good for a while. I even made a friend. Up into that point, he was the most important person ever to come into my life.”

“And then,”

“My Uncle learned what Mom was making down at the factory. He kept raising the cost of our rent until he nearly broke her.” Louis said with bitterness. “Mom finally told him that she had nothing else to offer him but he disagreed. He kept gawking at me with a wide grin on his grill when he said this.”

Serena wrinkled her nose. “He asked for you as payment.”

“That’s what he told her. That’s what he demanded.”

“And your mother just…gave you to him.” Serena’s disgusted tone had returned in full glory. “She gave you up just like that.”

Waterfalls of tears fell from the ocean blues of Louis Keaton’s eyes. “Don’t you judge her.” He pointed his finger at her as he did when he learned actual children of color were in the Andrew Young Center when he detonated the bomb that took so many lives weeks ago now. He did not retract it this time however. “What other choice did she have? She was making good money, but not enough to afford the high priced housing near the plant. Her earlier boozing had cost her any chance of being issued a license to drive ever again. This job was a good one. And she was trying to save for a place of our own, but my Uncle’s pillaging of her wages spoiled that—“

“What kind of woman willingly gives her child to a pedophile?”

And so Louis grabbed Serena.

He had her throat in his grip before his conscious mind realized it. He slammed her head against the wall and heard her men enter the area locking their weapons on him. We told you your time was coming bitch. We told you. He’d made such a terrible mistake, but there was no way of backing out of this now. He’d let himself down. But more importantly, he let those two boys down…especially Moses Jackson. Right after Serena’s men disposed of him; they would kill both of those boys before his body even cooled.

Serena tried to unhand his fierce grip on her long neck and throat with one hand, while waving her men…away with the other.

“Stand down,” She somehow managed. “Everything…is…under control, isn’t it, Louis?”

Louis peered back and forward from Serena Tennyson in his grip, to the four semi-automatic weapons trained at his skull, to the room where the two boys were being secured.

He loosened his grip on her neck and said, “My mom had taken care of the two of us long enough, Serena.” He continued his story as if it had never been interrupted. “It was simply my turn is all. She could keep her job at the plant. I could stay in a school that I liked. And I could keep my special friend.”

He released Serena completely and waited on her men to kill him where he stood. Again, Serena waved them off while she coughed and struggled to catch her breath again. She seemed to get her equilibrium under her at last. Still, Louis began to countdown how many second he had left in his life. He had always heard that people saw flashes of light before they died.

Louis was seeing numbers.

“What did your mother do…while…this payment went on?” Serena said returning to full height. She straightened out her suit. “What did she do when you Uncle molested you?”

Louis Keaton’s tears fell readily now. “She made him do it when she was home. I don’t know, maybe she felt as if she could monitor it somehow. We never talked about it.” Louis paused for a long time and wiped his tears away. “But I do remember that between my uncle’s bouts of heavy breathing and grunting that I could hear my Mom’s cries that were so loud that it would often drown out my own.”

And so Louis told Serena the rest.

He told her about a boy named Louis…how the most important person he’d ever met came into his life—and just as abruptly abandoned it.

He told her about how his fear of helicopters had come.

And when he was done at last he said, “I’ve never asked anyone to cry for me.”

Serena Tennyson did not cry…though that nearly was the case. She got her cell out instead and hit the speed dial of a woman who was always dressed for death and all in black.

“Rohm,” Serena said in a commanding tone. “Pack your bags. I have a job for you to do.”

Episode 4 Past Prologue

Chapter Ten

 

My Father’s first mandate states that you and I should respect ourselves. I’ll boldly take his words one step further: I’m sure that he would want us—as Black men, to place ourselves on the highest moral pedestal. We should push ourselves beyond any expectations that society burdens us with. My brothers, we must change how we talk, we must change how we walk. We must set a new standard for our sons and the Rooster’s sons to emulate.

-Xavier Prince in a speech given at a NACCP rally in July of 2000.

Thomas

Atlanta Journal Constitution (Editor’s Suite), NW Atlanta, 14th Day

 

Bernard Lott.

The Senior Editor of the Times was a Black man who stood as tall as he was wide. He had a newly clean shaven head, sleepy eyes, a wide nose, and spoke with an authorize voice fit for command.

A toothy thin woman who Thomas thought was a one night stand in waiting ushered him into the older man’s office and shut the door as she exited. Lotto was on a conference call with what sounded like two of his beat writers, men that Thomas knew from his time here. Lotto acknowledged his presence without looking up, wrapping up his conference with his guys.

The suite was spacious and a splendid piece of architecture. It had a spectacular view of the downtown Atlanta skyline behind Lotto’s desk. Across the floor was a loveseat similar to those that Thomas knew were manufactured across the Atlantic, especially in Greece and Italy. Thomas ran his thick fingers across the armrest and his touch confirmed that it was fine Italian engineering after all.

Photos of Lotto’s meetings with former presidents, prime ministers, state governors and other heads of state lined the far wall. Thomas even saw one showcasing the two of them standing with Ernestine Johnson at some function or the other during her first term as Atlanta’s Mayor.

Thomas glared at the picture for an extra minute. If we only knew what Mayor Johnson was ahead of us then would we have even bothered to smile?

Littered on his desk were pictures of Lotto’s grown children when they were much younger. Thomas made a mental note when he noticed that the picture of the man’s wife of thirty some odd years was absent from where it stood before. Thomas knew from experience that it probably meant that Lotto’s fidelity issues were flaring up once more. The room stank of cigar smoke which meant that Lotto wasn’t playing by those rules again either.

Lotto hit the button ending his call. The Editor and Chief approached him. Thomas grinned, extended his hand…but his former boss would have nothing to do with such a bland formality and bear hugged him instead. Lotto held him close until he got an up close and personal look at Thomas shiner.

“What in the hell happened to you, Tommy?” Lotto asked. He offered Thomas the chair nearest his desk and sat back down in his own recliner. Lotto deactivated the alarm for the window from a button underneath his desk and while still seated, manually opened it behind him. Two minutes later he got his cigar going the way he wanted to.

“Nothing,” Thomas lied to his friend. “And everything. How are you, Lotto? You called me remember. It was an important enough issue for you not to leave this to one of your assistants but to make the call yourself. Why did you ask for me to come down here?”

“You know it’s always good to see you, Tommy.” He said, and eased back into the recliner. He took two puffs of his cigar. “Now, which one was it? I just have to know?”

Thomas grinned again.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about, Ernest.”

Lotto pointed the ash end of the cigar at Thomas eye. “Which one of those estranged husband’s finally nailed your ass.”

Thomas laughed out loud.

Lotto said, “Come one, Tommy. I’ve got a 100 bucks riding on this.”

“You’ve got it all wrong. It’s not like that at all.” Thomas replied.

And it wasn’t.

Thomas had just exited the city’s largest public library after doing some extended research on Microfiche about Pandora’s origins dating back to the 1980’s. Thomas hadn’t trusted using his computer or doing much else in his townhome since Serena’s impromptu visit. He had three different highly capable organizations in the FBI, A House in Chains and Pandora who were probably tapping into his private affairs. It was enough to make even him nervous.

And now he had the incident outside the library to add to his paranoia.

Thomas had noticed a white man, who needed a new suit, trailing his footsteps and stopped to confront him on the reason why before he reached the more secluded and dark areas of the parking garage. The man was half way lit up on…something…and told Thomas that he thought it was real fucked up that he’d betray his own people for the likes of them. Thomas calmly explained that he was doing his job. He was going to gather in the facts. And let those facts decide—that’s when the man got in his face and looked to dip his hand into his coat pocket to grab something.

Thomas punched him first. His opponent got in a couple of jabs in, but Thomas used his superior size, strength, stamina, and boxing experience to wear the culprit down. The street looked empty afterwards. Thomas was sure that he’d broken the man’s nose as he saw there was blood racing from it and his mouth as well.

“Tommy?” Lotto had been trying to extend a cup of coffee to him for how long? “Do you want this or not?”

“Yea,” Thomas said, trying to swim up the current back into the present. “And which of these husbands did you bet on finding out about me and his wife?”

Lotto took another long puff off of his cigar and let the thick smoke filter out of his nose. “Telling you would spoil most of the fun. And don’t you dare look at me like that. You should know better than to take it personal, Tommy.” Lotto said. “You know that I’m all about two things: Business and winning.”

“Business, huh, well, it’s good to know that no matter how much the Earth may spinoff of its axis from time to time that some things don’t change, especially here at the Times.” Thomas sat up straight and put his shoes flat on the hard wood floor as if he were bracing himself. “What’s this about, Ernest?”

Lotto punched the ash end of his cigar out in this ashtray which Thomas always took as a sign that the man was ready for business. “Don’t play coy with me, Tommy, You know what I want.”

Thomas nodded. “Ok, so let’s say that I do. You know that I can’t do it even if I wanted to. I can’t discuss any of it on any official level.”

“Of course you can’t, Tommy Boy…but you’ll do it anyway. Lotto pulled what looked to be a two page document out of his brief case and slid it over to his side of the desk. Thomas glanced over the letterhead briefly. “After I hung up with you yesterday, I cleared this with the publisher and now know that I can offer you this proposal.”

Thomas scanned the finer points of the context including an impressive six figure compensation with his name typed at the bottom. The document only needed his signature next to his printed name for it to be complete. He slid it back to his former employer, never taking his fingers off until it until it reached him.

“Sorry,” Thomas said. “That’s a no go, Lotto. And before you start…it’s not about the money. That’s more than a fair offer and I thank you for it. But it’s a no go. And I don’t want to hear anything else about it.”

Ernest Lott got to his feet. “Oh, you’ll hear me out, Tommy Boy, and you’ll like what I’m telling you.”

Thomas rose with his friend and put his hands in his pockets. “Right,” He said. “Next, you’ll have me believe that Ernest Lott, super editor, will stoop to the level of indignity of what is known as begging me.”

“I was hoping you would save me that much trouble, but what the hell?” Lotto planted his elbows on the desk and assumed a praying pose that Thomas would have thought priceless if it were at all genuine. “Alright, Tommy, I am officially begging you.”

“Save it, Lotto.” Thomas smiled and sat back down and waited on his friend and mentor to do the same. Thomas spread his hands wide. “I am doing an investigation for our former Mayor. A woman that this paper…and you endorsed in her campaign for that office twice; I’m going to present my findings from this investigation soon. You know that I can’t ally myself with any media outlet of any type if I’m to retain the slightest chance in hell of neutrality on this one.” Thomas stopped for breath and to measure how his friend was taking in all of this. “You are the Senior Editor in Chief of a newspaper that has been traditionally classified as a liberal publication.”

Lotto sat up straight and put his own thick finger index finger in front of his lips. “You know using the term liberal is forbidden if not taboo terminology in this building, Tommy Boy.” He sat back then, resting his hands behind his bald head. “I thought I taught you better than that. You apparently laminated all those notes about journalistic integrity and that other bullshit, but forgot all about loyalty.”

Thomas’ gaze turned serious. “I haven’t forgotten what you and this paper did for my career.”

Lotto snorted. “You could have fooled me. It wasn’t easy for a lowly junior editor working in Chicago to convince his bosses to give a snotty nose kid fresh out of a small, irrelevant, area state college a shot at the big time. You began writing for one of the largest distributed daily papers in the country.”

Thomas smiled at the memory of days long gone by. “I’ve told you time and time again, Lotto, that wasn’t snot in my nose. I was living on chicken soup back in those days.”

“Maybe, but I wasn’t finished yet,” Lotto snapped his finger, remembering another detail. “And then many years later, I also gave the first rousing review for an unauthorized biography of Cathy Hooks that most papers called slightly bloated, if now well overwritten.”

“And may I remind you that the bloated and overwritten biography won a Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction that year.” Thomas straightened his tie for emphasis. “And its author gave his first interview to the paper you were editing when the book hit number one of the New York Times Bestseller List.”

Lotto looked wounded. “I thought our relationship had grown well beyond reciting what we’ve done for one another, Tommy Boy.” And then a grin formed on his face. “You continue to disappoint me, Thomas. I guess I have no one else to blame but myself. I had such high hopes for you.”

“Join the crowd. But then good judgment never has been my strong suit has it?”

“That interview Beverly Hooks, Cathy’s daughter was one of the few. How is the old girl?”

She wasn’t well and Thomas told his friend with a degree of sadness. Beverly’s oldest son had put his mother into a nursing home after a year of complications from Alzheimer’s made it impossible for him and his wife to care for her any longer. Thomas thought it was remarkable that a woman who had such a remarkably sharp memory could lose it all in such a short span of time. She was Thomas main source for the biography about her mother Cathy—a survivor of the Atlanta riots of 1906. Cathy had disobeyed her father’s instructions to stay in the house when an assembly of white men took her father away when they came looking for some Black Man…any Black man to lynch for the rape and murder of a couple of white women in the alley behind an after-hours establishment. Cathy had tracked them down as they readied her father for his lynching and hanging. Beverly had told Thomas that the leader of the mob was a White man that she’d seen hanging around with her dad on numerous occasions as they drink and whored together.

The old White man had told Cathy’s father that she had one—and only one chance to leave there before she risked being raped and murdered herself. Tearfully, Cathy’s father kissed his devoted daughter on her forehead and pleaded with her to run away. He told her to run away and not look back. Cathy looked into her father’s eyes for a few seconds more with a waterfall of tears in her eyes and did as her father beckoned.

She did not look back.

“Thomas,” Lotto had said when the old tale had told itself out. It was time to get on with the here and the now “Look, what happened down at your townhouse…and then at the FBI field office, seriously. Are you alright?”

Thomas felt a warmness flow through his shoulder blades. He was reminded why he appreciated this man’s friendship. “Yea, thanks. I’m going to get through this someway or the other. If Cathy Hooks can stare down a racist mob and live to see another day then I can see this through to its end without looking back as well.”

“I know that you will.”

“Well, in case I don’t, you can help me help you.”

“You’re not making any sense, Tommy Boy.”

Thomas Pepper gave the Senior Editor’s office a hard once over and then lowered his voice. “I told you that I won’t share what I know with you in any official capacity. But I will tell you what I know unofficially. These are serious people that I’m dealing with across the aisle…across all these aisles.”

“Tommy Boy, you sound a little scared.”

“I am scared, Lotto. If I wasn’t…then being questioned by the FBI before and after Serena’s escape and seeing on television what Xavier Prince and a House in Chains did at Carver instilled a little fear in me.”

“Alright, Thomas, if you need me to be confidential, then I will be. What do you have?”

Thomas reached into his jacket and slid his own two page document at the other man. “I’m sorry, Lotto. Even your word is not good enough considering what I know and the ramifications of it being leaked before I’m ready to talk.”

Ernest Lott yanked an expensive fountain pen from his shirt pocket, scanned the papers briefly…and scribbled his name next to the printed version at the bottom of the page.

“I’m giving this paper…and you to right disclose this information if I am somehow incapacitated before I’m ready to take this public.” Thomas said.

“I’m the Senior Editor here, Thomas.” Ernest Lott said with some heat. Thomas knew the man was upset about having to sign a contract. But Thomas needed the extra protection against Lotto running this story in the Times. He knew his old mentor wouldn’t like it, but he knew that he would sign the document just as he did. He also knew that he would get over it…in due time. “I can read. Now talk to me.”

Thomas had gained an anonymous source. He (or she) had contacted him on his cell shortly before Thomas had his second interview with Special Agents Christopher Prince and Tabitha Blue at the field office just prior to Serena’s escape during Deliverance. The voice was disguised electronically. It said: The world wrongly believes that Adolphus Sweet was killed by a sniper’s bullet.

Thomas remembered the man had been campaigning for a second term near in Houston when he went down from a sniper’s bullet as he left the Toyota Center. The president did not die that day…he was already dead before that bullet struck him. The assignation attempt only expedited the process of the guilty party going through what they had been planning to do all along.

Ernest Lott sat back in his recliner again and let out a low whistle. “Ernestine asked you to find the questions to the three questions that every Man of Color…what most people in this country wants to know: Who killed President Adolphus Sweet, who is the Caretaker, and what is the Whirlwind?

Thomas nodded but looked away.

“So what did the ‘source’ tell you the real reason behind President Sweet’s death?”

“He was poisoned…just like Ernestine Johnson was.” The poison sat inactive inside of his system for weeks. The responsible party only activated it after Sweet was shot.

“Do you believe this source, Thomas?”

Thomas shook his head…and then nodded. “I didn’t, not at first. But I went back and looked at the footage. You know that the conspiracy theorist were all over this anyway. The official report said the bullet punched in through the president’s side, but the conspiracy theories state that he was either hit in the thigh or not at all. Most men don’t die from bullet wounds to the hip…especially in the hours afterwards that it took the Vice President to make the public announcement that Sweet had indeed been killed.”

“Alright, Thomas, let’s say that I’m going to side with you and your informant on that front. What about evidence about the presence of a foreign toxin in Sweet’s system?”

“The whole world saw part of the evidence…and saw none of it when his funeral aired on national television days later—“

“We saw none of it because his casket was closed.”

Thomas nodded, happy that his friend had caught on to his logic so quickly. “That fact alone had fed the conspiracy theorist that horrible day. They were stating that Adolphus Sweet wasn’t even in the casket at all. I believe that he was, but he had suffered through and had been scarred by what I’d watched Mayor Johnson go through at her estate.”

“What else?”

“I called the Director of the Center for Disease Control here in Atlanta which you and I both know is the first line of defense for this country in any war against any disease.”

“And what did he say?”

“He said,” Thomas paused for a very long time and a cold shiver had replaced the earlier warm one that he’d experienced for the man sitting across him. “He said no comment.”

Ernest Lott shot out of his seat like a missile. The senior of the two men scratched the back of his shaven head and had to use his desk for support. The old newspaper man suspected what Thomas Pepper had suspected. “You can’t make a ‘no comment’ on something you don’t know about. By saying what he did, the man is admitting that President Adolphus Sweet was indeed poisoned by some foreign agent and that his office new about it.”

“That means the Vice President knew about it as well. If I’ve read this correctly in my research then only a handful of people in the entire world would know about this: The Vice President and the Head of the Center for Disease Control in the United States are two, as well as the head of the CIA and the head of the FBI. So far, Deputy Director Rice’s people aren’t acknowledging my phone calls. It’s not about calling back…they aren’t acknowledging that I’m calling at all.”

Lotto rubbed at his jaw as if he himself had been punched and not Thomas. He got up and closed the blinds of the windows in his office. “I’ll get back to Sweet in a moment. Did this source tell you anything else, Thomas? Did you learn who this Caretaker character is or was? What about this so called Whirlwind?”

I will only disclose to you who the Caretaker is only if I feel the Whirlwind is imminent. The first answer leads directly to the latter.

Lotto sat back down and asked,” I can only guess that this source is or was a Pandora Agent?”

“That’s what he told me.”

“Then why come to you—“

“Because he feels betrayed somehow; I don’t know how and I don’t know by whom.” Thomas took a deep breath; the telling of this tale had taken a lot out of him.” Thomas cell phone was on mute but the light lit up with a brand new text message.

“Anyone woman I know?” Lotto watched him reach into his pants pocket.

I need to see you, Thomas. The message said but oddly had not provided a sender. Yet, somewhere in his marrow Thomas Pepper knew who had sent him the text. Serena Tennyson. He hoped his intuition was just a theory and told Lotto the same in a voice he had reserved for delivering tales of disbelief.

Lotto laughed heartily enough to move a mountain. “Serena Tennyson texting you on your phone… don’t you Goddamn wish?”

A second later Lotto’s office buzzer sounded off. He politely, but sternly reminded his receptionist that he’d asked not to be disturbed unless a race war had broken out in the streets of Atlanta. She apologized, but hung on the line. Her lone response to her boss was that he really wanted to take this call.

Thomas asked, “Any woman I know?”

Lotto frowned at his younger friend but did not comment. Thomas could see him working his brain cells for remembrance of any potential appointment that he could have missed. He cursed aloud in recollection, apologized to the receptionist for his language and then instructed her to put the call through.

“It is some woman you know, actually.” He made sure the line was clear of his receptionist probing ears. “This is someone that you would know better than anyone who works in this building actually.” He said. “I have the best writer of prose that I have ever had the privilege of editing sitting before me. And yet a younger woman that I’m getting to know as well could possibly top your work, if only she would dedicate herself to it. I have little doubt that she could rival your success, Tommy Boy.”

“Bernard Lott,” Thomas frowned in anticipation of knowing who the other man was speaking of. “Tell me you didn’t—“

“Oh, yes, I did.” He said with a grin. “I anticipated you turning down my offer and prepared a preemptive strike to counter it. Sorry, Tommy Boy, remember what I said when I told you that I’m all about business and winning.” The phone in front of him beeped and Lott picked up and turned the line on its conference setting as it was positioned when Thomas Pepper first walked in this suite. “Hi Lucy,” Lotto said with his eyes burning through Thomas as his own comfort level went down a notch or two. “Say hello to Thomas.”

“Hello, Ernest how are you,” Lucy said in her South African accident and Thomas could imagine her flashing her overbite as she smiled. “Thomas, I didn’t expect to talk to you today darling, what a pleasant surprise.”

“Lucy,”

She continued. “Alright, Bernard, enough with the messages already, you know that I’ve been busy. And you should already know that I want this assignment…under certain conditions, of course.”

“Conditions,” Lotto’s bushy brow raised his master plan somewhat in jeopardy. “What conditions are you speaking of?”

“Calm yourself, Bernard, my conditions for taking this assignment are pretty simple and straight forward enough.” Lucy replied. The background noise made it sound as if she were driving on the expressway. Thomas hoped she was using her hands free device. “I want total control of the subject matter, darling. We are already in agreement about the material, but I want to drive home some other concepts you may not have considered. What you have pitched is a wonderful idea under normal circumstances, but considering what our story is up against in Thomas’ announcement about his findings causes us to have to dig deeper if we are even to compete for page two.”

Lotto looked hopeful again. “I’ll take all of that to say that you’ve uncovered something worthwhile?”

Thomas felt the buzz of his cell before Lucy answered Lotto’s question.

“Wrap up your conversation with Lott and me at the Children’s Healthcare Center of Atlanta. It was a twenty minute walk from the Times, ten minutes if he hurried. And he felt cold again as a second more ominous thought fought past the urgency of the first. She’s knows where you are. Pandora is having you followed…or worse you have some type of tracking device on your person or your car. Let’s test that theory by walking down there instead of driving the Jaguar.

Lucy was saying, “Sorry, darling, I had to dig in my wallet to get a couple of dollars out to pay the toll. What I was going to say is that I don’t have anything concrete enough to go with it yet. I am close however. And you know how I get when I want something bad enough…”

Thomas wasn’t sure her reference was for Lotto or his ears. Her boss said, “Double your efforts, Lucy. I’ve already purchased time with the local superstation. I want your report to air the same day as Thomas airs his. I’ll speak to you again later, Lucy. Good hunting.”

“You bet your ass you will, Ernest,” Lucy said. “Goodbye, Thomas. I’m still waiting on you to consider the offer I made to you back at the Mayor’s estate. Remember, together, we will live forever. ” She said and hung up before he had a chance to answer.

Thomas beat his former boss to the question line. “What was all that about?”

“Don’t look surprised,” Lotto said and lit his cigar again. “I won’t play second fiddle to anyone in this city, Tommy Boy, not even to the likes of you. After you present your findings on Pandora, Lucy will hold a press conference shedding some light on one of the other key players in this game.”

“Bernard Lott, tell me that you wouldn’t have this woman fabricate a story to sell newspapers. I hope I know you better than that.”

Lotto stood again so he could dramatize holding his hand of his heart all the better. “You wound me, Tommy Boy…you wound me.” And then he leaned over his desk so Thomas would not mistake what he heard from an old newspaper editor in chief himself. “Besides, the truth can be far more devastating and more importantly to me…newsworthy than any lie. I’ll let you in on something, Thomas, and I won’t make you sign anything to hear it.” After Thomas exhaled in exasperation, Lotto said, “I’ve received several tips that someone directly involved has not been forthcoming with his background. I hear that this has something to do with directly why we are all involved in this crisis in the first place. Lucy’s tying up some loose ends right now as we speak. I believe this information to be relevant. I believe that it is pertinent. I believe that the public has the right to know. I’m going with it. And you would be too if you were sitting in my chair instead of the one you’re perched in.”

This time it was the sound of defeat exhaling through Thomas’ nostrils. “Who has Lucy been assigned to do this expose on?” Thomas said. “Whose life is she going to destroy for the sake of increased revenue from advertising ads?”

“None of it won’t be necessary, Thomas, if you’ll tear up this.” Lotto pushed the contract that he’d signed a few minutes ago, back towards Thomas. The younger man simply shook his head. The older woman laid his head back in recliner and puffed triumphantly on his cigar. The smoke making rings around his clean shaven head. Lotto was already counting this year’s bonus…which wouldn’t fall to far underneath the dollar figure he’d offered Thomas twenty minutes ago.

“The expose will feature the life and times of…Special Agent Christopher Prince, “The Senior Editor of the Atlanta Times said. “I think you’ve already met his acquaintance.”

Xavier

1224 Red Wine Road, 14th Day

 

Two members of the Circle sat in Moses Jackson home.

Xavier Prince heard Warren Washington say, “On behalf of Xavier Prince, myself, and the entire House in Chains extended family, I assure you Ms. Jackson, your son Moses, will be found.

It was a bold proclamation. But it was not unlike any Xavier Prince had taught his people to say. I wonder if Roxanne Sanchez made a similar vow to you, Chris and Denise before she went off and found my niece…very dead. Grace Edwards had told him this as well two days before. And for a minute he wondered if the liberation of Carver had anything to do with Erica’s demise. Grace assured him otherwise. The condition the young woman’s body had been found it told examiners that it had been in that dumpster for a week or more. And she wasn’t on the Peacekeeper’s list.

“Uh-huh,” Tracy Jackson mumbled more than said something aloud. She had greeted the two men sitting in her living room and a half dozen more Peacekeepers with a cut off shirt barely hiding her breast and tight jeans. “Marlon, Manning, one of you two get your mamma a beer.”

The two boys, no older than nine and ten years old, argued about who was going to the refrigerator this time, until Xavier heard the larger pair of dirty sneakers angling towards the kitchen. Tracy fished a broken Newport out of her breast pocket and turned her focus to the two members of the Circle who sat across the coffee table from her.

“Either of you fancy brothers got a light?”

Warren fumbled around in his pockets while Xavier leaned over the table with his lighter, Tracy meaning to greet him half way.

“Tracy,” Felicia, Moses maternal grandmother warned her only daughter. Felicia Jackson was trapped inside of a mostly broken down body but her mind was still sharp…and her tongue had proven sharper since they’d all sat down. “You know you don’t smoke in this house or any other where your children are present. Mr. Prince please put your lighter away, it won’t be needed.”

Tracy’s quivering hands caused the cigarette to drop to the floor. She got a mix of a sense of urgency and agitation on her dark face. “Wait just a damned minute,” She said. “I don’t have to remind you again whose house this is now right, Mamma?”

“Of course not, dear,” Felicia Jackson smiled in spite of her child’s disrespectful tone. “More importantly, I don’t have to remind you that these are your children. And you do not smoke around them, especially your youngest who has asthma anyway.”

Tracy decided to give up the fight for another day, circled the long way around the coffees table away from where her mother was seated, and snatched the cigarette and Xavier’s lighter in one motion.

“I’ll bring this back.”

Xavier saw a cloud of blue smoke rise above the younger woman’s shoulder before the screened door slammed shut. Xavier hoped she would keep her word because he didn’t have a spare lighter on him. He stuck a toothpick in his mouth. Warren shifted his gray eyes, focusing his attention on Tracy’s mother. He cleared his throat.

“As I was saying, we’ve set up dozens of search teams filled with volunteers who are casing the surrounding neighborhoods.”

Xavier added, “We’ve also established safe houses in most of these same neighborhoods. These residences have been equipped with flashing yellow rotating lights that will run 24 hours a day until these children are found. They also have loudspeakers that have been programmed to repeat each of the four missing boys names individually with a message telling them that it safe to enter homes. When Moses or any of the missing children show, they’ll have a safe haven and a friendly face waiting to either call us or bring them home to you themselves.”

“Friendly,” She said, her smile never wavering underneath too red of lipstick. “Mr. Prince, how many of your people died at Carver?”

Xavier shook himself out of a stupor and pushed the toothpick from one side of his mouth to the other with the sudden change of subject and the venom for which it was directed at him. She sat back on the worn loveseat, crossed her arms, and awaited his response. Warren sat with his mouth parted open and shifted his eyes back and forth between his leader and Felicia Jackson.

“There were 12 confirmed souls lost.” He said evenly. “I visited four area hospitals this morning and seven more of our people are listed anywhere from fair condition to still needing intensive care.”

She nodded as if Xavier were only confirming what she already knew as fact. “And the Choir Boy dead have risen well over 75 or 80 last I heard. There are four Carver residents among the dead as well, with countless others still admitted to those same local hospitals you speak of.”

Xavier didn’t break her gaze…or blink.

“That is correct.”

“Was it all worth it, Mr. Prince?”

Warren shifted his long frame in his seat. Xavier continued to hold his gaze. Considering the hoops we’ve had to jump with local and national authorities ever since I would almost say no. But Grace had it handled as she had everything handled. With Admiral Ronald Broward killed in the battle, another man Admiral Ronaldo Darwin, a formal marine in the armed services, fell on his sword for his House. Immediately after Carver had been liberated, he walked into the Atlanta Police Department Headquarters armed only with the black tee shirt, khakis of his Peacekeeper uniform…and an severed Usher’s head with him in a plastic bag. The head belonged to a previously 22 year old man—who was the highest ranking Usher and number three man of the Choir Boys as both The Bishop and his Deacon had escaped them. Darwin put the head on the counter and announced to the second officer who he saw what his own name was, his rank, and that he had authorized this rouge operation out of the knowledge of the Circle or Xavier Prince.

The second officer called for plenty of backup and took notes has fast as she could. She noted the tags that were attached to this…head and that the authorities would find on all of the skulls that had to be taken took down from the electric wires. Darwin, given his Miranda rights and in cuffs now, explained it all to her as slowly as he could manage. These are forms of ID. Do you people think we just go around and kill just anybody we saw? We have matched the Id’s, social security numbers, and the warrants that were out on each corpse with 100 percent accuracy.

Xavier had been told that the officers then walked Darwin to the processing area after he finished his statement, careful to step around the first officer who had greeted him…and had passed out from seeing the severed head when he sat it on the officer’s desk.

“It was,” He finally said in response to Felicia Jackson’s question to whether it was worth the lives his side had paid to take Carver back from the Choir Boys. He cleared his throat so she would hear him clearly…echoing the words that he had said in a press conference after Darwin’s confession. “The Peacekeeper’s cut through all of the bureaucracy and red tape. They alone did what local, state and national authorities failed to do: They eliminated a dangerous threat in our community who poisoned our people with despair and illegal drugs. And although their operation was without my blessing or consent, I applaud it all the same.”

Felicia nodded, though she never broke eye contact with him.

“I heard the Bishop escaped you. I also heard that he has HIV if not full blown AIDS.”

And it had been the curse of them not acting earlier. Of the 22 women and girls who had been a part of the Bishops’ harem, 20 had tested positive for HIV already. That number had been confirmed by Grace from a source she had within the Atlanta Center for Disease Control.

“He has escaped for now.” Warren squirmed in his seat again. “But his entire support system is gone. Word is that he’s been wounded. He got a slash right across the throat. And another rumor has it that the Black Knights and other local gangs are trying to kill him before we find him. They’ve seen the light of our…the Peacekeeper’s commitment to end their illegal activities by whatever hostile actions they deem necessary. The other gangs are putting the blame squarely on his shoulders. No one wants that light to shine on their doings ever again. It’s just a matter of time before Bishop’s found, just like your Moses.”

Xavier heard voices outside. The neighbors had obviously gotten wind of the Circle visiting their community and had gathered around fences and street corners and front yards for a peek at A House of Chains governing body. Percy Harrison had led one of the volunteer groups in a search for the missing boys. Grace Edwards had been outside with the Peacekeepers trying to keep the mob at bay. Xavier was worried about his Third in Command. She seemed really shaken since the news about the women being inflicted by the Bishop’s HIV, maybe she knew one of the women personally who had been infected—

“There are so many people out there.” Felicia looked past him out of the screened door.

“I apologize for the circus atmosphere, especially now, Ms. Jackson.” He looked at Warren. “Why don’t you look in on Grace…and perhaps give her a hand.”

“I’m sure she’s okay.”

“Why don’t you have a look in on her anyway?”

The two men, who couldn’t be more at the end of the height spectrum, engaged in a brief stare down that the younger man with the gray eyes seems all too happy to break. He exited the small house following Tracy’s path disgusted…and defeated.

Afterwards Xavier found himself counting to ten before saying, “Have I done or said anything to offend you, Ms. Jackson?”

Felicia smiled through her ruby red lipstick again. “That has yet to be seen, Mr. Prince.” With some effort she scooted to the edge of the loveseat avoiding springs that were sticking out along the way. “You know, I didn’t vote for Senator Lavelle in the Democratic Primaries.”

“Excuse me?”

She said, “You know, when he ran for president two years ago…but you were away in jail at that time, I’m sorry. Anyway, I didn’t really like Mr. Lavelle all that much anyway; he’s just so full of himself and arrogant. Anyway, I also didn’t feel that A House in Chains was ready for the type of responsibility it was casting on itself if Lavelle had won the White House. I don’t think you people have enough political experience. A House of Chains has become an organization full of style and preamble, but I think you lack substance…just one old woman’s opinion.”

Yes, you are an old woman full of passion and grit and intelligence. He could grow to her indeed. “It is unfortunate for my House that Lavelle couldn’t garner the support of voters like you, Ms. Jackson. He was narrowly defeated by only a few hundred votes. I respectfully disagree with you on a House in Chains political standing. We were ready to lead. We are leading. A victory for Lavelle would have been victory for all our people, especially in light of the challenges we face now.”

She continued to smile but said nothing to that.

This…discussion had been spirited but fruitless, he had thought. It was time to bet back on point for his visit to this woman’s home in the first place. “Ms. Jackson, if you have any doubts that your grandson will be found alive—“

“I don’t have any doubts whatsoever, Mr. Prince.” She scooped up a pocket sized Bible off of the coffee table. She held it firmly in her right hand for Xavier to glimpse in case he had not seen one before. “My faith rest in a much higher power than Xavier Prince or your House; and that faith also confirms that I will see Moses again, if not in this life, I will be with him again in the next.”

Xavier took his turn at squirming in his seat. He lowered his eyes to the floor and wished for a cigarette of his own. Politics was one thing, but Xavier Prince would not argue someone’s spiritualty, especially in their own home.

“Faith,” He found himself saying…it was within his realm to question his own spiritualty however. Why am I admitting any of this you? You are a stranger to me. “Sometimes I find it difficult to believe.”

She’d chastised him for everything thing else…but as he braced himself for the stern lecture he got another round of her smiles instead. “Then, Xavier Prince, I will have to believe for the both of us.” She said. She saved her chastising for Tracy’s younger boys who were running through the small house again. She let the room regain some semblance of quite again before she spoke. “Share something with me?”

“Of course,”

“Is finding these children more important for their families or for the House in Chains?”

Xavier swallowed hard. He’d lied to Ronald Broward’s widow when he told her that although her husband and father to her two children had died honorably, but had partaken in a rogue operation that he had not sanctioned. He listened as Warren stated the same fabrication just a few minutes earlier. Thomas Pepper was not the only man in this town who could utter the truth. He would do so right now.

“Both,” he admitted to her. “Getting those children back into the loving arms of their families is my first priority of course…but yes, Ms. Jackson, I need them found as well. I haven’t spoken to you about victories since I’ve been in your home. We earned one with the liberation of Carver. A House in Chains needs one over Pandora. After 411 and Deliverance…and now Rapture in its earliest stages, I need our community to see that we can stand toe to toe and blow for blow in this embattled arena with our enemies. I want People of Color to see that we can protect them from all dangers.”

Felicia’s smile remained…and it seemed to gain a little warmth to it. “You spoke about offending me earlier, Mr. Prince, I want you to know that I never find the truth offensive.”

He nodded and pulled the toothpick out of his mouth. “May I ask you a question?”

Felicia spread her arms out as far as they would reach. “The floor, as dirty as it may be, is yours.”

Xavier stole a quick gander at the screened door to make sure no one was walking it as he spoke. “Why don’t you have custody of your grandchildren? Please forgive me for saying this: Your daughter seems…unstable if not vulnerable in her role as a parent.”

“To call my Tracy anything but unstable would be a kindness that she does not deserve, Mr. Prince. She is a crack addict.” She said emphatically. “To answer your question: I did take temporary custody of my grandchildren until my health failed me over the past 18 or so months.”

“I’m sorry, Ms. Jackson.”

“No, it is I who should apologize to you. I am another in the line of mothers who have unleashed an ignorant, irresponsible, baby making fool into a Black Community already over burden with them.” She went silent for a moment, gathering herself. Xavier thought he saw tears swell in her eyes. After she collected herself she said: “No mother ever wants to believe that her child is capable of doing wrong. I’ve learned though continuous trial and error to know better.”

Xavier crossed the room to where the older woman was sitting and grabbed her wrinkled hands and gave them a gentle squeeze. If only you could have lived to see this ripe old age, Mother. Oh how I would have treasured our time together. “It pleases me to see how important family is to you, Ms. Jackson. Generations of stronger families would have eliminated the need for a House in Chains. My father believed that.”

Felicia nodded in agreement. “He did at that.” She said. “Isaac Prince was a truly great man. We all miss him.”

Xavier felt an anger rising up in his chest with a suddenness that he couldn’t explain. He let go of the old woman’s hands. “You didn’t know my father.”

“No, I didn’t know him personally, of course, but I did follow him.” Ms. Jackson twisted around in her seat for Xavier to see a chain link tattooed on the nape of her neck. “I believed in him. I believed in his mandates, I still do. And I trust my instincts when I say that your father would have found another deterrent with dealing with Carver. Did the Circle consider using the Peacekeepers to blockade the projects? After a few months the isolation would have isolated The Choir Boys and starved their ability to make money.”

“Yes, we considered many options—“

“I just find it hard to believe that your father would have approved of a full scale assault on lowly drug dealers and thugs when you have a probable conflict with Pandora hovering over the horizon.”

Xavier rose abruptly, shook Ms. Jackson’s hand and thanked her for her hospitality. He turned for the front door needing some air, not waiting on her to respond. He excused himself but not before he heard the final words she said to him before the screen door closed behind him.

These other two boys awaken nearly every night with nightmares about dying in this Whirlwind that Serena Tennyson keeps spewing about. She had said. They love their brother; they miss him…but they are more afraid for themselves than they are for him.

He stood outside and let the brushfire smell fill his lungs. He was about damned tired of people doubting his decisions and doubting his ability to get his people through this. Still, Isaac Prince’s voice said to him. Go back in there right now, son…and apologize to that woman. Remember what you told the Circle about Senator Lavelle’s brash behavior.

He opened the screened door, calmed his nerves with some considerable effort, and found Ms. Jackson in the same spot where he had found her. “You have been loyal to my father, to me and to our House. I have disrespected your home and I know he wouldn’t have approved of that.”

30 minutes later the sun had nearly retired in the western sky and had taken both all the warmth and some of Xavier’s faith with it. Worse, the stench of the burning wildfires had become almost unbearable as the smoke seemed to sit on top of this specific spot where he was standing. The crowd had dispersed somewhat because of it, but mostly, he knew, in anticipation of another night of sporadic gunfire that plagued neighborhoods like this one all over Atlanta and urban America. There were little Carvers everywhere.

Grace had found her way to the other side of the Jackson’s wooden fence.

“Hi,” She said.

“Hey.”

She updated him on what she knew about Pandora, the missing children, any and everything that he could possibly need to know. Afterwards they both allowed the silence to breath even if they struggled to.

“Thank you for your words back at Morehouse.”

Grace shook her braids and smiled. “There is no need for thanks, Xavier. I told you then…I’m telling you again now, I am here for you. I am here for our house.”

Xavier nodded. He needed a cigarette but Tracy Jackson still had his lighter. He wouldn’t insult this woman who had been so good to him by asking her for something he knew she wouldn’t be carrying on her.

Intelligence was Grace Edwards business…it was her life. He was sure that she knew his life story as well, the real reason he was so uncomfortable about building true relationships beyond physicality with women. She had to know that his father had left Chris’ mother…abandoned her, even after she was diagnosed with terminal cancer, for love and affections of his mom.

And though he had forgiven them both…until both of them were taken from him, he had never allowed himself to become emotionally attached to any woman…ever. “I don’t think I ever came to terms with relationships in general after I learned about my parent’s affair.” He said to Grace Edwards aloud as if his previous thoughts had been aloud as well. “It’s torn at everything I’ve believed in about family. My boys are my family. Chris is my family. I have no one else except this House that my father built. It is like whispers in the dark. God, I can’t believe that I still struggle to talk about this after all of these years.”

She nearly grabbed his arm, thought the better of it. Xavier lowered his head, his heart aching.

“Perhaps we shouldn’t talk about this anymore today.” She suggested instead.

“My mother broke up a marriage.” There. He had said it aloud for Grace…and the whole damned world to hear if they already didn’t know. “I loved my father. I love my brother, Chris. I loved…yes, I still I believed I loved my mother as well. I honored her memory when I took those lashes for each year she lived on this earth when James Carter desecrated my back with his whip back in school. I just don’t think I’ve been completely able to forgive her for her role in what the two of them did to a dying woman. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to trust a woman…or myself completely to remain monogamous in any relationship.”

And if I required further proof, then all I needed was to watch what Denise Prince enabled her daughter Erica Lovings almost to do to Chris when she supported her lies. He needed to see his brother’s face again. But how, what circumstance will allow the time or space for us to pull it off; I can only see an act of God allowing us to.

Grace had regained her resolve…her sense of courage. She ran a finger along his sideburns. “Trust me or not…it doesn’t really matter.” Grace said and entangled herself in his arms. She was soft and hard all at once. “You are loved nonetheless, Xavier Prince.” She said. “I love you, Xavier Prince.”

The proclamation stung him so intently that he went cold all over. He had suspected the attraction of course, perhaps even with her smaller frame, he had even desired a physical relationship…but love? He wasn’t emotionally prepared to deal with that possibility right now.

“Grace,” He said slowly. “I don’t think I can—“

She smothered him with kisses to his cheeks, jaws, and chin. It was him who drew her in. She even tried to pull back but he only kissed her harder until she had accepted his full kiss.

He’d fathered two boys and had a multitude of sexual conquest over the years, but had never experienced something this powerful…this wonderful in his entire life.

He felt warm inside.

He felt hard outside.

He felt a…buzzing…

“Sorry,” Grace said and looked at her smart phone, which had been set to silent and buzzed when they were close. “Pepper’s on the move. I have people following him but there is something that I want to see for myself.”

In an instant she’d transferred from a vulnerable woman melting in his arms to Grace Edwards, the Number Three member of the Circle who was the Chief Intelligence Officer with duty calling her.

“I’ll call you later,” She said as a way of departing.

The night turned out clear and the sky was plentiful with stars. For a moment…a small moment maybe, he felt his hope renewing. If Xavier Prince can experience what the earliest feelings of true love is, then all things are truly possible.

He laughed out loud.

Serena Tennyson herself could magically appear inside of this fence and not spoil this moment. He picked out one of his cigarettes and begins his slow, methodical, familiar routine of lighting it when he realizes…that he still doesn’t have his lighter.

Someone cast a small shadow behind him. For a minute he had hoped that Grace Edwards had changed her mind, leaving duty to someone else, but he knew that thought was ludicrous as soon as it jumped off a brain stem. Yet, he is far from alarmed not knowing who is there. The Peacekeepers had every corner within a five mile radius covered and no one would approach him without their knowledge or consent.

Even this crack head named Tracy Jackson who now stood in front of him when he turned around.

“Your lighter,” She handed it to him.

Xavier decided she was just in time. As he went to light his Newport, the flame gives him a clear look into the woman’s eyes across from him. Her pupils have fully diluted. She was perspiring heavily. She was pacing in place. Xavier knew that she was now high as a firecracker. He wanted to chastise her. He wanted to have sympathy for her. How anyone already cursed with her condition could not be more stressed, when one of her children had been kidnapped and the fact existed that he could possibly be dead…

He remembered how his own mother stressed about a child that wasn’t biologically hers when Chris disappeared without a trace over those fateful months.

Seeing Tracy Jackson at her worst causes Xavier to lose the taste for his own addiction; He handed her the remainder of his pack and gives the lighter back to her. “Keep these, Tracy.” Xavier said. “If there is anything else that I can do to help ease your pain…do you or your family need any money?”

Tracy shook her head, almost uncontrollably. “I’m not a beggar.” She said, but when she got a peek at the stash of hundred dollar bills in his possession she switched her head into the nodding mode real fast. “Yea, I could use a few bucks.” Xavier handed her two bills…and instantly regretted it. He should have given the cash to Felicia instead. “Yea, I still have two other boys left. I’m just not a beggar.”

“I know that,” Xavier smiled, but he felt his smile…all of his good feeling evaporating away as Tracy went to her knees and attempted to unzip his slacks. “Stop it, Tracy, What in the hell are you doing?” And when she gave it one more effort he pushed her head away. “I said what in the hell are you doing?”

From her knees, Tracy Jackson stopped long enough to gaze up at Xavier as if he were the one stupefied. “I said I’m not a beggar. I pay my debts. You gave me money and cigarettes and nice lighter. I’m gonna pay my debts by giving you a blow job like you’ve never had before, a damned good one.”

Xavier Prince backed away from her…all the way until he had somehow unlatched the wooden fence. He turned and four Peacekeepers hurried to match his pace getting the hell out of that neighborhood.

His special moment was ruined after all.

Thomas

Children’s Healthcare Center of Atlanta; SE Atlanta, 14th Day

 

Who in the hell is Helen Shatner? And how is she involved in this.

That was the name that Serena Tennyson had texted to him to ask for when he reached the Children’s Healthcare Center of Atlanta. An underling whose breath was of spearmint smiled and paged the woman; Five minutes later Thomas Pepper watched as the Duty Nurse, Helen Sutter greeted him. She was at least 10 years younger than he was. She was wearing her hair in ponytails. She wasn’t cute enough to wear her hair in ponytails.

“Good evening, Trisha told me that would be coming, Mr. Donovan. Would you mind following me?”

“Donovan?”

“You are Arnold Donovan, Trisha’s friend. She described you to a tee and told me you would be visiting the newborns with her tonight.”

“Ah…Trisha did that. Yes, Nurse Sutter, lead me to Trisha. I’m dying to see her again.”

One alcohol scented room over Nurse Shutter and Thomas—AKA Arnold Donovan had found himself in the baby wing of the care center.

And Serena Tennyson was standing with her forehead of the glass looking in on the newborns wearing a trench coat.

“Trisha, how have you been girl?” Serena smiled at the other woman, but before she could mouth an answer Helen said: “I found your friend up at the front desk. This is the newspaper writer that you’ve been telling me about for months aren’t it?”

Thomas said: “You two know each other on a personal level? And…Helen, do you know any of my work?”

“Of course Helen and I know each other, honey.” Serena squeezed his hand and pulled him next to her. “We know each other as much as my weekly visits to see the newborns right, Helen?”

Helen nodded her ponytails moving. “Right…Mr. Donovan, you don’t think we just let anybody back here do you?”

“And not everybody in the world knows who Arnold Donovan the famous beat writer of the Atlanta Falcons football squad is honey, I hope you don’t feel insulted?”

“Of course not…sweetheart,” Thomas replied, playing her game.

Helen, the Duty Nurse shook Thomas hand and smiled her not so cute smile at him. “It’s good to finally have met you, Arnold. Trisha talks about you all the time.”

Has she really? “That’s so sweet of you, Trisha.”

The newborns were kept behind a heavy sheet of glass. The room was lowly lit on their side in heavy contrast to this side of the glass. Two couples were near enough for Thomas to hear their muttered conversations. The room was frigid. He buttoned up his coat and was glad that he’d worn it inside this building.

He caught Serena’s reflection in the glass. She wore a shoulder length black wig and blue contact lenses to mask her appearance. Thomas noticed something else: She looked fatigued, especially the dark circles developing under her eyes. Her normally flawless posture was affected as well as she was slumped over just the slightest bit. It was something that his journalistic perceptions had aided in him in seeing.

Duty had called Helen away and she waved her goodbyes at the couple.

Thomas gave ‘Trisha’ a hard stare. “You’re putting these children’s lives in danger by being here.”

“These children are as safe as you allow them to be, Thomas. Do nothing foolish or hostile and they will be fine.”

“Me? What kind of double talk is this, Serena? You asked for me to come here remember?”

“I did, but you are the one who is being followed.” Serena stole a quick glance at the couples…and then fixed her gaze on Thomas. “I needed to see you. I wanted to see you, but I could not compromise my safety or my mission.”

“You say that I’m being followed. Who am I being followed by…the FBI? Is it a House in Chains?”

“Both.” She took a deep breath. Her phony blue eyes did not take away from her normally intense gape. “I know that you won’t believe me, but I’m glad to see that you are well.”

Thomas frowned. “You can’t seriously expect me to believe that can you?” He asked her. “I could have been killed at my townhouse, for God’s sake. You used me Serena, Goddamn you. You used me to advance Pandora’s cause.”

“I did.” She nodded. “Using you doesn’t automatically mean that I wanted to see you come to harm.” Serena glanced away. “Or does it mean that I meant harm to those that you were close to.”

“I don’t want to hear this.”

“The murder of your housekeeper was unfortunate but necessary.”

“Unfortunate,”

“Yes, unfortunate,” Serena managed her tone. “Thomas, we sit at the doorstep of an extraordinary moment in race relations in the history of this country. Every generation has had their time to step up or be trampled: The abolishment of slavery and the Civil War that came of it; The Civil Rights Movement; The election of the first Black President, Adolphus Sweet.”

“I hope that you don’t call the 411 attacks and the loss of life that it caused as part of an extraordinary event in history?”

“Much of the advancement of People of Color has come at a high price. Each passing generation has suffered less racial strife as a direct result of what has occurred to their ancestors before them. If Pandora succeeds…If I can fulfill the Caretaker’s vision, then future generations will be spared the pain of what the people of this time must see to its end.”

Thomas swallowed bile. One couple had moved on, but two others had taken their place. “I’ve gathered enough evidence to go public with the knowledge that President Sweet was not killed by a sniper’s bullet—“

“But that he was poisoned in a similar fashion to Mayor Ernestine Johnson on 411”

Thomas laughed heartily, the couples noticed him…but he knew nothing else to do. “You’re still using me, even now, Serena. Why should I believe that any of this information from this so called source of mine is real—“

“Because he is real, Thomas,” Serena gave the room a slow once over. “I turned the source on to you. When you hear from him again he will tell you that he works in biogenetics lab in Houston, Texas. He will tell you that Mayor Johnson, not President Sweet was the initial target of this poisoning. But after the president was shot his symptoms were turned on, for the lack of better terminology, to see how effective the virus actually was.”

“I don’t understand, Serena. What is going on?”

“More than you imagine, Thomas.” She said. “You’re getting the facts as fast as I can get them to you.”

“So what do you want from me now?”

“What I want, and have wanted since before 411 launched are for Xavier Prince and the Circle to surrender. I want to see a House in Chains and Pandora disbanded. I left the door open for these very happenings back at your townhouse remember? I was willing to sacrifice myself when I surrendered to the authorities?”

“Here you go with more double talk, Serena.” Thomas said through clenched teeth. He was angry. But he knew that he was putting every life in this building in danger if these strangers were alerted to who he and his blue eyed acquaintance truly were. “You had Deliverance already planned before you surrendered yourself to the FBI.”

She nodded. “Of course I did, Thomas. But the operation was not to have taken place until after the FBI took me back to Quantico in Virginia. Pandora had always prepared itself to extract me from either location. Two things happened that changed that location to Atlanta: Xavier Prince and his brood did not surrender themselves as we asked—“

“And you being nearly raped at the holding station by those two men frightened you enough that you couldn’t wait any longer.”

Serena nodded her brunette head…and looked visibly shaken.

Thomas turned his attention to the babies on the other side of the glass and couldn’t help but smile at their innocence. At last the other two couples had trailed off and he and Serena were alone. He wanted some answers. He deserved some answers.

“Are you responsible for the recent kidnappings of Black Children in this city?”

“Yes,” She admitted with little hesitation. “And answering your next question before it forms in your mouth is: Yes, we masterminded the majority of the first wave of kidnapping and subsequent killings that occurred during the first half of the 1980’s as many historians and people like you in the media have suspected.”

He felt his knees knocking…and not from the cold. Thomas Pepper, more than ever, wondered if he would live long enough to tell what he knew to the world. “This Louis Keaton,” He said. “He is the one doing these kidnappings.”

Serena nodded again. “Special Agent Christopher Prince, Nicholas Sheridan and all the others in this investigation will piece the entire puzzle together sooner or later. Perhaps they know all of the answers right now.” She admitted. “But unless they find these missing children, which I assure you they will not, it will eventually force Xavier Prince to engage in a full scale war with Pandora. That would be a move that would be very unwise on his part. This is a war that he cannot win. And I have no wish to see more bloodshed.”

Thomas continued to look through the glass. “You said that you needed to see me, Serena.” He found her reflection in the glass and confirmed the desire in her eyes. “What has happened to you since we last saw one another? I know about the attempted sexual assault…but something else is troubling you.”

“I am not the unfeeling woman you think I am, Thomas.”

“I don’t know who you are, Serena.” He faced her. “Are you the woman who would order innocent people killed and follow that with another order to have children kidnapped in the name of furthering this Caretaker’s cause? Or are you the woman who could be heard crying long hours from her cell after being nearly raped by two Black policemen who let their grief of a fallen friend overwhelm them into such a devious undertaking?”

She wrinkled her nose at what he had said.

“Oh yes, Serena, I have my sources as well.” He bit back a smile. “But you haven’t answered my question, who are you?”

Serena shrugged. “I can justify everything I’ve done so far. I’ve seen it all in the—“

“In your flames,” He interrupted her. “Everything in your world revolves around this belief system with your Dragon.”

“It would be unwise of you to mock my faith, Thomas.” Serena’s tone warned him that he would be unwise to ignore her words. “I use what I see materialize in the Dragon’s flames to guide me in every decision I make. What do you use to guide yours?”

“Truth,” He replied just as quickly. “I’m not interested in taking sides here in this cold war between Pandora and a House in Chains. I’m only interested in keeping my word to Mayor Ernestine Johnson and telling the truth about what I discover. And furthermore, I’m going to tell this truth to the world about what I’ve learned and will learn, Serena, unless you plan to have your people kill me. Or perhaps you will kill me yourself?”

“I guess we’ll have to see, Thomas,” She said evenly. “We’ll both do what we must.”

Their conversation had drawn a few curious glances from both staff and parents walking it and out of this area. Thomas took a deep breath and now realized that his voice had must have risen well beyond a conversational tone. Endangering these people’s lives was the last thing he had intended to do.

“I guess we need to go. Is there anything else, Serena?” he asked. “You wanted to know what I knew. You wanted to know where I stood with my investigation…but I still feel that you wanted something more. What did you really call me here for?”

She told him that she called him here because she thought he was the lone person outside of her organization that she could talk to. She told him that she could show her real face to him.

“I flew to Memphis yesterday.”

Thomas frowned at that proclamation. Pandora must have had its own private jets. It was no way this woman was getting through security checks in any international airports in this country.

“Memphis,” He searched his memory banks and found a record. “Memphis, Tennessee is Louis Keaton’s hometown.”

“Yes,” She nodded, impressed that with his knowledge of her operative. “I saw his mother, a woman named Lisa Healy in the flames.”

Thomas pulse thickened in his ears. “Did you kill this woman?”

Are those real tears in your phony blue eyes, Serena? “That was my intention, yes, Thomas. After I had questioned her about whether her brother Templeton still lived and his whereabouts I was going to do just that for her crimes of…neglect of her son, Louis Keaton.” Serena gave Thomas a brief synopsis of what circumstances led to the continued sexual assaults of the boy Keaton by his uncle. The story twisted knots in Thomas’ belly. “I made her strip down after I had the information I wanted. I intended for her to die with as much indignity that her own son had been forced to endure when he was repeatedly raped by the monster that was her brother.” Serena folded her arms, fighting against the cold. “And yet, I was shown something that I won’t soon forget, so I was compelled to spare her.”

Thomas itched under his collar to learn what that information was, but didn’t want to bite off more than he could chew. So he asked her this instead: “Lisa Healy’s brother wasn’t dead was he? He would have been a very old man by now.”

Serena shook her head…and then nodded a yes at his second question. “He was very old, very feeble. He gets around in a wheelchair.” She said carefully. And then the shadow of the woman who he found sitting in his living room returned in all of her glory. “However, my justice has no statute of limitations.”

“He was old and defenseless, Serena.” Goddamn you, Thomas, you have to get your tone under control. “Tell me you didn’t do this.”

Serena pulled her hands out of the trench coats pockets for the first in minutes. Curious; and there, he saw it for the first time since they’d come in this hallway. There was dried, bruised blood underneath her fingernails. There were two scratches on her wrist and that ran half way up her arms. Were these the last ditch efforts of Templeton Healy’s attempts at saving himself?

“I did.” And Serena looked as if she relived the entire episode of the man’s final moment’s right here, right now, where all of this new life was as its beginnings. “I looked into his gray, lifeless eyes, ran my fingers through his liver spotted scalp…and avenged Louis Keaton.”

Thomas stomach turned. “Why should I believe any of this?”

She leaned forward and dropped something with weight into his coat’s pocket and whispered in his ear. “If you doubt my work then you really don’t know me at all.” She began to back pedal away from him. “I advise you to retreat to the rear of this building. It’s the only way that you’ll escape both a House in Chains and FBI Agents who are following you. I left another package for you back there on the floor near the exit door that you won’t be able to miss.”

Serena looked as if her eyes were full of tears, but as she became one with the shadows it became entirely impossible for Thomas Pepper to be absolutely sure. “We’ll speak in person again, Thomas.”

“Serena…Serena,” He called out to her. “Where are you going?”

“We’ll speak again…before the end…before the Whirlwind is unleashed upon the world.” She promised.

“Serena,”

He had awakened three babies with his yelling. One woman told him to be quiet. But it was too late for all of that now. And he needed to know something from Serena…before she left him behind for good.

“Have you seen me in your flames?”

Serena stopped her retreat only long enough to say: “We are all given to the flames eventually, Thomas, even I will be someday.” She said and disappeared out of the side door that led to…he had no idea where the door led.

Several babies were crying in earnest. More than a few onlookers were giving him a wide berth as he followed Serena’s advice and angled towards a rear outlet. Nurse Helen had returned to question him. The frown on her face hadn’t improved her overall looks any. Whatever Serena had dropped in his pockets was rattling around and was weighing him down some, but he dared not stop and look to see what it was right now. He heard one of Helen’s assistants say to her that maybe they should summon security.

He walked…and finally ran out of the first door that he could find. He heard Helen yell at the others to let him go, not to worry about, at least the creep was leaving.

Thomas found a sign above a door that said, “Exit to back entrance and parking area.”

There was something wrapped up in a knapsack on the floor next to the door.

Thomas scooped it up, took one last long look behind him and ducked through the door. He found himself standing next to a dumpster once he was outside…but the dumpster wasn’t where the worst of the odors was fumigating from.

He walked a little further down the alley to make sure that no one was tracing his steps. When he felt he was clear he sat the package down and reached into his left pocket first. Ouch. Whatever it had been it cut him.

He pulled out a man’s seared hand.

He threw it down in disgust. He was breathing hard by then. The man’s sharp fingernail is what had cut into his own skin. It took a moment for Thomas to gather himself and reached in his other pocket.

He pulled out a man’s burned foot this time.

He bit down into his lip and tossed the foot in the general location of where he had thrown the hand on the ground. He tried to breathe in deeply and control over his emotions. He still had one item left to investigate, and memory served him that it was the heaviest of the items that Serena wanted him to see.

He squatted down and carefully…methodically untied the knapsack.

And Templeton Daley’s head darkened head rolled out onto the pavement.

Thomas Pepper lost his dinner of sautéed lamb chops and green beans. He cried tears of desperation and disgust. And just as suddenly…fatigue rushed upon him and pushed down on his big shoulders and sat his big frame and a thousand dollar suit in the muck and the grime in this alley. And he knew that Serena Tennyson had provided him with all of the proof that he needed of her exploits in Memphis.

He looked out at Templeton’s severed head…and the head seemed to look up at him and some of his curiosity peeked through the holes where the disgust and desperation in his heart and soul existed only moments before.

You bastard, Templeton…you poor, miserable bastard; he thought, which torture did Serena impose on you first, was it the cutting or the burning? And then his mind questioned: And why did she burn you at all? Somehow I don’t believe that given you to her flames is enough of an answer? What else did Keaton tell her that you did to him to deserve to be burned alive?

Chapter Eleven

 

Someone other than Muhammad Clark participated in a number of the killings that have come to be known as the Atlanta Child Murders. Anyone on this panel who draws any other conclusion is displaying not only short sidedness they are being irresponsible and reckless.

-An Independent Tribunal report to the Atlanta Police Department Task Force in 1993.

Chris

Handcock State Prison; Sparta, Georgia, 15th Day

 

He had received two phone calls not one minute apart just prior to knocking on Angel’s motel room door.

The first came from his ex-wife Denise. He said into his phone’s speaker that he understood her need to see him but that would be impossible today. He knocked on Angel’s door between bouts of conversation with his ex-wife. Angel unbolted the lock after his third knock and looked as if he’d awaken her from a nap. She had fallen asleep fully dressed in a white blouse and black jeans. She invited him into her room, the hotel rooms just outside of Hancock State Prison in Sparta, Georgia. After he hung up with Denise Angel cocked a brow and asked if he planned to respond more favorably to her request when they drove back to Atlanta tomorrow morning.

He probably surprised her a little by saying that he she sounded so desperate that he’d given her directions down here the last time he talked to her. Denise telling him that she’d get a friend to drive her down if she came at all; Angel had filled her mouth with mints before admitting Christopher to mask the smell of liquor. It wasn’t working. She was out of sight of Agent Sheridan at the moment and she must have felt the need to take advantage of that fact while she still could.

In speaking of Sheridan…he had been Chris’ second call. He wanted to remind both of them that they needed to track their steps from this point out. Public sentiment was lodging against the bureau, especially from People of Color. Any misstep and this country risked looking at a full scale racial episode of the likes that it had never seen before.

Angel said after he had hung up with his boss: “Well, you shouldn’t be surprised, Christopher. Your boss is a bureaucrat. He is a bureaucrat with a nice ass, but one nonetheless.” She said. “How we go about solving these disappearances is as important as bringing the children home safely.” And he felt another question rising from her out of the room’s silence. “But there was more to your conversation than just that wasn’t it?”

Chris shifted his weight. “Some of Sheridan’s superiors want you off the case, Angel.” He said. “He’s going to bat for you and so is the deputy director. They’ve been impressed with your showings especially at those makeshift crime scenes we discovered back home.”

“You know me, Christopher,” Angel raised her legs and put them on the wall. “I live to impress.”

“This is serious, Doc.”

She sat up abruptly. “I know that it is, Christopher.” She glanced at the clock sitting on her nightstand. “We can talk on the way. We need to get going.”

Once they were signed in and admitted to Hancock Prison, a correction’s officer who was a dark cloud on a sun shiny day waved them into the social contact area. This wing had ten cafeteria tables lined up in relative close quarters in the room. It reminded him of his grade school days long ago…even before Keaton had taken him and changed his life forever.

Chris counted at least a dozen armed officers ready to spring into action at a moment’s notice. A Black officer, whose eyes watered as if he needed to carry a tissue box everywhere he went, mentioned to Chris that they’d added extra security measures after what happened over at Calhoun State Prison last month. He also told Chris that the chief hesitated to hand him a clearance after he learned that he and Xavier were siblings. It had finally took a stern phone call from Sheridan warning that any interruption of a federal investigation could result in an review of this facility from state auditors whose phone number Sheridan had on speed dial.

Muhammad Clark was brought out in wrist and ankle irons a short time later; Chris heard Angel mumble something along the lines of bureau membership having its privileges.

Muhammad Clark:

He was a fair skinned Black man with a fat head, big eyes and a bushel of uncombed gray hair on his head that was going white. He had dozens upon dozens of moles on his face, two dozen rotten teeth in his mouth and one whitish goatee wrapped around his lips.

“Special Agent Christopher Prince…Dr. Angel Hicks-Dupree, now what do I owe the pleasure of your visit this time?” He took a long time to sit down in his irons. “Or should I guess? Well, I’ll save you both a little time and tell you that I am clueless to the present or future plans of Pandora or their pet Louis Keaton.”

Angel cocked a brow. “And I’m sure that you will continue to deny ever being in collaboration with either one of those parties of course.”

Clark poked his lips out from his goatee and shook his fat head, both in an exaggerated manner. “Look, pretty lady, when a man lives long enough to be as old as I am, you learn that consistency of your tongue is sometimes all you have left.”

Chris planted his elbows…his flag on the cafeteria table. He was up against a strong wind with so many tempests working against him. “Let’s get something straight here from the start, Mr. Clark…we haven’t traveled this far to play fucking games with you.”

Angel said, “We are interested in any insights you are willing to offer us about Keaton’s mindset or his whereabouts.”

Clark swallowed half a bottle of the bottled water that had been provided for him and wiped what had spilled with his long blue sleeves. “I’ve been thinking about just that sort of thing since these fine folks told me you two were coming.” He said. “I also thought about what I could gain by aiding you in your precious investigation.”

Chris stood up. “Let’s go, Doctor. We’re finished here.”

As he spun to go Angel clasped on to his wrist…and stroked it with part affection, part urgency. When he began to descend back into his seat Angel said to Clark: “We’re not in the position to guarantee you anything, Mr. Clark.” She said.

“What do either of you chipmunks have the power to request on my behalf in return for my help?”

Angel looked at Chris for guidance. “I’m sure we could find something…right, Christopher?”

Chris didn’t look at his friend. He said to Clark: “What could we possibly offer you, Clark?” He shrugged his shoulders. “Your family stopped calling you on any regular basis ten years ago. You can’t go out into the yard, especially now, without fear of being attacked by other members of the prison population. Men can tolerate being locked up with other murderers, drug dealers and thieves, but nobody wants to pal around with a child molester.”

Angel hesitated, but eventually nodded at Chris reasoning. “Agent Prince is right, Muhammad.” She said. “Your isolation is the only thing that has kept you alive in here this long.”

Muhammad Clark leaned over the cafeteria table far enough to draw one of the guards attention. “And you would love to see that happen wouldn’t you, Agent Prince.” Clark wisely sat back and relaxed as much as his restraints would allow him. “I’ve bet you’ve had wet dreams of waking up one sun shiny morning, picking up the Constitution or the Times and reading the headline in big bold print saying that I’d been butchered in here.”

“Yea,” Chris surprised himself by saying. “I sure as hell would. You and every other man like you in this country.”

Angel soothed his wrist again. Such a proclamation from someone who valued life as much as Christopher Prince sounded alien, even coming from his own mouth.

“That would be…” Angel searched the ceiling for the word she was looking for. “That would be unfortunate, Muhammad, especially considering your innocence.”

“What?” Chris and Clark asked at the same time.

Angel repeated herself since they hadn’t heard her clearly the first time around. “Muhammad, you have always declared and maintained your innocence for most of the murders that you were convicted of.”

“She’s good,” Clark pointed a crooked finger in Angel’s general direction. “You boys at the bureau should consider employing her services full time.”

Angel said: “Shut up, Muhammad.” She gave Chris a quick glance as if she were asking for his approval to press forward with whatever she was doing. He had no idea. “I’ve always theorized that you were responsible for a handful of murders but no more than that. Yet, your profile, your patterns of behavior weren’t consistent enough to have been responsible for the dozens of other abductions and killings that you were indicted for.”

Clark showed the first signs of discomfort with the conversation. He folded his arms and exhaled out of this nose. “And yet, I was convicted for all of those kidnappings they charged me with anyway.”

“Is this supposed to make a hell of a lot of difference to the families of those young men you raped and killed?” Chris asked.

Clark replied by pointing his thumb at his own chest. “It makes a difference to me.”

Chris and Muhammad Clark engaged in an intense stare down that was finally broken when both men heard Angel sifting through a handful of photos she’d sat on the cafeteria table.

“Do you recognize either of these locations?” She asked. “And don’t blurt out an answer, Muhammad. Think about it a second.”

Clark took the doctor’s advice. He actually studied the photos for a number of minutes, his bushy gray brows curled in concentration while he searched his memory for answers. “No,” He finally said. “After I killed the boys I’m responsible for I did what the papers said that I did. I tossed their remains in the Chattahoochee River where I thought they would go undiscovered. I didn’t leave anything behind on land. And I can’t recall being at either of these locations.”

Chris laughed out loud. “And just like that we’re supposed to believe you?”

“You damned well better if you and your people have any shot whatsoever of finding those four boys that have gone missing in the past few days now.” Clark leaned over the table again, his chains betraying his movements and garnering the unwanted attention of three corrections officers this time. “I’ve never lied about this. I’ve never have lied about the hand full of…young men that I abused and killed. Why should I start now? You said it yourself earlier, Agent Prince, what do I possibly have to gain at this point?”

“Nothing,” Chris heard Angel saying to him more than to the man who had uttered the words. “You have nothing at all to gain from lying.”

Chris shot her a warning glance: “Doctor…”

“Christopher, for 30 years people in both our professions have either been asking the wrong questions about the Atlanta Child Murders or ignoring the right answers.”

“So what is this right answer you are looking for?”

Angel almost seemed to ignore Chris altogether and she focused all of her attention to the other man sitting at this table with her. “Some of us have questioned whether you were working under the guidance of Pandora as we’ve learned Keaton was. Were you working for them…or a man who called himself the Caretaker? Or did these people draw their inspiration from you?”

“I was sick.” Clark said as a response. “I am still sick, Doctor. I have never denied that either. To answer your question, pretty lady, I don’t know whether they were inspired by what I did or not. I just know that it pissed me off real good though. Things were going just fine and dandy for me until Chris here and those younger boys went missing. Nobody had given a damn about those retarded older teenagers I was picking off the streets of Atlanta.”

Chris watched the older man gather himself.

“I just know that I’ve never met this Caretaker or anyone else associated with those racist bastards in Pandora. I also never met nor was it my intention to compete with Louis Keaton for victims.” Muhammad Clark stood to his full impressive height. “But most importantly, in light of all the evidence that had presented itself over the years, I want a new trial. I refuse to die in this place with the world thinking I killed all 19 children for which I was wrongly and conveniently convicted.”

Chris sprung from his seat as well. “Someone had to pay the price, Clark.” Chris spat. “You just admitted that you are far from innocent here.”

“I didn’t molest those little boys; 12 year olds didn’t harden the rocks for me.” He snatched Chris arm with unbelievable strength and speed and pulled him close enough for the special agent to count the convict’s teeth tooth by rotten tooth. “But it’s not a day that goes by that I don’t envy Louis Keaton. Number one, he is still on the street to this day getting his groove on.” The corrections officers rush to untangle Chris from the other man’s grip. “Secondly, and most importantly, I wish I had Keaton’s taste in boys…because I would have loved to spend some quality time with you, Christopher Prince.”

Chris escaped the other man’s grip. Half dozen officers have sprinted in their direction, but they won’t arrive in time to save Muhammad Clark for what would come next.

Chris hopped across the table and dove on top of the chained prisoner driving him to the concrete floor. He then pounded Clark in his face with all of the strength that he could muster and drives his face first onto that same floor. Chris had his hands on Clark’s throat for a count of ten or 12 before the guards tackled him, knocking him off. Even so, Chris managed one kick at Clark and when it connected it drew blood from the other’s mouth which had split open.

He could hear Angel…barely hear her over the ruckus of humanity…pleading with the guards to release their hold on him, while several more guards jump on Clark adding new bruises to the ones that Chris had already administered. More legions of guards enter the space and have their weapons drawn, careful not to aim them at other visiting civilians.

In ten more minutes it was all over.

As four men drag Muhammad Clark back to the cage from which he came, Chris could hear him shouting: “This doesn’t change how I feel you bastards. I only killed three or four of those boys. I had nothing to do with the rest. I had nothing to do with those other murders I say.”

And then he heard the old man laughing…at him a long time after he could no longer see him.

“Oh yes, I envy Keaton though…oh how I know I would have enjoyed quite a time with yooooooooooooo…Chris.”

Roxanne

State Road 15, Four Miles past White Plains, Georgia, 15th Day

 

Someone was following them on this stretch of highway.

Roxanne Sanchez licked at the lip gloss on her lips, unlatched the safety off of her Nine, adjusted both of her rear view mirrors, and punched her heel onto the gas pedal. She felt the coldest shiver of fear wash over her shoulder blades but dismissed the emotion just as quickly. Fear is irrelevant, Senorita, Victor had whispered in her ear once between kisses. It is how you function despite that fear that matters when it is time to conquer the night. Tonight she decided somewhere outside White Plains, Georgia, was no different than any other night of her life thus far. Either she would succeed or she would not.

Either she would die tonight or she would not.

Roxanne had seen the big black Cadillac swoop out and latch on to their rear like a hungry predator tailing its prey about 45 miles and 30 minutes ago.

State Road 15 was a lonely road, with a minimum amount of traffic, especially this late in the evening. Whoever was driving that car…rather it was a Pandora Operative, a FBI Agent, or even her old lover Victor Castillo, wasn’t interested in disguising his intentions. The moonlight, the headlights from the few other vehicles they were passing and the Macon skyline in the distance provided all of the light she was getting. This was an ideal place for an ambush.

She hadn’t told her passenger…Joseph Champion much. He was still marinating in his good feelings that he had gotten out of Carver and the city of Atlanta for a while. He’d been an emotional wreck, sliding from one passionate extreme to another, babbling on and on about his dead wife one minute while biting his nails…to counting how many mistakes he’d made during another.

One mistake he hadn’t made was when he showed her a picture of Angel’s husband, Seth Dupree, a doctor in his own right. He was a renowned surgeon. He was in Atlanta working alongside the medical staff of Atlanta General with their Emergency Triage Unit. I need to test a theory. She threw her Honda onto a side road for two reasons: Roxanne would pull to the side of the road and let Champion have yet another smoke. He had to have a cigarette about every 20 minutes anyway. Men and their vices, she thought. But more importantly, she wanted to see once and for all, if the bid black Caddy would follow where she led. She knew the area. That was a bonus. She pulled into a neighborhood gas station, made a quick circle back and put on the breaks.

After Champion filled his lungs and got back into the car he asked: “Did you hear me, Roxanne?” Champion turned down the radio. Their taste in music differed as well, which was no surprise to her. “Where are we? You said we were getting out of the city for a few hours to let the tension die down. It looks more to me that you know exactly where we’re going. Where are you taking me?”

She suppressed a grin. Champion was no fool after all. She might as well let the cat out of the bag and throw it out of the window and see if it landed on its feet. She was tiring of this man’s company, his vices and his old cologne that he wore anyhow.

“I spoke to Christopher Prince before sundown. He has business down state not too far from here.” She stole a glance out of the side view mirror and saw the Cadillac still there, though it was maintaining a two car length distance for now. It gave her a moment to measure Champion’s response to her next bit of news. “Dr. Hicks-Dupree is with him. You two have some unfinished business I believe.”

Champion’s bushy brows rose and he wiped his goatee with the back of his hand. He squirmed in his seat as if he’d picked up some red ants when he had got out the last time he smoked. “What’s the matter, Roxanne? I don’t get why you are doing this? I took you to Erica Loving’s body like I said that I would.” He looked out the passenger side window in concentration, a wrinkle forming in his forehead as he worked out what he would say…or do next. “You don’t believe that someone in the Choir Boys killed her do you?”

The Cadillac fell back to three car lengths behind now…teasing her. She didn’t have long now before the attack came. “Maybe one of them did kill her, Champion. The murder was an act of rage, an act of contempt.” She said and gripped the steering wheel tightly with her left hand placing her free hand on her Nine with the other. She faced danger both in and outside of this Honda. She prepared to defend herself against which ever snake struck first. “What I am saying is that the timing of everything that went down was far too convenient for my taste. I told you this back at Carver. I’m telling you this again tonight.”

Champion was distracted by the Honda gaining speed. He bit his fingernails. “And you don’t believe in conveniences?”

“No, I don’t.”

“And I guess you don’t believe what I told you about what happened to me or my wife either?”

“I believe what happened to your wife clouds your perception of things, Champion. I don’t know Serena Tennyson. I don’t want to know her, but I know the type. People in her position like to use human emotions to manipulate the people that work with them into serving whatever desires they want from them.”

“No, Shit, Roxanne,” Champion slapped himself on the forehead to complete his exaggerated exchange with her. “It’s no way that I would have thought of that alone without—hey, we’ve driven pass this point before.”

“We’re being followed. We’ve been followed for about the past hour.” She punched the gas and the Honda’s engine moaned in complaint. Something inside Champion made him check to see that his seatbelt was secured. He glanced over his left shoulder to verify to himself what Roxanne had disclosed with him.

“You believe that the black Cadillac is following us, Roxanne…you sure about this? That’s almost too much of a cliché for me to die of.”

Roxanne ignored his jape and concentrated on her steering. “Back at Carver, you were telling me about the last night you spent with Dr. Hicks-Dupree.” For all of her concentration, Roxanne nearly took the curve too fast, a car traveling in the opposite direction laid on his horn in a long honk of complaint. “What does she know about what is going on in Atlanta right now that you aren’t telling me?”

“I don’t know what you mean.” Champion clutched the dash for support.” Why are you asking me this now?”

Roxanne told him her theories about the three parties that were potentially behind the wheel of the car making up ground behind them. “I’ve had too many close calls with eternity lately, Champion. If I’m going to die on this lonely road tonight, I expect to hear the truth from you why. I want it all and I want it right now.”

“Angel and I spent the night…talking when we weren’t having sex and drinking. I hinted to her that I wanted to turn myself into the authorities. But we had another visitor in the middle of the night, a man named Eugene Cover had come from my old stomping grounds in Houston looking for me.”

“Cover,” Roxanne fired the accelerator up as she sped the Honda around two slow moving cars and slipped back into the correct lane as if she’d never abandoned it in the first place. “You didn’t say anything about someone else being in that room with you two.”

“Cover worked at a biogenetics lab. He knew some things. He was trying to tell me some of them about what really happened to President Sweet…how it was connected to Mayor Ernestine Johnson. I wasn’t trying to hear any of it. I had already had my own dirt from my dealings with Pandora. I wasn’t going to die for his sins as well.” Champion looked back to see if they had made in progress in losing their tail. “Cover’s dead now. I’m sure Serena got wind that three mortal enemies of her organization were together. I got out of Dodge. Angel got recruited by the FBI. And I’m sure Danielle Rohm got to Cover.”

“Rohm,”

“Yea, I knew her to be a little woman who dresses all in black and carries big, powerful guns wherever she goes. She’s a contract killer. She’s Serena’s right hand man—woman, I mean. I’m sure she was heavily responsible for helping shoot up the courthouse area when Serena was sprung during Operation Deliverance.” Champion shook the cobwebs out of his head. “But I’m getting way ahead of myself. Eugene Cover’s remains were found near the hotel where Angel and I shacked up for the night. Rohm’s a damned professional alright. I’m sure she made it look like the standard murder-robbery to the boys in the bureau who were casing all the nearby streets thinking that they were going to nab me.”

Despite all of her efforts the Cadillac had closed the distance. She had to get out of this main stretch of highway. Champion asked her what in the hell was she thinking. He told her that leaving the main highway was suicidal. I guess that’s what I get for thinking aloud. Opinions were like reproductive organs: Everyone had one.

“Alright, Champion, enough about that morning that the FBI recruited Angel. Tell me more about the conversation that you two were having before this Cover fellow showed up.”

“I know that it’s not what you think it was, Roxanne.” He said. “It wasn’t this thought out, structured, Power Point presentation you are picturing it as. We talked about everything. I talked about my dear wife. She talked about her husband…her drinking issues. My turning myself over to the authorities was just one of my considerations.” He put his head in his hands. “We talked about running away together…we even talked about…suicide.”

She said, “Why didn’t you?” Champion cursed her and exhaled a deep breath of exasperation. “I meant why didn’t you go to the authorities?”

Champion spun around and looked out of the back window shield instead. He told her that maybe they’d lost other car at last. He didn’t see anything. Roxanne was doubtful. She eased up off of the gas enough—

As now the Cadillac was driving straight towards them.

“Did you see how Serena escaped a few days ago?” Champion said to her and crossed himself. “Pandora’s sphere of influence spreads like an eagle’s wings.” He seemed to come to decision about something. “No…I think that going to the authorities with what I know and with what I suspect would have been truly suicidal.”

The Cadillac flicked its lights on and then off again and was closing on her Honda again after she barely avoided a head on collision with it a second earlier. Roxanne threw the transmission into reverse, altered her course and tossed it back into drive and sped to her left with all due speed. “No more long stories, Champion, what did you suspect?” She said to her passenger who had gone pallid. “Damn you, Champion, I said talk.”

“411 wasn’t a deep dark secret within the core members of the organization. It had been in the planning stages for years.”

“Did you say years?”

“Yea, the 911 attacks and the war on Al-Qaeda actually delayed Pandora’s plans and caused them to reevaluate their positon. Remember Pandora is made up of mostly US citizens who have or still work for our government in some shape manner or form. The Caretaker had been believed to say that the manpower and resources would not be reassigned from fighting the war on terror and defending the homeland for Pandora’s private issues with a House in Chains. But as that external threat faded, Pandora became more focused on what led to where we are today.”

“And what about Angel’s role in all of this,” The lights of the Cadillac had disappeared again. The world is too quiet, Victor. Victor told her the best time for hearing for strangers screaming in the distance is when your world was at its most still. “Where does Angel fit in this equation?” Roxanne aimed to get the Honda back on the main highway for now. She doused her own lights…learning from her opponent’s example of stealth. She had to admit that part of her was enjoying the cat and mouse game with whoever was behind that other wheel. You are professionals. She thought. I am a professional. She knew. And I like cheese.

And she was more than willing to match her skills with theirs.

“Why are you consumed with Angel?” He asked her. “What has she done to you?”

Roxanne Sanchez wrapped her trigger finger around her Nine for the first time this evening. She didn’t point it at Champion, but she did put it far enough away from her body so he would see it.

“I’m asking the questions here, Champion.”

“Angel knew about Keaton.” He lowered his head, following the gun’s trail wherever it went. “She knew that man’s in’s and out’s. He’s a strange bird but if anyone in that organization could control Keaton, Angel was the one. She’s an expert in her field of psychology and better in most in the remaining fields dealing with the human mind.”

Roxanne had a thought. “Maybe Keaton killed Erica?”

“Maybe,”

The black Cadillac had reappeared…just to her left. She had seen the silhouette of the car even before he turned his lights back on.

And then Roxanne made up her mind one last time this evening to wrap up this performance since the hour was growing late.

“Roxanne,” Champion slid down in his seat. “What in the name of God are you getting ready to do?”

Roxanne floored the accelerator and left Champion to figure out the rest for himself. She did remind herself that she was in all of this for the truth. She had lived for it. She was willing to die for it as well.

“I’m going to live,” She announced to Victor Castillo or whoever was driving the Cadillac in question, but felt Joseph Champion nodding from next to her in the passenger seat of the 15 year old Honda. “I’m going to live just long enough to kill Angel Hicks-Dupree.”

The other car didn’t call her bluff…as she half expected. She swerved at the last half second to avoid a head on collision that would have ended the life of everyone involved. Damn…she didn’t clear it enough not to clip the other car. Both passengers in the Honda felt the impact. She closed her eyes for a second…to allow the contact to take her car where it may. When she opened her dark eyes she saw the other car flipping once and again until it finally rested on its top, the tires were spinning aimlessly. Champion looked no worse than he usually did so she left him buckled in the passenger seat gasping for breath.

She had her Nine out and drawn. She approached the Cadillac giving the car and the perimeter around the vehicle a wide berth. She licked the rest of the lip gloss from her lips. She tossed her hair out of her face so it would not cloud her vision of targets. She could smell a gas leak, but from the looks of it, it did not appear to be all that bad. She shouldn’t worry about danger from an immediate explosion, at least not right away.

She checked behind her to make sure that no one had miraculously escaped the other car and gotten behind her without her seeing them. She stooped down, maintaining her balance with the strength in her calves.

She saw that no one was home.

Roxanne stood up and made a quick 360 to make a final check of her surroundings. She felt her tension levels decrease from a bloody red to a cautious yellow. She wondered if she would ever enjoy the calmness of a level green again.

In her mind she eliminated the FBI from her equation of potential drivers of this car. There was a less than a pint of blood on the dash and perhaps an ounce or two more on the driver’s seat. There was a little less on the passenger side. So there were two of you inside this car. The driver side had taken the brunt of the initial roll over and it also served as the final resting spot for it was well. But the FBI would have been quick to read off list of charges against her and all that.

Whoever it was didn’t want to be identified. A part of her—the cheese lover who had enjoyed the thrill of the chase wanted press her advantage knowing that the passengers were at least partly injured. Maybe she could be the hunter…the pussycat for a time.

The reasonable voice won the day a few minutes later. Victor reminded her that she’d triumphed in this battle, but a war…and a potential ambush lie in those woods if she dared chase down whoever was in this car. There could have been more people in the backseat. She had no idea how many…or what kind of weaponry they were armed with either.

Roxanne Sanchez suddenly felt cold and very much alone.

And she was just that…very alone.

When she returned to her Honda, she saw that Joseph Champion had vanished from the scene as well.

She didn’t disbelieve the stories he had told her…but she knew men like him. She knew, that even under the bouts of stress that Carver and the car chase tonight had presented, he was still leaving the meat of his story sealed and untold.

The Honda’s frame was bent beyond probable repair but she started up just fine on the second try. Roxanne broke out in a…smile…for what felt like the first time in years. She let the windows down on both sides, the night air fresh out here far from the brushfires and tensions of Atlanta.

She put the car’s transmission into drive and stepped on the gas at a slightly elevated pace. She was going on to see Christopher Prince who was perhaps another 45 minutes from where she was right now.

Roxanne had lost Joseph Champion.

She still didn’t know what parties drove the black Cadillac who tried to kill her.

She should have felt like one for the loss column…didn’t really feel that way.

The dark eyed woman had survived another day maybe where she not ought to have.

And yet her mood had darkened just as quickly when she glanced at the empty passenger seat as an old revelation shuttled its way from her brain to her heart.

The more and more she considered it…the more likely that Erica Lovings killer was seated all of this time right next to her.

And Roxanne Sanchez had managed to let him escape her.

Angel

County Road Motel; State Road 15, Five Miles North of Sparta, Georgia, 16th Day

 

Is it possible that Louis could have killed Erica, Dr. Angel Hicks Dupree thought as she gave Christopher’s adjoining hotel room a polite knock. She heard him yell for her to hold on; he was grabbing a tee-shirt.

Angel’s recollection of her last night with Joseph Champion had come in fits and spells, but was still mostly memory. She’d drunk entirely too much even for her in the few hours the two of them were together. Only since she and Christopher had returned from their ominous visit with Muhammad Clark had she even remembered a couple of the statements Joseph had said. Serena’s playing for keeps, Angel. She’s taking the gloves off. He told her that is what had heard before he had enough and got out. I believe that she’s even going to unleash your boy, Keaton into the field soon.

And so Angel had to reevaluate whether Serena had Louis indeed stage the two ‘scenes’ knowing that the FBI would seek her services in the 411 and all other investigations since. From the reports that were flowing down the bureau channels through Christopher to her…Roxanne Sanchez had found Erica Lovings in the same positioning as the dolls were at the created murder scenes. Christopher’s stepdaughter had been strangled. She had also been shot once in the back of the head. Her hands and feet had also been bound.

So either Louis or someone else close to all of this staged all three scenes, the two manicured ones and the actual one.

And where does the name Roxanne Sanchez ring a bell…Christopher opened the door at last and showed her in. He was wearing a black tee shirt he had just mentioned through the door and black rayon pajama pants that played well off of his opaque skin coloring. He’d gained a little weight across his middle over the years, but he was still more than appealing in her…and Angel was sure, many women’s eyes. She could still remember their little romp in the hay that happened two years before she and Seth had married as if it were yesterday. Both Christopher and Seth were equipped and capable enough, but lacked the exotic positioning and experimentation that she so often desired from men. Damn you Doc, she said to herself using his tone, I came to your place upset and vulnerable after Hoshi’s accident and you used it to fulfil your lifelong curiosity about bedding me. And she knew that if he truly spoke the statement aloud he would not be lying. She should have saved her curiosity and her seduction for another night…

She wore a housecoat only over her bra and panties and sat on his bed next to him. She did not come to seduce him tonight. But he’d seen her…all of her before, he more than any other man on the planet, knew what kind of creature that sat inches across the bed from him. After they were done with their business, she would retire into her bottles, her nudity and the thrills…of her own fingers if that’s what she damned well needed tonight.

“So how are you, Mister Jailbird?”

He tried and failed to suppress a grin. “Don’t start with me, Doc.”

Angel turned on her serious gage. “I’m serious, Christopher.” She sat on her good leg. “I thought that you could use some company. I’m here if you need me…you know, if you want to talk.”

“Sure.” Christopher pushed himself off of his bed and walked into the kitchenette. “As long as you don’t mention anything that has transpired in my life over, let’s say, the past thirty years or so.”

“You’re being too hard on yourself, Christopher.” She said. “Today could have ended up a lot worse. And we did learn a lot.”

And it could have indeed. The warden was on vacation but his number two gave Christopher hell about his run in with Muhammad Clark. Angel figured the man had nothing in the manner of true charges to level at her friend. Clark did physically attack a FBI Agent and Christopher had reserved the right to defend himself. Angel knew that this sit in warden just wanted to vent and get back at Christopher or any Prince after what occurred at Calhoun during Xavier’s final few hours in captivity there.

“You want something to drink?” Christopher showed her one of his cans of ginger ale. “Or is this not strong enough for you?”

Angel cocked a brow and it was her turn to try and fail to hide a smile. “Now don’t you start with me.” She asked for bottled water instead. It would hold her into she disappeared to the room on the far side of the wall behind her. “I haven’t had anything to drink since we left Atlanta. I don’t drink while I’m on duty, Christopher. I especially wouldn’t with you knowing how much scrutiny your people are under right now.”

He tossed her the bottled water and lowered his head. “I’m sorry, Doc. I shouldn’t have. Even kidding between old friends should only go so far.”

“Don’t apologize.” She took a swig. Water never quenched her real thirst…nothing did. She decided right then and there to cut through the remaining bullshit and cut straight to her point she theorized about Keaton and Erica and see what her old friend thought about it.

“I thought about the same thing, Doc.” He said after she had finished speaking. “I’m with you…and more importantly, and so is the brass back in Atlanta. Someone else put those scenes together. Someone other than Keaton; and that same person probably killed Erica. Serena wants to get into my head, Doc. I hate the idea that Erica probably paid the price for that with her life.”

“Yea,” Angel said. “In speaking of which, have you spoken to Denise anymore? I didn’t hear her drive up or depart.”

“She called me back after you and I spoke about it. Something came up. I’m not sure she’s coming down here at all. This is a tricky little area of the state to get to without getting lost. Denise doesn’t have a strong sense of direction. If she couldn’t find someone to drive her down here I wouldn’t recommend her trying to find where are alone.”

Christopher drank his ginger ale and planted himself back on the bed next to her. He sat the can by three other empties on his nightstand. “Anyway, I told her I would drop by her apartment tomorrow when we get back.”

Angel asked him for a second time if he were okay. He shrugged it off, apologized to her for not being more professional today and looked out the window at the full moon.

She sat in behind him and massaged his neck. He was even tenser than she had expected. The stress and strain of everything transpiring around him was taking a toll. “Christopher, you were molested. Louis Keaton molested you. Muhammad Clark was kidnapping and molesting children at the same time. Now, Keaton is likely out doing it again. When you connect all of this, in addition to the war of words between your brother’s organization and Pandora…it must be like storm clouds that have opened up on top of you all at once. It’s like a tempest rising.”

“You just don’t know how wrong you are, Doc…”

Angel squeezed the muscles of his biceps, triceps and worked her way along down his lower back. He seemed responsive to her touch. She reminded herself that she did not come to his room to seduce him, but if he allowed her to…

“I wish I were wrong, Christopher.” She said. “Remember you and I share that particular bond.”

And Angel’s subconscious dug up the two terrible episodes of her life with one swing of a majestic shovel. In one pile of dirt there was Tyson Vincent who had found her father’s residence after an extensive search for the man that had made his criminal existence miserable. She had been only a bonus find when he showed up at her father’s home. Vincent was content to just sit in her father’s house, drink all of his beer and wait for him to come home so he could blow his head off with his loaded shotgun while his little girl could only watch. But after a few days in her captivity Angel used a weapon in her and her father’s defense that most 12 year olds didn’t even know they possessed: She used her maturing body to lure Vincent into a since of drunken comfort, touched him, put her lips on him…and stabbed him through his heart time and again with a butcher knife he never saw coming into he was very dead and she was covered in his blood.

The second ‘episode’ truly had been a sexual assault; though no one knew that if there had been such a way to label her as a coconspirator in it, then she would have had to live with that title the remainder of her days. She wanted this young man Bradley Marlow. She really wanted him the night they spent together in his dorm room, but after two hours she had grown tired of his fumbling with her blouse, his awkward kisses and his manhood not responding in full. It was only after she cursed him and told him about his putrid efforts did the date really get interesting. He tore her blouse and bra from her body and somehow managed to pull her tight jeans off of her in one swift motion. She fought back…but a well planted back hand had ended her defensive efforts quickly. When he removed his pants his manhood extended a full salute to her.

The sad truth…the absolute saddest truth is that she still had wanted him. Yet, the back hand and subsequent bruise that she would wear on her upper cheek for the next few weeks, was far too high a price to pay for a mere sexual escapade that she could have gotten from a number of eager Bradley Morrows. So she fought him some more…and he stuck her time and again…until she found her hand grasping at the lamp on the nightstand—

“You’re wrong, Doc. You and I don’t share this bond at all.” Christopher was saying, bringing her back to the here and now. She had been cleared of any wrong doing in the death of Bradley Morrow. It still didn’t wash the blood that was splattered all of her clothes or wash the memory of how that scene could have and should have played out.

In the distance they both heard a dog howling. A minute later what sounded like a pack of dogs joined the first in the late night serenade. Christopher lifted himself off of the bed and walked back to the refrigerator. When her eyes found his again, he looked like a different man.” You see, Angel, I was never molested by Keaton at all. He never touched me.”

“What?”

He cracked open another ginger ale and downed most of it in a single gulp. Angel jumped at the sound of the soda can opening. On a more miniature scale it made the same terrible cracking sound that the young Morrow boy’s head made when she had bashed his skull with that lamp so long ago.

“I wasn’t molested.” She patted the warm spot he had vacated beckoning him to return to it. He reluctantly sat next to her. She wrapped her arm around him from behind and held him close. “The truth of what truly happened just sort of disappeared into what everyone else around me thought and believed. I think after a few years I actually began to believe it myself.”

Your tale sounds terribly similar to mine, Christopher. Angel had treated patients who had used imaginary abuses for whatever monetary gains that came of them. She had begun to call them Beautiful Liars. Stop it, she told herself. Christopher isn’t my patient. He’s not a liar. He’s my friend. He’s the only friend I have in this world, listen to him. “I don’t understand. Talk to me, Christopher.”

He looked to ceiling for guidance. “Where do I start, Angel? How do I begin to tell you this story?”

She kissed him on his cheek. It marked him…and they both laughed at that. “I know that the ‘beginning’ is almost clichéd it’s so overused in my profession, but it is and has always been a good start. Why don’t you start there?”

“I guess that truly is where it begins.” Christopher nodded. “And the start is probably the most painful part of this tale for me.” He exhaled and the pain of what was to come played at the corners of his mouth as his lips trembled. “I can still smell the peanuts roasting. I can still smell the old stench of draft beer. My dad had taken be to my first baseball game.”

Angel smiled. She had heard most of this tale before. She had also known men who loved their fathers though she had wondered if she ever truly loved hers. Christopher had adored and honored his father for his entire life even though the man had abandoned his dying mother for Xavier’s mom. It still made her curious why he and not Xavier had followed his footsteps as A House in Chains Number One. “It was a ball game that the Braves actually won if I remember.”

“Yea, that was a rarity in those days. It turned out to be a nearly perfect night in a young man’s life.” Christopher’s look turned dark and edgy again. And Angel wasn’t considering the context of his skin color as she thought it. “And yet he ruined it for me. And Louis Keaton has kept on ruining every night in my life since.”

“Louis Keaton,” Angel’s mouth went dry, but not for the remainder of her bottled water. “He was lurking in the background, in the shadows inside the stadium. He timed his move on you. No one saw him when he…took you.”

Christopher nodded. “I convinced my dad to let me go to the john alone. Keaton had a short, blunt knife at my throat before I could snatch my next breath. He made me put on this tee shirt that said camp just like the one he wore. When we walked back towards and pass the food court I saw dozens of young boys and adults wearing the same shirts. We just blended in. Eventually he pushed our way through the sparse crowd without anyone noticing anything was wrong.

Keep him focused and move the story forward without making him feel that you are rushing through parts that you already know. “You told me that once you became a captive that he would threaten your family as well.”

“I have to give it to him. It was a simple but effective strategy. 12 year old boys can’t understand everything, but I understood that much very quickly. But it was what happened next that’s more important to this conversation we are having.”

“I know that you told me that you and the other half dozen boys were being held in a house not too far from where you and your family were living at the time.”

“We were. And every day and every night I had to listen while he would take one of the boys and…do what he would do to them.”

“Go on, Christopher,” Angel squeezed him around his waist. Her housecoat had fallen open and her bra pushed against his back. It was of no consequence. She would do nothing that would endanger any chance of Christopher not revealing this horrible truth to her. She did not know if the opportunity…if his courage would ever rise to the surface for them to travel down this road again. “Don’t stop now, Christopher. I’m here.”

“Keaton proclaimed me his general. My duties included watching over the other children, especially when he would leave us for an hour here, a few hours there. I was responsible for keeping them in line. I was told to keep them quiet.” Her childhood friend blinked back tears for the first time. Angel’s followed soon after. “I can still hear them call out for their mothers. They were so scared. But there were times when they would douse that fear long enough to plan an escape, or they would plot to attack Keaton. But he had made a deal with me. He offered me something I dared not refuse. As long as I kept the other boys in line…he promised never to touch me. I would have to remain his captive. But he would never do to me what he was doing to them.”

Angel spun herself around until the two friends faced one another. She could smell the ginger ale on his breath. It was not unpleasant. She stroked his shaven head with her hands. He was also exposed to her nearly naked body but she didn’t care and he didn’t seem to mind the free second look he was getting.

“Christ,” Was all that she could think to say. “You do understand that the physiological trauma that you experienced…that you are still experiencing is far worse that the physical invasion that your body could have ever withstood.”

“Yea, I guess so. That’s what the shrinks that I saw in the months after told me.” Christopher searched the ceiling for answers again, but found none. “God, I can still hear them screaming, Doc. Every time he took one them I could hear it. As crazy as it sounds, Angel, I sometimes wished it was me. Those other boys hated me. They hated my guts. I was the teacher’s pet. I was molester’s puppet. I was the only one of them not being abused and they hated me for it.”

Angel knew that her friend was close to cracking. She had the terrible truth. She had all of it. But he needed to finish this once and for all. “And he promised to never molest you and to never harm those other children unless you tried to escape.”

Christopher’s laugh held no humor; in fact it may have been the bitterest sound that she’d ever heard. “Keaton soon trusted me enough to have me run the errands for him. Can you believe that, Doc?” Chris said as the tears flowed freely. “I actually passed my own home almost every single day when I went out to buy food and drinks for the other boys. Keaton knew I wouldn’t dare run away. He’d told me about the Caretaker. He warned me what would happen to those other boys if I did not return to him as he asked.”

“I’m so sorry, Christopher.”

“I tried to choose times when I knew that knew one would be home as I passed.”

“The temptation must have been overwhelming.”

“It was,” Christopher nodded. “I was told time and again that the Caretaker and his agents in Pandora were watching my every step. He told me he would have both parties…those helpless boys killed as well as my father, step mother and Xavier as well. Worse of all he promised me that I would be recaptured and that I would no longer be spared…his pleasures if anything went wrong.”

Angel allowed the conversation a breath…she let their tears dry themselves before she pushed on to the climax of this terrible episode of her friend’s life. “So that is why you reacted so…violently…when Xavier found you.”

“I tried to run as fast as I could when he spotted me. Goddamn him, he had cut school that day. He wasn’t supposed to be at home. He was. He recognized me, called my name, and ran me down. He had to tackle and pin me down to keep me from escaping.”

“You poor soul,”

Christopher hopped up and a vein in his temple flared. “To hell with me, Doc,” He yelled. “This Caretaker fella must have been enraged. I had single handily endangered his entire operation. I knew Louis Keaton. I knew where he was. I could identify the man abducting Atlanta’s children…or at least one of the men that were. So instead of risking Keaton’s discovery and the exposure of Pandora to the world, the Caretaker killed them all. I killed them all. The APD found all six boys in six different areas with their throats slit and their bodies burned.”

The childhood friends held each other and cried for a long time afterwards.

Angel asked him in the minutes following that, “Who else knows about this? Who else knows what you have told me tonight?”

Chris expressed to her what she may have guessed on her own: The doctors who were appointed to his case must have examined him and realized the lack of physical abuse to his private area. He told a shrink or two that treated him afterwards. Yet, these men were under the scrutiny of doctor-patient privilege. They would never divulge to anyone other than his father and step mother what really happened…and what didn’t happen to him.”

“What about your brother?” Angel and Christopher’s younger half-brother Xavier had never been terribly close. She always felt that he tolerated her existence because of what her friendship meant to his older sibling.

“We had a heart to heart after what Carter and his goons did to him up at Princeton. And I told Hoshi on the night that I asked for her hand in marriage.”

“You never told Denise did you?”

“No,” Christopher said without malice. “Xavier and now you are the only living people who know the entire truth. Back to Denise though, we were married for 12 years and yet I never felt close enough to her in all of that time to mention this part of my past. I guess, in part, the truth about what happened to me is part of the reason why what Erica did to cut so deeply.”

“Erica,” Angel felt another heartfelt story coming. As badly as she wanted to get out of the rest of these clothes and get into her booze, if her friend needed her a while longer—

And then there was a knock on Christopher’s door.

The two of them glared at one another.

No one knew that they were here except…

There was another knock, this time the thumping was more urgent than the first round. Angel tightened her housecoat without looking at it as Christopher stepped towards the door with his pistol in his hand.

Denise Prince said: “Hi, Chris. Look, I changed my mind. I needed to…we need to talk. Will you let me in?”

“Denise…hey,” He holstered his gun and unlocked the door. “You can come in but I do have company.”

When the door opened Denise did not break the threshold. Instead she said: “Oh, my God. I should have known you would be here with her.”

Angel ignored what she said and offered the other woman her hand in greeting. “Hi, Denise…it has been a long time.”

Denise didn’t feel like shaking hands tonight so Angel guessed that a little small talk was probably out as well.

Chris’ cheeks flushed as much as his skin color allowed. You would have thought that he had been caught in an affair. “Denise, this isn’t what it looks like. We were down here interviewing an important—“

Denise stepped past her ex-husband and gave her full measure of furor to Angel. “If I truly had been honest with myself I shouldn’t really be surprised to see you here.”

Angel felt herself frown. “Wait a minute, Denise.” She said cautiously. “Just like Christopher said: We were just talking—“

“Yea, I see how much talking you two were doing.” Denise swiped at Christopher’s face where Angel’s lipstick had made its mark. The other woman then took three giant footsteps, planted her hands on her hips and got into Angel’s face. “Just look at you…you’re dressed only in a bathrobe and only God knows what else in the middle of the night in my husband’s hotel room.”

“I’m your ex-husband,” Christopher reminding her. “Denise, we’re divorced. We have been for a long time now. Let’s all calm down—“

“Damn you and your calm, Sir,” Denise shouted at him. “I know that Erica hurt you baby. I know that I’ve hurt you as well in the past. My little girl is dead now. How much longer are you going to hold a grudge against us, your family?”

“I’m not, Denise,” But Christopher made the mistake of looking away when he said it. “I swear it’s not the truth.”

“Well then, Sir, I guess you’ll have the chance to finally prove it.” Denise smiled for the first time since Christopher had opened the door for her and she directed it at Angel. “I can’t think of a better time…or better person for you to make this proclamation in front of, Chris. Your lifelong friend can bear witness to our announcement.”

“What are you talking about, Denise?” Agent Christopher Prince wanted to know.

Angel did know. But it didn’t make hearing the insanity travel from Denise’s lips to both of their sets of ears any easier whatsoever.

“My little girl is dead. I need you back in my life more than ever before. Almost a decade and a half ago you asked for my hand in marriage, baby.” Denise got on one knee. It was the sweetest thing…it was the most pathetic display Angel had ever watched another woman do. “I’m asking for you to marry me again. I’m asking you to take me back at your wife.”

Angel looked to her friend—to witness as Denise had said—what would come next.

Christopher said quietly: “Denise…you know I can’t do that.”

Denise screamed at him in an extraterrestrial voice of grief and insanity that Angel had only mouthed from a handful of patients in her long career. She had to summon security to keep them at bay until they could be subdued and eventually taken away in restraints. There was no security and no restraints to aid them here in this off the map hotel room. Angel had decided not to wait around to see how this one turned out. “I should leave you two alone.” Angel limped past the couple.

“No, Angel,” Denise spat her name out. She brushed past Angel on her way out the door from which she came. Once she was out in the courtyard she spun around long enough to say: “You should stay. Whatever happens next is on your head, Doctor. As for you, Sir, there are only two women in this world that you have ever loved, and you’ve proven to me for the very last fucking time that I am not sure as hell one of them.”

Seth

20 Feet from Christopher Prince’s motel room, 16th Day

 

MOMENTS BEFORE:

“Erica lied.”

Dr. Seth Dupree frowned at the woman sitting on the passenger side of his rental car. “Excuse me?”

Denise fumbled with her purse and used the time to gather her thoughts. She actually took a moment to smile at him, but it was a humorless one that Seth thought was more than a little sad. There was a full moon out tonight here in the middle of nowhere in central Georgia. Seth checked the electronic map on his phone one last time to see if they had landed in the right parking lot of the right hotel where Denise’s ex-husband, Special Agent Chris Prince was staying. In the distance they both heard a dog howling. A minute later what sounded like a pack of dogs joined the first in the late night serenade.

“When Erica was 15 years old she accused Chris of molesting her. My little girl fabricated the entire thing.”

“What do you mean?” Seth asked “Why would she do such a thing?”

Denise’s nostrils flared as she exhaled audibly. “I’ll answer your first question first, Seth. Chris was serving warrants for the bureau when he fell ill and went home early one Wednesday afternoon. Chris never missed work. There were many days I tried to talk him out of leaving the house when he was sick as a dog. So when he called me and told me he was headed home I knew that he was feeling rotten.”

“Erica didn’t count on him returning there did she?” Seth could figure early on where this story was leading. “What did your ex-husband find her doing when he got home?”

“He heard someone screaming from one of the bedrooms upstairs soon after he walked in. He told me later that he pulled out his gun and sprinted upstairs. He could only guess at that point what was going on? Had someone broken in? Was someone possibly hurting or even raping Erica? The cries were definitely coming from her room, so he broke the door down and entered.”

“Denise, are you sure you want to tell me this—

“He found Erica home alright. She had some naked younger girl, perhaps 12 or 13 years old, strapped with rope to the four bed post by her wrist and ankles. My husband told me that my little girl was shoving a broom stick handle up the younger girl’s vagina…and she didn’t stop, even after Chris had broken her door down.”

“Did you know that Erica was bisexual?”

“You are asking the right person the wrong question, Seth. The real question is how long I knew Erica was a bull dyke. She’d always showed an attraction to other girls for as long as I could remember.”

Seth squeezed Denise’s hand. “I know that you just said that this younger girl was screaming. But was it in, I don’t know, pleasure or pain? How did Erica defend what she was doing? Did it start as a consensual thing—“

“Chris told me that he believed it might have begun that way and I can’t disagree with his assessment. The other girl begged Chris to untie her. When he did, he turned his back on her for just a second, and she hit him across his head, snatched her clothes off of a neighboring chair and ran away. None of us ever saw her again.”

Seth frowned again. “So this girl never filed a complaint? And I don’t really understand how this tie in with these allegations you speak of that Erica filed against Agent Prince?”

“Erica threatened to file her own attempted molestation charge against Chris if he dared tell anyone about what he saw going on in her bedroom. She knew about his abduction by Louis Keaton. She knew he had been molested himself. She understood how Science claims these things worked in cycles.”

“And what happened then, Denise?”

“Like I said before, Chris and Erica were never close. Erica’s teenaged years only made the animosity between them grow. She had been caught shoplifting a handful of times, cutting class, involved in fights…if it were a sin then Erica was likely to involve herself in it. Six months after this particular incident though Chris had enough of her antics. He exploded after Erica put another young girl in the hospital during an altercation outside a movie theatre. He read her the riot act right then and there after the police arrived to arrest her.”

“And what did she do, Denise?”

“She went off. She summoned up her best crocodile tears. She screamed to anyone who would listen that Chris was sexually abusing her and had been doing so for years. How could anyone not see that his abuse was the real reason behind her poor behavior? She was a victim of this abuse. She needed help.”

“And your daughter knew that Chris past abduction and abuse by Louis Keaton would work against him in any court of law or public opinion.”

Denise nodded. “Chris was fortunate that the allegations didn’t become more widespread than they actually were. The FBI, especially Agent Sheridan, kept as much internal as they could manage. They were receiving daily reports from the APD. Even the local media never got wind of it.” She said. “To be perfectly honest, I thought the situation would turn out far worse for him than it actually had.”

“How do you mean?”

Tears ran down Denise’s cheeks. Seth took his handkerchief out of his shirt pocket and wiped them away…although more followed in their wake. He had agreed to drive her down here against his better judgment. Yet, a part of him hoped that Angel would be with Prince when they found them. He had an urging to see his wife so badly again. Perhaps they could still work things out. Hold on, Seth, The Gray Man told himself, here comes the worse part of this story yet.

“I lost all objectivity. I screamed rape even when Erica would stop long enough to catch her breath. I knew about Erica’s sexual preferences. I was aware of her tendencies towards anger and aggression. Most of all, I believed Chris when he told me what he had walked in on at our home.” Denise turned to look at Seth at last. “I guess mother and daughter were more alike than I ever wanted to admit. I had committed myself to destroying the man I loved…a good man…to protect my lying daughter.”

Seth swallowed hard. “Chris…all of you somehow finally got past all of this. You were married for at least a year longer. And the FBI reinstated Chris back to full duty. And like you said, the media never learned of anything that was going on?”

“The FBI suspended Chris with pay for thirty days while they conducted their own internal investigation. They guarded the reasoning for his suspension so that none of the other agents in his field office would find out. There were rumors, of course, but nothing that anyone could substantiate. Eventually, as you said, he was reinstated after they deducted that he was innocent of all the charges that he had been wrongfully brought against him. My God, Seth…if the accusations had spread on his job or out in the general public…especially now, with this entire thing between Xavier’s A House in Chains and Pandora, I could only guess the damage that would be done to his reputation and career.”

Your daughter’s death hopefully sealed that door forever, Denise. Seth hated himself for thinking that way. “Nevertheless, what happened ruined any chance for reconciliation between your daughter and her stepfather.” Seth said as a matter of fact. “I’m sure it severed most of the bonds between the two of you as well?”

Denise answered his last question only with more tears. A part of him wanted to comfort this woman. Yet, a more rational portion remembered what he had witnessed of Denise’s transformations from rational to irrational from her in her apartment. Denise could be vicious. She could be vindictive. If Chris Prince had to deal with two women like this in one household for years he had been a lucky man to have survived it at all.

“I was so spiteful.” Denise shook her head almost violently back and forth. “I was a fool who clung on to her daughter’s lies and ignored the facts. And now with Erica gone…I’ve lost them both.”

Seth lifted her chin up. “You can still make this right with Chris. Have you ever formally apologized, Denise?” She shook her head once this time. “You might be amazed how saying the right thing can cure a lot of ills, even if it is well after the fact. I think that he would appreciate hearing that from you. It’s never too late to make amends.” He hit the button that unlocked the doors and flashed a much needed smile of understanding if not forgiveness her way. “Go…he’s twenty feet away…go on, Denise, make this right as best as you can at this point.”

“You’re right,” After she opened the passenger door, she scooted her body back far enough to clutch his cheek and kiss him on the lips. “Thank you for being here for me, Seth. I hope you don’t take this the wrong way, but I am glad that we didn’t…you know…before. You’ve been such a good friend when I so desperately needed one.”

Seth smiled at her. “Go,” He said again. “It’s never too late. Take your leap of faith.”

She started out…and then stopped again. “It’s not my business, Doctor, but I can’t shake the feeling that Angel has been as foolish as I have.” Denise lowered her voice. “You should give her one more chance as well. You’re a good man and I can tell that your marriage means everything to you. If she really loves you…give her one last chance to prove it to you.” She stopped long enough to stare out into the full moonlight with a hardened gaze that he could only guess what it meant. “I know that this is my last chance to prove mine.”

“Go,”

Seth’s head collapsed on the headrest, fatigue overcoming him. So much had happened in such a short period of time. All of those endless hours they had worked at the triage center…and now this long drive down here into the middle of nowhere.

He hoped Denise had taken his words to heart because he had taken hers. Seth knows that his wife likely was shacked up in one of these hotel rooms, asleep (hopefully alone) with a nearly empty liquor bottle on the dresser nearby. Tomorrow, the Gray Man told himself, tomorrow I will call you again, Angel. Or better yet he will attempt to see her. Whatever happens from there he feels that he accomplished what he came to Atlanta for in the first place.

But this night belonged to Chris and Denise Prince—

Denise had returned.

Too soon;

Too damned soon;

“Go,” She said. And when he failed to immediately turn the key in the ignition, “No questions…just go.”

Denise had been crying again since she left the car. What was more frightening is that she was wearing that same hard look that he couldn’t name before. What was even more worrisome is that the look has become more pronounced and has now covered her entire face. Seth tried to touch her cheek again but she backed away from his touch. A fresh round of tears ran down her face instead. He obeyed her request and mutely spun the rental around out of the parking lot not looking at the hotel room where Denise had come back from.

He does notice a Latino woman with dark eyes sitting in a wreck of a car that never took her eyes off of him as he drove away.

Two hours later Denise slammed her bathroom door in Seth’s face. He called her name once…twice…and yet even after the fifth time she refused to answer him. He walked back to her front door and carefully closes it after she nearly tore it from its frame. When he finally arrived back at the locked bathroom door he can still hear her sobbing from the other side.

“It’s over, Denise said. “It’s over. It’s all really over. I have nothing left.”

“Denise, sometimes we have to let go of our fear…all of it. We have to stick it in our rearview mirror and treat it like any other shadow that cast itself in our path at midnight.” Seth sat on the floor and caressed the door as if it were a lover’s face. He could hear Denise wailing now, letting all of her emotion pour out of her. “The dawn is approaching, Denise. Soon, so very soon, all that you will see is that shadow of doubt fading. All of your fear will have dissipated.” Denise’s crying slowed some, but he could still hear her heavy breathing. The emotion had come to her in a tsunami wave…but the tide was lowering. These are all good signs. “Just remember when the dawn breaks you have to be prepared…to take your leap of faith. The fears of the night never go away, not completely. But each day you have to wash all the horrors of our mind away. You must have faith.” Seth said. “I have had my dark nights as well, Denise. Let me tell you a story.”

And he voiced to her of his four friends from school and how he had helped cause the death of Antoinette Burner who drowned when she went overboard off of the boat.

And then he told her that the survivors of that storm had not fared well since that fateful night either.

Clinton Sessions, the young man who first spotted Antoinette after she went overboard died when American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center on 911. And Seth often wondered did his dear friend see that plane just before it finished its climatic approach.

Sam Casey did not die so heroically. His partying and drinking ways only increased after Antoinette’s death. He was one of around 50 people dancing on a deck who died at an apartment complex outside of Chicago…when the deck collapsed with the partyers falling to their fate below.

Pam Toliver, the woman who saw Antoinette fall overboard, the woman who Seth Dupree called but did not speak to the other day may have suffered worse than any of the others. At least they died in one tragic moment. I’ll bet a piece of you dies every day, my dearest Pam.

Seth knew from his wife’s work that many uniformed people call the victims of domestic abuse impotent and weak. Many of those same people would say that all these so called victims have to do is get up and leave their abuser. And that the bumps on Pam’s chin and the purple bruises underneath her eyes… and the cuts on her breast and the burns that reach from the inside her thighs to her womanhood are her own fault. They would say that no man…not a husband, boyfriend, father, uncle, distant cousin, best friend could continually inflict these types of wounds on a woman who fought back.

But Pam did fight back once didn’t she?

And the Gray Man knew that the fight caused her then 16 year old son to rupture her spleen when he nearly killed her.

“Are you ready, Denise,” He asked her at last from the floor outside her bathroom door. “Are you ready to take your final leap of faith?”

Denise said this instead: “Seth tell me if you have you ever heard what the worst part of going to Hell is?”

Her question stunned him. He’d never given the manner much thought. “If the scriptures could be believed what could possibly be worse than the eternal burning, Denise?”

“I once read somewhere that while we suffer that eternal burning of our souls that our minds are still active, Seth,” Denise said with a quivering voice. “And that our minds still desire all of the sin that caused us to go to Hell in the first place. So I now know that I’m going to spend an eternity angry…hateful…but mostly I’m going to spend that eternity desiring Chris Prince.”

After another round of tears she said in a far steadier voice: “I’m coming out, Seth. I’m ready to take my leap.”

Seth heard the lock unlatch.

The door opened.

And a nude Denise Prince ran past him leaving an unsuspecting Seth Dupree grasping at the air around her ankles as she angled to jump out of the living room window.

He got to his feet…and gave chase…the entire scene playing out so very fast…yet, so very deliberately…almost motionless.

When the glass shattered when her body thumped it…he knew that he was already too late, but he completed his dash to the window sill anyway.

Denise had taken her leap of faith…

…and landed nearly head first into the pavement ten stories below. Her nude body lay broken and bloody on the sidewalk as bystanders began to scream in acknowledgement of what he had already had knowledge of.

Dr. Seth Dupree collapsed himself. He found himself seated on the carpet just underneath the window sill this time. He cried out loud. He cried where only he could hear it. He cried.

For all of his life, Dr. Seth Dupree felt he was holding his breath…waiting; he hoped to still mend his broken heart.

And although he could only watch as poor Denise had chosen to take her ominous leap of faith to her death.

He hoped to still breathe again.

He hoped

Chapter Twelve

Xavier Prince lacks the will necessary to stomach a prolonged engagement with you, Serena. You need to exploit him on this.

-The Caretaker’s private conversation with Serena Tennyson 13 weeks before the former’s death in September 2010.

Chris

Christopher Prince’s residence, Wendy Hill Road, 20th Day

 

Denise’s people started arriving in mass soon after 10:00 am.

Special Agent Christopher Prince’s house had started smelling of fried chicken, collard greens, macaroni and cheese, black eyed peas and sweet potato pies hours since the crack of dawn. There were four of Denise’s female family members cooking in his kitchen, the food to be served in traditional family after her homecoming service scheduled for 1:00 pm. Yet, it didn’t take a half an hour of her people’s arrival at his home before things went to hell from there. Denise’s fraternal grandfather, who looked as if his suit had been tailored for someone else, knocked a decently expensive vase to the tile floor ten minutes ago. Two of her cousins learned upon their arrival here that they were sharing the same boyfriend. His ex-wife’s beached whale of a nephew abruptly left the premises, with a chicken leg in his hand, after he learned it was his other Aunt Denise that died.

A half of dozen of her former co-workers spoke to him with tears in their eyes. Her oldest living uncle blew his nose into a handkerchief, patted Chris twice on the gut, commented on what a fine young lady his niece was and asked Chris if he had any liquor in the house. Her toothpick of a brother, who had just been paroled for whatever his latest arrest was, hugged Chris around his neck and apologized to him for all the drama his older sister put him through. And then he asked him if he thought she or Erica would have any money left off of the insurance policies after the funeral expenses to pay his bail bondsman. Finally, her cleavage revealing cousin Bonnie whispered in his ear that she fucking knew in her spirit that he had thrown Denise out of that window. She was still praying about it. And if the spirit would allow her to prove such a thing she’d fucking spit on him right now. But she knew he was in bed with them Roosters and they would protect his ass.

Hope and memory wasn’t on his side. He knew he was a dolphin swimming in an ocean full of sharks.

Maybe now he understood why he never got a long with these people.

A trusted high school buddy of his, who still wore his hair in a ponytail like a girl, was greeting his guest as they walked through the door. Chris saw him point in his general direction in the living room when Tabitha Blue, his partner showed up.

“Hey partner,” Blue said, not quite knowing to do with her hands. She was dressed in a black blouse and matching trousers. She had her hair untied and it hung down to her shoulders. She wore a touch of blush on her cheeks and less lipstick than that on her mouth. This was her equivalent of being dressed up. Chris couldn’t ever remember seeing her so…pretty before.

“Tabitha,” he kissed some of the blush on her cheek. “Hey, thanks for coming.”

Chris noticed how uncomfortable his partner looked. She shifted in her stance and buried her hands deeper in her pants pockets. Social calls weren’t his partner’s calling. And although Chris knew there wasn’t a racist bone in her body, he was sure that Blue had never been around these many Black folks without having her gun drawn.

“Uh…” She started to say something. “Agent Sheridan’s been trying to reach you.”

Chris nodded and checked his private cell phone for messages. “Sheridan should have known to call me on my business cell.” He spoke up to be heard over a room full of Denise’s friends and family. He also saw that he missed yet another call from his doctor. The man must think that I am purposely ducking him. “I’ve been trying to tie up a million loose ends over here. You know, statements to the police, dealing with the insurance companies, and calling Denise’s family.”

“I understand.” She patted his hand and that drew a sneer from Bonnie. I told you that you were in bed with them Roosters…he could almost hear her thinking aloud. “I’m sure that our boss understands too. He apologizes for missing this. He’s trying to tie up some loose ends of his own as well. He told me to take all of the time that you need.”

Chris knew that his superior would have meant just that under normal operations and caseloads. The last 19 days hadn’t qualified for anything near normal however. “I appreciate the sentiment.” He smiled because he thought that his partner needed to see him smile. “I’m okay, Tabitha, really. Denise had been my ex-wife for a couple of years now. We weren’t in love anymore. That part of our relationship had deteriorated a long time ago. I’m okay.” He lowered his voice and beckoned Blue closer. “Talk to me about our cases.”

She relaxed a bit…well, at least as much as Tabitha Blue ever relaxed. Chris knew that he was retreating into a far more familiar territory with this line of questioning. “A fifth and sixth child had been reported missing in the past 24 hours.”

“Damn.”

“We found another staged scene. You’re doctor friend helped me investigate it and pick it apart.”

Chris lowered his voice any further as he saw that Bonnie was still looking on. “Tell me about it.”

Special Agent Tabitha Blue told him that Keaton or whoever had placed another action figure, or doll if you may, in a tightly fitted area about 20 blocks from where we found the first one. Most of what Angel said sounded like the psycho gibberish that she shared with them all at the other crime scenes: The action figure was Black, was supposed to represent a minor in his pre-teens and definitely male. He had slash marks around his throat and a real bullet lodged in his head as well.

“What is different from the other four previous scenes,” Blue added smoothly, “Is that this doll was turned on his hands and knees.”

“In a sexual sense I know that could be looked at two ways.”

“That’s what Doctor Hicks-Dupree said as well. She also said that it could be looked at from a non-sexual context as a missionary stance. Anyway, I was there when she told Sheridan, Deputy Director Rice and some other higher ups that these boys were only days from being molested.”

Chris watched his partner hesitate…her monologue paused while she figured something else out. He asked her: “Is there something else, Tabitha?”

“This doll had black marker marks all over his naked torso, and the theory made the rounds that the markings represented these children being burned.”

“Angel concluded this as well?”

Blue glanced away. “Actually, I did, Chris. But the doctor seconded my opinion and presented it as such to our superiors.” She shifted her weight, just as uncomfortable talking about her person as she was about her manner of appearance today. “Angel’s conclusion is that this phase of abductions and kidnappings is drawing to a close and like we said…a more physical element is coming.”

“I believe I guess the rest,” Chris added. “The flame markings on this last doll’s torso are a representation of these children being offered to Serena Tennyson’s Dragon…them dying in a fiery manner if Keaton is disturbed in any way.

Blue nodded and had to push her thin hair out of her eyes. Chris could see a clear image of children screaming…and…dying, but he did not know whether the image was from days past or night still to come.

I abandoned the first captives…but I swear that I won’t rest until these little boys are found.

Blue looked as if there were still more for her to reveal. He patted her on one of her skinny shoulders and urged her to continue.

“The doctor believes that something has changed.”

“How so?”

“This last scene looked sloppy and lacked the care and attention to detail this time around. She hypothesized that either this was an entirely different person who put this together or this time the person from the other scenes was extremely rushed or stressed.”

Before Chris could respond intelligently, he saw another woman greet his high school chum and walk through his front door. He was slightly embarrassed because he couldn’t shut his mouth. He wasn’t the only one who watched the woman make her way towards where he was standing. She was wearing a short but tastefully cut black dress with pearls around her neck. She wore her hair long and straight. She donned enough eye shadow to highlight the darkness in her brown eyes. There were a pair of diamond stud earrings in each ear and her watch gleamed in the morning sunlight shining through Chris’ windows.

Roxanne Sanchez hugged Chris tightly before she said her hello.

He gathered himself the best he could…and introduced this splendid looking woman to his partner. They greeted one another with a professional handshake.

Blue must have felt the heat between his partner and the latest entry in an overly crowded room. “I should go. I’ll see you later, Chris. Turn you phone on.”

“I will.” He said to Blue yet never took his eyes off of Roxanne. At this moment no one else existed in this room. Only one other woman had ever garnered his undivided attention like this before. And it wasn’t his ex-wife who they were going to bury a short time from now. “I didn’t expect to see you here.”

“If I’m making you uncomfortable—“

“No, of course not, Roxanne,” Chris grabbed her hand almost as a reflex. He then gave it a squeezed. “I want you to stay. I need you to stay; I just thought after we’d said our goodbyes on the phone the other night after you informed me of Erica’s discovery that I might not see you again.”

“Why would you think such a thing?”

“You had concluded your investigation.” He lowered his voice again. “You found Erica.”

Roxanne looked at her shoes. “I felt the need to pay my respects to Denise. “She lifted her chin. Her eyes were so dark yet so amazing. It was like he was seeing them…seeing her for the very first time. “I knew your ex-wife only for a short time, but I respected her…liked her even. Will you be burying both of them today?”

“Yea,” Chris gave his rapidly filling up house a once over. “I tried to think of her family, you know, having to take off from work twice in a very short time frame. Denise was born and spent all of her youth in Tennessee. Most of these folks had to make anywhere from a four to six hour drive here into Atlanta to attend their funerals.”

“Sure, that was very thoughtful of you.”

“Look, Roxanne,” Chris finally realized he was still holding on to her hand. He let it go, but she only smiled and held his instead. “I never fully thanked you for finding Erica for us. You honored Denise.”

“No…don’t thank me, Chris.” Roxanne’s eyes lost some of its brilliance. She was a professional investigator again…hard…and unrelenting. “I did my job. I gave my word to the two of you to bring Erica home again.” She took a full step towards him and whispered in his ear so that no one else would hear her words. “I am still doing my job, Chris. Erica’s killer has yet to be apprehended. And have the APD said anything to you about whether Denise was alone when she jumped out of her window?”

It was a curious question…but one that he had asked himself actually. He passed on what the APD told him: They were investigating any and all angles of what surrounded the final hours and minutes before Denise Prince’s death. They were certain that it was a suicide. But someone had to drive Denise downstate when she found Chris and Angel alone in that hotel room. Chris was still trying to recover from her latest verbal assault and emotional outbreak when he finally peered out of his door—to see only the taillights of the car she’d ridden in speeding off in a pile of dust and burned rubber.

Chris thanked Roxanne again and they finally let go of each other’s hand. He also thanked her a second time for coming to his home and paying her respects.

“You don’t get it do you?” She folded her arms. “I had to come here today. I had to see for myself if you were okay.” She turned her head ever slightly to the left away from most of the crowd…Chris following her gaze to the corner of his dining room that approached his bedroom. He had a sketch of Hoshi Givens sitting at nearly an impossible angle for anyone standing where Roxanne stood to see it. “What a lovely portrait,” She said and he had to follow her over to where it was. Roxanne ran her manicured fingernail underneath Hoshi’s even darker eyes and around the curve of her thin lips. “There is no doubt she was a beautiful woman…she’s an American but of what descent?”

“Hoshi’s father was from Singapore and her mother was from Malaysia.”

“The texture of the canvas is very smooth. The background colors the artist chose blend in especially well with her skin tone.” She took her eye off of the drawing long enough to look into his eyes. “You’re the artist aren’t you, Chris?”

Chris shifted his weight. He was as uncomfortable with this area of conversation as Tabitha Blue had been on social levels minutes ago. “She was…” He tried and failed to keep emotion out of his response. Damn, does the pain of losing you ever go away, Hoshi? Roxanne, you should meet Hoshi Givens. She died in an accident many years ago soon after the two of us became engaged.”

Accident was a slight proclamation of what truly happened to his first true love.

Hoshi had wrapped her Audi around a poll 30 minutes after a heated parent teacher conference at the elementary school where she taught third grade. The parent had cursed her and threatened bodily harm to her if his son’s grades didn’t magically rise over the remainder of the semester. Special Agent Christopher Prince would have called himself a bold faced liar if he claimed there wasn’t times during his career that he wanted to use his badge and his resources…to engage in behavior that ventured outside the law.

The man who helped aid in the death of his beloved came closest to witnessing that…behavior first hand.

He never liked to talk about how Hoshi had died…or that his father was taken from him in an automotive incident as well…killed by a drunk driver while he was returning home from duty.

Besides…I know there is enough death here today without me digging up graves from the past.

“You must have loved her deeply.”

“I did.” And Chris unclutched his fist as he admitted as much to Roxanne.

“I can tell.” Roxanne said. “I see how much attention to detail you paid when you drew her. The texture of the canvas as I mentioned before, the hues and colors that you chose. No matter how still she may have sat, the areas around her mouth and eyes wouldn’t have been the same each day you went back to work on her portrait. Some of your strokes were generated from memory.” And then she faced him down. “And I know love in a man’s eyes when I see it.”

“Do you?”

Now it was Roxanne’s turn to whither under the fire of his gaze. Two more guests walked up to Chris and greeted him warmly. He acknowledged them one at a time and returned his attention to Roxanne after they moved on to other family members.

After some of people in his house had begun to file out Roxanne said: “I also came today to speak with you about another matter. It’s important.”

“I’m listening.”

“It’s about your friend. There is something that you should know about Dr. Hicks Dupree—“

“Angel?” Chris asked. “How do you know her?”

Before Roxanne could answer his question Chris noticed a hush over the remaining crowd as his high school bud ushers someone of his own race into Chris’ home.

Angel had arrived.

The crowd parted like the red sea in that old Bible story as she limped past them in route to reaching him. Chris could hear all of the hateful mutterings and comments and sure that his childhood friend could hear them loud and clear.

Rumors could be a vicious thing. Lies were worse still. Chris had seen his name attached to both before. Now he knew that despite all of the help she’d been giving the bureau, that Angel was being persecuted in the court of public opinion for her brief involvement in Pandora.

And now Roxanne Sanchez, a woman who otherwise fascinated him like know woman had since Hoshi Givens, was going to join in with the persecutors for one reason or another. And that angered him some.

“Christopher,” Angel hugged him fiercely. She was wearing a cream button up blouse with a knee length black skirt and flats. Heels only tired her leg out faster. She reeked of a beer keg. She was off duty, he told himself, and she had been there for me when I told her the entire truth about Keaton’s kidnapping of me all those years ago. She turned to Roxanne and the younger woman’s gaze would have charred though Angel if only Roxanne had an igniter.

Angel must have noticed the bad vibes reverberating off of Roxanne. “Have we met?”

“My name is Roxanne Sanchez.”

Angel nodded. “The Private Investigator,” Angel reached out her hand but Roxanne folded one arm across the other and stood on her heels. “And yes…I think we have met before actually. Your name rang a bell with me when Christopher mentioned you before.” Angel folded her own arms and stood her ground preparing for whatever sparring came next. “Once again, Roxanne, I’m very sorry that your sister’s…case ended the way that it did.”

Roxanne said: “And once again you refuse to take any responsibility for your part in her demise.” She exhaled audibly through her nostrils. “Listen, I don’t want to discuss my sister with you, not here.”

“Sister,” Chris asked. “What are you two talking about?”

Roxanne glared at Angel a moment longer. “Why don’t you answer your friend’s question, Doctor?” She made the last word as if she had cursed her. “Why don’t you answer all of his questions, even the ones he doesn’t know he has for you yet. In speaking of questions, Doctor, how is your husband?”

“My husband is my business and none of yours.”

Angel and Roxanne engaged in an endless game of stare down until Roxanne seemed to have enough, said her goodbye to Chris and turned to leave them where they stood.

“What in the hell was all of that about?” He asked Angel after Roxanne showed herself out.

Angel frowned. “It’s complicated.”

“Try me, Doc, you and I have done complicated before.”

“You’re new friend is the younger sister of Maria Sanchez.”

Chris searched his professional memory banks for the file with that name located inside of it. Shit. “Sanchez.” He felt his hairless brow rising on his forehead. “The female serial killer you aided the bureau in capturing a few years back?”

“One and the same,” Angel replied. “And ‘bringing her in’ might be the greatest understatement you make this year, Christopher. You don’t know how I damned wish that the case would have ended far simpler…and less messy than it actually did.”

“Alright,” Chris said after he thought about it at a deeper level. “Maria Sanchez did die under controversial circumstances while in the bureau’s custody.”

“She did,” Angel told him. And Angel made a point to stare long and hard at his front door where Roxanne Sanchez had showed herself out. “And I’m sure that she blames most of it on me because ultimately, I was the one who talked Maria into surrendering herself over to the FBI.”

Xavier

Evolution Baptist Church (Cafeteria’s Bathroom), 20th Day

 

Too much ginger ale has that effect on you Bro.

Xavier Prince followed his older brother into the cafeteria’s bathroom and locked the door behind him. There were two ‘out of order’ signs and a plain clothed Peacekeeper between the two brothers and Denise’s family and friends who were dining on the far side of the building. A House in Chains Number One couldn’t help but grin knowing that his disguise had gotten him this far undetected by either friend or foe. He wore clothes two sizes too big, his hair was a chariot of fire and his teeth were on golden pond.

Chris, on the other hand looked good, in fact he was looking more like their father every day. He had gained some weight around his middle, but he was far from unhealthy looking. Xavier was thankful for the extra layer of skin attached to his own nose because this bathroom stank as if hadn’t been cleaned in months. He guessed that the cleanliness is close to Godliness didn’t apply to a church’s bathroom. He kept his distance while Chris handled his business, using the extra time to remove his brim, shades and false facial hair. Hopefully his pimp manner of walking hadn’t given him away. A man couldn’t change his DNA, his fingerprints or his walk no matter how much he had practiced the night before.

“Xavier?”

“Hello, big brother.”

Chris turned his clean shaven head ever so slightly to be sure he wasn’t seeing ghosts. “Is that really you? What are you doing here?” Chris scanned the dirty bathroom. “How did you get in here?”

Xavier turned on his shame face. There had been no other way of guaranteeing he’d get to see his brother; even wearing the disguise. “I’ve been riding with you all along.”

“There was a bit of delay when the cars lined up to drive to the church. I don’t remember seeing you get in either family car.”

“You’re hearing me, Chris, but you’re not listening.” Xavier said slowly, letting the other man catch up to his meaning. “Like I said before, I rode in the hertz with you all along.”

“Don’t tell me you were in the goddamn casket, Xavier,” Chris paced within a small area of space. And then he let out a burst of uncontrollable laughter. “You know shit like that lowers our chance of getting into heaven.”

Xavier laughed with his brother…stopping long enough to put his ear to the door, unnecessarily listening for anyone coming. The Circle had worked out an arrangement with the funeral home and had securely…and respectfully buried Denise in the plot that she and Chris had picked out when they were still married. The face and the upper torso that his brother and everyone else saw earlier inside the church was a finely detailed mannequin. Grace Edwards had contracted the work out to several individuals who specialized in that kind of thing and the three men had worked on the model from the time the news had broken of Denise’s unfortunate demise.

Xavier then told Chris that he had been smuggled into the casket when Denise’s actual body had been removed. Chris frowned at that. The younger brother reminded him that desperate times dictated just as desperate measures.

“I had to see you, Chris.”

The older brother’s facial expression bounced from anger to disbelief to hardened resolve then back again.

“All of this trouble that you went through,” Chris said. “I appreciate you coming here.”

“It was a beautiful ceremony. Denise and Erica would have been pleased with how you have honored their memories.” He feigned a punch to his brother’s gut. “Look at you, Bro; you’ve put on a few pounds.”

As soon as he said it, Xavier wished he could have taken his sentiment back. I see that you’ve become sensitive about the weight thing. “It’s been a long time.”

“It has been too long, Xavier.”

They finally embrace for long time, tears stinging at the corners of Xavier’s eyes. When they release one another the younger brother can tell that his older sibling shares his sentiment.

“Xavier, you know what all this reminds me of?”

Xavier didn’t and told his brother so as he pulled a toothpick from his plastic bag and stuck it in his mouth.

“I should have attended your mother’s funeral. The woman took me in…she accepted me when she didn’t have to. In the little time that the four of us lived under her roof she always treated me as if I were her biological child.” It was Chris’ turn to look shamefaced. “Yet, I wouldn’t attend her funeral. I came to all the other outside stuff but—“

“My mother loved you, Chris.” Xavier said. “She told me that on her deathbed. But you were only 14 years old man…and you’d lost your own mom four years earlier. And then we both knew you had to deal with our dad’s situation between our mothers. And finally you were abducted by Louis Keaton. She understood all of your anger and frustration…and confusion. She understood, Chris and so did I.”

They let the past; the silence and the stench of the bathroom have their own separate and collective moments.

Chris broke the hush by saying: “After all we’ve been through together; it hurts me to know that we are on the opposite sides of the fence on this one.”

Xavier pushed the toothpick from one side of his mouth to the other with his tongue. “Are you absolutely sure about that?” Xavier raised his brows and scratched his sideburns. “I think we are a lot closer on the issues at hand than you think, Bro. I know first and foremost that we both want the safe return of Keaton’s kidnapping victims. Look Chris, is there anything you can tell me on that front without you compromising yourself or your people within the FBI?”

Chris shook his shaven head. “No, not really; and if Grace Edwards is still a House in Chains Intelligence Coordinator or whatever title you’ve given her, then you already know what I know…maybe more.”

“Alright then, let’s say for arguments sake that both of our organizations share some of the same theories.”

“About what,”

“Your people believe that Louis Keaton is the answer to today’s glaring question.”

“We both know that he is.”

“Well then the next obvious question is this,” Xavier said. “Is how long do we have to find him before he begins to molest these children?”

“I would say that day soon approaches.” Chris shared Angel’s running theories about where she thought Keaton was from various aspects of his thought processes without mentioning her specifically by name.

“I’m inclined to be more concerned with Serena Tennyson’s influence over him. We both know that that woman is more than capable and willing to pull strings to get what she wants.”

“Yea, I know that. I also know that if history is to repeat itself, she will order these children killed…the same exact way that the Caretaker had those poor boys who had been abducted along with me killed if she feels Keaton’s position and his mission is compromised in any way.”

“Yea,” Xavier couldn’t mask his discomfort with the direction this conversation had drifted towards. “Yea, I guess you would know a little something about that, Chris.”

“I would.” Chris shook his head while he said it though. You’re stronger than you give yourself credit for, Bro. You may not have been molested by Keaton, but no child was more abused during your time with him. “Xavier, look, tell me that you’re not going to do anything stupid are you?”

Xavier stood flatfooted and pulled the toothpick out of his mouth. “I hope that you don’t believe that using the Peacekeepers to defend a community of people from of our race against an extreme criminal element or preparing ourselves to engage Pandora if and when the time calls us to bear arms as stupid then I guess so.”

“And what if Thomas Pepper produces evidence and tells our people a part or all of the three things that they want to know the most.”

“Pepper is acting on the request of our former mayor, a woman who you should now know was my Number Two in the Circle, and a respected member of our House. The reporter’s findings are sure to weigh heavily on my decisions moving forward.”

“What are you hoping to accomplish, Xavier?”

“You know, Chris, I understand better than most what has transpired in your personal life over the past few days and weeks.” Xavier said in a matter of fact tone. “I just hope that you haven’t forgotten the 411 attacks. You were there from what I’m told. You and I both were targeted. Pandora massacred our pe