DOMINION

M. A. Smith, Author

DOMINION: Resurrection Day

 

SYNOPSIS 

Dwight Beauchamp was a brilliant hacker, so brilliant that just short of his twenty-first birthday, he single-handedly hacked into and brought down the Italian national power grid.  That stunning breach lead to his arrest by Homeland Security and a secret deal was struck to keep Dwight out of jail.  Ending up for three years on a Federal leash working for a major Northern California energy company, he was tasked with fixing security loopholes with the soon-to-be fully integrated U.S. power grid.

Shortly after completing his work and within three weeks of full grid integration, Dwight vanishes only to be found a week later brutally murdered atop a bizarre stone altar in an abandoned warehouse.  But Dwight wasn't the sole victim.  There were three other victims as well at the base of the altar, all murdered in the same ritualistic way.

FBI Special Agents Alvaro Cruz and Mitchell Hastings are assigned to join the investigation with the local PD homicide detective in charge of the case.  Cruz and Hastings had been friends since they were ten years old, joined the Bureau practically at the same time and had been partners for most of their years with the FBI.  The agents soon find that nothing is what it seems with the unusual murders.  The victims appear to be random, there are no witnesses, the killer or killers left no clues or the murder weapon at the scene and the ritualistic style used in the murders does not exist in any law enforcement or intelligence service database anywhere in the world.

As the twists and turns of the investigation accelerates, Mitchell Hastings' own secrets threaten to be exposed while evidence mounts that the U.S. power grid may be under attack by a highly secret group of survivors of an ancient fallen empire that for over four hundred years has been watching, waiting and planning their ultimate return to power.  The time for their empire to rise again has arrived.

 

 

 

DOMINION:  RESURRECTION DAY


M. A. Smith


COPYRIGHT 2017

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

 

 

PROLOGUE


Tenochtitlan-Tlatelolco, Valley of Mexico
August 14, 1521

 

Unlike countless other realms who also thought themselves perfect in their way of life, historians recorded that the Aztec Empire did not die quietly and slowly of its own deceitful decay over centuries.  Instead, its extinction was stunningly swift, violent and torturous, arriving amid the frenzied battle dances of legions of warriors, punctuated by the reverberating roar of cannons, mind numbing destruction and the incessant harbinger of death.

The pink hued dawn on this new August day would soon yield to the resplendent light of sunrise.  This day will bring irrevocable change to all who are left and to the land they have called their own.  To some, the change means new freedom, but the price to be paid for that luxury is still to be exacted.  The victorious tribes have yet to learn that the enemy of their enemy was not ever their friend.  To others, the changes ushered in by the fall of the Aztec Empire will bring Spain’s rulers an arrogant sense of accomplishment and the Holy Roman Church, a further testament to its religious superiority.

***********

As a cool, light breeze brushed across his face and the congealed clumps of his long sweat soaked black hair, Xipil, whose name meant “noble of the fire”, stood on an outcropping of rock, staring across Lake Tetzcoco at what was left of Tenochtitlan, the once majestic Aztec capital city, his home.  He was not alone.  Several trusted warriors and a priest stood on either side of him taking in the horrendous view.  The summer air stank of smoke and reeked of something else so foul that no one in the group spoke of it even though each knew what made up the smell.  All wondered to themselves if the afternoon rains would help quell the effects of the disagreeable air.

The previous night’s final abomination had culminated in the capture of the last Aztec emperor Cuauhtémoc, his family and elite guards.  Xipil had learned of his childhood friend’s capture several hours earlier from two scouts who had been dispatched to keep watch on the city’s waning fight for survival.

Dressed in the battle skins of their betrayers, the once subjugated Tlaxacalans (who had gladly assisted Hérnan Cortés by providing the Spaniard with a formidable army), Xipil had immediately left his hiding place with his retinue knowing, of course, that the fight was over, the Aztec Empire was extinguished and he would never see his friend again.  It didn’t matter, he needed to see for himself despite Cuauhtémoc’s stern warning six days ago not to return to Tenochtitlan no matter what the news.

He assumed that Cuauhtémoc was dead.  Xipil would learn four years later, through a well placed spy network, that his friend had endured those years in a living hell as the “guest” of Cortés before the white devil finally killed him.

The sun, giver of all life, was now beginning to show its radiance over sacred Mount Tlaloc to the east.  The hazy light washed over Xipil’s gaunt, sun weathered face accentuating the five year old battle scar which crossed from the left side of his high forehead across his straight nose to just below the right cheek.  His hooded, dark eyes held intense anger.  Grief was an emotion not to be indulged.  Instead, he stared at the wasteland of his home while a malignancy craving revenge terminally engulfed what little was left of his humanity.

He had chewed on bark and leather, eaten insects and rats trying to keep his tall, deteriorating once very muscular body strong in the face of malnutrition brought on by the scarcity of food and water.  The city was utterly cut off during the final ninety-three day siege led by Cortés.  Xipil was no longer sure whether the pain in his belly came from starvation or the bitterness caused by defeat.  His ancestral history dictated his warrior life and now, would be the anchor on which he tied his new future, although, at this instant, he did not have a clear picture of what future might come to pass.

A noble by birth and just twenty-six, Xipil now possessed the battle hardened demeanor of a much older man.  Gone forever was the handsome visage he had often used to his advantage.  He couldn’t remember the last time he had laughed or even smiled.  The last two years seemed as if twenty had passed.  So much unyielding change had contorted his memories making his life before this day nearly unrecognizable to him.

He still couldn’t believe that the gods had allowed their destruction to happen.  Were they not The Chosen Ones?, he thought bitterly as he continued to stare at the images before him.  Had not the omnipotent god Huitzilopochtli’s irrefutable sign of the eagle sitting upon the cactus led them to this land so that their race could flourish forever? What had they done to offend their gods?  Nothing, absolutely nothing.  Of that, he was resolute in his conviction.  They had done everything and more than was expected by their gods’ teachings.

He shot a sidelong glance at the priest standing on his right side.  The priest, with outstretched arms and his head bent, was murmuring something in too low a tone for anyone to understand.  Was he asking for forgiveness?  Forgiveness for what?  Being the powerful?  For a fleeting moment, Xipil wanted to kill the man as if that singular act would remedy everything.

Returning his gaze back to Tenochtitlan, Xipil silently cursed that fool of a former emperor Motecuhzoma II for betraying his people by allowing Cortés and his Spanish army as visitors into the city two years ago.  He and many others had watched in uneasy silence as Motecuhzoma had treated Cortés as if he was in fact the prophesied return of the god king Quetzalcoatl, always seeking to appease Cortés rather than protect his people.

Less than a year ago, all hell finally broke loose between the unwanted visitors and the city’s inhabitants when Cortés was briefly called away from Tenochtitlan, leaving a ruthless underling, Pedro de Alavarado, in command.  Stupidly overreacting to the sight of several Aztec lords conducting a significant religious ceremony, Alavarado and his soldiers killed the men.  The Aztecs acted swiftly and without mercy to avenge the killings.  Cortés returned only to engage in more combat.  The flow of blood and battle was only momentarily interrupted by the weak-willed emperor himself.  While trying to calm an angry crowd with a flowery speech for a second time at the behest of Cortés, Motechuzoma had sealed his fate and that of the empire as well, starting a chain reaction of events that could not be stopped by either side for any reason, each side clinging to their unbending vanity driven beliefs in the consummate control over another’s way of life.

Ultimately, the emperor paid for his reckless abandonment of the warrior’s code with his supposed death at the hands of his own people, although there were persistent stories that the actual final executioner was Cortés himself who merely finished the job started by the citizenry.  No longer able to hear the lies, Xipil was the first to hurl a stone at Motechuzoma hoping to kill him.  He watched in satisfaction as the disgraced royal one fell to the ground from the rooftop where he was speaking after being pelted unmercifully by stones and arrows.  As the Spaniards carried Motechuzoma away, Xipil had been astonished to see he was still alive.

Cortés was unaware that the emperor had already been dethroned by his people and replaced by his brother, Prince Cuitlahuac, who died within a few weeks of the strange sickness of the skin brought to them by the Spaniards.  Cortés and his army were driven out of Tenochtitlan shortly after Motechuzoma’s final words, but not for long.  When it became clear that the populace would not bend their knees to the white devil and his one god, Cortés had pursued their destruction with a manic zealotry Xipil, at first, had not understood, much less was able to comprehend.

As the sun continued to expose itself over the mountains, Xipil closed his eyes, willing himself to remember what it had been before the betrayals, and the many forms of evil that had come among them less than two years ago.  The vivid images of the three wide causeways which linked the city to the lands beyond, bustling colorful marketplaces, narrow streets, brilliant white buildings, sparkling canals, and lush gardens coalesced in his mind.  Built on an island in Lake Tetzcoco, Tenochtitlan had been the majestic result of his peoples’ years of work and engineering, a gleaming beacon of their once powerful empire.  Indeed, it had been said that Cortés himself was stunned by its magnificence when he first gazed at it from the eastern mountains.

In his mind’s eye, Xipil saw the flower filled garden on one of the outermost canals where he had first laid eyes on the extraordinary seventeen year old girl, Ahuiliztli, who would become his only wife.  He was nineteen, nearing the end of his formal education and training as a warrior. Xipil believed from the beginning that their match was preordained. After several weeks of writing poetry to her and confined by limited, public conversation with her, Xipil’s parents stepped in to arrange for their only son to marry Ahuilizthi. He was all she wanted, she was all he wanted.  He knew from the moment he met her, there would be no other wives or concubines so long as she breathed life.

The eastern sky brightly illuminated the landscape causing Xipil to open his eyes.  The sweet daydream was over, giving substance to the harsh realities of the apocalyptic scene.  Through the haze and brighter light, he could see that much of Tenochtitlan lay in rubble, smoke still rising here and there.  Most of the canals had been caved in, gardens and trees obliterated.  The remaining canals were choked with the dead of both sides.  The chinampas agricultural areas to the south of the island city had been laid waste.  The twin-tubed aqueduct, a truly ingenious fresh water delivery system for all the city, was a dry, useless hulk.

Xipil thought of his beloved father who had died a pain filled and prolonged death almost a year before of the cursed skin sickness which by that time had already killed several thousand of his people.  His mother died of starvation during the siege.  His treasured Ahuiliztli contracted the same disease as his father.  She quickly perished.  He could still remember so clearly everything about her – her laugh, the sweet scent of her skin, her body in the night - as if she had only been gone a second, not dead over eight months.  Only one of Xipil’s two sons had escaped the effects of the pestilence.  The child, the only family he had left, was waiting for him in a safe place far from this now cursed site.

Returning his thoughts to the present, Xipil could see that at the city’s center, the Great Pyramid was among the few edifices still standing.  The behemoth stone structure rising nearly two hundred feet from the ground, cast a long, but still defiant shadow across the vanquished city as the eastern sun hit it from behind.  Two sets of steep chiseled rock steps spanning most of the front of the west facing entrance led up four terraced levels to a flat ceremonial expanse at the top.  Both sections of steps were bordered by flat balustrades with colorfully painted serpents' heads at the bottom of each one.  Most of the dual temples, a separate shrine, the priests' antechamber and the sacrificial altar contained on the ceremonial summit were still intact.    This most revered place, the heart of their religious life, was now tainted everywhere with the bodies and blood of men, women and children.  This blood was not the sacrificial precious water that was pleasing to the gods.  It was the madness for which no explanation existed.

The surviving souls were amassed in the northeast quadrant of the sister city Tlatelolco awaiting their fate.  Xipil knew the remaining warriors would be slaughtered, the women and children destined for slavery or worse.  There would be no attempts to save them.  He dare not jeopardize the sacred undertaking given to him by Cuauhtémoc only a couple of months ago.

Knowing that their race and empire had little hope of survival in the face of the hellish onslaught now engulfing them, a survival plan had been devised by the remaining Council of Nobles and Cuauhtémoc.  The emperor was determined that his people would survive and live in secret until the day when the empire would rise again. The time was now before the situation further deteriorated.  A formidable warrior and leader, Cuauhtémoc wanted to spirit out of the city as many people as possible within the next moon cycle.  As ruthless and without compassion it seemed, only the healthiest, with skills were to be taken out.  The Council and Cuauhtémoc determined the potential list which included healthy women of child bearing age regardless of marital status or class, children over the age of seven, priests, select nobles, and warriors of course would go, but none of the remaining old.

Xipil had been given the task of finding a weak point in the enemy.  The escape route had to be across Lake Tetzcoco since all causeways were enemy controlled.  At that time, Cortés’s fleet of brigantines, not yet in total command of the waters, were staying content just outside what was left of the dike system designed by their long ago great ally Netzahualcoyotl.  Using the moon, the night and their advantageous knowledge of the terrain, Xipil, with the help of dozens of warriors, selected each night a group to be taken out of the city. Night after night each party, without any possessions, made their way silently through the brackish waters of the southerly end of Lake Tetzcoco always guided by Xipil who never used the same point of entry to the water nor the same land exit point.  The crossings were difficult and exhausting.  Sometimes a few were lost to the lake, sometimes to minor skirmishes, sometimes to Xipil and the warriors themselves when one of the group proved to be a hazard for all, but more made the complete trip to the safe hiding place than Xipil thought was possible.

At the end of the allotted time, Xipil and the warriors had succeeded in taking out more than one thousand people.  Cortés’s fleet was well in control of the lake making any further crossings suicidal.  Xipil thought it strange that he felt a sense of satisfaction in saving only one thousand in the face of all who had been lost and those who still faced death.  Nonetheless, total destruction of the empire was not to happen as a result of his accomplishment.  Most of all, he had saved his son.

A week before Cuauhtémoc’s capture, Xipil had been summoned to Tenochtitlan to deliver his final report to the emperor on the status of the escape.  The journey back to the besieged city was slower than expected taking Xipil and two of his most trusted warriors slightly more than one day.  Moving mostly at night to evade any detection and consequently capture, the group crossed the southern end of Lake Tetzcoco exiting the briny water at one of the remaining intact canals not too far from the Ritual Center of the city.  Making sure that their weapons were ready, Xipil and his companions started off toward the Great Pyramid.  The emperor’s headquarters were actually in Tlatelolco which was less than a mile to the north of their present location.  Xipil expected combat, but hoped that would not be the case as he didn’t want to lose any of those saved.

Black smoke billowed across what used to be the market square as Xipil and the two warriors, stealthily made their way along the base of the Great Pyramid.  Chaotic battle noises came from every direction.  Xipil knew his people couldn’t continue to hold out against the invaders.  Maybe two days at most, he thought.  Stepping over bodies, they continued toward his meeting with Cuauhtémoc.

The stench of the decaying flesh filled his nostrils causing Xipil to instinctively start breathing through his mouth.  His mouth was already quite dry, his lips cracked and bleeding.  All three men were exhausted, but pushed on, finding reserves of strength none of them thought they possessed.  The will to survive was a strong force that could not be ignored.

Xipil’s hope was quickly extinguished as they left the Great Pyramid heading north towards the meeting with Cuauhtémoc.  The three men came upon four Spanish soldiers hiding behind the ruins of a noble’s home preparing to ambush a small group of wounded Aztec warriors approaching from the west.  All three could see that the wounded men, at least two of which would be dead within the hour, were no match for their opponents.  The ambush was nothing more than sport for the Spaniards.  Xipil felt an intense rush flood his head of something more powerful than a sense of anger.  Looking at his cohorts, he saw that the intensity of whatever the feeling was had also happened to them.  In a split second, Xipil initiated a surprise retaliation of his own. Wordlessly giving commands to the other two warriors, they assaulted the Spaniards with an insanity driven frenzy, guttural howls issuing from each man as they continued to stab and slash the enemy well after they were dead.  In that moment, Xipil learned what he had never been taught about the true purpose of combat.  Its purpose was not to ensure the steady flow of tribute or captives or gaining of status, its purpose was to exact revenge without remorse or pity.

After the carnage and his head cleared, Xipil assisted his wounded countrymen as far as he could to find their way to some level of safety.  Finally, the three men saw the outer sentries posted to guard Cuauhtémoc’s headquarters.  The noisy battle sounds seemed farther away.  Recognizing Xipil, one of the sentries led the small contingent to the emperor.  Pausing outside the door, all removed their sandals before entering the sparsely furnished room.  Even in the midst of the empire’s destruction, formalities were still observed.

Standing alone at a small rectangular window with his back towards the barefooted party, Cuauhtémoc seemed, at first, not to notice or hear the men.  The sentries withdrew without uttering a sound.  The three men kneeled on the smooth tiled floor and waited for their emperor to speak.  Cuauhtémoc continued to stare out the window.

Xipil dared to look at his old friend standing ten feet away from him.  It was highly unusual for Cuauhtémoc to be completely alone.  He wanted to be able to converse with the man as a friend, not as a subject to his emperor.  They had shared many things in their youth, most of all an unstoppable belief in their way of life.  They were as brothers then.  Cuauhtémoc had given him the courage to pursue Ahuiliztli, heartily approving of the union.

Sensing that Xipil was staring at him, Cuauhtémoc turned and looked at the group now kneeling before him.  He was attired simply in a light colored breechcloth and cape without all the usual vestments of his exalted office, his feet covered by modest sandals.  His long black hair was pulled back from his high cheek boned face by an unadorned leather headband.  Even dressed this way, Cuauhtémoc exuded a certain elegance not usual for an emperor who was just twenty-five.  His well-toned body bore no hint of the starvation occurring just outside.

“All of you stand.  There is little time left for us.” Cuauhtémoc said.

The three did as they were instructed.   Looking at the fresh blood on their battle skins and the haunted eyes of each man, Cuauhtémoc quickly surmised what had happened on the way to this meeting.  It had not been good.  He had seen the same haunted eyes in many of the captured enemy they had interrogated many weeks ago.  Such a look came from a place deep inside that no man should ever discover about himself, the truth of what he is truly capable of when his humanity is a spent commodity.  Cuauhtémoc’s already laden heart grew heavier with the knowledge that Xipil had finally discovered that place although it was clear that Xipil was not yet self-aware of the beginnings of  his transformation into something far more dangerous.  Given all that had happened, Cuauhtémoc was not sure how he himself had managed to stay away from the darkness now engulfing Xipil, but he also couldn’t condemn the warrior’s actions.  Much had been taken from Xipil, but the emperor believed it would be up to the gods to decide the man’s future path.

“We will speak alone,” Cuauhtémoc said looking directly at Xipil whose two comrades quickly exited the room following the unspoken command.

Meeting the emperor’s gaze, Xipil merely slightly nodded his head in agreement.  He was keenly aware of what his appearance represented to Cuauhtémoc.  It was not what he wanted to convey during, in all reality, was their last time together.  Brothers should not leave anything unspoken now.

“If I do not survive these last days, you will succeed me as tlaloani,” Cuauhtémoc said in a low tone.

Xipil stood in shocked silence for a long moment, then uttered in a raspy voice “No, this cannot be, you are emperor, the tlaloaniI cannot do what you want.  I have…am changing into someone else.  I am not the warrior I once was.”

Cuauhtémoc raised a hand to silence the troubled man, his tone as he spoke to Xipil became harsh and foreboding.

“It is done, I have decreed this succession.  You will not, cannot refuse me.  The priests have seen the signs of our future path.  You will follow the gods’ way and live in secret until their radiance shines on us again.  We will not be defeated.”

Cuauhtémoc turned away from Xipil and walked back to the rectangular window.  He didn’t tell Xipil the entire soothsayers’ story of the coming days which might not include the present emperor.  He accepted his potential fate, but not without regret.  It was his innate nature to fight no matter what the odds.  Cuauhtémoc peered out the window wondering where the stars had gone.

Xipil was rooted in place.  The tone of his friend’s voice and the look in his eyes left him unsettled.  Any thought of further protest drained away.  He knew well the resilient and defiant man standing at the window, but his instinct screamed that something was being withheld.  There was no use in any attempt to probe for more information.  None would be forthcoming.  Cuauhtémoc was emperor and as such, his word was to be obeyed and Xipil would obey without question.

Cuauhtémoc spoke again without any anger, but didn’t turn from the window.  “Much has been taken from you, from all of us.  You possess greater strength, wisdom and cunning than you have allowed yourself to use, my brother.  You must find them in yourself.  The days and years ahead will be hard.  Even though I am tlaloani, I have not forgotten our time as boys growing into men.  I have missed our hunts together and staring at the night stars talking of our greatness to come.  We will always be brothers.”

The tlaloani’s tone turned harsh again as he said, “Go now and do all that is necessary for our people.  Do not fail me or them and do not return to this place again.”

Xipil turned and strode out of the room, collected his companions and returned in record time to the hiding place which was to be the new birthplace of the Aztec Empire.  During the ensuing few days, Xipil obsessed on his meeting with Cuauhtémoc and all the events leading up to it, replaying everything over and over.  Sleep eluded him until his exhaustion finally took over.  Nightmarish dreams put an end to what slumber was possible.

And now, here he was, looking at the impossible.  He fervently wished he could pull himself away from the horror, but he was drawn to its haunting effects, needing to remember everything, to imprint it all in the dark reaches of his mind.

“It is time, Xipil,” said the priest.  “We must go before we are discovered.”

Just hearing the priest’s voice caused Xipil to again feel the rush of intense rage, a blood rage looking for a victim.  It took all of his control not to drive his obsidian knife through the priest’s skull.  He took a deep breath and exhaled slowly knowing that he must learn to channel and master the rage to his best advantage, but he used the murderous look of his narrowed eyes to convey a warning to the priest.  The priest recoiled, averting any further confrontation.

Xipil then signaled to the group to leave.  He stood alone for a few more minutes looking at the remnants of his beloved city.  No prayers to the gods for revenge would be uttered by him, not this day or any other of the long days to come.  The time for revenge would arrive, but such a time would not be chosen by the gods.

“I and my son and future sons and the sons of my sons will choose the time of our revenge” he shouted to the defeated city.  His lineage and his lineage alone would control the Empire’s destiny, not the gods.

The gods were dead.

He turned away from the destruction and began his quest for the rise of the new Aztec Empire.

 

 

1
San Francisco

Present Day

 

It was nearing one o’clock in the morning as Roland Pierce leaned back in his chair and frowned while he continued to look at the dissected PC boards laid out on the work table in front of him.  The only light emitted on the entire floor came from a few computer monitors at various other workstations and Roland’s own station’s fluorescents.  Tired and feeling pretty much cross-eyed at this point, Rollie, as he was known to everyone, had been hunkered over this project for several hours.  He liked to work alone in the quiet of the night as during the day the place sounded and looked much like a beehive.

Rollie pulled himself out of his chair, stood with both feet slightly separated and stretched his arms over his head in an effort to unkink his muscles and spine.  Bending his six foot slender medium build frame over at the waist, he deftly completed touching the floor with flat palms.  Not bad, he thought, for a fifty year old engineer considered by many in the technology field to be at an age when all dinosaurs should be extinct.  Holding the position for several seconds, the stretch felt good.

Rollie righted himself and walked over to the bank of floor-to-ceiling windows just outside his workstation.  This part of the building faced north, which during the day provided incredible views of the Golden Gate Bridge, the marina, Angel Island and beyond to Marin County.  The fog, summer’s natural air-conditioning, had already settled heavily over the tall support stanchions of the Golden Gate Bridge making the safety lights look ethereal in their yellow glow.  Even at this late hour, vehicles of various types could still be seen going in each direction over the venerable structure.

Rollie could see that the cooling blanket of fog was continuing to flow easily into the rest of the bay, the city itself, but would be stopped at the sentinels of the East Bay Hills.  July this year had been unusually hot, Iraq hot some said, all over California.  Tonight, the natural air conditioning off the Pacific Ocean caused a collective sigh from the over seven million plus inhabitants of the nine counties that made up the seven thousand square miles known as the Bay Area.

The Bay Area had been Rollie’s home all of his life except for a brief couple of years when he lived in Kentucky.  He had liked the state but always felt a pull to return home.

Rollie’s real workstation was three floors above the beehive on one of the executive levels of Northern California Power (NCAP).  He actually was the chief geek-in-charge of nearly one hundred and fifty engineers, programmers and the like.  NCAP had been working nearly non-stop for the past five years on their section of the national power grid system dubiously named the Smart Grid.  Due to be completely interconnected and operational in a very short time, Rollie’s entire department was on the front lines of the much heralded project.  Hardly a day went by anymore that some reporter wasn’t seeking an interview with Rollie or his boss, Norm Johannson.

The Smart Grid wasn’t without its detractors.  NCAP had been the target of a lot of negative media for a couple of years when the project first came to light by an exceedingly ballyhooed White House announcement.  What the public didn’t know or simply didn’t care enough about was that legislation had quietly created a major governmental department charged with the creation of the national power grid nearly five years before the White House’s announcement.  NCAP had participated heavily in the new department along with eleven other energy companies and providers, all jockeying for market share of the Smart Grid.  The apparent greed wasn’t lost on the local media.

Much to his disdain, a couple of irritants had occurred over the previous week that left Rollie unsettled.   First, there was Dwight Beauchamp, the bain of Rollie’s existence.  A pain in the ass programmer and self-styled computer master, hired three years before, who truly believed that he had all the answers at twenty-four, Dwight looked a lot younger, but never let his short, skinny stature hold him back from verbally knee-capping anyone who misjudged his slobbering teenage looks as a pushover.  Unfortunately, the kid’s complete lack of empathy for anyone else banned him from most meetings.

The problem was, Dwight was brilliant at what he did, having unraveled a significant security interface problem with the power grid which put the project back on the fast track, so NCAP and Rollie put up with his eccentricities.

The rumor among the group of programmers was that Dwight had actually hacked into the Italian national electrical grid system, shutting it down for several hours.  Homeland Security had waited patiently until Dwight’s conceit over the incident provided the undeniable pathway to his arrest. Working at NCAP for what a Silicon Valley programmer would've called minimum wage was the penance for his transgression, that and the fact that Dwight was guaranteed to be kept out of any Italian prison.

Rollie usually dismissed the rumors about Dwight to his staff, but knew that the rumor was true.  Dwight’s interviews were merely window dressing.  Either it was work for NCAP and fix the smart grid’s security problem, or spend the next twenty-five years in a prison that was not camp cupcake, more like camp Italian beefcake.

Homeland Security had been after Dwight since he was sixteen, but Dwight had been Teflon coated because of his father, Jeremy Beauchamp, a Silicon Valley founder of a global company specializing in very advanced military combat computer systems and applications.  The senior Beauchamp had used up all his get-out-of-jail-free favors with his contacts at the Justice Department prior to Dwight’s Italian fiasco.  So DHS arrested the smug little idiot right in front of his golden boy father at his palatial Woodside estate.  Rollie knew that had been an orgasmic moment for the Homeland agents.

By the time Dwight made it to his very secret arraignment, the smugness was gone and all that remained was a scared looking twenty-one year old man-child in an orange jumpsuit.  Jail can make a Christian in a foxhole out of anyone.  Dwight’s old persona returned as soon as he stepped through the revolving chrome and glass front doors of NCAP.

There were moments when Rollie darkly fantasized for the same orgasmic moment coming in the form of Dwight disappearing into some alien spacecraft.  Rollie just knew that wouldn’t happen because the extraterrestrials would have thrown Dwight out the second the little bastard uttered a sentence.

Dwight hadn’t come in to work for over a week now.  At first, he called in daily claiming he had the flu, then didn’t bother to call in anymore.  That scenario bugged Rollie on many levels.  Dwight was many things, but not being at his workstation nearly fourteen hours a day wasn’t one of them.

The other oddity that bugged Rollie was Dwight’s general demeanor just a few weeks before the “I’m sick with the flu” calls.  The usual cockiness was hit and miss, replaced at times by a distracted, almost wild eyed fearfulness that was fueling department gossip.  Even Norm Johannson who, most of the time, acted like employees were a nuisance to be endured, had noticed.

Rollie briefly wondered about the possibility of drugs, but quickly extinguished the thought.  The closest thing to drugs for Dwight was the occasional caffeine laced energy drink at the end of the day.  Dwight got high on technology and his own bravado.

On the last Monday that Dwight had shown up for work, Rollie had come in to work at five o’clock in the morning and was surprised to find Dwight asleep sitting on the floor propped up in a corner of the small conference room next to Rollie’s office.  Dwight woke up as Rollie flipped on the lights.  The kid looked as if he hadn’t seen a shower, clean clothes or any appreciable sleep in days.  His beloved high top sneakers were caked with dirt, his jeans and t-shirt were torn.  Decidedly un-Dwight-like.  Dwight was clutching his black messenger bag as if it were his only friend.

“Dwight, what the hell are you doing in here?” Rollie had said in an irritated tone, walking over to where Dwight sat.

“Sleeping.  What does it look like?” replied Dwight in a half hearted attempt at his usual style.

Rollie ignored the remark.  Instead, he concentrated on the spectacle in front of him.  As Dwight hoisted himself up from the floor, he ran some fingers through his greasy straight shaggy brown hair pushing it as best he could away from his face.  Dwight’s brown eyes were bloodshot.  Rollie also detected ripe body odor.

“Cut the crap, Dwight.  I’ll ask you again.  What are you doing up here?  And how did you get in?  You don’t have any security access to any floors other than where you are supposed to be working.”

“I upgraded my access a coupla years ago.” Dwight said flatly.

“Did Johannson give you authority?” Rollie replied, a couple of octaves higher than he intended.  He’d never liked his boss since the two-faced ladder climber took the job at NCAP five years ago.  Rollie suspected the feeling was mutual.

“No.  I didn’t need anyone’s permission, Rollie.  But that’s not why I’ve been waiting for you all night.”

Dwight just starred at Rollie.  It was obvious that no additional information on the security transgression would be finding its way out of the smelly kid’s mouth any time soon, so Rollie resigned himself to the uncomfortable fact that he would have to report this to Norm later today.  Norm, of course, would blame Rollie.

“Come on to my office.”  Rollie said as he walked away from Dwight.  He fished around in his pants pocket for the keys to his office.  Rollie was the only one on the entire forty-fifth floor that actually physically locked his office door.  The others used only the floor’s access control figuring that was more than enough security especially with the guard on the main floor.

“Did you go through anyone’s office?” Rollie asked Dwight as he slid the key into the lock and opened the door.

“Nope, didn’t need to,” Dwight said matter-of-factly.

That statement made Rollie even more uncomfortable as a half dozen more questions collided in his head, but he clamped down on pursuing them at the moment.  His instinctual inner voice was screaming that something was seriously wrong here and in order to get at what it was required Rollie to apply a higher than usual level of gamesmanship with Dwight.

Walking into his office, he used his right hand to access the light switch while simultaneously pointing with the left to one of two wingback gray and black plaid upholstered chairs in front of his mahogany colored faux wood desk, telling Dwight to sit down.  Dwight slumped into the nearest chair as Rollie took up his position behind the desk.

“Okay, so let’s have it.  You look awful.”  Rollie began as he leaned back in his executive style chair, folding his arms across his chest.  “Somethin’s been up with you for a while now.  Are you on Homeland’s shit list again?”

“No,” came the submissive reply, followed by a nearly inaudible, “I wish I was.”

Rollie didn’t betray his shock at the reply or the submissiveness he had never seen.

Dwight clutched his messenger bag a little more tightly and focused on a small crystal sculpture on the left side of Rollie’s desk.  The sculpture depicted a pair of entwined dolphins, a gift from his wife Annabelle to commemorate their twentieth wedding anniversary trip to Australia.

“If dolphins are supposed to be so smart, then how come they still get caught?”

Rollie wondered if Dwight was really talking about himself.  Obviously, Dwight had been a busy boy during his time with NCAP, but compromising the access control system wouldn’t have produced a shred of guilt with Dwight anyway and even if there had been a modicum of that emotion, it certainly wouldn’t produce such a change in personality as was visible now.

“Dolphins aren’t the problem right now.  Are you going to tell me why you waited all night for me?”

Dwight shifted his gaze from the dolphins to meet Rollie’s intense stare.  The master hacker was beginning to think he might have made a mistake.  Recently acquired feelings of fear driven anxiety more intense than when he was arrested began to course their way again through the pit of his stomach down to his bowels.  Dwight had always considered that Rollie’s intellect was quite high – the only one who could be remotely capable of outsmarting him.

“I’m here because I needed to tell you that I can’t decipher the pile of shit that is supposed to be the interface I needed to finish the communications protocol with Oklahoma Power.  What these idiots think they know couldn’t fill a half a page!” Dwight lied, mustering any semblance he could of his usual caustic tenor.  The work had already been done ten days ago.  He had to get out of there soon.  Rollie might consider having Homeland called in.

“And you waited until NOW to tell me this?”  Rollie said, not buying the lie because he’d discussed the completed work in a conference call with his counterpart at Oklahoma Power just seventy-two hours ago.

Dwight slightly fidgeted all the while calculating what he was going to say.

“Dwight, you could’ve lied better.  I already know the interface was done,” Rollie said evenly, savoring the moment, allowing the magnitude of it to find recognition in the eyes of the dirt heap sitting across from him.

Dwight’s fidgeting got a little more intense.

“You wanna tell me the real reason you’re here?” Rollie continued, acutely aware of the discomfort evident on Dwight’s face, but still felt a slight pang of sympathy.  He didn’t indulge any outward sign of weakness, choosing to continue his intense scrutiny.

Dwight exploded out of the chair.  “I think I’m gonna be sick.”

Clamping his hands over his mouth, he turned and sprinted out of Rollie’s office.  Rollie got to the door just in time to see Dwight disappear around the corner of the main reception area seemingly headed in the direction of the bathrooms.  Thinking it best to just let Dwight suffer alone in a stall for a few minutes, Rollie returned to his desk, accessed his schedule for the day and then started reading email.

Fifteen minutes later, Rollie went looking for Dwight.  He quickly discovered Dwight was not in the bathroom nor was he any where on the entire floor.  Fuming, Rollie went back to his office.  This time Dwight had gone too far.  Rollie didn’t want the hassle of dealing with Homeland, so in the short term, he decided he would have to try some other way to cope with Dwight.  Maybe he would just go to Dwight’s apartment later in the day to confront the little jerk.

Shortly after eight o’clock that morning, Dwight started his “I’m sick with the flu” days.  The sick call gave Rollie a little more time to focus on just exactly how he was going to keep the feds out of his orbit for a while longer.  He knew it was inevitable that Dwight’s transgressions had to be reported, but for now, he had more urgent matters pending.

One of the urgent matters concerned the new grid meters that had kept him at work for several very late nights in the past several weeks.  Dwight had actually been the first in NCAP who made mention of the fact that some meters on various parts of their section of the national power grid were not performing exactly as they were designed.

Some were shutting down for no apparent cause, staying randomly off-line for several minutes to a couple of hours, then restarting before any on-site service crews could assess the problem.  Others were spewing enormous amounts of data they were not supposed to send in to NCAP or any other utility provider.  This part was especially troublesome to Rollie because it breached agreements to protect customer privacy.  If the media were alerted at all, the resulting shit storm had the viable potential of derailing the integration of the national power grid for several more years.

Rollie decided that morning that issues with Dwight would just have to wait for a while.  If he was out sick, he was out sick and that’s the way it was regardless of what Norm Johannson might say or do.  Breathing room was what Rollie needed and had gotten during Dwight’s absence over the last week.

This evening, he had confirmed that the problem meters weren’t associated with any particular one of the three manufacturers used throughout the country.  So far, the information gathered showed the anomaly was spread evenly between manufacturers.  This, of course, suggested a software issue or a hacker into the grid, but nothing had shown its ugly head.

Rollie glanced at his watch, one-thirty in the morning.  Deciding to go home for a few hours instead of staying upstairs in his office again, he retrieved his briefcase, jacket and tie from the workstation.He was just too tired to think anymore.  Just in case anyone else thought of tinkering with his work, Rollie affixed a “don’t touch” sign to the workstation, logged off the computer and headed to the bank of elevators.

The elevator door slid almost silently open.  Rollie stepped inside the faux wood and stainless accented box, pushed his access card through the slot and pressed the key for the lobby.  A faint odor of ammonia was present indicating that the janitorial crews were done for the night.

The elevator chime sounded as he reached his destination.  A nano second later, the doors opened and Rollie exited.  As he walked across the shiny black granite tiled floor of the modernistic glass and chrome two story lobby towards the garage elevators, he waved and said “goodnight” to Howard Davenport, NCAP’s veteran security guard.

The garage elevators were very utilitarian looking, but they were strictly for employees.  Rollie descended to the third level.  Walking out into the well lit garage to his car, he was acutely aware that the air was still warm from the accumulated heat of the month.  Rollie’s was the only vehicle left on that level and was not far from the elevators.

Climbing into the driver’s seat, he tossed his belongings onto the passenger seat and cranked over the engine.  He switched on both the headlights and the air conditioning intending only to use the later convenience for a few minutes.

In less than three minutes, he’d backed his car out the parking space, ascended to the street level of the garage, pausing long enough for the security grating’s reader to recognize his car’s transponder and open to allow his exit onto California Street.  Turning right onto the nearly deserted major artery, he headed for the Bay Bridge and home in the East Bay.

What Rollie didn’t see as he drove away was a sweat soaked, disheveled and determined Dwight Beauchamp slipping into the employee garage before the security grating rattled all the way down.

 

 

2
San Francisco

 

Dwight flattened himself up against the concrete wall of the garage just under the fixed security camera which faced the entrance as the grating finally clanged shut.  The master hacker tried to slow his breathing down.  Rapidly scanning the area inside and outside the parking facility for any movement, he found none.

His entry to the garage had, so far, gone undetected.  Dwight had known for months that the camera on the opposite wall, also facing the entrance, was inoperative, thereby providing a small blind spot for someone his size to gain entry.  He had used this same entry only slightly a week earlier when he slept in the conference room waiting for Rollie.  He supposed he should feel a little safe for the moment, but he didn’t at all.  Staying alive for another day was all he was concerned with now.

Inching his way along the wall away from the garage entrance, listening for any noise, Dwight wondered just exactly how in the hell had he devolved down to the stinking mess he was now.  Reaching the end of the wall, no longer interested in security cameras simply because there weren’t any more of them, he turned right passing a smattering of parked cars as he quickly closed the distance to the elevators.  He punched the “UP” button.

Pulling out his access control card out of his jeans back pocket, he momentarily froze with the realization that Rollie Pierce might have been smart enough to have locked him out.  The elevator doors opened.  It was now or never.  Dwight stepped into the conveyance, slid his card through the reader and jammed his index finger on the “L”.  To his relief, the elevator started up towards the lobby.

Dwight glanced at his Breitling watch, a recent “I’m proud of you son” gift from his father, noting that it was one-forty-five in the morning.  Howard Davenport, the old geezer guard, should have started his hourly rounds making the lobby empty.  The geniuses at NCAP didn’t believe additional security personnel in the lobby was necessary after hours.  That stupidity had long worked in Dwight’s favor.

The elevator had reached the desired floor, flinging open its doors.  Dwight took a tentative look around the metal doors and found that the lobby was indeed empty.  Acting as if he were struck with an invisible cattle prod, he sprinted across to the main elevators reaching them just as the nearest elevator doors opened, disgorging the remaining janitorial crew who were happily chatting away to each other in English, Spanish and a couple of other languages, one of which sounded Russian to Dwight.

Not one of them gave much notice to Dwight as he deftly glided into the elevator as the last of group exited.  Ah, God save the diversity of the mother America, he thought.  Then grimly, God’s not going to save my ass!  I am.

Using his access card again, Dwight punched the floor he needed and waited nervously to reach his destination – Rollie Pierce’s executive office on the forty-fifth floor.  He felt a sudden urge to urinate, but that would have to wait.

He still couldn’t believe Rollie hadn’t locked him out.  Dwight was absolutely sure that Rollie wasn’t stupid, so it could only mean that Homeland hadn’t been called yet.  Obviously, Rollie and that prick Johannson assumed he was coming back to work.

Finally, he reached the golden floor.  Stepping to the threshold of the elevator, he again cautiously peered around the doors checking for any activity.  None.  Good.  He advanced out of the elevator allowing the doors to close, but remained stationary.

The spacious main reception area for all four executive floors was directly across from the bank of elevators.  Accordingly, its embellishments were more impressive with forest green accented granite floor tiles, cherry wood and polished brass lettering.

Four tan plush upholstered chairs, two on each side of a glass and wrought iron coffee table containing a rather large exotic plant, were laid out over an earth toned geometric patterned rug in a windowless alcove to one side of the oversized horseshoe shaped cherry wood reception desk.   A large framed aerial photograph of one of NCAP’s prime power plants was centered on the alcove’s wall tastefully illuminated by ceiling mounted art lights.

The lights were off in the few offices and conference rooms that Dwight could see from his current position.  The cherry wood wall directly behind the reception desk was festooned with four additional framed aerial photographs of other NCAP facilities.  Above this assortment was NORTHERN CALIFORNIA POWER in brass lettering illuminated by mini track lights.  Medium sized Benjamin ficus trees stood on each side of the reception desk at the edge of the wall and the adjacent hallways that extended beyond to other offices.

The ambient light provided by the track and art lights was all Dwight needed for his task.  As an extra precaution, he checked each hallway off the reception area, looked up and down for lights or movement, then finding none, he proceeded past the reception desk and the guest area alcove, down the hall towards Rollie’s office.

Adjacent to the various workstations of the administrative staff, Dwight stopped to let his eyes adjust to the much lower light.  Rollie’s office was just about thirty feet away.  Dwight noted that the door was closed and, he surmised, was most likely locked.  For a moment, he thought about turning on the work lights of the nearest workstation, but decided against it in case old Howard Davenport showed up too soon.  Instead, he reached into the side pocket of his black hoodie and pulled out a small LED flashlight.

Switching on the flashlight, he made a beeline for the target office.  Quite prepared with a lock pic set to break into Rollie’s office, he decided on a whim to try the door knob first.  To his utter amazement, the knob actually turned.

Dwight was momentarily rooted in place, his hand still around the knob.  What’s the deal here?  Rollie isn’t forgetful.  He looked towards the reception area expecting to see Rollie walking towards him with a Federal agent in tow.  No one was there.

Still, it didn’t feel right.  Normally, he’d have listened to his gut, but he was out of options.

His primary purpose was to retrieve his messenger bag that inadvertently fell to the floor when he bolted out of Rollie’s office the week before.  More importantly was what was in the bag.  Dwight gently pushed the door open, walking in.  He didn’t bother to look under the chairs as he anticipated that Rollie found the bag.  It had to be stored somewhere in this office.  Dwight wasn’t worried that Rollie would go through the bag’s contents.  Rollie was just too honest and respectful of people, two traits that he found misguided, particularly in the world they lived in.  Johannson was another animal altogether.  Johannson thought about Johannson first and everybody else second.

He searched the deeper drawers on either side of the desk first.  Scanning the contents with the flashlight, he came up empty.  Just various project files, correspondence files, NCAP propaganda, a coffee cup.  The credenza behind the desk was his next target.  Again, nothing - some unused recordable DVDs, engineering and programming manuals and a pair of tennis shoes.

Panic was beginning to find its way into Dwight’s brain again.  Where the hell was it?

A corner style bookcase with an enclosed base cabinet stood a few feet to the right of the credenza.  “Please, please, please,” Dwight said as he flung open the doors causing them to bang up against the walls.

“Crap.”  That made way more noise than he wanted.  He strained to hear any sound anywhere, remaining frozen in place.  Silence was all that flowed back to him.

Dwight bent down on one knee and swung his flashlight into action.  The bag wasn’t there!  He nearly screamed in frustration.  Adrenalin coursed through his body making his heart beat faster.  Desperate, he whorled around deciding that he should look under the guest chairs and desk anyway.

Maybe, by some stroke of sheer stupidity, Rollie never even saw it.  The goddamned thing had to be here!

He pushed aside the nearest wing back chair, but found nothing under or near either of the two chairs.

“Good Evening, Mr. Beauchamp,” uttered the confident, but unfriendly male voice behind him.

Without even looking, Dwight knew that it wasn’t the geezer guard.  It was what he thought he had been skillfully avoiding in order to stay alive the last several days.

Dwight didn’t have time to panic or run.  All he felt was a gloved hand on his mouth and slight stinging as a needle pierced his neck, sending him into a dreamless sleep.

 

 

3
Port of Oakland

 

“Breaks over.  We got a call.”

Rookie patrolman Leon Franks swallowed the last big chunk of his egg and cheese breakfast sandwich and ditched the remaining hot coffee in a trashcan as his partner yelled to him.

“Where to?” Franks said as he entered the patrol car and clipped his seatbelt in place.

“Warehouse about five blocks from here,” came the crisp reply.

Sargent Mike Hershey, a twenty-five year veteran, had been Franks’s partner since he joined the department six months ago straight out of the academy.  Hershey was known as a no nonsense officer, but loved being in the field more than a behind a desk, taking every opportunity to train the rookies in their first year.

“Apparently, the rent-a-cops have seen something they really didn’t like,” Hershey continued, turning on the light bars and siren.  “Dispatch said the male caller is barely coherent, so they don’t really know what the problem is.  They’re trying to get more info.”

Hershey gunned the engine and the patrol car sped away from the curb.  At seven in the morning, on an otherwise peaceful day, the commute traffic in and around the Port of Oakland was already in full swing.   Last night’s blanket of fog was lifting, shafts of morning sunlight were finding their way through the light gray clouds.  The cool fog would continue to recede back to the coastline for at least another two hours before most of the immediate bay saw the warmth of the sun.

Franks handled the next radio call from the dispatcher who relayed that the connection to the warehouse caller had been lost.  Attempts to re-establish the call were, so far, fruitless.

Franks always listened to his inner voice, even as a child.  That voice had kept him out of some bad situations growing up in the not so great neighborhoods of Chicago.  It was talking to him now, nudging him to stay away.  But he was a cop, something he was proud of and trained hard for, so staying away wasn’t an option.

Deftly maneuvering around lumbering eighteen wheelers hauling various cargo containers to and from the area, Hershey decided to use a shortcut.  Turning off the main road onto a side street, he crossed over to a parallel road placing them within visual range of their destination.  The street and surrounding area buildings were devoid of any trees or shrubs.  Many of the businesses were shuttered.

The warehouse, a large rectangular gray sheet metal sided building, two stories high with a pitched roof, was on the left side of the road.  Four loading docks were on one side of the building.  The main offices were housed in the front.  A faded sign showed that the occupant used to be Jenkins Trucking Company.  Graffiti adorned plywood covered the office windows as well as most of the windows on the lower floor.  A few windows on the second floor had broken panes.  The black topped parking areas were in disrepair, weeds growing in the cracks.

Hershey slowed the patrol car down, turned into the driveway, shut off the siren, but kept the light bar on and angled the black and white towards the office area where the Cummings Industrial Security van stood.  Coming to a stop near the van, Hershey didn’t see anyone in or around the vehicle. The driver’s door was hanging open.  The double glass doors of the office were open as well.

“So where is he?” Franks asked without looking at Hershey. 

“Let’s take this slowly.” Hershey got out of the patrol car and withdrew his service revolver, left the safety on, but remained standing behind the open car door, the gun hand at his side.

Franks did the same as his partner.  The inner voice was now in high gear.

“See anything or anybody?” Hershey asked without looking at Franks.

“No.”

“Okay.  Let’s move toward the office.”

Hershey and Franks began their cautious approach to the open office double doors, keeping a reasonable distance between themselves, continuing to scan the area for any potential threat.

“Oakland police department,” Hershey called out several times as they moved toward the open door.  No response.

They were nearly to the doors when two men appeared, one assisting the other.

“Jesus,” uttered Franks.

Both men wore work uniforms of khaki colored pants and short sleeved shirts with a name patch on the right and the Cummings black and red logo on the left, black leather tool belts containing pouches for flash lights, radio and cell phone, and black leather work boots.

Blood was evident on both their uniforms, but much more of it on the forty something one needing assistance whose hands and face bore the dark red liquid as well.

Franks holstered his gun and rushed to help the men.  Hershey called dispatch for additional police and an ambulance.

Franks got the two Cummings employees seated on the ground, leaning up against the wall of the building.  He crouched down.

“What’s your name?  What happened? Anybody else in there?”  Franks asked the men while rapidly trying to determine where the wounds were on each man.

“Grady, John Grady,” feebly replied the younger of the two.  “I’m not hurt. His name’s Joe Sinclair.  That’s not his blood.”

Sinclair was nearly catatonic, staring straight ahead, slightly rocking and making only a low keening sound.  Anything useful was going to come from Grady.  Grady was as ashen faced as Sinclair and clearly terrified.

“John, look at me.  We’re here to help you.  What happened?” Franks asked again, more gently this time.

Grady looked at Franks.  Tears welled up in his eyes.

“Christ to heaven.  I’ve been in Iraq and never seen anything like that.  What’s in there.”

Franks stood up and looked at Hershey who had been listening intently to the exchange.  One of them was going to have to go into the warehouse to see whatever “it” was.  The shrills of the sirens were faint, but unmistakable.

“I’ll go see what’s in there.  You stay with them.”  Hershey said as he unholstered his revolver again.

“You won’t need that,” offered Grady looking up at Hershey.

Ignoring the comment, Hershey kept his gun ready and went into the building.  This time he flipped the safety off.  The open doors illuminated just enough of the immediate office space to allow Hershey to see where Grady and Sinclair had come from across the dust laden linoleum floor.  He avoided going over their path as he proceeded further in.  Stagnant, slightly moldy smelling air greeted the veteran cop.  Accumulated heat was being dissipated by the rush of cooler outside air.

The plywood covered windows reduced visibility beyond the open doors.  Using his flashlight to sweep the main office area, Hershey found it completely empty.  Carefully keeping to the side, he followed the traces of blood and disturbed dust across to a short hallway, each footstep creating a slight crunching sound from the collection of dust and dirt.

On one side of the hallway were two moderate sized offices, the other side was just one room with aluminum framed glass making up the entire wall.  Must have been the break room once, thought Hershey.  The glass was not so dirty that it rendered his flashlight ineffective.  He stepped inside.  Empty.

Hershey quickly checked the two offices.  Empty.

Eight feet further down the hallway, he reached the solid self-closing gray metal door leading to the rest of the warehouse.  Whatever had happened to Grady and Sinclair was on the other side.

Hershey had dealt with many crimes, witnesses and victims during his years in law enforcement, but had never seen anyone in the state that Sinclair was in.  Grady’s tormented eyes and last comment had left an uneasiness that Hershey couldn’t shake.

Hershey slowly opened the door, keeping himself positioned to make sure he wasn’t a big bull’s-eye for a bullet.  There was no sound or movement within his direct line of sight.

He stepped to the threshold of the door.  Holding the door with his back to prevent it from closing, he swiftly looked around in a one eighty degree arc and then allowed the door to close behind him.

The warehouse was a typical open configuration befitting its former life as housing a trucking company.  Columns of steel at strategic intervals rose from the concrete floor to the crisscross of support beams two stories up.  One corner quadrant of the open ceiling above the second story bank of windows was enclosed like an attic. A metal staircase with a small landing at the height of where a true second floor would have been led up to a door.

Morning sun was streaming through all the upper windows and the few lower level windows that didn’t have plywood.  Hershey switched off his flashlight and instantly was aware of an unpleasant odor.

Advancing into the area following the traces of blood towards one of the steel columns, the odor got a lot stronger.  Adrenalin coursed through his body.  He was not liking this at all.  His breathing became shallow and a little more rapid, but he was not scared.

Looking up from the trail he was following, a high sense of dread took over as he recognized the odor.  It was the sickening stench of dead human flesh oddly mixed with the smell of burnt wood.  The angles of the steel columns were obstructing his full view of a body on the ground whose nude bloody back was facing him.

Hershey quickened his pace around the steel column.  He abruptly stopped, dropping his metal flashlight which clattered loudly as it hit the concrete floor.  The tableau that was twenty feet in front him was something straight out of a nightmare.

“Holy God!” he said as he crossed himself as if he were still a good practicing Catholic.  He hadn’t talked to God in a very long time.  Hershey willed his feet to move a short distance closer.  He couldn’t accept what he was seeing, but he had to, it was real.

A young male body laid supine on a bizarre shaped stone altar.  The ungodly thing seemed to be one solid chiseled piece with an arch under the torso causing the chest to be thrust upward from the rest of the body.  The victim’s head was flopped over to the right side facing him, the eyes open.  Blood was caked around the nose and mouth.  The arms hung over the side of the altar, rivulets of blood extending down the white skin.  Two half charred pieces of wood protruded out of the singed gaping chest.  The right leg looked mangled.  No, not mangled, he thought as he focused a little more closely on the leg.  Chunks of skin and muscle had been sliced away.

Two additional bodies joined the one on the ground that Hershey had had a partial view of.  All were nude males with the chests split open and at least one limb in the same condition as the poor bastard on the slab.  Blood covered the floor around the altar.

Eight elaborately scrolled black wrought iron floor standing candelabras, each about six feet high, were placed at staggered distances around the head and foot ends of the altar.  Candle wax descended down like stalactites from what remained of the spent large candles onto the fixtures themselves finally producing pools on the concrete floor.

Hershey noticed a bowl on the ground at the head end of the altar.  Something was in it.  Advancing closer, he realized that the something was the victims’ hearts.  The morning light appeared transfixed on the altar as if this abomination was divine in nature.

For the first time in his career, Hershey felt his breakfast wanting to come up.  It seemed as if all the air in the room had been instantly sucked out.  He was holding his breath.  Seconds moved like minutes, minutes moved liked hours as he stood there.  Hershey could hear screaming, but it was not coming from him.

Hershey finally averted his eyes, moving away from the hellish sight and lost his stomach contents behind a steel column.  He finally recognized that the screaming was really the sirens.

It was time to go.  He never wanted to see this place again.  This was not a simple homicide motivated by greed, lust, revenge or gang marking of territory.  He could make weird sense of homicide, there was always an explanation in the end.  This was something else clearly not motivated by any of the seven deadly sins.  The carnage here in this place was more than just cold blooded.

Now, he could hear Franks calling to him.  Other voices joined Franks’s calls.  His head seemed to be clearing, but he wouldn’t look back at where he had just been.  He told himself that some things were just better left to others to find the answers.  It occurred to Hershey as he walked towards the rookie that maybe he should stay behind a desk for awhile.  Maybe, it was also time to have a serious chat with God again.  Or maybe, it was just plain time to retire and live on the houseboat at Lake Powell that he and Katherine owned and stay as far away from man’s insanity as possible.  Maybe, maybe…

 

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