Thursday, January 26, 2012

Chapter Four of Cursed Presence: welcome back Phantom Squad

Chapter FOUR

      Brent’s phone vibrated while he lunched with Chloe, Seven and Maddie at the Loft.“Hey, Joan, what’s up?”
     “Brent, President Dupree needs to talk to you and Maddie at headquarters immediately. He says it has to do with a personal and national matter.”
     “Did he give any other details?”
     “No, but he sounded a little shaky, almost scared. I’ve never heard him like that before.”
     “We’ll be there in ten minutes. Have him waiting on the line when we arrive.”
     “What was that all about?” Maddie asked.
     “I don’t know. John needs to speak to us right away. We’ll have to take our lunch to go.”
     “Can we come?” his wife asked.
     “You and Seven have the highest government clearances, I don’t think the president will mind.”
     Maddie had excused herself and headed over to talk to Benito, The Loft’s owner. “Bennie, I’m sorry, but we have to leave. We have to get back to work, pronto.”
     “Don’t-a you worry,” Bennie said in a very heavy Italian accent. “I’ll have your food delivered as soon as it’s-a ready.”
     The foursome headed to SIA headquarters. Anyone who walked through the doors of the renovated warehouse assumed it housed a think-tank and an institute of heightened awareness where religion, philosophy and politics were studied.
     Joan greeted the crew as they walked through the door. She let them know President Dupree was waiting for Maddie and Brent on the line, as requested.
     “I transferred the call to conference Room A,” she said.
     The conference room held only a large round table and sixteen chairs. Maddie had insisted on round tables in all conference rooms so every participant felt equal. As in every other room, it was devoid of all insignia or other identifying symbols that would reveal the building’s true identity. That was Maddie’s first executive decision after she was confirmed by congress as the director of the Strategic Intelligence Alliance, the most covert intelligence agency in the world.
     The lack of insignia was security overload since the high-tech system incorporated in the building’s design made break-in virtually impossible. Every door, every piece of equipment, responded to palmer recognition or voice activation. In the off-chance that security was compromised, a nerve gas would automatically be released from the ventilation system, causing temporary paralysis to anyone inside the breached area.
     They all took seats around the table, their eyes fixed on the bright light blinking on the red phone. The direct line to the president.
     Maddie leaned forward and pressed the intercom button. “Good afternoon, Mr. President, sorry to keep you waiting. I’ve placed the call on video phone. Can you see us okay? Brent is here as you requested. Chloe, and Seven asked if they could join us, as well. If you prefer, they’ll give us privacy.”
     “I can see everyone just fine. It’s good that everyone is there, this matter will ultimately concern all of you.”
     “Sir,” Brent said, “it sounds as though this is more of a personal situation than a national one. Are you okay?”
     “I’m fine, for now. This is a personal matter, a very personal one, as a matter of fact. But it’s also a matter that greatly concerns the safety of all Americans. I don’t know how to put this delicately, so here it is.”
     As the four awaited the bad news, they watched the president take a long, deep breath and exhale slowly. The four could feel the tension transfer into the room. They all stared at the screen, awaiting the President’s words.
     “The Omega Butcher has escaped.”
     “What!” The look on Brent’s face was one of shock, but it was felt by each one of them. The Butcher was a prolific serial killer who stalked college campuses in 1999 through 2000. The last person he kidnapped was the president’s daughter, Charlotte.
     “We don’t have all of the particulars yet. We know he escaped shortly after 5:00 a.m. this morning. So far, we know of three victims; all dead. During his escape, he killed a doctor, a guard and a bus driver.” The president’s voice started to crack. “Brent, he left a note.”
     “Can you read it, sir?”
     “I will, but first let’s dispense with the formality. We have been through too much together for you to call me sir.”
     “Done,” Brent said. “Now the letter, please.”
     The President cleared his throat, his voice shakier and more frightened.
     “It says,
               President Dupree,
               First, let me offer you my congratulations on your
               election. The last time we spoke you were just a lowly
               vice-president. I’m sorry for the mess I left behind,but
               I was in a  bit of a hurry, you understand. Soon I will be
               taking my rightful place in this world, doing my father’s
               But first, I have some unfinished business to attend to.
              Foremost, there is that sorority harlot. Unfortunately,
              I was interrupted the first time I tried to cleanse her of her
              sins. I’m sure they have multiplied since our last date. She
              will be first on my agenda. Then there’s the matter of that
              hero of hers. He must be dealt with severely.”

      Chloe gasped and squeezed Brent’s hand.
      The President again cleared his throat before continuing.

              I know that our much-loved president will get this message
              to you, Venturi, so listen up. Come and find me. I’ll be waiting.

      The President’s voice trailed off.
     “John, I don’t understand…”
     “Just a moment, Brent, there’s more. After I finish, I’ll answer all of your questions. The Butcher goes on to say,

              When all is complete, I will take my place alongside the one
              true god, the one who set me free.

             P.S. Say hello to your new wife for me, Venturi. On second
             thought, maybe I’ll say hello myself.

      “That’s all of it,” the President said. “My God, I can’t believe this horror is starting up again. My daughter is finally leading a somewhat normal life. It took four years of therapy just so she could feel safe enough to leave her house in daylight hours. How am I supposed to tell her that this maniac has escaped and that he’s coming after her?”
     The room was silent. No one could miss hearing the emotion and dread in the president’s voice. The circles under his eyes seemed to have darkened in the few minutes they had been in contact. Each wanted to reach out and comfort their leader, their friend, but no one knew what to say.
     When the silence seemed most deafening, Brent spoke. “John, we’ll get through this together. First, I have questions, and I need honest answers.”
     “Give me a second Brent.” To help collect his thoughts or possibly to stall for time, the president took a drink of water. Sighing, President Dupree spoke. “I imagine you do. Ask me anything. There are no more secrets. I’ll tell you everything I know. But the information I give you does not leave that room. Understand?”
     Brent, Seven, Chloe and Maddie looked at one another and nodded their agreement.
     “We all understand, Mr. President,” Maddie said. “Brent, since you’re more familiar with this subject, why don’t you lead the discussion?” She was right. Brent knew much more about this matter. In fact, he was the only one among them who had faced the Butcher before his capture.
     Brent scribbled notes on a piece of paper. When Maddie broke in, he barely heard her say his name.
     “Hmm, I’m sorry, Maddie, could you repeat that?”
     His preoccupation surprised everyone. If ever there was someone consistently in the moment, it was Brent. Maddie knew this wasn’t the time to reprimand him, so she repeated herself.
     “Since you’re more familiar with the subject, I’d like you to lead the discussion.”
     “Thank you, Madam Director, I appreciate that.” Brent looked down at the paper he’d written on and inhaled deeply to clear his mind before he spoke. “John, how does someone escape by bus from Monteque Penitentiary? It’s an island prison.”
     “He didn’t—I mean, he wasn’t at Monteque.”
      Brent’s calm exterior cracked at the unexpected news, and showed in the tone of his voice.
     “What do you mean? The court mandated it. He was to be imprisoned at Monteque until the date of his execution.”
     “I know, Brent. Like you, I was at the sentencing. But things didn’t go as ordered. Remember, I was vice-president at the time. President Morrow was a lame duck. He pushed for initiating a pet project of his. His legacy, he’d thought. He was convinced that criminals like the Butcher could be rehabilitated…no, wait, that’s wrong. He felt they could be reprogrammed back to right-minded individuals with rigorous therapy. And I use the term ‘therapy’ loosely.”
     At this point, Brent completely lost his cool. He pounded his fist on the table, causing everyone including the president, to jump.
     “What the hell are you talking about?” he yelled. “Cut the political crap and speak clearly.”
     Chloe placed her hand on top of Brent’s balled-up fist, hoping to calm him. Instead, he yanked his arm away and stood. He slammed the chair into the table.
     “Are you telling me that President Morrow convinced Congress that it was a good idea to rehabilitate or reprogram, as you put it, this psychopathic killer?”
    “Calm down, Colonel. Remember who you’re talking to. It was my daughter who was left emotionally scarred by this man.”
     “With all due respect, I’m well aware of your daughter’s scars. I wear the physical scars from her rescue.”
     “Gentlemen, please,” Maddie interjected. “We’re all aware of the past events. Let’s keep our heads in the present. Colonel Venturi,” Maddie said using a tone of authority, “please sit down so we can continue.”
     Brent snapped his head around and glared at Maddie. He continued to scan the room. Chloe looked up at him with big doe eyes filled with fear. She’d never seen him lose his composure like this.
     Brent looked at Seven, his best friend, the man who trained him. The man he most admired. Seven’s face was emotionless, as if he were on a mission. He gave Brent a nod of assurance that conveyed understanding. A nod that said this was neither the time nor the place. A nod that helped ground his emotions.
    Brent sat down and looked around the table, first at his wife, then at his closest friends, the people he considered family.
     “I apologize for my outburst. Mr. President, please forgive me for any disrespect.”
     “No disrespect taken. Let’s forget the formality and get back to the situation at hand.”
     Brent nodded, his shoulders dropped, a sign that he was more at ease. “Thank you for understanding. Please fill us in on how McFarland was transferred from Monteque and from where he escaped.”
     “I’ll begin with your previous question. President Morrow did not seek, nor did he receive congressional approval. He enacted executive privilege and bypassed the Congress altogether. He’d been convinced by an old college roommate, a preeminent psychiatrist, that this type of criminal could be reprogrammed with the proper combination of psychotic drugs, counseling and E.S.T.”
     “Shock therapy. For real?” Brent said.
     “I’m afraid so.”
     “So, where could they possibly have taken McFarland, and any others they deemed programmable where nobody would be able to track them? I’m assuming there are others in this ‘study’,” Brent said.
     “There were five others, and they were taken to the place the government takes everything and everyone they want to make disappear.”
     Brent closed his eyes, thinking about the last remark. Seconds later, his eyes shot open .
     “John, are you telling me they were taken to 51—to area 51? The prisoners or whatever they are called are housed at Dreamland?”
     “Yes, that’s what I’m saying. A complete underground facility known as the Dreamland Project. It houses prisoners, correction officials and medical staff.”
     “My God,” Brent exclaimed, rising from his chair. He paced the floor. “We’ll need all the information you have, official and otherwise on the Dreamland Project. I want to talk to this doctor, President Morrow’s old college roommate.”
     “The information on Dreamland is on its way to you. I’m afraid you won’t be able to speak to Dr. Osgood. He’s the doctor the Butcher killed.”
     “Great,” Brent said, in a sarcastic tone.
     Maddie held up a finger, wanting to speak but not wanting to interrupt. Brent saw and nodded.       “Madame Director, please, go ahead.”
     “Thank you, Colonel. Mr. President, what can you tell us about the event that took place at the facility last night?”
     “The transcripts are being e-mailed to you under the Pentagon’s password, but this is what I know. In Dr. Osgood’s notes, he wrote that he was close to a major breakthrough in McFarland’s case, that his maniacal behavior could be traced back to his childhood. That information, in detail, along with treatment protocol, is included in the e-mail. I had the video streamed directly to you detailing the entire incident. You’ll see why he was moved to the infirmary. That’s where he escaped from.”
     As the president spoke, Joan walked into the conference room carrying a laptop and a USB cord. She immediately sensed the tension in the room. It was so thick, she thought, she could reach out and hold it in her hand. “I thought you’d want to see this as soon as it came in.”
     Maddie smiled. Joan had an uncanny ability to know what she wanted before she knew herself. It was one of the things she loved most about her.
     Joan returned the smile. They’d become very close over the past year, though neither knew exactly why. There existed between them a special bond not unlike a mother-daughter relationship, sprinkled with a sorority sister-type friendship.
     She placed the computer at the far end of the table and connected the USB cable to a port built into the table. The wiring had been designed so anything that showed up on the computer monitor was transmitted directly to a screen by way of USB or Ethernet. Immediately, a large screen descended from the ceiling at the front of the room.
    “Would you like to view the e-mail or go straight to the video, Colonel?” Joan’s question was moot. She already knew the answer. Brent despised reading off a computer screen, he wanted e-mails printed out before he read them.
     “The video please, Joan.”
     “Mr. President, I’ve gone ahead and linked the video straight to the Oval Office. If you watch your screen, you’ll see the same thing our team here is viewing.”
     “Thank you, Joan, that’ll be very helpful.”
     “If everyone’s ready, I’ll dim the overhead lights before I start the video.” Not waiting for a response, she clicked the start button that automatically dimmed the lights, and headed toward the door.
     “Joan,” Maddie said, “you’re part of this team and welcome to stay.”
     Noting the concern on the faces of the people she knew best, she decided to stay and see what all the commotion was about. As the room faded to black and the video started to play, she took a seat next to Maddie.
     The first images were of someone sleeping on a bed. The wide-angle lens took in a view of the entire cell. A LCD numbers on a digital clock displayed at the bottom right corner of the screen moved in rapid sequence. Hours turned into seconds. When it slowed down to real time, they recognized the Omega Butcher for the first time. He twitched involuntary with spasmodic muscle contractions. Eyes glued to the screen, they watched the contractions become more frequent, more forceful.
     The violent movements were accompanied by sounds emanating from the prisoner’s throat. As the contractions became more agitated, the prisoner’s voice grew louder and deeper. What started as a murmur became incoherent screaming. The butcher leapt from his bed and stood in the middle of the cell. The screaming and thrashing continued as two guards entered.
     The team was riveted to the screen. They watched the large, heavily-muscled guards struggle to subdue and control the small, waif-like prisoner. Tackled, McFarland was placed in a straitjacket. A man wearing a white lab coat rushed in, presumably, Dr. Osgood. A needle was thrust into the prisoner’s hip. The Butcher slumped to the mattress, silent and still.
     “Can you zoom in, Joan?” Brent said.
     “Sure. Which part?”
     “The beginning. Zoom in on his face. I want to see his eyes.”
     “Why the eyes?” the President asked.
     “A hunch. I want to check something.”
     “Okay, here we go,” Joan restarted the video, this time zooming in for a close-up of the Butcher’s eyes.
     “Slow it down, Joan. Frame by frame, if you can.”
     She did as Brent asked, slowing the speed until they could view it in ultra-slow motion.
     Brent raised his arm to get everyone’s attention. “Everyone, watch his eyes and listen to the tone of his voice.”
     At first, Maddie, Seven, Chloe and Joan seemed surprised at how peaceful and innocent Jonas McFarland appeared as he slept.
     Frame by frame, the video slowly moved. Soon, the captivated viewers heard a whimper coming from Jonas’ throat. At the same time, they witnessed a barely visible muscle twitch in his chest.
     His eyes opened.
     They leaned forward trying to get a closer look. The color of his eyes were Unique. Crystal blue.
     “Oh, my God,” Chloe gasped. “They look like blue diamonds, they actually sparkle.”
     Maddie leaned in further. “Are they real? They look like contacts.”
     “They’re real,” Brent said. “Keep watching.”
     McFarland’s voice grew deeper and louder. It was as though some mysterious, intrinsic quality was transformed. The manner in which the sounds were delivered was suddenly different. His voice went from one of innocence to one full of guilt and hatred. From soft and child-like to angry and curt. Simultaneously, the contractions became abrupt and violent.
     Brent glanced at the others. They were mesmerized by the gyrations and forcefulness of the muscle spasms.
     He implored everyone, “Shift your attention from his movements back to his eyes.” They watched with astonishment as the Butcher’s eyes became darker, no longer light blue, now a deep-bluish purple. The next transformation made them appear almost black. When he moved his head the lights in the room reflected a glimmer or spark of red. The spark spread, like a single ember growing into a forest fire until the iris was a glowing flame.
     Everyone in the conference was shocked and awestruck. Everyone except Brent. They shifted in their chairs, uncomfortable in their own skin.
     “Concentrate,” Brent said.
     Everyone’s attention returned to the screen. What they witnessed defied explanation. McFarland’s pupils morphed, losing their humanity and becoming serpent-like. When the change was complete, Jonas had become the Butcher. He was in full, mouth-frothing rage.
     “Stop the video, Joan.”
     Seven, a man of action, had enough of sitting still. His frustration for what he just witnessed was vented in his words. He stood and pointed at the screen. “What the hell was that? And how did you know it was going to happen?”
     Brent looked at his friend. “I’m not sure what it was or what it means. At least, not yet. And to be honest, I wasn’t sure it was going to happen until I watched it with all of you.”
     Brent combed his fingers through his hair, brushing it away from his eyes. “When we apprehended the Butcher, I thought I saw the same thing occur, but in reverse. I was going into shock from the pain caused by the hot oil burns and my mind and body were shutting down. At the time I wasn’t sure if what I saw was real, or imagined. When I woke up three days later, I wasn’t able to differentiate between what I had seen and what I’d experienced in my nightmares.”
     Everyone was quiet. No one knew what to say. They stared at the table, each imagining what Brent had gone through. Brent didn’t pick up on how uncomfortable they felt. His gaze remained focused on the screen.
     President Dupree broke the silence. In a fragile voice, he said, “Brent, after the rescue, weeks after, when Charlotte was finally able to speak, she said there were two men present in the room, two, not including you. She would lie in bed and repeat over and over, ‘Two men and one, two men and one.’ Like some sort of mantra. Her doctors dismissed it as post-traumatic stress disorder. Now, I’m not so sure.”
     “John, why didn’t you ever mention this before now?”
     “I—I just believed what the doctors told me. Why? Do you know what she meant?”
     “She wasn’t saying two men and one, she was saying two men in one. She saw Jonas transform from a soft-spoken, juvenile young man into a demon.”
     “Oh, my God.” The President’s voice cracked. “She was right—and I didn’t believe her. After that incident with the doctors, she became angry and refused to speak to any of us.” He sniffled, then cleared his throat, audible signs that he was becoming emotional. “Even today, she doesn’t talk to me often. Our relationship has never been the same.” Everyone in the room could hear the president pacing the floor of the Oval Office. “Now what do I do? I can’t let her relive that nightmare. I just can’t.”
     Before the President could say another word, Brent interjected, “She won’t. I won’t let that happen.” Changing his tone to a softer, more empathetic one, he added, “John, please, listen to me. Get in touch with your daughter and tell her about the escape before she hears about it in the news. Tell her in person. Have the Secret Service bring her to you, under false pretenses, if necessary. Just make sure you tell her in person.”
     “Of course. But why are you so adamant about it?”
     “Because she’ll run if she finds out any other way. I know all too well what kind of effect this news will have on her. Believe me, if she is not in your custody, she’ll try to run and hide from him.” Brent hesitated, choosing his next words carefully. “But she won’t be able to. He’ll find her if she tries to hide from him.”
     The tension in the room grew thicker with Brent’s words.
     “Please do exactly as I say,” he continued. “Once she’s with you and you’ve explained the situation, put her on a plane and send her to us.”
     “Why down there? That doesn’t make sense. The Butcher is looking for you, too!”
     Brent paid no attention to the President’s remarks. Keeping his demeanor calm, he said, “Because it’s the only place she’ll be safe.”
     “I want her here with me,” President Dupree said. “I’ll triple her Secret Service protection.”
     “With all due respect, sir, she won’t be any safer. Listen to me. I know you want to protect her. This is the only way. It’s what you must do.”
     “Give me one good reason why and I’ll agree. Tell me why she’d be safer there with you than here with the best protective force in the world.”
     Brent almost told him about the tunnel system, but that would divulge the secret of the Endowment and in turn put the President in harm’s way. That was something he wasn’t prepared to do.
     “I can’t. As a friend, I’m asking you to trust me. I would never put Charlotte in harm’s way. If I wasn’t sure this was the best plan of action, I wouldn’t have brought it up. John, I’m asking you…no, pleading with you to trust me. The only place Charlotte will be safe from that maniac is here, with us.”
     The President’s voice was a quivering mess. “As God as your witness, Brent, do you swear this is the only way? I couldn’t live with myself if that animal got hold of her again.”
     “As God as my witness, I swear.”
     The President was silent for a moment. “What do you need me to do? I can put her on Air Force One this afternoon, and she’ll be there tonight.”
     “Whoa, slow down,” Brent said. “First, have the Secret Service pick her up at work. Send someone she trusts. Tell her whatever it takes for her to go with them to the White House. Then you tell her what happened. Keep her in D.C. until tomorrow evening.”
     “Why so long?”
     Brent hesitated, he knew what he was about to say wouldn’t go over well. “I need to give the Butcher enough time to make his way from Nevada to D.C.”
     “Are you insane?” the President yelled. “I’m not jeopardizing my daughter’s life so that we can wait until that madman is close by.”
     “John, please listen to the entire plan. I would never ask you to put Charlotte at risk. Okay?”
     “Go ahead,” President Dupree said, “but so far, I’m not on board with this one bit.”
     “Replace her with an agent disguised as Charlotte. Have her follow Charlotte’s schedule to a tee. No deviation whatsoever. She’ll live in her condo until stage two of the plan. Move Charlotte today, to a safe house located at 721 Piedmont Drive in Arlington.”
     “Who lives at that address?”
     “The less you know, the safer you are. But you can be confident she will be safe.
     At 8:00 tomorrow evening, Charlotte will be transported from the safe house to a hidden airstrip. At 9:00, she will board a non-descript Lear jet and fly directly to another hidden airstrip in Palm Cove. I’ll be waiting for her.”
     Joan typed as Brent talked. They had worked together for so long, she knew when to record his conversations.
     “Got that, sir?”
     “Got it.”
     “At the same time your daughter is being moved, the decoy and her Secret Service escort will leave her house and be driven to Air Force One at Langley, where the plane will depart at 9:00. Its destination will be your vacation compound in San Diego. Is everything understood?”
     “How can you be sure Charlotte won’t be followed to this safe house, or be seen leaving it?”
     “Because you will have her and the agents transported from the White House in one of the laundry trucks which will be parked at the entrance to the underground bunker.”
     Shock shown on the president’s face. “How do you know of the bunker and its location, Colonel?”
     “Trust, sir. This will only work if you have total trust.”
     “All right. Forget the question—for now.”
     “Once she’s at the safe house, she’ll be taken to the plane by way of tunnel. The house is built on top of a vein of the underground railroad.”
     “How do you know about this place?” As soon as the words left his mouth, the President knew he wouldn’t get a straight answer.
     “You’re just going to have to trust me.”
     “I do.”
     “So we’re clear on the plan?”
     “One more thing. All communication is now Level Four. Do you still have that satellite phone I gave you?”
     “The one you said I’d probably never need? Yes, it’s in my safe.”
     “Have it with you at all times. If you need to contact us, use channel thirteen. From this point forward, all communication goes through that channel only.”
     “How do I know our conversations won’t be monitored?”
     “It’s a Phantom Squad-issued phone. No other satellite phones exist with that bandwidth. There is no safer form of communication. For extra security both parties, will always answer with the code phrase, ‘John 3:16’.”
     “Got it. And Brent?”
     “Yes, sir?”
     “God be with you. All of you.”
     “Thank you, Mr. President.” They all heard the dial tone, signaling the President hung up. The video connection went black.

1 comment:

  1. Well executed build of tension as you inform the reader. Now hanging for what comes next. Good job compelling the reader to turn the page!

    I did also note on Chapter three heading, the word Chapter is missing the 'a'.