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Where are our Children: A Novel: Complete and Uncut

Where are our Children: A Novel: Complete and Uncut

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Where are our Children: A Novel: Complete and Uncut

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1,132 pagine
17 ore
Editore:
Pubblicato:
Dec 7, 2016
ISBN:
9781370284368
Formato:
Libro

Descrizione

30 years ago, FBI Agent Christopher Prince would emerge as the lone survivor of what would come to be known as the Atlanta Child Murders. He now teams with his childhood friend, the brilliant, but troubled Clinical Psychologist Dr. Angel Hicks Dupree, when the kidnappings--and the murders begin again.

Meanwhile, Prince’s beloved half-brother Xavier leads A House in Chains, a powerful brotherhood sworn to retrieve the city’s most precious resource by any means necessary. But the stakes are rising and the zero hour looms. Misinformation, miscalculation, old prejudices, and poor judgment will push Atlanta and an entire country into a culturally charged abyss; an unrest that many have dreaded, while others claim as a prophecy long overdue.

And yet, even as the implausible and the unthinkable unfold for the whole world to see, Serena Tennyson and her Pandora allies will unleash Whirlwind, a final act of contempt that will threaten to destroy everything and everyone the others hold dear.

Editore:
Pubblicato:
Dec 7, 2016
ISBN:
9781370284368
Formato:
Libro

Informazioni sull'autore

Nest Egg Publishing presents Gary Sapp. He offers his fiction and unique perspective on sports issues in an entertaining style. He's sometimes colorful, often poignant, and never quite as funny as he thinks he is. He loves his family, pet Yorkie, and two HD TV's, usually in that order. Check out his blog at garysapp.blogspot.com for more sports analysis and opinion from Gary.

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Where are our Children - Gary Sapp

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Episode 1: 411

Prologue: The Dying Man

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

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

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

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

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

He spat out a mouthful of bruised blood.

And then he told them that a further escalation of this dissolution was coming.

And soon.

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

Chow will be over in minutes. This hallway will soon flood with inmates and correction officers. It’s still my game to win, Runt.

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

Xavier Prince:

He was an undersized black man in his early 40’s whose reputation and presence, The Dying Man thought, seemed to cast a much larger shadow behind the figurine that wielded it. Xavier’s skin tone was like charcoal; he wore his hair cropped short and his sideburns thick around his ears. He had a drunkards eyes and nicotine stains on his teeth. Xavier allowed the silence to have its moment. He had long been rumored to be a man of few words, even now. Though when he had chosen to speak his voice resonated smooth, silky, like the sweetest taboo. In addition, every one of his movements seemed measured or calculated, and he pimped more than he walked.

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

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

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

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

Tic.

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

Tock:

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

And he let God’s judgment rain upon him.

Chapter One

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

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

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

Louis

Andrew Young Youth Center, NW Atlanta, 1st day

The car bomb performed impressively.

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

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

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

It was a bomb that seemed to know too much.

Just like Serena had told him that it would.

Louis Keaton:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Even the uncivilized knew this too be true.

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

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

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

Serena Tennyson:

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

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

Louis waved a trembling index finger up at her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Danielle Rohm:

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

"Louis, you do understand that you sent those children to a far better eternity than their lives could have been here, in this life. Danielle Rohm kept her voice low so that any stranger nearby wouldn’t overhear their damning conversation. And you did this without them suffering any unnecessary pain or suffering. Their deaths were likely instantaneous."

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

Yes. Louis said in his quiet voice. I guess that I do.

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

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

And,

And I am to continue mastering my meditation techniques. I should exercise balancing my breathing patterns with an emphasis on maintaining my calmness and concentration.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And we will kill anyone who tries.

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

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

Even Serena Tennyson knew this to be true.

Serena

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

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

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

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

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

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

She was loyal to the calling of the Dragon.

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

She was no longer alone in this room—

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

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

What about him?

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

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

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

May I speak freely, Serena?

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

Rohm cleared her throat again. This child is serious.

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

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

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

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

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

That little detail changed your mind?

"Actually, Serena, you changed it?"

Me? How do you mean?

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

Please Rohm, sit down.

Thank you.

Serena beckoned the other woman to continue.

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

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

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

I have every confidence that you both will succeed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You’re a Christian?

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

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

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

Aren’t you mincing words?

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

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

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

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

I’m interrupting. Pilot said.

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

I could come back—

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

Yes. We were.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pilot had to laugh at the absurdity of their conclusions.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You signed off on it, sir.

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

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

Pilot:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What do you see? Pilot asked her.

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

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

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

Xavier Prince. She finally said.

He has been resourceful. He has escaped us.

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

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

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

You sound surprised.

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

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

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

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

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

Who did you see?

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

Thomas

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

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

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

Thomas Pepper:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lucy Burgess:

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

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

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

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

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

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

How is Bill?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do you have any idea what this is about?

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

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

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

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

Lucy said, Tell me you are not that naïve.

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

Thomas had also noted that she was very attractive.

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

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

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

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

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

I do. Thomas replied in all seriousness.

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

What are you talking about?

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

Thomas frowned at her reasoning but did not interrupt.

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

Americans tend to look inwards at times like this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Hey."

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

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

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

Senator Terence Lavelle:

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

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

The room fell silent.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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