"He who is present at a wrongdoing and lifts not a hand to prevent it, is as guilty as the wrongdoers."
OLD EBBITT GRILL
June 20, Thursday
THE COLLECTIVE MOOD IN the downstairs Cabinet Room was glum. In spite of the promise of epicurean delights in one of Washington D.C.'s most highly-rated restaurants, the assembly of carefully selected individuals shifted restlessly in their chairs, conversations limited. Myron Bentley sulked at the head of the table, staring into the depths of his Pinot Grigio while the waiter noted his fellow lobbyists' respective orders.
They knew, as did he.
Mahogany cloaked walls consumed the soft light, complementing his thoughts. He sipped his wine, perusing the invitees. Only those in the elite innermost circle even knew the facility existed.
PURF would house but a fraction of his fellows, who'd be identified via lottery. Those privileged to occupy Phase One had already been chosen by the powers-that-be.
He was not among them.
Some would get in through the proverbial backdoor, one way or another.
Especially former Congressmen.
His own position, however, along with thousands of others, was tenuous.
Few present were union fans, but everyone understood the principle. When people were treated unfairly, banding together could wield influential power.
The waiter headed for the stairs.
Myron signaled his colleague, Calvin Nielsen, to close the door. Like himself, Calvin didn't make the first cut.
Even more egregious given the facility was his idea in the first place.
They exchanged knowing looks as the man resumed his seat.
Wine glass in hand, Myron arose from the head of the table and stepped behind the dais. His spoon kissed the crystal's rim.
The din grew still.
"Your attention, please, gentlemen," he stated. "We're gathered here this evening to consider a proposal. It will secure our positions as influencers, increase our status among the citizenry at large, and most important, provide resources to protect us, our livelihood, and earned benefits, should the need arise."
"Hear, hear!" someone called, to which all raised their glasses in a spontaneous toast.
As the din diminished Calvin prompted, "Okay, Myron, old boy. Let's hear it. What are you up to now?"
A hint of a smile teased Myron's thin lips.
"I'll get right to the point. As you all know, it will take several budget cycles before PURF is complete. As long as it remains buried in the black budget we're relatively safe. But nothing in this world is static. Without military or national security justification, sooner or later its existence will leak out. When it does, public opinion will not be in our favor."
The room rumbled as attendees murmured agreement. Crystal sang, demanding silence.
"It's essential to protect our interests," Myron went on. "To do so, I propose the creation of a nonprofit. Its charter will reflect the official purpose of training new lobbyists in existing law. It will also support a public relations sector to solicit public opinion and promote the service we provide by informing lawmakers of their diverse wishes. When we convince the citizenry we're on their side, future funding problems should disappear."
Muffled laughter cast a knowing shadow. In the majority of cases, lobbyists represented multibillion dollar corporations. The few human rights and environmental groups who conducted such activities not only depended on donations for survival, but were noticeably absent.
Myron's smile likewise defied containment. Thus, he allowed the chuckles to continue while he mustered the appropriate level of solemnity to finish his speech.
Everyone present had been carefully picked, then required to show government-issue photo ID for admittance. However unlikely it might be that anyone would foolishly record the proceedings for subsequent upload on YouTube, the façade needed to be maintained.
The room grew still.
Myron continued, "I propose annual dues of a thousand dollars per member. If five thousand join, which is roughly half our ranks, we'll have the needed resources." He battled another conspiratorial smile, then added, "Come what may."
The Lobbyist Opportunity League would have their back. Even those who'd already secured a comfortable place in PURF's luxury accommodations couldn't argue the benefits.
The organization's acronym had likewise been carefully selected to reflect what went on behind closed doors.
"Seek the ways of the eagle, not the wren."
BELTON COUNTY PARK
LAKE WILSON RECREATION AREA
June 24, Sunday
PINE NEEDLES WHISPERED IN the stiff summer breeze, Lake Wilson dancing with waves that teased the shore. For Sara Reynolds, however, the view from that picnic table evoked far less pleasant memories. Goosebumps slithered down her arms at the instant replay of Bryan's mangled Silverado at the bottom of Dead Horse Canyon.
Connie, scooted onto the bench beside her, her father, Will Montgomery, facing them from the opposite side.
He cleared his throat. "Sara? Are you okay?"
Her distant focus shifted from somewhere beyond the rugged mountains flanking the public recreational area.
"Yes, Dad. I'm fine."
"If you're having second thoughts, that's good."
"Actually, no. Quite the opposite." She held his gaze long enough to make a point. "This is where Charlie and I first watched the dashcam videos."
"Oh, honey," Connie said, slipping her arm around her waist. "Maybe we should go somewhere else."
"No. It's good motivation."
Paternal eyes infused with sodium pentothal fixed on hers with that look she'd dreaded since her teens.
"Is this your decision? Or did Bryan force it on you?" he asked. "He's dead, Sara. They tried to kill you, too. More than once. Does he want you dead, too?"
Her eyes didn't waver. "Dad. We've been through this. It's not just Bryan. This information needs to be released. What they did to me is even more reason. People deserve to know."
He scoffed. "C'mon, Sara. Voting records show people couldn't care less. Do you think they approve of the billions sent overseas? The cost of wars? The outrageous million dollar pork barrel projects and legislative favors that keep Congress critters in office? The average person doesn't even know the names of their Congressional reps, much less give a damn."
"Well, I care," she retorted. "And I think they would, too, if they knew."
"That's pretty idealistic, don't you think?"
"Maybe. But I can't let Bryan's work, much less his life, go to waste. If no one cares, then nothing will happen. At least I'll know I did what I could."
"Then will you let this insanity go?" Will persisted, words clipped by the roar of a jet ski bumping across the waves.
She watched its carefree rider skim the water until the racket faded, its wake slapping the shore. Her eyes reconnected with his.
"He didn't want them to get away with it. Neither do I. But I have no control over that. All I can do is release the information." She straightened with resolve. "If you don't want any part of it, Dad, I get that. I'll just do it myself."
Will rolled his eyes. "I just think you're making a huge mistake." He shook his head in apparent defeat. "You're so stubborn sometimes, Sara."
Connie burst out laughing, bobbed hair dancing in the breeze as her hands covered her mouth.
His gaze shifted to his wife. "What's so funny?"
"Stubborn? Really, Will? I wonder where she got that?"
The corner of his mouth twitched. "You're right. I never won an argument with her mother, either."
"Haha," she replied. "You know exactly what I mean."
"Whatever," he mumbled, blue eyes back on Sara. "Listen. I can't let you do this by yourself. They'll eat you alive."
"Doesn't mean I approve. I just want to keep you safe. Okay?"
Her defenses relaxed. Now maybe they could get somewhere.
"We know they're tapping our phones, which is why we left them at the cabin," he said. "So using them for internet access is out. We may have to do this the old-fashioned way. Do you have a printer up here?"
"I do. But we're talking thousands of pages. Snail mail, FedEx, or whatever could be intercepted. Delivering it in person is possible, I suppose. Except WikiLeaks is in Sweden."
"With good reason. Their laws protect journalists from revealing confidential sources. Considering we're on the government's radar, I doubt we could leave the country. Any place around here with public Wi-Fi?"
"There's a cafe in that little shopping center, next to the grocery store. But they're closed. Both today and tomorrow."
He peered over the top of his bifocals. "Doesn't mean their Wi-Fi isn't working."
Her eyes widened. "True."
"Okay. Let's do it. Is everything on your laptop?"
"You still have a backup somewhere, just in case?"
She lowered her chin and mirrored his condescending look. "You're kidding, right?"
"No. I'm not. When we get back make another one. You never know." He removed a tiny USB drive from an innocuous looking card in his wallet and handed it over. Sara slipped it in her purse.
"So that's the plan?" Connie asked, hand shading her eyes from the pine-filtered midday sun.
His tone was firm. "We're under surveillance. We can never be sure we disabled everything. Knowing their tactics, driving is risky. Taking both cars might help."
Sara tucked a gust-driven wall of chestnut curls behind her ear. "You know, since that raid the other night, those commandos haven't been back. I don't think they know we found it. Charlie and I were careful what we said and hopefully found all the bugs. With luck, maybe they actually believe I'm moving on with my life, like I told them. Acting normal might be our best bet."
She paused when Connie visibly winced. "What?"
"This is far from normal, honey. Do you really want to depend on luck?" She turned to her husband. "I'm sure you won't agree, Will, but maybe we should check with Patrice. See what she says."
Sara's eyebrows shot up while her father's dove in the opposite direction. "Really, Connie? Do you honestly think this astrologer friend of yours is accurate enough for a potentially lethal situation?"
Connie shrugged. "She's been spot-on so far."
Sara's mind drifted to the elegant woman with waist-length platinum hair and the many things she helped reveal the past few months. "What other options are there, Dad?"
His objections caved. "What the hell? I've heard worse ideas."
"How should I call her? My phone's back at the cabin and probably bugged."
Will pulled a burner from his jacket's inside pocket. "Here. One call before they find it. Out here, maybe not."
Sara stared at the keypad, then Connie, who fought a smile. "Give me the phone."
Will grunted. "You talk to this woman enough you memorized her number?"
Connie tapped it in, handed the phone back to Sara, then reached across the table to pat his cheek.
"I've been consulting Patrice since before we were married."
"Oh, yeah? How long?"
Her smile vanished. "A few months before Ellen died."
"Oh." He gnawed his lip. "Did it help?"
"Actually, yes. You can't argue with something that works."
"Amen to that," Sara agreed, then turned her attention to the call. "Patrice! Hi! It's Sara Reynolds. Are you busy?"
"Not particularly, sweetie. What can I do for you?"
"We want to, uh, take care of some of that, well—you know—old business. But we need to know if we're being watched. Can you see that?"
"It should show up. Where are you?"
"A few miles outside Falcon Ridge."
"Got it. Hold on."
Sara gave the others a thumbs-up, then watched splashes of sunlight do a table dance while she waited.
"Okay, here's what it looks like," Patrice said. "Right now, you're fine. Judging by the Moon, I'd say you have, oh, about a three or four hour window. You're doing this covertly, right?"
"That's the idea."
"They might be aware, but I don't see anything that'll stop you. My guess is it'll go public in three or four days."
"Perfect! Thanks, Patrice."
She hung up, then relayed the information.
"If we hustle, that's enough to get back to Denver or even Boulder," Will said. "Go somewhere public. It might be best if we're somewhere far away three days from now."
"I don't know, Dad. Maybe we should be in touch with Fox News or someone instead. Might be safer. What do you think?"
"Possibly. During that delay you should talk to an attorney. At least before going public yourself. I'd hate to see you wind up in prison."
"I wonder if Patrice can see that?" she said, then took back the phone and pressed redial.
"No, sweetie," Patrice replied. "They'll make a lot of noise, but you'll have enough public support they won't contribute to it by arresting you. You're likely to be seen as some sort of folk heroine. Other enemies are out there, though. You need to be careful. Very careful."
The warning wasn't a surprise, much less anything new. "Right. No prison is good news. Thanks again, Patrice."
"I have another idea," Will said. "There's a group called Judicial Guardian. They investigate government ethics violations, then take them to court. They've sued on behalf of whistleblowers in the past. If you agree, I'd be happy to contact them."
"Sounds perfect, Dad. We can send them the data, too. And a big donation, if it'll help."
"There's a bunch of Bryan's personal stuff in that bench seat," Sara mused. "Legal documents, photos—things I'd hate to lose. Maybe I should take them with me, just in case."
"If you leave things as-is, they might not mess with it, assuming there's nothing of value," Will suggested. "They were pretty selective when they raided your condo."
"True. They found our guns and the server without turning the place upside down. It'd be a hassle to move everything, which might arouse suspicion in itself. I guess I should leave it."
"On the other hand, Sara, maybe you should bring anything of value along," Connie added. "They might torch the place to make sure anything they missed is destroyed."
Sara's nose wrinkled at the ugly possibility. "You're right. Shouldn't be that hard. Most of it's already in boxes. I'll check upstairs for anything I can't replace."
"While you do that, we'll start moving the other stuff," Connie volunteered.
"C'mon, let's go," Will stated, swinging his legs over the bench. "Time's a-wasting."
"They are not dead who live in the hearts of those they left behind."
RURAL FALCON RIDGE
June 24, Sunday
BACK AT THE CABIN, each went about their respective tasks. Sara climbed the stairs to the A-frame's loft-style bedroom, twinges in her neck and hip an unpleasant reminder of the two wrecks she'd suffered in as many months.
Both intended to kill her.
Gradually, her brain was becoming less addled from the concussion. At least for the most part. Anything too demanding still prompted confusion, anxiety, and frustration, often crowned by a nausea-inducing headache.
Nonetheless, her body was healing.
Heart, not so much.
Upon reaching the landing she paused, struck by nostalgia before thoughtful steps steered her to Bryan's side of the bed. She sat down, picked up his pillow, and hugged it to her chest.
Ignoring his death by staying busy had its limitations. In quieter moments her aching heart issued unwelcome reminders—her husband was not TDY.
The comforter's orange, red, yellow, and green floral pattern elicited a kaleidoscope of memories. It originally belonged to her mother—the last thing she bought before becoming too incapacitated with ALS to shop ever again. Connie was with her, the two women best friends dating back to college.
Three years after her mother passed away, Connie married Sara's father. She told Sara the bedspread made her feel guilty, as if she were sleeping with her best friend's husband. Thus, she asked Sara if she'd like to have it.
Its colors fit the cabin perfectly, where it became part of Bryan, too.
Joyful, carefree moments spent in their idyllic mountain retreat. Skiing, hiking, stargazing, making love before a roaring fireplace—all in a world that was theirs alone.
Now two of the people she loved the most were gone, the spread's soft touch a sentimental link to them both.
Whom did she miss more?
Or her husband?
She buried her face in his pillow, inhaling the scent that would always remind her of him, consumed by an unhappy flux of melancholy she didn't have time for right now.
"Sara? Do you need some help, honey?"
She sniffed hard and cleared her throat.
"No, I'm fine. Be right down."
She ducked into the bathroom to rinse her face and blow her nose.
Hopefully the cabin would be okay. Bryan's soul still resided there, his ashes scattered along their favorite hiking trail.
Everything, inside and out, had sentimental value—everything.
But for now, practicality had to reign.
Pushing back the mushy thoughts, she opened the closet. Ski equipment. That could be replaced in the unlikely event she decided to go again. The telescope in its bulky box in back could, too.
She smiled at what her father would say if she came trucking down the stairs with the telescope swaddled in the comforter.
That doused the temptation with enough logic she returned downstairs empty handed, Connie waiting at the bottom.
"Are you okay, honey?"
She nodded, but had always been a lousy liar. She bit her lip, unwelcome tears staging an encore. Connie wrapped her arms around her and held her tight.
"Everything's going to be fine. If you don't feel up to doing this, you don't have to. The only problem is how happy it'll make your father if you back out now."
A shaky laugh joined the renegade sniffles. "You're right. But it's not that." Her throat tightened, choking off the words. "It's just sometimes I really miss Bryan. And Mom."
I like how you weave your expertise in astrology into your story. The dialogue flows flawlessly, and you have a great turn of phrase. One question, what is PURF? Or is that something that makes sense later?
In reply to Well done by JerryFurnell
Thank you so much for your kind words. Shame on me as a former technical writer for not defining that acronym at its first usage! It stands for Pearson Underground Residential Facility. It's defined on page 26 as well as in Book 1, to which this story is a sequel. In Book 3 we'll learn more about its origins.
I had to stop and think myself about what it stands for I'm so used to calling it PURF. LOL. Kind of like how many people even know that LASER is an acronym much less define it? (I'm a physicist and have to look it up myself.) :-)
I really enjoyed this! The…
I really enjoyed this! The writing is strong and well paced. I wanted to keep reading on. Well done!