Book 2 in the Separate series
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Deputy Director Byron Whitacre had been waiting for the turban-headed cleric who had just finished leading afternoon prayers before stepping out of the mosque in downtown Kansas City.
“Mofeed Abdullah, you’re under arrest by the Office of Homeland Security. I hereby charge you as a domestic terrorist under the Patriot Act!"
“On what grounds do you make this accusation?”
“You, sir, have frequented subversive websites and contributed your congregation’s funds to terrorist organizations.” The deputy director spoke loudly for the crowd. Maybe that’ll separate their loyalty. He felt hopeful but not optimistic. Byron’s skin crawled as Abdullah’s fellow Muslims surrounded the two of them. He signaled for backup. Ten ex-football players, now U.S. Marshals, poured from two black Chevy Suburbans parked by the curb. These men were his insurance. They quickly drew their weapons. The deputy director hadn’t really expected the need for a show of force but was reassured that he had anticipated it.
“I’m not sure which sites you are referring to,” Abdullah countered. “Islam is well represented on the World Wide Web, and we all receive news and teaching from Mecca and others around the globe.”
Byron’s hefty backup forced their way through the crowd, jostling the agitated followers of Mofeed Abdullah. Abdullah’s calm demeanor never flinched in the face of deadly automatic weapons wielded by the husky marshals.
“Let’s get going, Whitacre!” Marshal Cross pulled his handcuffs from the leather pouch on his belt. “You two can chit-chat back at your office.” Byron frowned at his subordinate’s attitude. In all the previous arrests for Homeland Security he had never drawn his gun, but now he saw desperation on the faces of his entourage.
“Back away, people!” Byron forced his voice to remain firm and steady. His slender, six-foot one stature and fair complexion contrasted against the stocky, dark-skinned cleric. His eleven-man squad bullied their way through the crowd, escorting Byron and Abdullah to the armored Suburbans.
Without warning, a robed fanatic sprang toward them, pulling at his chest. Devilish dialogue spewed from his mouth.
Cross pushed Byron and the cleric into the SUV. The detonation ripped apart the vehicles’ open doors. The marshal’s heavy frame stiffened and then sagged. Both he and Byron collapsed on the glass-shredded rear seat. The stocky Muslim lay under them.
Tiny embedded shards stung Bryon’s face. He wondered whose blood was dripping onto his hand. Trying to push himself off the floorboard, he hoped to shift the weight of the dead bodyguard suffocating both his prisoner and himself.
As suddenly as the bomb had struck, he could breathe again. Someone had pulled the marshal’s mangled mass from the twisted wreckage. Byron raised himself off the cleric. As he reached under his coat for his weapon, he looked up to see the holy man pointing it within inches of his forehead.
“Put the gun down!” Byron knew he said it, but the ringing in his ears drowned out his voice.
“Put the gun down, NOW!” The adrenaline-spiked blood pounded in Byron’s temples. Surviving the blast to have my brains blown out is not good. Despite death staring him in the face, Byron’s reasoning remained calm. I’ve still got the upper hand here. Except for my gun!
They were at a standoff. Their eyes probed into one another’s psyche. Byron was a Minnesotan of svelte Swedish heritage, blonde, blue-eyed, and an atheist. The fanatical Muslim cleric was short and burly with curly hair and dead, dark eyes. Byron knew that the Islamic religion taught that martyrdom was a sure ticket to heaven or Nirvana or whatever afterlife they believed in. Right now, I would be happy to martyr this ebony-eyed, unflinching fellow and help him along his way to his final destination.
As deputy director of Homeland Security, Byron had only two years experience under his belt. He searched his memory for the proper protocol in such a situation while staring down the barrel of his own Glock pistol loaded with the latest high-tech, government-issue, body-armor piercing bullets.
Seconds loomed like hours. He wondered why he had been saved only to be trapped in the sights of his own lethal weapon held by a domestic terrorist. Though the ringing in his ears was deafening, Byron’s gaze never faltered as he attempted once again to take control of the situation.
“Put the gun down!” Byron screamed, yet unable to hear his own voice, but feeling the veins in his throat bulge. The Muslim’s eyes darted over Byron’s head. For just a split second the hint of a smile appeared and was gone. Now Byron feared not only the steady hand wrapped around his own gun, but also whatever it was that his captor had seen behind him.
Brain tissue exploded, and Byron slumped on the chest of his enemy.
Darkness. Thick and sticky.
Byron could hear only his thoughts through the incessant ringing. Got to move, he commanded his stiff body as the darkness evolved into an intense red jelly surrounding him.
Help me! Help me! He could not tell if he spoke the words or just thought them. His worst fear was that no one could hear him.
“No!” he shrieked, as visions of heaven and hell flashed across his mind. The dread of either place being real terrified him. God and the devil both scared Byron Whitacre. Now ‘they’ pulled at his ankles. Was it demons or angels? He couldn’t tell, but panic paralyzed him.
Hands clawed at him from all sides. A whiff of acrid brimstone and the sudden blast furnace heat stunned him. This was hell. He was sure of it.
“Whitacre! Director Whitacre! Can you hear me?” The lone surviving marshal was frantic. “C’mon guys do something!” he screamed at the medics. Within two minutes of the explosion, paramedics and local police had arrived on the scene. EMTs yanked the deputy director’s limp body from the back seat. They hurriedly carried him, battlefield style, to a waiting ambulance, sidestepping over the bodies of dead marshals that were scattered around like rag dolls. The acrimonious odor of C-4 explosives hung in the air, burning the nostrils of emergency workers. They scrambled to drag their fallen comrades from certain cremation as the marshal’s two transport vehicles burst into flames. Massive amounts of blood and tissue covered the deputy director, giving the paramedics no hope of his survival. The marshal dutifully watched as Byron was laid on a gurney for transport and one attendant dutifully searched for a pulse. “Wipe his face so he can breathe,” the marshal ordered. Suddenly cold liquid cleared Byron’s eyes. I’m not in hell! He could see the marshal standing over him, surrounded by uniformed officers! “I’m okay! I’m okay!” Byron shouted to the stunned officers. He saw their lips moving, but all he heard was the incessant ringing. He pointed to his ears, “My hearing’s gone!” The marshal grabbed a towel from the paramedic. He gently cleaned the deputy director’s face, wiping away the remnants of the cleric’s exploded cranium. He unashamedly gave Byron a big hug. And Byron embraced him back, glad to be alive. Surveying the carnage, Byron was appalled at the length to which the bomber had gone to defend his faith. Even more horrifying were the thoughts running through his atheistic mind. His brush with death shook his core belief that there is no God--a belief that he’d always staunchly supported. As he was loaded into the ambulance, his mind flashed to Dominique, his long-term, live-in girlfriend. Six months earlier she had converted to Islam. Did she know anyone at this mosque? Maybe my almost dying at the hands of those fanatics will show her the falsehood of her religion. And he began to hope that his injuries would elicit her sympathy.
Byron’s visible injuries decorated his face and hands. Otherwise, he ached all over. His feet felt as though he had jumped from his fifth floor office window at the Federal Building in Kansas City. After two days in the hospital his ears had finally stopped ringing. They still smarted, however, from his ex-girlfriend’s tirade. Dominique not only remained unsympathetic to his wounds, but she had accused him of attacking her brothers and sisters of the Muslim faith! She revered her fallen fellow believers, her heroes in the fight for religious freedom. He could not understand her fervor. It vexed him to think that religion could so easily subvert a staunch, opinionated person like Dominique. His career as deputy director of Homeland Security depended on stopping fanatical religionists--whether they be suicide-bombing Muslims, abortion clinic-destroying Christians, or fanatical ex-girlfriends! Since this recent close encounter with eternity, Byron resolved to prosecute anyone who tried to convert the citizens of the United States into believing in a supreme being, including, if necessary, his beautiful ex-girlfriend.
Home at last in his empty apartment, Byron’s heart suffered more than his body. Everywhere he looked he was reminded that she was gone--from her knick-knacks absent from the coffee table, to the empty space in the office where her computer usually sat, to the half empty bedroom closet. He replayed her accusations--the deranged bomber dying in the blast, the lone marshal shooting the cleric and his follower, and the Muslim who pulled Marshal Cross’s dead body off Byron.
She called me a murderer even though I never fired a shot! They were the ones that slaughtered an entire platoon of United States Marshals!
Looking into the mirror over the double sinks in the bathroom, Byron gingerly touched his scarred and bandaged face. He noticed the absence of Dominique’s cosmetics and toiletries. How many times had he watched amazed as she performed her artistry? Today all he saw was a four-day growth of blonde stubble. He had not shaved since the bombing. Byron stripped to shower for the first time since coming home from the hospital. The steaming water soothed him even as it stung his back. He reached for the shampoo. Nothing! The shelf was empty. Without thinking he called out, “Dominique! Will you get—?” He caught himself. “Fool!” he muttered out loud. “She took everything—even the shampoo! Damn! The soap, too!” Dripping, Byron shut off the water. Reaching for the towel next to the shower door he cursed again. He was forced to dry his wet but unlathered body with his pajamas. Then the phone rang.
“What’s next?” In his frustration, Byron raced naked from the bathroom to the living room to answer the phone.
“Whitacre!” he barked into the receiver.
“Goodness, Byron. Did I catch you at a bad time?”
“No, sir,” the dripping, naked deputy director lied to his boss.
“Well, good. Just called to see how you’re doing.”
“I’m fine, Mr. Shoat.” Byron wished his boss had called him on his cell so he could have retreated to the bedroom to at least put on a pair of sweats.
“Is the memorial service still tomorrow?” He hoped to end this cordial call quickly.
“Yes. Yes, it’s scheduled for noon at the Greenlawn Funeral Home. That’s the one in Overland Park. Think you will be up to going? I‘m sure it would encourage both the Marshal’s department and the entire Federal Building staff to see you there.”
“No problem, sir. I’m sufficiently recuperated, but I might need a ride.”
“Dominique won’t be accompanying you?”
“No, I don’t think that’s going to happen,” Byron hesitated. “I guess you didn’t hear about her tantrum in my hospital room. She accused me of being the murderer, if you can believe that!” Byron had revealed more than he had intended. Wishing to avoid further embarrassment, he sought a quick close to this conversation. “So, if you wouldn’t mind having your driver swing by on your way, I’d appreciate the favor.”
“Of course, that would be fine. Say, eleven o’clock?”
“Great. See you then, sir.” Byron slammed down the phone and made a dash for the bedroom.
“Places like this always give me the creeps,” Byron leaned over and whispered to his boss. They were sitting toward the front in the large chapel of the Greenlawn Funeral Home directly behind the families of the ten deceased marshals. His stomach did a sudden flip-flop. He rose quickly and made a beeline down the side aisle for the rear exit, ignoring a quizzical look from Willis Shoat.
Byron hoped to melt into the crowd of mourners standing around in the foyer. The chapel was packed with family members, so well-wishers and friends had to stand outside. There were speakers hung near the ceiling on either side of the doors, so that everyone would be able to hear the proceedings. The elation that Byron felt for having survived kept him from grieving the loss of his comrades. Also, pulpit rhetoric irked him. It went against all he believed--or didn’t believe. All the talk of the ten men being in a better place grated on him, especially since, when he thought he was dead and in hell, he’d concluded that it wasn’t a better place. So we lie to each other to try and make ourselves feel better, Byron reasoned as he weaved his way through the crowd.
“Whitacre! Byron Whitacre! Over here!”
A meaty hand waved above the crowd from a corner near the exit. Fat chance of making it outside without at least someone recognizing this face, even with all its blotches and scabs. Red-headed Agent Kelly, from his office was waving vigorously at him. The two didn’t have much contact with one another except, for the weekly meetings involving the entire staff of the Homeland Security office. Maybe he can give me a lift away from here. Byron changed his course and headed toward the portly man.
“Good to see you here, Byron. You’re looking better than I expected after your ordeal.” Patrick Kelly complimented his superior, extending his hand.
“What are you doing out here? I figured you and Shoat would be front and center for the ceremonies.”
“Anything that resembles a church freaks me out,” Byron grimaced. “I had to get the hell out of there. Everybody was so sure those poor marshals were in a ‘better place’ when religion is what killed them.”
“You up to walking?” Kelly asked. “There’s a pub a couple doors down the street, and nobody will blame us if we start our own wake a wee bit early. I’ve already seen enough flasks tipped in here to whet my thirst!”
“Anything to get out of here.” Byron agreed as they made a hasty retreat.
Unaware that they were being followed, Patrick and Byron entered the dingy tavern. The bar ran the full length of the long narrow room. Liquor bottles were crammed on shelves across the wall behind the bar. A pool table took up most of the front area, and in the back booths lined the walls. Once their eyes adjusted to the gloom, they made their way past the pool table and sat down at the bar.
Lifting their glasses, Patrick offered the Irish toast for luck.
“It’s crazy that Muslims think its okay to kill people who don’t practice their religion.” Byron tossed back a double shot of whiskey. From the corner of his eye, he thought he noticed a stir from the booth behind them.
“In Ireland, it’s the Protestants bombing the Catholics. They preach God is love, but they’ll kill you if you don’t conform.”
“Ha-ha! You got that right!” Byron nodded, signaling for refills. The bartender delivered a bottle to the occupant of the booth behind them, and then came back around and refilled their glasses.
“Did you hear about that little town south of Springfield?”
“You mean where the leader of the Strategy to Constrict the Unilateral Liberty of Religion died?”
“Or was killed, along with the local Guild president and those two witches,” Patrick added.
“You think?” the deputy director responded with a snort.
“Definitely! The four of them died after the S.C.U.L.R. sent their best attorney from New York down there. Lucius Black was supposed to stop the Lakeside, Missouri, city council from forcing Christianity on everyone inside the city limits.”
“How were they going to enforce that?” Byron had read the headlines but ignored the body of the story in the Kansas City Star the week before.
“They’re doing it right now! They abolished the property taxes, forcing the public schools to close. Now the only options for educating their kids is to either send them to Christian schools run by churches or home school them! You and I both understand the harmful indoctrination those poor kids are in for.”
“That’s despicable, going after the children like that!”
“That’s not all. With help from the churches, the Chamber of Commerce is issuing their own money!”
“Oh, come on! I can’t believe the Federal Reserve isn’t all over the Attorney General to squelch THAT stupid plan!” Byron, a Yale graduate, had taken enough economics courses to know that the Federal Reserve was composed of private bankers that loaned American currency to the United States government. The amount owed to those bankers comprised the national debt. Even as a college youth, Byron had figured out that the bankers only created paper money equaling value of the loan but not the currency required to pay it back. Pretty slick, he mused.
“The Lakeside Chamber claims it’s just like using travelers’ checks, and, get this--all of it is supposedly backed by gold!”
“That’s what they claim!” Patrick chuckled and ordered a third round of drinks.
“I remember when you could redeem your paper dollars for silver,” the bartender said as he set the refills before Byron and Patrick and gave them their change. “It used to say ‘Silver Certificate’ across the top instead of ‘Federal Reserve Note’.”
“Yeah, but it says that it’s legal tender, too.” Patrick pulled a dollar bill from his pocket and smoothed it out on the bar.
“The definition of legal tender is anything two people agree to exchange for something of value,” the barkeep commented over his shoulder as he once again served the silent patron in the booth behind them.
Patrick examined the bills that the bartender had placed on the bar as their change and commented softly, “You notice he didn’t have a problem ‘exchanging’ our dollars for a few drinks.”
“No problema!” Byron chuckled, as the last drink went down smoothly. The liquor relieved the aches and pains from the bombing, and for the first time in four days he relaxed. “You’d think the IRS would be interested,” he mumbled, thinking out loud.
“Speaking about the IRS, have you seen that hottee compliance officer?” Patrick gave a low whistle.
“Kitty Koldwell. I saw her scores in the basement shooting range. Not only is she a looker but a crack shot, too! You probably don’t want to mess with her!” Patrick chuckled.
“I hadn’t noticed her scores, but I’m sure she’s seeing someone.” Byron chortled. The liquor was definitely relaxing him.
“By the way, Dominique and I are no longer an item.” The occupant behind them grunted, and Byron cocked his head towards the sound.
“It’s been three days now.”
“She broke up with you on the day after the bombing?”
“Would you believe at the hospital?” Byron’s head drooped. “She converted to Islam six months ago and blamed me for killing her fellow believers at the mosque!” Byron heard another grunt, followed by a curse in Arabic. The hair on the back of his neck stood on end. He glanced at his partner who was calmly fingering his drink. Reassured, he laid his fears aside.
“She even went so far as to say I ought to receive the death penalty!”
“What a bitch! Oh, I’m sorry, Byron.”
“You’re right. She left with her clothes and even took the shampoo, soap, and towels. Now that’s a bitch!”
“No bitch!” a man growled in an unmistakable Arabic accent. He stood six inches from Byron and Patrick.
Not twice in the same week!
Both men grabbed their weapons.
Sunlight streamed through the bar’s entrance momentarily blinding the two government men. The Arab hoisted his curved dagger, and before Patrick and Byron had time to react a dull thud sounded. The Arab’s arms dropped as he slumped between the two officers.
“You two all right?” Willis Shoat’s deep voice boomed.
He held his gun at his side. The three defenders of the homeland looked down at the unconscious man lying at their feet. Byron knew the Muslim would wake up with a dent in his skull where Shoat’s gun butt had connected. The bartender peered out from his refuge behind the bar.
“Whitacre, you’re a marked man!” Shoat exclaimed, as the three holstered their weapons.
“It’s okay, folks, Homeland Security,” Agent Kelly reassured the wide-eyed patrons.
“Kelly, you got it from here? My driver’s going to wonder what’s taking so long. The deputy director and I have some unfinished business.”
“Yes, sir,” Patrick assured Shoat as he handcuffed the unconscious body lying between the barstools.
“Let’s go, Whitacre!”
Willis Shoat didn’t speak as the two were driven home. Byron was still shaking from his second brush with death.
“For your safety, Byron, I’m assigning you to a case out of the area where there are no Muslims. Yet even there somebody’s going to have to watch your back.”
“Where’s there, if you don’t mind me asking, sir?” To Byron it sounded like a reprimand and a demotion all rolled into one.
“There’s some undercover work to be done in a small town south of here, and you could use a little vacation, couldn’t you, son.”
“Certainly, sir. It would be a good time for a fresh start,” Byron agreed as their vehicle pulled up in front of his apartment.
“Too bad about Dominique. She would have been an excellent cover while you get the feel of Lakeside.”
“Lakeside, Missouri? Agent Kelly and I were just talking about it.”
“We’ll talk about the controversy surrounding there when I get back from all the local interments of the marshals across the country. Please, please, stay inside and recuperate for a couple of more days. You’ve been through a rough time, and I don’t want anything to happen to you while I’m gone. Then, if you’re up to it, you can take a fishing trip. And by the way, thanks, Byron, for making the effort to attend the service. I’m sure it was an encouragement to the entire staff to see you up and about.”
"A fishing trip, huh?"
As Byron got out of the director’s car in front of his building, his mind switched unexpectedly from fishing to Kitty Koldwell. Out of the blue, for no reason at all, he wondered if she was as good with a rod and reel as she was with a gun. That’s a ridiculous thought, he mused, fumbling for his key.
Once inside, he headed for the liquor cabinet. Surrounded by the reminders of his broken heart and with his body feeling the two recent close encounters with death, he began to mask his pain the only way he knew how—with either liquor or work or both. So he spent the next several hours at his computer, drinking and researching the takeover of Lakeside, four hours south of Kansas City.
As he studied, the thought repeatedly nudged his mind that something fishy was going on between the leader of the City Council, David Trimble, and Jack Stanton, Lakeside’s police chief. He knew that small town politics often had a circle of corruption, but how the local churches and the Chamber of Commerce played into it mystified him. Was it just a coincidence? Or were there some underhanded dealings going on?
Byron listed the events in chronological order to see if he could detect any illegal dealings. From what he saw, it looked like treason against the United States government!
The earliest news clippings told of the Christians majority elected to the City Council. Byron made himself a note to check with the IRS to see if they had any case against a Lakeside church for politicking from the pulpit. Within months, the City Council had passed a Home-rule amendment to the city’s Charter in an attempt to block governmental intervention when they abolished property taxes. It was repulsive to Byron that adults could manipulate the laws to effectively deny the funding of public schools. It was beyond belief that the churches would stoop to such a low tactic, forcing all the children in their community to either attend parochial schools and be indoctrinated with religion or be cloistered in a home-school environment.
It’s just not right! Byron thought, as he clicked on the next newspaper article.
Pastor Jonathan Wolfe’s picture along with the president of the local Chamber, Theona Meacham, appeared at the top of the story. They held a large mock-up of a one hundred-dollar check. The headline called it a “GOLDIE”, which the article stated was an acronym for God Ordained Liberty Device. Byron didn’t have a clue why the church and businesses became partners in an obvious pyramid scheme. However, what puzzled him most was why the FBI or the Federal Reserve’s bank examiners, or maybe even Kitty Koldwell and the IRS, weren’t putting a stop to this flagrant rip-off. His brow wrinkled at the thought of this female agent whom he had never met.
The same story contained a sidebar highlighting the police chief’s proposal requiring every citizen of Lakeside to receive firearms training and possess a weapon. Byron wondered why the Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms, and Tobacco hadn’t squashed that plan. All they would have to do, Byron mused, is to list everybody in Lakeside who tries to purchase a gun as ‘Denied’ on the FBI’s instant check computer. Byron made a note to contact the local ATF agent and offer his suggestion. He knew that since the amalgamation of the entire country’s security forces came under the auspices of Homeland Security, he and his boss had the ability to implement such a procedure. They had already black-listed most citizens whose surname remotely resembled Middle Eastern heritage as well as militia members and those who surfed suspicious websites. Byron saw no violation of the second amendment, since it was years ago that the Ninth District Court of Appeals had ruled that the Constitution gave no specific rights of individual gun ownership. The armed state and federal government employees were nearly unanimous in their belief that society would be safer if the entire populace was unarmed. But Byron also knew that since September eleventh people had been arming themselves for protection. He just hoped it wasn’t going to backfire in their face in Lakeside like it had in Waco over a decade before. Home-rule, closed public schools, gold-backed money, and one hundred per cent gun ownership.
What does all this have in common with the Strategy to Constrict the Unilateral Liberty of Religion and the Guild? He knew there was an answer to that question somewhere.
Byron’s mind raced as he scanned the account of the deaths ten days prior, including that of Hamilton Fischer, the founder of S.C.U.L.R., who was killed in the same incident as the local Guild president and the two witches.
Byron leaned back in his chair and stretched. He had lost track of time until his belly rumbled. He decided on pizza, but instead of the half-and-half Dominique and he normally shared, he ordered the whole thing with all of his favorite toppings. Byron expected that a six-pack of Old English 800 would dull the gnawing in his heart. He didn’t care that his mind would be dulled as well. Further research would simply have to wait.
After phoning for pizza, Byron changed from the suit he had worn to the funeral into his favorite blue sweats. He was beginning to hate going into the closet. Dominique had loved glitzy dresses and bright jewelry and shoes, and seeing the emptiness made him wish the pizza boy had been and gone and that he had already downed a couple of beers. At the sound of the doorbell, he hastened from the bedroom.
That was quick! He looked through the peephole. The young man in front of his door was dark-complexioned with tousled black hair, thick eyebrows, and the signature Middle Eastern nose, prominent and chiseled. Byron quickly profiled him.
“Who is it?” Byron reached for his gun hanging in the entry closet.
“Damn!” In light of the recent events Byron was jumpy with indecision. He wasn’t going to chance it, even though the teen did carry an insulated pizza bag.
“Just a minute!”
He grabbed the phone, and hit redial. The recollections of his morning had him shaking again.
“Luigi’s Italian Deli. Luigi speaking.” “Uh, this is Byron Whitacre at 405 Terrace. I just placed an order for a large deep dish pepperoni and anchovy. I know this is going to sound really strange, but could you give me a description of your delivery boy?”
“Hey, Mister, your pie’s gettin’ cold, and I got two more deliveries!”
“Coming!” Byron hollered as the deli owner rattled off an adequate description. Somewhat satisfied, Byron thanked the man and hung up.
Sticking the cold barrel of the Glock behind his back, he cautiously opened the door, using it as a shield. A lump formed in his throat and his heart pounded as he watched the teenager reach slowly into the insulated warming bag. With one hand on the doorknob and the other fingering the pistol, he watched for the thin square box to emerge. As the aroma of yeasty crust and pepperonis greeted his nostrils, he sighed with relief. He apologized profusely and tipped him a twenty.
“Whoa!” The teen’s eyes bulged and his jaw dropped. “Thanks, man. Thanks a lot! Make sure you ask for Tony next time you order and I’ll get ya’ your order super quick!”
“Sure thing, Tony.” Byron kicked the door closed and set the hot pizza box on the counter. He quickly opened a sixteen-ounce can of Old English 800.
He guzzled half, thinking, This is not what I signed up for! Maybe Lakeside would be a good change of pace. He finished his first and second beers before the effects of the alcohol calmed him. Scooping up two lukewarm slices of pizza, he headed for the living room.
With pizza and beer in hand, he sprawled on the leather sofa, wondering why he accepted the deputy director’s position. He had hoped to make America safe from radical religious terrorists. His research showed the most extreme religious group in the United States was the Fundamental and Evangelical Christians. They were the most vocally opposed to the court decisions eliminating the offensive mention of God in the Pledge of Allegiance and on money. Their battle cry was “Take Back America”.
Byron considered how the Homeland Security Staff had followed the case of various outspoken pastors who were found guilty of hate crimes against gays and lesbians. Now that same-sex marriages were legal, the ‘Intolerants’ had been silenced. Byron wasn’t sure if their views had changed of if they had gone underground. And that was what concerned him about Lakeside.
Have the Intolerants converged on Lakeside like the orange-robed followers of Bhagwan Shree Raj Neesh did in Oregon over two decades ago? Now that’s an ugly thought! Or is this a re-enactment of the highly-armed Branch Davidians of Waco?
Byron was seventeen when army tanks attacked the Davidian compound and burned it to the ground, killing all seventy-five men, women, and children. Byron recalled his father commenting that he thought Christians were supposed to obey all those in authority. “That gun-toting David Koresh is just like Jim Jones!” he had said. Under the spellbinding leadership of Jim Jones, 900 people drank poisoned Kool-Aid and followed that cult leader to their deaths.
I wonder if that pastor, Jonathan Wolfe, is another Jim Jones? Byron tossed his last empty beer can towards the trash can and missed. He ignored his half-eaten pizza.
Will I be any safer in that small town with everyone packing a gun? A gray haze filled his brain, and with that Byron passed out, oblivious to the coffee table strewn with empty beer cans and a cold, half-eaten pizza.
Byron staunchly refused the medication to ease his physical pain; however a weekend without Dominique drove him to drowning his misery with drink. As a result, he was quite hung over on his first day back at the office.
“Mornin’, Mister Whitacre. Glad to see ya’ back,” the security guard greeted while performing the perfunctory ID check of the deputy director’s badge.
Byron felt a lot worse than he wanted to let on.
“Thanks, Bill. I’m still stiff, but I’m going to make it. Looks like you’ve got a few more troops to help secure the building now.” He smiled weakly at the man charged with keeping all unauthorized personnel from using the private elevator.
“Sure do. Kansas City is on Orange Alert status after the bombing, and I sure feel more confident with the extra staff.”
“Me too, Bill. Keep up the good work.” The elevator doors slid shut and Byron ascended to the fifth floor and the Homeland Security office.
“Your identification, sir,” the camouflage-clothed Marine demanded as the doors opened.
Byron did not anticipate seeing the added security. He expected them to be well hidden in the everyday, office hubbub. He displayed the plastic ID badge hanging around his neck.
“Excuse me, Mister Whitacre, you’re the one, aren’t you?” Admiration showed on the MP’s face. I mean the deputy director that survived the bombing, right?”
“Yes, I’m the lucky one,” Byron acknowledged. The momentary stop for protocol had allowed time for staff members to congregate in the reception area. Much to his embarrassment they applauded his return.
“Thank you, folks. It’s good to be back, but your commendation should go to the fallen marshals. Especially Marshal Cross. Without his heroism, I wouldn’t be here today.”
Byron made his way past the receptionist’s desk and through the group, smiling and shaking hands. Some patted him gently on the back or shoulder. He could tell they were concerned that even a soft pat would hurt his bruised body. Nevertheless, he appreciated their affection. A sharp, right turn and down a hallway, and he entered his secretary’s office.
“Morning, Patti,” Byron hoped to pass by her desk without any more acclaim. His ego wanted to bask in the glory, but his conscience knew he was no hero.
Patti Smith was middle-aged, rotund, and dressed like his grandmother, but she was an extremely efficient secretary. She had been in the position before he became Deputy Director, and he really didn’t know how he could ever get along without her.
“It’s great to have you back, sir. But are you sure you’re able to return so soon?” Patti’s compassion usually irritated him, but today he appreciated it.
“I’m still a little shaken myself,” she continued. “I feel so awful for the families of those marshals. How are you really doing? I know you must have more than your physical injuries, especially over dealing with the situation with Dominique, too.”
Byron winced at the mention of her name. Patti perceived it instantly and said, “I’m so sorry. I probably shouldn’t have gotten personal, but if you need an ear, you know where to find me.” She gave him a motherly smile and returned to the business on her desk. “I’ll have all the data for your 10:00 A.M. conference with Director Shoat in a jiffy.”
“Thanks, Patti.” Byron smiled and then checked his watch. He had forty-five minutes until the meeting between the different agencies under the auspices of the Office of Homeland Security. The enforcement departments of the Secret Service; Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms; FBI; and the Federal Reserve Board, which included the IRS and the bank examiners, would all attend today’s emergency meeting. It was scheduled to last four hours with a catered lunch break, but Byron knew from experience that it would run longer. He was glad he wasn’t scheduled to speak. Sitting at his desk, he transferred his updated files from his laptop to his desktop computer. Then he logged into the Alert section of the office’s system. Here every action of the hundreds of thousands of cases was prioritized by the threat level each posed to the American public. Each case of every governmental agency under the Homeland Security umbrella was constantly being updated with information received either electronically or from field agents. The Patriot Act had given broad access into the records of anyone whose profile exhibited any proclivity to dissension. Byron mentally noted that the top ten cases all involved religion--either Islam or Christianity. He noted on his legal pad that the number one threat location was Lakeside, Missouri!
“You ready to get back to it?” Willis Shoat stuck his head into Byron’s office.
“Yes, sir!” Byron answered, trying to sound more enthusiastic than he felt, while he gathered his paperwork for the meeting.
“Good. Glad to hear it. See you in the conference room.”
“Damn it! Damn it! Damn it!" Kitty Koldwell slammed her car door. “Not again!” She stood beside her car, surveying the damage. In a split-second she had swerved to avoid being crushed by an SUV. By so doing, her low-slung Mazda Miata sideswiped the curb, putting a nasty crease along the bottom of the passenger door. Kitty knew her baby was still drivable, but the SUV hadn’t even stopped. That infuriated her more than the damage done to the car!
She jumped back into the driver’s seat and roared back into the morning traffic. She zigzagged her way through traffic, keeping an eye out for cops. Kitty didn’t need another ticket to go along with her next insurance claim. Her premiums were high enough already, and this third accident in two years could put her into the ‘assigned risk’ category. That was not what she wanted. She had purchased the red Miata at an IRS auction on a whim, not taking time to consider the insurance or the trouble she could cause by driving such a car.
Now, being alert, but not overcautious, Kitty sped down I-435, hoping to make up for lost time. Her boss, Internal Revenue Service Midwest Director, Dick Libid, had called her at home last night. All the department heads under the Office of Homeland Security had been called to a special meeting, and Willis Shoat requested her attendance. As a field officer Kitty had rarely attended any of the IRS meetings, let alone set foot on Homeland Security’s floor of the Federal Building. She felt flattered that the director of Homeland Security had personally requested her attendance at the meeting. They had never met, but maybe the IRS Commissioner had put in a good word for her. Kitty was up for a commendation for her arrest of a local pastor and the asset seizure of the entire Calvary Temple church facility. Her thoughts snapped back to the present as she swerved the little Miata into the garage. Spying an out of the way parking slot, she jerked the wheel and screeched to a halt.
Dick Libid sidled into Kitty’s office moments after she arrived. “Ready for our meeting upstairs?” Without waiting for her reply, he announced, “I've got a surprise for you.” Kitty drew up her guard, immediately wary of Dick’s advances. She gave her boss a look that froze him in the doorway.
“I was just going to say that the Commissioner is going to award you a commendation for the Calvary Temple job.”
“You're joking! Really?” A big grin spread across her face.
“Really! Would I lie to my number one...ah, Kitten?” Dick winked.
Kitty rose threateningly from behind her desk, purposely revealing her pistol under her coat.
“No more ‘Kitten’ from you or you won’t be the boss around here much longer! Get my drift?”
“I was just teasing.” Dick retreated from her office, but not before his eyes looked her over once more. Kitty sighed and, shaking her head, dropped into her chair. Just as she was checking her e-mail, the phone rang. She snatched it up before the end of the first ring.
“Morning’, Miss Kitty. This here's Floyd Bender, you know, downstairs in the marshal’s office.”
“Yeah, Floyd. How’s it going?” Floyd had helped her arrest Calvary Temple’s Pastor Collier.
“I'm doin’ just fine, but I thought maybe you’d be interested to know that we're puttin’ a wiretap on a pastor’s phone line down in Lakeside.”
That Floyd had lived all his life in the south was evident to all the first time he opened his mouth. Many people, hearing Floyd talk, assumed that he was a few bricks short of a full load, but Floyd was sharp and competent at his job.
“Does it pertain to the death of that guy, Hamilton Fischer, from Secular?”
“The sheriff who asked for the tap thinks it does.”
“Yes, ma’am, and I know how’s you got a thing against preachers and all, so I was thinkin’ you might wanna get an earful.”
“Well, Floyd, that’s mighty nice of you to think about me.” Kitty couldn't help mimicking his southern accent. “But I don't know that I’ll have time to run down every time that pastor is on the phone.”
“We're gonna be recording it for the sheriff,” Floyd informed her. Then lowering his voice, he continued, “I got my buddy to listen, ‘cause not only did that Secular fellow die down there in Lakeside, but the president of the local Guild did too.”
“I’m not following you, Floyd.”
“You see, it’s like this, Miss Kitty. I belong to the Guild too, and when I do some fishin’ down in those parts, the brother-in-law of the president, may he rest in peace, takes me out on the lake. Anyways, it just seems a might peculiar that them two guys both kicked the bucket at the same time an’ at the same place.”
“That is strange. So what’s that got to do with the Marshal’s office placing a tap?” Kitty, out of habit, impatiently motioned with her hand for him to keep going.
“He was there when they keeled over dead.”
“It was some big doin’s at a city councilman’s house, and the sheriff down there thinks the local police chief, who was there too, is trying to cover up something’. I’m just tryin’ to get some answers for my Guild brother, ‘cause right now the coroner done listed the preliminary cause of death as heart attack for both them fellers.”
“Two heart attacks at the same time? That is strange. Listen, Floyd, keep me informed. If there’s any hanky-panky going on with that pastor, I want to know about it, okay?”
“I figured ya’ might. See ya’, Miss Kitty.”
Hoping to avoid another round of congratulations, Byron arrived late at the meeting. He slipped through the side door. The liaison from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms sat next to the United States Marshal for the Midwest. Alongside those two departments, now under the jurisdiction of the Office of Homeland Security, were three black-suited FBI agents. Bob Barkley from the Secret Service and the bank examiner from the Federal Reserve, Peter Young, were in attendance because of Lakeside’s issuance of their own monetary scheme. Normally the local director of FEMA sat in on these biweekly update meetings, but today his seat was filled today by a dark-haired beauty Byron didn’t recognize.
Willis Shoat acknowledged Byron with a short nod and continued the briefing. The others around the oval mahogany table did the same. All except the new woman. Byron turned his head to avoid her stare. As he did so, he felt his face blushing bright red.
“Everyone, I’d like you to meet Compliance Officer Kitty Koldwell.”
Ah, so this is the beauty Agent Kelly was talking about! Well, he was right!
He watched as the overweight, mostly forty-something and balding male department heads greeted the beautiful newcomer.
“Glad to have you aboard, Miss Koldwell.” Byron felt himself blushing again.
“Officer Koldwell. Thank you, Deputy Director Whitacre.” Her reply drew muffled snickers and raised eyebrows from the group. Byron gave her a curt nod and averted his attention to his boss.
“All right, let’s get down to business, everyone,” Shoat barked, opening a large folder. “I hope all of you have been keeping abreast of the news out on Lakeside. This morning’s meeting will be used to synchronize all the different agencies represented here into one plan of attack. After lunch, we’ll lay out the strategy.”
The ATF was admittedly concerned over the police chief of Lakeside, Jack Stanton, and his plan to arm every citizen. Even more disturbing was that business owners and their employees were being given close-combat firearms training by Stanton who was a former Vietnam Green Beret.
Tim Thompson, the local FBI head, reported that no links to any subversive groups had been detected through their databases. He had been monitoring all web traffic as well as vehicular movement, in and out of Lakeside, ever since the city council passed the controversial home-rule amendment. Peter Young, the quintessential bean counter from the Federal Reserve, claimed to have run a trace on everyone with a bank account in Lakeside. Byron sensed that everyone else in the meeting was as surprised as he was to learn that, according to the nerdy Federal Reserve accountant, mortgages and car loans were practically non-existent. But what was most astounding to Byron was the fact that no one carried a balance on any of their credit cards!
“We have reasons to believe,” Dick Libid spoke up, “that the religious leaders in Lakeside have not only violated their nonprofit status by preaching politics from the pulpit, but they are circulating a plan to circumvent income taxes by using gold-backed travelers’ checks as cash. The Chamber of Commerce and the churches down there are issuing what they call ‘GOLDies’. That’s an acronym for God Ordained Liberty Device,” Director Libid scoffed.
“We’re also aware that somebody’s been stockpiling gold bullion,” Bob Barkley, the head of the local Secret Service, contributed. “But no one has been able to track down where they’re keeping it.”
“How do you know it’s staying in the country and not finding its way overseas?” Byron asked, looking up from the notes he was jotting down. He was trying to see a common thread in each department’s analogy. That’s what his office was all about. Instead of each department chasing suspects around the perimeter of the crime scene, it was Homeland Security’s job, and Byron’s specialty, to coordinate all of them, thus eliminating attacks by both foreign and domestic enemies.
“Since 9-11 everything is going through metal detectors. They’d have to be shipping it out ingot by ingot,” Barkley replied.
“How much are we talking about?” Byron pulled out his calculator and began punching in figures. “In dollars, a billion maybe two.”
“What’s that? Fifteen to thirty thousand pounds on today’s market?”
“And who are ‘they’?” Kitty asked. “It sounds like the Secret Service has already determined it’s the work of one group.”
Byron admired her initiative to join into the discussion. Dressed in a charcoal gray business suit she appeared to be one of the guys. However it was hard to miss the tight tailoring that accented her breasts and the low neckline of her white satin blouse.
Byron and most other officials involved in security had a habit of profiling everyone they saw, and Byron suddenly flashed on the thought that her boldness and dress might indicate that she was a lesbian. But she sure doesn’t fit the idea of a tattooed ‘Dykes on Bikes’ persona. Yet her demeanor definitely does. With that thought, Byron quickly tuned back in to the meeting to hear the answer to her question.
Barkley spoke up, “We’ve been tracking the flow of gold since before September eleventh in our hunt to follow the money. The bulk of these gold bars were purchased through precious metal commodity dealers one to two, maybe three, at a time over the past five years. They held them for their owners, and we tied most of the buyers back to bona fide estates and corporations, and even some family trusts, that were all legitimate. Only a few hundred ingots are owned by individual parties.”
“So, you’re saying that these specific gold reserves are suspect?” Byron wanted to clarify, not only for himself, but he was concerned that some of the others might not be following what was going on.
“Until a year ago, no. The brokers have slowly divested these assets for their customers in a deliberate, piecemeal fashion. That led us to believe it’s all going to the same place.”
“And you believe it’s going to Lakeside, Missouri to back the ‘GOLDie’?”
Barkley shrugged, “The Lakeside gold has got to be coming from somewhere. They’re the only ones openly talking about a large gold reserve.”
“Provided they really are backing it with gold,” Libid cautioned, “It could just be another scam.”
“True, true,” Willis Shoat finally spoke up. “But that kind of money could easily fund a major terrorist operation. I’m not saying the little burg of Lakeside has threatened any violence, but they are arming all the townspeople.”
“The Fed is particularly concerned if this GOLDie can be redeemed for gold. That means that whoever is behind the funding will have to be breaking the bullion down into some sort of coin,” Federal Reserve bank examiner, Peter Young, said.
“So what if they do? Then it’ll be easier to trace it,” Barkley reasoned.
“True,” Libid agreed. “But if it catches on and spreads to other pro-Christian communities, the IRS would be hard pressed to collect the income taxes on transactions using the GOLDie currency and coin.”
“How so?” Byron wondered out loud.
Kitty rolled her eyes. “The IRS only has jurisdiction over money issued by the Federal Reserve. You know, Federal Reserve Notes,” she said sarcastically. “We don’t collect taxes on foreign currency and that’s exactly what the GOLDie would become—a monetary unit issued by, quote unquote, another nation.”
“Yes! That’s right, Officer Koldwell,” Peter Young agreed. “That’s why we need to locate the gold and confiscate it right away. You all know the Treasury is issuing a completely new series of every denomination next month, and all the old bills will become obsolete the month after that.”
“We also understand the reason for the new Federal Reserve Notes. They are being issued to flush out all the money held anonymously both overseas and here in the States,” Byron reminded everyone. “But why the rush to confiscate the gold? Wouldn’t it be better to let them buy their so-called travelers checks with the old currency and then not accept them when they turn them in for the newly issued bills?”
“Wars are funded by bankers over the control of a nation’s currency. If the gold-backed medium of exchange catches on the Fed chairman will have no way to control inflation and deflation by increasing or decreasing the supply of money. Everyone who uses the GOLDie will be benefited by the fact that there isn’t any interest collected on it. Do we need a refresher course on Economics 101? The United States government is limited by the Constitution to only being able to coin gold and silver as money. They borrow money the Federal Reserve creates out of thin air, actually a computer entry, really.” Peter Young’s condescension was obvious.
“That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you,” Barkley retorted to the nerdy Federal Reserve accountant. “We’ve gotta find it first!”
“Calm down, people!” Shoat commanded. “I think we all agree. Lakeside is where the gold is, and I know that each agency would love to bag it to supplement their own budget. But that’s not going to happen.” He was struggling to restrain his temper.
“Under the asset forfeiture laws, each of your agencies will get a percentage according to the actual workload you contribute to the case. Understand? I’ve chosen Deputy Director Whitacre to head this investigation.”
Before Byron could acknowledge his appointment, his boss continued. “Officer Koldwell will assist Byron in the investigation. They will be operating undercover in Lakeside as newly-weds!