Book 1: Ensemble
Chapter 1: Stanley
Stanley Dial was sweating. He didn’t want to be sweating, especially in a room that couldn’t have been more than sixty degrees, but he knew he had no biological say in the matter. His body chemistry was in overdrive. He couldn’t roll up his sleeves, unless of course, he wanted to be shot on sight. Just suck it up he told himself. Stay focused. Stay on target. The target was to win money, and lots of it. Enough to erase the insane spiral of despair he had forced his entire family into. After three days of camping out, watching numbers, double and triple-checking trends, Stanley finally had enough money. One hundred thirty-two thousand six hundred and fifty dollars to be exact. It took him longer than he wanted to get there but he was finally ready for the next big step.
Stanley looked down and checked his watch. Four minutes and thirty-two…thirty-one…thirty seconds- Lord have mercy, just stop the dramatics and breathe…s l o w l y…he scolded himself. After a minute or so, the self-coaching was starting to work. His pulse began to stabilize as he wiped his brow. It felt much cooler to the touch than it did a few minutes ago. Good, he thought. One last move and it was going to work. Go with ten thousand on the inside with 8 black and everything else on the first dozen. 8 black wouldn’t be a problem but the outside max was fifty thousand. However, he knew the table manager would go for it with minimal prodding. This particular dealer had watched him lose a lot of money over the last three days. Why not take some more dollars from the sad-sack fool? Stanley grinned. And he was right, after very little persuasion the house was in.
Two minutes and counting…
Stanley decided to sit out the next two spins. The next number was set to come up. It was supposed to be 32 red. As the dealer rang out that number Stanley exhaled loudly. So noticeably in fact, that half the table glanced his way. Not good, he thought. Keep it together, man. Just then the croupier waved his hands to stop any additional bets. The ball popped and seemed to bounce around forever.
“7 RED!” belted out the table dealer.
A loud groan was heard as one of his fellow tablemates had just lost ten grand on an outside black bet. Stanley actually felt a bit bad since he knew he could have, at least in theory, helped the poor sap. In reality, he could do nothing of the sort, unless of course, he wanted to risk being exposed and lose his last chance to set things right.
Stanley snapped back and checked his watch one more time…
It was down to twenty-three seconds. His sweaty forehead returned. This time Stanley didn’t care. He felt his heart pound so hard that he was sure everyone else could hear it too. It’s ok, he thought, I will simply put the markers down exactly where they have to be. You’ve done this a million times in your head Dial; it’s no different now. At that instant, the ball entered the track. Stanley placed down one hundred and twenty-two thousand, six hundred and fifty dollars in chips on the first dozen, and an even ten thousand on 8 black as planned. He glanced over at the table manager who almost imperceptibly nodded in approval to the roulette dealer. Brother was on! The rest of the spectators and players were in shock at the sheer size of the bet. After that, not a single chip was added to the table. As the ball was spinning, “the hand” came out and stopped any last-minute attempts to get into the action.
At this point, time nearly stopped for Stanley, except of course for the insane and unending pounding he felt deep in his chest. “Could this ball just get into the black 8 slot already?” he impatiently mumbled under his breath. Of course, he knew it had to, so why all the nerves? Just relax and this will all be over in a few seconds. Then, I’ll get my life back and my family’s lives back, he daydreamed. He decided not to look. He would let the cheering be his guide. Then, two impossible words rang out…
“30 RED!” which was quickly followed by a loud, group-choreographed sigh.
“Wait a minute- What?! That’s simply CANNOT be!” he muttered to himself in a low volume panic. Stanley looked over at the wheel in disbelief. The stupid ball was sitting in 30 red. One slot away from where it was supposed to be...8 black! Stanley lost it.
“This table is rigged! It was supposed to be 8 black!” he said, this time loud enough for everyone to hear.
Stanley instantly realized this as he shook his head and closed his eyes. He knew he was done for. Within seconds, multiple Tropicana casino goons came out of nowhere. However, instead of grabbing and whisking him away, they did something far worse by tearing both sleeves of his shirt. And there it was…The Traveler’s Mark. As plain as day on his left forearm. Stanley’s crude attempt to cover up a partially shaved forearm resplendent with an incandescent stamp the size of a half dollar was rather pathetic and he knew it. The room instantly burst into hysterics. The table manager tried to calm everyone down but it was an exercise in futility.
“A Traveler!” someone screamed.
“They really exist?!?” echoed another.
Even if Travelers did exist, many in that room wondered how a loser schlep like this could possibly gain access to the most powerful technology on the planet. But yes, in fact, they all did just see a Traveler. And one who was unlikely to remain alive for very long.
Chapter 2: Situation Secure
Poor Stanley sat in a small, white, windowless room awaiting his fate. Stanley stereotypically resembled Ichabod Crane in many ways. He was a tall, spindly man, with a prominent nose who projected an overall goofiness about him that was hard to explain and even harder to deny. On this day, he also had the beginnings of a black eye and what surely had to be a broken left arm. Oddly enough, he couldn’t feel any of it, most likely because he simply didn’t care. He had failed…miserably. And because of this epic faceplant, he would soon be dead along with his wife and four children. “How did this happen?” he asked himself as he sat alone in that sad room. He knew 8 black was set to come out on that table at that exact time. But, it didn’t…
Gus Lebanchek checked his phone but he saw and heard nothing…again. He was getting frustrated. “Where is this damn team?” he muttered to himself. Word of the incident from the Tropicana had gotten to him almost instantly. Yet despite the Ministry’s rapid response capability throughout Atlantic City, the situation was still not secure.
“Maddening,” Gus mumbled as he sat impatiently in his home office.
Just then, the communication he had been waiting for finally came through.
Gus messaged back. “Twenty minutes too late, Rick. Make sure the locals have this under control and don’t screw anything up. Tell them we will be on-site within the hour.”
Bloodied and beaten, Stanley Dial somehow felt relieved. Not a good relieved but a feeling closer to resignation that one gets when the weight and stress of the world instantly stop pressing on your shoulders. He knew that the grief he would soon experience would devastate him but for the moment, all he could feel was full-body numbness resulting from the shock of the situation that was unfolding in front of him. Suddenly, the door to the small windowless white room swung open. Five, six, maybe ten men came through. It was tough for Stanley to tell. One thing was clear, these guys looked nothing like the “mobsters” he knew and expected to see. No, these were G-men for sure, Stanley thought to himself. Stereotypical dark suits with, yes, sunglasses. Stanley was quite confused. He was sure at some point in the not too distant future he would have to face the unseemly people he owed large sums of money to. But at least for the moment, getting beaten up and broken down by casino henchmen was preferable to death. Just as Stanley was attempting to process all of this, one of the government men slipped behind him and grabbed both of his wrists and cuffed them to the back of the chair he was sitting in. The numbness he had felt minutes ago, was suddenly and painfully gone.
“AHHHH!!” Stanley shrieked in sheer agony.
The audible note that he produced was quite piercing but no one in earshot seemed to notice and/or care. At this point, close to a dozen people were stuffed into that tiny room which made Stanley feel even more uncomfortable, if that was somehow possible. He didn’t like tight, enclosed spaces and it was starting to feel like a Tokyo subway car at rush hour. After about a minute or so, the Men In Black kicked the Tropicana guys out of the room. Despite the throbbing pain, he was now feeling all over, this was better. At least he could breathe.
The table in that room took up much of the floor space. It had one chair and Stanley was in it. Everyone else stood around the table and was looking directly at him.
Synchronized surveillance, Stanley thought. Each of the men had their arms behind their backs with dark sunglasses still in place. He wished he had a camera because no one would ever believe him. Finally, someone spoke. The shortest “agent” (Stanley supposed that’s what he should call them) did the talking.
“Who are you?” he asked in a voice higher than Stanley expected to hear.
In fact, the tone was almost funny but Stanley realized that laughing now was probably not in his best interest. After a moment, he answered.
“I am Stanley F. Dial.”
“Well, Stanley F. Dial,” the agent in charge said sarcastically and deliberately, “what exactly are you doing here, or should I say what are you doing here again?”
Stanley looked down at the table and didn’t respond. At that moment, the short agent snapped both fingers and gestured with a nod of his head and uttered the word “secure.” All of the other agents understood this and immediately left the room, presumably to go secure something or someone.
“Show me your arm, now!” barked the high-pitched agent.
Stanley could not comply since he was still cuffed to the chair.
“I can’t,” he replied.
The agent, somewhat annoyed, stood up, walked around the table and uncuffed both arms.
“No longer a problem,” he said, as he proceeded to pick up and slam Stanley’s injured left arm onto the table.
The word pain didn’t adequately describe what Stanley felt at that precise moment. Still, somehow, he managed to hold it all back save for a low-pitched grunt that may or may not have been audible. At that point, the agent took off his sunglasses, pushed aside Stanley’s tattered shirtsleeve and pored over the glowing incandescent mark on his left forearm. Despite the pain that was now searing through him, Stanley intently looked at the agent as he fixated on the green circular stamping. For a brief instant, the agent had a fleeting look on his face that was an unmistakable mix of surprise and concern. Stanley made a mental note of it. He was also pretty sure Mr. High Pitch had no clue that his unusual reaction had risen to the surface. Just then, the door swung open and yet another man entered the room.
Gus entered the room and stopped for a moment before proceeding to the table where Stanley was sitting. Gus Lebanchek was a rather average looking man. He had dark, straight hair parted to one side with dark brown eyes and a strong jawline. Standing 5 foot 8 inches tall and weighing no more than 150lbs, he also wasn’t a very big man. Despite his physical limitations, Gus possessed a real-world capability to inflict considerable pain. This rather ordinary looking man was in charge of all covert Ministry investigations related to time travel. He didn’t hold a fancy title since his job, at least in an official capacity, didn’t even exist. That type of covert authority made him a very dangerous man, especially to poor saps like Stanley Dial. The resources Gus required to conduct his operation came from no discernible government agency or entity. Whatever Gus needed, Gus received. For all intents and purposes, he was untouchable. Of course, that wasn’t entirely true since everyone, ultimately, answers to someone. Except in Gus’ case, he answered to a ghost. After eight years on the job, he never once laid eyes on the man he directly reported to. As crazy as that sounds, in the end, none of that mattered. What did matter was that Gus Lebanchek always closed out his cases, quietly, and with no fanfare involved. As a result, whoever was pulling the strings from above always managed to give him more than enough rope to hang himself. But so far, Gus was still standing. Until perhaps now… Gus realized that this careless numb nut sitting in front of him had the potential to put his spotless record to the test.
Stanley estimated that this new agent in the room was in his late thirties. Unlike the others, he wasn’t wearing a suit. Instead, he was wearing a plain, button-down white shirt and slightly worn-out blue jeans. This agent didn’t have sunglasses either and generally looked out of place, relative to everyone else Stanley had seen so far. Soon after entering the room, Gus motioned the short, high-pitched agent to leave. Before he left, Gus pointed at him and held up 2 fingers. Seconds later, the agent returned with a second chair. Gus sat down and opened a black and white notebook that reminded Stanley of something his grandfather might have used in 3rd grade. This guy was out there, Stanley thought to himself. It’s 2044, who in their right mind still uses pen and paper? Gus licked his index finger, turned the page and began to write something down. This went on for several minutes. Finally, Stanley decided to interrupt. Quite gingerly, Stanley asked, “Can I help you with something?”
Gus dropped his pen and slowly looked up. “Can you help me with something? Do you have any clue just how fucking dangerous your associates are? Do you realize that the only reason you are still processing oxygen is because I need you to help me find and eliminate these anarchists?”
Stanley sat frozen in his chair. What exactly had he done to elicit that kind of response, he thought. Yes, he had just likely committed suicide and almost assuredly hastened the death of his immediate family, but how could his small-time actions in a random Atlantic City casino with some random thug group be that big of a deal? Without saying a word…or blinking, Gus continued to stare directly into Stanley’s eyes. After a minute or so of this awkward, pregnant silence Stanley finally uttered:
“No, I was not aware.”
At which point, Gus returned to his head-down writing and calmly stated, “Of course you weren’t Stanley…but you will be.”
Chapter 3: The Underground Movement
Losing one of your best operatives, and a good friend is not an acceptable level of “collateral damage” Jerry Reynolds thought to himself as he sat in the mission debrief room. Billy Herrera was a brilliant mind and a very funny guy who kept things light for many people who operated out of the Philly development hub. Resources were always tight and demands were always sky high. Over time, that wears on you. Billy understood all of that and it’s why so many gravitated towards him and his absurdly funny sense of humor. He will be missed, big time.
Jerry instantly snapped out of it and abruptly responded, “Yes Ma’am!”
“Well…can you answer the question, Jerry?”
“I’m sorry Ma’am…would you mind repeating the question?”
The room let out a collective but somewhat subdued chuckle. Clearly, they were just as depressed as he was. Madeleine Wilheim was an attractive woman in her mid to late thirties. More importantly, she was the Underground Movement’s Director of North East Operations. She repeated the question.
“Jerry, please inform the operatives, as well as myself, what we know and what we don’t know about yesterday’s activities at the Tropicana.”
“Sure Madam Director, no problem. Well, as of right now, we don’t know all that much. What we do know …that is, what we are sure about…is that Billy is …”
The Director mercifully stepped in.
“Yes, Agent Herrera will be sorely missed by all of us. However, he did not die in vain. That much I can assure you. We will not let history forget him. My apologies Jerry, please continue…”
“I’m sorry Director, yes, what do we know…We are certain that a WOS (Wall of Silence) was initiated by the Ministry at 3:22 p.m. local time, yesterday. The coverage was complete and surrounded the entire casino property. At that point, we ceased to have direct communications with operative Herrera. We also know that an Interior Ministry scramble was initiated within the immediate area at 3:20 p.m. We can safely assume that under these particular circumstances, Termination Protocol was enacted approximately at that same time.”
The room instantly went silent and Jerry did not immediately continue. Jerry hated using that euphemism which he thought should be called what it truly was….operative-forced suicide. Yes, forced suicide was an oxymoron of the worst kind.
“Is that all, Mr. Reynolds?” asked Director.
“No, Ma’am it isn’t.” Jerry continued. “There’s good reason to believe that the Ministry is likely to leverage the situation and backtrace the event to our ICP (Intermediary Cooperative Partner).”
“Thank you for getting everyone up to speed, Jerry. Going forward, I must remind each of you to proceed with extreme caution until the situation has been completely neutralized. Right now, our exact path forward has yet to be set in motion. Soon, I will be meeting with senior leaders at other regional and international locations in order to determine our best path forward. In the interim, you are all on continuous alert, so please don’t make us come looking for you. As individual needs arise we will contact you. For now, that is all.”
After talking with a few of her senior operatives, the Director left the room. Once alone, she let out a deep sigh. Maddy fully realized that her job was to absorb it all. But on days like today, that fact didn’t make it any easier on her or anyone else for that matter. It was an incredibly high-stress position and one that she didn’t seek out. Maddy knew that she possessed the necessary mental and technical competencies for the job and that no one else in the Organization was better suited to handle the challenges that came with it. And she was ok with that. She also knew that The Underground, which was the name her Organization commonly went by, would soon be under severe external pressure after this episode. Unfortunately, this sector, her sector, would be ground zero and exactly where the Ministry would attempt to apply maximum pain. City, perhaps statewide curfews, government-run checkpoints, random raids, and pervasive IT surveillance would be the norm for the next several weeks. And there was no doubt that the ‘no-signal’ Jump was the reason for the Ministry’s cause for concern. Two years earlier, Maddy had served as lead scientist of an Underground team that transitioned this technology into an operational reality. Despite colleagues who were skeptical, she knew the science was sound. And in the end, it worked. She was also thankful for all the fail-safe precautions that had been developed over the past year, including a rapid-response capability that could quickly conceal the entire facility soon after the event commenced. As such, there was nothing for the Ministry to find afterward. The risk at this point was not about authorities discovering the transport device. Instead, the real risk was all the human capital and other infrastructure hiding in plain sight that could now potentially be uncovered by Ministry forces. She knew that, prior to this, the Ministry had no tangible proof that the Underground had any Jump capabilities, let alone an operationally-viable, no external signal, time machine in place and ready to go. The Underground was able to remain low profile due to the fact that all of their testing and development over the past decade revolved around no-signal Jump technology. Save for a raid discovery, which the Underground was very well prepared to avoid, the Ministry remained relatively fat, dumb and unaware. The sheer size of the Ministry also helped. Her Organization was nimble, much smaller and highly adaptive. The government, by definition, was not. Arrogance was also inherent to the Ministry operation while fear of failure drove the Underground Movement. Given all these factors, Maddy was confident that they would survive the additional scrutiny that was coming their way. Unfortunately, the public at large would suffer. Violence and despair were sure to descend upon the people of Philadelphia and the surrounding areas. It was unfortunate but nothing could be done to mitigate that reality.
For the time being, Maddy had another, more immediate, action item to attend to. It was something that had to be addressed and it had a dark side. The ICPs, or at least those who were directly involved in this particular incident, had to be eliminated. Like any Organization, or life form for that matter, the Underground Movement required resources in order to exist. Securing these resources often required, “creative measures.” Which in this case was a euphemism for activities that often involved interacting with unsavory characters involved in unsavory activities. Here, the (unsavory) ICP represented an arm of the region’s dominant “private security organization”. Like most organized crime, this group had its hands in many enterprises including but not limited to: construction, import/export, prostitution, garbage removal, as well as local “security” and “community banking”. It was this last niche business that brings us to the matter at hand. Over a two-year period, Stanley Dial had managed to back himself deep into an inextricable financial corner. An insurance salesman by trade, Stanley also liked the horses, and the football games and the baseball games and anything else he could possibly bet an outcome on. In the end, the house always won, which in this case meant that Stanley Dial lost.
Per Maddy’s request, the ICP had kept her apprised of Mr. Dial’s worsening “predicament” once he was identified as the Underground Movement’s TJC (Target Jump Candidate). As part of this agreement, detailed weekly updates were provided to the Underground in lieu of monetary compensation. Under ordinary circumstances, the Underground would receive up to 15% of all ICP revenues in return for a wide array of “essential services.” Yes, more euphemisms. These services included, but were not limited to: “documentation removal” (evidence tampering), various types of “cleaning services” (laundering) and “transportation logistics” (smuggling). Truth be told, the ICP was getting tremendous value for the upfront 15% service fee they paid. The Underground had made the determination a long time ago that covert, steady funding would be a requirement. And the best, most synergistic way to reliably acquire these needed resources would be to interact with other “underground” organizations. The unfortunate and somewhat ironic reality was that in order to shine a light on Ministry societal misgivings the Underground had to operate in the shadows in order to simply survive. Their Organization also had to be nimble enough to consistently evade often dim-witted, but always well-funded Ministry forces. Over time, Underground leadership decided to utilize these attributes by spinning off select “services” as a reliable way to secure funding for their ongoing operations. Incredibly, not a single drop of blood had been spilled between any of the ICPs and the Underground over the past three decades. This was truly a remarkable outcome considering the volatility of human behavior, generally speaking, not to mention the antithetical nature of the endeavors that drove each Institution. Out of necessity, and despite adhering to “business plans” that often did not align, both Institutions had somehow managed to maintain a highly symbiotic relationship over the years. The fact that ICP sympathies would almost always align with Underground interests over Ministry “enforcement priorities” was a major reason that the relationship remained functional. In fact, Maddy liked to think of this as an added bonus of the symbiosis since the ICP network often served as a canary in the coal mine for pending Ministry action.
And now she would be forced to potentially upset this delicate relationship despite all the past history and mutual benefits involved. Still, even if the Organization did end up going down this path, no direct involvement of Underground actions could be tied to ICP losses that were incurred. Their recent interactions with the Philly ICP represented a dangerous loose end. While it was true that no ICP would ever be given access to critical Underground operations, the risk, however small, still remained. “No breadcrumbs” is a term they often used and always lived by. If she were to act, they would do everything they could to make it appear that the Ministry, not the Underground, was to blame for any “pending loss” that the ICP would be forced to endure. As always, there were options. In this case, she decided to contact Operations Support.
“Steve, this is Maddy,” she said.
“I was waiting for your call. What took you so long?” asked Steven Arroyo, who was the Regional Commander of Operational Support. “No shit Steve”, she thought to herself with a smile. Some called him that for his no-nonsense, sometimes abrasive, communicative style. She used it because he always got things done, often quickly and with very little drama involved. Right now, that was exactly the skillset she needed.
“Steve, I don’t have to tell you that we’re facing a rather sensitive situation and I need your help. We have to neutralize a few ICPs …permanently.” Arroyo remained silent. The Director continued. “There’s more. When all of this is said and done we need to make this look like Ministry aggression.”
After another moment, Steve finally spoke.
“Any ideas on how to accomplish this? What you are proposing is beyond risky.”
The Director responded.
“Yes, I realize that. However, I think we will have an opportunity to make it appear that we were not involved. The details will become clearer in time. For now, get a group ready to move the Dial family to a secure location. Have the team on high alert and ready to move on my word.”
“Understood. Anything else?” he asked.
“Yes. Don’t share details with anyone. I’ll be in touch.”
The Director ended the transmission. Maddy knew that she could trust Steve. She also knew that he wasn’t fully on board. Steve knew that what she had in mind could very well jeopardize the Underground’s critically important, long-standing ICP strategic alliance. For the record, Maddy didn’t like it much either. However, none of that mattered. This is exactly what had to be done.
Chapter 4: Cover the Trail
Gus Lebanchek was looking forward to interrogating Stanley Dial. He was fully confident that he would get him to divulge everything he knew, and perhaps things he didn’t know he knew. “So tell me Stanley F. Dial, how did all of this happen to you? I’d like to know why, when, how and with whom. I want to know everything about everyone and I want every single detail.”
Stanley figured this line of questioning was coming. “Actually,” he said, “it really isn’t all that complicated and I don’t have all that much to say. I sell insurance for a living and I lost my job about 18 months ago when our company was bought out. I tried to get another job but these days it’s not easy. I did every possible odd job I could. It wasn’t close to being enough. My wife and I have four children. We have no additional family to lean on and no other financial options available.”
Lebanchek interjected. “My heart bleeds for you Mr. Dial, truly it does. So how does all that unfortunate sadness get you here, talking to me, in custody?” he asked.
“Look, I was…actually still am an unemployed insurance agent. We were…. no, are, set to lose everything. I couldn’t just sit by and let my family become homeless. I could take just about any indignity if I were alone but not with young children. Not with a wife and family to support. I have desperately been trying to secure loans, IOUs, anything I could to help turn things around. Finally, I thought I had found something that could actually have…saved us …well, for a price.”
“Yes, a price…continue,” said Lebanchek.
“I was given the chance to Jump,” said Stanley.
“By whom?” asked Lebanchek.
“I thought you wanted to know how and why?” asked Stanley.
“Yes, yes, but that can wait. Right now, answer my question. Who gave you access to the machine?”
“Well actually, I don’t know exactly,” he muttered.
“Look Dial, don’t waste my time. I will ask you again. Who gave you access to the machine? We know precisely where your family is, so it would not behoove you to play games with the Ministry. In the end, you will lose.”
“I’m not playing games, I simply don’t know!” he barked. Stanley realized that his tone was not helping matters and began speaking more softly. “Leading up to the actual Jump and when I returned, things were very, very controlled. I was blindfolded going in and lightly drugged…I think. Initially, I could not say exactly where I was or exactly when the actual Jump occurred for that matter. It was a very disorienting experience. Even after I arrived in the future, which was only four days out, if you can call that the future, it took me several hours before I started to feel normal again. Returning to the present was equally disorienting. I remember standing in the same room I initially woke up in after the forward Jump, but that’s about it. As soon as I arrived back in the present I experienced some sort of mist or fog and couldn’t see much of anything. Seconds after that, I was unconscious. Then, after what felt like hours, I awoke on a couch, in a room I had never seen before.”
“Who did you see, who did you interact with throughout all this?” demanded Lebanchek.
“The guys who blindfolded me before the forward Jump and the first people I saw after awaking on the couch after the backwards Jump were the same two guys I had set up the agreement with weeks earlier,” Stanley told him. Both were pretty big, one has a tattoo of a tree on the back of his hand. The other guy almost never talked and was a bit shorter and fatter. Other than that, I can’t say much of anything. They barely talked so I never heard any names. I met with them, three, maybe four times before I actually Jumped. I never spoke with or saw anyone else. I can take you to their storefront, and the room I awoke from after my Jump forward and later returned to before Jumping back. Both places are downtown. I warn you though, these two don’t seem like the law-abiding citizen types. And if I had to guess, I’m pretty sure they don’t think they actually ‘sell’ anything at this ‘store’”.
“Oh, you absolutely will take us there, Mr. Dial…today in fact. You and your family also better hope that this leads us where we need to go,” Lebanchek informed him. Just as he had finished, the door quickly opened and the short, high-pitched agent entered the room and motioned to Gus. Lebanchek, reaffixed the cuffs on Stanley, this time a bit tighter than before. Stanley winced, which made Gus smile as he left the room.
Rick Joliet had heard all the jokes, some to his face, most behind his back. Was he part midget, part eunuch or maybe he was a woman who simply changed teams. Whatever, he thought. Oh, make no mistake, all that banter used to bother him quite a bit especially in his teens and early 20’s, but that was then and this was now. Today, more often than not, Rick Joliet was the one who ended up getting the last (high-pitched) laugh.
“What is it Rick?” asked Gus as they walked past agents interviewing witnesses in the high-limit gaming area of the Tropicana.
“I think you’ll want to see this,” Rick responded. Joliet led Gus into a small stall in a bathroom adjacent to the table where Stanley had been making his bets. Joliet’s men had found a body.
“Who is he?” asked Gus.
“Well, he has no identification, which was curious at first. However, after a bit of digging it’s pretty obvious that he is, well was, Underground. Also, this was self-inflicted.”
“How can you be so sure?” asked Gus.
“We ran a prelim and traces of cardio-accelerants were found. Looks, smells, walks like cardiac arrest. Of course, we know better. His DNA was washed as well. It came up as one of the known generic Underground profiles.”
“Did he transmit?” asked Lebanchek.
“No,” Joliet said, “the WOS was already in place. We estimate he terminated soon after we initiated coverage.”
Gus shook his head. “That’s a real shame. Right now, Stanley Dial is our best and only option…which for a myriad of reasons is not a good thing. Incidentally, did you take care of the collateral damage in the room?”
Rick replied, “If by that you mean did we push a convincing mix of fear and mis-information, then yes, we are set. We should be fully wrapped-up within the hour.”
“Good,” replied Gus. “Speaking of wrapping things up, let’s have the body analyzed further but moved out of here discreetly. With any luck, we will find something we can use.”
“Understood,” said Joliet who directed two agents to secure and prepare the body for transport.
Chapter 5: Squaring Up
Stanley sat alone in the back seat of the car during their trip from Atlantic City to downtown Philadelphia. It was actually a lot nicer than he thought a government car would, or quite honestly should be. Roomy, black leather throughout, with a center console area that looked a lot like a minibar. Is this government-issue or VIP executive? Probably a little bit of both, he thought. Stanley shook his head. Lebanchek wasn’t traveling in the car but Stanley could communicate with him at any time. “I don’t think we went into enough detail about what happened and what we should expect when we get downtown,” said Stanley, hoping someone would hear him and respond.
Gus heard him all right, and proceeded to roll his eyes from afar. “Look Dial, we know all we need to know. These are the only guys you dealt with, they were contacted, and you are going to give them ‘their’ seven hundred and twenty-five grand in an hour. It doesn’t get much more straightforward than that.”
Stanley was not done. “For you, maybe, but it’s a bit more complicated for me. My family is in real danger. If something should go wrong, they will be at risk.”
Gus laughed aloud. “You are quite amazing, Mr. Dial. Obviously, they are at risk. You, and you alone, put them at risk. Do I need to remind you that the $725,000 you are giving them is Ministry money? Do I also need to remind you that without this money your family would already be dead? You will do exactly what we say, when we say it.”
Stanley was now officially done. However, Gus wasn’t. “Just don’t forget what you are supposed to do. We will be close by and listening at all times. We will come in when we need to. You just concentrate on your part. Pay what you owe them, again with our money. Don’t do anything stupid and you and your family will live to see another day,” said Lebanchek. For some reason, Lebanchek had a wavering moment of pity for Dial and added, “For now at least, you should not be concerned about your family. They will remain safe and under tight surveillance.” Stanley looked out the tinted window and in fact, that did make him feel a bit better. Not much, but at this point, he was willing to embrace any feeling of improvement, no matter how small it was.
The rest of the trip was mostly uneventful. Stanley heard occasional Ministry chatter associated with details of the plan to meet the “mobsters.” Stanley didn’t know what else to call them. “Seedy characters who dabbled in time travel,” while accurate, was a bit too wordy. Once you actually saw these guys and their surroundings, anything but mobster sounded wrong. Given all the cloak and dagger that had taken place to get Stanley into the future and back, it was obvious to him, and to the Ministry no doubt, that the real brains behind all this wasn’t directly linked to the two meatheads he had dealt with. Stanley also knew that the only reason he was still alive was due to the fact that he had a direct connection to said meatheads. The Ministry needed him, which was obviously a good thing when it came to self and family preservation. Still, Stanley needed to make sure that the insurance he currently held was not a short-term policy. If it was, he and his family would soon become expendable. If he had to, he would lie in order to maintain his value. He also knew that this could only buy him some time, but some time was clearly better than no time.
“Pulling into position” was heard throughout the car sound system. Stanley sat up. This was getting quite real now and his stomach started to turn. Swallowing became harder as his mouth began to dry up.
Gus came on the line and said, “Dial you are almost on, we are getting our assets in place. Are you 100% sure of the address, floor and unit number?” asked Lebanchek.
Stanley paused for a second to make sure he was sure. How could he forget something like that? He had been in that room twice. It was 325 North Front Street, 2nd floor, unit 333. Finally, he answered, “Yes, I’m sure.”
Stanley looked at his watch. It was 3:24 p.m. They were on time. He was beyond nervous but didn’t think he looked it. At least he hoped he didn’t.
Gus spoke to him via the internal mic placed near his eardrum. “Dial, can you hear me?” he asked.
“Yes, volume is fine, clarity is fine. Let’s just do this already,” quipped Stanley.
Gus shook his head. “Relax cowboy, you will get your chance.”
Stanley took the stairs to the second floor. He was now alone. Well, not really since government agents were in place, he just didn’t know where, exactly. There it was, he thought, room 333… The last time he was here he was filled with so much hope. He was going to fix everything. Now, just a few days later he was filled with despair and likely facing a do or die situation on the other side of that same door. He knocked. And waited… No answer. He started to knock again just as the door swung open. Stanley was a bit startled. It was 3:30 in the afternoon but it looked nearly pitch black inside. The one lamp he remembered was obviously not on. Stanley stepped in and said “Hello?” Someone immediately grabbed his left arm that was now in a soft sling. Stanley swore that after this was all over he would create a brand new word that better described the feeling he had just felt and previously endured at the Tropicana. “Pain”, even with the most colorful adjectives imaginable preceding it, would be wildly insufficient. “Excruciating horror” was closer but still not enough. Suddenly, a bright light was turned on and was pointed directly towards his eyes. Stanley winced and put his right hand up to block the intense glare. He was forcibly pushed into a seat into the corner that wasn’t there four days ago. The windowless room was stark. Stanley could see it a bit better now. The lamp, which was still off, was next to the couch he had awoken on after Jumping back. Other than the chair and the floodlight in his face, the room was unchanged. And yes, the two goons he knew, Mr. Tree Hand and Mr. Teller, from Penn and Teller fame, were the only ones in the room with him.
“Where is it?” asked Tree Hand.
“The money?” Stanley replied.
“No, the big bag of peanut M&Ms, you dope,” said mute boy. Wow, thought Stanley, he can actually string together a few syllables! The goons both chuckled as they marveled at their self-perceived brilliance and wit.
“Here you go,” said Stanley as he handed over the briefcase full of cash to Tree Hand. Before he even opened the case, a very high pitch whistle rang by Stanley’s right ear. A split second later Stanley saw a red dot on Tree Hand’s forehead. The dot began to drizzle a small amount of blood from it. A few seconds later, Tree Hand fell directly on top of him as they both crumpled to the floor. Stanley cried out, “What the-” Just then, Teller turned towards the door, but he had no chance. Ministry agents flooded the entrance and immediately took him out. All of this occurred in a span of ten seconds at most. Stanley was thankful that a large dead man was draped all over him. Besides the bullet to the forehead, additional bullet entry wounds could be found on Tree Hand’s left side. These projectiles could just as easily been lodged in his right side, he thought. Thankfully, that was not the case. The next few minutes were a blur. One agent had been hit by Teller but not fatally. It was that agent who grabbed Stanley, put him over his shoulder and quickly got him to safety just outside the building. Remarkably, the Ministry had managed to neutralize the situation and extricate him all inside of five minutes. Stanley was still in shock as they made their way away from the scene, but part of him was also impressed at just how efficient the Ministry could operate under pressure. Actually, shocked, impressed and scared was a more accurate assessment of Stanley’s current mental state of being.
Chapter 6: Cleanup on Aisle ICP
Madeleine Wilheim’s secure line flashed. She didn’t have to look to know who it was and why they were calling. Their ICP was furious. Moments earlier she had Steve Arroyo make contact with one of the heads of the Philly ICP to let them know that they had just lost two men. Maddy let out a deep breath and finally answered the line. “Wilheim,” she said.
“Who is this?” echoed a cold voice from a man who seemed to be in his mid 50s or early 60s.
“I am Director Madeleine Wilheim. And with whom do I have the pleasure of speaking?”
“Cut the crap,” responded the man who still hadn’t identified himself. “We are not happy…what the fuck did you just do?” he asked.
“I understand your concern but perhaps if we could discuss this calmly I think we could-”
The man interjected. “No, I don’t think you understand Mz. Director. We are livid.”
“Sir, I do understand, but there is no need-”
He interrupted her again. “We have had calm waters with your Organization for a very long time but today, inexplicably, you have decided to put that relationship in serious jeopardy. We cannot fathom why you would do such a thing.”
Maddy was trying to be patient but was beginning to lose her cool. “Look, I still don’t know who you are exactly, but I ask that you listen to me. We understand that you lost two good men. We deeply regret that. Truly, we do. But I must tell you that your assumptions are off base. We are as appalled by the Ministry’s brazen actions as you are. We simply had no ability to stop what happened today. Please know that we are here to help you, not just offer condolences or empty promises.”
There was silence on the line for a few seconds. Mr. ICP finally spoke. “I’m Jack Cranston,” he said. “We lost two good men out there today. I hate to lose any of my men, let alone good ones.” Cranston’s tone notably softened but he clearly was still very much on edge.
“Believe me, I completely understand and agree with you Jack, if I may call you that?” she asked politely.
Cranston didn’t respond. Maddy took that as a yes and continued.
“We certainly didn’t anticipate that they would come in guns-a-blazing as they did. It made no sense.”
“So what happened, exactly?” Cranston asked.
“Well, we were in place and had everything set up with the receivers, that is, your two men, in position. The $725,000 owed to your organization by Dial was to be paid off. And in fact it was. The unforeseen complication arose when the Ministry chose to proceed aggressively,” she said.
“Meaning, what exactly?” asked Cranston.
“As the money was being exchanged, a single shot was fired through the door from the outside hallway. The shot was fatal. This action took us by complete surprise.” she said. “At that point, other Ministry agents charged the room and several rounds were exchanged. Within less than two minutes, the encounter was over. Dial, who somehow managed to stay alive, ended up leaving with the Ministry. Unfortunately, both of your men were killed. We also believe that at least one Ministry agent was shot. We do not know the extent of those injuries. As you know, we had expected to recover Dial. We do however have the second-best thing. His family is in a secure location as we speak.”
Cranston’s earlier conciliatory tone lost some of its steam. “As you surely know, our sole interest was to recover the money we were owed. The safety and whereabouts of Stanley Dial and his family are of little concern to us. Excuse me if I do not extend my condolences. We will be busy burying our dead.”
Maddy quickly realized her unforced error. Bringing up “our loss” was a mistake. She decided to move to phase two of the planned reconciliation. “I understand, Jack. Our setback pales in comparison to your loss. Please forgive my insensitivity and accept my apologies and deepest condolences,” she continued. “While I am sure your Organization is not happy about recent developments, I am also willing to bet that you have every intention of addressing these grievances directly with the Ministry. As such, I would like to offer you a valuable resource that could assist in that regard.”
“You speak in riddles,” Cranston grumbled.
“I’m sorry, let me be more direct. The Underground feels terrible about what happened and wants to give you this.” The Director held up a blue pill so that Cranston could see it on his monitor.
“You kill two of our men and now you offer Viagra in return ?”
Maddy laughed out loud. His response caught her off guard and was genuinely funny, not to mention ironic since his quip was intended to get a “rise” out of her. After a few seconds, she gathered herself and continued.
“No Jack, this is a very strategic suicide pill. Upon use, the visual symptoms will suggest, and the autopsy reports will confirm, the cause of death to be ‘natural’ heart failure. A fake heart attack pill is what it is,” she said. “Instead of going after the Ministry overtly, which will no doubt result in further aggression towards your Organization’s vast array of operations, this one pill can strategically be used to elicit a targeted and very powerful ‘anonymous’ response,” she added.
Again there was silence. The Director knew that this was not how ICPs typically responded to aggression against them. They were much more comfortable with the mano-a-mano, roll-up-your-sleeves approach. She also realized that if the pill were to be used on a high profile public figure, the fallout would almost certainly trace back to the Underground since Ministry officials were well aware of its origins. However, this was of little concern to the Director since they were already in the Ministry’s crosshairs. Such an incident would do little to alter that reality. It was also true that giving this technology to the ICP could backfire if they used it incorrectly or if they started demanding additional “samples”.
To that last point, Madeleine added, “Please remember that this is a one time gesture so I strongly urge your Organization to use it wisely.”
Cranston was definitely intrigued but attempted to play it coy.
“I’m not sure we have a use for such things but I will pass it along. Perhaps others may find it has some value.”
Despite his cool response, Maddy could tell he was interested. This was good, she thought. An important first step to put this entire unfortunate incident completely behind them…
Chapter 7: A Comedy of Errors
Gus Lebanchek was beside himself.
“Rick, what the fuck just happened?” he asked.
“Sir, we entered as soon as we had visual confirmation of the direct hit on the target,” responded Joliet, who was in charge of the logistics associated with the raid that the Ministry just conducted.
Gus responded, “Who the hell initiated?”
“I’m not sure sir. I can tell you that it wasn’t us.”
Gus was truly perplexed. None of this made any sense. Sure, he figured the Underground would have been tipped off about the planned drop with “the handlers” but the last thing he expected was non-Ministry aggression against said handlers. “We wanted everyone alive, Rick.”
“Sir, I understand, but we had nothing to do with the initial hit. We simply responded in order to save the remaining assets. Loss of the second target was unfortunate but unavoidable.” Gus knew that he was right and that they were actually fortunate to still have Dial under their control. They were also lucky that no Ministry agents were lost despite several rounds being fired during the brief but intense exchange. Still, their primary objective wasn’t met and they also somehow managed to lose $725,000 in the process. The two Underground handlers who worked directly with Dial and had direct knowledge of the Underground time machine were now dead. Worse still, the why, how, and who associated with the initial hit were still mysteries. Gus wasn’t happy but remained confident that he would eventually get to the bottom of it. Right now, he had a more pressing need to address and that was securing the Dials. Lebanchek knew that after this mess, Stanley’s family would be at risk for some sort of retaliatory response. With the loss of the handlers, this meant that the Dial family would be of even greater importance to the Ministry. Right now, Stanley was the only link they had to this mess and “saving” his family from Underground aggressors would be the best way to secure his future cooperation.
Gus contacted Rick who was riding with Dial in one of the vehicles that just left the scene. “Rick, get Dial’s family secured at the safe house. Don’t wait, do it right it now.”
Joliet responded, “I’m on it, stand by.”
As he waited, Gus started thinking. Why would the Underground assassinate one of their own, or at the very least, a known contact they trusted? Covering their tracks is the only thing that made any sense. They also went out of their way to make it look like we were the aggressors. Gus shook his head as it began to sink in. We just did their dirty work for them, he thought. And the poor stooge handlers and their associates are being led to believe that we were the ones who initiated. They were more than a collection of rogue scientists, he thought. Essentially, they just screwed their partners but knew that their partners were much more likely to give the Underground the benefit of the doubt when the alternative was the law-enforcing, “above-ground” Ministry. At the moment, Gus couldn’t prove any of this and wasn’t sure what the end game was for this particular maneuver, but he was fairly certain that with enough digging he would eventually be able to expose the truth and use it against them.
At that moment, Joliet came on the line. “Sir?” he said.
“Yes, what is it Rick?”
“We have a problem. Our surveillance team lost them. They were in place but somehow the Dials were removed.”
Gus shook his head in disgust. “How is that even remotely…” He stopped himself before he allowed his blood to boil and took a deep breath. “Right under our noses…” he mumbled.
“Sir?” asked Joliet hesitantly.
“Nothing. Just send a unit back to the original scene first thing tomorrow. I want forensics looking at everything inside and outside that room. I want to know exactly how this unfolded today, and I want every bit of it documented.”
Thank you for reading the inaugural release of the SEKTOR V trilogy! Be sure to come back every 1st Wednesday of the month to find out what happens next!
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