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Game Changer

Prologue

Two black SUVs stopped in front of the small tract house. One man walked to the front door as two others walked around the opposite sides of the house. The other men took their positions as backup. The extraction wouldn’t take long; they were highly skilled professionals.

As he watched the vehicles pull up, his decision was made quickly. He scrambled down the ladder from the tree house that he had built for his kids to use when they came to visit every other weekend. It was in the back of a modest yard that bordered a small wooded area in the little development of twelve homes. Earlier he had parked his car almost a mile away in a small strip center in case he needed to make a run for it. He wondered if it was a crazy idea at the time, but not now.

He stayed in the woods, keeping parallel to the main road. The wooded area ended at a crossroad, and he crouched down and watched as one of the SUVs slowly patrolled the neighborhood. The trees were thick and provided the cover he needed, as the men hunting him cruised by. They had obviously discovered that he wasn’t home and his car was gone. He hoped they would leave soon to search elsewhere.

It all started during the impromptu office party late that afternoon at a local rathskeller where they had toasted the coming December holidays. He had a little too much to drink and spoke about things that he shouldn’t have.

“I wish I got to work on cool stuff like you do,” his colleague said loudly to be heard over the volume of music and chorus of conversations.

They both toasted each other with whiskey, having moved beyond beer a while ago.

“Yeah, it is pretty cool,” he said, wedged in between people at the packed bar.

“That demo was incredible.”

“That doesn’t even do it justice. It is way beyond its time, but none of its real capability was showcased–” He caught himself, but it was too late.

His colleague stared at him for an extended awkward moment and then said, “Really? You know they’re going to want to know all about it.” The cacophony of the room was building as the drinking and merriment grew, but his colleague lowered his voice to be safe and leaned closer. “Ridley held out on them, and no one knows what happened to him.”

“What are you talking about?” he asked nervously. They huddled even closer and tried to move away from the crowd.

He could smell the whiskey on the breath of his colleague as he leaned in close.

“Four years ago right before you came on board, Bo Ridley had built a new radar application that was cutting edge, but he didn’t want it used on an offensive weapon system. Bo thought it should be used for our protection as a defensive tool only.” His colleague looked quickly to his sides and continued speaking in a loud whisper. “Bo learned that it was going to be the centerpiece for a new weapon.” He paused. “All I know is that he hated the idea. One day he didn’t show up for work. The next day his desk was cleaned out, and it was like he was never even here. We were told that he had moved on, but nobody has heard from him since. And … we were ordered not to try and contact him, because he was the subject of a federal investigation.”

He noticed a man in a suit reflected in the mirror behind the bar and wondered if he’d been eavesdropping on their conversation. The man pulling out his cell phone as he left the establishment.

He remembered overhearing a heated discussion a few weeks ago between his boss and a man he had never seen before. The words weren’t discernable, but there was yelling and it was upsetting. He’d asked his boss about it and was told to forget that he heard anything. His boss said that everything would be taken care of. The frightened look on his boss’s face had been burned into his memory. Over the past two weeks his boss had him transfer his files to a local drive that his boss kept, a deviation from the usual protocol, but he had complied. His boss was his mentor, and he owed him so much.

It was just past five when he said his goodbyes and left the bar. He drove to the Ford dealer, where he dropped off his car for a scheduled service appointment and drove out in a loaner.

  On his way home his paranoia got the best of him, and he decided to park at the strip center a little less than a mile from his house. He went into the electronics store and bought a pre-paid cell phone and disabled his own. He walked the rest of the way and entered his backyard through the woods and climbed into the tree house.

As the minutes ticked by he felt silly. What the hell am I doing, he thought. When the SUVs pulled up, such thoughts disappeared instantly.

Now, crouched in the woods in darkness, he plotted his next move. He needed to get to his loaner car and warn his boss. After that he would gather his thoughts and make a longer-term plan. Calling his boss was out of the question, they’d find out. He texted his boss’s personal computer, a computer that only he knew about. Most likely it was where the files were being kept. He erased the text after it had been sent successfully.

Chapter 1 – Discovery

Dr. Alvin Grace leaned back in his chair, taking a break from putting the final touches on his masterpiece. He had nicknamed it Slim. Years in the making, his life had been dedicated to designing and building a transformational breakthrough in the world of nanotechnology. No patents would be filed, because it was protected by trade secrets, his trade secrets. Patent filings would give a road map for development to the scientific world and he couldn’t allow that, it was too dangerous.

Alvin Grace was fifty-nine years old, of average height with a head of thick white hair that had a mind of its own. His father, of African American heritage, had been a high school chemistry teacher, and his mother, a Native American, had taught math at the same high school. He had grown up in a world of academia, and he had blossomed beyond imagination. By any measure, Alvin was a genius. If the world’s smartest scientists scored ten on the ten-scale, Dr. Alvin Grace was so far above them, there simply was no scale to measure him by, truly one of a kind. He had been a full professor at MIT until he took his current job to completely devote himself to Slim.

Recently, Alvin had demonstrated Slim for the people he worked for and they had been impressed with it, although he only showed them a wisp of its capability. Slim had potential that only Alvin understood, and he kept it that way on purpose, because he had grown to distrust the intentions of his employer.

Alvin worked for New Horizon R&D, which was dedicated to research for the military. It was solely funded by The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, better known by the acronym DARPA. The company employed scientists and engineers, but it was run by former military brass. General Benjamin Larkin, a senior man at the Pentagon, controlled the funding for New Horizon. Larkin was tasked to deliver new technology that would make the United States a safer place. In Larkin’s mind that meant new weapon systems needed to be developed constantly.

It was early in the morning and Alvin had been in his office all night, which was not unusual when he was fixated on something. His office had a sofa with a pullout bed that he used, as needed, whenever he spent the night. Alvin walked out of his office stretching his arms, heading to the kitchen for a nice wake-me-up mug of steaming hot coffee.

Staff members were milling about as they fortified themselves at the beginning of another day at New Horizon. Alvin noticed that his assistant, Blake Weston, was not among them, which was unusual. Blake was usually one of the first to arrive.

He walked out to the receptionist.

“Did Blake call in?”

“No sir,” she answered.

“Hmm,” was all he said, making his way back to his office.

 

The second complete day without hearing from Blake came to an end, as Alvin put on his warm, wool coat and scarf. He was worried and could tell that others were, too. Just as he reached the front door, two uniformed policemen greeted him.

“We are looking for Dr. Alvin Grace,” one of them said.

“I’m Dr. Grace. How can I help you?” he answered with concern.

“Is there somewhere we can speak in privacy?”

“Certainly.” He showed them into a conference room off the lobby and shut the door.

Once they were seated, the lead officer took off his hat. “I’m sorry to tell you that Dr. Weston was in a fatal car crash–”

“My god …” Alvin’s hands began to tremble and his chin quiver. Tears came quickly.

The officer gave him some tissues as he tried to compose himself. “What happened?” he managed to ask, his voice barely audible and shaking.

“He was found in a ditch off the George Washington Parkway, just outside of Arlington. No other vehicles were involved. It looks like he was intoxicated. His blood alcohol was over the limit.”

Alvin buried his face in his hands with his elbows on the conference room table.

“We contacted the next of kin, his sister, who lives in Indiana. She said that she thought you were not only his boss but also a good friend. I hate to ask you this but we do need to formally identify the body, and we were hoping you might be willing to do that. His sister has given her consent.”

“Give me a minute.”

“Of course, we’ll wait outside. Thank you.”

Alvin steeled himself for the task before him. He took a deep breath and joined the officers to follow them to the morgue and identify Blake’s body.

Silent tears streamed down his face as he looked down at Blake’s lifeless body. He had taken his trusted assistant for granted all these years, so dependent on him. Now, in a flash, he was gone.

After filling out some paperwork, he drove home, numb.

 

Sitting down at his desk in his study, he decided to bury himself in his work to try to take his mind off his grief. Alvin needed to accept the fact that Blake’s propensity to carouse had finally caught up with him.

He opened the secret compartment in the wall behind his desk, a removable piece of base molding, and pulled out his laptop. The laptop housed his documentation for Slim.

Once he booted up, a message notification appeared.

That’s odd, he thought.

After opening it, he froze as he read the text from Blake.

I’m on the run. Two  SUVs showed up at my house, but I managed to get away. They overheard me talk about Slim. I’m so sorry. Look up what happened to Bo Ridley. Be careful. I’ll contact you when I can.

Tears gave way to shock. Eventually, his gifted, disciplined mind took control and raced through the implications. He had done the right thing to remove Slim and leave behind a lot of files and programs that would ultimately mislead the scientific teams that would be ordered to commandeer Slim. None of the scientists would be able to quickly discern that they did not have a working version of Slim. Alvin’s level of knowledge was so far above theirs that they simply had no way to understand any of his work, so they would be analyzing his files for weeks, if not months, before they realized what he had done. He was convinced that no one would be able to carry on with his project after he left, which would now be as soon as he gathered his necessities.

As he went about assembling his things and readied himself to flee, he physically felt very strange. He was distressed over Blake and the whole situation, but this was something different.

Something doesn’t feel right, something else is wrong, he thought to himself.

He decided to run some blood work on himself. The tests were fine on the surface, but when he viewed one slide under his electron microscope, he saw it. A few tests later confirmed it. Somehow they had infected him with neurotoxin XF–18.

My coffee, he thought.

He sat down at his lab table and propped himself up with his elbows, burying his face in his hands. Motionless, he stayed at the table as the acceptance of his impending death swept over him.

Earlier in the day, a secretary had brought him coffee, which he usually got himself. They must have done it then. He knew all about the weaponized neurotoxin, since he had opposed its development.

Blake’s death disappeared in his mind, as he became possessed with the fact that he had ninety days left to live. That gave him ninety days to find a caretaker for Slim, or destroy it.

Alvin had been planning his exit as a contingency plan for a while, so many arrangements were in place. He had new identification–driver’s license, bank account and credit card. There was a vehicle in storage in his new name, and he had twenty thousand dollars in cash that he had managed to withdraw and stash over the last six months. He only had to pack his laptop and some basics; most everything else was taken care of. After looking out windows in the front of his house and seeing nothing suspicious, he slipped out the back door and made his way to the mini-storage facility nearby.

The hoodie covered his face from the security cameras, as he punched in the code that would be recorded as Owen Jeffries entering the facility. He opened the door to unit 108 and drove out in a dated white VW Beetle.

It was about a three-hour drive to the sleepy town of Princess Anne on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. He had rented a small house and barn on a large property that was owned by an elderly couple. They were more than happy to get the timely rent check every month from Owen Jeffries. He pulled up to the house and parked his car. He entered the barn to find the extra-large van just as he had left it. The van had been customized to allow for a workspace, cot, and stacked shelving where Slim was secure.

After entering the special code and following the complex protocol, he put Slim in the startup mode and lay down to get some rest.

Chapter 2 – Unfair

At thirty-two-years old, Will Parnell was just shy of six feet and in good shape, working out regularly. He wore his brown hair on the long side and most regarded him as good looking. By profession he was an accountant, and he’d passed the CPA exam. Diligent and hard-working, he’d recently earned a law degree from Temple’s night program and passed the bar. He thought he had achieved significant professional accomplishments, but he was still in a dead-end position career wise, at least that was what his wife of four years, Claire, told him every moment that she had a chance. His father and older brother chimed in with the same tune in support of Claire, whom they liked very much.

Will and Claire had been high school sweethearts in the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio. They went to the same college together, Ohio State, and settled in Philadelphia where Will worked as an accountant and Claire, a journalist, was hired as a reporter for a local news station. Her attractive looks and engaging presence on camera helped her career to flourish. Will was proud of his beautiful wife and her successful career. They saved their money and finally married four years ago. Soon after that, the trouble began. Will wanted a family and Claire wanted a career. They weren’t on the same page.

As time went on, Claire’s opportunities grew, while Will’s never seemed to materialize. Yet, he was very supportive of her, so when an opportunity came to move to a news station in New York City, he supported her decision to take it, because he knew she wanted it badly. She commuted at first and then got a pied-à-terre, coming home on weekends. After eighteen months, she came home every other week, and then every three weeks.

During the recent holiday party at her news station, he watched his wife dance with a colleague, a little too closely. They fought about it afterwards, and he ended up going back to Philadelphia, alone. Arguments had become the norm, but this one had been different.

 

As he sat in his small office, depressed, his phone rang. It was the receptionist telling him that a process server was in the lobby looking for him. The firm was always getting served on behalf of its clients who opted to do battle with the IRS. Many of those clients were accounts that Will generally worked on.

He walked out to the lobby, signed for it and walked back to his desk. It was from a small law firm in town. Sitting down, he opened it and stared at the first page, as the air rushed out of his lungs. The law firm represented Claire, and she was suing him for divorce. It encouraged him to have his legal representative contact them so the matter could be settled amicably. Tears welled up in his eyes, and there was a huge lump in his throat.

How could you do this? he cried to himself.

The firm’s managing partner stepped into his office and shut the door. “I heard that you got served by those jerks. My ex used 'em …” she said. Word had spread fast throughout the firm.

He couldn’t respond, frozen in shock. Finally, through the pain, he managed to blurt out, “Yeah.”

“Why don’t you take the afternoon off?”

“No. I have work …” his voice broke, but he caught himself.

She sat down in the chair in front of his desk. “Will, you are one of the most valued employees here. Everyone depends on you. You make them all look good–”

He abruptly cut her off. “Then why am I never promoted? I’m not a partner. I outwork everyone. The sacrifices I’ve made have just benefitted everybody but me!” Will was more surprised by his outburst than the managing partner. He truly liked her and regretted the tone of his voice, but he desperately needed to vent.

“Will, you don’t bring clients to the firm. You do good work, and that’s why you have job security with us,” she said sternly.

He took a cleansing breath and looked at the ceiling. “I think I’ll take the afternoon off after all.” His mind was still numb as he tried to decide what to do or feel next.

“Good. Come back when you feel fresh and ready to go.” She was unsettled by their exchange and left quickly.

He blew his nose and collected himself before grabbing his briefcase to leave.

When he reached the lobby one of the partners, an athletic looking man, said, “Yo, Parnell. Sorry to hear about the wife … She came on to me once, you know.” The partner’s large mouth framed by thick lips smiled showing a broad array of artificially veneered teeth under a bulbous nose.

Will bristled as he walked past the receptionist, saying nothing on his way to get his coat out of the closet. Once the partner disappeared, the receptionist ran to Will’s side. “He’s an asshole, Will, and everybody knows it. I’m so sorry about Claire,” she said sincerely.

Will thanked her and left.

It had been years since Will had been out during the day, except on business. Even though it was early afternoon he stopped at a bar and had a drink, followed by several more. He watched the sports news as he drowned his sorrows, and ate a burger to soak up the alcohol. After a while, he decided to leave before the cocktail crowd arrived.

He walked back to his ground floor, one bedroom apartment in the Art Museum area.

Once inside, his cell rang. It was Claire. He answered with no emotion. “Yeah.”

“Did you get my package?” she asked.

My package, he thought.

“I got your divorce suit,” he responded.

“Will, I’m sorry to serve you at work, but I needed to be sure you got it, and you work all the time. Anyway, I’d like to do this as quickly as we can, and as simply as possible. You keep your money, and I keep mine. We both go our own way.”

He wanted to engage in a real discussion, but he knew it was hopeless.

“Did you hear me?” she said.

“I heard you. I’ll be in touch with your law firm tomorrow.” He hung up the phone. He’d never hung up on her before, but he was experiencing a lot of firsts lately.

The cell rang again. It was Claire. He turned it off, kept drinking until he fell asleep.

 

The next day he slept in and eventually got up, showered, shaved, and dressed. Over a cup of coffee, he called Claire’s lawyer and explained that he was a member of the bar and would represent himself. They were finished in less than an hour.

He dropped by the law firm, which was five blocks from his office, and executed the no-fault divorce papers. Claire signed as well in New York and scanned the signature page and sent it back while Will was still with her lawyer.

Leaving the law firm, life felt bittersweet. He knew he had done the right thing and that he’d be better off, but he was leaving behind all that history with Claire, some were memories he cherished. However, as each minute ticked by he felt more and more relief. He’d hated their life together since she took the job in New York. He tried to support her decision, but he hated himself for doing it. Their marriage was over, and he knew he had to learn to be glad that it was.

He stopped at a corner coffee shop and got a small coffee to go. As he sipped it while walking to the office he had another epiphany, and he decided that it was time to make more changes.

He walked into the office passing the receptionist. She smiled and he smiled back, just as the asshole partner was passing through. “Parnell, I need the Brodsky cash flow and tax projections for my meeting first thing tomorrow morning. You’re gonna’ need to work all night. We have a strategy session on Brodsky in the main conference room in thirty minutes. Be there.”

“Got it,” Will said as the asshole partner marched off, taking himself very seriously.

Will went to his office and gathered his files on the Brodsky account and prepared a document for the meeting.

By the time he walked into the main conference room there were people standing and talking in small groups. Four of the partners were there, in addition to the managing partner, the asshole partner and four associates. The Brodsky account was the firm’s largest and its most lucrative.

Will cornered the managing partner and said, “Can I have a few minutes before we get–”

The asshole interrupted, “We need to jump on the Brodsky matter now,” he announced loud enough for the entire room to hear. “Any personal crisis you have can wait.”

The managing partner glared at her asshole partner who pulled a mea culpa. “Brodsky is big business, and fees that we dearly need.”

She looked kindly at Will. “Is it okay with you if we deal with the Brodsky matter first and then talk?” she asked.

“Certainly,” he replied, always professional.

The asshole stood at the head of the table. “All right. We will show our client the resulting cash flow and tax benefits in the form of a projection concerning the merger that he is contemplating. He has chosen our firm because of the analysis that I did on his existing business last year, which gave him a roadmap to improve his bottom line by twenty-three percent. I might add, that is how we got the account to begin with. Now, the relationship is building, based on the solid foundation that we have. Parnell will fill out my template with the necessary modifications to give our client another roadmap to prosperity, and we’ll have that by eight o’clock tomorrow morning, so that we can be ready to present at ten.” He looked at Will. “I need you to commit to that timeframe, Parnell.”

All eyes turned to Will.

After a pause that everyone noticed, Will calmly said, “I don’t think so.”

There were gasps and chatter.

What?” the asshole’s voice boomed.

Will waited until he had everyone’s attention. He spoke boldly with confidence. “A year ago, you came to me with the Brodsky matter. You didn’t understand how the parent company and its subsidiaries functioned. I spent weeks analyzing the cash flow and tax impact of recommendations that I ultimately made to change their business structure. When I showed it to you, you didn’t understand it, so we had to go over it many times.”

“I needed to vet–”

Don’t interrupt me.” Will said firmly. He was on a roll. “Then you presented it to the firm and the client as your own work product. Now, you want me to analyze a merger deal using that template. The bottom line is that you don’t understand the work involved, you performed none of it. I’m not about to wet nurse another one of your clients.”

“Are you quite finished?” The asshole was fuming, his face beet red.

“Not quite.” Will carefully scanned the people in the room. They were in shock.

Perfect, he thought.

“You are one of the most uninformed and incompetent accountants that I have ever met. I will no longer brook your bad behavior or your ignorance.”

“You won’t be at this firm much longer,” he seethed.

“That’s correct.” Will stood and handed an envelope to the managing partner. “That is my resignation, effective immediately.” He gathered his briefcase as people began to deal with the shocking performance they had just witnessed. He held up his index finger to get everyone’s attention. “Oh, one more thing. If I hear one word of slander from you, or anyone at the firm for that matter, I’ll haul you into court right along with your insurance carrier.”

Will left to pack up his things.

Word spread like wild fire throughout the firm. People were talking. Will Parnell was becoming a legend in the making.

The managing partner walked into his office. “Wow,” she said.

“Yeah. That’s been brewing for a while.”

“What are you going to do?”

“I’ll figure that out later. I have a CPA and a law degree, so I’ll find something, somewhere.”

“No transition?” She was concerned.

“I have a running commentary on every account that I work on with all source documents and a work plan that I’ll send you. If you need anything else, just call me–just you and you alone.”

“Have it your way, Will. Take care of yourself.” She left confused and angry.

Will only packed a few things. It all fit in a small box.

Walking through the lobby the receptionist gave him the thumbs up and smiled. Will smiled back.

Chapter 3 – The General

General Benjamin Larkin paced the floor in his large office as he lectured the man seated before him, Chet Hackett.

“Chet, you’ve served me with distinction, which is why you are running New Horizon. So, you can imagine my shock, when I discovered that one of your people is keeping an advanced technology from us, for whatever reason.”

“Sir–”

The General raised his hand to silence him. “Let me finish. I realize these scientists have a mind of their own. But, I don’t need to remind you, everything they produce, their entire work product, is owned by DARPA per the terms of our funding agreement. Keeping information from us that is vital to this nation’s welfare is illegal and treasonous.”

“Sir, how do you know that someone is keeping information from you. Certainly, you don’t think that I would.”

“Of course not, Chet.” A tired smile crossed his face. “We monitor anyone that we have reason to be suspect of. You know that.”

Hackett nodded.

“We have suspected for some time that Alvin Grace has had another agenda, and we confirmed it the other day. You and I need to decide what to do about it,” the General said.

“What do you think it is?” Hackett asked, totally surprised.

“We’ve learned that Grace has built a technology that’s a breakthrough in nanoparticles–exactly what, we don’t know.” The General took a moment to gather his thoughts. “The good professor keeps virtually all of this to himself, and that makes him dangerous,” he emphasized.

“How do you want him handled?” Hackett asked, fearing the worst.

The General’s brow furrowed. “We are taking steps to secure all of his research, and when we have it, we won’t need him any longer.”

“What do you need me to do?” Hackett asked.

“You just be prepared to get your scientists all over his work. No one is indispensable,” the General said with conviction, but Hackett wasn’t so sure when it came to Dr. Alvin Grace.

Hackett left, and the General’s next appointment arrived, five minutes later.

“Good morning, sir.”

Reed Logan closed the door and sat across from the General.

“Tell me where we are,” Larkin ordered.

“We have secured all of Grace’s research, and we infected him with the neurotoxin earlier today.”

“How long will it take?” the General asked.

“It takes ninety days. There are virtually no symptoms. On the ninetieth day, it hits like a bolt of lightning, and it’s over.”

The General nodded. “Well done. Get me an update before the end of the day.”

“Yes sir.” Logan left.

 

The General neatened the few objects on his desk. Everything in his life had a purpose and a place. Larkin was a complicated man. Educated at West Point, he had served his country with distinction. At just over six feet and square jawed, he was in good shape and cut a dashing figure for his fifty-six years.  Married twice and divorced, he had three grown children with families of their own that he only saw once a year, if he had to. The altruism and kindness of his youth had given way a long time ago to a practical reality and brittle hardness, which caused him to cross lines from which there was no return. He had grown comfortable with all his life’s choices.

 

Reed Logan was back, providing an update. “I confirmed that Grace went to the morgue and identified the body of Blake Weston. We learned that he was very upset.”

“What do you think happened?” the General asked.

“I can’t prove it yet, but I think Weston somehow got word to Grace. Remember, we caught Weston while he was running from us. We learned that the technology has massive capability, although Weston couldn’t give us anything other than a general statement that it can render a subject invisible.”

What!” the General gasped.

“Unbeknownst to Grace, Weston saw him use it two weeks ago. It’s not at all like the crude attempts that have been made to date. This is the real deal.”

“What else did he say?” the General asked, anxiously.

“His heart gave out. We couldn’t bring him back,” the man said with resignation.

“Heart? What did you do to him!” the General erupted

Logan looked down at his hands. “We didn’t touch him. After a little digging, we learned that Weston had a bad heart condition. The stress of the situation killed him. It was just too much.” Logan frowned and shook his head.

“So, Dr. Grace is spooked and on the run, but in ninety days he’ll be dead?” the General asked.

“That’s right,” Logan confirmed.

“We need to find him before he does any damage!”

“We’re trying, but he went off the grid. He systematically withdrew twenty thousand over the last six months, so he’s been planning this for some time.

The General slumped in his chair. “He could be anywhere. We’ll need to go public that we’re looking for him.”

“Do you want me to handle that?” Logan asked.

“No. I’ll get my staff on it. They’ll find him. I just hope it’s in time.”

 

The General called a meeting of his trusted staff. They were gathered in his spacious conference room.

“We have confirmed that Dr. Grace has committed treason, and he is on the run. We need to find him. That man possesses secrets that are vital to this nation,” the General said.

“Sir, shall we’ll alert NSA.”

“Yes and if we don’t locate him by this time tomorrow, I want you to unleash the FBI,” the General said.

“We can have a BOLO put out, if you want that.”

The General stood up. “If he’s gone to ground, then we are best served by having all of the government’s resources at work. Grace is a smart man, and we must never forget that. We must make sure that he never shares his technology with another soul or god forbid–one of our enemies.”

His staff left to broaden the hunt for Dr. Grace. It was a national priority.

Chapter 4 – The Search

Alvin Grace woke up after a fitful sleep of five hours. He stretched and looked at Slim, which was operational. He made some instant coffee and sat down at his workstation. He began to interact with Slim using a keyboard.

Dr. Grace needs to find a trusted person to act as a caretaker for Slim.

When?

Soon.

Slim will create a list of people with the right profile for Dr. Grace to choose from.

How will Slim find the people?

Connect Slim to the Internet. Slim will scour the psychological profile and personnel files of all data bases of all relevant companies, federal, state and local governments, charities, and educational institutions. Slim will then review all personal digital records. Recommendations will be made to Dr. Grace.

Alvin had provided for Internet access in the barn and the house when he rented it earlier in the year. He also had the van rigged for high-speed mobile Internet access.

He drove the van outside of the barn and connected Slim to the Internet, and he switched to voice activation.

He placed a small black box in the console to the right of the driver’s seat and plugged it into the 12-volt outlet. The black box functioned as a control center for Slim.

“Slim, I want you to scan the area and let Dr. Grace know when it is safe to run the stealth mirror application.”

“At the moment, there are many people in the viewing area,” Slim responded.

“Let Dr. Grace know when it is clear.”

Alvin drove out to the main road, U.S. Route 13, and turned north. When he got to U.S. Route 50 he turned east and headed to the coast. His destination was Ocean City, Maryland, where he would turn north and cruise through the beach towns of Delaware.

As he pulled into Ocean City, Slim gave him an update. “A preliminary report is available. There are just over sixty-two thousand people that meet the profile. There will be a short list finalized by evening.”

Alvin smiled. Slim’s artificial intelligence dwarfed that of anyone or anything he had ever experienced. He needed to get Slim into the right hands. The stakes were high.

 

As they drove north on Delaware Route 1 through the beach towns, Slim spoke. “It is clear to activate the stealth mirror application.”

“Please activate now,” Alvin responded.

Within seconds the van was rendered invisible, and all sounds from the van were muted. This was a basic application in Slim’s arsenal.

“How is the development of the flight application?” Alvin asked.

“There is functionality of sixty-three percent. Would Dr. Grace like to try it out?” Slim inquired.

“Yes. Commence.”

A hologram of a dashboard with multiple control levers appeared near Alvin’s right hand. Alvin drove the van into one of the parking areas for beach goers and continued to one of the access trails to the beach. It wasn’t long before the van became stuck. He gently touched one of the levers and moved it up slightly and the van rose three feet above the beach. Next, he tilted one of the levers and the van moved forward, maintaining its height above the beach. They cruised up the beach–invisible and three feet in the air. As they approached a rock jetty, Alvin increased their altitude by fifty feet and turned right, cruising over the ocean and then continuing north.

“Reaction?” Slim inquired.

“It’s very good. When will the Level One development be complete?” Level One was comprised of many potent applications.

“Slim estimates that it will be complete in less than twenty-four hours.”

They continued to cruise parallel to the coast. As they neared Atlantic City, Slim said, “It is time to turn left and plan to put down on the road.”

“Why? Dr. Grace was planning to go to Montauk Point,” Alvin said.

“A leading candidate on the list is in Philadelphia. Does Dr. Grace want to meet this candidate soon?”

“Yes.”

They found a deserted road off the Atlantic City Expressway and touched down. After exiting the stealth mirror mode, they proceeded to Philadelphia. It was dark and the roads were crowded as they approached the Delaware River.

“Tell me about this person and the characteristics that caused Slim to choose him or her,” Alvin said.

“It’s a him, and his name is Will Parnell. He is of above average intelligence, and of very high moral integrity,” Slim said.

Alvin considered what he heard, and he was not comfortable. “Does Slim need someone with a high IQ to do this.”

“Slim will provide the intelligence. Trust, loyalty and above average intelligence are what’s needed. Dr. Grace designed and built Slim to perpetuate itself. That part is over. Slim needs a trusted caretaker.”

“What qualifies Will Parnell?” Alvin asked.

“Will Parnell has chosen trust and loyalty above his own self-interest time and time again. Per multiple employee reviews, he is dependable. Multiple psychological profiles consistently show that he places morality above all else.”

Alvin thought for a moment. “What if all of the information is wrong?”

“It could be, but that is why Dr. Grace will interview him.”

“Interview?” Alvin squawked.

“Dr. Grace will observe Will Parnell and interact with him and form an opinion.”

“Is there anything else about this Will Parnell that Dr. Grace should know?” Alvin asked.

“Yes. Will Parnell is recently divorced and left his job as an accountant. Within the last year, he passed the bar exams in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.”

Alvin shook his head. “He’s a quitter.”

“Monitoring of his communication and that of others suggests otherwise. Will Parnell is an unusually gifted man. He is available and looking for something new to commit his life to.”

“Let’s decide where to go for the night,” Alvin said.

“The government has issued a nationwide alert to be on the lookout for Dr. Grace. I recommend for tonight that Slim enters the stealth mirror mode and perch above the Delaware River next to the roadway of the Benjamin Franklin Bridge.”

“Is your power module loaded?” Alvin asked.

“No. Once Slim goes into the stealth mirror mode again, Slim will take on hydrogen from the Delaware River.”

“Commence.” Alvin said.

They exited I-676 into Camden, across the river from Philadelphia. As they got close to the river, Slim scanned the area and determined that it was safe to enter the stealth mirror mode.

In an abandoned crack house, one of the junkies was looking out of a broken window at the large van as it vanished.

Shit! I saw a UFO, man.”

“A UFO? You’re high, man,” the dealer said.

“I ain’t high yet, man. Fuck!”

“What exactly did you see?” the dealer asked.

They walked over to the window and looked out together. “There was a van right by the corner lot, man. It disappeared, poof. Aliens took it, man.”

“Shoot up, man. Don’t worry ‘bout no aliens.” The dealer shook his head and left the crack house. If there was a stakeout of one of his houses, he needed to know. He slithered between buildings and back alleys, careful not to be seen if anyone was watching from the road. Crawling up the side of an old vacant garage with broken out windows, he peered over the roofline where he had an unobstructed view of the corner lot and the blocks around it. He waited patiently for ten minutes. Nothing. He lowered himself to the ground and walked to the corner. The filth from unclean streets, trash and debris was soft under his feet from the recent rain. As he got closer his eyes told him that a vehicle had been there. He walked part of the way to the river following the tire tracks until they just stopped abruptly.

Later, in the backroom of a Camden bar, the dealer was settling-up with his supplier.

“Crazy night, bro.”

“It’s winter and a full moon, man,” the supplier said.

“Yeah, I know. One of my solid customers said he saw a van disappear. He thought aliens took it,” the dealer said.

“A junkie saw something disappear. Come on, man.”

“I know. I know. But listen, I thought that maybe the cops or feds might be watching, so after I left the house I went to look. I found tire tracks in the area that just fuckin’ stopped close to the water.”

The supplier put down his beer. “Just stopped?”

“Yeah … like it disappeared.”

“Shit, man. Who was the customer that saw this?” the supplier asked.

“Horseshoe. Been solid, man. He’s not a crazy shit like them rest.” The dealer looked at his hands.

“Keep your eye out. Could be the feds. They got new wild shit all the time. I’ll get the word out. Be careful.” The supplier left with a worried look on his face.

Chapter 5 – Life Goes On

Will Parnell had just finished breakfast when his cell phone rang.

“Hello.”

“Will. It’s Jared Coombs from the Governor’s office in Harrisburg. The Watson firm in DC referred me to you. Apparently, they worked with you on a relocation analysis for a public relations firm that helped them lure in a big tenant for their landlord client. Anyway, they thought that you might be interested in helping us in a similar situation. I called your old firm, and the receptionist informed me that you were no longer there, and she was kind enough to give me a number for you.”

Will smiled. “Sure, how can I help you?”

Will and Coombs talked for the next hour about the situation. They agreed that Will would be placed on a retainer by the State of Pennsylvania and receive a success fee if the company decided to locate anywhere in the state from its current location in LA.

After a shower, Will checked his email. There was an invitation to his class reunion, number fifteen. There were also several emails from his old friends asking him to attend. They had heard about the divorce and felt this was the right thing for him to do. He groaned and responded to his friends that he’d think about it. It wasn’t until September, which was six months away, so he had plenty of time to decide.

He settled in at his workstation and formed a limited liability company online in Delaware, Parnell & Associates, LLC. Next he sent Jared Coombs a basic services contract reflecting the terms of the deal they made.

Less than an hour later he was pleasantly surprised to see that it was signed and returned.

That was fast, he thought.

His cell phone rang again. It was the receptionist from his old firm. “Will I’m going to connect you to the managing partner in a minute, but first just listen. Brodsky is going to fire the firm unless they can get you to work on the account, at least that’s what I heard at the water cooler.” She paused, “You ready for me to connect you?”

“Sure … and thanks.” His mind sorted through several possibilities.

The managing partner came on. “Hello Will.”

“What a surprise,” he said.

“Not really. We have been working for the last four weeks on the Brodsky account, and we have learned that your work was very important to the project, so I have a proposal for you, if you’re interested.”

“I might be, depending on what it is,” Will said.

“The firm is willing to pay you as a contractor at the partner rate to spearhead the work on the account.”

“What’s the status of the relationship with Brodsky?” Will asked.

“I want to get the original team back in place … for continuity.” She ducked his question. Her lines were well practiced.

Will thought about it.  “Here are the terms that I would proceed with. You tell Brodsky that the firm’s original work is mine. Furthermore, I would be willing to have my new firm, which I control, contract with them and pay your firm a referral fee of ten percent of the revenue my firm receives. Additionally, the referral contract with your firm will require that asshole partner of yours to stay away from the client, any work related to it, and me. I’ll write the engagement … and this is non-negotiable.”

“I would have to take this to the partners–”

Will had had enough. “You have twelve partners. You have until five to accept my offer, which I’ll have to you within the hour. If I don’t hear from you or you don’t accept it, I’ll contact Brodsky at 5:01.”

There was a momentary silence. “What the hell happened to you?” She asked angrily.

“I woke the fuck up. You have until five.” He hung up.

Will prepared a referral agreement and sent it to the managing partner.

He put on his sweats and went for a jog.

Life was changing fast. There can’t be any more changes in store for me, he thought.

Chapter 6 – A Clue

The General stood in Chet Hackett’s office at New Horizon R&D. “I can’t believe that with all these scientists that you have not been able to put any of Grace’s work in an analyzable format.”

“General, our team has been working on this around the clock. Dr. Grace’s work is very complex and cutting edge. We just need more time.”

“Chet, get it done!” The General stormed out of the office.

He got into his chauffeur-driven car and sat next to Reed Logan.

“Anything, yet?” the General asked.

“Nothing official. Grace is off the grid.”

“How about unofficial?” the General asked.

“We get a lot of stuff that I don’t tell you about because it’s a waste of your time. We have to run it down, and that takes time,” Logan said.

“Give me your best of the unofficial,” the General ordered. He was desperate for information.

Logan sighed. “We have some intel from the underworld that a junkie saw a large van disappear in Camden a few nights ago. We’ve dispatched a team, but they haven’t reported in yet.”

The General sighed. “I see what you mean. Is that all we have right now?”

“It is, and we are all over it. If this junkie is the least bit credible, we’ll smother the area, but there is nothing in the information we have that ties Grace to Camden or the Delaware Valley.”

 

Two dark Chevy Suburbans pulled up to the out-of-the-way bar in Camden. Eight heavily armed men got out. The leader was greeted by a large man and escorted to the back room.

The leader sat at a table with the supplier, the dealer, Horseshoe and a young boy, no more than thirteen years old. “Who is Horseshoe?”

“I am.”

“Tell me what you saw,” the leader said.

Horseshoe squirmed in his seat. “What I git if I do?”

The dealer grabbed Horseshoe by the neck, “You want to know what you git if you don’t.”

“K, K, man!” Horseshoe yelped. “I saw a big van disappear before my eyes, down by the corner lot.”

“Did you see what color it was or anything special about it?”

“No, man. It was dark.”

“Is this real important to you?” the supplier asked.

“Yes.”

“How much important,” the supplier asked.

“Cash money important,” the leader answered.

The supplier considered the answer. “Okay. This is Junior Jimmy.” The dealer nodded to the boy. The boy pulled out his phone and handed it to the dealer. “Junior Jimmy is one of our team of spotters. We look for cops, competition, anything that ain’t right that could affect business. Check this out. This is the van that Horseshoe seen.” He handed the phone with a video on it.

The leader hit go and his spine stiffened when the van came into view. As the van drove by the spotter, there was a clear close-up of the driver. It was Dr. Alvin Grace.

“Does it help?” the supplier asked.

“Send this to this email address.” He handed him a card with the email address on it.

“Done,” The supplier said.

The leader handed the supplier ten, one hundred dollar bills. Nodded and left.

The supplier smiled. “Pleasure doin’ business whichya.”

The Suburbans left Camden.

The leader called his boss, Reed Logan. “We found Grace. I just sent you an email with a video attached. He was in Camden driving a van that disappeared.

“Stay in the area until I contact you,” Logan said.

Logan pushed the speed dial on his phone.

“Talk to me,” the General said.

“We have a video of Grace driving the van and a witness that says the van disappeared.”

“Get a net over the area.”

“Roger that,” Logan said.

The General looked up at the ceiling and muttered, “Finally.”

Chapter 7 – Contact

Alvin awoke to the sounds of rush hour traffic pouring into Philadelphia. Slim could insulate inbound and outbound sound one-way or both ways. Alvin decided that he wanted to hear the sounds from the outside.

After making instant coffee and eating an energy bar he focused on Slim. “How should Dr. Grace contact Will Parnell?”

“Will Parnell has formed a new business. He is about to become very busy. Dr. Grace should contact him and meet him under the auspices of hiring him.”

“Sounds easy,” Alvin said.

“It may not be. The government and their contractors have somehow identified Dr. Grace and the van. They saw them in Camden. They are beginning to search the Delaware Valley.”

“What does Slim suggest?” Alvin asked.

“Slim recommends that Dr. Grace acquire a recreational vehicle and a smaller vehicle to tow behind it. Slim has identified an ideal twenty-five foot recreational vehicle in Ohio, and a Jeep Grand Cherokee. Slim will assist in the acquisition of both and change the colors. Slim will also properly register them.”

“How will Slim pay for them?” Alvin asked.

“Slim will create money digitally and feed it into the appropriate accounts.”

Alvin thought about the change that was required. “Okay. The recreational vehicle, which we will call the RV, will provide the extra room we need. Can Slim enable the flight mode while towing a Jeep?”

“Yes. Level One enables that,” Slim answered.

“Has the Level One development been completed?” Alvin asked.

“Completion is scheduled for thirty-four minutes from now. Slim’s factory for nanoparticles will be fully operational six minutes after Level One is completed.”

“Let’s go get our RV and our Jeep.”

The transfer of Slim to the RV took more time than Alvin thought it would, but it was done. With the Jeep in tow they flew back to Philadelphia in stealth mirror mode.

“Dr. Grace must plan for the security net that the government will place on the Delaware Valley. The public will be told that a terrorist threat is imminent and a picture of Dr. Grace will be broadcast using all media.”

Alvin expected something like this, but it was upsetting nevertheless. “How much time do we have?”

“Plans are being made to execute this within twenty-four hours,” Slim reported.

“Touchdown in Philadelphia. Contact Will Parnell and set up a meeting somewhere out of the main stream,” Alvin said.

They landed near an abandoned building in North Philadelphia, after Slim had reconnoitered the area carefully.

Alvin issued several commands. “Change the color of the Jeep to navy blue. Tint the windows. Register the vehicle with the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation and create a license plate.”

As the lights on Slim’s control panel came to life, Alvin walked back to the 3D printer that soon began to produce the Pennsylvania license plate. Once that was finished he watched one of Slim’s monitors as Slim put the final touches on the Jeep’s exterior as the flood of nanoparticles changed the color from white to blue.

Alvin took the Jeep out of stealth mirror mode and released it from the RV, which functioned as a mother ship. He sat in the Jeep and activated Slim Mobile, providing full access.

“Is a meeting set up with Will Parnell?” Alvin asked.

Slim’s voice came through the Jeep’s speakers. “Yes. You have a lunch meeting scheduled on Green Street less than one block from his apartment. The name of the restaurant is the Museum Shack.”

Alvin put the RV in stealth mirror mode and elevated it to fifty feet above the surrounding buildings where it would be safe. He drove off to get familiar with the area on his way to meet Will.

Lined with upscale townhouses, the Art Museum area is a very popular residential neighborhood. He parked his Jeep on the 2100 block of Green Street and walked a short distance to the Museum Shack.

Alvin walked in the front door and was greeted by the hostess who was standing at a lectern with a book of reservations. “Hi. Do you have a reservation?”

“Yes I do. Mr. Jeffries, for two,” he answered.

She brightened. “Oh, yes. You’re with Will Parnell. Right this way Mr. Jeffries.”

The hostess guided him to the table. His guest was already seated.

“Mr. Parnell, it’s a pleasure to meet you.”

“Thank you, Mr. Jeffries. Please call me Will.”

“Fine, as long as you call me Owen.” Alvin smiled.

The waitress handed them menus and put out water. They ordered and she left.

“What type of engagement did you have in mind? Your email was very general.”

Alvin nodded slightly. “It’s a bit unusual, but I’m looking for someone very special that can oversee a unique technology.”

Will rubbed his chin with his right hand, and his face twisted with confusion. “I’m an accountant and a lawyer.”

“I’ve done a lot of research on you. You are a good fit for what I need.”

Will looked him over with penetrating eyes, skeptical of this strange man. “Really?”

“Oh yes, I believe that your background is in line with the type of individual that I am searching for–integrity, a solid moral compass.

“Okay. I don’t know how you would know that.”

“You’d be surprised,” Alan said.

Will considered his words. “Let’s move on for now. What can you tell me about the technology?”

“I can tell you quite a lot, but first I’d like to demonstrate it. However, we need to do it in privacy.”

“Do you need anything special to do the demo like a computer monitor or something?”

Alvin chortled. “No. I have everything I need. We just need privacy.”

I don’t have an office right now, but my apartment is right down the street. We can go there.”

“That sounds fine.”

They finished their lunch. Alvin paid the bill with cash, and they left.

They entered Will’s apartment and walked down a long hallway that passed several rooms and went down a staircase to an open living area with a kitchen at the end.

“Okay, this is fine. Why don’t you have a seat,” Alvin said.

Will sat on his couch and looked at Alvin. “I’m ready.” He smiled, filled with anticipation

“Will, this is a very small example of its capability.” With that Alvin disappeared.

Will was stunned. He was starting to panic when Alvin said, “Can you see me?”

“No. … No.” Will said in a dazed tone.

Alvin popped back into Will’s view. “I didn’t mean to scare you. This is called stealth mirror mode.”

Alvin sat in a chair across from Will. He decided to wait until Will said something.

Moments later, Will said, “What is stealth mirror mode … and what’s this all about?”

Alvin was pleased with the question. He hadn’t known what to expect. “Will, let me take your question in two pieces. Let me tackle the second part first. What’s this all about?” He stopped speaking to formulate his thoughts and continued. “My real name is Dr. Alvin Grace. I invented a new technology using nanoparticles. It’s a world-changing technology. It has vast capability.”

Will tried to gather himself. “Why did you use the name Jeffries?”

“Originally, I was studying nanoparticles and applied material science at a host of universities. My work gained the attention of many people. I was contacted by The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, better known as DARPA. They have funded many cutting-edge technologies. I was offered the chance to pursue my work with all their resources behind me. It’s what I’d always wanted to do–bring my thoughts into reality.”

“What happened?” Will was getting over his shock, and, despite his fear, he was interested in this bizarre old man and his tale.

“I joined New Horizon R&D, which was dedicated to research and heavily funded by DARPA. It was fine for many years. I was immersed in my work, and I’d never felt more fulfilled. I was in paradise.”

“What happened?” Will was intrigued.

“I started to see things that didn’t settle well with me. There were attempts to weaponize technologies that were meant to help, not hurt mankind. Eventually I sensed that they would be doing the same with me–”

“Who are they?” Will interjected.

Alvin smiled to himself. Maybe this was the right person. “They are the people charged with administering DARPA. Basically, DARPA is an agency under the Defense Department. The man handling the funding for New Horizon R&D is General Benjamin Larkin, and he works at the Pentagon. The CEO of New Horizon R&D is Chet Hackett. He’s a military man and really works for Larkin–”

“I thought he was the CEO of your company.”

“On paper, but he really reports to Larkin. The day came when I learned that one hundred percent of the funding for the company comes from DARPA, and that funding is controlled by Larkin.”

Will was nodding his head, taking it all in.

“Hackett came to me one day and told me that I had to demonstrate my work such that it could be analyzed against conventional weapons systems. After that discussion, I started preparing to take my work away from them as soon as I was finished to a point where it would be self-sustaining.”

“Self-sustaining?”

“Yes. It can continue to develop on its own to accomplish the goals that I laid out for it. Basically, it is a very advanced form of artificial intelligence,” Alvin said. “As to the first part of your question, let me explain stealth mirror mode. Basically, the way to visualize it is to imagine a panel on your back recording what the view is behind you and transmitting it to a panel on your chest and projecting that view. Its effect is to create the same view for someone looking at you from the front even though you are theoretically blocking the view. It also works in reverse allowing the same for someone viewing you from the rear.” Alvin could easily see that Will was becoming mesmerized, and that made him even more enthusiastic and animated than he usually was when he explained the functionality of Slim. “Now, imagine millions of nanoparticles covering you or any object for that matter and performing that same function on a nano level from all positions and angles. The net effect is to render you or the object invisible to anyone looking on from any vantage point.”

“That’s remarkable,” Will said, clearly in awe.

“It is, but as I mentioned, science and technology can be used to harm instead of help.

Will remembered the terminology that Alvin had used earlier. “Do you know of other technologies that were … weaponized?”

“Yes. Unfortunately, I do. In fact, that is why I am here now.”

“What do you mean?”

Alvin explained about the toxin and his mission to find a caretaker for Slim.

Will was speechless.

Alvin leaned forward with his elbows on his knees. “Will, I know this is a lot to absorb, but the well-being of our country is at stake here, and I don’t have the luxury of time. I need to determine very quickly if you should be the one to take Slim forward. If not, I must move on. If you are the one, there is much to learn.”

Will stood and walked to the bookcase along the wall and leaned on it with his left hand while he rubbed his neck with his right. “I don’t know. I can’t answer you right now. I need to think about it.”

Alvin expected as much. “We don’t have much time. The government will put the area under intense surveillance in the name of Homeland Security. My picture will be broadcast throughout the country.”

Will was bowled over by one bombshell after the other until he was on the verge of shock. “Intense surveillance? How do you know?”

“Slim can access any computer network with ease. The plan has already begun because someone reported seeing a vehicle disappear. A review of surveillance cameras in Camden showed me in that vehicle.” Alvin took a few breaths. The dizzying pace at which events were developing was hard to handle. “I’m new at this, but I’m learning fast, and Slim is learning even faster.”

“When will this intense surveillance begin?” Will asked.

“It will start within twenty-four hours and take a few hours to really ramp up.”

Will thought about the situation. It was loaded with danger.

“Share your thoughts with me,” Alvin said.

Will hesitated. This is crazy, he thought. “Disappear again,” Will said.

Instantly, Alvin disappeared.

Will looked at the space Alvin had occupied and saw no sign of him.

“Okay. Where are you?” Will asked.

“I’m here.”

Will spun around. Alvin was in the kitchen behind him.

“How did you move without me hearing you?”

“I floated past you. It’s another function. As I mentioned, there are many.” Alvin answered.

Will sat down as Alvin walked back to the chair he had been in. “You floated–as in flew?

“Basically, yes” Alvin answered.

Will was struggling to believe what he had seen. “You can fly and be invisible.”

Alvin smiled. “Yes. These are basic functions that Slim provides.”

Will needed time to think this proposition through. “If you give me until tomorrow, I’ll give you an answer.”

Alvin studied the confused young man before him. “All right. Where shall we meet?”

“We need someplace away from people and the intense surveillance.” Will paused to think about the possibilities. “Meet me on the beach in Cape May at the south end of the promenade on Beach Avenue. There is a covered sitting area. I’ll be there at 8:00 p.m. sharp.”

Alvin liked his thinking. “I’ll be there.”

They shook hands and Will walked him out of the building.

Chapter 8 – Containment

Good morning Mr. Secretary, they are waiting for you.” She guided them to the Situation Room.

Secretary of Defense Greer Houseman walked in with General Benjamin Larkin in tow.

Before them with scowls on their faces were White House Chief of Staff Cal Dixon, Secretary of Homeland Security Kelsey Osgood, FBI Director Fawn Ralston, and the Attorney General Helen Thatcher.

They were seated shortly before the doors opened and President Dan Jarrett marched in and took his seat at the head of the table. “Greer, explain this,” he ordered.

Secretary Houseman looked at the people around the table then focused on the president. “Mr. President, we have been informed that a threat of great magnitude is upon us, and we must contain it–”

The president held up his hand to silence him. “We understand that. What is it specifically that requires the lockdown of the Delaware Valley?” His voice was stern.

Houseman nodded to the General. “I asked General Larkin to join us, because he is best equipped to answer that question.”

“General.” The president prompted.

The General cleared his throat. He had never been in the Situation Room before or been in any room with the president other than ceremonial. “Mr. President, we have reason to believe that Dr. Alvin Grace has developed and stolen technology that in the wrong hands could be devastating to this country.”

“What is it?” the president asked impatiently.

The General nervously repositioned himself in his chair. “It is a nanoparticle technology that has vast potential. As an example, it can render an object invisible.” The room was silent, and there was a stunned look on every face. “We believe that Dr. Grace stole the technology, and we are trying to apprehend him. He was last spotted in Camden.”

“What proof do you have that he stole it?” the president asked.

“His assistant committed suicide and left a note to that effect. We’ve handed everything over to the FBI,” the General said. He was beginning to get into a more comfortable mode. Logan had engineered the suicide, the note and the conclusion that was reached.

“Is Grace a security risk? Will he try and sell this technology?” the president asked.

“We are fearful that he will, sir,” Houseman answered.

President Jarrett took off his glasses and pinched the bridge of his nose and closed his eyes, trying to give himself a sense of calm. After a moment, he slowly said, “What is the plan Kelsey?”

The Secretary of Homeland Security handed the president a file marked Containment: Classified. “We believe that a lockdown of the Delaware Valley is in order–all means of entry and exit. The media and social networks will actively circulate Grace’s profile as a wanted terrorist. His face will be everywhere. We’ll be–”

The president interrupted, “Can he make himself invisible?”

All eyes turned to the General.

“Right after he finished that component, he fell off the grid, so we don’t fully understand–“

President Jarrett slammed the table with the palms of his hands, startling everyone. “Do we have a copy of the technology? What do we know?”

“Yes sir, our scientists and engineers are analyzing it as we speak, and we’ll have the details shortly,” the General answered nervously.

“Who else worked on the development of this?” Cal Dixon asked.

“Just Grace and his assistant,” the General answered.

Everyone in the room was incredulous.

“Just two men?” the president asked, enunciating every word.

“Yes sir … Dr. Grace’s capabilities are on a level that may be higher than even Einstein’s,” the General said.

After what seemed like a long time, the president spoke. “Helen, can we lockdown the Delaware Valley?” he asked.

“Yes sir, we have the power to do that,” the AG answered tentatively.

“How real is the intelligence that he is in the Delaware Valley?” Cal Dixon asked.

“We have him on a surveillance feed in Camden, yesterday,” Director Ralston answered.

“Then, he could be anywhere,” Dixon said.

“Yes,” Ralston answered.

The president stood, “All right, get the media and social networks cranked up. Once he’s spotted, lock down wherever that is. Cal, get it done.”

“Yes sir.”

The president marched out with a worried and disgusted look on his face.

Cal Dixon looked around the room. “I want a plan on my desk in one hour. Make it happen,” he said through gritted teeth. He had never been comfortable with the black box of defense spending, and this situation filled him with a sense of foreboding.

Chapter 9 – Consideration

Will drove his car, an old PT Cruiser, down the Garden State Parkway towards Cape May. Claire had never liked his car, but he loved it. It had served him well.

At the base of the Parkway, he crossed the bridge into Cape May and soon turned left to the ocean. Once he reached Beach Avenue he drove south until it ended. He parked and walked up to the covered sitting area looking out on the vast dark Atlantic. He was bundled in a warm coat with a scarf, gloves and hat with ear protection to handle the cold wind sweeping off the water. Looking around, he saw no one. He was alone.

“How was the drive?”

Will spun around to see Alvin sitting on a bench at the end of the row.

A nor’easter was on its way and the wind was building. Will had to speak loudly to be heard. “You scared me.”

“I’m sorry, Will. I was in stealth mirror mode waiting for you, and I became lost in my thoughts. The next thing I knew, you were here. Why don’t we get out of the weather?”

“Where would you like to go?” Will asked.

Alvin smiled. “Follow me.”

Alvin made his way down to the beach and started walking across the sand toward the ocean. Will hesitated at first but then began to follow. It was pitch black with heavily overcast skies and the faint light from the lampposts of Beach Avenue faded into the fog.

Fifty feet before the water, Alvin stopped. “We’re here,” he said.

“Where?” Will asked, thoroughly confused.

Alvin lifted his hand and a large recreational vehicle appeared. He opened the door, stepped inside and turned to look at Will, who had a very surprised look on his face. “Come inside with me … it’s safe.”

Will tentatively followed him in.

“Come. Take your coat off and have a seat.” Alvin motioned him toward a small dining table. “How about something warm … like hot chocolate.”

“That would be nice,” Will said.

Alvin went into the galley and whipped up two mugs of steaming hot chocolate. “Here we go.” He handed one to Will and sat across from him at the table, as they sipped their sweet, thick drinks.

Alvin briefly left the table and entered the driver’s cockpit. Will felt a sensation as though he was in an elevator.

Rejoining Will, he said, “I put the vehicle back into the stealth mirror mode so that it’s invisible. The technology that I call Slim can make any object invisible. I also elevated us one hundred feet, so we won’t be in anyone’s way.” Alvin chuckled.

They sipped their hot chocolate in silence.

Finally, Will found his voice. “What exactly is it that you want me to do?”

Alvin leaned forward with his elbows on the table. “In the long term I want you to take care of and protect Slim. By that I mean that you take physical possession and keep Slim secure, maybe in a location that only you have access to. In due time, elements of Slim can be integrated into the greater world. If that doesn’t happen, then you’ll need to groom others to eventually take your place. If you can’t, then you will face the same decision that I face now, which is to put Slim into the self-destruct mode. Slim will do the rest.”

Will slowly nodded his head.

“In the short term, assuming you want to go forward and become Slim’s caretaker, I need to teach you quite a bit.”

Will thought about the stage of his life and how this impacted his future.

“What kind of changes would I need to make to my daily life?” Will asked.

“That’s a good question.” Alvin was pleased. “I can only surmise what your life will be like. Initially, I think that there will be minimal impact. I think you need to maintain your life apart from Slim. You are best served by hiding in plain sight, so to speak. In the future as Slim’s capabilities grow, you may find a way to apply them for the benefit of others. Right now, I can only surmise what turns your road forward might take.”

Will tried to bend his mind around the picture created by Alvin’s words and the situation in general. “Why me?”

“Very simply, you were Slim’s choice based on the criteria that I set. Slim mined an enormous amount of data to make a list of possible caretakers. You were at the top of the list because of your character, loyalty, intelligence, morality and strong backbone.”

Will thought about his situation. He was in an invisible RV that was one hundred feet off the ground with a genius or mad scientist talking about safeguarding technology that could dramatically change the world. “This is so surreal. I’m in way over my head.” Will formed a steeple with his fingers and stared at them, lost in thought.

“Slim is over everyone’s head,” Alvin said in a caring way.

“What will happen to you?”

Alvin had disciplined his powerful mind to focus on saving Slim. He put any thought of his own death on a shelf to deal with later, but now he needed to address it with Will. “I have lived a full life, and although I don’t want it to end, there is nothing that I can do about it.” He paused to collect his thoughts. “Before the neurotoxin takes effect, I will administer a drug cocktail to myself with Slim’s help, so that I will pass peacefully on my own terms.”

“Can’t Slim save you?” Will asked with hope in his voice.

“Someday Slim will be able to do that and much more, but not now. Over the next year and beyond, Slim will develop extraordinary capabilities.”

They stared in silence at each other until Will broke the spell. “I’d like to learn about Slim and plan what needs to be done … but I feel so … inadequate.”

Alvin felt the tension in his body relax a little. A soft smile formed. “You’ll do a fine job, I’m sure, but I’ll need to spend considerable time with you. When can we begin?”

“Do I need to travel?”

“Yes.”

“I’ll need to go to my apartment, pack a bag and handle a few things.”

Alvin nodded his understanding. “Let’s get you out of this RV, so you can get home and do that. Meet me back here tomorrow night at the same time, and we’ll begin.”

Will left the RV and walked back to Beach Avenue to get his car. As he drove out of the beach town, his thoughts were running in all directions.

In the morning to save time, Will took a cab rather than walk to his meeting in Center City on the Brodsky matter. He had a work plan with a timeframe that he wanted approved so he could manage the large engagement with his other clients and his new job–Slim.

He walked into the conference room and was greeted by Karen Shepard, the CFO for Brodsky Enterprises. She had been in a working session with members of her team.

“Will, thank god you’re here. Your old firm has been a total disaster. Tell me you are replacing them.”

Will chuckled. “I am replacing them as soon as you sign my engagement letter.”

She took a few moments to review the document and then signed it and handed it to her assistant. “Please make a copy for our file and give Will the original before he leaves.” She turned to Will. “Okay. Welcome aboard.” She smiled.

They sat down and went over the details of the work plan and the timeframe. By the time they were done and Will was ready to leave, Karen and her team were pleased. Their company was in the competent hands of a professional, Will Parnell.

Will went back to his apartment. After a few phone calls, he was ready to devote a few days to learning about Slim. He packed, paid some bills, made a coffee to go, and hit the road.

As he approached the Walt Whitman Bridge, there was a line of cars going through what looked like a military checkpoint. The hunt for Dr. Grace had begun and looked to be in full gear.

Will parked his car on a side street off Beach Avenue and took out the small bag packed with clothes and necessities.  He met Alvin as planned at the covered sitting area at the end of the promenade.

“Good evening,” Alvin said.

“It’s a good night for an out-of-this-world experience.”

“It certainly is,” Alvin laughed.

They walked together out to the edge of the ocean. Alvin took the RV out of stealth mirror mode and they boarded.

“Join me in the cockpit, and we’ll begin.”

Chapter 10 – Keen Interest

Jacques Beaumont was a small fastidious man always dressed in the finest clothes befitting a man of his stature and accomplishments. His father was French and his mother a Moor from Spain. He favored his mother with his dark skin. In public he was addressed formally as Mr. Beaumont. In the underworld, he was known as Black Jack and belonged to a secret cabal. Outwardly, he was perceived as quiet and aloof. To those that knew better, he was a dangerous, merciless man who would stop at nothing to get what he wanted.  Sitting back in his executive chair, he considered his next move and dialed his secure phone.

“Yes,” A voice answered.

“What kind of progress have you made in securing the technology?” Black Jack’s question sounded more like an interrogation. He had conducted many.

“We are searching everywhere. Grace has gone off the grid, but President Jarrett has pulled out all the stops. Grace’s face will literally be everywhere. We’ll find him.”

Black Jack was losing his patience. “I’m sure he’ll be found. I’m concerned about getting access to the technology. No matter what happens, you need to get me a copy, preferably the only copy. Am I making myself clear?”

“You are very clear. I’ll have a copy soon.”

“How can you do that?”

“A full copy was made of all of Grace’s files, source codes and documentation. I’ll have a copy of that shortly.”

Black Jack lifted his left hand to rub his eyes. “That’s fine, but listen to me, carefully. Dr. Grace is a very smart man. He may well have left a useless copy behind to send everyone in the wrong direction. Humor me and assume that he did.”

There was an awkward moment of silence. “If he did, the best and the brightest minds will conclude that soon. In the meantime, we will continue to hunt him.”

Patience was not a virtue that Black Jack possessed. “There is keen interest in Dr. Grace’s technology on the part of my colleagues. But there is a more profound reason to secure it.”

“More profound?”

Black Jack’s face grew dark and menacing. “Yes … like your future depends on it.”

There was silence.

“Unless he destroyed it, we will get it.”

“See that you do.” Black Jack terminated the call.

He dialed another call.

“Jack. How is the progress?” a man said.

“Interminably slow. I think Dr. Grace has escaped a very clumsy security team. The US government is engaging in a full hunt. I fear that our quest has become more … complicated.”

“We stand ready to assist in any way we can,” the man assured him.

“Activate all of your resources in Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland and New Jersey. Something has drawn him there. If we can find out what the connection is, then we’ll find him and that will get us closer to the technology.”

“What are we looking for?”

“I think the good Doctor went to the area to retrieve something or meet someone. He is alone, and he has no obvious tie to the area, so my hunch is that someone drew him to it.”

“Why do you think he is looking for anything in the area?”

“He’s desperate, and desperate people do desperate things,” Jack said.

“What makes him desperate? The government hunting for him?”

“That makes him cautious, but that’s not what makes him desperate.”

“Jack, no word games. What do you know?”

“He’s dying. He’ll be dead in less than ninety days.”

“I’ll make the calls.” The line went dead.

Black Jack looked out the window. His mind examined all the facts that he knew and created possible scenarios that would draw Dr. Grace to the Delaware Valley. He was deep in thought as he gazed upon the endless sea of clouds below him as he sat in his Gulfstream at thirty-thousand feet.

Chapter 11 – Learning from the Master

Alvin motioned Will to sit in the driver’s seat, and he sat in the passenger seat next to him, separated by a large console.

Alvin turned to look at Will. “Slim is the name of the technology. When interacting, always address the technology as Slim, and Slim will always address you as Will Parnell.”

“Is Slim a computer?” Will asked.

“Slim is much more than a computer. Slim is an artificial intelligence with many nanoparticle applications that I developed to design and produce nanoparticles.”

“Production?” Will asked with confusion in his voice.

“Basically, Slim is a nanoparticle factory with development and application functions that, before long, will be able to be used to accomplish almost anything. For example, we are invisible to the outside world right now, and we can fully insulate ourselves from outside noise or let sound flow in or in and out. Let’s get you started.”

“Do you turn Slim on with a key?”

Alvin laughed. “Heavens no.”

Alvin showed Will how to power Slim up and down. “You will probably keep Slim on all the time.”

“What about fuel or battery life?” Will asked.

“Great question. Let’s back up just a bit. Slim is mobile. The core of Slim is comprised of the boxes on the racks behind us. It can be located almost anywhere. When you travel like we can in the Jeep, you simply use this small unit, which is an extension of Slim or Slim Mobile.” Alvin pointed to a miniature black box on the console between them. It had a power cord that plugged into the twelve-volt receptacle in the dash.

“Slim runs off a car battery,” Will concluded.

“No. I hooked Slim Mobile into the RV’s electrical system to make the connection a little more efficient. Slim is powered by hydrogen, and shortly there will be no benefit from plugging it in to the car battery. A very abundant source is water. To refuel, which is necessary periodically, you simply place the vehicle in a large body of water and Slim will extract the hydrogen in one of its many factories and feed it into its power plant.”

“Do I do anything?” Will asked.

“Slim, provide Will Parnell with your dashboard to control the RV.” A hologram of Slim’s dashboard appeared over the center console, tilted towards Will. “Once Slim takes control of a vehicle, which is a matter of a seconds once the command is issued, you can access this dashboard by voice.”

Will examined what looked like several joysticks that Alvin explained were for vertical and horizontal movements allowing forward and backward motion and altitude changes. There were many controls and gauges that Will would learn about in time, but a rectangular button switch caught his attention and illuminated in green, marked ‘Stealth’.

“You can verbally command Slim to take you to a specific destination or a general area. For now, let’s try some manual movement. See if you can turn the RV to head out to the ocean.”

Carefully and slowly, Will took the controls and turned the RV perpendicular to the beach and went forward over the ocean. He adjusted the elevation to three hundred feet and did some slow turning maneuvers.

“This is like playing one of my nephew’s video games … better, actually.”

Alvin chuckled. “It’s the same eye-hand coordination, but you also have Slim to safeguard you. Consider this as the ultimate self-driving vehicle.”

Alvin showed him the fuel gage. “Let’s get some fuel. Issue a command to Slim to get fuel and set the RV on the bottom of the ocean wherever it is safe.”

Will looked at Alvin, tentatively. “Do I just say it?”

“Yes. You have the control.”

Will spoke each word distinctly. “Slim, get fuel. Put the RV safely on the bottom of the ocean below us.”

The RV descended slowly into the ocean and came to rest on the bottom. The fuel gauge glowed in green and the word fueling appeared above it.

Alvin watched as Will stared into the dark ocean. “Slim’s nanoparticles have covered the RV and sealed the structure giving it great strength. The RV can descend safely to any depth.

They rested on the bottom as Slim filled the power cells with hydrogen extracted from the water.

Alvin watched Will’s reaction as the fueling process took place. “Slim’s factories constructed fuel cells that I designed that use hydrogen. A tank of fuel should last you for a month or more depending on your activities. You just need a body of water–fresh, brackish or salt. You’ll need about thirty minutes to fill up when you are low. To be safe, Slim will remind you whenever your capacity is one half or less. The fuel is to power your vehicle. As time goes on, Slim will become more and more efficient and will require less and less fueling because it will be able to manufacture its own fuel.”

“Self-sustaining?”

“Pretty much. We should also talk about Slim Mobile.”

“Isn’t this mobile?”

“Yes and no. Slim is in the RV so that is the base or mother ship. When I met you on the pier and demonstrated the stealth mode in your apartment, I was using Slim Mobile. The box that I use in the Jeep or any other vehicle that leverages Slim is also a version of Slim Mobile.” He showed Will a small titanium case the size of a stack of ten credit cards. “When you are authenticated all you need to do is have it on your person. I am the only person that is authenticated for now.”

“How long does authentication take?”

“Not long, and only an authenticated person can grant another authentication. So, if the mobile unit is lost or stolen it’s useless to anyone else. Now, you will have the basic capabilities of Level One–invisibility, flight and a protective shield. You also have Level Two, which is more complicated. Here is a short primer on the scheduled development and a description of Slim’s capabilities.” He handed Will a bound report that he had prepared. “Study that later.”

A soft alarm sounded indicating that the fueling was finished.

“That was quick,” Will said.

“We just topped it off, so I could demonstrate fueling. Let’s take a trip to show you the travel function. Where shall we go?” Alvin smiled.

“Since it’s late, let’s just cruise up to Atlantic City,” Will said.

“Slim has a unique ability to transport us quickly since the development of Level Two has been completed. Why don’t you pick any destination anywhere in the US, and I’ll demonstrate. You can read about this function in your manual.”

Will thought for a moment. “How about Niagara Falls?”

“Okay. That’s an interesting choice. We can be there in minutes. Let’s buckle our seat belts, just to be safe.”

Will opened the manual to Level Two and read about transportation functionality. Slim’s technology could separate the atmosphere before it like layers of sheets and slip between them eliminating the force of friction, allowing great speed to be achieved by its host vehicle. Slim’s radar functionality guides it safely through its chosen route between points A and B.

“It’s hard to fathom. Does this work for Slim Mobile, too?” Will asked.

“That’s a good question. Level Two gives the host vehicle the benefit of rapid transport. Soon, Slim Mobile will provide the same. Go ahead and issue the command to Slim.”

Will tightened his seat belt and took a deep breath. “Slim, transport the RV to Niagara Falls using the maximum speed allowed with Level Two.”

The dashboard glowed as a three-dimensional map formed before his eyes and a red line showed the path to their destination. Will felt the RV move and slowly accelerate until they were enveloped in a gray fog.

Alvin watched Will as he studied the scene as it unfolded. “This is what it looks like when you slip between the sheets,” Alvin said.

Will looked at him. “Are we safe from other objects?”

“Yes. Slim’s radar function is very advanced. We won’t be close to any airborne object like a plane or helicopter. If an object is thrust upon us like a missile and Slim couldn’t get around it, the force fields would deflect it away.”

Will tried to comprehend such capability.

In less than ten minutes the RV began to slow and Niagara Falls came into view. They came to a stop and hovered about one thousand feet over the Falls.

“Let’s get some sleep, so we can get an early start,” Alvin said.

“That’s a good idea. I’m suddenly exhausted.”

They perched above the Falls in stealth mirror mode with exterior noise eliminated, wrapped safely in Slim’s force field. Will fell asleep watching one of Mother Nature’s wonders in majestic silence.

Chapter 12 – Task Force X

Cal Dixon let out an unconscious groan as he put down the plan that had been hurriedly assembled. It was basically a bureaucratic piece of garbage.

Years ago, before he entered the political world, he ran an international consulting firm. He made lots of things happen. It was business, not politics. He’d always chosen the best person for the job. Decisions were not burdened with compromises just to get a chit to be cashed in later for a much-needed favor. Then, everything in his life changed when his close friend Dan Jarrett asked him to be his chief of staff when he was elected governor. He answered the call from his dear friend. The governor’s office was soon recognized for its accomplishments based on Jarrett’s vision and Cal Dixon’s ability to make things happen. They were a great team and that teamwork propelled them to the White House.

He decided that he needed to reboot his effort, turn the clock back, and make things happen. The solution was to handpick a small group of people, his people, if he was going to accomplish what the president wanted. Opening his contacts, he set about the job of forming such a group that he designated Task Force X.

 

They gathered in a small room deep in the bowels of the nest of tunnels and passageways that made up the Washington Metro. Cal Dixon had learned about the existence of the room from a friend who owned one of the construction companies that routinely performed maintenance on the Metro. That woman, Marguerite Simpson, known as Megs to people close to her, was the first person he reached out to. She had served in the intelligence community out of college and took over her father’s construction company when she was in her mid-thirties and grown it tenfold into the thriving business it was today. Megs accepted Cal’s offer without asking any questions. It was enough for her that he had asked her for help. She would serve as his surrogate leader of Task Force X.

The room was dimly lit but it was enough for their purposes.

Cal Dixon sat at the head of the table with Megs to his right.

“Thank you all for coming. The task before us is daunting, and it’s one that needs to be run off book. I’ve chosen all of you because your loyalty and trust are without question and your abilities are second to none.” No one smiled. They knew themselves well. Accomplishing objectives was their focus. “We need to move quickly and quietly.”

He passed out a single page briefing that each person read and committed to memory. At the bottom of each person’s customized page was a task to be performed.

“After you digest the situation and the task I need you to perform, pass the paper back to me for destruction.”

After everyone had thoroughly studied the material, the papers were back in his hands. He would destroy them later.

“Megs will coordinate with each of you. We’ll meet back here whenever I pass you the word through Megs.” He waited, looking at each person in turn, individually. “Your country thanks you for your willingness to help in this hour of great need.”

He stood and left. The others followed dispersing through different passageways that had been pre-prescribed for entry and exit.

Chapter 13 – Signing On

Will awoke to the noise of Alvin preparing some breakfast for them. Looking out at Niagara Falls, it was just as majestic as it was when he had fallen asleep.  Watching Slim’s lights aglow, and Alvin busying himself with small tasks was an interesting juxtaposition.

“Coffee?” Alvin asked.

“Please,” Will said as he yawned and stretched.

“These are strange times but a good cup of hot coffee helps,” Alvin said.

“Thanks.” Will nursed a few sips. “I’ve been thinking all night, and I just want to confirm that I’m in. I’ll take care of Slim. I can do it.” There, he’d said what he fell asleep thinking last night.

Alvin sat across from him at the small dining table, looking at him as though he could read his mind. “I’m glad. No herculean feats are required, just keep Slim a secret and keep Slim safe. Eventually you will need to have people you can trust in your life that you can share with Slim, but that’s for later, if it comes to be at all. Let’s head to your home, we have a little cleanup to do.”

 

The government was desperately looking for the terrorist Dr. Alvin Grace and his face had been spread over conventional and digital media. Anyone with knowledge of him was asked to call the FBI.

Will walked into the Museum Shack and was pulled off to the side by the hostess. In a hushed voice, she said, “I’ve been hoping to see you. That man that you were with the other day looked like that Dr. Grace the FBI is looking for.

Will was ready for her. He appeared confused. “When?”

“The last time you were here!” she said in an anxious whisper.

“Owen Jeffries?” Will acted astounded.

“Yes, Jeffries was his name. Look!” She directed Will’s attention to the TV over the bar that was showing a full screen of Alvin’s face.

Will pulled out his phone and pulled up a photo of Alvin and him at the Liberty Bell that Slim had heavily doctored. He enlarged the picture of Alvin and showed it to her.

She didn’t need to study it for very long. “Yeah, it’s not him. God, I’m so paranoid. This manhunt is nationwide. My friend in San Francisco said the media is relentless, just like here.”

“I’m freaked out, too. Wait a minute … what do you think I’d be doing with a terrorist?” Will laughed.

“You’re right. I’m sorry. Ignore me. I’m an idiot.” She shook her head and pointed him towards a table, leaving him to greet the next customer.

Alvin and Will had discussed the hostess as a possible issue. They had Slim alter the security footage at the restaurant with the revised image of Owen Jeffries and produce a photo for Will’s phone. She bought it completely. They were safe, for now.

 

In the ensuing weeks Alvin taught Will about Slim’s current capabilities and those that Slim was developing. Will became more and more comfortable working with Slim, almost second nature to him as he entered a new world that he would never leave. Every waking moment spent outside of his business time was devoted to Alvin and Slim.

Chapter 14 – Relentless

“Where is the technology you were to get a copy of?” Black Jack demanded.

“We are searching for Dr. Grace. There is a nationwide manhunt, the likes of which we have never seen before.”

“I know that. I watch the news. Where is the work that is being done by the rest of the scientific team that Grace left behind?” Black Jack was fuming.

His caller knew that when he got that way, people that were perceived as troublesome were never heard from again. “The team that he left behind has not been able to duplicate his work … yet. They are working day and night to produce it. The president has made it a priority–”

“Silence!”

Jack considered the caller’s message. Although he hated politicians, if the president used the force of his office to get something done then that was probably good enough, for the moment. He calmed himself.

“Get back to me in twenty-four hours.” He terminated the call and placed another.

“What’s happening in the Delaware Valley?” Jack inquired.

“We are searching for a contact, but, as I said during our last call, Grace has no verifiable connection to the Delaware Valley–no family, friends or colleagues. We’ve scoured his phone calls and emails, going back years. Following your suggestion, we started looking for people that might stand out. Our sources have compiled a list of people that have had big changes during the last year in their lives, like promotions, firings, established new businesses, or received large infusions into their bank accounts. Our initial list was over nine thousand but we whittled it down to just over four hundred. We have teams of people out interviewing them now under the auspices of a wide variety of reasons.”

“That sounds logical. I hope it bears some fruit.”

“Jack, we all want this, and we are doing everything we can to find Grace.”

“I know you are. I just have difficulty waiting. I’m fearful that he is slipping through the cracks.

“We have no choice but to stay the course. I’ll contact you if we find anything.”

“Very well.” Jack terminated the call and walked back into the formal ballroom.

Chapter 15 – Life Goes On

Will decided that he needed a small office that was well-located to transportation and easy for his clients to get to. He decided to stay in Philadelphia, lease space in the Old City area, and move to an apartment nearby. He spent the next few weeks taking care of the move and finally settled in.

The sun was warm as he walked into the office building on Chestnut Street. He entered the small office of Parnell & Associates. He had a part time bookkeeper, Anna, who also answered the phone when she could intercept it before the fifth ring when it was routed to the answering service.

  

Anna looked up and smiled. “You had a call this morning from the Brodsky team, as usual and a woman from a research firm doing an analysis on new businesses.” She handed the messages to him.

“I’ll give them all a callback this morning.”

He went to his desk and looked at his emails as he enjoyed a cup of coffee. Eventually, he got around to calling the woman from the research firm.

“This is Will Parnell returning a call from Bea Griffin.”

The call was transferred.

“Mr. Parnell, thank you for returning my call. I’m doing an analysis of basic data on new businesses in the Delaware Valley on a no names basis. I was wondering if I could visit with you briefly. Maybe this afternoon? I guarantee it will be painless.”

“Sure. Let’s do it at two.”

“Great. I’ll see you then.”

 

He had just returned from the bathroom when Anna let him know that his two o’clock had arrived.

He met her in his small conference room that had a simple table and six plain chairs. “I’m Will Parnell. Pleased to meet you.”

“Bea Griffen,” she said as she shook his hand and took a seat, pulling out a pen and small spiral notebook.

“How can I help you?” He smiled.

“First, let me thank you for seeing me. I really appreciate it. I know these kinds of things can be a pain.” She let out a soft giggle. “I’m working on an analysis of new businesses in the Delaware Valley that will be used to secure grant funding for all kinds of endeavors.”

“How can I help?” Will asked.

“Let me ask you, what led you to form Parnell & Associates, LLC?”

Will laughed. She had an easy way about her, and it made him comfortable. “I was working my ass off and getting nowhere. My wife, make that ex-wife, left me, and I realized that I wanted more than my job could give me, so I ended up forming my own business–taking control of my life, I suppose.”

She smiled. “Wow. That is motivation. Do you think you are happier?”

He thought about her question. “I don’t know, but I think that I will be, no matter what happens with everything.”

She hesitated. “Everything?”

He became slightly uncomfortable. “No matter what happens to me … my business.”

They talked some more, and she continued to probe him, but to no avail. Eventually, she finished her interview, thanked him, and left.

Once she was several blocks away she dialed her boss. “Will Parnell warrants a closer look.”

“Talk to me,” he said.

“I just felt something. It could be nothing, but he’s hiding something. I’m sure of it.”

“Okay. I’ll add him to the list. You send me your report, and I’ll have the observation team take it from here, immediately.”

“Will do. I’ll write it up and send it to you within the hour and head to my next appointment.”

 

Will called Anna into his office. “I want you to check her out.” He handed Bea Griffin’s card to her.

She squirmed a bit. “I sort of already did.”

“What do you mean?” he asked.

“I was concerned about someone coming in here to talk with you about … well … personal decisions, so I contacted her place of business just to confirm the appointment.”

“And?”

“Something didn’t seem right. I asked a friend of mine from a Midwest phone company to check it out. She did. It’s a call center that handles government contracts.”

“Is there something wrong with that?” he asked.

“Maybe not, but maybe,” she said.

“What’s that mean?” Will was now getting nervous.

“My friend said that she was blocked from making any inquiry about this company. A colleague told her unofficially that the company has ties to NSA as in the National Security Agency.”

Will felt a tingling all over. “Well, let’s be careful, but I’m sure everything is okay.”

Anna chuckled, “Of course it is. I mean … you’re an upstanding accountant and lawyer.”

“Right.” Will forced a small laugh.

She went back to her desk, and Will decided to wrap up what he had been working on and leave early. He needed to talk with Alvin. Something was wrong, very wrong.

As he walked up Chestnut Street towards City Hall, he felt that he was being watched. He decided to take a cab trip in a circuitous route and get dropped off blocks from his apartment.

I’m being paranoid, he told himself. Nevertheless, he looked behind him sporadically as he directed the driver into south Philly and back to Society Hill where he got out on Front Street. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary.

The people watching him were doing so via satellite at NSA.

“Parnell just took a silly trip to south Philly and back to within five blocks of his new apartment. It looks like he’s going there now,” said the analyst assigned to follow and research him.

His supervisor watched the feed over his shoulder. “That is strange. Get a team on the ground to watch him. I want his cell, conversations in his apartment, everything,” she said.

“I’ll dispatch a team right away,” the analyst said.

 

Reed Logan’s firm received the job to do field research on Will Parnell. Logan had a full complement of operatives and support already in the Delaware Valley. They went to work.

Chapter 16 – The Handoff

Slim’s development had more than met Alvin’s expectations. The capabilities were increasing by the day, and they were in capable hands–Will Parnell’s hands. Alvin was satisfied that Will had progressed to the point where he could continue alone. Will had been the right choice. A fast learner and dedicated, Alvin couldn’t have been more pleased. His plan was on schedule and now he needed to leave, it was time.

The government or one of their contractors had been watching Will so they had developed a precise protocol for meeting. Today would be their final one.

Alvin traveled with ease in stealth mirror mode twenty feet above the nighttime traffic in Cape May. His destination was five hundred yards off the beach over the Atlantic.

He entered the RV and greeted Will.

“Well, I’m glad you avoided all of your fans that are watching you now.”

“They get better and better at it. I’ll go dormant for a while which should, hopefully, satisfy them and send them home,” Will said.

Alvin considered Will’s situation and the status of the government’s relentless search. “I think you should assume that they are always going to be watching. They may never give up the hunt for Slim. Don’t give them any reason to suspect that you are connected. If you do then your life will be like mine, and I don’t want that for you.”

Will nodded his head as they got underway for their island destination off the coast of Maine. Alvin had chosen it as his final resting place. He would have his final nano-cocktail that Slim had prepared when the sun set tomorrow, and as he peacefully and gently drifted away, his remains would disappear as the special ingredient in the cocktail took effect.

Chapter 17 – Sighted

Will had just crossed the border from Maryland into West Virginia. The storage facility that Alvin had told him to go to was within an hour’s drive. He planned to enjoy it.

Alvin wanted him to get a duplicate documentation of Slim’s design–the only one. It was Alvin’s back up plan should he have had to destroy Slim to keep it from getting into Larkin’s hands. The documentation would have allowed him to rebuild it efficiently rather than starting from scratch. Alvin had written the documentation in a secret code but codes can be broken, and he did not want to take the risk. So, the plan was for Will to retrieve it and destroy it.

The rolling countryside was beautiful, and Will wasn’t paying any attention to his speed when he noticed the blinking lights and siren of a West Virginia state trooper behind him.

Shit, he muttered to himself as he continued driving on the curving road.

He realized that getting stopped could pose a problem, and he made a quick judgment to go into stealth mirror mode as he rounded the next curve. Once he was invisible, he pulled over as the police cruiser flew passed him.

Officer Gridley was surprised that he hadn’t overtaken the speeding motorist. He radioed dispatch and another trooper entered the same road two miles ahead coming the other way. With no turnoffs or intersections with other roads they would have this yahoo soon.

As the officers came into view of each other they pulled off to the side of the road and talked to each other with their windows down.

“Son of a bitch disappeared,” Gridley said.

“How you gonna’ report that in?” the other officer asked.

Gridley thought and then said, “I’m simply going to tell the truth.”

“Good luck with that.” The other officer laughed as he drove away.

Gridley reported that he had been in pursuit of a vehicle doing seventy in a fifty, but it eluded him. It just disappeared.

“Come again?”

Gridley repeated himself.

For clarification, the dispatcher repeated what she heard. “So, Officer Gridley, the vehicle just disappeared?”

“Yes.”

“I think we’ll just conclude that it got away from you. Stay with ’em cowboy.” She laughed as she signed off.

 

The analyst at NSA called his boss. “We have a West Virginia state trooper reporting a vehicle that disappeared.”

“Did he identify the vehicle?” the boss asked.

“No sir. They’re writing it off.”

“We’ll see about that.”

Within minutes after the call from Larkin, Reed Logan was on a chopper to West Virginia.

He landed adjacent to the West Virginia State Police Barracks near Berkeley Springs. Officer Gridley met him in the conference room.

“Thank you Officer Gridley for waiting for me,” Logan said as he shook Gridley’s hand.

“No problem.” Gridley was anxious and uncomfortable. His comment that a vehicle had disappeared had gotten attention that he couldn’t understand and didn’t want to.

“Tell me exactly what you saw.”

“I was looking at my instruments and the vehicle passed my station at seventy in a fifty. I pulled out and got a quick look as it followed a bend in the road and left my sight. I radioed dispatch that I was in pursuit and another officer came at the vehicle from the other direction. There are no side roads or intersections in that stretch of road. The other officer and I met up in little more than a minute. There was no vehicle in sight.”

“What can you tell me about it?”

Gridley didn’t have much, and he felt stupid. “I only saw it briefly from behind as it left my line of sight going around the bend. It was a small car. It was a dark color, I couldn’t really tell.”

“It wasn’t silver.”

“No,” Gridley answered.

“Could it have been a PT Cruiser?” Logan asked, even though he knew he was grasping at air.

“I really couldn’t tell, but I can’t say that it wasn’t.”

Logan was at least pleased with the non-answer rather than a flat no. “Thank you Officer Gridley.” He turned and left. There was a lot of work to do.

 

Will pulled away slowly over the treetops as he watched the two policemen converge. He could hear the report to the dispatcher, and he was relieved that the officer didn’t get his license plate and couldn’t describe the vehicle. He was also glad that he had Slim change the color from silver to dark blue as a precaution. Slim was racing through the network of surveillance and either erasing the vehicle or generally corrupting the data.

I’ve got to be more careful. Jesus!, Will chastised himself.

He touched down inside the perimeter fence of the mini-storage facility and had slim disable the security cameras while he retrieved the box with the manuals that Alvin had prepared. In short order, he was on his way back to Philadelphia.

 

Where is Parnell?” Logan asked the surveillance team.

“He’s in his apartment,” his agent answered.

“What about his car?” Logan thought it was worth a shot.

“I don’t know but we’ll look.”

They pinged the tracker that they put on the car, which Slim picked up immediately.

“Will Parnell. They are trying to locate the PT Cruiser,” Slim reported.

“Put the PT Cruiser at a dealership north of the city and insert an order into their system to change the oil and rotate the tires. Get us there so we can deposit it on their lot as fast as possible.”

Logan received a report that the car was at a dealership. Something still wasn’t right about Parnell, he just felt it in his bones

Chapter 18 – Home

Will managed to get home using the stealth mirror mode and simple flight application that propelled him like Superman. He put down on his balcony that was camouflaged by trees and plants. Slim’s nanobots opened the lock on the sliding doors, and Will slipped inside.

After reviewing the monitors that Slim set up it was clear that a team of four people were watching him. There was no end to this pursuit.

The weight of Slim, all of Dr. Alvin Grace’s work, and keeping it out of the wrong hands was on Will’s shoulders. He needed time to ward off his pursuers. Should he lay low for a while, take care of his business and satisfy his watchers that he was a boring accountant?

Suddenly, his phone rang. It was the front desk.

“Mr. Parnell, I’m sorry to disturb you but there is a gentleman and a lady who would like to see you.”

Will saw them on his computer screen from one of the nano-cameras that Slim had set up.

“I only accept scheduled appointments, and only at my office. If they have some sales materials, they can leave it with you.

“Very well, sir.”

Will watched as the doorman and security saw them out.

Who are these people? How many are there? The questions were crawling through his mind as he tried to rest in his living room.

Maybe it’s time that Slim and I looked at these people and learned a little bit about them. I guess if they can come into my house then I can go into theirs–General Larkin and whoever else is after Slim.

Will left his apartment in full knowledge that a fresh team of four was watching him. He ignored them as he walked to his office. Once inside he gathered some papers and announced to his assistant that he’d be heading out to run a few errands and meet some potential clients. After that, he said that he was planning a much-needed getaway to someplace off the beaten path. He wanted a trail that would lead his pursuers nowhere.

He caught the subway at Fifth Street and took it to City Hall. Once in the crowd he followed the main corridors and then branched off to some less traveled corridors and entered stealth mirror mode when he was certain that he was alone.

He elevated himself several feet above the tallest of humans and waited. Sure enough, two of the watchers were coming from behind him. He followed at a safe distance and overheard one of them speaking into her communication device.

“We’ve lost the target.”

The target, he thought to himself. It’s time to learn who you are.

Carefully he floated out of the subway system and headed to the RV storage lot in Chester County. It was time to take action.

Once he maneuvered the RV with the Jeep trailered behind it out of the lot, he followed Slim’s directions to a remote location where it was safe to enter stealth-mirror mode. He elevated to three hundred feet and began the pursuit of information about the pursuers.

“Slim, find out information about General Benjamin Larkin. He is hunting for Slim, and Will Parnell needs to know who is helping him.”

Slim went to work invading everything to do with Larkin.

Meanwhile, Will guided the RV into the airspace near the Pentagon, near Larkin’s place of business.

After a short while, Slim was ready with some information. “General Larkin has a relationship with a contractor named Reed Logan. Logan’s company has been hired to track Will Parnell, and the objective is for Will Parnell to lead them to Slim. General Larkin has thirty-eight people being followed. They are frustrated that they can’t find Dr. Grace, and they can’t find Slim. General Larkin is worried because the president is pushing to understand that the country is safe and the General is unable to convey that Slim is not dangerous. He believes that he must control Slim.”

Will listened intently as Slim went on to detail information that was collected from phone records, emails and secret recording devices throughout the Pentagon, the White House and NSA. Slim found others, many were looking for Slim, but they weren’t connected to Larkin, at least directly. They were trying to stay off the grid. They all were searching in earnest, but they were spinning their wheels. They wouldn’t stop unless they had a reason to. Will decided that it was time to give them something to focus on that would get them out of Philadelphia at the very least.

“Slim, identify the people that are involved and develop a secure way for Will Parnell to contact them and eliminate any way for the communication to be tracked.”

Before long, Slim produced a report with names, phone numbers, background and a statement about the interrelationship among the people that were hunting Slim.

Will studied it.

Holy shit! he said to himself.

Chapter 19 – Follow Up

As White House Chief of Staff, Cal Dixon was always busy with never a free moment. Yet he managed to slip away to join Task Force X for a late-night meeting to follow up on their progress. The meetings were always scheduled quickly around Dixon’s availability.

He walked into the non-descript room in the bowels of the Washington Metro system. Marguerite Simpson, Megs, was already there with the assembled group.

He sat at the head of the table and looked at Megs. “What do you have?”

“Not much I’m afraid. We–”

Her phone buzzed loudly, which startled her because she was sure she had turned it off as she entered the room. She looked at the screen and saw the caller ID–Unknown.

Who the hell is this? she thought.

“Expecting someone?” Dixon snapped with an edge to his voice, clearly irritated. “I disassembled my phone, which is in my briefcase in the corner of the room.”

“Absolutely not,” she responded quickly. “I know I turned this off on the way in here.”

“I saw you do that,” said one of the people in the room.

“Are you going to answer it?” Dixon prodded.

Hesitantly, she spoke to her caller, “Yes.”

The voice was disguised with a mechanical robot-like sound. “Please put Chief of Staff Dixon on the phone.”

With her eyes wide, Megs looked at Dixon. “It’s for you.” She handed him the phone.

He looked around the room. Everyone was unnerved. “Cal Dixon. Who is this?” he demanded.

“I’m the one that you are looking for Mr. Dixon.”

Dixon’s jaw fell and his mouth hung open. Moments later he gathered himself and said, “How do I know that?”

“Put me on the speaker.”

“Turn on the speaker,” he said to Megs. She did and put it in front of Dixon.

”Go ahead,” Dixon said. Everyone leaned in towards the phone in front of Dixon on the conference room table.

“Dr. Alvin Grace created an artificial intelligence that he named Slim. The capabilities of this technology are almost beyond comprehension. General Benjamin Larkin demanded that Dr. Grace submit Slim to be weaponized. When he resisted, he was poisoned with neurotoxin XF–18, presumably at the direction of Larkin. For those of you who don’t know about the poison, it strikes precisely in ninety days after it is administered. Thus, Dr. Grace is no longer with us. However, I am here, and I am the caretaker of Slim.”

There were shocked looks on everyone’s face including Dixon’s.

Will broke the silence and continued. “From what I can tell, none of you have any knowledge of the facts I just recited. A decision was made to communicate with Task Force X instead of the Situation Room in the White House, because there are people who can’t be trusted in that room, like Larkin.”

“We have all of Dr. Grace’s work, so it’s only a matter of time until we reconstruct it.”

“You don’t. Dr. Grace planted the information, and it will never allow you to reconstruct Slim.”

Dixon felt a tightening in his gut. He had been afraid of that. He looked at Megs and passed her a note.

He knows about Task Force X?

She nodded and shrugged to convey her surprise and helpless feeling.

“The nation has nothing to fear from Slim. I couldn’t say that if it fell into someone else’s control.”

Dixon was extremely anxious. “What are you saying?”

“There are bad people trying to acquire Slim so they can turn it into a weapon.”

Dixon thought for a moment. “You’re talking about Larkin.”

“Certainly, he is a problem. But, there is an effort from the underworld that’s every bit … as enthusiastic as you are to acquire Slim, and their motivations are not in the best interest of the United States.”

Dixon looked around the table. “Do you know who is leading this?”

“Yes. A man they call Black Jack. He is connected to the underworld.”

Dixon cringed. Only very few people knew that name, a name that was often dismissed as a myth.

“Why are you contacting me?”

“That’s an excellent question Mr. Dixon. I want to build trust with you and be of help, if needed.”

Dixon was flabbergasted. “What should I call you?”

There was silence.

“Are you still there?” Dixon asked.

“Yes. You can call me Game Changer.”

“Game Changer, I need to speak to the president. How can I contact you?”

“You can’t”. If you need me, we’ll find a protocol that works. For now, I will contact you tomorrow at midnight.”

“But how will you know … never mind. Midnight it is.” Dixon couldn’t believe the interplay with Game Changer. He had to find the connection to this Black Jack. For some time he had felt something was very wrong. Now he knew his concerns were justified.

Chapter 20 – The White House

President Jarrett walked into the Situation Room with Cal Dixon and sat down. It was ten minutes before midnight.

“You’re telling me that this … Game Changer … can reach us, here. One of the most, if not the most, protected and secure communication hub on earth?”

Dixon stared at him and spoke not as the Chief of Staff but as an old friend. “Dan, I don’t know what to make of this. I’ve never experienced or heard of anything like this. But, I know that if Game Changer reaches us here, then we must listen. The capabilities that Grace created are beyond comprehension and this would help validate that. I pray that my gut is right and that this Game Changer is a good guy.”

“Well, we only have to wait a matter of minutes to find out just how powerful this Game Changer is,” President Jarrett said.

They sat across from each other, lost in their thoughts until precisely midnight when a voice announced that Game Changer was on the line.

President Jarrett nodded. “Put him through,” Dixon said.

“Hello, this is Cal Dixon, I’m here with President Jarrett.”

“Thank you Mr. Dixon. Mr. President, it is an honor to be speaking with you. I am called Game Changer, and I hear that you have been looking for me.”

“My Chief of Staff filled me in on his conversation with you. It sounds like you may be on our side.”

“I want to be on your side Mr. President, but the murder of Dr. Grace by the government or those paid by it is an issue that at the very least generates mistrust.” Will was exercising all the control that he could muster. “I wanted to speak with you directly, to assess this matter.”

“I actually appreciate that. How did you penetrate our security?”

“The technology that I have is quantum leaps and bounds above anything known to man.”

Jarrett looked around the room before he continued. “Cal said that you told him that Dr. Grace was murdered by Ben Larkin. Do you have proof?”

One of the computer screens on the wall lit up and the text that was sent to Dr. Grace was displayed.

I’m on the run. Two SUVs showed up at my house, but I managed to get away. They overheard me talk about Slim. I’m so sorry. Look up what happened to Bo Ridley. Be careful. I’ll contact you when I can.

“Dr. Grace’s assistant was murdered, too. He received this text the day he was poisoned. That’s why he ran.”

“Is there more?”

“Yes.”

Will displayed emails between Logan and Larkin that suggested a cover up of the murders. President Jarrett twisted in his chair and grimaced. He looked at Dixon who could practically read his mind. There was a rogue operator in their camp that would need to be dealt with.

“Game Changer, I need to do some house cleaning. To do the job right, I need to understand who this Black Jack is dealing with.”

“Mr. President, I’ll contact you in forty-eight hours to let you know what light I can shed on the situation.”

“I need to look at my schedule so I can let you know–”

“Mr. President.” Will interrupted. “I’ll find you. It won’t be a problem.”

Jarrett and Dixon looked at each other.

“Is President Jarrett safe?” Dixon asked with concern.

“If you are asking if President Jarrett is safe from any actions that I may take, the answer is yes. If you are asking about others, I don’t know.”

The president stared at Dixon. “Game Changer, I have no choice but to trust you. I can assure you that you can trust me. Get me the information on Black Jack, and I’ll fix the mess.”

“Very good Mr. President.” Will terminated the call.

“My god.” The president rested his head in his hands with his elbows on the table.

“It’s fragile, but I think he’s on our side,” Dixon said, trying to reassure his boss and dear friend.

“I think so, too. And, we damn well better keep him there.” Jarrett paused then added, “I want the cancer cut out of this administration, Cal.”

“I’ll make it happen.”

Chapter 21 – Blowback

It was after ten o’clock in the evening when Reed Logan pulled into the parking lot behind the small restaurant that fronted on US Route 1 in Hyattsville, Maryland. It was closed for business on Mondays, which made it a safe place to meet in the mind of the man that called the meeting.

Logan left his car and slid into the driver’s side of a nondescript sedan.

“Well this is a change,” Logan said to lighten the moment, which he felt was going to become quite stressful.

The driver turned in his seat to look at him. “We have problems,” General Larkin said.

“What happened?”

“I got a call from that little shit, Dixon, this afternoon. He wants a full report on Grace and details about his death and his assistant’s death.”

Logan didn’t see the problem. “Well, we can give them plenty of information.”

“He knows about the poisoning, and he wants to put me under oath!” Larkin slammed the palm of his hand down on the dashboard.

Logan was stunned. “Can he do that?”

“When all is said and done, yes. He also said that they are going to do an audit of my budget and everything that I have input into. They want it all.”

Jesus!

“He also asked me if I or anyone associated with me has dealt with anyone outside the safety belt.”

“I don’t understand. What’s the safety belt?” Logan was confused and very worried.

“The safety belt encircles everyone that is legitimate. Outside the belt are questionable organizations–criminals.”

Logan felt the blood drain from his face. Larkin could see it even in the dim light of the restaurant signage.

“You’d better tell me if we have anything to be worried about,” Larkin said in an ominous tone.

Logan squirmed in his seat. “I talk with the underworld. You know that,” he said. He felt a tightening in his chest.

“I do, and you know I’m not talking about that.” Larkin was watching him with probing eyes.

“I … ran into a group that was also looking for Grace.”

“What group?” Larkin’s tone dripped with a controlled anger.

“They said that they were government sanctioned, and they were willing … to share what they had with me.”

“And?”

“They had access that only the government, our government, could give them. But, eventually I identified their employer. He’s an underworld figure that goes by the name Black Jack. I don’t know who he is, but up to now he was just a myth as far as I was concerned.”

“Did you share information with these people?

“Yes, but only basic stuff to find out––”

“Did you pay them money?” Larkin interrupted. He was a man possessed, and this was a problem.

“No, not directly.”

What the hell does that mean!” Larkin erupted.

Logan took a breath. “I paid a contractor that they recommended to research the people that we identified in the Delaware Valley as a possible connection to Dr. Grace.” Logan was contrite.

“Is there any connection back to this Jack piece of shit?” Larkin could feel his blood pressure rising. His face was growing redder by the second.

“We have to assume there is. I can insulate you.”

“They won’t differentiate you from me. Get the tracks buried and cut off any communication. Am I clear?”

“Yes.” Logan truly respected Larkin and deeply regretted his unavoidable decision as the silenced weapon discharged a twenty-two-caliber bullet that penetrated the general’s brain.

With his latex-gloved hands, Logan planted damning evidence on Larkin’s cell phone that implicated him in the commission of murder and treason.

He left the vehicle as a cold rain began to fall and pressed a speed dial on his phone. “It’s done,” he said.

“Good. Get under the radar and stay there,” the man said.

“Will do.”

Chapter 22 – Clean Up

Will had just finished listening to the phone call that Reed Logan had on a line that was scrambled by NSA technology. In seconds, Slim had identified the man on the other end of the call. Will wanted to be shocked, but, since he was introduced to Slim, less and less fell into that category.

Slim carefully monitored all of Logan’s digital records and those of the man he had called. It wasn’t long before a clear picture developed and the identity of Jacques Beaumont, a.k.a. Black Jack, was revealed.

Will decided that it was time to pay a brief visit to Black Jack to establish some ground rules. He put the RV in stealth mirror mode and engaged the super flight application. In a very short time the RV was hovering outside of a luxurious penthouse in Monaco, one of many residences that Black Jack maintained. His silver Rolls Royce was parked at the valet stand below, which could be seen from his balcony.

Black Jack was entertaining a young woman. He was seducing her with wine and cocaine. He’d bed her when he was ready. Whatever he desired was always at his beck and call. Black Jack was a man that was always in control.

His landline rang, but he ignored it. He was too busy. Then, his special cell phone rang that was only accessed by his chief of operations.

“Excuse me my darling, I’ll dispatch this intrusion.”

He picked it up and answered it. “Yes. This better be good.”

“I’ve heard that you are looking for me,” the mechanical sounding voice said.

Jack was caught off guard. “And who may I ask is calling?”

“A man with a message for you.”

“What shall I call you?” Jack asked.

“You can call me Game Changer.”

“Cute. I don’t play games,” Jack said through gritted teeth.

“Neither do I. Go to your balcony and look down at your message.”

Jack walked to edge of the balcony and looked down. He could see his elegant car safely parked and waiting for him. “Do you plan to damage my car,” Jack said with disgust.

“Yes.”

Just then, the Rolls Royce turned into a pile of dust. Jack felt tightness in his chest. “What do you want?” he asked a little too fast.

“If you continue to irritate me, or if I find that you were responsible for the death of Dr. Grace, I will make sure that you are in the car the next time. I hope I’ve made myself clear.”

“Extremely,” Jack said as the call terminated. His hands were shaking.

 

Cal Dixon was wrapping things up at his desk when his cell chirped. He looked down at a text.

 

Good Evening,

I have news. Get the president and take him to his private office. Please wait a few minutes until he finishes the baked Alaska. I know it’s his favorite.

Regards,

Game Changer

 

Dixon had the president notified that a matter of great importance required his attention.

President Jarrett turned the corner and saw Dixon standing at the door to the oval office. They walked through it to his small personal office.

“Game Changer has news,” Dixon said before the president asked him what this was about. “He also wanted to wait until you finished your baked Alaska.”

“Sweet Jesus!” the president responded.

 

Dixon’s phone rang and he put it on speaker. “Mr. President and Mr. Dixon, thank you for taking the time.”

“What do you have?” President Jarrett asked.

“It appears that Reed Logan, a contractor, is operating under the direction of the Secretary of Homeland Security, Kelsey Osgood. Logan just murdered General Larkin at his direction.”

Jarrett jumped up. “Kelsey Osgood? Good god!”

Dixon didn’t miss a beat. “Why would he do that?”

“That’s a good question, Mr. Dixon. The answer is that Osgood is on the payroll of Jacques Beaumont, who you know as Black Jack.”

The room went silent as Jarrett and Dixon adjusted to the news. Finally, the president spoke. “This is just horrible.”

“You have proof of this?” Dixon asked, knowing the answer.

“Yes,” Will answered. “I’ve sent a file to each of your encrypted accounts that is loaded with irrefutable proof. Also, Black Jack’s financial information is there for you to use as well.”

“Do you know how to find this Black Jack?” the president asked.

“Yes. As a matter of fact, I gave him a personal message.”

Dixon smiled, which was a rarity. “Did he embrace your message?”

“Yes … with alacrity.”

Both the president and Dixon enjoyed a short laugh.

The president set his jaw. “Game Changer, we owe you a debt of gratitude, and so does this country, but I can’t tell the world about you, not yet anyway.”

“That’s fine with me Mr. President.”

“And if we need you again?” the president asked.

“Simply put a piece of paper with the letters GC on it in a window pane in the oval office. I’ll see it and contact you.”

“That’s very Batmanesque,” Dixon chuckled.

“Batman is so twentieth century,” Will said.

They all laughed.

“You’ll monitor the window?” Dixon asked.

“Yes.”

“That actually gives me comfort. Now, I need to go and clean house,” the president said.

“I’m at your service, sir. Just reach out, if you need me.”

“Thank you,” the president said, and then he terminated the call.

President Jarrett leaned back in his chair. “Cal, let’s get the file over to Justice. I want Logan and Osgood wrapped up tight before they know what hits them. Also, better get the AG on the phone.”

“Do you want to go after Black Jack?” Dixon asked.

“Let’s get our house in order first. Something tells me … that Game Changer has Black Jack’s full attention, so we can take our time.”

Dixon laughed. “I agree, Mr. President.”

Will agreed to attend his high school reunion, at the insistence of two of his old buddies. He didn’t want to go, but he hadn’t seen them in years, and they’d kept in touch and lobbied hard to have him attend. There was a general assumption that Claire was going to attend, since she had always been very involved in school activities and had been quite popular.  Also, she had a lot of friends that she managed to keep in touch with. At this point, Will figured that he could handle it, so he decided to go.

Will checked into his hotel and showered. Dressed in a dark grey cashmere blazer, crisp white shirt and black slacks, he put on some cologne and was ready to go, feeling generally positive. Slim was secure on his person, but he checked it one more time. Slim’s development allowed them to communicate telepathically.

Ready, Slim?

Let’s go, Will Parnell.

He drove to the old high school where the reunion was being held.

Walking in the front door, he saw a long table with nametags and a check-in list. After he got his nametag, he walked into the crowded gym. His buddies materialized out of nowhere. They each had dates and were smiling.

“Will. Jesus, it’s good to see you.” Scott Hays gave him a huge hug, only to be followed by Jerry Marcus.

Will was introduced to their dates, and they all headed to the bar for a drink before finding their seats at a large round table for the sit-down dinner.

From across several tables their eyes met. There was Claire standing and holding on to another man’s arm. She looked different.

My god. She’s pregnant. No wonder she needed a fast divorce. She didn’t want to start a family … with me, anyway. Will tried not to laugh at himself. He had been such a fool. Wow! he thought.

Ever the confident one, Claire boldly walked over to Will, guiding the man whose arm she held. He was taller than Will and considerably older, mid-forties. He was trim with short, thinning blond hair.

A little too blond, Will thought.

“Will, I’d like to introduce you to Rodger Wells … my husband.”

Rodger confidently put out his hand. “Will.”

Will grasped it firmly. “Rodger.”

“Claire, congratulations on your marriage, and may you and your family have a lifetime of happiness.” Will forced a smile and tried to sound as sincere as possible.

Claire seemed relieved. “Thank you, Will. How have you been?”

“I’ve been good.”

“He has his own firm now,” Scott blurted out.

Will rolled his eyes.

“You do?” Claire asked, totally amazed, as if she had just heard that he had joined the French Foreign Legion or done something outrageous.

“I do,” he said.

“And?” she asked.

“Business is good,” Will answered, smiling and wishing he could change the subject.

“Hey, Parnell!” A large hand slapped him on his shoulder.

Will turned to see Herbert Carney, known as Bum. Bum was a large man. In high school, he had played center on the football team. He’d stayed in the area and was part owner of several automobile dealerships. Some of his high school friends worked for him and hung around him like groupies. Will remembered him as the school bully, whenever he could get away with it.

“Congrats old man I didn’t think you had it in you. Poppin’ a bun in the oven of the homecoming queen. You dog.” He was laughing and drunk.

Everyone cringed, and it was clear that Claire and Rodger were embarrassed.

“Herbie, Claire and I are divorced. Roger is her husband, and they are starting a family. Why don’t you let me get caught up with them, and then we can chat?” Will remembered that Bum hated to be called Herbie.

The steely look in Will’s eyes and being called Herbie brought out the aggressor in Bum. “Yeah … let’s chat later.” He sneered and walked off with his groupies in tow.

“Don’t mind him,” Will said to the group, but the message was for Rodger. “Herbie has always struggled to properly express himself.”

As everyone laughed, Will noticed Bum glaring at him from the other side of the gym.

They went to their seats as dinner arrived. It was a festive occasion as everyone at the table enjoyed a lively discussion about past high school exploits.

As the dinner plates were being cleared away, Will decided to have some coffee, skip the dance and head back to his hotel. But first, he needed to use the men’s room.

Bum Carney watched as Will walked towards the men’s room, which was inside the team room at the far side of the gym. He looked at two of his groupies. “I’m gonna’ have a little chat with Parnell. Remind him who’s boss.” His followers laughed. They trailed behind him into the team room. “Don’t let anyone in,” he glowered.

“No problem,” they said together.

Bum entered the bathroom. Will was using the urinal and someone had just left as Bum held the door and nodded to his groupies. He closed it and turned around and looked at Will who had just finished at the sink and was drying his hands.

“Looks like it’s just you and me Parnell,” he said with a smirk on his face.

“Looks like it is,” Will said.

“I think we need that chat. You need a little lesson in respect, and I’ve decided to give it to you right now. What do you think of that?” An evil expression crossed Bum’s face.

Slim, one–invade his pores and strangle his larynx enough to get his attention and immobilize him, and two–seal the door.

The nanoparticle army went to work. The door was secured, and Bum’s face began to turn red. He didn’t know what was happening. He grabbed at his throat.

Will walked closer to him and spoke in a calm but chilling tone. “Herbie, I don’t like you …  I never did. I’ve had enough of your shit. If you anger me again, I will tear out your throat, and paint the walls with your blood.”

Slim, tighter on his throat.

Bum’s eyes were bugging out. He was terrified.

Will leaned so close to his face that Bum could feel his breath. “Do you understand me, Herbie?”

Bum was trying to say yes but all he could do was grunt. His head felt like it was in a vice, and he couldn’t nod. He panicked and his bowels let go.

Slim, release him.

Bum fell, barely catching himself by grabbing a nearby sink. He was gulping air as fast as he could.

“Herbie, go into one of the stalls. I’ll tell your groupies out there that you don’t feel good and want to go home. They will bring you your coat, so you can cover up and leave after you collect yourself. You can go out the back, if you like. Do you understand?”

Bum was breathing heavily and sweating, but he managed to utter, “yes”.

Will had been in a strange zone and had not realized that someone had been knocking on the door and now was pounding.

Open up!”

“Hold on,” Will said loudly. “It’s just stuck. I’ve got it.”

Slim, release the door.

Will opened the door and walked out. There was a crowd of people including his buddies and Claire’s husband.

Will looked at Bum’s groupies. “I don’t think he’s feeling well. He wants you to get his coat, so he can leave. It might have been something he ate.” He struggled to appear concerned.

One of the groupies stuck his head in, “Bum.” He called out.

Get my damn coat … please!” Bum said loud enough for everyone to hear.

Will noticed a relieved look but one mixed with confusion on everyone’s face.

Scott leaned in to him as they walked back to the gym. “What happened?” he asked in a hushed voice.

“Herbie is not well. I don’t think we need to concern ourselves with him.” Will smiled.

“Hey, I thought we were back in high school for a second, and Bum was lookin’ for a fight. Obviously, we’ve grown up,” Scott laughed as he shook his head, walking straight ahead and not looking at Will.

Most of us changed, Will thought to himself.

Will had just said goodbye to his old friends when Claire and Roger walked up to him. “Will, I thought Bum was going to pick a fight with you. That’s why I asked Roger to check on you. Apparently, our old friends thought so, too … I’m glad you’re okay.”

Our old friends, he thought. This is so awkward.

“Well, I appreciate the concern. Fortunately, everything turned out just dandy.” Will smiled. “Take care.” He turned and left.

Claire intently watched him as he walked out. He’d changed somehow––his clothes, his attitude, his life. She barely recognized him.

Not my cup of tea.It's okay.Loved it! Can't wait for more.

Game Changer – Copyright © 2017 J.T. Prescott. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher. For permission requests, write to the publisher at author@jtprescott.com.

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