Yeah, so I started writing a book again. 12,000 words in, and I'm stalled. Life with a capital L has redirected my time and attention.
I don't know if I have it in me to write something worth reading. The story is in my head, but making it appear in OTHER people's heads just by flinging words at them..... that's HHAAARrrrrddddd.
Here's what I have so far, presented in the jumbled mess I wrote. I put this stuff down as it forms in me head, with intentions of using them later like bricks, building the story by plugging them in where they belong. More word mortar would be required, of course. I"m happy when I can get a scene down half-way decently.
Read and comment, if you wish. Don't come crying to me if your brain melts out your ears during the attempt....
“What did you say?”
“I said no. Was I unclear?”
“You can’t say no. The law says you have to do this. You can’t just say no.”
“I just did. Twice. I’ll say it again too, every time you order me to do something that’s wrong.”
“Look, you don’t get to choose. It’s the LAW. You just have to do what you are told. The law says you have to break down the bank and drain that pond. The water collected there belongs to the state, and catching it in the pond is illegal.”
“What do you mean… why? It’s the law. If you don’t obey you’ll be punished.”
“Explain why. That pond was there when my great grandfather bought this property almost 100 years ago. It was there before your ‘law’ was even a thought. The people who created that law don’t know me, have never set foot on this farm, and couldn’t even find this place without three maps and a pack of guide dogs. Exactly why should I destroy the pond that keeps this farm alive?”
“Because it’s the law…. And you don’t want to operate this farm contrary to the law. You could get in trouble.”
“Explain that. What trouble?”
“Look… if you don’t obey the law, the state attorney will file against you in court, and win.”
“So? What then?”
“What happens then? What happens is the police come here and throw you in jail. Then the state sends a crew to do what the law says you should have already done, and they bill you for it. By the time the state is done with you and you’ve paid the lawyers and fines, they will own this little shit of a farm you are so fond of.”
“And If I say no to the state, and the police?”
“If you resist arrest the police will use force. Deadly force.”
“I figured we’d get to that point pretty quickly. Let’s boil this down. Some anonymous petty dictator at a state agency is ordering me to destroy my own farm, and if I don’t the state will come steal it from me. If I resist the theft, they’ll kill me… or try to, anyway. Is that about it?”
“It’s not theft! It’s just the law. If you choose to disobey the law, what happens is all on you”.
“Yeah…. Right. I understand you just fine. You know how you got here, so you know how to leave. You should go now… I have work to do.”
“You aren’t going to do what the state ordered you to, are you? Are you really that stupid? You’ll die rather than obey the law?”
“Rather than obey a law even you can’t explain, that demands I destroy my own life or the state will come do it to me a little quicker? I can’t see where you and your state have left much choice here. Now get off my property.”
“It won’t be yours much longer. I’m going, and you will regret not doing what you were ordered to.”
Franklin walked to his home, and sat down on the old lawn chair propped up on the front porch. There, he watched as the State man stepped his way over the mud, trying to reach his shiny agency SUV without getting any dirtier than he had too. Franklin watched till the vehicle had backed up, and gone away down the half mile long dirt drive, heading towards the two lane that snaked up into the hills where his family farm was located.
There was no one else on the place. His folks had died decades back, and franklin’s wife had passed away quietly in her sleep while he was deployed on duty. Her body found by one of the neighbors, who’d missed their usual morning phone call and gab session. There weren’t any kids. Both Franklin and his wife wanted children, but it just hadn’t been in the cards for them. They made do with nephews and nieces, and the scads of neighbor kids who seemed to just turn up at the farm now and then. Franklin had a reputation as a grumpy old man, but the kids knew instinctively he was okay.
From the porch to the kitchen was only a few steps, and the old man took them quickly. He was falling into a mindset he’d thought long past. He had a mission again, even though he wouldn’t have called it such. Not that he’d even think it as such. Yet.
Retrieving his cell phone from the kitchen counter, he dialed a number from memory.
“State Police, Cpl Stacey speaking.”
“May I speak with Captain Della please? Just tell him Franklin is calling.”
Fran Stacey had been working as the Captain’s administrative aid for the past six months, and still didn’t know all his contacts by name yet. It seemed like he got calls daily from people she’d never heard of, so this was just another day as far as she was concerned. Her finger hit the intercom button on her phone, and she said “Captain, a ‘Franklin’ is on line two for you.” So far, the Cap hadn’t once failed to take a call, no matter who it was from. Not like her last boss…. Who never failed to dodge a call, even from his own mother.
Captain Della picked up his phone and punched the button for line two. “Franklin?”
“Yes Tom…. I’m not dead yet. Hope you didn’t lose money on a bet over that or something.”
“Colonel, I haven’t talked with you since we both got back. How have you been?”
“About fair Tom. I’ve been working the farm, just living day to day mostly. You heard about Nancy?”
“Yeah, I did. I was awful sorry to hear that. She was a damn fine woman, Colonel. Probably better than an old war horse like you deserved.”
“Might be the truest words you’ve ever spoken, you jerk” Franklin said, with just the slightest smile in his voice. “Listen, I didn’t call to get maudlin. I’ve got a dog I talk to for that. I called to give you a heads up”.
Hearing Retired Colonel Franklin Wills put a command tone into use, Tom Della, who retired out as Captain himself, responded almost automatically. “Yes sir. What is happening and what do you need from me?”
“Relax Tom. It’s nothing that imminent. I’m just calling to give you a heads up on a situation. You’ll want time to think about this, so I’m giving you the courtesy of a call. The State has ordered me to destroy this farm that’s been in my family for generations. They demanded the pond be broken down, for no reason they can give. The use of force has been discussed with me, by their smarmy little REMF that just left”.
“Franklin, what’s the big deal about a pond? Why do they care about it, and what is it to you?”
“Tom, that pond has been here for longer than my family has owned this place, and that’s about 100 years. Water pumped from the pond keeps the animals alive, and irrigates the truck gardens. Given that the only water we have up here is from the mountain creek which feeds the pond, and a 400 foot deep slow well for the house, breaking down the pond bank means this farm is done for. That’s what it means to me”.
“What it means to the State people? Who knows? They can’t or won’t explain; they just order and expect obedience. That’s why I’m calling you, Tom. There’s a good chance it will drop in your lap, and I figured it’s only fair to give you advance warning if I can”.
Captain Della had a feeling in the pit of his stomach, like a rock hitting bottom. “Sir…. What…..”
“Tom, I told them no. I meant it. The little shithead they sent up here to threaten me made it clear. If I don’t knuckle under and obey their insane law, they intend to prosecute me, put my ancient ass in prison, and steal this property. Not happening Tom. You know what that means, and you’ll have to decide what to do about it.”
“Yes sir, Colonel, I do understand. Thank you for the heads up. Do you have a time frame?”
“Gotta figure before the year is out.”
“Okay. We’ll talk again Sir. I can’t say exactly how that will go yet, but we’ll talk again.”
“Right. Wish the circumstances were better, but good talking with you.” Franklin hung up, and the line went quiet.
Captain Tom Della put the phone back into its cradle, and sat back slowly… staring a thousand miles away through an office wall that ceased to exist. He was watching a memory of an operation that happened years ago, far away, and still couldn’t be talked about outside his former unit. It was an operation planned by Colonel Wills… and it was the bloodiest, and quickest, operation he’d ever been involved with. Almost all the blood was from the other team, and he hadn’t lost a man of his own. That was mostly due to Colonel Wills devious, conniving, and downright dirty planning.
Tom snapped back to the present, thinking “Those State assholes have poked a really big bear, and they are going to hate their lives for it. What lives they have left”.
It was a moment later that everything fell into place, and Tom really understood why he’d gotten the courtesy call from the retired Colonel. It was because he, and his officers, would be the ones the State required cage the bear they provoked. Nobody from the capital or the prosecutor’s office would be messing up their clean undies in the bear den. It would be delegated to him, and that’s why Franklin had called. To honor their history, and give fair warning. To give him time to decide what he would do.
“Those assholes have no idea what they’ve done. They haven’t a clue who they are picking on. Shit”.
The next phone call was from Tom to another old acquaintance. Not surprisingly, one that had shared a unit patch, and not a small amount of spilled blood and beer. “Guns, this is Tom. Yeah… I know…. I still owe you a case of beer. You may have a chance to collect sooner than you expected. We need to talk. Let’s call it need-to-know for now, okay? Yeah Sparkles… I’ll explain. How about we do a bit of fishing this weekend…. I know a good place…..”
(An anonymous state government office)
“What the hell do you mean he said No? What the hell did you do?”
“Look, I explained it to him the same as I explained to everyone else. It’s a law and he’s got no choice. ‘No’ is not an option. He didn’t listen, and actually had the balls to order me off ‘his’ property!”
“Maybe I wasn’t clear enough to you when I gave you this assignment. We are going to finish buying properties on that mountain by this time next year, and I mean ALL the properties. The budget is limited, but that doesn’t matter. It’s going to happen. That means you will find every legal means to make our offers the most attractive thing in these people’s lives. Now what was I unclear about? Was it the part where your job is on the line?”
(The farm of Franklin Wills)
Franklin Mills sat on his front porch, holding his first cup of coffee for the day. He was waiting for the sunrise, like he did almost every day he was home. He’d seen the sun come up over every part of the world, during one part of his career or another, and often that first light served only to illuminate the carnage he’d exacted on behalf of his nation. Here on the farm, where he grew up, the sun coming up was different. It washed away the darkness that often haunted his dreams, and gave him a daily lease on life.
After he’d come back home, and found a house that echoed with memories of a wife no longer there, a few of those mornings found him watching the sun come up with a pistol in his hand. Each time, the morning light brought him back from the edge. He knew Nancy would not have wanted him to end it that way.
On the other hand, most mornings it was just a sunrise and that first cup of coffee he drank while greeting the sun was nothing more than a pleasurable ritual he allowed himself.
This particular morning, the retired Colonel barely even noticed the lightening sky. His mind was locked into an old pattern, as he thought his way through myriad scenarios and possibilities. Each was considered, weighed, and given a probability. Each path came with a list of things that needed doing and people that needed contacting. Colonel Franklin Wills (retired) was a planner. One of the best.
It’s been said a really good chess player can think four or five moves ahead, while Grand Master’s think up to a dozen moves ahead. Franklin was a ‘grand master’ at battle planning. The problem he had was this wasn’t a battle he fully understood. The bad guys were not well defined, and the rules of engagement had been twisted beyond anything involving sanity. To him, it was like all the words meant something different than he was used to.
His trouble was… he had no real assets to plan with, and his adversary held every card he could see. Franklin was a people planner; find good people, learn their abilities, and put them together in a plan to succeed at the mission. Here, he was without people to work with. He was, as far as he could see, pretty much alone in this battle.
That made the outcome clear, in the end. The path getting there might be interesting, but the final destination was an easy call. He wasn’t going to see his family’s home stolen by nameless bureaucrats.
Franklin finished his coffee, and stood slowly to work out the kinks. Resolve filled him with purpose, even if his goal of living peacefully was out of reach. He had work to do, and stepped back into the kitchen where the table had several maps already laid out, along with a legal pad and a cup full of pencils and highlighters.
It was time to plan.
(At a small creek in a mountain valley, about 4 miles past where the paved road ended.)
Captain Della had arrived first, as was his habit. He’d have happily showed up 24 hours in advance and quietly made camp, if it made sure he was boots-first on the ground.
The stream was a favorite fishing spot of his, for the simple reason that no one else seemed to know about it. He’d never seen another human being there, and being far enough off any trails to discourage casual hikers and hunters, he didn’t expect to. He himself had found the spot while practicing SAR (Search and Rescue) techniques on his own, as he prepped to teach a class on the subject.
As a place to not meet someone for a discussion that never took place, it was just about perfect.
Leslie ‘Guns’ Arelsin may not have been the first on scene, but that didn’t stop his arrival from being a complete surprise to Della. He’d treated the meeting as yet one more opportunity to stalk game, much as he learned from his dad while growing up in Wisconsin.
He’d started hunting when he was old enough to be quiet, about 8 years of age. The first few years he did his weekly hikes and hunts with his dad, he’d been unarmed. His job was to learn. The day he stalked to within a few feet of a fair sized spike buck, his dad presented him with his first .22 rifle. He was 10 years old. The family never lacked for meat in the freezer after that.
The boy was so quietly efficient at killing game, his father arranged regular visits with a local Fish and Game officer. Leslie spent time hiking trails with the man, while soaking up knowledge on game management and responsible harvesting. In exchange for doing the dirty work of culling and butchering some animals (the meat went to a local homeless shelter), the boy got a fair education on tracking, stalking, and managing wildlife.
Leslie found a home in the military when he graduated high school. The discipline structure was everything he needed, and being surrounded by people who respected his skill in the field was satisfying beyond anything he’d known. The fact his father respected his choice, supported him, and seemed to fairly swell with pride when seeing him in uniform… that helped.
He loved his dad, and his old man’s respect meant everything to him.
The name ‘Guns’ had happened his first time on the firing range during instruction. He’d listened closely to the DI and followed instructions to the letter…. Except he brought a decade of shooting experience with him. While other recruits were struggling to bring together everything the Drill Instructor and his assistants had hit them with, Leslie felt at home behind his weapon. Laying down on the line, his body had fallen naturally into a rifleman’s prone position. While the instructors were pushing other men into position with sticks, and just as often a kick with a boot, Leslie was quietly finding his NPO, or Natural Point of Aim.
When it came time to fire live ammunition, and sight in his rifle, he was done in five rounds. Two to find point of impact while setting his sights, and three for final group. The Instructors were too busy helping the recruits who were struggling to notice the one young man who didn’t need any help at all. They’d been pushed off to an auxiliary range, and keeping the surroundings safe was sucking up their attention.
The Instructors called for a five round group at 25 meters, and when cease fire was called, the men were ordered to safe their rifles and proceed down range. There they expected to be berated by the instructors for their initial performance, and were not disappointed. From target to target, the squad endured as the DI himself critiqued each man’s faulty technique using only the bullets impacts to diagnose them.
When they reached Leslie’s target, the DI was silent for a moment. His five shot group was centered exactly in the center of the 6” bullseye, clustered together and touching each other. Given the utterly worn out condition of the training rifles, this was nearly a miracle. The DI looked at Recruit Arelsin for a moment like he was a seeing a duck riding a bicycle. “Can you do that again, or was it just shit luck?”
“Sargent! I think I can do that again. Sargent!”
“Can you repeat that performance at range?”
“Sargent! Yes Sargent!”
He did do it again, and again five more times. The instructors got together to talk amongst themselves, and returned to the training session and continued as if nothing had happened. Later that evening, Leslie was called to the Senior Drill Instructors office, where he hit attention and reported.
“Sargent! Recruit Arelsin reporting as ordered. Sargent!”
The DI looked up at Leslie from his desk. After a moment, he said “At ease Recruit” and Leslie spread his feet the required amount and joined his hands behind his back, while still staring straight forward at a spot two feet over the DI’s head.
The Senior Drill Instructor sat staring at the young recruit for a few minutes, which to Leslie seemed to stretch into eternity. To combat his nervousness, he fell back on the breathing and relaxing techniques his father had taught him for stalking game. Unknown to him, this was exactly what the DI was watching for.
“Son… where did you learn to shoot?”
“Sargent! The Recruit does not understand the question. Sargent!”
“Recruit Arelsin, you may speak casually with me at this time. Lose the drill for the next ten minutes. Now, where did you learn to shoot a rifle?”
“Sir… I mean Sargent… my father taught me. I’ve been shooting and hunting since I was ten years old Sargent.”
“Your father have a name, son?”
“Sargent….. Same as mine. Leslie Arelsin. He apologized once for naming me Leslie. Said it was a family name and we had to keep it alive.”
The DI sat quietly. The name didn’t mean anything to him, but he had a feeling it really should. His spidey sense was yelling at him, the same way it did before anything big happened.
“Recruit Arelsin, I can offer you the opportunity to hone that skill, and learn a bunch more to go with it. This would involve some one-on-one time here during this training cycle in your free time, and IF your skills prove worthy, time at Fort Benning IF you graduate here. Do you have any interest in pursuing this, Recruit Arelsin?”
“Sargent, I don’t see how I could refuse the opportunity”.
“Young man…. You may have a different opinion on that before this is over. Now get the hell out of my office. I’ve got work to do.”
“Sargent! YES SARGENT!”
The next time his squad was on the range, and that happened to be the very next day, the DI called him to the front of the class. “Now you people watch ‘Guns’ Arelsin here as he demonstrates what I just told you yet again. Pay damned attention this time, and maybe we will get through this!”
After that, Recruit Leslie Arelsin seldom heard his real first name again. ‘Guns’ stuck…. And he was okay with that.
The Guns Arelsin who slowly sat up ten feet to the side of Tom Della was that same man, only with another 30 years’ experience of stalking, hunting, and killing behind him. When Guns said “Howdy Tom’ in a conversational voice that seemed to appear out of nowhere, Captain Della nearly jumped out of his skin.
“Damnit Guns! I’m a fucking old man now. Old men fall over dead when you scare them like that!”
Laughing, Guns walked the last few feet and the two men shook hands. “We all gotta go sometime Tom. You might try and be a little more aware of your surroundings though. I’ve been sitting here for ages”.
Tom grunted in grudging admiration for the other man’s skills. “Yeah…. I’ll work on that. Now grab a beer from the cooler and pull up a rock. We need to talk”.
Guns looked at the cooler. “You brought beer? Hell…. I think I want to have your children”.
The two men twisted the tops off a bottle each, and sat down before taking a long pull.
“Damn good beer” they said almost in unison, breaking into a laugh earned by years of shared experience. A few quiet and happy minutes were spent simply drinking beer and breathing, a pure pleasure both men had learned to enjoy when they could.
“Listen Guns…. I want to bring you up to speed on something I’m involved in…. or something I will be stuck in, anyway. It doesn’t involve you, but it might if you want it to. I’ll tell you up front it will probably go FUBAR and end in sadness and sorrow. We’ve both had our share of that, so no expectations here beyond keeping it between us. That’s why we’re out here in the ass-end of nowhere. This conversation never happened.”
“Tom…. You always were a talky bastard. You saving a point in there someplace?”
“Okay…. Down and dirty. Colonel Wills is in trouble. The State picked a fight with him and he’s taking it personally”.
“The WHOLE State…. Or some particular part of it?”
“Wise ass… some tie wearing REMFs are trying to snake his property out from under him, and wouldn’t care a bit if he left it face down in a box”.
“Then those tie wearing REMFs have made a big fucking error, if I know the Colonel”.
“The rules are different on this field, Guns. The Colonel may have hit a wall on this one. The other thing is… he’s not alone”.
“Tom…. I assume you are asking if I want to pitch in on the Colonel’s side in this. You do know I’d be dead if it wasn’t for him, right? He personally saved my sorry ass at least twice that I know of, and probably more I don’t. If that’s what you’re asking….. Then what the hell kind of man would I be to say no? You better start at the beginning Tom. Sounds like you got a lot more to say, so you better get to it”
“Yeah Guns, I thought you’d be like that. Hell, you’d probably have gotten pissed as hell if I hadn’t called you. Hand me another beer, and I’ll sketch out what I know, and what I think is happening…..”
Della began sketching out a theory that had solidified in his mind after the call he’d received from Colonel Wills. Over the past year, in his role as State Police Captain for the region, he’d seen a significant uptick in situations involving land owners on the mountain. No one thing stood out, but taken as a whole there seemed to be a pattern emerging. Boiled down to the bottom line; people were being pushed off their property.
An old farm house, about a mile from Franklin Mills place……..
Heather kept odd hours, which bothered no one, since she lived alone. Her slightly dilapidated old farm house, situated on a few acres of wooded hilly land, was the last remnant of a much larger farm. As often happens, a family farm gets sold off a piece at a time, leaving just the old house and a small bit of land. This was what happened to the place Heather Salina called home, when she bought it through a holding company several years back. It was exactly what she wanted.
Heather wasn’t really what one might call a survivalist. If someone had called her that to her face, she would have laughed. If she had any comment at all, it would be to say she was….. Careful.
Heathers home was in good repair, and solidly maintained. It looked like any old farm house might; in need of some attention and about 20 gallons of paint. That was the outside. On the inside, it was warm, homey, comfortable, and slightly less high tech than a MIT research lab. Only slightly.
Most of that tech was packed into a pair of joined rooms at the back of the house. What might have one time been called a mud-room, and the dining room, had been rearranged though some effort on Heather’s part. A couple doors had been ‘disappeared’ behind paneling, and others had been installed where needed. The kitchen now had its own door to the outside. The windows belonging to the old dining room and mud room were still there, but were more like store display windows. From the outside, they looked pretty with curtains and shades. From the inside, vintage wooden shutters with metal sheeting under them, unobtrusively attached to ground cables running around the base of the wall. The interior walls were nicely paneled, but under the attractive paneling was metal sheathing, carefully joined by conductive joints and grounded on the same cable as the shutters. The cable itself was run under a baseboard molding. The ceiling, looking like ancient decorative stamped tin, worked the same. Even the doors were hollow core pocket doors, with a metal mesh inside them connected to aluminum trim painted to look like wood.
It was, in fact, a shield room. Basically a great big Faraday cage. Electronic signatures didn’t leak out, at least not to a degree useable with any technology Heather was acquainted with…. And that was quite a lot.
In these rooms were kept the core of what Heather called her ‘retirement plan’. Mostly installed into a couple of old sideboards and one rather large built-in china cabinet (as she had a thing for vintage furniture), there was enough computing power to shame a mid-sized IT firm into impotence. A fair sized closet in the old mud room had been treated to the same shielding, and now housed a ridiculously powerful server farm and memory storage rack.
Her biggest problems had been running power in, and heat out. The heat was dealt with by the same geothermal rig that served the homes heating and cooling needs. Simply going a step larger on the unit when it was installed gave her all kinds of extra capacity to play with. Her power needs, on the other hand….. That was harder. On that front Heather had gone for a layered plan, using solar panels on the backside of the barn, and a small wind generator as well, all feeding storage batteries in the homes basement. In addition, there was a propane fueled generator in a vented room in the barn. Well muffled, it almost couldn’t be heard from the house. It also fed the batteries, or could directly power the homes electrical needs.
The electric company thought the home was electrically heated, and saw her usage as normal. The propane service thought she used gas for heat and cooking, and saw her usage as normal. They didn’t even sniff at her request for a 1000 gallon tank, as that was the norm in her area. The solar, wind genny, and propane fired generator had all been installed by her. Add it all up, and she had four times the normal electric power available without anyone noticing.
Heather wasn’t sneaky. She was careful. She’d purchased the farm house years before she’d retired, and spent her vacations and weekends fixing it up. Her goals had been simple, really. To vanish into obscurity, diving into a hole no one knew about nor would notice. All her work on the house, including its odd power sources and energy handling capabilities had been with one simple goal in mind. Nobody looking at the place would suspect there was more technology being used than a TV showing mindless daytime TV, and maybe a cheap tablet to order books and cat food on Amazon.
Heather Salinas was a techie, and a damned good one. Her career had led her first to private sector communications, and then into communications security. There, she had quietly led a small revolution in securing corporate communications. Eventually, inevitably, that position had brought her into opposition with certain agencies who depended on information to do their job. Intelligence, if you will.
One of those agencies had presented her with a choice… accept a fairly lucrative position within their technical branch, or face an ‘unfavorable technical environment’. In other words, work for us, or get hacked out of business. Not being a fool, Heather took the money and embarked on the last leg of her career. She took everything she knew about computer security, and turned it on its head. The team she worked on was responsible for gaining access to quite literally everything they were pointed at.
Sometimes they simply broke in and pirated the data they needed, but this was reserved for times when the agency wanted their targets to know they’d been raped. Most of the time, no one was supposed to know they’d been there, and that presented more of a challenge. Heather loved a good challenge.
With her in the lead, the team had designed a wonderful IT security product. One so good, it booted other commercial tech security to the dust bin. Her agency, running entirely on black budget, formed a commercial startup and began promoting the security package. As part of the promotion, they set up at Hacker conventions and invited all attackers to have a go. DefCon, SchmooCon…. None produced a serious breach. The next year, they presented at Black Hat, and invited the world class security people to have a shot.
Their work was good enough that the front company was approached by rival agencies, who attempted to co-opt their people and back-door the security. The director Heather worked for actually considered doing this, and since they already had a number of back doors hidden in the security software system, they thought they might monitor what their rivals thought they were cleanly stealing themselves. In the end, it was decided to rebuff the other agencies, rather than risk discovery.
The software security product Heather’s team created was being used by 60% of the Fortune 500 within five years, and also by many government’s outside the USA. Financial companies, banks, insurance companies, utility companies…. Their product became standard fare. The companies and agencies that used the security package might as well have opened their systems up completely to the people Heather worked for. It was an IT hacking triumph for her group, and for Heather, that no one could ever be told about.
It wasn’t just the data that was available. Their entire systems became permeated by the security package, and the ‘Three Letter’ Heather worked for could silently make the targets dance like marionettes if they wanted. Their communications, databases, and operations were an open book to the agency director and his people. It wasn’t easy, it wasn’t cheap, and the team was kept very busy indeed adapting the package to various formats and systems. They had been able to give it good functionality on half a dozen hardware platforms, using a good dozen software frameworks. That appeared to be the limit, but it still gave them coverage on the majority of corporate and government networks the security package was loaded onto.
Heather had almost fifteen years invested into ‘The Game’ with the agency when she started finding hints there was more going on than she was privy to. Like a janitor, by virtue of invisibility, knows almost everything going on in a building, the tech people who maintain systems generally have a good idea what they are used for. No matter how much the top office would like to imagine themselves as secret squirrels, it’s a simple fact that someone has to replenish the nuts in the bowl.
The day Heather reached some surety about her suspicions was the day she began planning her retirement. Almost everyone has some line within them that’s not to be crossed, and she was no different. Despite her deep belief that most humans were a waste of carbon and oxygen, she still had a sense of right and wrong. More importantly, to her, she had a very strong survival instinct. It was that instinct which came crashing down on her when she realized her work was being used for things ‘national security’ could never explain. Personal power, on the other hand, fit the bill very nicely. To power such as she was seeing wielded, she was no more than an inconvenient bug. Her instinct was screaming at her to find a hole and hide in it.
That was when she built her plan of retreat, which involved not just finding a quiet place to vanish, but making it look like she wasn’t a threat in any way, shape, or form. It helped that she and her team were effectively black-bag secret to begin with. That left the list of people she needed to manipulate very short indeed. Only a handful of staff, and the director. These people needed to be convinced she’d run her course, and could be allowed to drift into obscurity rather than ‘dealt with’.
A month later, she found the old farmhouse. It was in an area she’d chosen very purposefully, as being so nondescript and out of the way that it was utterly unmemorable. No one went there who didn’t live there. Nothing happened there. No one cared about it at all, except the few people who lived there.
The perfect place to fade from attention. Her plan gave her two years to prepare, and would take every minute of it. The fact she’d put at least one more back door into that security package than her team knew about helped tremendously. It was, after all, her baby, and what good mother doesn’t keep a close eye on her only child?
By the stream, where people who weren’t there were not having a conversation that never happened.
“So that’s about it Leslie. In the last year we’ve seen the number of foreclosures jump exponentially. From just one or so a year to over a dozen in the last six months. Every one of these families was blindsided when we served them papers. Some didn’t even know there’d been an action against them, no matter what the court papers said” said Captain Tom Della.
“Tom, if you call me Leslie again I’m going to hit you in the head with this beer” ‘Guns’ Arelsin replied, lifting the bottle in his hand.
“Bullshit Guns, you never let a drop of beer get away in your whole worthless life”.
“Okay, you got me there, Tom. So, about this thing. It’s pretty clear you suspect a conspiracy here, and that means enemy action. The question in my mind is, how do we help Colonel Wills? Aside from shooting any piece of shit who dares set foot on his property, what can we do?”
“On that score Guns, I have a few thoughts, but I’ll keep them to myself just now. I think our next step is to get with the Colonel and let him know he’s not alone. You know how he plans…. Everything and everybody used to their maximum degree”.
“Okay Tom, I’m in. You keep your secret plans inside that bear trap of a brain if you want. You, Franklin Mills, and the guys in the unit…. You know you’re all the family I have or want. It’s not like I was doing anything useful since I retired, anyway!” Arelsin said, as he laughed. “You got any beer left there, Tom? I’m still open to that whole ‘having your children’ business if you do.”
Colonel Mills farm, inside the barn…..
Franklin pulled the door to the small bank barn shut, out of pure habit. There was no reason to close it, other than his father had insisted he do so every time they went to the cave together. After he was ten or so, he was sent there alone by his dad quite often. Once he left for the service, he didn’t see the cave door again for years. After retiring and coming home to his empty house, he’d opened the door in the barn’s basement almost daily.
Most barns didn’t have a basement, but then again most farms didn’t boast a private cave system under their property. The barn had, in fact, been built over the cave entrance for exactly the reason of keeping that fact within the family. It wasn’t exactly a huge secret, but more just a private family matter. His Mom and dad had passed it on to him, much as his grandfather had passed it to them.
The farm wasn’t much on arable land, with just enough cleared to grow all the crops a family needed to live on, and as much again for ‘market’ gardens. The family never pulled crops in by the ton, but by the bushel. In the early days, that meant taking their goods to market by wagon and trading or selling their produce. Early on, the family had learned that quality sells best, and that adding value always returned a profit. That meant they became good at turning their market goods into something special when they could. Their pickles were the best in the area, and brought fair money by the jar. Berry jams and jellies also brought in a steady stream of money. Not a lot, but enough for the family to get by on.
In modern times, the market gardens existed to serve up-scale restaurants more than an hour’s drive away. Always looking for the best and freshest in-season produce, these restaurants jumped at the opportunity to buy his product for cash, and jealously guarded their source.
The family also kept some chickens and goats over the years, adding fresh eggs and goat milk to the market basket. Retired Colonel Mills himself kept only some chickens, mostly to supply his daily breakfast…. And to send a few dozen eggs home with the local kids when they came to visit. He never got into the habit of hauling eggs to the restaurants with the produce, and rather hoped they didn’t get wind he had a source or free range eggs as well as top notch organic vegetables.
All in all, it was a pretty quiet and peaceful retirement for the Colonel, being only about 50 years old.
He had time to indulge in a skill his father had taught him, so long ago. It was the reason the family had put a door on the cave generations back, and his grandfather had built the barn over it too. The cave was where they stored another kind of produce, made from the fruit trees and grape vines that grew on the rocky slopes of the farm. They made wine, and had since the first Wills had moved onto the land 100 years ago.
Back in the early days, selling wine had filled the family’s purse enough to survive hard times. When prohibition came about, they’d kept right on selling wine, although with some caution. Over the years, it had become mostly a matter for the men in the family. Quietly selling a few bottles, or maybe a case or two, mostly to neighbors and family. By the time Franklin had headed off to the army, his dad was only producing about 20 cases a year.
The thing is, the family had been making their wine a long, long time. Not a lot any one year, but almost always more than they used or sold. The rest went into the cave, stored there on wooden racks made from Locust trees cut on their own property. Not hundreds of bottles… but thousands upon thousands. A treasure trove against hard times, it had begun as just something a poor farming family could do. Over generations it had turned into tradition, and a matter of pride. They made good wine… and never moved away from the family tradition of not talking much about it.
When the army had Franklin stationed stateside, he always brought a case or two back with him from leave. When overseas, getting a carefully wrapped bottle shipped to him by his wife was the highlight of the month. When he came home for the final time, to an empty house, he had spent months going to the cave every day. He found himself drinking several bottles an evening, in the hopes of drowning his demons long enough to get some sleep.
The bottles had piled up on the front porch, finally making a stack even Mills in his depression couldn’t ignore. He walked up to the porch one evening, two bottles in his hand fresh from the racks, and stopped dead. Laid out in front of him were enough empty bottles to put away a season’s production. Franklin stared at the empty bottles, and saw his own sodden death there. In his mind the voices of his wife, his father, his soldiers…. Wordlessly called him back from that future.
He set the two bottles down on the porch step, and went to bed for the first dreamless sleep he’d had since coming home. Colonel Franklin Mills (retired) had decided to live.
Now, after grappling all night with plans to save his home, he was going into the cave to get his bottle of wine. He allowed himself just one a week, on the weekend, after the chores were done. It took iron will at first, but it had quickly turned into habit, and then later into something approaching a happy reward to himself for choosing to live.
This time, he unlocked the ancient door to the cave system, and flipped the electric switch that lit the first stretch of stone walled passage. He stood in the door, looking past the wooden racks of wine bottles stretching away, and felt himself flooded with resolve. This place was his home. His Home. Nobody was going to force him from his ground.
Heather Salina’s home
Heather parked at the end of her driveway, and collected the mail from the big rural mailbox next to the road. It was one of her regular habits, just like the twice weekly trip out for groceries and things. It wasn’t that she needed to go out that often, because she was quite capable of planning her needs years in advance. She made a point of going to town so she could keep her finger on the pulse of her community… what there was of it, anyway.
People were herd animals for the most part, according to Heather’s internal thoughts. As such the mood of the herd could be detected and deciphered, just like reading a weather report. The same as a group of deer get skittish when a predator is nearby, so does a town full of people. The important thing is noticing the change, and to do that one has to spend time with the herd, watching them.
Heather never bothered kidding herself that she was a nice person. Within her own bubble she was quite straightforward and honest. She didn’t like other people, didn’t care much about other people, and didn’t feel any need to be social. That said, while she didn’t like to deal with people, she certainly did care about herself. Towards that end she made regular trips to town, visiting the grocery store… post office… bank… and all those other places people seemed to need to go. It was part of her camouflage, and let her keep an eye on the local area without raising any concerns.
Collecting her mail, she did the regular sort of worthless junk from possibly useful items. As typical, several day’s accumulation of mail offered up almost nothing of value. Junk…. trash…. Junk…. trash… all destined for the shredder and burn barrel. Everyone had a burn barrel out here in the sticks, and the post office was kind enough to bring Heather fodder for the fire.
Her mail was important for one good reason, if nothing else. She was in the habit of mailing letters to herself occasionally, as she ran errands. Not in her own name of course, but she used the same couple names enough that the local mail delivery personnel probably thought it was a couple who lived in the home.
Heather wasn’t sending herself first class letters because she was so lonely she needed to just see mail in the box. Her purposes were much saner than that. The letters travel through the system was timed and averaged. Any significant change in delivery time from the various locations she mailed them from might indicate her mail was being intercepted. In addition, each letter was treated to a very tiny dot of simple glue. Normal handling in an envelope wouldn’t usually disturb the miniscule spot where the folded letter was closed. On the other hand, there was no way to unfold the letter without disturbing the almost unnoticeable seal.
Almost missed, an envelope with an actual stamp surfaced amongst the junk mail. A stamp meant an actual person had handled the envelope, which set it apart from the other items. Bulk mail was always burn material. Metered mail was ‘almost’ always burn material. Letters with stamps? Those were worth at least a look. That’s why the letters she mailed herself were always first class, in order to act as better bait.
The letter she found this day was not one she’d sent herself, and this stopped her cold. It wasn’t that she actually wanted to hear from anyone; she didn’t. On the other hand, she was very interested indeed regarding why anyone cared enough to send her personal mail. Heather, in her quest to bury herself so far below the radar it would take a backhoe to find her, became intensely focused when a rare letter arrived as if she was a real human.
The envelope was addressed to her by name, along with her address, on a mailing label. The upper corner identified the sender as a real estate agency that covered not only her area, but the whole corner of the state.
Carefully slicing open the envelope with the small knife blade on the utility tool she carried on her belt, Heather removed several pages. It was a letter with greetings to her, expressing a broker’s interest in speaking to her about buyers seeking property in the area. The second page appeared to be an MLS printout showing several local parcels, and what they had recently sold for.
Two things immediately stood out to Heather. First… the properties had brought pretty decent money compared to the values she had seen when she researched the area and found her tiny farm. Second… and far more important… both the envelope and letter had her name on them. They had been addressed to Heather Salina, at this address. In the years she had owned the place, it was the probably the first time she'd seen her real name on anything in the mailbox.
This didn’t send up a red flag for Heather. It sent up a signal rocket, with a star shell, and a booming air-burst just to top it off. The property had been bought through a shell company, which also handled all the utilities, taxes, and official ownership. There should have been nothing at all to connect her to the property by name, except someone specifically looking at her exact location... and her.
She dropped the junk mail on the SUV’s passenger seat, and turned around in the road. Heading back to the house, and her computer, Heather had forgotten the grocery trip. Her routine shattered, finding the meaning behind the anomalous letter was now the most important task in front of her.
(An anonymous state government office)
Harold Reese was not what could be called a pleasant man. No one who had ever worked for him could remember him smiling. It he had, his staff would have turned pale and prayed it wasn’t them he was smiling about. The only time Harold appeared to enjoy his job was when blood was in the proverbial water. He had but two goals; personal power, and the elevation of the state over individuals. If confronted, he would have vehemently denied the first, while championing the second. In truth, Director Reese simply didn’t see much difference between the goals.
Some people read Ayn Rand’s book ‘Atlas Shrugged’ and saw a manifesto for individual human rights. When assigned the book as part of a required college course on literature, Harold read it as a flawed framework for government. It had points he instinctively agreed with, but he knew Rand just hadn’t taken it far enough to make it work right. Harold believed in power, lots of power, and in the right hands. He’d never considered for one second that he was less than the rightful holder of that power. It was just a matter of getting it, and that was what had driven him as far back as he chose to remember.
This morning Reese was at his desk, feet up, and thinking. ‘Reese’ was what he actually called himself in his own mind, thinking in third person when considering actions to take. ‘Reese should call his contact in the Governor’s office today’… ‘Reese had best be careful what evidence links back to his own office’. It was an odd way of thinking, but he’d found it let him work through some pretty heavy stuff without getting emotionally invested. Things that might leave another man shaking in fear didn’t even faze Harold Reese.
Thinking of himself as ‘Reese’ also allowed him to forget his hated given name of Harold. He considered it a weak name, and hadn’t allowed himself to be called that since his entire adult life. His subordinates called him Director Reese, and never anything else. It was a mistake they might make once, but they never got a second chance. New staff and agents were told before meeting him… if the current people liked them enough to give the warning.
His superiors simply called him ‘Reese’ and left it at that. Very few enjoyed talking to him at all if they could help it, so it wasn’t something that came up often.
Legs crossed and feet up on his desk, a position he’d never allow anyone to see him in, Reese was contemplating his latest opportunity to acquire yet more power. The situation he’d manipulated himself into was one that could give him huge leverage with certain people. Actually, with a certain person, who regarded Reese’s current ‘authority’ as almost beneath contempt. Reese measured power by how many people he controlled. THAT man measured it by nations he could sway. Reese wasn’t even supposed to know on whose behalf this project was happening, but word had come to him quietly. “Get this done right, and it will be rewarding”. If Reese could just work out a way to insert himself on that team permanently, his path to real power would be assured.
Tom Della, on what might have been the last payphone left in the county, 11pm.
Ringing….. again….. and picked up. Franklin Mills answers.
“Short as ever, you old goat. Do you know who this is?” Tom said, hoping the Colonel would get the hint.
“Yes, I do. Team A or Team B?” The Colonel said into the phone, his mind racing. Back in the day his unit had run live scenarios in training. Broken down into groups as needed, Team A were always the good guys, and Team B the opposition. The ‘war games’ got pretty intense at times, with rivalry almost to the extreme. It wasn’t something easily forgotten.
“Team A. Team meeting requested” Tom said, with some relief.
“Here, one week, ten hundred, toast, short side. Understood?”
“Understood. One week, ten hundred, by toast to short side.” Tom hung up the phone after repeating the directions. It really was a simply code, but it only made sense to someone from their old unit. ‘Here’ was obvious, and meant the old man’s home. That wouldn’t have been Tom’s first choice, but the Colonel knew the area best. One week meant a week from the call, and ten hundred gave the time. The kicker was ‘toast’ which gave an offset code for date and time. Only a unit member would have known the toast they gave when gathered to remember fallen family. It referenced the seven levels of hell, so the meeting date and time was offset by 7 days and 7 hours from the stated time.
It meant the actual meeting was the very next morning, at the farm, at 3 am. That was smart, as it left any possible listeners very little time to get in place and observe. It also meant Tom had to hustle and get Guns ASAP, without making a fuss. That was another call, but the contents were pre-arranged already. This was a slightly better security method. “Guns, it’s me. Meet me for a beer. I owe ya one” was all it required. Where and when had already been discussed. They’d meet on a stretch of highway where one of their vehicles could be stashed from sight, and traffic was low. The time, 1am, was also prearranged by code. ‘A beer’ was 1am, ‘couple beers’ was 2 am, and so on.
Tom Della drove down that stretch of road at the appointed time, and didn’t even come to a full stop as the passenger door of his truck opened and Guns Arelsin hopped in. Together they drove in silence, arriving at Colonel Mills farm by 2am. The driveway itself added another 15 minutes of creeping along without lights, driving mostly by feel and sound.
All this secret squirrel BS might be silly, thought Tom…. But maybe it wasn’t. It wasn’t a chance to take.
Quietly parking the truck a good 200 feet from the house, the two men covered the last ground by foot in the moonlight. Empty hands in sight, they walked up the steps and just sat down on the porch. There they waited in silence.
After 20 minutes, a voice from the darkness along the house said “Okay, there’s nobody following you up, and no one anywhere near the house either”. Franklin Mills stepped up onto the porch, and reached out his hand. “Thanks for stopping by. Let’s go in the kitchen and tap that coffee pot, shall we?”
When the kitchen light was flicked on, Mills saw Tom as expected, and Guns Arelsin as suspected. “Hell Guns, I knew that was you by your walk!”
“How so?” Guns said to the Colonel.
“Because I couldn’t hear a single step you took, you ghost”. They all chuckled and sat down at the old kitchen table.
“Okay boys, not that I’m not glad to see you… I am…. But what are you doing here? Tom, I got your hint and played the game, but now I’d like to know why”.
“Colonel, Guns and I are here to help. Simple as that.”
Mills didn’t say anything for a while. He’d spent the last couple days trying to think of options, and find resources that really didn’t exist. It’s bloody hard to make plans when there’s nothing and no one to plan with. Now someone was offering a lifeline…. But would it just mean three bodies instead of one?
(To be inserted where appropriate)
Heather listened to the discussion with only half her attention, as an idea was coming together in her mind. A really interesting idea, if she could make it work. The only question was…. Could she get these Neanderthals to understand what she was going to do?
“Wills, I have an idea…..” she broke in. They didn’t notice, and went on with their discussion as if she had never spoken. This was probably a mistake on their part.
“5…” she said, as her fingers flew over the keyboard in front of her. The men kept talking.
“4…” and with a small flourish…
“3…” she gently pressed the ‘enter’ key.
“2….1…” and her hand moved to cover her ears as the sound system in the room suddenly came on without warning. Pumping enough wattage to challenge the integrity of the speakers, Disturbed’s ‘Down with the Sickness’ let loose with ear splitting rage. Mere seconds in, the men had covered their ears and turned to her with faces showing pain and confusion.
Heather reached down and lightly touched a key, and the music quickly faded away. She gave them a moment to uncover their ears and take a deep breath, but not nearly enough time to start complaining. Standing up, she looked at them coldly. “Gentlemen, you are in my home. MY HOME! When I speak here, you will damn well shut up and listen, or you can GET THE FUCK OUT RIGHT NOW! Do you understand me? Are we clear? You will signify acceptance of this condition by nodding your heads and KEEPING YOUR SHIT LEAKING MOUTHS SHUT for a moment! AM I CLEAR?”
Dumbfounded at the shear drill sergeant force of her statement, the men nodded yes. Guns looking like he was going to say something, but Tom quickly stepped on his foot under the table and ground it beneath his heel. Guns got the message. He was looking at Heather with newfound respect. Quietly looking…. But looking.
Going on in her normal mild voice, Heather began to explain her thought. “Now that I have your attention….”
She laid out the bones of her idea, which came down to the basic ‘confusion to our enemies’ gambit, although taken to new levels. She knew the agency relied on technology, and relied on it heavily. From the moment an employee hit the parking lot, they were tracked via the transponder in the fat ID card they were required to wear on a lanyard. To enter the building required the ID, and a code sequence individual to each employee. To move around the building required the ID. Accessing any part of the computer system meant having the ID within RFID scanning range of the network. The computer monitored everything, usually quietly in the background.
More centralized every year, the agency heads were actively working to narrow control of the entire outfit down to just a few people. They were doing this through the tech. Everything their people did was monitored, even their lunch choices. Not a phone call got made, a file accessed, a door opened, or even a paycheck sent…. Without the system having final say. Agents got their assignments through the system and reported through the system. They had learned not to ask questions because there usually wasn’t anyone to ask them of. Disturbing one of the agency heads could be…. Troubling… to one’s career. Questioning Director Reese could turn out very badly indeed. Mostly, the employees at the agency just accepted the system and kept their mouths shut.
This obviously gave the agency heads tight control, but it also left the outfit extremely rigid. People did what they were told, didn’t question orders, and only thought for themselves within very controlled parameters.
Heather knew exactly how the system worked, because she led the design on it. She also had nearly complete access through her own backdoors inserted during the system build. The thing was…. Access to observe was one thing, but going in to issue commands was another thing entirely. It raised the potential of discovery exponentially, and Heather knew discovery might mean elimination.
So… she laid out some options to the team.
“First and foremost, I’m not going to do anything I think might get me killed. That means anything that puts me in the spotlight. You guys might be hot shit on a battlefield, but those assholes can make people vanish down a black hole.” She paused while watching their faces, waiting for acquiescence.
“What I can do is take some small action, or maybe a couple. Nothing large, and nothing repeated. Both will bring on the dogs and the system will become ineffective for our needs. They simply can’t know I was there, or it won’t work. Oh, and I’ll be dead, which I’m allergic to.”
Colonel Wills understood the concept of disrupting an enemy’s backfield. He’d used it himself on too many occasions to count. Even the smallest irritations can build up to totally disrupt the opposition. On covert reconnaissance operations, he’d had his boys quietly place magazines of ammunition where they could be found. Looking as if some passing troop had dropped it, they were invariable snagged by the first person seeing it. The thing is, these magazines sometimes had a special round of ammunition placed in the stack, filled with enough fast burning smokeless powder to burst the chamber of which ever luckless enemy soldier fired it. Not blow the rifle to pieces, but certainly enough to destroy it and injure the soldier. The net effect was the enemy grunts couldn’t trust their own weapons, and didn’t want to use them if they could help it.
What Heather was proposing was the IT version of guerrilla tactics. Disruption through keystrokes and by moving bytes around computers. The Colonel didn’t really understand how she would do this, but he absolutely understood what the results could be.
“Maam, please tell me what specifically you have in mind” he said.
Maam? Heather thought to herself…. Jesus, this guy was archaic. “I don’t want them to know I was there, and I don’t want them to think their system is compromised. That means a small change, one that might be taken for a glitch. No IT system is perfect. They all glitch, all the time. Most people don’t notice because they don’t think clear enough to see what’s happening.”
“And your idea Maam?” Colonel Wills said, patiently.
“The employees are trained to follow orders that come through the system, and not question them. Most of the time they have no idea who is even giving them the orders, or why. We can use that weakness. I’ll simply change the status of one of their employees from what it currently is, and make it return query as PNG. This means ‘Persona Non Grata’, blacklisted. This employee won’t be able to open doors, use a computer, or even get a paycheck. He’ll set off security alarms every time he walks through a door or even parks his car in the parking lot. His fellow employees will be ordered by the system to ignore him, even report him when seen.”
“And why will this happening to one employee help us?” replied the Colonel, as he tried to picture how this would hamper the Agency goons.
“Because… the employee I’m going to PNG is Director Reese, and he’s going to do our work for us. Nothing he says or does will go smoothly. He will be in a battle against his own agencies policies, and at his level it will take simultaneous agreement by the entire senior staff in a meeting to get him re-instated in the system”.
‘Damn’…. Thought every man in the room, as they watched Colonel Wills think it over. “I don’t see a downside we can’t handle, and the potential for disruption on the short term is excellent. Do it!”
“The ‘downside’ is I might be spotlighted, and marked for a tomb. Fuck you very much, but I take that seriously! What do you mean ‘no downside you can’t handle’? What are you going to do to protect me?” Heather said as she glared at the colonel.
“Well, to start with, we kill any sumbitch who tries it. That is MY field of expertise young lady, and I’m very… very good at it.”
She believed him, as much as she ever believed any other human, and that wasn’t much. But, she didn’t have much choice if she was going to survive. “The Director is going to have a really bad Monday. Epically bad”.