Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Episode Eleven: Tonight's The Night

Are upholding your principles worth it if it means sacrificing everything you value?”- Persian philosopher Farhad Khamid, “The Quest For Truth” (1689)

November 29, 2015,
23:05 local time,
Carter Downey’s House,
Raith, Birea

The doorbell rang and Carter Downey sprang from his couch. He was a grizzly, pasty figure who was muscular but portly, with a full, greying beard and long bushy hair that was a testament to the trials and tribulations his lonely 51 years had given him. He caved in to the exhortations of the Birean matchmakers and his own friends’ glowing reviews and decided to buy a wife for himself. He picked a woman who, in his view looked like a supermodel, and, according to the matchmaker, was a woman who liked pasty Irish guys like himself (as Carter’s grandparents were from Limerick) and loved to cook. The matchmaker also assured him that the woman in question was 45, though he thought that was a stretch given her looks.

When Carter answered the door he was underwhelmed by what he saw.

“So they ring the doorbell and just leave me this giant box,” he said after shaking his head, his voice a gruff baritone, “and nobody here to help me bring it in. £50,000 and they can’t be bothered to give me some service.” After walking up to the box, left at the end of his driveway, he then noticed a keypad that wrapped itself around one side of the box, and remembered the vendor telling him he needed to punch in a code before the box opened. He pulled out his phone and entered the code, revealing the contents inside.

“Well, well,” he said with an ear to ear grin. “They were right. She’s a spitting image of Claudia Schiffer.” The woman was tall and slender but shapely, with wavy blonde hair that laid down nicely on her ivory skin. She was chained, spread-eagle, inside the box fully nude, and was still under the effects of the sedative she was given when Carter opened the box. He grinned again before grabbing the keys to the chains- tucked behind the keypad- and freed her of her bonds before picking her up and carefully bringing her inside, leaving the box outside as per the vendor’s instructions.

After locking the door, Carter then carried the woman in his arms up the stairs and into his bedroom, still grinning with anticipation with every step that he took.

Maybe Angus was right, thought Carter to himself after laying the woman down on the bed spread eagle and chaining her wrists and ankles to the bedposts and affixing a ball gag to her mouth. This matchmaking thing really can pay off. I never thought I could get exactly what I wanted, but…here I am!

It was here that the woman started to wake up from her sedative, causing her to jump once she realized what was going on. She darted her head back and forth, trying to desperately to free herself from her bonds, but Carter adjusted them well enough that it would be a fruitless task. The woman, once she realized this, looked Carter straight in the eyes and was gripped with fear, her body noticeably trembling as she wondered what Carter was going to do.

“Shhh, relax,” said Carter slowly but calmly as he undid he belt and took off his clothes. “I’m going to be loving you for a very long time, so I’m going to treat you very well.” He then got on top of her and started to nibble at her jaw, before setting himself right on top of her and holding her body right next to his as he enjoyed nibbling away at her neck.

As he continued enjoying her body with his hands and his mouth, he couldn’t help but again think of his remarkable luck. She really is everything I could ask for, he thought as he revelled in the woman. Her features are perfect to play with, and I could go all night like this…oh man, none of my other girlfriends could have compared to this, none of them!

Eventually he was sufficiently aroused, allowing him to have sex with her. This was the moment he truly cherished, and did everything he could to enjoy the moment for as long as possible. When he was finished, he dismounted with glee, a full, satisfied smile emanating from his now relieved demeanour. He went to the bathroom and looked in the mirror, again smiling with his heart contended.

Man, I can’t wait to be able to get her out of those chains, he thought to himself. He remembered the instructions from the matchmaker, telling him the first night at least required her to be chained to the bed because the slave would not have been “acquainted” with her new surroundings, although the instructions suggested a minimum of a week, with another month of “looser” chains so that she could regain the full mobility of her limbs. It also told him various mind control techniques he would have to use in order for his slave to gain his trust and feel compelled that she could not leave his house, which would then allow Carter to condition her to eventually become his wife.

It would be a lot of work, but for Carter, he felt it was worth it. The slave he acquired was just so perfect for him.

Interrupting his thoughts was the loud wailing of his slave, who, now overcome with the emotions over what happened to her, was crying uncontrollably. He remembered the instructions and grabbed his belt, since the matchmaker told him that the slave crying within the first night was inevitable, and only violence would stop it. He stomped his way to the room, wrapping his belt into a whip, and was ready to strike when emotions got the better of him.

He saw a scar that ran up her arm underneath her forearm, which reminded Carter of his own suicide attempt out of loneliness.

Carter, he thought to himself, what have you done? Look at her…she tried to kill herself. Just like you. Only you’ve got a life of your own to turn to…what kind of life does she have? You KNOW that no matter what, the life she will lead with you will never be her own- is your own happiness worth knowing the other person will never truly be happy?

He put down the belt and stood there, sighing heavily and hanging his head in shame. As she continued to cry he began to get tears himself, so he walked out of the room to stop himself from losing his composure. Knowing he didn’t have any clothes for her, he did the next best thing and grabbed his overcoat, which would at least give her limbs some mobility, and brought it upstairs for her.

“We need to talk,” he said, his tone getting urgent. “Promise me you’re not going to run away.” The woman shook her head for “yes”, which made Carter smile and move to undo her bonds. She then grabbed the overcoat and, since her limbs were still limber because of her lengthy sedation and restraint, Carter helped her down the stairs before seating her in a chair. He then went to the kitchen and fixed her a hot cup of tea which he brought out for her.

“Tea helps me relax,” Carter said. “I don’t know much about you but it’s the best I can do until I do.” The woman grabbed the teacup and sipped it casually, grateful that she was no longer restrained.

“Listen,” said Carter, getting sombre. “This ain’t some mind control trick I’m pulling…just thought I’d throw that out there.” He let out another heavy sigh before continuing. “You’re probably very messed up right now and I just made it worse…look, I know there’s no words or actions that can truly convey how sorry I am, but I’ll at least start by saying it outright- I’m sorry. I want to do everything I can to help you out and catch the men who did this to you, but all in due time. Before we start, can I at least get your name?”

November 28, 2015,
12:00 local time,
FBII Headquarters,
Buffalo, Roman New York

“All right,” said Foederatio Borealis Imperiale Indagatores (FBII) Senior Agent and Antivirus Task Force (AVTF) Chief Galla Claudia as she and her guest, criminal informant Danforth Grayson, took their seats in Claudia’s office. “I had a look at your information about The Revenant.”
“Oh?” Grayson said, his eyes widening.
“If you look at the pictures.” Claudia paused to put down the picture of The Bactrian taken by her other criminal informant Max Collins just over a month prior alongside other known pictures of The Revenant, “you’ll see that The Revenant is, indeed, the same person.”
Grayson was disappointed, his face not hiding it. “I kind of already knew that.”
“That’s not what’s interesting.” Claudia then put down a picture of security footage obtained from Salt Lake City, where rumblings of The Revenant surfaced just after Utah reversed its water bottle ban. “It’s hard to tell because the footage is grainy, but you can make out just slightly that The Revenant that struck Utah has a noticeably darker skin colour than the one in Illinois. In Illinois, you were dealing with a Bactrian. In Utah, this person appears South American, and because her skin is so dark, likely Bolivian.”
“Bolivian, eh?”
“I know...doesn’t narrow it down very much...but, at least we can say that we’ve shown that this case is now understanding it’s about catching two people instead of one.”
Grayson nodded his head slowly and pondered the thought. “Two Revenants...interesting. They’ve never had that before.”
“Which means we need to figure out why they’re doing that now.”

November 30, 2015,
12:35 local time,
Carter Downey’s House,
Raith, Birea

“My name is Angelica Pankewicz,” said Carter’s slave, her thick Polish accent coming through as she spoke. “I used to live in Alberta, in Wood Buffalo…I had an abusive husband, and, in 2010 I left him and moved to a women’s shelter, where I was told I would be taken care of and that my husband could not find me. Two years I was there, then, one day, I felt a needle in my arm as I was sleeping. The next thing I knew, I was on a barge, sailing away to a place I didn’t know, before being holed up like an animal inside a cage. The place was dark and damp, with the guards walking around to check on us regularly and keep us in line. We never did go outside, and most of the time we only slept because of the needles…eventually I lost track of time. I couldn’t even tell you what year it was right now.”
“It’s 2015, Angelica,” said Carter.
“Oh man…wow.” Angelica’s eyes blinked wildly as she took a sip of her tea.
“You’re in pretty good physical health though, I gotta say.”
“Yeah...doctors came in and examined us.” She took a deep breath before summoning the strength to continue. “They also subjected us to various exercises and other training programs...we cleaned, cooked, organized, took care of babies.”
Carter nodded his head, listening intently. “Basically you learned how to be a housewife.”
Angelica took another deep breath before soldiering on. “Not just that...every week we were subjected to the ‘house’ of a different male, and ordered to do everything he wanted, being subjected to various different punishments if we didn’t follow along. We were even conditioned on being raped and/or just being beaten for fun...but the worst...” Angelica then began to cry before Carter clutched her hand and told her she was doing great, which allowed for a deep breath and Angelica summoning the strength to continue. “The worst was the mind control...the ‘good’ women, the ones who were obedient and rarely ever questioned what our trainers asked of us, were given privileges, like being able to walk outside and actually sleep in beds, while the rest of the women were holed up in the cages with some suffering terrible beatings.” Angelica’s voice then cracked as tears again formed in her eyes. “We learned very quickly that if we were to survive, we had to be good, obedient housewives...it’s all so degrading.”

Angelica then broke down crying, collapsing her head into her arms against the table. Carter looked at her, stunned at what he just heard. He couldn’t believe that Birean society had come to this, where women were reduced to the mere playthings of their male masters. Sure, Nathanism was about subservience, but it was also about dignity and respect, and there was nothing dignified about what Angelica had gone through. “A man leads, not bosses” was what he always felt, but peer pressure kept him from realizing this.

“Listen, Angelica,” he said after squeezing her hand. “I’m going to help you. I want you to be able to go home...lead the life you deserve to have. I don’t care if it’s not with me...the only thing I care about is your happiness and I don’t want you to be a slave anymore. I may have been lonely my whole life but that’s nothing compared to what you’ve been going through...and if there’s one thing I will not be, are those monsters my ‘friends’ have become.

“I have a family member who’s a Roman citizen...she can help you get on your feet and start a new life in Roman territory, complete with a great job. You can fly out tomorrow if you’d like.”

“You’d…you’d do that?” said Angelica, stunned by what Carter had told her.
“Of course I would,” said Carter without hesitation. His tone became more urgent as he continued speaking, with tears forming in his eyes. “If I can save just one woman…one woman…from those bastards who think they’re humans, let alone my countryman, then by golly I’ll do whatever it takes. You have my word.”

“No,” Angelica said, seeing the passion and sincerity in Carter’s voice. “I want to stay here, at least for a short while. You’re the closest thing I have to a friend, which I haven’t had in decades and I don’t want to lose that. I want to help you, like you have helped me. We can work on this together, save more women.”
“OK,” Carter said with a warm smile and a knowing nod. “We can do that.”

Later that day, Carter perused his social media accounts, shaking his head in consternation seeing the “happy” photos of his friends. He then came across a private investigation firm, Alpha Associates, who pledged to investigate crimes that the police refused to touch. He reviewed the page and sent them a message, hoping they could direct him on a path to take down the ring once and for all.

December 5, 2015,
23:48 local time,
Abandoned warehouse,
Ogden Dunes, Indiana

“Are you sure about this Fitch?” said Behavioural Analysis Unit member Jason Simeon, recently unretired, to his boss, Aaron “Fitch” Fitchner.
“We have to be,” said Fitchner curtly, driving the FBII sports utility vehicle at full speed.
“I get it,” said BAU teammate Claudio Pucci, Fitch’s unofficial second-in-command, “he needs time to be able to complete his rituals...but we can’t be sure we haven’t run out of time.”
“I’m with Pooch,” said BAU teammate Emily Proctor. “We’re cutting it a bit close this time.”
“It doesn’t matter,” said Fitchner, “We can’t go back on what we did…we have to trust our instincts and the profile…and the profile says that this ritual is extremely complicated…he won’t have enough time to finish it before we get there.”
“Fitch is right,” said BAU teammate Vincent Chestnut, the doughy but spritely 18-year-old whose expansive encyclopaedic knowledge was only rivalled by his expansive waistline. “For the swelling to bend exactly into the shapes he wants them to bend into, it will take 20 minutes. Multiply that by 26 victims and 40 bruises each, and we’re talking about 20,800 minutes of bruising, which is 346 and two thirds hours and 14.4444 days, assuming he never sleeps.”
“So more realistically, a month,” said Fitch, doing his best to keep his composure as the rest of his team- most notably Pucci- rolled their eyes.

Upon arrival at the warehouse, Pucci, Simeon, Proctor and Fitchner all disembarked from the car, as Chestnut- halfway into his box of 60 doughnuts since starting the car ride an hour ago- stayed behind ostensibly to monitor their progress through their body cameras and the infrared imaging of the warehouse. Right behind the BAU was the Special Weapons And Tactics (SWAT) team’s vehicles, with the SWAT soldiers pouring into the compound as soon as they arrived.

Fitchner was first inside, his heart pounding as he quickly moved forward with his head on a swivel staring menacingly into the sightline of his gun. His breathing began to get heavier as he anticipated the showdown with the UnSub, whom the BAU had profiled was a middle aged but determined man with sadistic impulses that was determined to make the FBII’s standoff with the Branch Davidians in 1993 look like “child’s play”. It was this fact that Fitchner kept repeating in his head, knowing that this would be the UnSub’s final play and it meant that the victims ultimately had to be alive.

When he finally came to the door leading to the warehouse’s main holding area, he took a deep breath and momentarily closed his eyes, the finality of his journey having dawned on him. He quickly dismissed thinking about the gravity of the situation any further and burst open the door, deciding he was going to give the UnSub the blaze of glory that he wanted.

Except that, when he got there, all he could see was the decayed, mutilated bodies of the 26 women, all of whom had been dead anywhere between several weeks to a few days. Several who were the first to be killed were decomposed almost beyond recognition- as if the rips and beatings done to their bodies wouldn’t be enough to delay recognition- while the others, though still dismembered, weren’t decomposed enough so that their humanity was completely taken away, though no one body was in one piece.

As soon as he saw the carnage, Fitchner slumped to his knees, his gun falling down in front of him and banging on the floor, which caused a bullet to jam. He was overcome with emotion, crying heavily and audibly, as he tried valiantly to come to terms with what he just saw. The more he thought, the more he sobbed, causing him to bury his head in his hands and bang the floor with his fists in frustration, staying there and continuing his loud crying for quite some time.

Equally dismayed were his teammates, who also had no words to convey the horrors of what they saw. Pucci took his earpiece and slammed it with disgust onto the floor, breaking it on the hard concrete. Proctor could only hold her mouth wide open, shaking her head and putting her hand on her heart before she too was overcome with tears.

Simeon, though, had no expressions other than wearing that weary long face of his whenever he was overcome with disbelief, of which the scene displayed plenty. He took a few deep breaths and pursed his lips before shaking his head and walking towards Pucci.

“How long have they all been dead for?” he said, still trying to make sense of the scene.
“Judging how badly the bodies are decayed,” said Pucci, “We missed this at least by a few days.” Pucci then audibly coughed before grabbing his belly, all in an attempt to stop the nausea from the stench from taking over his body.

“Guys,” said Proctor, looking around and taking a walk down the warehouse floor littered with blood, guts and body parts. “Where are the SWAT guys? We never told them to leave.”
“What are we going to need them for?” said Pucci with consternation. “Eaves clearly isn’t going to be here…he’s done his work.”
“Do you know that he’s gone?” said Simeon with concern.
“He’s not stupid,” said Pucci curtly. “If he left us this, he’s not going to come back and ‘challenge’ the FBII…he’d be long gone. He’s probably sipping some tequila in Hermosillo right now, laughing at how well he ‘fooled’ the FBII.”
“He doesn’t need to get to Hermosillo,” said Simeon with a mocking chuckle, “Cisco, Utah is only 19 hours away.”
“Semantics!” Pucci said, throwing his hands up in disgust. “Fact of the matter is, we lost him.”
“Guys,” said Proctor, exasperated, “arguing now will do nothing. Yeah, this sucks but if we can figure out where he is, at least we can find a way to bring him to justice.”

“Don’t bother,” said Simeon, reading an alert on his phone. “SWAT commander just told me that they picked up Ben Eaves at the construction site he works at in Gary.”
“Work?” said Proctor, surprised. “I thought we profiled that he didn’t work…I mean, he couldn’t work, because he just wouldn’t have the time to well…” Proctor’s voiced trailed off as she turned the attention back to the bodies, “…do all this.”
“Why didn’t they tell us?” said Pucci, putting his hands on his hips. “Those jerks!”
“Glory, maybe?” said Proctor.
“Says here our SWAT guys had a bright young mind who studied the evidence herself and came to a different conclusion than we did,” said Simeon. “Apparently she’s been paying attention to the case and found something we didn’t.”
“Did she say what it was?” Proctor asked.
Simeon sighed. “I’ll find out,” he said. “Just understand that this ride home will be much longer than we’re used to.”

December 5, 2015,
23:58 local time,
Senor Goat’s Pub,
Albuquerque, Desert Republic

Carter surveyed the bar. It struck him how, on a Saturday night, a place like this could be as barren as the Sonora, but here he was, alone with his thoughts, reflecting to himself while enjoying his Cuba Libre and vaguely paying attention to the television that was on just across from the bar rail.

Not that being alone really bothered him. He dealt with people all day, and it felt nice that, for a change, he could have a quiet night to himself with quick bar service instead of having to deal with the incessant din of ignorant youngsters who never knew the meaning of “subtlety” or any kind of manners, with the pack of them preventing him from getting more than a few drinks every hour. Tonight, at least, he could have a few drinks every few minutes, and with all the stresses passed his way, the stings of his drinks came with it the cold satisfaction of bliss.

After another Cuba Libre- a drink he enjoyed, although he always contended he could make them better than anyone else- Carter nonchalantly gazed at the TV, casually reading the byline as it struck a chord with him.

“Anna Rattu,” said Carter, “where do I know that name?” His thoughts were interrupted when the next person took over the news report.

“I understand that the people are very concerned about what happened in Illinois,” said Roman Emperor Valerius IV. “Let me say in no uncertain terms do I condemn this attack, and condemn this attack wholeheartedly…what happened to the Markses was sheer depravity at its finest and will not be tolerated. Believe you me, we will do everything we can to bring the culprit to justice.”

“Yeah,” said Carter to himself, chortling. “Sure you are…just like you’d have America back and running in ten years. Look how that has turned out.”
“Well,” said the bartender, Javier Campos. “The problems in North America are much bigger than he likely thought…I didn’t think we’d ever get back to where we were under Reagan. That was a period long gone after the Second Revolution…you can’t rebuild hundreds of trillions in infrastructure in months or even years. Truth is, we might never get back. I’m just glad there’s someone out there who’s actually caring.” Campos took a look at his credit card reader right next to his cash register and smiled with glee, the reader bought via a small business grant that the Romans under Valerius had made available throughout North America.
“That’s the thing, Javier,” said Carter, his gruff voice getting more energetic. “The guy shouldn’t be making promises he can’t keep…and besides, the Caesar, like the rest of the Romans, like to over-think everything and keep missing the obvious solutions that stare at them right in the face.”
“That may be true,” said Campos calmly. “However, when are we going to take to task all the North American politicians who bicker and argue all day and do nothing except expect a handout from Rome every day? When are we going to hold them accountable? People like Reddick…those are the guys we have to be angry with, not Caesar Valerius, because we’re actually voting for the Presidency. That’s the problem with this society…we always blame someone else for our problems, be it Rome, the Jews, the Hispanics, the Blacks, the Nathanites, the Muslims, the liberals, the conservatives, the Coffee Conspiracy, The Revenant…and it goes on and on. I mean, when are we going to start looking in the mirror?”
Carter let out a deep breath and took a sip of his drink. “You got a point there, partner,” he said. “The good part is…no matter how bad it’s gotten, at least North America is still trying to cling to some hope, however faint, that things are going to get better. It’s not like Europe where everything is in chaos and ruins and everyone’s out for themselves and fighting for the few scraps their ruthless dictators decide to give them…I mean, it’s not like North America’s Elysium, but you’d be hard-pressed to think that Europe isn’t the transplanted Tartarus.”
Campos sighed, his smile replaced with a noticeable grimace. “You know,” he said, “there are times where I think we’re almost at that place here, if we haven’t gotten there already.”
Carter chuckled. “I hear ya.” Carter then pulled out a card and gave it to Campos. “Listen, I signed up with Alpha and was told that if I came here you’d be able to help me find this man. Can you find him?”
“Sure. I know exactly who he is.”

December 7, 2015,
09:12 local time,
FBII Headquarters,
Buffalo, Roman New York

“You know why you’re here,” said FBII Director Lucius Black sternly as Fitchner took his seat after closing the door, “and you know how this is going to go. So don’t give me excuses Aaron...just give me the truth and maybe I’ll go easy on you.”
“Lucius,” said Fitchner, sighing heavily and doing a poor job of hiding his nerves. “I did everything I could...you said it yourself, sometimes you go through a bad streak...maybe that’s what this was.”
Black shook his head and let out a huff. “Seriously, Aaron, is that what you’re going to throw at me? This isn’t just a ‘bad streak’...this is grade school level incompetence. I’m sympathetic towards mistakes...everyone makes them. However, I still expect the job to get done, and when it doesn’t, I want answers.”
“Believe me, I’m just as disappoint-”
Black threw his arms up in the air, letting the files on his desk fly everywhere. “Oh, you’re ‘disappointed’...well that’s great!” Black then got up and paced around the room, his tone getting louder and harsher as he spoke. “Me? I’m more than disappointed...I’m upset. I’m angry. I’m apoplectic. I’m...I’m every kind of synonym for ‘angry’ that’s in the book! And you know what? You should be too. ‘Disappointed’.” Black let out another huff. “What kind of an agent are you?”
“Lucius, I...I...I used, um, the...the wrong word. You know I’m just-”
Black hurled a book towards the floor and stomped his way back towards Fitchner. “Oh you’re ‘just as upset as I am’...well I don’t believe you agent. You just tried to write off the worst massacre in Indiana’s history as just a mere ‘bump in the road’, assuming that tomorrow is just going to be ‘hunky dory’ now isn’t it?”
“Well, Lucius, you yourself said that you can’t let the scope of the incident allow you to forget that an incident is just an incident.”
“Seriously? This isn’t just ‘an incident’...it’s a catastrophe.” Black then got into Fitchner’s face, which caused him to recoil. “26 women were hacked and mutilated! 26! That’s no ‘drop in the bucket’!” Black stepped back and took a few deep breaths to regain his composure, his eyes still wide and seething with anger. “Not that any number would be okay.”
Fitchner continued to sit in stunned silence as Black regained some of his composure.
“Look, if Jeff was killed and the police couldn’t solve it, is that just a ‘mistake’? Doesn’t your own son merit an outrage?”

Fitchner again sat in silence, understanding Black’s point but refusing to allow the conversation get personal.

“Lucius,” Fitchner said before pausing in an attempt to corral the words he needed to say. “If I may, we’ve had cases where the victim count was much higher and you’ve had nothing but praise.”
“That’s because,” said Black after slamming the palms of his hands on the desk with a loud thud, “the deaths caused were beyond your control and your methods managed to save more lives and bring the culprit to justice...in this case, your incompetence allowed Ben Eaves to hack and mutilate women at will right under your noses. I don’t care what the victim count is- that’s inexcusable!”
“We applied our methods the best that we could...we didn’t have much to go on...just the videos of his attacks and those cryptic messages. He left no witnesses.”
“Hogwash Aaron! Hog. Wash. The evidence was right there, in plain sight. The clamp used to rip Jennifer Robinson apart bit by bit bore the badge of RMC, the construction company that won the bid to work on the repairs Interstate 65...and you dismissed it outright, without bothering to share it with the authorities you were supposed to help..”
“I didn’t think the badge was clear enough...so I made that choice.”
“Annika Bjorn thought it was clear enough...as soon as she shared it with the detectives they caught Eaves immediately.”
“How did Bjorn get the tape?”
“She didn’t need to see the tape, moron, she saw it with her own eyes at the warehouse! She texted Vince about it and Vince blew her off, saying you dismissed that lead. She smartly decided to defy you, because she’s not a gloryhound like you guys at the BAU are.”
“I resent that.”
“Oh yeah? Well tell me it’s not different. Show me a case where you guys didn’t take over, shove the local police to the side and then move in on the suspect with your guns blazing, showing a wanton disregard for ethics by taking matters into your own hands if you have to. Just show me one case where that doesn’t happen...just one...I know you can’t do it. You wanted to do it here with Eaves so you could again be the hero and it wound up biting you in the a**.”

Fitchner sat in silence and stared blankly in front of him, letting the gravity of Black’s words sink in.

“I’m putting you and your team under review,” said Black sternly. “You will be required to write reports on every aspect of your cases, and I will follow up on them just to see if you really are crossing your t’s and dotting your i’s. Furthermore, the OPR will drop in and inspect your progress, and you will be required to file periodic reports.”
Fitchner quivered as he talked, tears forming in his eyes. “The Office...of Professional...Responsibility?”
“Yeah...that’s what ‘OPR’ stands for. Thought you knew that.”
“How...how long will it be...for?”
“As long as it takes...which means...you better start closing some cases or else you’ll be looking for something else to do.”

December 7, 2015,
09:59 local time,
Pip’s Coffeehouse,
Rockford, Illinois

“Welcome,” said Kwame Arko, heartily speaking extending his arms out and waving them about as if he was inviting the whole crowd to come to him. “Welcome, welcome everyone! Today...today is a new day! Today is a special day! Because today is the day that I am announcing that Pip’s has officially come to North America!”

As thunderous applause roared from the gathered audience- several dozen people, almost all paid actors with the rest being carefully screened members of the press- Arko beamed his pearly white smile wide, basking in the glow of adulation before he continued.

“Yes, yes,” he said as the crowd allowed him to speak. “Today is a bright day, not just for the people of Rockford or Illinois, but North America in general. Because today marks the first of 1,000 stores that will be opening across North America before the end of February, with more planned in the future!” He raised his voice, his baritone getting more emphatic as he continued, loudly gesturing as he spoke, “What this means is that I am bringing you jobs, thousands of jobs, that will revitalize the economy and make North America the proud continent that it should be.” The crowd again cheered loudly for quite some time as Arko continued basking in his glow. “So be proud North America! Be happy for what you’ve gained, because...finally, after all these years, the Phoenix will rise again!”

The crowd let out its loudest cheers of the day as Arko again smiled widely and gestured wildly as he took in the applause, before going into the crowd to receive the appreciative high fives and hugs that he was due. A pretty blonde woman- another actor- even greeted Arko by planting her mouth on his and making out passionately with him, causing Arko to joke that “someone must be really happy they got a job!” which elisted loud belly laughs from the crowd.

After his show of affection, Arko stepped away from the crowd to make a phone call.

“Yes Kwame,” said English Foreign Affairs Minister Jack Kent at the other end of the line. “I saw the feed...wonderful performance you put on today.”
“Why thank you, Jack,” said Arko with a smile. “How’d it go with Reddick?”
“The man’s a stubborn fool...he’s alienated the Romans but refuses to acknowledge our superiority...I do not know why he seems to think he can ‘go it alone’ in this world.”
Arko chuckled. “Yeah, me neither.”
“Don’t worry...we’re going to break him. As I said, his constituent republics are getting restless and it’s only a matter of time before everyone abandons ship. He will be isolated...alone, with no one to turn to...and by the time they can formally do it in 2019, each state will have voted their way out of the Union and into our waiting arms.”
Arko smiled. “That’s good, that’s good.”
“In the meantime, I’m going state to state, securing ballot measures on our behalf. Iowa has promised us support, and so has Ontario. Momentum is clearly on our side.”
“Good work Jack! Anyway, keep me posted...I need as many places as I can to open these coffeeshops...we need to strike soon before the damage to Jimmy Cochrane’s reputation goes away.”
“Don’t worry, I’m on it.”

December 7, 2015,
08:11 local time,
FBII Headquarters,
Buffalo, Roman New York

“Well, no, Agent Rollo,” said Claudia on her phone in her office, “a body shouldn’t do that- that’s not the way the appendage works.” She then paused to hear the reply before offering a response herself. “Thank you...no, no, don’t feel bad...sometimes the answer escapes us because we overthink things, so a fresh set of eyes are necessary...no problem, always glad to help.” She then bid him adieu before hanging up the phone. The success of the AVTF meant many agents came to Claudia and her team to ask for advice, advice that Claudia was only so happy to give. However, it did come at a cost, and it meant that her own cases piled up, but despite her own needs- and her own suspicions that her colleagues were lazy- she felt that if she didn’t help out, her fellow agents would not be too inclined to help her out.

A knock on her door stopped her from moving on to her paperwork.

“Agent Fitchner,” said Claudia, smiling warmly at Fitchner before shaking his hand. “How are you today?”
“Not good,” Fitchner said as he took his seat after closing the door. “The rent-a-goons are after me.”
Claudia grimaced. “Because of the Ogden Dunes Massacre?”
“Yeah...Lucius thought I should have closed it sooner...but...I didn’t...so the OPR is going to review my team.”
“Fitch, you and the BAU have been here for over a decade and a half...you’ve closed numerous cases...I know you’ll be fine.”
“Yes, but I’ve never failed this badly before. Usually we wind up saving the victims...we have a policy of trying to catch them ‘in the act’ because our methods don’t always stand up in court...I mean, how many juries will accept that we deduced the UnSub because he smacked his victims with an uppercut to the jaw because he was remembering what his own father did to his mother? So we’re stuck for evidence...which is why we needed to take our chances.”
“...and your chance ran out this time.”
“Yeah...it did. I should have trusted the chain of command...picked him up at his work area and then secured the search warrants...I mean, we found everything at the factory.”
Claudia let out a heavy sigh, understanding Fitchner’s concern. “Fitch...maybe this is an opportunity to re-evaluate what you’ve been doing and change for the better...you yourself admitted that maybe it’s time to change tactics...so maybe it is time to change tactics.”

Fitchner let out a deep breath before he responded.

“That’s why I’m here,” he said. “I’ve never asked for help on a case before...we’ve always done it, sink or swim, on our own. So I’m coming to you.”
“Oh,” said Claudia with a forced smile. She resisted the urge to joke to Fitch that she seemed to be the only FBII agent able to close a case now, but that wasn’t going to help the situation.
“We have this case...the Coffee Shop Murders, we call them. Three murders, committed by people who used the Jimmy Cochrane’s prize against the winners. They all seem like separate cases...but the similarities are too coincidental to be actually separate.”
“OK.” Claudia nodded her head understanding the case. “So what do you know about the case.”
“Here’s what we’ve got.” Fitchner then pulled out a USB stick with the cases files on Claudia’s desk. “Listen...um.” Fitchner let out a breath before continuing. “When we write the case report, because of this whole review thing, can you leave your name off the report?”

Claudia’s stare became purposeful and her relaxed look soon turned terse.

“Oh,” she said sternly. “So you want me to do the work while you get the glory...I see how this works. Well Fitch, I’m sympathetic to your needs...but I’m not solving this case for you.”

Fitchner angrily took his USB stick.

“I thought you’d be helpful,” he said, curtly.
“I am going to be helpful,” Claudia said firmly. “I am not going to be your slave.”

The two stared at each other for some time before Claudia broke the silence.

“Give me the stick,” said Claudia with a sigh. “Your emotions are getting the better of you, so I’m going to let this go. However, I want to know you’re going to hold your end of the bargain.”
“I will,” said Fitchner, returning the stick somewhat relieved. “You have my word.”

December 8, 2015
10:10 local time,
NAU Presidential Palace,
Buffalo, Roman New York

Joseph Reddick sat calmly at his desk, in front of him his tablet where he was perusing the day’s headlines, and beside him was a bottle of rum, which he drank out of as he was reading. Despite only having read the news for 15 minutes, Reddick had already finished half of the bottle, and was well on his way to finishing it. Keeping order in the quagmire that was North America was tough enough as it is, but after the murder of one of his closest friends, Seth Marks, his spirits hit an all time low.

He took another huge gulp of his rum and muttered the headlines to himself:

“Police use water cannons on homeless protesters in Evansville.”
“Unemployment continues to climb in Oklahoma.”
“Millions march against minimum wage decrease, Governor unmoved.”
“Porn star killed in Calgary, suspect arrested.”
“Wife of jailed rapist continues to insist victim’s story is bogus.”
“Rootes to lay off thousands at Virginia factory.”
“Neglect finally claims Passmore Bridge, motorists stranded.”
“Looting still rampant in Long Beach as power still not restored since Hurricane Pablo.”

Oh gosh, thought Reddick to himself as he read another headline, I can’t believe this- this is the last straw! He downed the rest of his rum which caused him to fall asleep at his desk. When he woke up an hour later, he made a phone call.

“Yep,” he said, after several deep breaths. “Tonight’s the night...yes I’m sure.” He scratched his eyes and wiped the tears that were beginning to form. “I’ve never been more sure of it in my life.”

Reddick said his goodbye and hung up the phone, before having more drink out of his bottle. He then let out a long gasp, feeling the sting of his drink. He then took another drink, gulping down his bottle and finishing it, taking several deep breaths after he did, before the wooziness of his drinking got to him making him fall fast asleep.

December 8, 2015,
11:28 local time,
FBII Headquarters,
Buffalo, Roman New York

“Well that’s not surprising,” said Pucci as he looked at the notice board set up in his floor’s break room, getting there after he nearly tripped over a passed out agent. “I bet it’s Ronnie...he never seems to learn some dogs you just don’t pet.”

Other notices also caught the agent’s eye.

“ ‘Please don’t print anything that is inessential’,” he said, scoffing. “Paper’s inexpensive, why’s that the one thing we always need to cut down on.” He shook his head reading another notice. “Janice needs to stop leaving her groceries in the fridge...we’re not supposed to live here.” He continued reading. “Gotta be Agrippina...how many times have I given her my stapler?” He read another and laughed. “Septimus never quite did make any sense to me...he thinks he’s a prankster but he doesn’t have the flair.”

Finally, one notice caught his eye, taking him aback.

“Those AVTF bastards!” Pucci said loudly, shaking his head in disgust.
“Pooch,” said Chestnut, entering the room. “Is everything okay? I heard you from my desk.” He then waddled his way eyeing the full coffee pot, emptying a container full of sugar into it and drank the resulting coffee straight from the pot.
“President Reddick is getting them to be his security detail for an announcement at the White House! A quick, ten minute job that will have no stress, since the President’s got his own guys anyway...meanwhile, we have to be stuck with those nosy OPR jerks who fuss over one ‘t’ that isn’t crossed. How is that right?”
“Well, they are the only ones closing cases these days...I don’t blame them for getting a plush assignment.”
“They’ve been here for little over a year...I gave my life to the FBII...and this is the thanks I get? Do know how long it took for me to get a plush assignment? Ten years. I’m still waiting on my next one.”

“I’ve never had one,” said Proctor as she walked in, “and I’ve been here since 1998.” She sat down at one of the tables and opened the flask she carried with her in her blazer pocket, downing quite a bit of it’s contents in a few gulps.

“Ah,” said Proctor, letting out a deep but satisfied breath. “That’s what I needed!” She laughed loudly and licked her lips, leaning back in her chair and drinking again from her flask before letting out another sigh of relief.

“Is that the bourbon I gave you?” Pucci asked with a smile.
“It sure is!” Proctor said with excitement. “Gosh, it’s so good!”
“You’re,” said Chestnut with a gasp. “You’re...drinking...on...the...job? With the...OPR...around?”
“Do you think I give one whit what those birdbrains think?” Proctor said, sneering at Chestnut. She then took another drink while Pucci laughed.
“I know, but,” stammered Chesnut, slurping down the pot, “we...we could lose our jobs...you’re taking on a very big risk.”
“Do you think,” said Proctor, her words starting to slur, “do you think I’m worried about zat?”
“Yeah,” said Pucci, “what’s Black going to do? Fire everyone? We’re far from the only ones who’ve failed recently...practically the entire department is under review.”
“Ezatly,” said Proctor with a laugh. “He wouz has no vorkers lev.” She then slumped to the desk laughing, before downing her flask and falling asleep on the table.

Pucci took Proctor’s flask and put it in his pocket before walking to Chestnut.

“Vince,” he said, putting his hand on his shoulder. “There’s a lot of stress going around...morale’s pretty low. Truth is, Galla’s the only one who has closed a case in months. Besides, look around you...do a tour of this floor some time...everyone has their face buried in some kind of drink. It’s not just Emily.”
“I know,” said Chestnut with a sigh. He wanted to mention that it was still wrong to drink on the job but he realized what does it mean to “do the right thing” when no is getting anything right?

December 8, 2015,
13:02 local time,
FBII Headquarters,
Buffalo, Roman New York

“Hi,” said Claudia as Collins walked in to her office. “Close the door.” Collins did so and calmly took his seat.

“Heidi Sanderson’s remains were reportedly found today,” said Claudia, leaning forward with her hands clasped in front of her.
“ ‘Reportedly’?” said Collins. “You don’t believe the report. Any reason why?”
“A few weeks ago, a woman by the name of Regina Goldman contacted me stating that, alongside her police officer friends Tyler Kuang and Ernest Madnis, she had suspicions regarding the legitimacy of the investigation into Sanderson’s disappearance. Madnis and Kuang brought in the butler who worked at the Eternal Sunshine Resort for what they thought was questioning, but their captain, Harvey Monroe, insisted on pinning the crime on him. The butler, Robert Yates, reportedly played along but coded his message to reveal what he actually saw, and this person may be the one who kidnapped Heidi.”
“How do you know that Yates didn’t do it? They have his DNA on Heidi.”
“I took a look at the report…noticed that the remains that were stated to have been Heidi’s are in a state of decomposition that is further along than they would be if Heidi were killed when Monroe said she would be. Furthermore, surveillance footage at the resort shows that Yates didn’t even get close to Heidi’s room- in fact, he worked in another room at the time of Heidi’s abduction.”
“What about Yates’ contact records? Heidi’s kidnapper could still have ties to Yates.”
“As far as I can see through his records he made no contacts with anyone suspicious. He only calls his wife, isn’t on social media…I don’t think he has many friends.”
“It still doesn’t preclude him.”
“Yeah…but I also found out that Monroe received a $20,000 payment from an Arlynali account, which had the same serial number of the account George Walker used.”
“The Soldiers…they paid Monroe to look the other way so they could kidnap Heidi without interference.”
“Looks like it...but, that’s not where it gets interesting.”
Collins’ eyes perked up with interest. “It’s not?”
“Another Arlynali account also paid the Arlynali account that paid Monroe.”
“So someone sold Heidi to the Soldiers, and paid off Monroe to have him frame it as a crime.”
“Hide evidence of the ring.”
“I’m not sure why they would hide it...Birea’s marriage problem is no secret, and ‘those in the know’ sure believe it exists.”
“True, but there must be something about the ring- or just Heidi- that would make her kidnappers take an extra step to frame her kidnapping as a murder.”
“Yes...because why go through all that trouble to hide Heidi’s kidnapping.”
“So...we need to figure out who kidnapped Heidi. If we can find her...well, I think you know how the rest of that sentence goes.”
Collins chuckled. “Oh yes I do...and I can’t wait to get that started.”

December 8, 2015,
20:41 local time,
NAU Presidential Palace,
Buffalo, Roman New York

“Joseph,” said Persephone, kissing Reddick on the lips as she greeted the President in his suite. “We’ve got everything ready. We’ll get the fake body into the Library along with the FBII weaponry as soon as you say the word.”
“Of course,” said Reddick, who let out a euphoric smile and looked happily around the room, with no cares left in the world it seems. “You know...it just feels right doesn’t it?” He took in a deep breath and closed his eyes momentarily, before unleashing another big smile.
“Are,” said Persephone, “are you okay?”
“Me?” Reddick said, grinning with glee. “Why wouldn’t I be?”
“Uh,” said Persephone, giving Reddick a weird look. “If you say so...” Persephone then left the room, which allowed the President’s media team to set up their equipment.

In a few minutes, Reddick would begin his speech, which would announce from his desk. He would be flanked by the AVTF, who were simply there for show as Reddick already had a security team around him.

“I’m glad we got this gig,” said AVTF junior agent Thomas Bartlett, watching as the President set up his desk.
“I guess I am too,” said AVTF senior agent Phineas Malcolm, who was quite bored. “Sure beats having to examine a dead body, I suppose.”

Eventually, Reddick would begin his address, looking right into the camera. It was a rudimentary message to the Union, broadcast live, explaining to its citizens that Reddick was proud of North Americans and was happy that, despite all the hardships the continent was going through, the people still stuck together and helped each other out.

“We could have made this like Europe,” he said with conviction, “where it’s a free-for-all where the people have nothing and fight over every last morsel that becomes available…but we in North America did not. We have said that despite our struggles, we will struggle together, and that gives me hope that one day we will again rise as a formidable force in the world. I want all of you to cling to that hope, and cherish it, for I promise one day it will be realized.

“I have done what I can- now it’s your turn. I want all of you to continue my legacy and do not let this hope go to waste. There are people that want to divide you but do not let them do that- because division only leads to chaos and destroys hope.”

“He sounds like he’s saying goodbye,” said Clauida to herself. She then texted her team to warn them that Reddick might be suicidal but only junior agent Julia Pearl responded, the two men not paying the message any heed.
“I’ll keep an eye on it,” Pearl said, writing back to Claudia.

After Reddick closed his address, Claudia and Pearl walked with him, making small talk as they went, until they came to the Presidential Library. There, the agents were stopped by a Presidential Guard, whose nametag was conspicuously absent and whose body camera was conveniently not working.

“Sorry,” said the Guard, stopping Claudia and Pearl cold. “Just the President enters here.” It was Guard Roberts, whom Claudia had issues with a few years earlier in Toronto but it didn’t strike her then. Roberts, though, clearly remembered her.
“Sir,” said Claudia, wondering about the absence of his nametag, “I have reason to believe the President might hurt himself.”
“Well that’s not really any of your concern,” said Roberts. “Your job was just to provide backup…we’re supposed to do the heavy lifting…we’ve got the President covered.”
“You don’t seem to be troubled at all that the President read a suicide note on air, do you?” said Pearl, giving Roberts a look.
“Suicide note?” said Roberts, scoffing.
“He talked a lot about legacy,” said Pearl, “and even said that he’s ‘done his job’ and now it’s the public’s turn to finish what he started.”
“Sure he did,” said Roberts curtly.
Claudia and Pearl turned their heads to look at each other, puzzled by what Roberts said. “Surely you heard the same speech we did,” said Claudia with her arms folded.
“ ‘Surely you heard the same speech we did’,” replied Roberts, mocking Claudia’s voice.
“Hey!” Claudia said, angrily waving her finger at Roberts, “that’s uncalled for! We’re on the same team!”
Roberts chuckled. “Are we?” he said with a smug smirk.

Just then another Guard, also not wearing a nametag nor having his body camera working, emerged from the Library, whispering in Roberts’ ear.

Pearl suspected something wrong, so she pushed the Guards out of the way and opened the Library doors.

There was Reddick, lying on the ground, motionless, a knife stuck in his chest and a gag on his mouth. Blood was oozing out of his body, but his breathing had stopped and his skin was lightening into a pale husk. Some books had been strewn all over the floor and a small window was open wide, but other than Reddick’s body, the scene was unremarkable.

“Great,” said Roberts. “An assassin broke through. At least we know it wasn’t The Revenant.”
“Doesn’t matter,” said the Library Guard. “The AVTF were supposed to secure the windows and they didn’t do that. Now the President is dead.”
“Um, excuse me?” Pearl said sternly. “We weren’t supposed to do anything- we’re just here for backup, remember? You guys were supposed to handle the windows...not us.”
“Guys,” said Claudia, trying to be a cooler head. “Playing the ‘blame game’ will get us nowhere. First of all, the crime scene shows no obvious signs of a struggle, and the ‘mess’ isn’t very broad or uncontrolled- it seems obvious to me that Reddick committed suicide and tried to cover it up by opening the window- which isn’t big enough for a person to fit through anyway- and throwing some books on the ground. Look at his desk- it’s spotless.”
“What were you doing when Reddick was killed?” Pearl asked, turning to the Library Guard.
“I don’t know,” said the Library Guard, rubbing his head and wincing, though Pearl and Claudia didn’t believe the actions to be genuine. “I got clubbed by the assassin.”
“I’m sure you were,” Claudia said, deadpanning. She examined the room before shaking her head and continuing. “My question now is, what did he expect to gain doing this?”

December 9, 2015,
08:11 local time,
FBII Headquarters,
Buffalo, Roman New York

“I don’t understand this,” said FBII Director Lucius Black in his office to his guest, North American Prefect Eva Avita. “The AVTF would not allow this to happen. Joseph Reddick set them up.”
“I have no reason to believe that,” said Avita curtly. “The Guard’s Report was thorough, and the scenario they have plotted is plausible. The AVTF grasped at straws. Therefore, they need to be held accountable.”
“Seriously, Eva...have you not seen the crime scene? The window our assassin supposedly jumped into is way too small for a human to fit through, unless the human was a dwarf in which case I find it hard to believe Reddick would be overpowered and stabbed, which requires a close proximity. Books were randomly tossed everywhere, instead of in some kind of sequence which you would expect with a struggle. Furthermore, the only blood Reddick shed was after his stabbing, when you’d expect to see it all over the room.”
“The cameras were not operational,” said Avita, “which the Guards said the AVTF were supposed to ensure would operate and they didn’t. They also told me the state of the room was due to them having cleaned up a bit before Claudia and Pearl took their pictures. Lastly, no gloves were found on Reddick’s person and no fingerprints were left on the knife...how could that happen if it was a suicide?”

Black took a deep breath and sighed, trying to think of a response. Before he could, Avita interjected.

“I don’t care what you have to say,” Avita said, tersely. “Here’s what I do know- the President of Illinois is dead, the Kentuckian Government was compromised and now, while he may have had little actual power, the only man capable of keeping this continent’s wits about itself- Reddick- is dead. That was all this year, Lucius, and all due to the failures of the AVTF that you said would stop all this. So don’t go and tell me that they’ve had ‘a rough patch’ or that ‘they need more time’- no, Lucius, their time has run out.”

Black sighed. “Maybe you’re right,” he said. “However, the AVTF was there to stop crimes, not look over corrupt government officials. Louisville was a weird case, but we got the job done. We also couldn’t anticipate The Revenant striking in Illinois- who could? As for Reddick...you know what my position is.”

“Let me put it this way,” said Avita sternly. “If you don’t fire them, I will- and then I’ll fire you. Choose your path wisely.”

December 9, 2015,
09:35 local time,
Outside the FBII Headquarters,
Buffalo, Roman New York

“Hi Galla,” said Black sombrely, greeting Claudia as she exited the shuttle bus that took her from the FBII Clearance Zone at the nearby subway station.
“Hi Lucius,” said Claudia, readjusting her parka, confused at the sight of Black flanked by two security guards. “What’s going on?”
“There’s no easy way for me to say this,” said Black, “but I have to relieve you and your team of your duties.”

“What?” Claudia said, her heart sinking at the news. She wiped her faced and took a deep breath, trying her best to stay composed, but there was no way that she could. “Surely there must be some kind of mistake,” she said through tears. “We...we...we did everything that we could...Lucius...no!” She turned around and buried her head in her hands, which muffled the sounds and hid her tears as she cried, relentlessly.

“Galla,” said Black, overcome with emotions himself. He walked over and put his hand on Claudia’s shoulder. “Galla, I-”
Don’t touch me,” snapped Claudia, shirking away from him. “I don’t know who you are anymore! All I know is that you don’t deserve to comfort me anymore! I know what you did...you sold me out.”
“Galla...”
“Ms. Claudia to you now!”
“Fine...Ms. Claudia...there was nothing I could do. The Presidential Guard Report was thorough...I had no evidence to corroborate what you gave me. The Guards told me they cleaned up the scene and you and Pearl barged in, without authorization I might add, midway through that process. I had no choice.”
“Whatever...you are far from a man of your principles!” She angrily took out her gun and her badge and gave them to Black, who accepted them in stunned silence. Claudia then stormed off to walk back to the shuttle bus, not even looking back at the offices of her former employment.

Black too looked on, forlornly, his heart breaking for Claudia. He had grown fond of her, seeing how tirelessly she worked and how she wouldn’t let things- nor cut corners- in her pursuit of justice. Abrasive, yes, and her maverick tendencies with her fellow law enforcement officers left her with few allies, but few in the competitive LEO world could be expected to be genuinely friendly. He looked on as she left, hoping and wishing that sooner, rather than later, she’d get back on her feet, perhaps one day back at the FBII.

The rest of the firings he did the less formal way through Human Resources, since he wasn’t personally connected to the rest of the AVTF. This would include ending his relationship with Omega, since they were informants with the AVTF. He, though, declined to press any charges or issue any warrants against them, since Omega had been granted immunity for its criminal activities in exchange for participating with the AVTF and figured “firing” them would send them the message that they failed him too. Not that this would really harm Omega in any way- with Collins’ investments and Polina Nikolaevna’s pull as a philanthropist and a (legitimate) business owner herself, the organization was in fine shape. They just could no longer rely on the FBII, which stung a little in terms of pride but Omega wasn’t going to let pride get in the way of their activities.

Shortly after being informed of his “dismissal”, Collins received a phone call.

“Hello?” he said briskly.
“Hi,” said the caller. “I have a Carter Downey who wishes to speak to you.”
“As I expected,” Collins said. “I vetted him yesterday, he can speak to me.”
“Hello?” Carter said, taking over the phone conversation.
“You’ve finally figured it out,” said Collins. “Congratulations, Mr. Downey.”
“Yeah, well, it was a pain in the neck,” said Carter, audibly frustrated. “How many background checks do you really need?”
“As many as we need,” said Collins, curtly.
“Apologies,” said Carter. “I understand...so can you help me or not?”
“Yes I can,” said Collins. “Are you in Buffalo?”
“Yes,” said Carter.
“Meet me in Depew,” said Collins. “Your handler will tell you where to go. You are to arrive alone, though.”
“No problem,” said Carter, relieved but nervous about the cagey nature of the process. “I’m looking forward to our arrangement.”


“Treachery is not a trait of the lowest common denominator- rather, it is a trait of the highest.”- Guardino, “The Power of Reason” (1666)