The Warehouse-DMS Field Office
June 15, 12:40 a.m. EST
The Department of Military Sciences maintained eleven active field offices within the continental United States. The Baltimore field office was the seventh office to be established, and it occupied a warehouse once used by a terrorist cell to prepare for the launch of a global pandemic. Mr. Church had repurposed it and outfitted it with the very latest in anti- and counterterrorism technologies. A staff of one hundred and sixty-three people worked at the Warehouse, including two full field teams, Alpha and Echo.
The TOC-Tactical Operations Center-was not as grand as the one at the main headquarters in the Hangar at Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn, but to Rudy Sanchez it was dazzling. The TOC was the heart of the Warehouse, a command center filled with computers and control consoles whose purpose Rudy could only guess at. He was a medical doctor and psychiatrist, but his knowledge of advanced tactical computer systems was nil. He was fine with that. Standing and watching as the technicians and officers worked gave him a chance to observe the staff under a variety of stressful conditions, and that was useful for him in his job as chief psychologist for the DMS.
At the moment, he stood with his finger hooked through the handle of a cup of coffee, watching as Circe O’Tree settled herself into the computer array that was restricted for her private use. The computers formed a three-quarter circle around a leather swivel chair, and there were plasma and holographic screens at various levels. Rudy appreciated the science fiction appearance because he knew two things about it. The first was that the presence of the most cutting-edge technology made Circe-and the other senior staff-feel powerful. They had virtually limitless research materials at their fingertips, all of it backed by the MindReader computer system. It shotgunned confidence into people like Circe. And that was the second thing Rudy knew about it: Mr. Church always provided the most sophisticated and exclusive equipment for that very reason. It was not the only reason he did that, but it was definitely there. A trait of a man who manipulated everyone around him in order to coax from them the highest possible levels of confidence, personal power, and mission excellence.
Rudy sipped his coffee. The coffee was first rate too. Everything here was, and that was part of Church’s method. Treat everyone with the highest respect, provide them with things of quality, and demonstrably respect their opinions. The result was that the DMS staff tended to operate at a level of efficiency that was statistically freakish. Rudy felt it in himself, and he knew that Joe did too. Joe’s track record of amazing field work owed as much to Church as it did to Joe’s own exceptional nature.
He leaned a hip against the curved row of computers that surrounded Circe and watched her work. She logged on to the server and went through several levels of security in order to log into the MindReader network.
“I’m in,” she announced and then patted the chair next to hers. “Have a seat. This might take some time… but don’t touch anything.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it,” said Rudy with a smile as he slid into the companion chair. He cupped his hands around his mug-which had the olive-drab Echo Team logo on it-and watched as Circe filled the screens with lists of data.
“What is all that?” asked Rudy.
“The materials from Joe’s flash drive.” She peered at it for a while, frowning and occasionally shaking her head. “Lot of junk here.”
“Joe said that the agent swallowed it. Stomach acids and all that…”
But Circe said nothing. She chewed her lower lip as her eyes flicked over the information, and all the time her fingers were busy on the keys.
Weapons of mass destruction and the people who chose to use them were the core of her field of study, and that field had roots buried in history, religion, folklore, literature, psychology, and other fields. It was her particular genius that she could see connections between those disparate disciplines and then collate them into a cohesive profile. She worked in silence with an expression of ferocious interest on her lovely face.
Rudy studied it too, though much of the information was highly technical data on nuclear devices. Aside from that, he was not a field agent and despite the months he’d been with the DMS, he had yet to become inured to such words as “nukes” being thrown around as if they were a normal part of everyday life. It hurt him that this was a part of his life, and more so that it was part of the lives of the people he cared about.
Then suddenly everything seemed to jolt to a stop. While Circe was opening a file filled with random surveillance photos, one image hit them both like punches to the heart.
A big man, dressed in expensive clothes, stood with his head bowed in conversation with a smaller and much younger man. The image was labeled “Hugo Vox and unknown companion.”
“God,” murmured Circe in a small, hurt voice.
Rudy reached out to take Circe’s hand.
“No,” she said. “I’m okay.”
It was a lie, though, and they both knew it. Rudy knew it better than anyone. Whenever Vox’s name came up, Circe’s lovely face took on a haggard look, like a prisoner who had been too long away from sunlight and clean air. Aside from the damage Vox and the Seven Kings had done to the world, and the betrayal of Church, he had also been like an uncle to Circe. She had worked for him at his counterterrorism training facility, Terror Town, for years. It was Vox, rather than her own estranged father, to whom Circe went with personal and career problems. Rudy knew that the hurt and betrayal she felt would take years to heal, if it ever did.
Circe pounded the arms of her chair. “Goddamn it, Rudy! It’s not fair.”
“I know, querida. We all feel betrayed.” He gave her hand a gentle squeeze. “You most of all.”
“Me and Dad.” She said this very quietly so that no one else in the TOC could hear. Even so, it made Rudy feel odd.
Even now, after months of being a part of Circe’s life, Rudy still had a hard time connecting the austere and mysterious Mr. Church with anyone’s father. Let alone a “Dad.” Joe privately referred to Church as Daddy Darth, a phrase that would assuredly not play well with the man himself.
Circe sniffed and wiped a tear from the corner of one eye. Rudy picked up her hand and kissed it.
“I hate like all fuck to intrude on this chick-flick moment.”
They looked up to see a woman’s face smiling sourly at them from one of the holographic screens. Middle-aged, black, wearing chunky designer jewelry and a Caribbean-print dashiki. Her dreadlocks were threaded with gray, and she wore granny glasses perched on her blunt nose. When she spoke, however, her accent was pure Brooklyn. Aunt Sallie, Mr. Church’s second in command.
“Don’t fret, Tia,” soothed Rudy, “you know my heart belongs only to you.”
“Nice try,” said Aunt Sallie, “but flattery won’t get you a threesome.”
“A- hem, ” growled Circe softly.
Laughing, Aunt Sallie said, “Okay, kids, let’s have first impressions. Did you find anything?”
“This information is recovered from a damaged flash drive, right?” asked Circe. “This is everything?”
“Yes,” agreed Aunt Sallie.
“Do we have the actual drive in hand?”
“Ledger’s sending it.”
“And we’re absolutely sure this flash drive is genuine?”
“We’re not sure of anything.” Aunt Sallie’s eyes narrowed. “What are you thinking, girl?”
“I hesitate to use the word ‘bullshit,’ but-”
“But it fits?” finished Auntie.
Circe’s eyes were hard. “Yes.”