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|The Prey Series|
Audrey Coil and Blake Winston had been sexting each other for weeks.
Winston's penis, of which Coil had seen perhaps seven or eight iPhone views in a variety of penile moods, was not clearly different than the penises of a dozen other classmates that Coil had seen, circulated through the smart phones operated by girls in their final year at The Claridge School a school with a capital-T in "The," so it wasn't Some Claridge School, it was The Claridge School, of Reston, Virginia.
And Coil suspected that images of her breasts wouldn't exactly be breaking news among selected males of The Claridge School's senior class. She was correct in that. Neither Coil nor Winston was a virgin, having dispensed with that handicap in the fifth form, known in less snotty schools as eleventh grade. They hadn't yet fully engaged with each other, but were edging toward it... though, not yet.
All of that was neither here nor there. Right now, Coil's main preoccupation wasn't with Winston's junk, but with his totally erect Nikon Z6 camera.
There were LED light panels to her left and right, dimmed by photo umbrellas that would kill any harsh shadows. A smaller light sat directly behind her, braced on a toilet seat, providing a rim light that gave a soft glow to her auburn hair. The camera sat on a tripod in the bathroom doorway, with Winston behind it.
Winston, who was seventeen, would someday inherit a bazillion dollars; his father ran a hedge fund with offices in Birmingham, Alabama, and Manhattan. In addition, Winston was good-looking, with dark eyes and dark hair, a square chin and a pale, flawless complexion. He was further distinguished by the fact that he was already operating a profitable after-school business in video production.
At the moment, they were jammed into Coil's bathroom on the second floor of the Coil house in Arlington, Virginia, across the Potomac from Washington, DC.
Coil was dressed in a pale blue translucent chemise that revealed a slice of boob but carefully no nipple, because of the Puritan constraints of Instagram. Coil carried the fleshy pink face and body of a post-pubescent party chick, a tease and a promise, a girl that former President Bill Clinton would have instantly accepted as an intern. The daughter of U.S. Senator Roberta J. "Bob" Coil of Georgia, she was another budding entrepreneur and ran her own blog, which was spread across a number of social media outlets. The blog was called Young'nHot'nDC.
She had four paying sponsors: Macon Cosmo, a line of girly cosmetics out of Macon, Georgia; Sandy Silks, an Atlanta lingerie manufacturer marketing to richie-rich teens and college-age women; LA Psyche, a maker of dance-influenced tops and bottoms for young women, based in Paris (Texas); and Anshiser Aerospace, a defense company that simply wanted to encourage young entrepreneurs with no thought about influencing her mother, a ranking member of the Senate Armed Forces Committee.
Coil turned away from a lighted makeup mirror, looked into the camera lens, smiled and said, "Honest to God, I wouldn't bullshit you girls: this line from Macon blows everything else out of the water. Why? Because the colors are gorgeous and smooth and best of all, they stay put no matter what you do to them." She stuck out a long pink tongue, nearly touched her nose with it, then drew it back over her full upper lip, gave the lens a toothy smile and asked, "Get it?"
"Done," Winston said. "We got it."
"About time," Coil said. That had been the fourth take for two minutes of video.
They went into her bedroom and Coil put on her glasses she never wore them in public sat cross-legged on her bed and reviewed the video on Winston's MacBook Pro. Coil, eyes narrowed in thought, said finally, "Y-e-a-a-a-ah, I think that's got it."
"If they don't get the point from that, they won't get it at all," Winston said. He was standing behind her, looking down at the screen. "The big question is, you're showing quite a bit of titty. Is it gonna pass with Senator Mom?"
"She doesn't care what I show as long as I don't do it in blackface," Coil said. "And how come you say titty? Everybody else says tits or boobs. Titty sounds like an old man."
Winston deepened his Southern accent: "That's what you say when you're from Alabama."
"Oh, yeah," Coil said. "That whole sweet-home thing."
"Mmm. Listen, I need to clean the video up, put a credit on it," Winston said. "I'll email the file to you tonight."
Coil nodded, then frowned and said, "I've been meaning to ask you something. The other day you and Danny were talking about that photo-matching app. I was wondering if my stuff is getting around the net. You know, outside my own blog. Could you..."
"Yeah, take about twelve seconds," Winston said. He sat next to her, took the laptop, grabbed a bunch of frames from the photo shoot that showed Coil's head from different angles, including four that were almost head-on, but with varying expressions. He went to a website called Da'Guerre, dragged the photos into an open window and pressed Return.
He handed the laptop back to Coil as it busied itself with whatever computers do. Winston stood and eased up behind Coil, who leaned the back of her head against his crotch and started slowly rubbing. In one minute, which was about two minutes too soon for Winston, the computer produced a hundred photos of young women who looked an awful lot like Coil, including six that were Coil.
"Are they all mine?" Winston asked. He leaned over her shoulder and touched the screen with a fingernail. "Wait. Not this one... I think that's the yearbook photo from last year. Didn't you put that up on the blog?"
"Yes when I was bitching about how bad they make you look in yearbooks... but what's this?" Coil asked. She reached out at the screen, pointing at one of the photos. "That's me with Molly. We're walking out of school. Where did that come from?"
"We shot that for the blog post about the see-through yoga pants, remember? You guys were talking about seeing some fat chick's ass-crack in the yoga class. It was only up for a day or two."
"Yeah, but... what's this link..."
They followed the link out to a blog called 1919, a primitive piece of work that featured candid photos of what looked like kids walking along different streets, or standing outside what appeared to be schools. A single column of type ran down the left side of the screen, which they ignored for the moment.
Winston said, "What the hell?"
"Yeah, what the hell? How'd that get over here?"
"Who are these other people?" Winston asked.
Coil tapped a different photo and said, "I know that kid. That little kid, that's Senator Cherry's daughter, that's Mrs. Cherry with her. And this one..."
She tapped another photo, "I don't know that kid's name, but his dad is a political bigshot. Maybe in the House. I talked to him at the Congressional baseball game, he was sitting with the families."
"Did you blow him?" A continuing joke; he always asked, she always temporized, as if it were a possibility.
"Not yet," she said.
"Here we go... here's their names..." Winston pointed at an awkwardly placed block of type.
Then they heard, from down below, a garage door rolling up. Coil looked up from the screen and said, "Shit! That's Mom. Open the door a crack."
She pulled off the chemise and Winston took a few seconds to appreciate her breasts as he was opening the bedroom door. They disappeared as she pulled a black Tee-shirt over her head, tucked it into her jeans and said, "Go on over and start taking down the lights. Don't take them all down until she comes in. Let her see you doing it, packing up. Try to do something about your hard-on."
She checked herself for propriety. Then, when they heard a door open at the other end of the house, she shouted, "Mom! Blake and I are in my bedroom."
Senator Coil, a tall, thin, over-caffeinated woman in a blue suit, stuck her head in the bedroom door a moment later. She looked at Winston and then at her daughter, suspicion in her eyes and tone: "What's going on here?"
"Doing a lipstick ad for the blog. We needed to shoot into my makeup mirror. But! We found something really weird..."
The elder Coil may have had more questions about the photo shoot, and more specifically about the rapidly wilting remnants of Winston's erection, if she'd noticed that, but she shut up when Audrey Coil began pointing out the photos on the 1919 blog.
"What the heck... and look at this," Audrey Coil said.
The senator tapped the computer screen, the column of type. "These people... these people are... oh, no."
As the senator from Georgia and her daughter were looking at the photographs, Randy Stokes rolled his broken-ass 2002 Pontiac Firebird into the graveled parking lot of Chuck's Wagon, a crappy country music grill outside of Warrenton, Virginia, an hour's drive west of Arlington.
Stokes had had his problems beer, wine, bourbon, weed, crack, methamphetamine, oxycodone, and a short but violent teen-age romance with paint thinner, none of which he would have done if the country hadn't been overwhelmed with greedy, grasping blacks, Hispanics, Arabs and a whole range of Asians who kept him from his rightful due as a white man. Except for them, he believed, he might have become a lawyer, or a golf pro.
Lately he'd been clean, back working construction; clean except for the beer and Old Crow Bourbon, $7.99 a bottle. Even the Old Crow had adopted the foreign, and therefore unAmerican, 750-milliliter bottle, which was probably invented by the French or some other faggots over there, instead of the traditional American fifth, which actually contained three-tenths of an ounce more whiskey than the 750 milliliter bottle, but at the same price, SO WE'RE BEING SCREWED by this foreign intrusion.
In his opinion.
He'd been told his opinions were stupid, often by people who were bigger, stronger. meaner and smarter than he was, but this was still America, and he had a right to his opinions, didn't he?
Stokes was a short thin man, with short thinning brown hair that he cut himself with a home barbering set that he'd found at a garage sale, for six dollars. It did a good enough job, he thought, but he only had one attachment head for the electric clipper, so his hair was exactly the same length all over his head, all the time. That gave him the aspect of a hedgehog when he took off his coiled-snake, 'Don't Tread On Me' ball cap, which he rarely did.
Other than that, he looked pretty normal, with brown eyes, a short button nose, and a small rosebud mouth which guarded the gray teeth left behind from his adventure with methamphetamine.
Before getting out of his car Stokes collected the pile of Diet Pepsi bottles and Hostess Fruit Pie boxes from the floor of the passenger side, crushed them against his chest so he'd only have to make one trip, and deposited them in the trash can outside the Chuck's Wagon main door. Inside, in the dim light, he spotted Elias Dunn, sitting alone at the bar with a bottle of Budweiser, looking up at the Fox News program on the overhead TV.
"Hey, El," he said, as he slid on a stool two down from the other man. He didn't sit right next to him because that'd seem a little queer.
Dunn looked over at him was that a flash of disdain? and said, "Stokes."
Stokes looked around. There were ten other people in the place, he and Dunn at the short bar, a dozen tables and booths, served by one slow-moving waitress. Chuck's Wagon smelled of microwave everything: barbeque, pasta, pizza, pot pies, anything that could be stored frozen and nuked.
Stokes and Dunn met on a construction job. Dunn was a civil engineer, currently leading a survey crew staking out the streets and drainage for a new subdivision over toward Gainesville. Stokes was a shovel operator the kind of shovel with a wooden handle and had peppered Dunn with questions about his thirteen-thousand-dollar surveyor's total station.
Stokes, it seemed, was an enthusiastic rifleman and was fascinated by the total station, which was an optically-linked computer on a tripod. With a scope and a laser rangefinder, the instruments had replaced the old surveyors transits. They could tell you that you were, say, four hundred and twenty-four yards, two feet, nine and three-eighths inches from your target and could tell you exactly how much higher or lower you were than your target.
After talking to Stokes for a few minutes, out on the job site, Dunn had concluded that even if the other man could pull a trigger, the operation of a total station was beyond his intellectual reach.
Now Stokes waved at the bartender and said, "PBR," and the bartender said, "No offense, Randy, but you got the cash?"
"I do," Stokes said. He pulled a wad of sweaty one-dollar bills from his pocket and laid them on the bar, where they slowly uncurled. "That's eighteen dollars right there."
The bartender walked down the bar to get the beer, and Stokes said to Dunn, "I was over to my sister's place last night and she's got a computer and she showed me that, uh, computer place you were talking about. The one you wrote on the napkin."
Dunn looked back over at him, ran his tongue across the front of his teeth a couple of times, and said, "So, did you read it?" He was vaguely surprised that Stokes hadn't lost the napkin.
"One of them. I didn't understand it all and then my sister shoved the napkin in the garbage, by mistake, and got ketchup and shit all over it. But she'd printed one of the articles so I could read it in bed, and she said we could type part of it back in and search for it. We did that, but the computer went to a whole different place. The article was there, and a whole bunch of other articles, but the biggest thing was pictures of kids walking on the street. Seemed weird to me."
Dunn, who'd only been about nine percent interested in anything Stokes might have to say, because Stokes was a dumbass, found his interest temporarily jacked up to thirty-five percent.
"A different website?"
"Yup. Called itself, uh... 19? No. 1919. With a whole bunch of articles. Including that one you gave me. And the pictures of kids."
"No, no, not porn, just kids walking along," Stokes said. "Some were pretty little, some looked like they were maybe in high school."
"With the article I sent you to?" Dunn asked.
"You know what the website was?"
"Yup. My sister wrote it down." Stokes reached in his hip pocket, found a wadded-up piece of computer paper and spread it on the bar.
Stokes had spent some time in a previous visit to Chuck's Wagon bending Dunn's ear about his rights as a natural born white man and a faithful follower of country music, as well as how his custom-assembled .223 rifle could give you a half-minute of angle all day long.
Dunn had given him the URL of a skinhead site that combined the three the white man stuff, country music and guns, and where you could also buy a bumper sticker that riffed on the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives: "Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms Sounds Like Heaven to Me."
Dunn didn't recognize the name of the website that was written on the crumbled sheet of paper, in purple ink and a woman's handwriting. In fact, there was no website name at all, only a jumble of letters, numbers and symbols that looked like a super-secure password. He took the paper and said, "Thanks. I'll look into it," and when the bartender came back with the PBR, Dunn said, "I'll get this one," and pushed a ten-dollar bill across the bar.
Stokes said, "Well, thank you, big guy. That's real nice. I'll get the next one."
Dunn tipped up his beer, finishing it, and said, "Actually, I have to get home. Got an early job."
"Well, don't fall in no holes," Stokes said.
Dunn was an excellent civil engineer and didn't fall in no holes and didn't appreciate hole-falling humor. He nodded at Stokes, a tight nod everything about him was tight, really tight, screwed-down tight, so fuckin' tight he squeaked when he walked and he marched out of the bar in his high-topped Doc Martens 1460s, and, from Stokes' perspective, disappeared into the afternoon.
The bartender, who was looking up at the titsy chick reading the news on the Fox channel, glanced after him as he went through the door, and muttered to himself, "Asshole."
Dunn drove home, to a neatly kept, two-story house on the edge of Warrenton, for which he'd paid seven hundred thousand dollars. He lived alone, his wife having departed six years earlier, leaving him with a red-striped cat, which, like his wife, eventually disappeared and was not missed. He did miss the eight hundred thousand in savings she'd taken with her, but he did all right, putting twenty percent of his income into savings every year, toward an early retirement.
With his tight black combat boots, his tight jeans, his tapered work shirts, his workout body and blond hair cut in a white sidewall, Dunn looked like a comic-book Nazi. He wasn't a comic-book anything and he definitely was not a Nazi Nazis were more dumb guys like Stokes who went marching around and saluting and carrying shields and baseball bats and generally behaving like fools.
Dunn wasn't a Nazi, but he was a fascist.
He went to political lectures in the evenings, when they caught his interest, and there was always something going on in DC; and he knew a few people and placed some money where he thought it might do political good, used for intelligent publications aimed at influential people. Very carefully placed the money: being known as a fascist would not help business.
After his wife left, Dunn had moved out of the master bedroom and into a smaller one, converting the master into an office and library. When he got home from Chuck's Wagon and his talk with Stokes, he went to his computer and typed in the URL address Stokes' sister had written on the paper. The website popped up: 1919 in large type, and in much smaller type, beneath that, the words, "Thy Honor Is Thy Loyalty."
Dunn immediately recognized the motto as one used by the Nazi SS. At first he ignored the photos on the page and instead flipped through the articles that ran on the website. He recognized several of them from his quiet lurking on neo-Nazi and white supremacist sites.
At first, he didn't understand. There was a space to post responses, but no way to directly address the owners of the site. The articles were routine and all over the place, some from Nazi or KKK fruitcakes, others that might charitably be regarded merely as ultra-conservative. It was one of the worst websites he'd ever seen.
He then turned to the photographs and they mystified him. Pictures of the children of prominent politicians, but nothing to explain why they were there.
Still mystified, he went to his bedroom, stripped off his clothes, pulled on a clean black latex body suit and a pair of ankle socks and walked down to his garage.
The garage had three stalls. He kept his Ford F-150 in one and a Ford Mustang in the middle. His ex-wife, when she was living there, had occupied the third stall with her Lexus, but when she left, he put up a studs-and-sheetrock wall separating his two stalls from the third, painted the walls white and built himself a home gym.
The gym was based around a Peleton bike for cardiovascular exercise, racks of free weights for strength workouts and a wall of mirrors. He rode the bike five days a week for forty minutes or an hour. For the weight work, he'd divided his body's muscle groups in half, and worked each zone three days a week, on alternate days.
He did the bike first, pulling on the biking shoes, putting on the earphones and heart monitor, mounting the bike, bringing up a workout program, then following one of the tight-bodied women on the video screen, who pushed him up hills and more hills, standing, sitting, blowing off five hundred calories, cranking until his leg muscles were screaming at him.
Thinking about that 1919 website.
When he got off the bike, his body pouring sweat, he walked back into the house and drank a protein drink, moved around until the lactic acid had burned off in his legs.
When he was feeling loose and supple again, he went back to the gym, rolled out a yoga mat, set the alarm on his iPhone, sat and closed his eyes and meditated for exactly twenty minutes. When the alarm went off, he rolled onto his stomach, used the iPhone as a timer, and did a "plank" for three minutes, building core strength. That done, he rolled up the mat, and went to the free weights.
Thinking about that website.
The workout took an hour. When he finished, he pulled off the body suit and the Nike weightlifting shoes, and checked himself in the mirror, nude, top to toe, looking for any extraneous, unneeded fat. And, truth be told, he liked looking at himself. He posed, flashing his six-pack and biceps. He was pumped, his muscles inflated and burning again: strong, pale, perfectly cut.
If his ex-wife could see him now, he thought, she'd flop down on her back and spread her legs. Bitch.
He did poses for ten minutes, then walked back through the house to his bedroom, stepped into the attached bath, looked at himself in the mirror for a moment, then masturbated into the sink, watching his own crystalline blue eyes the whole time.
All done, he showered, dried himself, dressed again.
Thinking about the website.
Then in a flash he understood.
The website was a message in a bottle, thrown out to whoever might find it, and might be willing to act on it.
He'd been looking for something like this, he realized. He'd been looking for a long time, without realizing it. Right there, in that cryptic setting, was a whole action plan and an invitation to anyone who could understand it.
He leaned back in his desk chair, staring at the ceiling.
This was it.
He was going in.
Lucas Davenport took a waking breath and rolled over to look at the nightstand clock: 6:55. He dimly remembered setting the alarm for seven o'clock, so he had five minutes. If he turned it off, he might sleep for three hours, so he didn't.
Weather, his wife, was still asleep beside him, which meant that it was the weekend, the only days she slept in. He rolled away from her toward the clock side of the bed, winced from the dull ache in his chest and settled in for the last four minutes, eyes half open, looking up at the ceiling. Trying to nail the exact day of the week: Sunday? Sunday.
On Sunday, he had to get on an airplane. Everything was coming into focus.
Lucas had been shot the previous spring. With September half gone, he was still feeling after-effects; which, he supposed, was better than the alternative. He was working hard to get back in shape, running, lifting, punching a heavy bag. Everybody said how good he looked.
When he checked himself in the mirror, though, he looked gray in his own eyes, and too thin. Not wiry, but something over toward emaciated. His cheekbones had been blunt, and were now knife-edged; the crow's feet at his eyes were like cuts; his watch was too loose at his wrist. He'd lost chunks of the hockey defenseman muscle he'd carried since college and getting it back, at his age, two years past fifty, was tough.
He wanted the weight. The morning scale said he was at 192, and for a cop who enjoyed the occasional fight, two hundred pounds was a good starting point.
Now something was happening in Washington, DC. Whatever it was, it wasn't good, and at the moment he wasn't in top form. Or maybe, his wife suggested, his body was fine, but his brain was still screwed up.
Lucas had been barbequing steaks in his backyard the night before, for a couple of cop friends and their wives, when Elmer Henderson called. Henderson was a U.S. Senator from Minnesota, a former governor, a onetime vice-presidential candidate (he lost) and one of the richest men in the state.
Henderson had a ten-thousand-square-foot cabin on his own private six-hundred-acre lake, staff of six, up in the Northwoods, when he needed something simpler and more primitive than his life in the Twin Cities and Washington, DC. He had a dozen plaid shirts and numerous pairs of carefully ironed and faded jeans for the cabin life, along with several pairs of buffalo-hide loafers. Lucas had once spent a weekend at the cabin and he'd peeked in Henderson's main closet because he was a cop, and therefore somewhat curious, or snoopy, take your pick. Henderson's Jockey shorts, Lucas believed, after a surreptitious inspection, were both ironed and starched.
Henderson also had a smaller, more discreet cabin in Wisconsin, which he called "The Hideout," where he and the other Big Cigars from the Twin Cities cut their political deals. Lucas had been there, as well... cutting a deal.
Lucas was rich himself, but not rich like the people who'd inherited wealth. He didn't assume its presence, because he'd made his money during a time when he wasn't working as a cop. He'd been run out of the Minneapolis police department after he'd beaten a pimp who'd churched-keyed one of his sources. The beating had neither cured the pimp of his inclinations, or the woman of her facial scars, but had made a point that had resonated on Minneapolis streets, at least for a while.
While he was in college, and later, working as a cop, he'd had a sideline as a developer of role-playing games. None of them got as big as Dungeons and Dragons, but they'd sold well enough to buy him a used Porsche 911.
Then computers came along and the in-person role-playing games began to die. That occurred as he was being pushed out of the Minneapolis Police Department. With the new 9-1-1 systems then coming online, it occurred to him that American police departments could use role-playing games for their 9-1-1 systems, giving their personnel practice in responding to emergencies before they had to handle the real thing.
He wrote the simulations, found a college computer freak who could do the programming, and the resulting Davenport Simulations, which he'd sold at exactly the right time, had made him wealthy.
But not rich like Henderson.
As F. Scott Fitzgerald didn't say, but perhaps should have, "The very rich are different than you and I." And as Ernest Hemingway didn't say, but probably would have liked to have said, "Yes, they have more money."
If the exchange had actually occurred, Lucas thought, Fitzgerald would have had the better of it. In his experience, many of the very rich never really touched the sides or the bottom of the world, of life, but were cocooned from it, even when they wound up dead with needles in their arms.
Henderson, ex-governor and current U.S. Senator, was a prime example of the privileges of inherited wealth. Still, he and Lucas were friends on some level, and Henderson had twice been in a position to give Lucas something that he wanted but couldn't get on his own: the authority to hunt.
After Lucas lost his job with Minneapolis, and after he made his money, he'd gotten, with Henderson's support, a political appointment as an agent with the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension and a new badge. When the time ran out on that appointment, Henderson and another U.S. Senator, Porter Smalls, had ushered him into a job as a deputy U.S. Marshal.
And they'd seen to it that he had the freedom to hunt, as long as he performed the occasional political task.
"I'll send a plane," Henderson told Lucas, because of course he would. Sending a plane didn't mean much more to him than giving a cop a cab fare. "In fact, I already sent it, if nobody's screwed up, or my wife didn't sneak off to Manhattan. You need to be here tomorrow morning."
"Tomorrow's Sunday," Lucas said.
"I'll talk to the bishop and tell him you're excused," Henderson said.
"Ah, Jesus, you know I got shot, I'm still in recovery mode..."
"I know all about that," Henderson said. "You weren't hurt so bad you didn't run off to Nevada and kill somebody."
"I didn't kill anybody," Lucas grumbled.
"Okay you managed the killing. Well done, in my opinion. The world has enough cannibals," Henderson said. "Anyway, you're all healed up. My office, tomorrow, one o'clock. That should allow you to sleep in until eight tomorrow morning. Or seven. Whatever."
"Eight? Listen, Elmer, I never..." But Henderson was gone. Here was the rich man's assumption: make a call and the guy shows up on time, with a necktie and polished shoes.
When their guests had departed, and the kids were soundly asleep, and the dishes washed, Lucas and Weather had one of the snarly disagreements common to long-lasting marriages, and they had gone to bed a little angry with each other. The trouble came down to Henderson's request and Lucas' occasional political missions. The argument started there, compounded by Weather's unease with the increasing levels of violence in Lucas' job, and had moved to a more general political dispute.
Weather, a surgeon, was an unabashed liberal. Because they had much more money than they really needed, Weather had freed herself from the usual routine of plastic and micro surgeons. She no longer looked for clients, but spent much of her time going from one hospital to the next, doing necessary surgical repairs on indigent cases.
There was more work of that kind than she could handle and she was constantly exposed to a population that was unable to care for itself including people literally driven into bankruptcy by medical costs, who'd had to choose between eating and medical care.
The American medical system was broken, she thought, and needed to be fixed. She'd gone to a convention of the American Society of Plastic Surgeons in Los Angeles, and had been traumatized by the sight of thousands of street people, including small children, living under bridges and viaducts.
"Worse than anything we had in the Great Depression," she said.
Lucas was not so liberal. He believed that no matter how much money or time you spent on the poor, there'd always be people at the bottom unable to care for themselves, and that was simply a fact to be lived with. Also, some people really needed to be shot, and if only wounded, shot again.
"Your mistake," he'd told Weather, after one beer too many, and to his regret, "is that you characterize everything as a problem. A problem is something that can be solved. Some things aren't problems they're situations. A situation can't be solved, it just is. Medical care is a bottomless hole. We could spend every nickel everyone makes in the country, on medical care, and it still wouldn't be enough. If a guy thinks he's dying and somebody else is paying for all his care, why shouldn't he ask for the very best for the very longest time possible, right into the grave? And they do. We can't afford that, sweetheart."
"We can afford a lot more than we do. You can't possibly think..."
And so on. Snarling, just a bit.
So they'd gone to bed grumpy. Lucas had packed that night, woke, groaning, at 6:55, and lay thinking about getting shot, and about the problems of the street people, until the alarm was ten seconds from erupting. He reached out and clicked it off, rolled over and put his arm around Weather. "Love you, babe."
Weather muttered into her pillow, "Thank you. Let me know when you're out of the bathroom."
"You still pissed off at me?"
"No. I got over it at three o'clock when I realized I was completely right."
"God bless you, Weather. You're a good person."
Lucas got cleaned up, dressed himself in a blue, lightweight wool suit from Figueroa & Prince, a tailor in Washington, with just a bit of extra room on the left-side hip to accommodate his gun. Black oxfords from George Cleverley, a Brioni shirt in pale blue stripes and an Hermes tie completed the ensemble. He checked himself in a three-way mirror and thought that the soft colors of the suit, shirt and tie did nothing but emphasize his grayness, putting colored threads on a scarecrow.
Weather, out of the bathroom and dressed in a tee-shirt and underpants, turned him around and said, "You look great."
"Lucas... you don't have all the weight back yet, but you look good. Really good. Maybe a year or two younger, even..."
Weather rousted the kids from bed and they all had cereal together.
The kids ignored them, mostly, when Weather pushed him on the Washington job: "I think you're dealing with the devil here. Yes, Henderson, he might not actually be the devil himself, but they're Facebook friends. Lucas, he could make you do something crooked."
"No, he couldn't."
"Yes, he can," Weather insisted. "You wouldn't realize it at the time. It's like the old boiling frog story..."
"I don't know that story," Lucas said.
"You put a frog in a pot in cool water and slowly heat it up until it's boiling," Weather explained. "The frog never feels the change in temperature and winds up boiling to death. That's what happens with politicians like Henderson. Or Porter Smalls, for that matter. You get in the pot with them and when you try to get out, you find out you've got a dozen felonies around your neck."
Their son Sam asked, "Can I get a frog?"
In the end, Lucas kissed each of them and was out the door at 7:40, at the fixed-based operator at 7:55, where the jet was ready to roll.
Lucas hated to fly; was frightened of it. He knew all the numbers, how much less likely you were to die in a plane crash than an auto accident or even on a train, but it made no difference. It made no difference because he was not in control of the plane. A friend who was also a shrink had explained that to him, and he'd thought, kiss my ass, but hadn't said it aloud because the shrink was also a nun he'd known since childhood.
In any case, after two hours and fifty minutes of abject fear, the plane had landed safely and he was climbing into a taxi cab at National, across the Potomac from the capital.
The cabbie looked over his shoulder, checked his suit, shirt and tie: "You a bigshot?"
"No. I'm a flunky."
"Huh. You don't have that flunky look," the cabbie said.
"I do carry a gun," Lucas said.
"That's disturbing. I don't have much cash."
"Yeah, well, I'm a U.S. marshal."
"Okay, then. Say, how about them Nationals?" the cabbie asked, as they pulled into traffic.
"I don't want to hear about it," Lucas said. "You make a living by beating up on teams like the Marlins. That's like beating up on a troop of Girl Scouts."
"Okay, so you don't want to talk."
"I don't mind talking, but let's talk about something interesting. How's the President doing?"
"Ah, man..." Then he went on for a while, at two hundred words a minute, sputtering through the capital traffic.
Senator Henderson's office had called the Watergate and had emphasized that an early check-in was no problem, and the hotel had agreed that it really wasn't any kind of a problem at all. A desk clerk with a tennis player's tan and perfect white teeth told Lucas that a car was waiting in the hotel parking garage and should he summon it?
"I'll call," Lucas said, and headed up to his room.
He unpacked, hung another suit and two sport coats in the closet, with five shirts, washed his face and hands, and called for the car, which turned out to be a Music Express limo and he thought, as he climbed into the back seat, there'd be no government record of this pick-up. The driver took him through a Starbucks on E Street, where Lucas got a blueberry muffin, a hot chocolate and a Washington Post. A quick look at the Post suggested nothing that Henderson might want to talk to him about.
Lucas had the driver drop him three blocks from the Senate Office Building and tipped him twenty bucks for his wait and the ride. The driver and limo would hover during the meeting and pick him up afterwards.
The day was warm with an icy-bright-blue sky overhead, a good September midday in Washington, DC, heading toward a high in the low 80s. As he walked along Constitution Avenue, still sipping on the hot chocolate, the Post rolled and tucked under his arm, a couple of women smiled at him; or perhaps at his suit. Anyway, he smiled back. Joggers were out in force, and young women pushing strollers and boys with dogs.
One of the nannies tracked him with her eyes as they passed, and nodded.
Maybe, he thought, he wasn't looking that bad.
The Russell Senate Office Building did look bad, like America's largest old post office, the aging limestone façade now resembling poorly laid concrete block. Lucas checked through security, where he was met by one of Henderson's staffers, the security process eased by the fact that Lucas' .40-caliber Walther PPQ was back in the hotel safe.
The staffer, whose name Lucas thought was Jaydn, or possibly Jared or Jordon or Jeremy he didn't quite catch it and who was wearing jeans, a nubby white-cotton shirt open at the throat, and cordovan loafers (no socks) led him through the building to Henderson's office and then to the inner office, where Henderson was waiting with the other Minnesota senator, Porter Smalls, and an FBI agent named Jane Chase.
As Lucas was ushered in, Henderson looked at the aide and said, "Hey, Jasper, thanks I'll catch you later."
In other words, "Don't let the door hit you in the ass." When Jasper was gone, they all shook hands and Lucas asked, "If Jane's here, why am I?"
"We'll explain that," Smalls said. "Jane's here to outline what the FBI has done so far and why they can't do much more."
"Why can't you do much more?" Lucas asked Chase, as they all settled into chairs.
"Because no crime has been committed," Chase said. "Not yet."
"And because word of what was going on would inevitably leak, even with Jane's thumb in the dike," Henderson added.
Henderson was a tall, slender, fair-complected man, with longish blond hair and blond eyebrows, who'd hoped that the vice presidency might be a stepping stone to the top job. He and the presidential candidate had lost their race, although they'd won the majority of the popular vote. He was a Democrat and liberal even for that party.
Porter Small's stature reflected his name: he was short, five-seven or five-eight, thin, white-haired and tough as a lugnut. He was a Republican and extremely conservative, though he and Henderson were longtime friends, going back to their wealthy childhoods in Minnesota. Lucas had worked with both of them.
Jane Chase was an FBI bureaucrat, an effective one. She'd been shot in the leg the last time Lucas had been in DC. She was middle-sized, outfitted in a navy pantsuit, carefully coifed and dressed, attractive but not cute didn't want to get above yourself in the federal bureaucracy and very smart.
Lucas: "Okay. What's going on?"
Henderson and Smalls looked at Chase, who said, "I trust nothing here is being recorded. Or noted. Even on paper."
"Absolutely not," Henderson said. "Say what you think."
Chase turned to Lucas: "Senator Roberta Coil..."
"Never heard of her," Lucas interjected.
"... of Georgia, has an ambitious seventeen-year-old daughter named Audrey who runs her own blog called Young'nHot'nDC. She has several sponsors who pay her to hustle their products cosmetics, lingerie, yoga togs, fighter jets and so on."
"Fighter jets?" Somehow, fighter jets seemed out of place on the list of sponsors.
"Her mother's on the Senate Armed Forces committee," Henderson said.
Chase: "Anyway, Audrey has a friend named Blake Winston. Blake wants to be a movie director. He's also seventeen, they go to the same school, and Blake makes Audrey's blog videos. A few days ago, they were making a video and Audrey asked Blake if he knew how to track down faces on the Internet, using a face-matching app. She wanted to know if word was getting around about her blog. He did know about such an app. He loaded several photos of Audrey into it, clicked 'Return' and up popped a web site that calls itself 1919."
"Like the year after World War I," Smalls said.
"Yes, but that title only comes up when you get to the site. The actual name of the site is a series of letters and numbers, plus dot-com. A code that you'd have to know to find it, unless you found it like these kids did, going in sideways with the photo search. In other words, it was hidden, and they only found it by accident. When they clicked on the link, Audrey found a photo of herself walking out of her school and also spotted a couple of other photos of people she knew a daughter of another senator and the son of a Congressman."
Lucas: "Huh. Why 1919?"
"There was some accompanying text," Chase said. "Apparently 'nineteen' refers to the letter S, the nineteenth letter of the alphabet. In that case, 1919 would be..."
"SS," Lucas said. "That's not good. No offense, Porter."
Henderson snorted and Porter Smalls said, mildly, "Fuck you."
"To go on," Chase said. "It appears to be a publication of an heretofore-unknown neo-Nazi group. What's particularly disturbing is that they go to extraordinary lengths to conceal the origin of the photos and the text. Also, the Nazi Schutzstaffel, as you probably know, was both paramilitary and military."
"I didn't know that," Lucas said. "History wasn't my strong suit."
"Yeah, your strong suit was a pair of hockey breezers," Smalls said.
Chase ventured an eye roll. "Both military and para-military. Armed, in any case, and dedicated to violence, as are most of the articles on the site. Our analysts say we can't do a word-match analysis on the articles, to find out who wrote them, because they were all cut-and-paste, taken from a variety of white-supremacist websites. They were not written by any one person. Actually, and this can't go any further than here, but one of the articles was actually written by one of our agents attempting to penetrate a white supremacist organization."
Smalls said, "There you go. Taxpayer money well spent."
"No direct threats?" Lucas asked.
"No, other than the fact that each photo has a cutline, identifying the kid and his or her parent and the school they go to," Chase said. "The lack of threats is almost as disturbing as the Nazi connection. We've kept this very quiet inside the Bureau, but one of my associates has argued, convincingly, I think, that whoever is doing this is running a kind of distributed-cell organization. Nobody issues or takes orders, so you can't pin down a chain-of-command, but everybody is marching to the same drummer. It's possible that not even the organizer would know who his followers are. All the readers would know is, 'Here are some targets, if you want to do something about them.' Then, if somebody attacks one of the kids, the organizer who probably doesn't even know the attacker might begin with extortion of the other parents."
Henderson: "They chum the water with these photos and when and if an attack occurs, it's hard, if not impossible, to pin down the original responsibility. You might get the body, the shooter, but you don't get the brain."
"Have you checked the ISPs?" Lucas asked.
Chase was already shaking her head. "Of course. Nothing there. The Internet Service Provider is in Sweden, one of the confidential sites. A month or so after the website was set up, the photos were all posted at once and came in from a Starbucks. There were some video cameras in the neighborhood, but not right at Starbucks. Our analysts have spent hours looking at the local videos, trying to spot somebody who might be our guy. No luck so far."
"Yes, there was one camera that did a good job on tags, but we came up dry on that, too. We did all the routine. We continue to think about it and do more work. Explore new possibilities. Some senators... decided perhaps we needed something a little more off-the-wall. Like you. Whoever did this is apparently Internet savvy and security-aware, so the regular routine, however intense it is, may not turn them up."
"What happened to the website? Is it still up?"
"Yes, it is. As I said, the site doesn't come up as 1919-dot-com, or anything like it. You could never find it just by looking. It doesn't have much traffic and we're hoping that the people running it will post more photos give us an idea of who's running it, where the photos are coming from. The parents wanted it taken down, of course, but reluctantly agreed to let us leave it up, at least for now. If we don't leave it up, it could be redone under another password-like URL and we might never find it again. We contacted the ISP, and after some back and forth, the Swedish government whispered into the owner's ear and we were informed unofficially that the site was paid for, in advance for two years, with a Western Union check. The check was bought here in Washington at a bodega that caters to immigrant Hispanics. No cameras. No ID possible."
Lucas said, "Maybe there'll be no attack. Maybe the whole idea is to intimidate. Have there been any demands for any particular kind of action?"
Smalls: "No. Maybe I should say, 'Not yet.' Or, 'We don't know.' With the Senate divided so closely, shifting one or two votes could change the way the world works. You might never know that a vote was the result of extortion. Most senators would never admit to caving in."
"Are the kids protected?"
"They are now. Not 24/7, but the Secret Service has assigned agents to watch them in and out of school, and to run checks on the environments around them, the places they come and go," Chase said. "They're not covered like the President, but closely enough that a shooter would probably be detected unless he was very sophisticated. We're looking at license plates coming and going around the schools, to see if anything pops."
"What do you want from me?" Lucas asked.
Chase said, "You've developed a reputation in both the House and Senate as somebody who can... take care of business quietly and effectively. I already know too much about that, from last year, and I really don't want to know any more. If your, mmm, investigation is successful, the Bureau would be ready to listen to what you have to say. If, hopefully, what you say points to an actionable crime. There's no crime in shooting photos of people in public: anyone can do it."
Henderson: "As background, one of the kids in the photos is the son of Burton Cherry from Colorado. He knew about you and that you were tight with Porter and myself. He got with the other people whose kids were on the website and they asked Porter and I to call you."
Smalls: "They don't like the FBI's basic attitude: no crime, nothing to see here."
Chase turned to Smalls: "That's not our attitude, Senator. We understand the situation, but we're handcuffed by the law and also by the fact that realistically, we know there are leaks, even in the bureau. We've worked with Lucas before, to our mutual advantage, and appreciate his discretion."
Lucas said, "I'll look at it. I need to see what the FBI has done..."
Chase took a thumb drive from her jacket pocket and tossed it to him. "There's a program on there, encrypted, called Sesame. Easy to use. Open it, and you'll see all the photos and docs we've got, all of our reports. About as thick as three Bibles. Please don't export the stuff to anywhere else. When I get back to the Bureau, I'll send the key to your cell phone. Do you have a password vault on your phone?"
"Copy the key to your vault, then erase the message," Chase said. "You'll need the key every time you open the files unless you export them. Don't do that."
"I'll have to interview this girl... and her boyfriend, the photographer," Lucas said.
"Not a problem. They know you're coming," Chase said. "They don't know much, though. We did replicate their facial-recognition search, with better software, and turned up the same result."
"How many people, kids..."
"There are six children on the website, ranging in age from elementary school to college. Nobody older, although a lot of senators have older children. We think that's basically because all of these kids are going to school in the Washington area, so the photographer is probably from the area. The Starbucks, where the website was loaded, is right across the river, in a shopping center across I-395 from the Pentagon," Chase said. "All the kids but one are children of senators, all the senators but one are Democrats. One kid is the son of a New Jersey member of the House, also a Democrat. A very senior member of the House. I could give you more details, but you'll get them all when you read the file. Names, ages, addresses, along with a commentary from our analysts."
"None of the kids was aware of the photo, or the contact?"
"No, they weren't. None of them felt a thing. Oh: most of the photos were apparently taken surreptitiously, but Audrey Coil's was lifted off her website a photo that showed her outside her school with a friend."
Lucas asked Chase, "If I have questions, I should call you?"
"Yes. Nobody else. Although your friend, Deputy Director Mallard, has been read into this situation."
"You're friends with Mallard now?" Lucas asked.
"The deputy director and I have developed an excellent working relationship," Chase said. "He seems to have taken an interest in my career."
"Fascinating," Lucas said.
Chase blinked at him, then turned away.
Henderson leaned forward and rapped on his desk with his knuckles: "Lucas, we need to shut this down before somebody gets hurt. If somebody does get hurt... a kid... the shit will hit the fan."
"If somebody does get hurt, do you think we could blame the FBI?" Lucas asked.
Chase showed a tight smile. The last time they worked together, Lucas had seen signs that she had a sense of humor, even if it was a Washington sense of humor: "If that were going to happen, Lucas, do you think you'd be here?" she asked.
There was more talk, which came down to a long series of warnings about not involving the two senators or the FBI in anything questionable. Lucas said he'd try not to do that, which led to more warnings and pleadings.
"Then I'm like that Mission: Impossible thing, where the secretary will disavow any knowledge of me?"
"So fast your head will spin off although it'd probably be a deputy assistant undersecretary in charge of coverups," Henderson said. "You're not nearly important enough to be disavowed by an actual secretary."
Lucas and Chase left at the same time, with Lucas promising to provide regular updates to Henderson and Smalls. When they were alone, leaving the building, Chase said, "Don't get too detailed when you're updating the senators. Both of them are close to the local media. If we nail these people, there'll be some credit to be given. Time on the CNN and Fox talk shows."
"Which might otherwise go to the FBI?"
"I didn't say that," she said. "I'd prefer that nobody got any credit, at all. We don't need to plant this extortion idea in anybody else's head."
"Got it," Lucas said.
Chase had planned to get an Uber back to the Hoover Building, but Lucas still had the limo on call and offered her a ride: "If you know where we could get a sandwich around here, I'd like to talk for a few more minutes."
She knew a salad place that was open on Sunday, three or four blocks away, and they walked there and got salads and Diet Cokes and sat next to the window to eat. Lucas said, "I'll look at the files for the details, but tell me what you feel about them."
"There's a load of information there. Most of it is useless," she said, efficiently slicing through an asparagus spear. She popped the asparagus into her mouth, chewed, swallowed and continued: "This whole situation has an odd feeling about it. There's something going on that we haven't been able to figure out, but it's not as straight-forward as it looks. That's what I feel about it."
"Anybody I should pay attention to, in particular?"
"A Nazi named Charles Lang. Charlie Lang. He denies being a Nazi, but he is. He calls himself, and I quote, 'an expert on later forms of National Socialism.' He inherited the Nazi gene and a lot of money from his father and grandfather, who also carried the gene. His grandfather made a fortune in aviation investments before and during World War II he spent a lot of time in Germany during the Hitler years, knew the man himself and was associated with Charles Lindbergh back in the 1930s and 40s. Charlie's pretty slick, well-dressed, has a degree from Georgetown in International Relations. Gets interviewed from time to time by the cable news outfits, has had some TV training. He claims his extremist contacts are part of his scholarly research, but it goes deeper than that. Read the paper, you'll see."
"Is he involved in this website?"
"Probably not. When we went to him, our agents said he appeared to be genuinely surprised by the site. Maybe a little sexually excited. He's been stirring around, trying to make contact with 1919. Putting the word out."
"You've been watching him?"
"No, but we've been interviewing everybody we think might possibly know something about 1919. A couple of people said they've been contacted by Lang. So he's out there, looking. Whether he's found anything, we don't know."
"I'll talk to him," Lucas said.
Chase knew that Lucas had been shot the previous spring, and she'd been shot herself a year earlier while on a case with Lucas. "You're a dangerous guy to hang around with. We're the only two cops I know who've been shot."
Like Lucas, she hadn't entirely recovered. The wound had torn up connective tissue in the hamstring at the back of her thigh, and the scar tissue lacked the flexibility of the original muscle. She didn't limp, but it still hurt if she jogged too far and when she went skiing.
Lucas had been shot three times in his career: "I specialized in violent crime. That was my main interest. The one that came closest to killing me was a little girl who nailed me in the throat with a piece-of-crap street .22..."
He'd been shot in a remote area of the Wisconsin North Woods, in the throat, and almost drowned in his own blood, but a surgeon who'd been nearby sliced open his trachea with a pocket knife to free up an airway.
"You probably still owe him, then," Chase said. "And always will."
"Actually, it was a her, and she's gotten paid back with interest," Lucas said. "I married her and she's been in sexual heaven ever since."
"More than I needed to know," Chase said. She frowned. "Maybe I should call her and ask what that's like."
They talked some more about 1919 and watched people come and go and Lucas called the limo and dropped her at the Hoover building. As she got out of the car, she said: "Talk to me, Lucas. Daily, if anything is happening. When do you think you'll be out working?"
"I'll call this girl and her boyfriend today, see if I can talk to them this afternoon. I'll want to read your stuff on Lang before I talk to him. He seems to be the best bet for a way into it."
"You take care," she said. "And talk to me."
Lucas gave the driver the address of a Hertz dealer where he'd reserved a car. They had to backtrack a bit through Washington, but Lucas gave the driver another twenty dollars and left Hertz in a black Cadillac CTS, a long German-looking sedan with a lot of technology he'd never use.
At the Watergate, he left the car in the garage and went up to his room. His phone dinged as he stepped inside, and when he opened it, he found the code for the FBI files Chase had given him. He plugged the thumb drive into his laptop, opened the only app on the drive, and was prompted for the code. He entered it, the files popped up as Chase had promised, simple PDFs in the shell of the encryption app. He put the code into his phone's password vault and erased Chase's message.
There were a lot of files, but the shell had a search function and he dropped in the names of Audrey Coil, Blake Winston and Charles Lang. That gave him contact information for all three, which he noted in a fresh pocket-sized Moleskine notebook.
He read for two hours, encountered quite a few facts and, as Chase had suggested, most of them were useless. Some of it was FBI clip-and-paste investigation files of neo-Nazi, white supremacist, anti-immigration, Klan, prison-based, biker-based and states' rights hate groups, along with a few radical pro-Israeli and Islamic radical groups. Most of them had few members; some of them, only one, and so didn't even qualify as a 'group.' Even some of the single-member organizations produced publications, so could be involved in a website.
There was nothing substantial on the 1919 group, though there was considerable speculation. The lead agent looking at the group suggested that there might only be one person behind it, or perhaps two or three "... unless the group is tightly controlled with heavy security, which would suggest that they may be unusually dangerous."
Lucas skimmed a dozen files, decided the daylight hours would be better spent talking to Coil and Winston. He could always read in the middle of the night.
Coil and Winston lived within a few miles of each other in Virginia. Lucas was somewhat familiar with McLean, where Winston lived, from the case he'd worked the year before. Coil lived on the north side of Arlington, the big Virginia city directly across the Potomac from Washington. Both were expecting calls from him.
The call to Coil went to the personal phone of Senator Roberta Coil, who picked up on the third ring and said, simply, "Yes?"
Lucas introduced himself, said he'd spoken to Henderson and Smalls, and asked if her daughter would be available for an interview that evening. "She is, of course, marshal. She really doesn't have much to say about it. I'm sure you've read the FBI interview, but I understand you'd like to get a feel for the various personalities yourself."
"I would," Lucas said.
"We're home now. I have a small party beginning at seven o'clock, if we could get it done before then."
"I'm at the Watergate. I could probably be there in an hour or so," Lucas said.
"We will wait for you."
The connection for Winston also went to a parent, his mother, whose name was Mary Ellen, and who said her son was out with friends, making a movie. "I'll call him. I can have him here whenever you say."
And he called Lang, again on a personal phone. Like Coil, he answered with a "Yes?" He would be available Monday morning, at his home in Potomac, Maryland. "I hope the FBI people haven't confused you. You won't actually be interviewing a Nazi, a white supremacist, an alt-right person. I'm a scholar who studies those groups."
"I understand," Lucas said. A little suck-up, then: "I'm pleased that you're willing to share information with us."
"Always happy to help the government," Lang said.
Lucas coughed, and took down his address.
From the Watergate garage to the Coil home in Arlington was a fifteen minute drive, out of the monuments of the District into a leafy, routine-looking Fifties or Sixties suburban neighborhood now showing its age.
Lucas had worked with a half-dozen senators in his time as a marshal and had come to believe that the Senate was a club for the uber-wealthy. Roberta Coil was apparently not one of those. She lived in a nice-enough, but not elaborate, mid-century red-brick house set on a bank in north Arlington, with a tuck-under garage and a curling set of flagstone steps leading up to the front door.
The FBI's background material on her daughter, Audrey, said that Senator Coil and Audrey lived in Arlington, while the senator's husband, the owner of a grass-development company, stayed at home in Tifton, Georgia. The file noted that the grass involved was for lawns and golf courses, not for smoking.
Lucas parked in the street and climbed the bank to the house and was about to ring the bell when the door popped open. Senator Coil was a tall woman, with an angular face and dark hair. She wore a black dress suitable for a party, and careful, almost bland makeup. She smiled and said, "Marshal Davenport? I'm Bob. Come in. Audrey's in her room, I'll call her."
The house smelled like a bakery and Lucas could hear somebody banging around a stove in the kitchen, which was down a hallway off a large and sparsely furnished living room a room designed for people to stand in, at a party, rather than to lounge in. Coil climbed some stairs and disappeared down a hallway, calling for her daughter.
Lucas perched on a narrow couch, looked around; there were built-in bookshelves and the books themselves, biographies, histories and the more serious kind of political tomes, appeared to be little used, as if they'd come with the shelves.
"Here we are."
Coil reappeared, trailed by a pretty teenager in a loose silky blouse and fashionable denim boy-shorts with a string of oversized buttons on the fly. Like her mother, Audrey Coil was carefully made-up, except for her lipstick, which was bloody red and deliberately overdone, the fake-cheap/hot-sexy but too-expensive-for-you Hollywood look.
Lucas stood up to shake hands with Audrey, nodded at a right-angled couch, and when the women were sitting, sat down again. Looking at Audrey, he asked, "I've read the FBI reports, so this should be short. Did you ever have any hint of this 1919 website before you found it with your friend?"
Then something happened.
Audrey said, "No! I was amazed!'
At the moment he asked the question, Lucas saw something lizard-like flicker in her eyes. She hadn't expected precisely that question and she'd come up with an answer that was at least partially false.
Lucas thought, Uh-oh. That's what he thought. But he didn't know what was behind the flicker.
"You're sure? I mean, young people go through dozens of websites and I imagine with your business, you go through more than the average... person." He bit off "girl" "woman" and "teenager" and opted for the most neutral noise he could make.
Audrey shook her head: "I'd remember it. These people are Nazis and they have nothing to do with fashion. That's my crew: fashion is. I'm strictly focused on girls. Nazis? No. I don't even do boys."
"I understand the photo was taken by a friend of yours... Blake, uh...?"
She nodded. "Blake Winston. He does photos and video for my blog. You'll talk to him, right?"
"Soon as I leave here," Lucas said.
"Okay. Well, Blake knows everything about photography. He took my picture for a blog entry, we picked that up, right away. We couldn't figure out what it was doing on that crazy website, Nazis and all that. Then, the other pictures, he says they were all taken with a telephoto lens. He can tell, something to do with what's in focus, and what isn't. He can explain it. But, they're taken from a long way away. He also thinks that even then, they have to blow them up quite a bit. That's why they look so crappy."
"I'll talk to him about all that," Lucas said. "You don't think there's any possibility that Blake..."
"Oh, no." She was shaking her head. "No, no, no. For one thing, he hates Nazis and all that white nationalist stuff. He's really a nice guy, for being as rich as he is."
"His father is, anyway," Audrey said. "He runs a fund. His father does. A hedge fund."
Lucas smiled at her: young as she was, she sounded like she knew what she was talking about, that she knew about funds. He turned to Roberta Coil: "Nobody's contacted you about this?"
"No. I know what you're thinking, that came up with the FBI agents. Nobody's tried to blackmail me into changing a vote," she said. "If you looked at all my votes since this website was created, you'd see they were all party-line and my vote wasn't critical in changing anything."
"And that worries me," Roberta added. "They should have contacted me. If they don't contact me, and if they haven't contacted the other parents, what does that mean? Does that mean it's not an extortion racket? Does that mean the kids are simply up there as targets?"
"Jeez, Mom, thanks a lot," Audrey said. "That totally makes me feel better."
Lucas looked back at Audrey. "Since you found the photo, you haven't felt like somebody was watching you?"
"There was another girl in the photo with you," Lucas said, going with "girl" since Audrey used the word. "Is there any possibility that she was the targeted one?"
The senator shook her head: "That was Molly McWilliams. Her father owns a liquor distributorship here in northern Virginia. They're quite well-off, but not political. All the kids on 1919 are children of politicians, so it seems unlikely that Molly would be the target."
Lucas asked how a predator might locate Audrey and be able to pick her out from all the other students at her school.
Audrey brushed back a hank of auburn hair: "It's easy. You go to mom's website and it lists my dad's name and mine I'm the only child. Then you look me up on the Internet and you find my blog and there I am. All kinds of pictures. I write about school, and parties, and I get kids to give me iPhone snapshots of who's looking hot, and so on."
Lucas asked, "Does all this... scare you?
"Scares the heck out of me," the senator said.
"It's a little scary," Audrey said, glancing over at her mother, who nodded. "I now get dropped off by a Secret Service man and go in the back way at school. I only go three days a week I do assignments at home the other two, which really helps with the blog, you know. I've got more time to work on it."
"Do you miss school?" Lucas asked.
"Yeah, I do, all my friends. I still see them three times a week, though," Audrey said. "To tell the truth, I'd rather work than go to school, but I know school's necessary."
"She does well in school," Roberta Coil said, smiling. "She's gotten about three B's in four years, everything else is A's. And it's a tough school."
"That's great," Lucas said. To Audrey: "Have you responded in any way to the 1919 site?"
Another flicker in the eyes, but Audrey shook her head: "No. I'd be scared to. Have you looked at it?"
"I got here a couple of hours ago I haven't had time."
"There aren't many replies, but they're all from guys with fake names. One of them is 'Lizard Shooter.' Who calls himself Lizard Shooter? And there's never any replies from the blogger. The people replying ask questions and so on, but there's never an answer. Blake did a Google search and he says there has been some talk about 1919 on a couple of Nazi websites and there are links... that's about it."
"Do you know what websites?"
"I don't, but Blake knows."
They talked for a while longer, touching on the discovery of the website, but the Coils had no real information about the site itself. Lucas gave them his Marshals Service email address and asked Audrey to send him a link to her website, which she said she'd do immediately.
"I gotta get these guys off my back," she said, miming a shiver. "They're cramping my style. You ever try to talk fashion to a Secret Service agent?"
When Lucas got up to leave, Senator Coil asked him to wait a minute, went to the kitchen and came back with two warm oatmeal-raisin cookies in a plastic baggie.
"Smells good," he said.
"They taste even better. Georgia cookin'," she said.
"Bye," Audrey said, and she scrambled up the stairs and out of sight. Roberta Coil looked after her, then touched Lucas' arm and said, "She's a good kid. She's being brave about this, but I'm really not. Do you think I should hide her? I could send her back home."
Lucas said, "I can't make that call for you. We don't know that there's any threat at all. But we don't know that there isn't. With Secret Service coverage, she should be okay. Those guys are good. But, we're dealing with crazy people with guns and... you really don't know."
"Why do crazy people have guns?" Coil asked.
"You'd know the answer to that better than I would, senator," Lucas said.
As Lucas drove to Blake Winston's house he ate the cookies on the way, and they were excellent it occurred to him that not only had he discussed fashion with a (former) Secret Service agent, a woman named Alice Green, but that Roberta Coil might even know her.
Green was running for a Virginia seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, had won the Democratic primary and was leading her Republican opponent with less than two months to go to the election. Green was a clothes horse, as was Lucas, and they'd spent a few pleasant hours on a campaign bus with Elmer Henderson, reading fashion magazines and exchanging ideas.
In the drive from Arlington to McLean, Lucas passed through a number of housing zones, arriving in the million-dollar-plus zone a few minutes after leaving the Coils. The size and apparent values continued to climb the further north he got and the closer to the Potomac. Following his phone's navigation app down a narrow tarmac lane, he eventually came to a sprawling ultra-modern white stone and glass house set in a forest that appeared to go on down to the river.
When he pulled into the house, the front door opened and a young woman walked barefoot down a stone walkway to the driveway. Lucas got out of the car and she stuck out a hand to shake and said, "I'm Anne-Marie, I'm Mrs. Winston's assistant. They're waiting for you in the tennis room."
Anne-Marie had an attractive accent that might have been German or Dutch; and she looked German or Dutch, pretty, with short blond hair and square shoulders; she might have been a competitive swimmer. She led Lucas through a wide stone entry, down a stone-and-plank hallway past an oval living room designed for entertaining, with a huge black concert-grand piano in one corner.
They passed a couple of closed doors and finally stepped out into a semi-circular room that Lucas would have called a family room, except the shelves showed off tennis trophies and the oversized windows looked out over a tennis court, which was built lower than the house so the room functioned as a gallery.
Blake and Mary Ellen Winston were sitting on a long flat couch positioned both to look over the court and to half-face another long flat couch. Anne-Marie said, "Marshal Davenport," and turned away and left them.
Mary Ellen was a tall athletic woman with carefully colored and coifed dark hair around an oval face. She wore a high-collared white dress shirt and navy slacks, with coral color linen slippers that matched her lipstick. She got up and gave Lucas a tennis-callused hand to squeeze, then backed up and sat next to her son. Blake looked, Lucas thought, a little like himself, when he was seventeen. Lucas hadn't had the accoutrements, like the multi-million dollar house, but there was a distinct resemblance.
Mary Ellen said so, to her son, with a smile: "The marshal looks more like you than your dad does."
The kid said, "Nah. He looks meaner."
"That's something you develop on your own," Lucas said, as he sat down. "If you're gonna be a movie-maker, you're gonna need a mean streak. If you don't have one, you should get started on it."
Blake serious, lifted his eyebrows and asked, "Why is that?"
Lucas said, "Think about your basic hundred million dollar action movie. You've got to cast a lot of ugly people being stupid. Or fat ugly people. Have you ever thought about holding the auditions for those roles, about choosing the actors? How mean that must be?"
Blake put a finger to his lips, and said, "No, really. I never thought about that."
Lucas: "How did you find the 1919 website?"
Blake explained about the face-matching software, originally developed, he thought, to detect unauthorized uses of copyrighted photographs.
"You'd have designers looking for photos for the website they were designing, and if they didn't have a big budget, they'd steal the photos. Sometimes, for pretty big companies. Pro photographers started asking for software that would help track their photos... on-line photographs are basically enormously long strings of pixels that are unique no two photos are exactly alike on the pixel level. You put in your string and the software looks for a matching string. Eventually, it got sophisticated enough to match faces."
"Audrey wanted to match her face?"
Blake nodded. "Yeah. She wanted to see if her face was getting to be known. It's not, much, there are only about a zillion girly websites doing what she's doing, though she's actually got some decent sponsors. Anyway, we found some head shots of her. One of them, a shot I took, was on the Nazi site. They lifted it off her blog."
"Audrey said you had some ideas about the cameras used in the other photos."
"Not the cameras so much as the lenses. The way the images are compressed, and the thin depth-of-field... you know about depth of field?"
"Well, the combination of compression and thin depth of field tell you the pictures were taken with a telephoto lens. The same one, I think. All outdoors, in good light, but from long distances. To get those close-up head shots, they had to crop the photos quite a bit, then blow up what was left. That's why they look a little grainy. If I had to guess, I'd say a decent one-inch camera with a long zoom lens. There are a lot of those around. Uh, you know about meta-data?"
"Yes. Information attached to photographs, usually including camera settings and a time-and-date stamp."
"It was stripped off the photos. I looked," Blake said.
"Then the photographer is fairly sophisticated?"
He shrugged: "Everything you'd need to know you could learn in an hour. So, no, he's not necessarily sophisticated. He'd have to know about the meta-data to get rid of it, but if he knew, then stripping it off is easy."
"You know a lot about photography," Lucas said.
"Blake had his own darkroom for film cameras, when he was twelve," Mary Ellen said. "He and his dad built it in our basement, in Birmingham."
"Dad said if I was serious about it, I should start with film," Blake said. "I moved to digital pretty quick, but... film is good. Knowing about it."
"How did you and Audrey start working together?
Blake threw a quick glance at his mother and Lucas suspected he wouldn't be getting the full story.
"We're friends, from school," he said. "She dated a friend of mine for a while. Then she started doing her website with, you know, selfies that she took with her iPhone. She even made phone videos of herself, really bad videos. Later she tried a real camera, a point-and-shoot that wasn't much better. She's smart, and she knew she had to step up her game. She knew I was into photography and video and we did a couple of shoots. She got some sponsors and started throwing a few bucks my way. Now we've got a thing going."
Blake said that he didn't know anything especially interesting about the 1919 site, except that the people who put it up didn't know much about creating a website: "It's crude. There are fifth-graders who could have done it better. They took crappy photos and slapped them on a pre-formatted form, along with the texts. The texts were ripped off from right-wing websites. They didn't even bother to change the fonts on the texts they took they cut and pasted them, so they all look different, which is not a good look, technically speaking."
Mary Ellen said, "Blake told me something that you might be interested in, but he didn't want me to tell you. I've decided to tell you anyway."
Blake: "Aw, jeez." He flopped back on the couch. "Audrey will kill me."
"We won't tell Audrey," Lucas said. To Mary Ellen: "What am I not supposed to know?"
"Blake said that Audrey got excited when they figured out what was going on, and the FBI came around and questioned them. She thought it'd make a great blog entry, pull in a lot of new traffic. The FBI agents asked her not to do that, but..."
"She might do it anyway," Blake said. "Don't tell her I said so."
"That could cause some trouble," Lucas said.
"Yeah, trouble," Blake said. "Trouble is another word for 'Going viral.' That's living the dream. That's going on Fox News."
"If you have any influence..."
"I don't know if I have that much. You really don't want to be standing between Audrey and a TV camera," Blake said. "I say that, even though she's a friend of mine."
"All right," Lucas said.
Blake: "One more thing. It's sorta funny. Funny strange, not funny ha-ha."
"When the FBI agents were here, they told me some of what they found out. Not a lot, but I asked questions and they answered some of them. They told me they hadn't been able to break down the website because it was paid for anonymously and it's run out of Sweden."
"Is that unusual?"
"No, that's not unusual, if you know what you're doing and you want to stay hidden. But this is a really shitty website..."
"Thanks for the 'shitty,' Blake," his mother said.
"Well, that's what it is," Blake said. "Shitty. Way too bad for somebody who knows enough about what he's doing to get an anonymous check to Sweden and hire a Swedish ISP to carry the site. You know why he went to Sweden? Because they have strict privacy laws. You'd have to know that, to go there for your ISP. Also, you can get good, free anonymous website formatting software that will let you to put together a functional website in a couple of hours, with decent design. But this site looks like it was put together by complete retards."
Mary Ellen: "Blake!"
"Sorry, but that's what it looks like," the kid said. "So, is it an experienced computer guy putting together a retarded website? It looks almost deliberately bad. How could somebody who knows enough to go to Sweden, knows how to get the money to them without giving himself up... doesn't know how to make a decent website?"
"An interesting question," Lucas said. "What do you think about that?"
He frowned. "I dunno. I smell a rat. Something's not right." He raked over his bottom lip with his lower teeth, then glanced up at Lucas, and said, "You know, I thought maybe the FBI put the website up, spoofing the Nazis. Getting the crazies to try to get in touch. Then, when everybody freaked out, the FBI figures it screwed up and tries to bury it. Now they can't admit that they're behind it."
"Oh, boy," Lucas said. He shook his head and said, "You're a smart kid. Nobody's said anything like that to me, or even hinted at it... but, now I'm gonna have to think about it. It would explain some things."
Blake said he'd done a Google search for 1919, but there were 492 million results "Really, 492 million" so that didn't help. He'd done a follow-up search on the ISP name, the code, and had come up with three neo-Nazi sites that mentioned the ISP, but only in the last few days. There were no older references to it.
Lucas took down the ISPs for the three sites and would look at them later.
As Lucas was leaving, with Anne-Marie waiting to take him out, he handed Blake his card. "If you identify that rat you've smelled or something else occurs to you... call me."
Lucas called Weather to tell her about his first day in Washington, then spent the evening reading through the files that detailed the FBI investigation, focusing on those involving Charles Lang. Lang had attracted attention not only for his writings on neo-Nazism, but also because of his contacts, and what some said was his support of the groups.
His support was classified only as "possible" and "likely," not a sure thing, by agents who'd looked at his bank withdrawals. Lang had, in three separate documented cases, made serial withdrawals of $9500 from a savings account, which had then been replenished from an investment account. In one case he'd withdrawn a total of $66,500 over five weeks. In the two other cases, he'd withdrawn $38,000, over two four-week periods. That was interesting because cash withdrawals over $10,000 had to be reported to the government and serial withdrawals of $9,500 suggested that Lang was evading that reporting requirement.
Where the $66,500 went, the FBI didn't know.
Of the two $38,000 withdrawals, an undercover agent working inside a group called "Pillars of Liberty" noted that shortly after the final withdrawals by Lang, "Pillars" had experienced a financial resurgence and had sent money to other neo-Nazi organizations to support publications and political actions.
A secret look at emails between the head of "Pillars" and the neo-Nazi organizations suggested that $38,000 would be a good guess as the amount of money involved. The connection was there, the investigators thought, but would be hard to prove.
Complicating the situation was that Lang had confided to a friend, who was also an FBI-recruited informant, that he'd lost some significant amounts of cash at a place called the Horseshoe Casino in Baltimore, Maryland; and that he'd used cash because he didn't want anyone to trace his credit cards to a casino.
The confession had suggested to the feds that Lang was on to their informant, and was using her to provide himself with an alibi.
Lang, Lucas thought, might not be as dumb as the average Nazi.
27 February 2020
The Prey series, the Virgil Flowers series, the Kidd series, The Singular Menace, The Night Crew, Dead Watch, The Eye and the Heart: The Watercolors of John Stuart Ingle, and Plastic Surgery: The Kindest Cut are copyrighted by John Sandford. All excerpts are used with permission.
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