Bonus Free Story: THE NATURE OF THE PROBLEM by Tom Easton and Chapter One of ESPionage: Regime Change by Tom Easton & Frank Wu

Amazing Selects recently released the thrilling SF-Espionage novel ESPionage: Regime Change by Tom Easton and Frank Wu.   Now, to spur your interest and to give you some small idea of what you’ll find in that novel, we bring you both a short story by Tom Easton AND an excerpt of the first chapter of ESPionage, by Tom Easton and Frank Wu!

When you find yourself wanting more – and you will! – you can pick up a copy of ESPionage: Regime Change right here!

 

THE NATURE OF THE PROBLEM
by
Tom Easton

(The Nature of the Problem First appeared in Alternative Truths III: Endgame, Jess Faraday and Bob Brown, eds. (Benton City, WA: B Cubed Press, 2019).

Samuel Atwood, “Discovery of a Novel Microorganism in the Human Brain,”
PLOSOne, June 3, 2018.

Abstract: Bacteria such as Wolbachia and parasites such as Toxoplasmosis are known to reside in animal brains and affect their behavior. Such bacteria are rare in humans but do exist. A bacterium related to Wolbachia has been observed in a small number of human frontal lobes. It appears to suppress activity in nerve cells involved in rating the credibility of novel proposals. A suitable treatment may lead to a reduction in willingness to believe unsupported claims.

Press Release, September 5, 2018
National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID)

We wish to announce an intensive vaccine development effort targeted against Wolbachia credulensis, a recently discovered human brain parasite. W. credulensis appears to make people vulnerable to erroneous beliefs. While found throughout the nation, W. credulensis appears to be much more common in certain regions. A successful vaccine will remove an immense hazard to public well-being.

Press Release, September 6, 2018
Church of the Holy Revelation

This morning, the Reverend Michael P. Augerson told the audience of his front-running cable show that yesterday’s announcement by the National Institutes of Health of an attack on the so-called “gullibility germ” is actually an attack on organized religion.

“University of Maryland researcher Samuel Atwood is the Anti-Christ,” he said. “A fraud!

There is no such thing as a gullibility germ! And if there were it would have nothing to do with religion!”

InfoWhores.com, posted September 6, 2018, 8:23 PM

Libtard professor Samuel Atwood thinks he’s found a gullibility germ! If so, he’s more infected than anyone else! But he’s not alone! Somehow he has convinced the National Institutes of Health to pay him mucho bucks to develop a vaccine that will cure people of this so-called germ.

It’s all part of the conspiracy against True Conservatives, folks! They’re going to tell you it’s just another vaccine. And they’ll mix it with the flu vaccine so everyone gets it! But it will really be a mind-control drug! Just like the ones in the chemtrails you breathe every day!

InfoWhores.com, posted September 6, 2018, 8:27 PM

I thought the chemtrails were a government thing. Maybe liberal thought control when the liberals were in charge. But now? Why would Conservatives be waging a war against True Conservatives?

InfoWhores.com, posted September 6, 2018, 8:24 PM

Oh, shaddap, libtard!

Infowhores.com, posted September 6, 2018, 8:32 PM

Vaccines are evil! They cause autism! It’s been proven! Protect your kids–Say NO!! to doctors!

And chemtrails are real! A liberal conspiracy hidden inside our Holy Conservative government!

InfoWhores.com, posted September 6, 2018, 9:17 PM

Samuel Atwood
213 Washington Blvd, Linthicum Hts, MD 21090
(410) 722-0299

Nice-looking house, huh? Guy must make a ton of money making up that gullibility germ stuff.

And no, that cross-hair over his front door doesn’t mean a thing. The software just put it there and I can’t do a thing to get rid of it. 😉

Laboratory Break-In, Burglars Arrested
Baltimore Sun, September 8, 2018

At 2:30 AM this morning, University of Maryland security guards responded to an alarm and found intruders in the lab of neurobiologist Samuel Atwood. One security guard and two intruders were injured in a brief exchange of gunfire. One intruder escaped.

University Professor Accused of Fraud
Baltimore Sun, September 8, 2018

Samuel Atwood, a Professor of Neurobiology at the University of Maryland, has been accused of fraud. Members of White America, a Conservative activist group, admitted that they broke into his lab and stole computer files. Those files prove, they said, that his claim to have discovered a gullibility germ is fake.

“He made it up,” they said. “He’s a member of the Progressive Democrats, and he just wants to destroy the modern Conservative movement.”

Professor Atwood claims his lab computer contained no files related to the study in question. “They made them up,” he said. “And I’m no Progressive Democrat. I’m a Democratic Pragmatist, solid for evidence-based policy.”

Professor Atwood is on administrative leave while the University investigates the fraud charges. He is not permitted to enter his office or lab, and he may not teach his courses.

Swastikas Painted on University Professor’s House
Baltimore Sun, September 13, 2018

When University of Maryland Professor Samuel Atwood woke up this morning, he found the front of his house painted with swastikas and threats such as “Ur kids ar ded Bigget!”

Professor Atwood commented: “One more darned thing! You would not believe the hate mail I’ve been getting. I turned it all over to the FBI but they say they can’t do a thing. Hate isn’t a crime these days.”

Senate Announces Hearings on NIH Gullibility Vaccine Effort
Washington Post, October 1, 2018

Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) has announced that the Senate Committee on Appropriations will hold hearings on whether and to what extent the National Institutes of Health may have overstepped their responsibilities by announcing an attack on gullibility. “We do not need research into basic human behavior or fake public health threats,” he said. “Especially when it threatens the national economy.”

He was apparently referring to claims by White America radio host Jack Pingree that reducing the gullibility of American citizens would irretrievably damage the advertising industry and the retail economy.

Senator Alexander also noted that one topic of the hearings will be whether the nation truly needs scientific research agencies such as the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. “It may be time to deauthorize these agencies and use the money for additional subsidies for the coal industry and tax breaks for American businesses. Besides, what has scientific ‘research’ ever done for us besides promulgate myths such as evolution and global warming?”

Professor’s Children Missing
Washington Post, October 17, 2018

Professor Samuel Atwood’s two daughters were reportedly kidnapped as they waited in line for the school bus yesterday afternoon. A black SUV pulled up in front of the school and two men jumped out, grabbed Delia Atwood, age 7, and Jasmine Atwood, age 9, and threw them into the SUV. The car had no plates. Police say there has been no ransom demand so far.

Dr. Atwood is the discoverer of the controversial “gullibility germ.” Standing red-eyed beside his lovely wife Cathryn, he said, “It is obvious what they want. They want me to undiscover it, or say it was all fakery. But I can’t do that. It’s real.” His wife nodded.

NIH Issues Request for Proposals for Studies of Wolbachia credulensis
Washington Post, October 20, 2018

NIH spokesperson Cecily Panet explained that it is very difficult to treat brain infections.

“There is a barrier between the blood and the brain that keeps most medications out of the brain. But Wolbachia credulensis is a living organism. It has to infect a victim in childhood and migrate through the body to the brain. While it is doing so, it is vulnerable. A vaccine could prime the body’s immune system to destroy it. And sometimes vaccines work even inside the brain.”

“But we really need to learn a great deal more about the organism’s life cycle before we can find a solution. This is why we are asking for research proposals. We are hoping researchers will quickly gain insights into the nature of this organism and into ways of preventing or curing infection.”

InfoWhores.com, posted October 22, 2018, 5:02 AM

Fraudulent researcher Samuel Atwood is still under investigation for his “gullibility germ” fakery. And now the National Institutes of Health wants to fund more research so they can stop people believing in God and Republicanism.

These Atheists HAVE to be stopped! Even if that means a Second-Amendment solution!

[link to September 6 post giving Atwood’s address and contact information]

Atwood Children Killed, White America Operatives Arrested
Washington Post, October 25, 2018

The FBI successfully tracked the kidnappers of Delia Atwood, age 7, and Jasmine Atwood, age 9, daughters of Professor Samuel Atwood, discoverer of the gullibility germ. Unfortunately, by the time they were able to obtain a warrant and break into the White America hideout, the girls had been shot. White America operatives Hadley Jenkins and James Richards are in custody.

Alleged Atwood Killers Free on Bail
Washington Post, October 27, 2018

An anonymous person posted $100,000 bail each for White America operatives Hadley Jenkins and James Richards, the alleged killers of Professor Samuel Atwood’s daughters, Delia Atwood, age 7, and Jasmine Atwood, age 9. Professor Atwood is the discoverer of the gullibility germ.

Jenkins and Richards were last seen at Washington National Airport, boarding a plane for the Cayman Islands.

NIH Funds Six Studies of Wolbachia credulensis
Washington Post, November 15, 2018

The National Institutes of Health has chosen six of over 200 proposals to study Wolbachia credulensis in hope of finding a way to destroy or ward off this brain-infecting bacterium. NIH spokesperson Cecily Panet commented that, “We have every hope of rapid progress. If a vaccine seems possible, however, it will still take years to develop the vaccine and gain approval for its use in humans. It would be much better to find another way to interrupt its life cycle. Fortunately, one researcher–she prefers not to be named at present–has preliminary evidence that W. credulensis is also found in dogs.

If people catch it from their canine companions, that offers interesting possibilities.”

FacePlant Post, November 16, 2018

Alan Firkin: Can we make people less gullible by vaccinating dogs against the gullibility germ? It looks like maybe, since dogs seem to get the bug too. But are dogs gullible?

Well, if you’ve ever pretended to throw a ball and laughed as silly Rover ran off thinking he was chasing it, the answer to that question is a real no-brainer.

Atsani Dasch, “Survey of Wolbachia credulensis Incidence in Domestic and Wild Canids,”

PLOSOne, submitted January 5, 2019.

Abstract: All domestic canids tested had colonies of Wolbachia credulensis in frontal lobe tissue. Colonies were absent in all wild canids (wolves, coyotes, jackals, and dingos) tested. W. credulensis spores were detected in domestic canid blood and saliva. Salivary contamination in particular provides a plausible route for human infection.

Samuel Atwood Obituary
Washington Post, January 12, 2019

Professor Samuel Atwood, discoverer of the gullibility germ, committed suicide on January 10. He left no note.

His daughters Delia, age 7, and Jasmine, age 9, predeceased him. He is survived by his wife, Cathryn, two brothers, and …

Do We Still Need NIH and NSF?
Washington Post, January 15, 2019

The Senate hearing on “Do We Still Need NIH and NSF?” began today. In his introductory remarks, Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) said, “The National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation have been of immense value to this nation in the decades since they were first established. But they have gone astray by supporting research into the myth of global warming and the silliness of whether dogs are gullible. Research the nation truly needs is that supported by the Department of Defense and the Department of Energy’s ‘Fossil Fuel Renewal’ program.”

“This hearing will listen to testimony on whether the nation still needs the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. Should their activities be deemphasized and their funding reduced? Should they be deauthorized and all their funding dedicated to other and nobler purposes? We must always remember that the Nation’s welfare must come first, not the whims of academic intellectuals!”

One of the first to testify was Omar Henson, retired general and a fellow of the Cato Institute. He noted that academics, especially in the biological sciences, have a very low rate of participation in organized religion. In fact, a great many are avowed atheists!

They thus have nothing to say to proper members of our Christian society. “By all means,” he added, “their research funding would be put to much better use as subsidies for the suffering coal industry.”

Francis S. Collins, Director of the National Institutes of Health and himself a Christian, denied that all bioscientists are atheists. “The truth of science,” he said, “does not depend on the beliefs of the scientists. It depends only on the nature of reality.” The audience in the gallery booed in response.

Dr. Martha Jellison of Tufts University Vet School, said that if dogs are truly infected with behavior-altering bacteria, they must be cured. “It is irresponsible to let them remain ill when we have it within our power to cure them.”

InfoWhores.com, posted January 17, 2019, 11:10 AM

[Link to “Do We Still Need NIH and NSF?” hearing site]

Forget the autism. That’s not the problem with vaccines anymore. It’s the mind-control chemicals. They’ll turn you into atheists! And libtards like Francis Collins say that’s

reality!

InfoWhores.com, posted March 23, 2019, 9:00 PM

According to the Washington Post, the National Institute of Health reported today that it has proven relatively simple to prepare a vaccine against canine Wolbachia credulensis.

Initial tests will begin immediately.

The vaccine consists of killed W. credulensis cells. Similar vaccines are effective against a wide variety of diseases in cats, dogs, and people. If successful, it should be possible to administer the vaccine as part of the standard rabies vaccine.

Since no one worries about autism in dogs, this does not seem to threaten us humans.

However, we do know this bacterium can affect animal behavior. How will removing it affect the way our dogs act?

FacePlant Post, March 24, 2019

Henry Flagler: Look what I found on InfoWhores.com, posted yesterday morning!

They’re all upset about testing that Wolbachia credulensis vaccine on dogs: “Forget the vaccines, dummies! They’re going after our dogs now! They don’t want Man’s best friend to love us anymore. It’s worse than feminism!”

Gee, ya think it’s all about dog gullibility? I’m laughing!

Early Tests of Dog Vaccine Very Promising
Washington Post, June 14, 2019

The National Institute of Health reports that the anti-Wolbachia credulensis vaccine for dogs has so far proved both safe and effective. The best news is that in adult dogs it seems to kill even bacteria in the brain.

According to NIH spokesperson Cecily Panet, NIH is already discussing license terms for the vaccine with Novartis, maker of the routine rabies vaccine.

Dogs Aren’t Much Fun Anymore
New York Times, September 4, 2019

The anti-Wolbachia credulensis vaccine for dogs is brand new, but it has already been administered to 17 million pets. The good news is that it kills the gullibility germ. The bad news is that dogs don’t play fetch anymore. You throw the ball, and they just look at you, as if to say, “Oh, c’mon!”

Animal shelters are reporting a rise in cat adoptions.

InfoWhores.com, posted September 6, 2019, 10:11 PM

It’s a conspiracy! It really is! All this gullibility germ business has just been a plot to get rid of our dogs! Sure, no one’s trying to kill them or make them autistic with vaccines.

But they don’t do what we say anymore! Next thing you know, they’ll be attacking us!

Cats are okay, I guess. My wife and kids love ours. But they’ll never sit in the front seat of my pickup with their head out the window! They’ll never go hunting with me!

InfoWhores.com, posted September 6, 2019, 10:15 PM

Maybe a lion?

FacePlant Post, November 12, 2019

Henry Flagler: I’ve been doing a bit of research, guys. You’ve seen the reports about people going more for cats now? Not so many dogs, since they aren’t sucking up the way they used to?

Well, cats get a bug called Toxoplasma. Mice get it too, and it changes their behavior so they go toward the smell of cats. That way they get eaten and the bug gets back into cats.

People get the bug too, and though it doesn’t make them more likely to get eaten by cats, it does affect their behavior. Studies show that infected guys are a bit taller, have more testosterone, and are more suspicious, jealous, and dogmatic. Infected women appear to be more warm-hearted, outgoing, conscientious, persistent, and moralistic.

I dunno if that’s an improvement. We’ll have to wait and see.

Meanwhile, if you want to be a manly man, grab a … I dunno. I really don’t like the idea of being controlled by a brain-sucking parasite, even if it is a germ. Maybe there’s a

better way.

FacePlant Post, November 12, 2019

Egot Ashrim: Wuss!

ESPionage: Regime Change

The cheerful peach and blue hues of dawn did not much alleviate Gabriel Thomas’ sense of impending doom.

As he dragged a washcloth over his head, dampening what hair he had left for the comb, his gangly body felt as old and stiff as the cloth. Trying to be hopeful, he dressed neatly but inconspicuously, then trundled down to the Dupont metro, dodging other pedestrians while scanning for stock tips. The restaurant’s payroll was due soon, as was rent, and those escargots were not going to buy themselves. The last few weeks had been maddening, as if he had been trying a lure on fish that only took live bait.

The ugly maw of the Dupont Circle metro station did not make Gabriel feel any better. The interminable escalator down felt like a long tongue, the concrete overhead like the roof of the mouth, just out of reach. The sliding handrail tugged at his palm, never keeping pace with the moving steps, always slightly behind or ahead, as if trying to pitch him headfirst into the gloom. Flickering lights made everyone look pale and ghastly in the weird shadows of the Brutalist architecture.

He started to feel a little better, though, once he made it to K Street, to the part densest with CEOs and politicians, ever hopeful for stock tips.

There! That guy! A lobbyist sitting forlornly in an expensive suit, staring out the window of a coffee shop, but not really looking at anything, his caramel macchiato growing colder and colder.

That guy might be Gabriel’s salvation. Or the restaurant’s.

From the lobbyist, he learned that Senator Levine hadn’t been able to squeeze the requested pork into the new appropriations bill. Consequently, BRRL—a shopping center real estate investment trust—couldn’t put off the inevitable anymore. They were going bankrupt, but—and this was the key—the press release wouldn’t be out until 7:15, which was before the regular trading day started, but during pre-market trading.

It was now 6:37, giving Gabriel time to fake some research. He found every article he could denigrating BRRL’s fundamentals and financial future, taking screenshots in case the SEC accused him of inside trading. It was risky, but he made a decision and typed into his phone: Short 20,000 BRRL. Then he put in the order at 19.74. Two-fifths of a million dollars. And then he held his breath for the announcement. Chapter 11 was one of the surest bets for a nosedive, but sometimes a stock inexplicably went up on bad news, or down on good news. Maybe someone richer than him knew something he didn’t, manipulating things behind the scenes. If the stock went up too much and never came down, he’d have to pay back the 20,000 shares he’d just borrowed, but at a much higher price—he’d ruin himself and put the restaurant out of business.

He watched the stock price bobbing, like a buoy on the water, slowly rising and falling in a gentle wave. Now it was 7:17. Where was that press release? The lobbyist was looking as depressed as before, but now he was sipping his coffee. Did that mean something? There! Finally! On BRRL’s website. The press release. Why didn’t anyone else see it? Automated news services were starting to spread it around, but still no action on the stock price. No time to panic or plan for personal bankruptcy. He could get out now. A wash, call it even. No. Stay the course. The restaurant had bills to pay.

Panic! The stock price was actually up a little, now over 20. Then a little more, over 20.50. He cursed himself. If he got out now, he’d be worse off than ever. A couple years before, he’d committed his life savings to his friend Bernarde’s dream of running a French restaurant. Now that moment led to this, when he was about to doom himself financially.

The price ticked up another 20 cents. Suddenly, the buoy jiggled, then dropped, as if a great white shark had grabbed hold and dragged it under. Programmed sellers stepped in, and volume skyrocketed as the stock price plummeted.

By 8 o’clock, even before the regular trading day had begun, the stock gyrations seemed to have stopped, with BRRL floating on the bottom like a dead fish. It was now less than $10 a share, and his nerves weren’t up to riding it down even further. With a sigh of relief, Gabriel settled out. The restaurant was saved.

In less than two hours, he had made over 210K—more than twice what his salary had been at the CIA, so many years before.

Gabriel argued that his special talent should have earned him a better salary but was told his real reward was knowing that he was making the world a better place. He almost believed it, too, when the newspaper headlines trumpeted one of his catches. There was a picture of his boss, above the fold, talking about their work nabbing an American biosecurity scientist who’d sold his germ warfare secrets to Zimbabwe. Yeah, that felt really good—until he learned about the millions that the scientist had been paid. Gabriel wondered how many traitors were out there, uncaught, still living high on the hog. Maybe sometimes crime did pay.

Back in Cold War days, the CIA and KGB both were trying to find people like Gabriel with special skills. They staked out casinos, looking for those extra lucky at poker and dice. They sifted through the frauds and the cheats and the lying spoonbenders, until they found Gabriel, and a very few special others. They spent years at Fort Meade, from where he’d caught that scientist, and had a few other successes.

Then the surveillance society came along. The tiny, ever-present drones. The machines that took their jobs. The CIA decided they were done with Gabriel and let him go.

Retirement should have been good. He could have bought a house anywhere he wanted, anywhere in the world… but he had no one to share it with. The talent that made him special also wreaked havoc on relationships, if his partner didn’t have it. He’d found that out with Jessica.

After the CIA put him out to pasture, he didn’t have anyone at all, except his old pal Bernarde, similarly talented, similarly mistreated by the French.

Now Gabriel settled into the weird, plasticky orange cushion of a metro car, his old brain a little tired from the morning exertions. As they rumbled toward the restaurant, whose bacon he had literally just pulled from the fire, he felt triumphant. Like he was finally being rewarded for his special talent.

Making money on stocks wasn’t impossible—if you could read minds.

~

When Gabriel reached Chez Bernie, they were not yet open for lunch. He speed-shuffled his old legs across the empty dining room, yelling: “I did it, Bernarde! I did it!”

“Gabriel! Great, wonderful, thanks,” Bernarde Cardonne replied sourly. He was solidly built but not fat—which always amazed Gabriel, considering how much Bernarde enjoyed preparing and partaking of edible delights. Beneath his thin gray hair, Bernarde blinked in the way of contact wearers, but his eyes, usually quite jolly, were rather inscrutable this morning.

Bernarde did not sound as grateful and excited as Gabriel thought he should. “In my office. That’s good news. But…”

Gabriel followed him through the restaurant, sighing. Even if the stock market was less risky for him than for most others, he’d still taken a huge gamble. But something was wrong.

Bernarde had a prized wooden cane, with a top sculpted from an old butcher block salvaged from a restaurant he’d worked at in his youth, long since closed. The cane was carved like a jolly fat snail munching on a leaf. Bernarde sometimes used it for balance, but its true default position was as a decoration hanging from his arm. When he was excited, he would wave it in the air like a conductor’s baton or thump it on the floor as he called out instructions in the kitchen or celebrated particular culinary victories of his staff. At the moment, though, Bernarde was more bent-over than usual, leaning on his cane in an unexpected and unsettling manner.

Bernarde said nothing further as he ushered Gabriel through the kitchen, past the dangling spatulas and scrapers, and the cast-iron skillets.

“Is there trouble?” Gabriel asked.

Bernarde shook his head, but just before he entered his office, a chef named Matilde Fernon intercepted him.

“Bernarde, please taste…”

Matilde offered Bernarde a spoon containing something creamy and yellow. Even before he tasted it, Bernarde said, “This rouille is excellent.” As the spoon entered his mouth, he said, “Yes, good amounts of both garlic and cayenne. Very nice.” He sniffed the air. “Now, give the duck rillettes one more day for the flavors to properly blend. And I know everyone is “flat chat working” in the kitchen, but it’s very important to let the mussel water settle before using it. One piece of grit will ruin an entire meal.”

When they were finally in Bernarde’s office, Bernarde gestured for Gabriel to sit and he closed the door.

“What’s wrong?” Gabriel asked, quietly.

Bernarde turned his computer screen to face Gabriel. “Look at this. Vite. It’s important.”

Gabriel wasn’t sure what he expected to see, but it wasn’t this.

On the screen, German chancellor Karl Steinmetz was frozen in mid-speech. On the bottom, the translation said: “—was the most glaring breach of international law in Europe since the Ukraine war—”

Bernarde scrubbed forward through the video, and then suddenly, the chancellor was lying on the stage.

“What the—”

Bernarde rewound the video, and one moment the chancellor was railing against new restrictions on exporting German-made weapons. “The threat to our neighbors is real!” And then he just stopped talking, his mouth agape. He grabbed the sides of the lectern with both hands, and crouched a little, like a center about to snap a football, in a game they didn’t play much in Germany. Then Steinmetz’s head hit the top of the lectern and snapped back like a luftballoon, and the man gently laid himself flat on the stage.

People screamed, and aides and doctors ran from all directions to help.

“Massive heart attack,” they said.

“Did Steinmetz live?” Gabriel asked.

“For now, but I don’t think he’s going to make it.”

“Well, that’s, well, unfortunate for him,” Gabriel said weakly, trying to pull from his brain anything he could remember about the German chancellor. There was nothing there.

“You don’t think this is suspicious?” Bernarde scowled.

Gabriel shrugged.

“Steinmetz was in tip-top health. He took that ski trip to the Alps last winter!”

Gabriel shrugged again.

“He’d been an Olympic athlete!” Bernarde said.

Gabriel thought: Yeah, that’s what you call someone good enough to make the team, but not good enough to win anything. Besides, that was decades ago. “He was 74, same age as me, a little older than you.”

“I’m not old, I’m well-seasoned,” Bernarde said. “Also, Steinmetz was a very spry 74… and it’s also suspicious timing.”

“How so?”

“Steinmetz had just survived a constructive motion of no confidence, by just a couple votes, and only because his enemies couldn’t decide on one person to succeed him.”

Now it’s beginning to sound fishy…” Gabriel said.

“You know how they’ll pick his successor?”

“No idea how they do it in Germany,” Gabriel said. “I suppose the people vote?”

“Not if the chancellor dies in office,” Bernarde said. “The President gets to pick whoever she wants, and then the Bundestag votes, but without any debate.”

“No debate? Hmm.”

“It’s also a secret ballot. Doesn’t that seem méfiant? Especially since, with Steinmetz out of the way, they’ll probably coalesce around Altenhofer, who has the exact opposite political positions!”

“All that sounds hinky and would be really troubling…” Gabriel said. “If it weren’t way over there in Germany.”

“Americans!” Bernarde sighed. “So parochial. Still isolationist. Don’t you remember when a couple dozen people got sick way over there in China, and there were presidential candidate debates here, but no one mentioned it once? Then a couple months later, we were all in lockdown, fearing for our lives?”

“Point taken.”

“Tell me this, Gabriel,” Bernarde said, looking him straight in the eyes. “Are you satisfied using your talents to wait tables here and make money on stocks?”

“I am really good at both of those things!” Gabriel protested. “I can read a customer’s mind and tell when they’re on a budget… or willing to splurge to impress a date. I sold three bottles of Château de Villon Cabernet Sauvignon 1998 last week. I remind you that that’s 250 a pop. No one else sold one!”

“Yes, yes, you’re very good at upselling. But…”

“So where does this lead us? Are you thinking about getting back in the game? After all this time? We’re too old for this!”

“Gabriel, I can, of course, read what you think you’re thinking…” Bernarde shook his head. “But as your friend, I want to tell you I think you worry about money too much. I know you’re lying to yourself about what’s important. Ask yourself something.”

“What?”

“Are you happy?”

~

The next day, Gabriel was in another crowded Metro car, scanning nearby minds for more stock tips.

Gabriel’s plan for the day was to transfer at Gallery Place to the Yellow Line and mosey down to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Were there any interesting patent applications which had been filed, but not yet published?

With just two stops to go before the transfer—

A text message came from an unknown caller. It was gibberish, a string of random numbers and letters, like someone self-texting a password, but accidentally getting him. No one ever texted him on purpose, not even Bernarde, who barely knew how to make a call on his expensive new phone. Gabriel cleared the message and his mind wandered. Chancellor Steinmetz had been 74. Same age as him. He wasn’t old! Was he? For years, he’d joked that on the inside he was still 16. Or maybe 18. Max 25. Of course he knew better, but… Joke, right?

Suddenly, he panicked and re-opened his phone. With a start, he realized that the message wasn’t gibberish, or a password. It was in code:

3ZAH 7 4 HXW9 2 5 J YL D3 3 3 8 OO M1 0ZG P P2E JL4 2 7

He thought over all the codes he had ever had to memorize back when he worked for the CIA. He started with the simplest, the substitutions, the shifts, the skips. Nothing seemed to work. He was out of practice.

Another text.

914&D^1w(g7HH)GTO-G7#7N#U$RX7

@4C*7T88#6N43!7!7G7*K3GT@8DB5@3n89^

Maybe the doubled characters—HH and 88—were commonly doubled letters, like EE or OO, assuming the answer was in English. If HH was EE, that would be shifting the letters by 4 places. He tried that, but it still spelled gibberish. He tried a few more shifts, but none of those worked, either. He then tried skipping, taking every third letter or number. Still gibberish. Same with every fourth, fifth or sixth.

Then he noticed certain phrases: 914, GTO, RX7, K3GT. These might refer to classic sports cars: Porsche 914, Pontiac GTO or Ferrari 250 GTO, Mazda RX-7, Mitsubishi 3000GT.

There were too many cars. It smelled like a trap for older male spies who liked older cars. But if the numbers and letters could be so easily changed into red herrings, maybe they were in fact individually meaningless.

Then he noticed the punctuation marks, never two next to each other, and never separated by more than 5 total letters or numbers. And maybe the punctuations doubled up—##, !! and @@—were also ciphers for commonly doubled letters. But they felt like red herrings, too. What if the punctuation marks were meaningless, too?

Finally, he thought of a cipher he had used before, but not since the Reagan administration. What if: The letters and numbers were dots and dashes in Morse code—or vice versa—with the punctuation just spaces separating the letters?

He tried that and suddenly the message meant:

Stay on at Gallery Place.

He looked around the crowded train car. Another mindreader! Who else could know his travel plans? He thought he and Bernarde were the only ones left. But one had to be nearby! One who read him thinking about codes, and then used one he remembered. Nice trick, he thought. He grinned in admiration.

But who?

A defector, or a double agent? A handler, or a hitman?

Was he getting pulled back into the game? And why did he feel a sudden thrill? He thought of Bernarde’s question: “Are you happy?”

Every once in a while, he’d be racing after a suspect in a dark alley, doing hush-hush secret superspy stuff—and then he’d wake up, all disappointed that it was just a dream. And disappointed again that mindreader agents were low-profile folks. Of the suspects he had tagged, he never got the chance to chase a one. The movies made it look so much more exciting.

Would he get off at Gallery Place? Not on your life.

At that stop, a major hub, most of the passengers got up and shuffled off the train, replaced by an influx of new passengers. The seat next to Gabriel was momentarily empty, then taken by an old lady.

She was a little wrinkled, but her face was rounded, still cute. She must have been a knock-out when she was young, with eyes as round and bright as Princess Diana. She wore a hand-made shawl over her silver hair and had a knitting bag in her lap. She seemed like him—way too old to still be in the game. Perhaps it was the perfect disguise.

Reflexively, he tried to read her but could sense only a faint mental buzz, as if she were meditating. Somehow, he was sure she was the mindreader behind the coded text.

“You are Gabriel Thomas,” she said. “But you used to be Tony.”

Gabriel’s foreign language speaking skills were rusty. But, with working at the restaurant, his listening skills were still sharp. To him, her slight accent seemed like it might be Russian, or maybe Armenian, but he’d have to hear more to be sure.

“I started using my middle name,” he said. It was an easy switch, and no paperwork.

She didn’t tell him her name, but she did smile at him. Almost a smirk, as if she knew something he didn’t.

As the train lurched into motion, she surreptitiously pointed a knitting needle at a guy sitting in the corner by the Metro map. He was in his mid-20s, and he wore a knock-off Washington Commanders jacket, and a hoodie with a picture of Ben Franklin blowing bubble gum. He had a couple bruises on his face, but tried to hide them with a baseball cap screaming “I ♥ DC” in neon yellow. Combined with the enormous digital camera hanging from his neck, his outfit made you think, “What a tourist!”—and then totally forget about him.

Gabriel looked back at the woman, as if to say, So what?

Very subtly, she pointed with her needle again.

Though Gabriel was a little tired and headache-y from mindreading, he was eager for the challenge.

One of the tourist’s hands was playing with his camera’s strap, the other fiddling with the lens—a 24-70mm f2.8 lens, which must have been four inches long, incongruously expensive compared to his clothes. He was holding the camera up slightly to take some weight off his neck.

Gabriel leaned forward, bringing the man just close enough to read his thoughts.

Point and shoot. Lol. I think I’ve had enough practice with this thing now, ready to take it into the wild, do the job. Red contrasts nicely with white. Will make a pretty picture. I can do this. Pretend to be focusing, but really removing the forward element.

Then Gabriel saw the images in the man’s mind, but with growing astonishment and horror. They were views of the inner mechanism of the camera. It wasn’t a camera. Removing the lens cap and forward element would expose two gun barrels hidden in the lens. Filling the lens and extending into the camera body were two single-shot 9mm barrels, side-by-side but fused together, each barrel with its own firing chamber, like a pepperbox pistol. Depressing the camera trigger halfway would activate a laser sight. All the way would fire both barrels out the front of the camera-gun.

Can’t miss. But if they want, I’ll do a couple more practice rounds. Sure. Lots of time before President Howard visits that pediatric hospital on Tuesday. He’ll want to go to the children’s cancer ward. A nice soft, soft target. Lots of people around. Can’t miss from across the room. Point and shoot.

Gabriel thought: Well, this is terrifying. Maniac with a camera-gun right here in Washington, not way over there. But hopefully no threat until Tuesday. What can I do? I can’t take him down. A 74-year-old geezer versus a nutcase kid? No way.

He tried to get a good look at the camera-gun. But with the lens cap on, it just looked like an ordinary camera. Their secret weapons were as well-crafted as ours, whoever they are.

What to do?

Well, this wasn’t the first trouble he’d spotted on the Metro. He had a burner phone in his pocket. He eased it out and snapped a couple pictures of this angry young man. Then he surreptitiously typed out a summary of what the kid had been thinking.

As soon as Gabriel was off the train, he’d hit SEND and toss the burner in the trash. The CIA and the DC and Capitol police and Secret Service would be very interested, but there was no need to draw undue attention to himself. No need to get directly involved.

As for the old woman, she clearly knew what the young man was up to, and, since she’d watched Gabriel type, she knew that he knew.

Now that Gabriel had passed her little test, he turned to see her reaction—but she was gone.

 

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