Melanie Johnson wiped the kitchen table, rinsed the plates and scrubbed two large skillets. Her children had finished their breakfast and caught the bus that stops just down the road from her driveway. Her husband had attended a political conference in Ames and would not return until well after the kids had gone to sleep. Melanie would reply to a slew of e-mails from members of the congregation to make sure each of her community events would run smoothly. She would dole out instructions to her volunteers and follow-up with voice mails to her committee members. She would then clean the house and start prepping for dinner soon after lunchtime.
Still early on a crisp Monday morning, she pointed her iPhone at the television and tried to catch the webcast of the workshop that Jai would conduct at the University of Northern Iowa. He had gained such popularity as an inspirational speaker and life-coach throughout the area. And his ability to promote positive values and teachings made him a star in her congregation. Her parents would be so pleased with his demeanor and spirit and they would be proud of her for giving him the opportunity to shine.
Melanie so hoped that Jai would succeed in his mission to spread his word and she was willing to support him in any way she could. She would provide room and board for as long as he needed it. And she would continue to feed him and fund his travel costs.
The Senator supported her project as always despite any PR difficulty it could eventually cause him. And the kids adored their houseguest. She brought him to her bible study group and he dazzled the congregation with his deep knowledge and insight into the bible and its many stories and messages. As other congregations heard about him through word of mouth, they asked him to address their people at their services as well.
During the day, Jai sought out church leaders in private to engage in long theological discussions and reflections on human behavior and norms. He also spent time with philosophy professors at local colleges and universities and started to field requests from youth ministries and community groups to address their membership as well.
Mikey had set him up with a Trinity Account and helped him broadcast his events. The following that he generated staggered Mikey. He marveled at how quickly it escalated and how much passionate interactivity he generated. He had never seen such a social media wildfire erupt and he had worked with some of the most popular celebrities of the day.
Melanie accessed the link to Jai’s presentation and waited. But the feed never kicked on. Instead, she stared at a blank screen for 10 minutes before finally giving up and moving on to the basement to finish washing the laundry.
“I hope everything is OK,” she mused to herself as she folded her husband’s blue jeans.
Henry Lucas sat back in a plush leather recliner with his iPhone pressed to his ear, warm against his cheek and hot in his hand. He spoke quietly to a group of staff members of the giant Corporation that he ran called the Deltanomics Group.
Deltanomics served a wide spectrum of geopolitical and economic needs for clients that ranged between political and military leaders in primarily NATO countries, although the Damascus office often veered deep into America’s most volatile Middle Eastern allies as well.
Henry benefitted from a close friendship with former classmate at Yale, President George Bush - the second one – the one with the big ideas about world politics and small-minded approaches to domestic policy. This friendship and the $100 Billion cost to maintain the “War on Terrorism” in Iraq and Afghanistan enabled him to expand his consultancy and shield his covert activities from public scrutiny. Connections with President Bush’s brilliantly devious cronies also helped him to position his firm with Congress as a political consultancy and PR firm with offices in New York, Washington DC, London and Damascus.
Most knew Deltanomics as experts in crafting strategies to help politicians react to major economic and political events across the globe in order to influence world opinion and manipulate domestic press.
Many had seen Deltanomics spokespeople commenting about world politics and foreign policy on 24-Hour news programs like CNN, FoxNews and MSNBC.
Few understood the depth of its influence or the scope of its involvement in not just reacting to political events and crises, but in facilitating them, manipulating them and exploiting them. Of Henry’s 6,000 employees, more than half of them served in covert roles overseas, planted among the country’s worst enemies.
“The President himself is looking for our input here,” barked Lloyd Burnham into the phone from a conference room in the DC office. “You should be on a private Jet down here and not on some boondoggle. Monday mornings are always busy and we’ve got the phone ringing off the hook. We’ve got half the Congress looking for our take on Tehran.”
“We’ve been through this with Egypt and Bahrain,” Henry replied. “We keep quiet. We don’t take sides. We don’t offer any moral commentary until the violence breaks out. Then we pounce, condemn the local government and throw our support to the revolutionaries. It all turns on the violence.”
“Egypt and Bahrain are different from Iran though,” Lloyd spoke louder than necessary to drown out the buzzing office around him. “This is a lot more like Syria than Egypt. We are much darker on the details and we have no eyes inside the regime. We have to deploy more bodies. Where do we want our feet? We’ve got a lot of talent in the peninsula. But we need to bring them inland. We need better leverage in Iran.”
Henry looked past his own reflection in the plate glass window that separated the lounge at the Westchester NetJets terminal and the empty hangar below. In his mind a map of the Middle East had push pins signifying his contract and freelance resources scattered throughout the region. His teams comprised mostly of former US armed forces rolling off their tours and foreign military defectors, intelligence agents and freedom fighters with inside information and connections.
The brand of political manipulation conducted by Deltanomics exploited technology and the explosive power of social media. Using hand-picked participants placed at the “ground zero” point of each conflict, the firm utilized vast social networks to broadcast graphic images and carefully constructed communications to drive mass perceptions and emotions.
Images of bloodshed by the Syrian government, pictures of dead civilians in the streets of Tripoli, even many of the wide angle-videos of the massive revolution in Cairo – hit the AP as anonymous contributions from nameless Deltanomics agents on site.
It always pained Henry to learn of an agent’s death. It distressed him even more to learn that an agent had been captured because of the long, brutal torture they would inevitably face. When a 12-man team was ambushed in Pakistan and captured by the Taliban several years ago, the firm had to spend millions of dollars swapping teams, replacing technology and developing all new security protocols.
Henry thought about Iran, the crown jewel of the Middle East, the biggest, most powerful -- and to date - most elusive regime in the area. Neither the US, nor the Iraqis nor any other paramilitary organization east of the African Continent had managed to successfully crack the iron-clad veil that shielded the Iranians from the rest of their Middle-Eastern neighbors. They had nuclear power and the world’s fourth most potent military. They locked down technology and communication nearly as well as the Chinese and they had that off-balance bravado that they projected to the world like a sloppy drunkard wandering through a crowded street with a loaded revolver.
“Your flight will arrive on time, Mr. Lucas,” said the NetJets concierge as she brought him a complimentary drink. “It will be here in about a half hour.”
In front of him, two young consultants peered at a laptop together. Behind them, a tall attractive blond in a fitted business suit with a silky purple scarf read news on her iPad. Above the bar area, CNN displayed images of a massive student protest that had escalated in downtown Tehran, with riot police desperately trying to hold their line against an overwhelming throng of angry demonstrators. They hurled rocks, waved flags, and held red and white striped cloth over their mouths to avoid breathing in the smoke that billowed across the streets. Most of the coverage came from cell phone video images broadcast on Twitter and Google Trinity and replayed on the major News networks.
Henry watched the display with a curious, concerned detachment as the footage switched to a bombing. Clouds of smoke billowed from what looked like a brick hospital or school. His attention shifted as his iPhone vibrated and he took a second call from Lloyd. They had received final clearance and a specific time for their briefing with the President as confirmed with the Executive Assistant.
“Iran is just logistics. Find the resources and deploy them.” Henry calmly instructed his more agitated partner. “We have already crafted our analysis. We have the key message for the President. I was on with the Chief of Staff at six this morning. He is already prepping the President. Stick to plan. You only have to tell him what he already knows. And once the President is informed, stay mum to the rest of the idiots calling us. The last thing we need is Sarah Palin to have a half-informed opinion to hawk to FoxNews.
“Lloyd, it’s your play with the President. Grip it and Rip it. Get everyone else to work with our friends in Russia. Solve for the resources by tomorrow morning and let’s start getting better feeds from the streets of Tehran. Call me after I land in about 3 hours with the update.”
Henry knew that today’s events required more of his attention than he had supplied. But he had planned to dedicate this day to his daughter. He made sure to conduct all of his hushed conversations early to control the flow of information and ensure that his analysis of the political strategy had plenty of preview among the key players.
“Never go into a meeting not knowing everyone’s position in advance,” he thought to himself. “Take everyone else’s best ideas and find the commonality between them. Then pitch their own ideas back to them and they will buy in.”
He shot a second glance at the TV monitor at a curious image of a tall figure holding open some sort of doorway to help people escape from the bombing that CNN had started covering as “breaking news”. He strained to focus on the text scroll below the vivid image but could not quite read the caption under the video feed to get more details about where or when the bombing had taken place.
“What is UNI?” he thought to himself.
His thought bubble popped at the soft high pitch of his daughter conversing with an adult - a female. He arched his back to see over the top of a couch across the room and caught a glimpse of Olivia’s head. Adjacent to her, the long-legged NetJets employee, who had served him his scotch, made a right angle with her body, leaning down and in toward Olivia.
“Now that’s just the cutest little dolly you’ve got there, sweetie,” her voice sounded like the song of a hummingbird with a slight Texas twang to it. “Aren’t you just as cute as a little button there now?”
Henry rose from his chair and put down his drink. He started toward Olivia, less out of concern for her and more as a means for demonstrating his attentiveness as a parent.
“Where’s your mama at darling?” Henry could hear her starting the process of delicately probing to make sure there is a responsible guardian on hand for the girl. Henry quickened his pace across the carpeted lounge.
“She died … hic,” he could hear Olivia’s response and the telltale hiccup that announced her location like a homing beacon. “She’s in Heaven,”
“Yes, thank you,” Henry smiled and the shot of tension that arose at the mention of Olivia’s mother eased in his back and he relaxed just a bit.
“I see she has a case of the hiccups,” Becky continued, which shot the tension right back. “Let me just go on over to the bar and get her a glass of pop. You know you stir out all the bubbles and drink it real slow like, it totally cures them. I bet you didn’t know that did you?”
“Thank you,” Henry forced a smile. “I’ve tried that. It didn’t work. Come on Olivia, let’s get Muffy back into your carryon so we don’t lose her.”
“He tried everything,” Olivia looked up almost expressionlessly and then back down at her doll. “Nothing … hic … worked.”
“Yes, thank you Miss,” Henry did his best to avoid sounding brusque. “Olivia, I have some juice for you in my bag, let’s go take Muffy back to our seats. Thank you again Miss.”
“Take care now sweetie pie,” Becky touched the top of Olivia’s head. “You take care of those hiccups now, hear?”
Henry sighed in relief as Becky had already turned away and hadn’t heard or registered Olivia’s last comment. The thought of working through another ten-minute diatribe about all of the treatments he has sought and all of the crazy “foolproof” old wives’ tales that people inevitably suggested tightened his back muscles to no end.
“Is the doctor … hic …going to fix my brain?” Olivia asked, taking Henry’s hand as they strolled back to the big leather seat and their two bags.
“Honey,” Henry hunched down on one knee in front of her. “There is nothing wrong with your brain. You have a beautiful brain. And you are a very smart little girl. He just thinks there may be a way to block the nerves that go into the tiny little part of your brain that feels like hiccupping all the time.”
“How tiny?” Olivia asked with her face scrunched up as if straining to imagine a microscopic bug in her brain with a little mouth making hiccup sounds inside her head.
Henry pinched his index finger against his thumb and held them right up close to her eyes. He raised his voice nearly an octave and whispered “thiiiiiiiiis tiny.”