In the dark grey confines of the auxiliary Marine command center at Camp Pendleton, Major Devin Patel stood at the front of a small meeting room with a wall-length computer monitor behind him. The three walls in front of him consisted of a series of curved floor to ceiling windows that arched around him like a fishbowl.
Seated before Patel were his superior officer Lieutenant Colonel Eldrick Spitzenger, a fellow Major George Gertsch and the Commander of the unit, Lance Winger. Winger had been away from the Command Center for several weeks for a series of meetings at the Pentagon and had not received a full briefing of their mission to capture the AWOL officer, Cael Block. Finding Block would be predicated on identifying the travel patterns for the Holy man, whom they had tracked to New York City. If they could trap Jaio, and possibly threaten his safety, they could flush out Block and bring him to justice for evading his sworn service to the United States Marines.
Patel presented the analysis, conducted by his team, which showed an intriguing correlation between several different flights to and from DesMoines, Iowa and New York. One of the pages displayed a map with various curved red and green lines representing flight patterns of commercial and military flights out of and in to Westchester County Airport.
A second map showed what looked like glowing balls floating over Iowa and New York City with smaller balls shooting off into Connecticut and New Jersey.
“We’ve got a cluster map of all the reactive sightings we have registered in the past three months,” Patel reported. “The majority of them have appeared in and around DesMoines, with what looks like isolated excursions to Minnesota, Indiana and Illinois. From what we can tell, he visits mostly universities, congregations and charitable community organizations.”
“Universities such as Northern Iowa?” Spitzenger interjected.
“Yes sir,” Patel flinched. His eyes momentarily looked down to the floor and then swiftly back up to his commanding officer. “As you know, while we did not get to UNI in advance to prevent the bombing, we quickly tracked the perpetrator and apprehended him at the steps of his mosque in downtown DesMoines.”
“A charge he has vehemently denied,”
“They all do, sir.” Major Gerstch interjected.
“Not typically,” Winger corrected him. “If it is part of Jihad, they usually claim responsibility as a means for pronouncing justification based on their faith. Denial in this case is surprising.”
“Where did we get the lead?” asked Spitzenger.
“We developed a cooperative relationship with the Iman of the local mosque. The intel came from that mosque and enabled us to apprehend the bomber.”
“Do we have a tight case, despite the denial?” Spitzenger asked.
“Yes,” Patel opened a folder and produced incriminating photos of Sanjeep Zendawi obtained from his contacts as well as affidavits from Iman Ali about conversations in which Jeep admitted to his singular role in the attack. “We will be able to make the case.”
“Good work Major,” said Spitzenger in a formal tone. “Do we have any prospective leads on the Holy man or on Cael Block?”
“Predicting the Holy man’s appearances has been more difficult than when he was in the Middle East. He appears to have a third party helping him hide his on-line presence from us. His video appearances are routed across the world as well as any of our capabilities and his social footprint is still undiscovered. Because of this sophistication, we believe that he has attracted or hired a corporate technology sponsor. This is not the work of a lone technician or a skeleton crew.
“His secondary, and more recent sphere of influence appears to have moved to the east coast. While tracking them in metro New York has been difficult due to the density and their ability to maneuver using a wide range of transportation modes, we have had some success predicting his whereabouts between Iowa and New York.
“And we believe we may know at least some of the civilian members of his network thanks to Mr. Greyson Holliday, Block’s cousin, who proactively reached out to us several months ago. It turns out Holliday was born Horniday and grew up in Minnetonka with his religious parents and two siblings. He changed his name when he became an actor on a television program. That one contact has opened the crack into the entire operation for this Holy man and will lead us to apprehending Block.”
Winger and Spitzenger sat quietly listening, taking sparse notes. Patel clicked a remote mouse and a series of images matching his printed report popped up on the wall-length monitor behind them. A picture of Melanie Johnson filled the upper corner of the screen.
“This is Melanie Johnson, maiden name Horniday, sibling to Greyson Holliday,” Patel continued as her husband’s official publicity photo appeared next to her. “She is the wife of Senator Robert Johnson out of Central Iowa. She is highly involved in her Congregation and deeply religious, like her parents. We believe the holy man spent time under her care in her home in the DesMoines, Iowa area.”
Next to Melanie’s husband appeared two older individuals. The male had Melanie’s eyes and a similar shaped face. The female had her cheek-lines and similar skin tone.
“Reverend Clarence T. Horniday and his wife Harriet,” Patel continued. “These are the Parents of Greyson Holliday and Melanie Johnson as well as her older brother Michael Horniday.”
Greyson’s and Michael’s picture appeared to the right of his parents’ photos as Patel clicked through his presentation.
“We believe that Block was aided by Clarence and Harriet Horniday from a hostel they run in Eastern Africa. We believe he sought refuge for the holy man with them for several months, if not longer than a year. We eventually traced him to Iowa, where we believe he stayed with the Johnsons for several months.
He only recently appeared in New York and likely has a small network of supporters there. We have not determined where he has stayed over the past few months or identified any additional accomplices.
As for Greyson Holliday, he is an aimless talent coach, with no discernible clients. He also appears to have a significant substance abuse problem. We don’t believe he plays much of a role. But we are investigating further.
“Block and the Holy man return to Iowa on roughly a monthly schedule to speak to followers there. But, from what we can tell, he does not maintain regular patterns and he does not appear to stay with the Johnsons any longer. We have not cracked their flight protocol. We believe they utilize the Senator’s NetJets account, but often as a decoy flight.”
Winger stood up and moved to the screen to take a closer look at the map of commercial and private flights that they had tracked. He flicked the page on the screen and it refreshed with a different image, of Jaio’s worldwide influence. Little red spheres cropped up throughout the Middle East, into Turkey, Southern Russia and west toward Pakistan and Nepal.
“He communicates with all of these followers through videos that he sends out?” Winger asked. “Like Bin Laden used to do?”
“Not videos alone, Sir,” Patel addressed his commanding officer in stiff, rigid answers. “Live web casts. The live audience is sizeable, but others record the sessions and circulate them via underground social networks. Ultimately, his message gets out to several hundred thousand followers if not in the millions. We have seen the recordings. Predicting these web casts has been a challenge as his followers are extremely selective in whom they share this intel with. We believe it is only a matter of time. The more the following grows, the more difficult it will be for them to contain it. Our estimation has them approaching the critical mass point soon.”
“Like a celebrity,” Spitzenger muttered.
“Block is definitely with him,” Patel continued. “But he covers his tracks about as well as anyone in the world.”
“OK, I am effectively briefed on your operation,” Winger said. “What is it that you discovered that makes you think we can zero in on them.”
“Well, Sir, our correlation analysis found a military cargo plane that has flown a similar route to a corresponding NetJets flight. This correlation has taken place on numerous common dates that we believe the holy man and Block have traveled from Iowa to New York or vice versa. The matching of the flights maps to our analysis of when Jaio may have been in the Midwest verses when he was assumed to be in New York. We believe this flight is leveraged as a shadow transport. They book the flight on NetJets and work to hide the booking from us, which only calls it to our attention. But, they are flying under our nose on one of our own birds.”
“How do you know this?”
“We don’t for sure, but we are trailing Holliday and have seen at least three instances of his car appearing at Westchester airport. We believe either he has been used as a driver or he has loaned his car to his cousin.
“We have reason to believe that they have a secondary headquarters in either Iowa or Minneapolis, most likely coordinated by the sister,” Patel continued. “We are going to be watching all traffic along King Street, the Merritt Parkway and Route 287. If they use Westchester Airport again, we will know about it. We’ll be monitoring military flights from both destinations. We believe they mobilize every couple weeks to galvanize their Midwest pocket of support. If we come across an opportunity, we will track them from above via Blackhawk, just out of the commercial space. We have a protocol to sweep down on them once they hit King Street. It’s about a five-mile drive to the Highway down a long, dark, quiet road. At the edge of the airfield, there’s one stretch near a municipal golf course where the trees are cut back just right for us to come in low and fast. It’s innocuous, inconspicuous and ideal for a take-down.”
“Good work,” Spitzenger said, standing up to take leave with Winger right behind him. “We’ll scramble a team up in New York,”
“Sir,” Patel interjected. Winger exited. Gerstch snaked by. Spitzenger stayed behind.
“Permission to redeploy to New York and lead the take-down if and when we uncover an intercept point.” Patel said quietly. “I served with Block. This is personal for me.”
“I see,” said Spitzenger, rubbing his chin in thought.
“I just want to be there when we catch him,” Patel continued. “But I don’t want to make a big production out of it with Commander Winger. I don’t want to create an impression that I routinely allow my emotions to get to me. Can this be a covert op for me?”
Spitzenger looked at the younger Patel and pat him on the shoulder with a wink.
“Go get em’ soldier.
Cael Block squatted in the dark. His steel-toed boots matted the snow on the roof of Greyson’s apartment building. He peered over the edge at the crosswalks 20 floors below. The chaotic yet rhythmic ebb of the cars and the crowds splashed by like the muddy rivers of Lake Minnetonka.
“So many people,” he thought to himself. “So many opportunities for risk to our operation. To our people. Our team.”
Weeks after the big public “Open House” meeting in Churchville, Henry continued to guide and manage Jaio’s exposure to the mainstream. In response to the greater recognition, Cael started to use Teetorboro, Tweed New Haven and the MacArthur Long Island airport to further diffuse their travel patterns. He also banned all entrances and exits in and out of Greyson’s apartment and forced everyone to take the back entrance into the basement of the building and then traipse through the boiler room into the foyer through the service entrance.
The more Henry pushed to expose Jaio and his allies into the public spotlight, the more paranoid Cael grew about their security details.
The flood gates had not yet cracked open, but word of mouth percolated like a controlled boil, maintained just below the lid of the pot. Jaio’s footprint expanded from the few states he had monopolized to nearly half the country. He spoke at colleges, churches, temples, charitable organizations and even in malls, progressive mosques and on some small public town greens.
As Cael counted the countless people below him on the street, he shook his head at the difficult task of protecting his dependent team considering new exposure his campaign had received. Word of Jaio’s appearances started to leak, which created problems for him in securing the venues. Protest groups showed up in advance to chastise Jaio for daring to compete with their almighty God and father. This attracted local news crews and created a word-of-mouth hum that slowly elevated to a buzz. The protest crowds largely consisted of garden variety “crackpots”, bitter elders and ultra-conservative nuts – mostly tame and manageable. But a bigger wave of danger, Cael thought, loomed ahead of them with the attention they attracted.
In his unending pursuit of protection for Jaio’s team, Cael regularly networked with his sources both within and outside the US. And he had a wealth of Deltanomics intelligence agents and resources at his disposal. His sources consistently told him that US terror cells remained dormant. They had not witnessed any movement of known terrorists into the United States since the eradication of Abud Terhani’s team. Cael could have taken this as good news. But the relative quiet meant either their adversaries intended to lurk in the shadows to bait Jaio into dropping his guard, or worse, a new team of fresh recruits, with no history, no profile data and no pre-existing connections would assemble under their nose in their own home turf. A team of unknowns could strike without warning like the team that took down the towers in 2001.
He inspected one of the eight Deltanomics infrared sensors he had installed along the roof earlier in the month and brushed the snow off the gadget’s solar charging panel. He tugged at it and inspected the duct tape he had used to secure it in place. Only about 12 inches in diameter on an 18-inch square base, Cael couldn’t help but admire the world’s most cutting-edge monitoring technology and the goliath company that developed it.
In the late 1990s, Deltanomics worked closely with the City of New York and the NYPD to install sensors all over the city, like the one Cael had attached to Greyson’s roof. The devises, which were considerably less sophisticated at the time, used sonar to detect loud abrupt noises such as gun shots, automobile accidents and even loud screams. Police monitoring specialists could sit in a central station with headsets and listen for these incidents and then dispatch emergency personnel even before receiving any of the inevitable 911 calls. Throughout the decade, the software that monitored these thousands of listening devices grew in complexity and capability. Artificial Intelligence and automation software allowed the NYPD to cut back monitoring staff and the system could alert police dispatchers without interpretation by a human listener. Eventually, the dispatching app bypassed the department altogether and proactively sent the closest available officers to the scene of any suspected activity on its own.
Deltanomics had taken this concept and connected it with the “Big Data” movement of the late 2000s. They had also added exponential levels of sophistication to the monitoring sensors including infrared, video and heat. The sensors recorded every sound and movement within its range of view as data in a massive data warehouse. The accompanying software sorted through the terabytes of information generated by the sensors and provided alerts at any sign of threat.
For instance, the infrared and heat sensors could detect specific images of concealed objects made of metal. A knife or a gun would have a range of specific sizes and shapes. And the software had grown smart enough to detect these signatures using its various methods of “seeing” threats. The video and imaging engines could zoom and capture still photos or videos of people who possessed these items. Alerts included details of the threat along with the image and a time-stamped video file of their movement across the sensor’s field of view. The software even had a capability of engaging in basic profiling, predicting gender, height, weight and heritage, with moderate accuracy.
Soon after protesters attacked the US embassy in Benghazi, Libya in 2012, killing six Americans, the US Government placed an order worth several hundred million dollars with Deltanomics to install the devices in embassies all over the Middle East and activate the software at redundant command centers throughout the world.
Cael had always been aware of the devices and their potential for proactively identifying risks, but he had no idea how powerful they could be until he started to receive updates on his iPad with crystal clear pictures of every person on the street that had a concealed weapon.
He was also shocked at how many people hit the alert list. Having grown up in a card-carrying, NRA-supportive family, he had an extreme comfort with guns and weapons. And he knew people would and should carry whatever they needed to protect themselves. But as sophisticated a system as the police could produce, nobody could prevent the sudden random, unplanned act of passionate violence in the dark of the night – whether they had a weapon in their waistband or their purse or not. Not even him.
Cael checked all the sensors atop Greyson’s building. He watched the people below and the identical representation of the crowds in recordings of each sector on his iPad. He witnessed the occasional small handgun walking by. But in general, the rush-hour crowd seemed relatively benign.
The feed from the devices to the application existed in a secured “cloud” channel routed through a network of private satellites commissioned by Deltanomics. With the heightened level of security and encryption provided by the closed network, it enabled a sort of supremely privatized “chat” function, which Cael used to communicate with his team and with Henry’s resources.
“Snow removal from solar panels and sensor faces complete,” he texted to his technology partner, who had flown in to New York to upgrade data security in Greyson’s apartment.
“Images already coming through clearer,” Michael Horniday answered from 10 stories below. “thx - dude.”
Cael sat over the edge of the building with his legs draped and dangling. He pictured himself as a 9-year-old boy in Minnesota, running around emulating his 12-year-old cousin Greyson Horniday – just before his move to New York and his breakout career as a child actor. He had always admired Greyson and his family for their cohesiveness. They ate dinner together. They went to church together. They took the boat out on the lake as a family unit. Compared to his broken home life, he wished he could have been a Horniday instead of a Block. In fact, around the time that Greyson moved out, he practically became the fourth Horniday sibling.
Kenny, Cael’s father, had always exhibited abusive behavior toward his mother, Meghan. But as Cael approached double digits in age, the hostility escalated. Kenny verbally abused and harassed Cael’s mother on a weekly basis. He also slapped her around from time to time when he grew excessively angry. She hid it from the community and from her big brother, the reverend Clarence Horniday. But Kenny Block was a mean, insecure, high-strung asshole, whose life never amounted to the big dreams he had for himself. And he blamed Meghan for his lack of success.
While Meghan shielded her struggles from her own brother and his family, she could not hide the damage from Cael. By his 10th birthday, young Cael decided that he needed to step up and protect his mother. She couldn’t handle Kenny herself and he had to be the man of the family for her. He had reached almost 100 pounds, a solid kid for his age. He played competitive sports including football, wrestling and baseball and he had already started working out with weights. In his wrestling training, he had learned about mental toughness and about overcoming fear and insecurity by honing his focus on his goals and objectives. He was a tough wrestler and won many regional tournaments. His success hinged as much on his physical prowess as his unrelenting resolve to win. As a result, he was ranked among the top 10 in the state at the 98-pound weight class.
His chance to help his mother arose on an evening in which the Vikings lost the NFC championship on the last play of the game. Already aggravated by the disappointing loss, Kenny didn’t like the dinner Meghan made for him and he dreaded going back to work the next day. Cael could picture the mushy beef taco slop running down the wall after Kenny threw his plate of food. And he could see the red mark he caused when he slapped Meghan across the face.
That’s when Cael jumped off the couch and cold-cocked Kenny right across the jaw as hard as he could swing his fist. The blow hit him just right and broke his jaw in one shot. It also broke three of Cael’s fingers.
What happened next played like a blur in Cael’s mind. Kenny picked himself off the floor and unleashed a vicious attack on Cael, pummeling him to the ground, blacking his eyes, cracking a rib and knocking out a couple of his teeth. Meghan jumped on Kenny’s back and grabbed him by the throat, suffering a similar fate to her son. As Cael blacked out, his last wish was a prayer to God.
“Don’t let my mom die.”
Meghan Block did survive the evening. Kenny went to jail on the domestic violence charge. And Clarence and Harriet Horniday took them into their home to help them get back on their feet.
Cael had not seen his father again until he lay suffering from whatever ailment ended up killing him in his prison cell. Meghan had already remarried by then and didn’t even visit. She had moved on from Kenny and found her own happiness. Cael liked to think Kenny contracted AIDS. But he never received an explanation for Kenny’s rapid decline other than extreme personal neglect. He had lost the will to live.
Instead, Cael considered Clarence his actual father figure and the Horniday children his siblings. Of all the Horniday kids, it was Cael who responded the most positively to Clarence’s religious beliefs and values. He developed a worshipful devotion to God, partially inspired by the fact that his mother survived Kenny’s attack and partially due to Clarence’s influence.
The winter breeze whisked up the facade of Greyson’s apartment building and splashed Cael’s face with a powdery kiss of loose snow. Cael rarely occupied his mind remembering back to his childhood. He usually raced through the present and most often dedicated his thoughts to calculating an infinite array of potential future scenarios that he might have to handle. Michael Horniday’s presence in New York gave him pause to detour back. But after his quick mental detour, he reset his focus to his task at hand and finished checking all the Deltanomics sensors.
Cael reviewed the past few days’ worth of threatening characters as alerted by the Deltanomics platform and sent to his iPad. None of the images alarmed him. Until he spotted a man with a phone in the building across the street. The man leaned out his window with the devise extended. Cael noted the position of the window relative to the other apartments in the building.
What caught his attention was the angle at which the man held his phone. He pointed it directly at Greyson’s window and held it there for an inordinate amount of time. He did it more than once. The system had not flagged the individual, but Cael picked him out with his own naked eye in several of the frames.
“5:49pm last night … 3:18pm on Tuesday … 10:02am and 2:40pm last Saturday,” he texted to Michael Horniday through the Deltanomics system. “Apartment across the street. Two floors above restaurant. Middle window. What’s he doing? Video Surveillance?”
“Looks like it,” Michael replied after a short time. “Freakin peeper! Go kick his ass dude.”