Thousands of supporters dotted the half-mile-wide mound at the Forrest Hills Cemetery where Gina quickly planned Jameis Thomason’s memorial service. The news story of his heroic death coincided freakishly with the timing of Missy’s Pulitzer victory and the continued outing of Jaio as the presumed son of God. It also came a day after the announcement by CSM’s publishing house that the book written by Jameis Thomason, “Second Coming”, chronicling Jaio’s rise to prominence and his expansive platform, would hit the shelves at the end of the month.
The view from the overhead news cameras revealed what looked like an ant hill covered in tiny insects clamoring over every square inch of ground.
Jaio stood atop a small scaffold with his arms raised. He spoke into a nearly invisible microphone taped below his ear. His voice carried down the hill and across the cemetery, aided by strategically placed speakers.
Not unlike the scene in Jeruselem years earlier, he commanded the crowd. His voice resonated, and the throng silenced to harp on his words. Had they come to honor Jameis? Were they just awestruck by the Messiah? Gina couldn’t tell. A little bit of both, she assumed. In the days following the incident and their work with Deltanomics to recover the body, Jameis had become a household name as a sort of martyr for Jaio’s cause.
News talk shows fed off various angles and debates generated from the incident. Headlines and teasers bombarded the web, occupied the television screens and dominated the newspapers.
“Courageous, Selfless Death of Jameis Thomason Inspires Jaio’s Base”
“Jaio’s Movement Irresponsible and Unfair to Followers for Putting them in Danger”
“Is it Blasphemous to Claim to be the Son of God?”
“Political Fall-out for World Leaders who Choose to Meet or Support the Messiah.”
“Is this a Fad that we will all Laugh about in Ten Years?”
“What if Jaio is Real and True?”
Cidalia Gaudin stood with her shoulder pressed against the back of Greyson’s and slipped her arm into his in a show of support. Typically, Gina accompanied Greyson on long drives with Jaio. But she had stayed in Boston the night before to organize the service.
Instead, Greyson called Cidalia and they drove to the Boston suburbs that morning leaving Hakim behind in SoHo. Hakim had asked at his Mosque for guidance on what to make of Jaio’s presence in the world and he was told that it would be a crime against Allah to believe in or support the infidel Jaio.
“I am forbidden,” he told Cidalia. “But you should go and see what it is all about.”
Cidalia and Greyson stood, surrounded by the garden of the funeral grounds and the mass of human followers. They listened closely to Jaio’s words calling for people of all faiths and nationalities to respect, value and cherish human life.
He told the story of how Jameis Thomason had sacrificed himself to save the life of a small child and how his act of selfless bravery saved the well-being of the child’s entire family.
And then, to the rabid excitement of the followers before him, he brought the small Syrian child onto the platform to join him. Her parents and three siblings all huddled close to Jaio. He rose above them like a spire in the heart of a city.
The presence of the Syrian family came as a complete shock, not just to the audience, but to the press as well. Like an accident in the middle of a highway, it brought the news cycle to an immediate screeching halt and cut over all 24-hour coverage to Jaio’s platform.
Henry Lucas had struck a deal with his former partner, Lloyd Burnham, from Deltanomics to extract the family and set them up in a sort of witness protection program with a new identity, a job for the father, schooling for the children and a low rent apartment in Queens.
The father hugged Jaio. The mother kissed him. And when the young girl, whom Jameis had saved, waved to the crowd and blew them a kiss with her miniature little hand, the chants began.
It started low, like a murmur. And it grew like a series of waves in the ocean. Greyson immediately flashed back to the video as the sound escalated to a deafening roar.
“Jaio … Jaio … Jaio…”
The new CEO of Deltanomics looked out over lower Manhattan. A dense, dark fog rolled in from the Hudson River. It filled the city streets and avenues like the caulk that fills the cracks in the gridded pavement below. The taller buildings stuck up from the cotton-like clouds resembling stepping stones in a murky pond.
To the left of the giant window wall, his whiteboard oozed with red, blue, green and black marks in various sets of handwriting. Crude images of countries with circles, arrows, boxes and check marks indicated some important global business strategy that nobody but him and a few of his top executives could decipher.
Circling the room, he opened a drawer in his credenza and pulled out a bottle, two brandy glasses and two cigars. He placed them on the table next to his stark white couch and poured himself a drink. He fingered his cigar and checked the time on his cell phone.
The television in the corner played CNN’s coverage of Jameis Thomason’s funeral mass. Like the view out his window of the Freedom Tower in lower Manhattan, Jaio rose above the human skyline of the crowd and delivered his messages of peace and love.
Lloyd smiled. Then he shook his head.
On cue, his assistant texted him that his visitor had arrived. The tiniest twitch crossed his lower lip. He snuffed it out with his hand, which he rubbed across his mouth in anticipation. The cell phone clock indicated 12 minutes before the hour.
“He can wait,” he texted his assistant. “Tell him I’m on a call.”
Henry Lucas sat patiently in the waiting room outside his old office. His assistant, Audrey, had transferred to another department and now supported a mid-level accounting manager in Norristown, NJ. The new assistant, after checking him in, erected an invisible wall not speaking or looking up at him the entire 17 minutes he sat there in relative solitude. In his time, Audrey would have offered coffee, water or soda and engaged in small talk with the visitor. He had always employed the same tactic as Lloyd - making his guest wait excessively to establish whose time had greater value. Glancing at his watch, he realized that he must have subjected Audrey to much inane chit chat over the years.
“Henry, old friend,” said Lloyd Burnham, finally pushing apart the double doors to Henry’s old office.
Henry crossed the room and approached his former Chief of Staff. He did not extend his hand. Instead, Lloyd’s arm moved first, and they ultimately greeted each other with a stiff tight handshake.
“How’s the global religious reformation going for you?” Lloyd asked. “You know what happened to Peter & Paul, Luther, Joan of Arc, Thomas Beckett, Thomas Moore and Malcolm X, to name a few? I hope your security detail is well stocked.”
“We’re making due, thanks.” Henry replied, looking at the whiteboard. “We appreciate the bodies and the technology you’ve loaned us. With the size of events like this one, we needed the help.”
“It’s all just as well,” Lloyd continued. “Those famous martyrs probably inspired the world as much in their deaths as they did in their lives.”
“Still working on Egypt, I see,” Henry changed the subject, nodding at the whiteboard.
“It’s a constant battle,” Lloyd replied. “Nice parlay with your delta asset and the Syrian family appearance at the funeral event. A classic Lucas pull of the heartstrings.”
Henry glanced at the television coverage.
“Thank you for your assistance with the extraction,” he said, taking one of the comfortable seats. “The rest is just timing and execution on his part with help from a good team of people around him.”
Lloyd poured Henry a drink and offered the cigar, which Henry declined. Lloyd clipped the end and lit one for himself anyway.
“Let’s talk security enhancement,” Lloyd cut right into business, laying out a plan to permanently supplement Cael, Ruben and his coalition of committed volunteers with his cadre of robotic human paramilitary assets.
Henry knew he needed the bodies. They would ensure not only Jaio’s security, but the safety of the entire team. The movement had outgrown Cael’s ability to be in multiple places at a time. The sheer size and complexity of the funeral event had finally convinced Cael and his team that they needed help.
The bottom line was that he needed Lloyd. But Lloyd would want payment. And his fee would not be money. He’d want a much higher premium.
“The Pope,” said Lloyd. “I want an audience with the Pope. Jaio and the Pontiff. We’re working our sources in and around the Vatican – a hard nut to crack. We’re pushing for acceptance, acknowledgement, maybe even approval. Connect your movement with an endorsement from the Pope and you’ll count your followers in the billions instead of the hundreds of thousands.”
The scope, the audacity and the sheer ambition of Lloyd’s proposal took even Henry by surprise. He paused, gathered his thoughts.
“You want to tip the balance of power? This is the catalyst.”
“This is the moment of change that we’ve needed for centuries,” Lloyd explained. “A new ‘Messiah’. Think about the implications. This is a once in a millennium opportunity to move society in a new direction. We can reset the course of human history if we play this right.”
“We’re not playing a game Lloyd,” Henry had always had to stay sharp to keep up with his shrewd business partner. “We’re just spreading a renewed message of peace. We’re not ready for the Pope.”
“But you are,” said Lloyd, motioning to the television coverage. “You asked for my help and promised a partnership in return. We want the Pope.”
Henry paused again. He watched the coverage. The scroll read: “New Messiah Rallies Boston Crowd”.
“Lloyd,” he said. “Why the Pope?”
Greyson pulled the Lincoln Town Car past the barriers and through a small crowd of police officers. A muscle-bound individual dressed in black with a small white earpiece motioned them forward and they circled around the hill to an empty parking space a couple hundred yards from where Jaio had just concluded his sermon.
Gina Santaria ambled down the hill to greet them wide-grinned and full of bouncy energy.
“Can you believe the reception?” she asked. “And the coverage? Wow. Big Time!”
Greyson introduced Cidalia and gave Gina a small hug. She kissed him on the cheek and continued, nearly out of breath.
“So many amazing stories came out of that little exercise where he asked everyone to find someone in the crowd and give them something special. People shared their water and food. It was amazing how much food came out. It was like a feast! There was an auto-mechanic who offered to fix someone’s car. An Uber driver offered a bunch of people free rides. Someone shared their grandmother’s fudge recipe. A little girl gave her hair scrunchie to another little girl. It was awesome.
“There was even a plastic surgeon who offered to fix someone’s scar. It was amazing to see it all happen.”
Greyson nodded and Cidalia smiled at Gina. Nobody had her energy. Greyson often found himself energized by her presence and her passion.
“A local restaurant donated trays of tabbouleh, hummus and grilled lamb,” said Gina. “Come share with the team.”
Greyson stepped forward and reached for Cidalia’s hand. She pulled back. Gina recognized Cidalia’s reluctance and looked away, nudging forward to provide a shade of privacy.
“You go,” she said. “I’m going to stay in the car and text Hakim. I’m not hungry and I have my nut bar.”
“Don’t you want to meet Jaio?” Greyson asked.
“No,” Cidalia replied. “I’m not sure I do. I’m not ready for that. I like how he said that your faith comes from within and not from outside influences around you. And I agree that it is okay to hold on to beliefs from the past while also embracing new interpretations and understandings. But, I’m not quite ready to meet him. I can’t let go of my up-brining and embrace him as … as a savior or a Messiah. I’m sorry Grey.”
Greyson put his hand on her shoulder.
“I don’t want you to sit here all by yourself.”
“It is a beautiful cemetery,” she placed her hand on top of his. “I’d like to take a walk around it and just think. You go eat with your friends. I’ll be fine. Honestly.”
Greyson caught up with Gina and glanced back at Cidalia walking down an asphalt path into a wooded section of the grounds.
“What was her special gift to you?” asked Gina as they ascended the hill toward Jaio.
“A kiss,” he replied. “She kissed me on the cheek.”
Lloyd Burnham took a deep drag on his stogie and blew a thick white cloud of smoke into the air.
“I have a special smoke alarm that can differentiate between the smoke from a cigar and any other kind of smoke,” he beamed. “Technology enables us such great joy in life. Wouldn’t you agree?”
Henry sipped his brandy and exhaled to clear the fog from his lungs.
“The Pope?” Henry repeated his question.
“The Pope,” Burnham continued. “You want to legitimize your asset? You need a high-level endorsement from a credible source. With a story this grand and preposterous, you won’t win over enough demographics on your message alone – despite how resonant and brilliant that message may be.
“Personally, I think you’ve got the next Jesus or Mohammed on your hands. At the very least, you’ve got an MLK or a Gandhi figure and we can still go a long way with an asset like that.
“The problem here is that your boy can’t be Mohammed and Jesus at the same time. That won’t work. You’ve got to declare. You’re either going for the Islamic base or the Catholics. But you can’t have them both.”
“This is not a political campaign,” Henry interjected.
“No,” Lloyd raised his voice a half notch, dropped his tone and leaned forward. “But this is a war. As you know, we talk about change a lot in our business. And war is just change raised to the nth degree. We’re paid to predict change and to help powerful people get ahead of change. We steer the change, control the change. Hell, we manipulate the course of change for the betterment of society.”
“For the betterment of paying clients,” Henry corrected him.
“But we choose clients who generally want positive change.”
“That’s how we started,” said Henry. “That’s not always how we finished.”
“We can both agree that your subject, Jaio, wants positive change in society to improve the human condition. He wants peace. He wants love and respect. He wants a better, more civilized world.”
Henry nodded and finished his last sip of brandy.
“We talk about regime change,” Lloyd continued. “When a political figure or a movement or a nation grows too powerful and threatens us, we work to take out that regime. We identify the power structure and we either cut the head of the snake or we cut out the body around the head. Either way, we keep competing movements down and maintain our superiority.”
“This isn’t global politics,” Henry interrupted.
“No,” Lloyd smiled, taking a second to tap ashes from his cigar into an ashtray. “This is a war of the soul. And your asset is the nuclear bomb that can strike the heart of the enemy.”
“You know the Muslim world and the world of radical fundamentalists are two different planes of existence,” said Henry. “You can’t lump the two together. They are not the enemy.”
“Why the Pope?” Lloyd ignored Henry’s statement. “Because we’re losing the war. The rads are recruiting at a level that we can’t stop. They’re multiplying like rabbits in a carrot factory. And we have no countermove. They’re reaching Americans, Mexicans, Canadians, Methodists, Lutherans, Catholics, even the Swedes, Fins and Swiss. They’ve got a marketing, PR and social machine in place and their message works. I don’t know how.
“I have no clue why a 15-year-old junior varsity soccer player from Saint Louis sneaks off to Damascus to have terror babies with uncle Amir. But they’re doing it and we can’t figure out how to stop it.”
“You think Jaio can stop it?”
“We’re studying his audience now. He appeals to all races and ages. Anyone ammenable to change or pissed off about their condition is open to him. In a short time, he has attracted hundreds of thousands of believers, possibly millions. And the upside projects to keep going indefinitely. These are people who have actively chosen to accept him as their new savior – sent to earth by God himself. He’s the key to winning back the souls of our citizens.”
“You don’t even believe in God,” said Henry.
“No, I don’t,” Lloyd leaned back and billowed smoke into the air. “I believe this is it. This is all we get. When it ends, we fade to black like in a movie. In four million years, I don’t know how we evolved to this point. I didn’t exist that entire time and I have no consciousness of anything that happened during that continuum. Four million years from now, I have no idea what the world will look like either because I will cease to exist. Time will continue without me as it did before I was born.
“But while I’m here in this blip in the time scale, I want to make my mark. That’s all there is to life. You’ve got what makes you happy in the moment and what you want to accomplish throughout your life and nothing more.”
“So, when you die, you just cease?” said Henry “Isn’t that kind of depressing?”
“I believe that when you die, in your last moment of life your mind loses the ability to understand or account for the passage of time. Therefore, I believe in everlasting life. But I believe in your last instant, that everlasting life is merely a state of humanly perceived perpetuity. It’s not real of course, but then again, most concepts of Heaven or Jaddah or Valhalla - whatever you want to call it - seem quite contrived as well.”
“Well,” Henry rebutted. “Given the choice of believing in Heaven or rationalizing it your way. I’ll take the belief - even if wrong - over your way.”
“That’s what makes us good people,” said Lloyd. “We can agree to disagree with respect and deference to each other’s point of view. This is why the world needs unity and why your boy, Jaio, may be the first figure to come along in more than 2,000 years with the ability to bring our society together. And it starts with the Catholics. Our research indicates that they are the group most likely to buy in as a macro-unit.”
“And you believe that an audience with the Pope would be like turbo-charging Jaio’s movement and legitimizing his position beyond just the people who are open to and looking for change. You think it can expand his base.”
“Very deeply,” Lloyd continued. “We know it. We’ve already conducted the research and projected the influence. He could be bigger than Mohammed himself. He could revolutionize this fucked up landscape of religious fanaticism and isolationism. He could tip the balance of power.”
“What balance of power?” Henry asked.
“I know the difference between peaceful Islam and radical, violent Islam,” said Lloyd. “But a billion Catholics is a powerful base. That base used to be a quarter of the world. It’s now less than 10%. Double it or even triple it and you would have enough momentum to stop the spread of Islam. Good Islam or bad, a dominant Islamic world is not good for society. We could bring the world back into balance. We’re heading for destruction at our current rate. You know it. We know it. We’re devolving. And the new Messiah can help us tip the scales the other way.”
“But this isn’t about strengthening one religion over another,” Henry protested. “Jaio’s message is one of unity and human bonds regardless of affiliation with religion or country.”
“That strategy can’t work. Take a step back from your role as head of the foundation. Put yourself back in your old shoes. Think strategically and evaluate tactical choices with their most likely outcomes. You’ll see that you can’t unite the whole world in a vacuum.
“Unite the groups that already have a kinship, a set of commonalities and an inclination to bond. Then work toward uniting the disparate groups. You know this is better as a two- or three-part strategy. And if you still had my role, it would be your approach as well.”
Henry gazed across his old office. Many years-worth of scribbles and diagrams danced across the old whiteboard in his mind. He decided that Lloyd’s vision made strategic sense in terms of strengthening Jaio’s base. But in strengthening, it also served to divide.
“We’ll agree to try and arrange a meeting with the Pope, if that’s even possible,” he said. “But we need a short list of the biggest Muslim leaders that you can get us, and we need to meet with them too.”
“You won’t get them all together,” Lloyd replied. “These would be separate audiences.”
“What if we made it a big conference or summit?”
“As you said,” Lloyd sneered playfully, “I am not a man of faith.”
The back of Cidalia’s head bobbed past a small evergreen tree along the walking path at the Forrest Hills Cemetery. Her long black skirt teased in the wind as a last wave goodbye. She slipped past the side of the hill like the setting sun arcs past the horizon on a summer evening. She disappeared down the walkway and into the shaded section of the grounds.
The shadowed figure that followed moved too quickly. The object in his pocket looked too suspiciously like a firearm. He closed quickly behind Cidalia with an obvious sense of purpose.
The hired Deltanomics resource stationed to watch Cidalia, Greyson and the car sprang into action. He jolted from the nearby bench, called for back-up eyes on the car and sprinted down the path to intercept Cidalia’s assailant.
Cidalia had moved slowly and her attacker quickly. The bodyguard would not arrive in time. As the guard drew his weapon to neutralize the hooded individual, his finger paused. The hooded figure passed Cidalia without incident and kept walking quickly down the path.
Cidalia smiled, nodded politely at him as he passed and kept walking at her own relaxed pace.
The Deltanomics employee momentarily moved out of sight beyond the same evergreen tree that Cidalia had passed only moments earlier. A dark, bearded figure emerged from a second bench on the other side of the car. He had precisely 30 seconds before the Deltanomics back-up resource would come into view of Greyson’s Town Car. He slid a long thin, round strip of metal down his arm and out the sleeve of his camouflage long-sleeve cotton shirt. He gently unscrewed the radio antenna on the passenger side of the car and replaced it with a seemingly identical new antenna. The entire operation took seconds and went unnoticed by anyone in the general vicinity.
As this second character retreated in the opposite direction of the walking path and away from the union of the first and second Deltanomics guards, he slid his thumb over the tracking button on the GPS device from his belt and activated the application connected to the tiny chip in the replacement antenna on Greyson’s Town Car.