Prologue and Chapter 1
The Year 2013
“I have secrets,” the man bragged, his words stumbling over each other.
“Secrets? Who the fuck are you, James Bond?” Sitting on the edge of her stool, Debra could smell whiskey not only on his breath but permeating from every pore of his skin. Although drunk, there was a certain charm to him.
“I’m more bad-ass than Bond. He’s nothing but a cocktail-sipping lush. I’ve gotten away with murder—”
“Ah… according to the movies, 007 seems to have a license to kill. I’m not impressed.” Debra scoffed at the irony as he sucked down whiskey like water.
She glanced around the bar—a dive in the middle of D.C. with jukeboxes, dark wood, neon lights, and rather unsavory clientele. Why did she come here, much less accept a drink from this slithering stranger? Something had attracted her to his sophisticated savagery. This seemed a man of culture and intelligence.
But a cold-blooded killer, she guessed, costumed for a mysterious motive. Dressed in dark jeans, dark tee, a leather bomber jacket and black boots, he could have been any of these blithe barflies. Until he opened his mouth or tried to pinch her in the butt.
“What’s a pretty thing like you doing in a place like this?” He asked with a hiccup.
“I guess I could ask the same of you, although you’re not so pretty.” Looking at him she guessed he was once very handsome, but now weathered, battered and brooding. He seems confident yet scared of his own shadows.
“I… I’ve got bigger secrets than Bond,” he mumbled. “I’m a one-man weapon of mass destruction. Even why I’m here in this shit-hole is a secret! I’m rich and powerful.”
“There you go again, trying to impress me with your toxic masculinity and a weapon of mass seduction—only, I’m not taking the bait.” Debra picked up her purse and slipped off the barstool.
“What’s ya name,” he asked, his words slurring.
Hesitating, she answered, “Debra.”
“Diego. Diego Ramírez.” He offered a flimsy handshake which she refused.
“Have ya heard of Kryptos?” Diego blurted out as if grasping for something to intrigue Debra and get her to stay.
“Kryptos?” What’s this weirdo stirring up now?
“Most know nutting’ bout it cause they hide it from the public.” He pointed an aimless finger at her. “Not that the masses could understand the cryptology—people too stupid to figure it out even after solving the puzzles.” Diego’s face contorted into a cunning smirk. He cast off a manipulative stare then took another swig of his Jack Daniels. “It’s at Langley—”
“What the hell are you talking about? Langley? So, you are a spy!”
“Wha… Whadda ya think I’d tell ya if I was?”
“You’re the one spilling secrets in a half-drunk stupor! I can smell bad in you!” Debra was fearing for her life, despite somehow mesmerized by him. She wondered if he had slipped something in her drink.
Diego spoke in a clear, loud and sober tone, looking at Debra through wild-eyes, “Kryptos is an art sculpture at Langley, with four secret messages in deep code. Three were solved by the NSA, CIA and a computer scient—”
“I think I’ve seen pictures of the art sculpture online—looks like a giant computer print-out with all that ’intelligence gathering’ on it. I don’t trust either agency, corrupt as any Mafia.” Debra’s eyes darted around, seeking listeners.
He turned to her with a devious glint in his eyes. If looks could kill. “The CIA has to keep it all underground—it gets away with murder even better than I do—”
“So, using art as a political weapon?” Debra sipped from the second wine she never asked for, involuntarily captivated.
Diego tipped his head back, polishing off his whiskey, babbling again with his bad guy Bond act. It was hard to tell if he was performing or really drunk. “You’re smarta’ dan the rest girl, powerful forces illuminate the whole show. The longa the deadlock trying to solve the fourth lil’ puzzle, the crazier people get in attempting to crack it, baby.”
“Sounds like American politics—the longer the gridlock stays, the more people shoot each other because of policies of those in power. I gotta go now,” Debra announced. The dimly lit parking lot seemed safer than being near this creepy yet somehow charismatic man.
“Okay girlie. Careful in the dark.”
Debra turned, “Tell me something, is all this real?”
“More than you can ever imagine.”
The year 2017
They all came. Pretend queens, kings, rooks, and crooks—claiming to be selflessly fundraising. The place was packed, everyone dressed as either royalty or villains. Yet, there was no way to differentiate them.
Everyone was attired in high-end masks paired with extravagant costumes. The masks changed into menacing shapes and spoke in robotic voices. I couldn’t understand a word. My thoughts zoomed in and out in a hazy netherworld of consciousness, spiraling in my psyche.
Coal black masks looking like Darth Vader, I half expected them to whip out lightsabers. Mixed with the intergalactic masks were heavily gilded Venetian disguises.
I wandered invisible myself behind mysterious black lace, through the elegant ballroom near the White House. The combination of fresh cut tobacco, leather, and perfumes cast off a sensual scent. I was not afraid, as I hid my own identity. I floated by the boldest of bankers, most prominent politicians, and ruthless leaders of the world.
I shouldn’t be here. But who will know? I mingled like an unseen fly on the wall. The good people came to enjoy the masked political theatre. Fools duped by the masquerade.
I walked up to one of the most sinister of masked figures and ripped it off. Down came the plaster and paint, the cardboard box covering the face. What hid beneath the veneer shocked me. I couldn’t help but gasp. What scared me most was— he knew my name.
I awoke with a jerk, heart thundering in my chest. George lay beside me, sipping coffee. He sat the coffee cup on the nightstand, before wrapping his arms around me. “Saving the world again in your dreams, babe?” I was drenched in perspiration, shaking out the dream, shedding the unpleasant feeling.
We snuggled. “Man, these dreams are happening more the older Tyler gets.” I glanced outside our bedroom window at the blue-green bay and sparkling city. A light fog twined around the Golden Gate Bridge, rendering it nearly invisible. God, I live surrounded by such beauty and peace.
George rolled his eyes. “Let me guess . . . killer robots and the human race forced to go live on a spaceship, fleeing the Mother Earth it destroyed?” He gave me a side glance, one eyebrow raised.
“Something along those lines. Only I was in D.C. at a masquerade fundraiser for ‘the people’— Masks were blurring, cracking and talking in mechanical voices. I pulled off the darkest mask, an Emperor Palpatine look-alike—and saw my former boss’s face.”
“Your former boss . . . oh, must have been the one that said if you don’t work fourteen-plus hour days, you are not tech-start-up material.” George altered his voice, mimicking my former boss Debra.
“No, it was not the queen bee bitch boss, it was one I really liked at Unabridged Networks. It was Rob, the one that promoted me to Senior Analyst! Odd, why would I dream of him as a bad guy?”
“Well . . . you did mention he went to some tech-start-up, designing robotics warfare. Your dream makes sense to me.”
A cold wriggling sensation settled in my bones, digging deep into my marrow as I remembered something Rob had mentioned. He’s been dabbling in corporate espionage. This is the man that once had me working undercover collecting competitive intelligence for tech giant rivals. The corporate Chess game.
My creepy dream now made sense to me—who was under those sinister masks? Politicians, faceless corporations, and connected shady government operations. They were hiding accountability for the atrocities against our own nation’s people with our wars while poisoning our food and water. They were hiding a violent brand image.
Seeing the big picture twenty years later as a mother is downright scary.
Tyler tossed his backpack into the SUV during pick-up for tennis practice. I don’t know why my mom gets so weirded out about the D.C. trip, he thought. He retrieved his cell phone from his pocket. It would be cool to see the capital.
He texted his buddy Rowan, fingers whizzing around and prodding at the keys. Dunno about D.C. Might ski.
A second later his phone pinged. r u bowing out cause ur mom?
Tyler frowned, then texted back. wtf, no just wanna ski. His thumbs hovered over the keys, contemplating if he should reveal something else when another text appeared.
I guess I don’t blame u 4 wanting 2 ski instead of a school trip.
Tyler stopped texting, glancing at the tall palm trees outside the car window. “Hey, Mom? I’d rather ski than something school related during spring break.”
His mom started the engine while giving him one of those looks that always made him wish she would trust his choices. “Are you sure Ty? You have friends going, and it’s your first chance to see Washington D.C.? This is your decision, not mine.”
“Yeah, Mom. I mean…I kinda wanna go, but I need a break. And….well…I really wanna ski.” Tyler avoided his mom’s compassionate gaze, and instead admired the palm trees.
“Well, okay then, skiing it will be!” He swore that it was relief punctuating his mother’s sentence.
While pulling away from the curb, I couldn’t help but say to my son. “The fresh air and exercise is a healthier option anyhow.”
Tyler shrugged. Then he circled his shoulders while rotating his head, relieving tension with a stretch.
“Are you having second thoughts, Ty-”?
“What? What? No! I’m limbering up for tennis mom, jeez.”
“Ok, Ok! Go have a great practice, I’ll see you when you get home.” My fiercely independent thirteen-year-old son grabbed his tennis racket and eagerly dashed off to hit some balls.
I had two hours before Tyler would walk home from the tennis courts. Driving home, I mused over my mysterious dreams. I suspected a reason for them was my child’s pending D.C. trip.
And—the recent trip back to our roots in New England. Beautiful, quaint New England.
Driving through the picturesque green mountains of Vermont, the writing on the wall had hit me when stepping into a rest area. This never bothered me before—before having a child. Pictures of Vietnam are displayed all over one side of the room. A woman walked up to wide-eyed children—including Tyler and a young girl next to him—asking them if they plan to “join the army.”
America’s Hunger Games played out on our highways justified with federal money. Scaring kids with the glorification of our violent culture.
How tender traveling through this time machine with my own precious child, images of my privileged cherry-blossomed childhood flashing before my eyes:
At my family’s fun cottages on the lake in NH—running on the beach, riding on our three boats, snow skiing and trips to Disney. The song “It’s a small world” flowing through my mind. All while our spurious little Vietnam adventure raged behind the curtain, shielding me from cruel political reality.
The contradictory culture of violence and big glory seamlessly blending with our nation’s surreal beauty. America the Beautiful. America the Turmoiled—a contrast of dark and light, beauty, and the beast. Then I thought of Anna’s French dad killed fighting in Vietnam and reminded myself it’s a global thing. A global atrocity, this dance of power.
Memories of New England—its rustic beauty and colorful landscape coalesce into something as forgotten but familiar as my Dad’s voice—flatlands giving way to magnificent mountains I was blessed to ski on as a kid.
Veering into our driveway, I was surprised George’s car was already there. He played the keyboard of his laptop, eyes fixed with uninhibited focus at the dining room table while perched at the edge of his seat. I glanced out the window at the tropical turquoise color of the San Francisco Bay, a Mediterranean-style daily delight.
“Working from home this afternoon?”
“Yup.” He offered, without prying his gaze from the screen or even slowing the pace of his rapidly typing fingers.
“Well, I won’t disturb you….but Tyler is going skiing with us rather than to D.C.,” I informed.
“Hmmm…surprising.” Again, he managed to respond without hindering his work progress.
“Why? He loves to ski.”
’True. Yet it’s a great chance to see his nation’s capital, Caryss, and with classmates.”
“Well…It breaks my heart that as parents today, we have to question whether having our kids go to our own capital is high on our bucket list. It’s far too gilded and corrupt.”
“It always has been. Someday, Tyler will go.”
“Of course…and he mustn’t think to glorify any of the violence displayed with our war helmets from hell. It’s how we end up with money monsters in the White House, and once innocent kids shooting down others.”
“Sometimes I wish you never connected the dots of high-tech corporate America’s link to mass surveillance, endless war and secret networks disguised beneath ‘national security.’” George shut his laptop as if on cue to escape cyber spies.
“And remained blissfully ignorant? You know they all answer to the same corporate masters—connected to the secret CIA spy networks around the world.”
“True…but don’t forget it’s not just D.C. or New England buried in the destructive defense industry. California has its share of—”
“You have no need to tell me this…I told you from the start I connected the dots in Silicon Valley.”
“And now we have beautiful San Diego as the ‘national leader’ of the drone industry,” George added.
The following day I headed over the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge into Sausalito to visit Anna. We dubbed our weekly girl time as “high tea” at her charming loft in the hills. Today, I would again meet Julie, who was quick to correct my tea time etiquette. Julie, a firecracker with flashy outfits that matched her vibrant red hair.
I dropped into the eclectic village of Sausalito, passing dozens of quaint shops. Sailboats were sprinkled along the water’s edge. I rolled down my window, soaking in the smells of garlic and fresh seafood wafting through the sea air. Purple and pink wispy clouds dotted the baby-blue sky.
After passing through quaint downtown Sausalito, I turned up the hill towards Anna’s loft, enchanted by the Tuscan-style villas and Spanish Mediterranean condos. Remembering the impossible parking on her tiny, winding road, I parked on the street below. Art-deco-esque pillars stood at the entrance of steep steps that would bring me to Anna’s deck. And to the narrow, winding road her daughter was killed on.
A chill trailed my spine and settled deep within my motherly soul. My heart clenched for Anna, tightening with sorrow. That woman has suffered so much loss . . . starting with her father killed in the Vietnam War when she was just a young girl. Tragic.
Late afternoon fog snaked across Angel Island like a long, low dragon breathing cool air. I stood on Anna’s deck overlooking the bay, taking deep meditative breaths after having walked up 108 steps to loft haven. The views from up here are spectacular—an expanse of San Francisco Bay, pleasure boats, islands, and palm trees. The air saturated with the scent of eucalyptus. Bougainvillea wrapped fences and trellises.
Anna came to greet me. “You’re the first to arrive! It will be only the three of us today.” She had just returned from her home city of Paris and decked herself out bohemian style. “Let’s stay out here for tea time, and enjoy this amazing sunshine.”
I offered to take the tray of finger sandwiches and dainty desserts from Anna’s hands, placing it on the bistro table. “Wow, you’ve got the tousled, sexy bed-head look going on, girl! A Parisian fashionista!” Anna was squeezed into her dark skinny jeans paired with an oversized white shirt and a Hermès scarf. A light breeze tussled her scarf. “So how was your trip to Paris?”
“Hectic yet enjoyable. I sold a handful of my most valuable Indonesian and Indian arts while there, so it’s all good! I might be able to sell my inventory after closing shop after all . . .”
Julie appeared through the sliding glass door wearing a smile, so there was hope in remaining in the happy place I felt on the way. “Hello, ladies, nice day for afternoon tea with a view! Who needs the Japanese Tea Garden when we have Anna’s lovely loft?” I couldn’t help wonder if the boobs spilling out of her white sundress were real.
“Exactly! No fancy tea rooms required here!” I smiled at Julie, appreciating her wide brim tea hat. Red hat, red lips, and red-hot temper lay beneath a flashy surface.
Julie turned to Anna “So, I heard you sold Exotic Exposure merchandise while in Paris?”
“Oh yes, I sold five of my most prized possessions to collectors in Paris, mostly online. Now I just need to ship the items to them.” Anna’s grin stretched from one side of her face to the other, in an uninhibited expression of excitement.
“I loved visiting Paris,” I mentioned while reaching for a salmon-cucumber tea sandwich. “The bon vivant lifestyle, romantic streets, and such a blissful simplicity of life. And all the art galleries!”
“So … where’s your peaceful Paris today, Caryssa?” Julie burst out in a snide tone as she scraped a yellow wicker chair across the deck.
Deep nostalgic emotions tugged at my maternal heartstrings, provoked by Julie’s question. Where did her bitterness come from? “I . . . I was referring to nearly fourteen years ago, a trip with my husband, Julie. Our only child was conceived in Paris, so there’s a special bond.”
“Speaking of Tyler, his trip to D.C. is coming up, right?” Anna asked, steering Julie away from her geopolitical rantings, sensing a pending eruption if she didn’t act fast.
“Yes, only he’s not going. I hafta admit, I am relieved.” Come to think of it, my kid’s near-happening trip may be what’s making me feel sensitive to Julie’s edginess. I added, “Why, pray-tell, would I want my precious child near the dysfunction afflicting Washington?”
Anna’s gaze fell from me to Julie. With added composure, she replied, “Yes, Jules, Paris was peaceful when Caryssa went there. But I passed by riot police and masked protestors during my recent trip. I was afraid a Molotov cocktail would be tossed my way. It was sad to see my home city like this.”
This revved Julie’s engine again, with more purposely televised fearmongering “That’s what I mean, and the terrorist attacks there and —”
“Julie, may I say something?” I interrupted. “I’m from Boston and like Anna, my heart cries for my home city. But look at the big picture. ‘Terrorism’ has risen 6500% since the horrific façade of the ‘war on terror’ started.”
The sun reflected upon solar panels of a wooden building down the hill. I thought: Mere fallouts of the perpetual beasts of battle . . . the NATO alliance we share with France which is anything but the peacemaking pact it’s touted as.
I desperately wanted to divert the topic from Julie’s dramatized flippant logic. She must watch an abundance of our choreographed reality TV acting known as news.
Today, rather than correct me for not raising a pinky while sipping tea, or my fashion sense, it appeared Julie’s only wish was to correct my ’political correctness’. Hence, I let Anna take the wheel.
Anna put out more Lenox French Perle teacups and saucers, as the kettle whistled again. “Jules, do we think maybe . . . these attacks are planted on purpose in the most developed, civilized, fashionable areas to scare people into submission— New York City, London, Paris, Nice, Las Vegas, Boston—.”
“Oh no, not you too Anna!” interrupted Julie, throwing her arms up. A disappointed look befell her face. “You freaking sound like Caryssa with her nutcase conspiracy theories. Come on, scare people into submission?” She rolled her eyes so hard she no doubt caught a glimpse of her brain.
I was about to take another bite of my sandwich but nonchalantly placed it on the table instead. “I . . . think we should change the subject. Oh, look! Beautiful sailboats in the bay!” I aimed a finger at the picturesque seaside, hoping to derail the escalating tension.
What I wanted to say was Yes, scare people into our state-sponsored televised battle to the death against global military created beast of terror, all played out over our sensationalized news to look like some good humanitarian deed.
Anna let ginger and lavender tea spill into each cup. “Did you bring the sprigs of lavender from your garden, Caryssa?”
“Oh, yes, let me get them.” I pulled a little wax bag out of my purse, teasing it open and scooping up sprigs of lavender. I let a sprig plop into each cup. With any luck, the lavender would serve its calming therapeutic qualities to ease Julie’s deep monarch programming. I pray for the inner peace of people falling for the propaganda machine fanning the fabricated flames since even before the Spanish-American war.
Anna shot Julie a serious look. “There’s a holy union between political manipulation and showbiz, Jules. Not only within America, but my beautiful home city of Paris now dredging up Gestapo-like militarized cops as well.”
“I can’t believe you two” Julie shook her head while nibbling her lip. “I mean . . . We need to protect our national security and freedom!” She spat, outraged.
“Holy buzzwords, Batman!” Julie’s use of twisted tongues and loopy lingo almost saw me choking on my pastry. “Do you really believe the creeping militarization of our culture has anything to do with ‘national security’ or ‘freedom’?” Among the many outlandish clichés of the war business that should be relegated to the dustbin of history.
Anna tutted at Julie’s use of deceptive political rhetoric. She sipped at the meditative tea and was grateful for Caryssa’s shared mindfulness.
“Sure” . . . then Julie noticed Anna shaking her head. “Are you two fucking high?”
“Oh yes, high on this wonderful thing called life.” I was enjoying the soothing tea, killer view and scrumptious finger foods—such a contrast to the topic I wished Julie never started. “It’s certainly not about maintaining world peace.”
Freedom. It was a word that got into its own way. It was a word that held itself a sense of its own limits, an echo of death.
“I suppose North Korea and Russia will peace out the planet with polite poetic justice.” Julie yelped, having just taken a sip of piping hot tea. “Ouch!” she jerked, the tea spurting out her nose, running like a leaky faucet.
I carried my tea to the other side of the deck, glancing over the Sausalito Bay in all its sheer beauty. Deep breaths! I called over my shoulder. “Must we continue to label the entire world our ’enemies’?” I visualized the tiny drone camera hovering over Tyler’s school during a community event, and imagined Julie blaming Russian spies. “Those two countries spend way less than we do on military!”
I can’t imagine how this beautiful, sophisticated girl from Sausalito can be so anti-intellectualist. An over eager flag-waving fear-induced propagandist.
A huge palm tree graced Anna’s view of the bay, lightly kissed by the breeze. Sailboats and the city skyline glimmered their magnificence. Despite the political flare-up of the firecracker in red, I was deeply at inner peace. Ignorance is not bliss after all. It enables the worn-out war bandwagon to continue rolling.
Anna’s soft voice, peppered with that magnificent French accent, came from the kitchen as she fetched more tea “Julie, our political system’s connected to multinational corporate profit. Why can’t you calmly admit we are an outrageous war economy?”
“Seriously, no country profits from war more than the USA.” I gestured towards Julie. I wanted to change the topic. Afternoon tea in chic Sausalito isn’t the place for her hawkish diatribes. “So Julie, where did you grow up?”
“Right here, in Sausalito. My grandfather settled the family here years ago, we have local history. He was a shipbuilder during WWII. He was CEO of Marinship Corporation. He helped the war effort in building all those Liberty ships and Fleet oilers that saved your friggin freedom!”
“Ah ha!” was all I managed. Even the most progressive, stylish areas of California have people blindly accepting of our mindlessly militarized society. I kept this thought locked tight in my brain-vault, else the fiery red-firecracker would detonate again, exploding with her naïve, ignorant viewpoints. Either she is tirelessly gullible or I underestimated the media’s impact.
A stark reminder of how much the grand opulence of America, not unlike France, Italy, Russia, and other developed nations are built upon devious war profits. Yet now we are the most violent developed nation in the world.
Will we ever be a moral economy?