Napa Valley, California
“Where are you?” Julie cried. Her emotional pain intensified the physical pain of my gunshot wounds.
“In Napa Valley… with friends I can trust,” I convinced myself.
“That’s what you thought about Chris Helm—and he shot you!” Julie’s shrieking voice pierced through my heart. I wished I could hug her.
“This is a different crowd than my Silicon Valley tech pals. They’re—”
“They’re what? Whose house are you at?”
I glanced around the lavish subterranean mansion; At least twenty feet below ground. I was in a 9,000 square-foot bunker with thirty-seven rooms. Today I’d enjoyed a dip in the pool, watched part of a movie in the cinema, and attempted to knock down a few pins at the bowling alley with my one good arm. I’d even considered practicing at the shooting range—until I noticed they set the lanes up, but not the target retrievers.
“Sean, answer me. Where in Napa are you?” Julie’s frantic tone removed me from my reverie.
“I’m… in one of those underground pandemic palaces where billionaires wait out every crisis they caused.”
“While the rest of humanity flounders in the wind fighting over toilet paper and food,” Julie countered.
“Hey, I’d rather be with you right now than hiding in this Armageddon-style shelter buried deep in the dirt,” I said.
Although I had to admit sitting in this swanky lounge sipping Napa’s finest wines isn’t a bad antidote to the chaos I suffered. I was happy to be alive. Even if this place looks a bit end-of-world-like.
“You still haven’t told me who you’re with,” Julie said, her voice starting to break up over the burner phone I was using.
“Stoddard, my personal financier at Silicon Valley Bank—you’ve met him.”
“Yes, he’s a sweet man. I guess you can trust him,” Julie said, helping me to relax deeper. I didn’t elaborate on how the private sector has a hold over President Crown; or the documents in my briefcase that would expose my predators and stop them in their tracks.
I caught my reflection in the long mirror above the bar. I looked lousy. I’d lost twenty pounds, was pale as a ghost, and my left arm hung limply in a sling. I made light of it and imagined I’m a brave cowboy who just won a gunfight. Only, my self-hero narrative was an elaborate mask.
My shaking hand instinctively went to the .40 caliber semi-automatic pistol in my pocket. Stoddard handed it to me when we arrived at the bunker, “Hopefully you won’t need this, Coleman, but I can’t guarantee who might crack this castle.”
Julie’s caring tone drifted over the line. “How many other people are there—are you social distancing and staying healthy?” Her questions warmed my heart.
“The people here seem to be Hollywood or finance types. There are some Oscar winners that hole up in this place. I don’t recognize anyone. There’s maybe ten-fifteen people, all staying within distance. They lock this bunker down, Jules, only members can get in.” I left out the part about the secret tunnels and escape hatches that could become compromised.
I glanced around at the few people sitting at the bar—with their guns, gold, and gas masks riding out the apocalypse. The wild, wild wealthy west. The lounge was so big, nobody was within earshot.
Julie wouldn’t let go. “Why didn’t you go home—there must be police security that could watch out for you!”
“It’s called survival, Jules! I’m supposed to shelter-in-place like everyone else. How can I go home to Los Altos Hills where three men on the loose tried to kill me? And no, the cops seemed to have dropped my case, as if I don’t exist. Humanity is sleepwalking into oblivion.”
That’s what happens when President Crown the puppet master is behind Saudi arms deals and other money matters linked to me being shot, I wanted to say but held my tongue. My woman is worried enough.
I heard Julie’s sigh and wondered if she was crying. “I just don’t like you in a massive bat-cave. Who knows what dangerous disease lurks underground!”
“This is no corrugated iron bunker, babe. It’s not a simple pipe shelter. These bunkers can withstand a nuclear blast. No radiation can seep in, never mind pathogens.”
“Shh… After getting nearly killed and spending two months in the ICU, I think I’ve earned a little man-cave time, Jules. Where else can I go now?”
“Is it kind of creepy?”
“No. In fact, it’s quite nice. Don’t forget about all the charming subterranean wineries throughout wine country Jules—whole cellar spaces with unique tunnels and underground waterfalls.” I had to admit it was an interesting experience as much as I’d rather be home.
Her voice softened as if she recognized the ironic twist of a man who owned multiple properties—including a six-million-dollar home in the South Bay— rendered as good as homeless. Aimless. Scared for his life.
“Are you comfortable there?” she asked.
“Comfortable? This little hidey-hole is nicer than my home, with all the amenities of a five-star hotel. I even watched a movie today which numbed my brain and helped me escape from reality.”
She laughed, “What did you watch? Let me guess, Outbreak or Contagion.”
“No, I opted for something as techno-futuristic and utopian as this flashy bunker. Tomorrowland.”
“Utopian? Those billionaire bunkers seem more like they cater to the apocalyptic fears of the lunatic fringe 1% claiming it’s the end of the world,” Julie insisted.
“I couldn’t agree more.”
“Then why are you not at my place—.”
“To protect you! Your place would be their first port-of-call. We’d both be dead.”
“Sorry. I’m just not convinced Chris Helm and his business buddies won’t also track you to that place.” Julie had a good point. Which is why I have a gun in my pocket.
“Don’t worry, babe. I feel better than I have in a while,” I told myself while gulping wine. “When this is all over, we’ll have the most amazing date-night.” The thought made me smile, and I realized how much I missed her human touch.
After we hung up, I sipped a third glass of wine, blissfully feeling the effects. I had expected it to be dark, dank, and moist down here but found the air fresh and the ambiance casting a mysterious coziness. They covered the walls in earthy tones and amazing artwork while it smelled like incense burned in otherworldly nooks and crannies. Computer screens gave the illusion of looking outside to the vineyards and rolling hills.
All sense of harmony disappeared as I witnessed one of the most chilling sights I’d ever seen. Gliding smoothly out of the dimmed perimeter of the room, three menacing figures emerged, coasting silently into the bar wearing fancy designer suits and expensive Italian shoes. Although concealed, I knew they carried guns. The guns that blew me into a coma.
Calmly, as if knowing they had already won this battle, they surrounded the reclining leather chair in the corner where I acted out a calm I didn’t feel. Only Chris spoke, the other two remained eerily silent. “Did you think we wouldn’t find you, Coleman?” Nobody else was in the bar now, even the bartender had disappeared.
I held my hands up, wincing at the pain in my left arm. “What? Are you going to shoot me again? Go ahead, I’m already buried in the ground, nobody will find me.”
Stoddard told me about the secret door that led to the 360-foot tunnel when he gave me a tour of this God-forsaken sunken kingdom. He’d also shown me the secret book to tap to open the sliding shelf. I realized then I had subconsciously positioned myself in this corner, in front of this magic bookcase.
I inched closer, keeping my hands in view. If I pulled the gun out, I’m dead. Closer. Closer. A terrible thought occurred that these billionaire bullies may already know about the secret passageway I was desperately trying to get to, they may have been in this bunker before me.
When I was in front of the bookcase, I frantically thought of how to do this. Distraction. The bartender had returned, oblivious to any impending danger. Shifting my eyes from Helms to him, I announced, “I think these three gentlemen would love a drink.”
It worked. I tapped the book and the cabinet swung open. I dove into the tunnel, hoping the door closed quickly enough for my getaway. No such luck.
I ran haphazardly through the volcanic-rock-like tunnel and dove into the first crevice in the wall. My legs seemed not to work right, and I realized with dread my wounds and the coma had left me like a wounded bird unable to fly away from its prey.
Stoddard said there were hidden rooms in case of intruders. Where? No time to look for them.
Shots rang out around me. I clicked the safety open and aimed at the wall to bide my time. As my shots ricocheted off the walls of the tunnel, I staggered to the next crevice, looking ahead for an escape hatch.
“Well look at that, the pretty boy has a gun!” Helm’s voice echoed. “Do you even know how to shoot that thing?”
I wasn’t an expert at handling a gun this advanced but wasn’t about to mention that tidbit of information. The only time I ever practiced was during my teens as a Boy Scout, which my Mom never liked. She did, however, instill in me the Scout motto: I’ll make ethical and moral choices and recognize the dignity and worth of humanity.
Suddenly, I remembered the leverage I held, with the files back in my luxury room in the bunker. The documents I’d signed to use my technology for a certain military mission operating outside the system. That we were stopping supposedly untouchable bad guys and saving lives is what I’d signed for; well that, and my drive to make money.
And I had photos in those files; an incriminating GPR printout that haunted my dreams for years. Burnt-out bunkers in Iraq and Afghanistan with handcuffed bodies—including those of women and children. I knew what I had to do. It’s now or never. Do or die. I let the true bad guys get closer… closer until they were right on me and bang, bang, bang!
I didn’t shoot the bastards but scared them with something even stronger than the bullets rebounding off the tunnel walls. One word: “Sringnest!”
“You’d never say a word about the operation, Coleman. You know Crown is in this with us—and powerful forces before him.” This from Helm, although I could barely see him against the glow emanating from the passage beyond.
“Yes, I will expose your bloody secrets,” I said, aiming the pistol toward the voices in the shadows.
Ahmad bin Talden, the Saudi venture capitalist who I also accepted funding from, stepped out of the darkness. I could see his black beard and mustache—the dark circles under tired eyes. The only thing missing was the tablecloth-like headdress he and the Crown Prince wore when they visited us in Silicon Valley to sign our souls away at my startup, Dazzle!
He shouted, “You signed NDA’s and highly classified business documents—”
“If you kill me, all the secret data will be released,” I said desperately.
“Ha, as if we care?” Snead, the head of the joint artificial intelligence center countered. He’d remained silent up to now. “We control the media and manipulate academia. We have more control than the White House—”
Bang! I took another shot at the wall beside them, to shut them up. Then shouted. “You know we still have good guys within our political, military, and other institutions. What you don’t know is who brought me into this bunker.”
“Who?” they seemed to ask in unison.
“Shit,” Helm said, “It’s not worth the risk guys.” And with that, the three men withdrew back toward the bunker, defeated.
I waited, realizing I couldn’t follow them. I needed air—fresh, real, outside air.
Moving in the opposite direction, the tunnel curled away coldly into infinite darkness. After a few turns, the walls turned into an Austrian red brick or limestone tone. Some type of copper wiring mesh with crystals hung off the ceilings, offering an illuminating light. I felt my brain lose focus, searching for a way out. Finally, I found the escape hatch Stoddard told me about, its huge metal door looming ominously like the entrance to a bomb shelter.
It took every ounce of energy I had to pull the latch with my one good arm until I heard a click. But rather than the door opening, the piercing sound of an alarm deafened my ears. The tunnel trembled; the stale air seemed to vibrate.
Shit! If I don’t get shot by the guys after me for my technology, I could by armed security guards. Stoddard had rattled off numbers for the combination lock. Come on, come on! All that Stanford math should have helped me remember numbers. Finally, I punched the right symbols and the heavy door creaked open. I slipped out; the hatch slamming shut behind me.
Taking a huge breath, I admired the vast green of the Napa Valley floor, its hills, and knolls stretching for miles in each direction. The Napa River formed a tapered contour through the scenic vineyards, reminding me of the sheer beauty and barbarism of our nation. What have we become?
I hunkered down beside the bunker. A gentle wind swept through the grass beside me as I called Stoddard.
“Someone tried to break in,” he suggested.
“No, that was me, trying to bust out. Thanks for the gun buddy, it saved my life.”