Los Altos Hills, California
“Fire in the hole!” came a shout from Sean’s iPhone video clip.
A massive blast sounded, and thousands of pieces of rock tumbled down the slope. Joshua trees blazed, bristling in a smokey haze.
“How did you capture this video,” I said. It took me a moment to realize ’fire in the hole,’ was a controlled eruption at the rare-earth mine in Mountain Pass.
“After I departed the meeting with Minsk, I stood at my car and trained my phone on the hillside over the open-pit mine, ready to take a photo. When I heard the shout, I switched to video mode—”
“I know how you took the video, silly. I mean … the way you captured those Joshua trees burning to cinders in contrast to the blood-orange sky, the pink rocks flying like asteroids.” I had a sudden thought. “Holy crap, does this have anything to do with the Dome Fire?”
Sean shook his head, “No, no. The fires you see here were contained fast. The fires around the Mojave Desert were sparked by lightning.”
Or so we think. Illegal fireworks and other human actions may be sparking God’s wrath in the sky as a warning to those destroying his creation. “But still … makes me wonder what these extractions and explosions are doing to Earth and ecology. People’s lives and homes. You’d think they’d curtail detonations during wildfire season.” That humanity’s fingerprints are all over the fuel for these unnatural fires pains me.
“Not with our nation’s insatiable mêlée for military technology,” Sean answered. “Silicon Valley venture capitalism meets desert-rat elbow grease.”
We were sitting on Sean’s wrap-around deck under an umbrella. I had just finished twenty laps in his pool. Large palm trees swayed against the vast spread of hills silhouetted by the glowing red orb of a sunset. I’ll miss this beautiful house when Sean sells it, which hopefully isn’t too fast. He just listed it on the market—for double the six million he invested nearly two decades ago.
“Ah, this is the life,” I exclaimed while pushing back in a lounge chair.
“Yes. We are blessed.” His tone of voice was sad, a stark reminder of how difficult it will be for him to let go of his dream castle. I tried to forget he was shot in the same spot we were sitting. But it was on both our minds.
It seemed almost a violation of the serene setting and all Sean’s fond memories shared at this house to mention his ordeal. But we had to face it to fight it. “Our nation’s obsession with being the world’s villainous superpower is what almost got you killed,” I said.
Sean nodded. “Our techno-crazed battles for booty and the rare-earth trade war—helped land me in a bloodbath.” Sean glanced at the hot-tub and cringed. He was referring not only to getting shot, but the bullet that fortunately missed his head in Inner Mongolia. I now realize it was not a Chinese man that took aim.
It struck me that it’s the same underlying dark money that caused Caryssa, Anna, and I just missing getting killed at the hip Golden Gate Grind.
“Sean, when was the last time you enjoyed your hot tub? You haven’t joined me for a relaxing soak in a while, I said.
Sean smiled. But it seemed like an anxious smile while he massaged his forehead. “It was the first place we made love, remember?”
I stood and took his hand. “It was a magical night. After the concert at the Mountain Winery in Saratoga. But you didn’t answer my question.”
Sean looked into my eyes with a tender expression. It melted my heart. “I haven’t been in my hot tub since that night,” he announced.
That night meant when he got shot. Six months ago.
I realized how difficult this has been for him while I got engrossed in our wedding plans. Not only getting shot three times in his backyard, including by his best friend but how his job had everything to do with it. His prized career he worked so hard to achieve, after coming from the poverty of a small coal mine town.
I slipped around the back of his chair and wrapped my arms around him, burying my face in his neck.
Sean reached back and placed his hands on my shoulders. “Jules … when I rode through the city on BART last week, I saw a student who was in the Zoom classroom I lectured at Stanford. He was at the Civic Center station …”
I waited for what Sean was trying to convey. “And?”
“This young man … he was also in the Hacking for Defense class at Coronado Beach—the class I warned the students about. He was … he was … hanging out with other young men and women shooting up heroin and smoking something more menacing than pot. He was leaning against the wall at the station.”
My arms tightened around his neck. “Wow. Just … wow. How sad! A Stanford student?”
“He’s still a Stanford student, a grad student in top ranking from what I hear. I remember him speaking when I cautioned the students about how the class is funded by the CIA and trying to get them to create startups producing technology used in military missions.”
“How horrible… maybe it wasn’t the student you think. Maybe he just looked like—”
“No. He waved his hand when I walked by and said, ‘Hi Mr. Coleman.’ He looked embarrassed for me to see him that way.”
Oh my God, the poor kid, talk about an example of the collusion of the system. “What did he say during the Zoom lecture you gave?”
“He had reiterated what I was trying to say; the militarization of our universities must stop. He mentioned that a civilian-military partnership goes against the educational values of Stanford.”
“What happened to him? It sounds as though he had a strong head on his shoulders.”
“My guess? Like the girl in the class who wouldn’t do the soldierly drills on the beach. Maybe he got kicked out of the research lab like her, his career ruined by faculty that succumb to the dance of power—”
“But how would that send him to the BART station to partake in some horrific heroin party. He’s a smart kid. He must have more resilience than—”
“Let me finish!” Sean raised his hands. “There’s got to be a connection. At the very least metaphorically. It’s the same reason soldiers in Vietnam were addicted to heroin, then quit cold turkey upon return…” He swung around and stood.
“Julie, let me tell you about these alarming courses spearheaded by DARPA set up not only at my alma mater but in more than a dozen universities across the nation. They have these ’Skynet Drone Teams,’ where students use computer vision to ’help’ autonomous drones to better identify enemy combatants.”
“Sounds ominous.” It sounded worse than ill-omened to me. A threat to my niece and nephew’s futures. “The terminator rises of the machines! A game to lure young adults.”
“Yup. This is what President Crown’s military powerbrokers came after me for—to use my software on these platforms to keep developing the secret network behind mass surveillance and endless wars.”
My mind raced. “Those train stations loaded with youth doing drugs; my brother Jackson said he sees this now in Manhattan too. He said he hears kids talking about the ‘a-bombs’ they smoke. It’s not just San Francisco.”
“I know!” Sean said. “It’s all over America. A-bombs are joints laced with heroin or opium. There was a girl smoking one at the BART station. Even the name of the drug sounds symbolic of youth lured to drugs through the spending on disastrous weapons rather than a moral education and their overall well-being.”
I thought of the three-hundred thousand applicants California public universities are forced to reject due to lack of funding. Is this happening throughout the nation? “And you really think there’s a link to these classes?”
“How?” But I knew how. It’s what I didn’t want to accept. A reminder of how my sweet father made his money.
Sean ran his hands through his hair, then whipped off his t-shirt, glancing toward the spa with a look of trepidation mixed with resolve.
“If not a direct link, then figuratively speaking through our nation’s poor financial decisions,” he said. “For one, we’ve turned our universities into front line military R&D organizations. They’re fucking weapons makers.”
It reminded me of my innocent little brother being handcuffed and accused of being a terrorist for simply taking photos in Times Square. “Oh my God, that’s so scary an analogy!”
“It’s a direct correlation. These ’Hacking for Defense ’classes are a sneaky backdoor for defense contractors, afraid the next generation is pulling away from their mighty war games.”
Music automatically started playing, a soft piece that sounded like Watermark by Enya.
Enya. Sean always had relaxing music streaming around the house. It soothed my mind—enabling me to listen to what he needed to get off his chest.
He continued, “DARPA even funds a research lab at the University of Washington that makes ‘educational videos’ for children under the pretense of teaching elementary-grade students STEM skills. They use pre-teens to beta test tomorrow’s military software.”
Visions of my niece and nephew, Haley and Hans, playing video games and shouting “I killed you!” hit me hard. “How much money are we talking about?”
“Twelve-million into this one research lab alone to exploit pre-teen’s minds. Even if I donated every dime I make after selling this house, can I put a dent in the damage done to our country?”
“I don’t know, but I’m sure happy you’re doing your part to try to help mitigate the dire situation.”
Sean turned on a string of lights around his deck, adding a special ambiance. Illuminations glowed over the pool and spa as if we were at an elegant resort. He sighed. “Enough of this talk, let’s unwind,” he said while clicking on another string of lights that cast a magical spell around the umbrellas and swaying palms. The effect was meditative.
Funny, I considered the conversation already tranquil. For once, I found this topic therapeutic. I realized the “politics” we’re discussing are part of the status-quo of business in America. What’s considered normal operations nearly got us both killed. The ubiquitous policymaking of our leaders bringing the violence we impose abroad to come home to coffee shops and hot tubs in peaceful backyards.
An image of the young man at the Golden Gate Grind came to mind—the ‘gunman’ that carried out a mass shooting moments after I’d left the place with my girlfriends. He looked like Sean’s description of the university drone teams.
Now it was my turn to take in a long, deep breath. Sean is struggling with this. And… I had to admit, so am I.
“I’m going to miss this place,” I said.
“Me too, babe.”
“I understand why you’re selling it.” The money, the violence against him here connected to his career. He’s letting go. “I feel your pain, Sean.”
Sean simply nodded again, following me with his gentle gaze.
I glanced around his sprawling Mediterranean-style home. This house—it’s an extension of Sean’s physical and emotional self. It reflects who he was, is now, and always wanted to be. It’s been his security blanket and status symbol for so long.
Sean’s eyes gleamed. I knew that look, and I felt the heat rising in me. Intense conversations always led to intense lovemaking. “Are you ready for a hot time in the hot tub, my beautiful fiancée? he asked.”
He took my hand and started to pull me toward the steamy Jacuzzi. Then he froze, unable to move.
Moistening my lips, I held his hands, helping him to slowly brave his way into the water. I tried a sultry smile, and a little sexy wiggle while fluttering my eyelids. He was hesitant, as I enticed him to plunge deeper into a place where so many mixed emotions collided: Fun, business deals created, friends, laughter, danger and near death.
All I wore was my bathing suit, which I slipped off easily. I’d been feeling melancholy, even desperate at the thought this could be one of the last memories at Sean’s magnificent house that meant so much to him. The built-in hot tub, the first place we made love, is not coming with us when he moves.
When we move, I thought. We are engaged to be married; it was hard to remind myself we are now one.
Sean was still tentative as we submerged deeper into the bubbles. But soon we were laughing and splashing each other. We played like children in the water, then held each other tight. Moving together magically, it was the merging of two souls.
For the first time in our two-year intimate relationship, Sean could not get a full erection. I felt frustrated, not for me but because I love him so much. It brought us even closer though. This perfect man, so smart, successful, good-looking, and strong showing vulnerability. There was desperation deeper than sex, and we clung together for dear life while pleasuring each other.
Whispering into Sean’s ear, with no reference to his performance, I said, “There’s something powerful about making love to you where you nearly died.” My comment shocked me… and I was surprised how turned on I was by the thought. Danger and near death can be the ultimate aphrodisiac. Was I being callous?
But Sean responded in a tone reflecting only gratitude, even if his words seemed as hard-edged as mine for such a tender moment. Perhaps he was trying to be bold. “Business can kill a friendship. Power destroys.”
An hour later, his eyes were dancing with devotion as we stepped out of the hot tub and he handed me a towel which I wrapped around my body. The air was cooler, with a light fog rolling through the valley and hills.
“Do you prefer to go inside, or should I light the fire pit,” Sean asked while handing me a glass of red wine he had ready at his poolside bar.
“Maybe we should go inside. We’ve had enough fires already.”
At that moment I heard a sound coming from the side of the house, like a gate clicking open. The hairs on the back of my neck rose. Sean was behind the bar, stashing things away. “Did you hear that?” I asked him.
My eyes scanned the yard for any movement. “I don’t know, but it sounded like someone opened your gate.”
Sean looked alarmed, but his voice remained calm. “I have high-security locks.”
“But when did you re-key… You gave Chris Helm the keys to your gate and house back when we could trust him—did you replace the original keys?”
“Coleman.” A male voice came from the dark beyond the illumined deck. I knew that voice. It chilled me to the bone.
Sean was looking past me, then used his body as a human shield to protect me.
Chris stepped out of the shadows and walked toward us. He wore a black suit and his savage eyes twitched furiously. “I can’t believe you betrayed me, Sean.”
My jaw dropped at the same time the glass of wine fell from my hand. Crimson liquid splattered all over the white towel I wore like a toga, and crystal splintered around our bare feet. I had a déjà vu of the night Sean’s blood was smeared around the area and became consumed with anger.
Sean hadn’t said a word yet, more concerned about protecting me as he splayed his arms and legs apart, trying to keep me behind him.
This bastard and his business buddies shot my fiancé and put him in a coma! My rage gave me courage. I pushed Sean’s body out of the way of shielding me, and screamed, “He betrayed you? His blood means more than money, you asshole!”
“Julie, back, please! Go into the house sweetheart, I’ll handle this.” Sean pleaded.
“No, I’m not leaving you.”
Sean still hadn’t said a word to the man he thought for over a decade was his best friend, a look of disbelief on his face. But his eyes spoke volumes as if saying, “What the hell are you doing here, anyway Chris?”
I moved across the terrace toward the full-glass entryway which offers glimpses into the living room but remained within hearing. As I turned, there was a sudden flashback of what I saw standing at this exact spot after they shot Sean:
The area in disarray, bistro tables turned. Pools of blood with crimson-soaked towels hanging off the barstool.
I stood trembling in a red-wine-soaked towel looking all too familiar. Both men had their hands up, so I knew it involved no guns. Yet.
Sean spoke, “Did you come in peace, or did you bring a piece?”
“Of course, I’m armed. But I’m not here to shoot anyone, Coleman. Just to warn you. You’re pissing off high-powered people. What the fuck! Trying to get academia and our nation’s only rare earth supply chain defunded by the Pentagon?”
“Get the fuck off my property, and away from my fiancée. NOW! You’ve caused enough damage.”
Only Sean and I knew the tense, brow-pinching thing Chris did when he was angry. Chris looked toward me huddled in the corner, just a glance, then back at Sean full of fire. “Seriously, it’s one thing you are pulling out, but do you have to drag the entire country with you?”
Chris’s glare and violent tone scared me as much as the flashback of Sean’s blood. I retreated into the house and shut the door. I ran into the kitchen, frantic while appreciating its bright joyous colors washed in tones of yellows and orange.
Hands shaking, I poured another glass of wine, then gulped down a sip. Oh my God, that’s good! I looked at the label and realized it was from a bottle of Screaming Eagle Sauvignon Blanc Sean had opened for whatever reason. For us tonight? I remember he said it’s more than five thousand dollars a bottle.
I dashed through the living room, admiring the plush white walls with the bright abstract paintings in an attempt to calm my mind. Then up the stairs to our bedroom. Within minutes I slipped off my wet bathing suit, pulled on warm clothes, and descended to the Great Room.
This is my favorite room, with its floor-to-ceiling windows and a 360-degree view of the valley lights and glimpse of the San Francisco Bay. It also abutted the deck and spa where the two men stood.
I peeked out of the curtains, avoiding making movement so they won’t notice me. There they were, two silhouettes in the dark, with the pretty string lights illuminating the sparkling pool and palm trees behind them.
Their voices were muted through the thick wood siding of the house. I could only see body language. Then I spotted Chris’s gun, flailing in the air while he made wild hand gestures. The nightmare is going to repeat itself.
My quivering fingers tried to press 911, then stopped. The police, increasingly trained across the nation as if joining the military, might unwittingly side with corrupt power believing they’re doing their duty by protecting their criminal elite bosses. This sad fact has already reared its ugly head after Sean was brutally shot by military officials protected against incrimination.
As I looked out the window, I see Chris walk away. I couldn’t help noticing how bad he looked. He resembled a deflated stars and stripes Uncle Sam hat.
Sean walked into the house and we embraced, clinging to each other. “Are we ever going to be safe, Sean?”
He kissed my forehead, my lips, and trembled with love. “Sweetheart. Never forget who the true enemy is. I’m seen as a weapon against our increasingly overbearing, authoritative system.”