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A suspense/thriller novel from author Brant Huddleston
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From the personal journal of Achibar al-Qaradawi, dated May 2002
ALMOST A DECADE HAS PASSED since the distasteful events of that Christmas day in Algeria, and still I cannot forget. The Atlas Mountains were heavy with snow in 1992, but I was kept safe and warm at the French monastery, where I worked in the kitchen. I was only twelve years old. So great was my fortune to have been tutored there by Christian monks from the age of eight. All peaceful men, they were, but none more loving and wise than the Dom — Father Christian de Thierge.
Father de Thierge was perhaps one of the best men I have ever known. Born a Catholic, he followed his father’s example by entering the French army, and was stationed in Algeria in the late 1950’s as part of the occupying force. During this time, de Thierge became friendly with a local man named Mohammad, a Muslim, who was an officer in the town’s police force. The two friends would often take walks through the town, arm in arm, discussing those things that inflame all young men’s hearts – politics, war, religion, culture, travel and women.
On one such walk, they were confronted by a gang of local men. Offended by the friendship between a Muslim and a Christian, they intended to kill de Thierge on the spot. Risking his life, Mohammad stepped between the gang and his friend, ordering them away.
Now it amazes me the gang dispersed that day, for those were troubled times in Algeria. Resentment toward the French “Crusaders” was growing, and the movement to restore Algeria as a “pure” Islamic state was under way. Mohammad paid a dear price for his bravery, for the next day he was found beaten to death. The incident affected de Thierge so profoundly that he dedicated his Christian service to the cause of peace, and to a lifetime of service in the monastery.
Trouble had been brewing all through the summer and fall that year. Every month I would leave the monastery from its perch in high mountains, walk down into the valley, and visit my family for a few days. That November I overheard my father talking with some of the village men. An Islamic organization called the Armed Islamic Group of Algeria, or GIA, had warned all infidels to leave the country. To underscore their demand, they murdered twelve foreign workers, slashing their throats from ear to ear, and tossing the blood-drained corpses into the village center. That was the first time I heard the name of Sayat-Attya: the GIA’s ruthless leader.
The monastery had always been a safe place for me, so I was surprised when the GIA pounded on its door that snowy Christmas night, demanding entrance. The monks quickly shuffled me off to a place of safety — a kitchen pantry — where I was told to hide among sacks of flour and cornmeal. From this vantage point, I heard everything.
Father de Thierge opened the door to the GIA, but was not intimidated. “This is a house of peace. If you want to talk with us, come in, but leave your arms outside. If you cannot do that, we will talk outside,” I remember him saying. But Sayat-Attya’s vicious zeal for Islamic purity would not be deterred, and the GIA men burst into the kitchen.
I cannot bear to describe everything I heard that night. Three of the twelve monks were taken hostage and used as bargaining chips with France. They were later murdered. The other eight monks, including de Thierge, were slaughtered, then and there, while our Christmas dinner grew cold on the table.
I listened to the grisly sounds of mass murder for what seemed like hours. When I thought it was over, I peeked out from my hiding place, and in the candlelight saw a fiercely built man kneeling over a headless corpse – a ragged saw in one hand. In that instant, the murderer, his face spattered crimson, looked up and stared straight into my hiding place! I knew it must be Sayat-Attya. One eye was milky white with blindness, and the other cold and black.
I will never be sure if he saw me or not, but in that moment, without looking away, he slowly lifted the dead monk’s head by a wet hank of hair — tentacles of severed arteries dripping below it. The image is forever etched in my tortured mind. I must accept this experience as a crooked passage on my path, and a necessary rite in the fulfillment of my divine destiny.
Lorton Prison, just outside Washington, DC, August 2009
His windpipe collapsed like a paper cup underfoot. A fluorescent bulb buzzed down the hall, casting a dim light on two men, one strangling the other. The only other sounds were soft, determined grunts and a slight gurgle — nothing the guards would hear.
The victim’s eyes, bulging with pressure, rolled in their sockets, searching for anything that might save him. He could feel blood stopping up in his neck, starving his brain of oxygen. The murderer’s thumbs expertly pushed the broken trachea back toward the spine, stifling all screams.
He looked into the face of his attacker. It showed no emotion. The eyes were sparkling, dark, and focused. The cruel mouth held a slight grimace of effort. The skin of the victim’s neck burned as fragile blood vessels snapped, releasing their precious contents into the sub-dermal tissue.
He dug his nails into the killer’s sinewy forearms. His mind raced. Is this is how it ends? What will become of my work? It’s not finished…I can’t die now! His panic reached a crescendo, even while time slowed to an almost imperceptible crawl.
He became acutely aware of every detail around him, as if he were watching a high-resolution, slow-motion film of his own death. He could see coarse black hairs on his murder’s arms, and beneath those, pores in the sallow skin, and within those, glistening beads of oily perspiration.
His field of vision narrowed and focused — only the killer’s face remained. Their feet shuffled dryly on the concrete floor, in a sad, fatal dance. Death, shiny and black, crept spider-like into the room. His mind raged with fear and bitterness and desperation. Light collapsed to darkness. The heartbeat slowed, and then stopped.
They say that in death one’s hearing is the last life force to go, and so it was for this young man. The buzzing light drowned out all other sounds until it too narrowed to silence.
Brian Drecker was dead. He had been bright, full of life, opportunity, ambition and hope, and his doctoral thesis had just uncovered an ancient secret so stunning it would profoundly change the world in ways that are almost beyond comprehension.
But some want to keep the world the way it is, so while Brian’s Drecker’s warm corpse lay on a cold concrete floor, the most powerful forces on earth were mobilizing to ensure his discovery stayed a secret forever.
TY DRECKER’S PHONE RANG FROM inside his truck. He rummaged through greasy fast-food bags and grocery store receipts to find it. A quick glance at the caller ID confirmed his suspicion. Lena was calling for the third time. He wanted to ignore the call again but knew he shouldn’t. With a sigh he pressed the green “answer” icon on the smartphone’s screen.
“Where are you?” she said. It wasn’t a question — it was an accusation.
Ty glanced at his watch. 1:23 PM. The funeral didn’t start until three.
“I’m about an hour away.” He wasn’t lying — this time.
“Sharp as a tack, that one,” Ty’s father used to say about Lena, but that was just another way to say, “Unlike you.”
“Why don’t you get your law degree?” he would ask, barely leaving off the words “…like Lena.” “Something wrong with landscape work?” Ty would retort.
“Nothing at all, unless you can’t keep a job, which you don’t seem to be able to,” said his father.
It was a tired argument. Ty had given college a fair shot, but it didn’t suit him. Lena and his brother, Brian, were the brilliant ones — not him. Or at least, Brian had been. Now he was dead.
“What the hell happened?” Ty thought. “Everything was so…great.”
That was five years ago. Brian had been Ty’s best man.
The ceremony was his kind of gig: no tuxes, outdoors, reggae music. It also perfectly expressed Lena’s temperament at the time: relaxed, fun and colorful. She and her mother had spent months preparing, and the event came together beautifully.
“Are you ready?” Brian had asked him, grinning and grabbing Ty by both shoulders.
“As ready as I’m gonna be,” Ty said.
Brian laughed easily and gave his older brother a sucker punch. “Come on, bro, relax. This is gonna be awesome!”
With only thirteen months between them, the two had been close since birth. While Ty, the first born, was cautious and reserved, Brian was wild and impetuous. When the boys were twelve and thirteen, Brian talked Ty into donning homemade superhero suits and jumping off the roof into the family’s above-ground pool. Brian missed, hit the side of the pool, and broke his leg in three places. That summer, while laid up with a cast from ankle to hip, Brian read forty books, including a primer on human psychology. His fascination with the human mind began that summer, leading him, nine years later, to the doctorate program at the University of Virginia.
Ty and Lena’s wedding ceremony took place on the sun-drenched grounds of The Whalehead Club in North Carolina’s Outer Banks, a stretch of land less than a mile wide, with the Atlantic Ocean on one side and the glassy Currituck Sound on the other. The late-summer wedding day blossomed like a perfect flower, kissed with a cool breeze that tossed the rose petals carpeting the grassy path to the altar.
Standing there, Ty could see the sparkling waters of the sound to his right and left, dotted with the bobbing gray and white bodies of trumpeter swans and Canada geese. Behind rows of smiling guests, glimpses of the royal blue ocean stretched between beach houses bleached gray by the sun, gnarled clusters of live oaks, their shiny leaves so deeply green to be nearly black, and careless strands of sea oats. A flawless pale blue sky stretched overhead, swirling with squawking sea birds.
Lena appeared, her athletic build hidden beneath a cloud of white satin and lace. Steel drums played the wedding procession, and Lena and her father moved forward. Ty felt weak. He turned to look at Brian for encouragement, who, grinning from ear to ear, slowly closed his eyes. Written on his eyelids, in black ink, were the words GO and BRO! — one word per eye. Ty began to laugh, and as the wedding pictures later showed, the two brothers laughed through the rest of that perfect day.
The marriage flourished for four years. Lena earned a law degree and joined a the staff of Bill Aversade, an ambitious conservative politician from South Carolina. While now Speaker of the House, it was no secret he had eyes on the White House. Ty started a degree in political science but quit halfway through. He often struggled to find work. Then Ty noticed Lena pulling away from him. She put in long hours at the office and would often go out after work, not returning until late at night.
Ty tried to reconnect with his wife, but she did not seem interested. He asked if there was someone else, but she convinced him it was just a phase, and that it would work itself out. But it didn’t. Lena filed for divorce and moved out. Ty stayed in their Washington D.C. apartment, along with mounds of dirty laundry, an empty refrigerator and a large, gray cat. He still didn’t know what had happened.
“Ty! Ty! Are you listening to me?” Lena broke through the fog of his memories.
“Oh, yeah, sure. What’s up?” he said.
“I’m just checking on you. Are you okay?” she asked.
“Yeah, I’m fine,” Ty lied. He was not sure he could handle his brother’s funeral — he was just barely holding himself together. The news of Brian’s murder had stunned him. Disbelief was now yielding to the deep ache of sadness. Its roots were sinking deeper and deeper inside of him. Lena often annoyed him by micromanaging his life, but today, he found her call comforting.
“Look, don’t be late. I’m already here. Your parents are here, too.” Her admonition, while well intentioned, pricked his defense mechanism.
“Sure, sure. I’ll be there on time. I just stopped for a soda.”
Ty hung up the phone and wiped sweat from his forehead. He did not want Lena to know he had taken the back roads. He needed the time to be alone. The blue cotton shirt he had carefully ironed hours ago clung to his torso, and strings of curly hair hung down into his tanned face. Ty’s truck, a 1986 Ford Bronco II, was parked in front of a dingy CITGO station festooned with faded cardboard placards of beer and cigarette ads. The Bronco was originally yellow, but Ty had rolled it with blue latex house paint to cover up its many dents and rusted places. It reeked of fertilizer and grass seed and radiated heat like an oven, but they were his only wheels. He preferred driving Lena’s shiny black BMW Roadster, a gift she had given herself on her first promotion, but it was not his — a fact Lena never let him forget. The Bronco was all his. Besides, he loved that truck. It was a perfect expression of how he felt about himself; beat up but still running.
Across the road, in a dry field of buff-colored grass, a half dozen black cows huddled in the shade of a massive oak tree. Ty watched the sky, white with humidity, for any sign of a breeze, but there was nothing.
Ty climbed into the Bronco and programmed the GPS on his smartphone – a gift from Lena – for the most direct route to Staunton, Virginia, a town nestled in the heart of the Shenandoah Valley. Driving south on I-81, his mind cycled over the same tired questions he’d been asking for three days. Who would want to kill his easy-going kid brother? How had he ended up in prison? And why had Brian, normally well adjusted, behaved so strangely in the past few months? The questions had no answers, but they tore though his brain like ruts worn in a road to nowhere.
“Turn left in thirty seconds,” intoned the mechanized voice of the navigation system, disturbing Ty’s melancholy trance. A few minutes later, shortly before three o’clock, the Bronco pulled into the crowded parking lot of the Avalon Funeral Home. What he saw stunned him.
The line of people waiting to go inside was so long it extended into the parking lot. The mourners looked typical for Brian’s friends — tee shirts and shorts, dreadlocks, piercings, tattoos. They smoked cigarettes and talked quietly.
Hoping not to be noticed, Ty slunk along the edge of the crowd. He slipped into the foyer. A photo collage of Brian caught his eye. He paused to look it over. One recent photo showed Brian wearing baggy shorts, a Jerry Garcia tee shirt, and flip flops. His brown hair was shaggy and unkempt, and he was smiling through a few days growth of beard. Stinging tears welled up in Ty’s eyes. He felt like he had been kicked in the stomach. He reached for a breath, but it wouldn’t come. His knees buckled, and it took a few kind and strong hands to bring him back to his feet.
The service took forever. Ty worked hard to fight back tears, and lost every battle. Finally, at about five o’clock, Ty left the building to join the reception at his uncle’s home, a short drive away.
It had rained during the service. A charcoal-colored ribbon of wet asphalt cut through the steep Virginia hillside. Tall trees arched over the winding road, their olive and white leaves tossing and drying in the breeze. Ty’s ancient Bronco pulled steadily up the hill to the house, which stood in a clearing. In the back yard, a crowd gathered around a few picnic tables under a canopy of tall oaks. Ty parked the truck in a side yard and walked up a short gravel path. His Aunt Caroline was the first person he met. She greeted him with a warm embrace.
“You’ll want to see your parents. They’re in the house. Come on, I’ll take you to them,” she said, taking him by the arm. Caroline was a special aunt — close to everyone in the family. Ty loved her. She stayed in the background while Ty wept with his parents, and was ready with another hug when their time of private mourning was over. “You must be hungry,” Caroline said, taking him by the arm, “come with me.” Ty suddenly realized he was hungry. He had skipped lunch to make the funeral on time.
“We Southerners are a strange bunch, aren’t we?” Caroline said with a laugh, as she walked Ty to the back yard. “We’ll use any occasion to have a picnic. Anyway, get yourself a plate of food, and then meet me on the front porch. I want to catch up.”
Ty loaded a paper plate with homemade fried chicken, three-bean salad, creamy macaroni and cheese, fresh cornbread, and baked Virginia ham. Grabbing an iced tea and eyeing the dessert table for later, he made his way to the house’s wide front porch, politely accepting condolences as he went. Ty took a seat on a sofa, and began to eat. The Shenandoah Valley spread out below him like a tapestry woven of emerald, sage, rust, and white. A moment later, Aunt Caroline showed up, and plopped down with a sigh in a white Adirondack chair, balancing her plate on one of its arms.
“How are you holding up?” she asked, leaning toward him. Ty paused, a forkful of ham suspended before him.
“Okay…I guess,” he answered thoughtfully.
“Well, I would have preferred another occasion for a get-together.” She leaned back.
“Yeah.” Ty agreed. He looked east across the valley to the distant ridge of dusty blue mountains, their peaks glowing burnt orange with the last low rays of sunset. He and Brian had spent many hours playing in this big yard on peaceful summer evenings just like this one. He became lost in the memories. Caroline noticed his distraction, but waited it through. The sun set quickly, and the ensuing haze of dusk made it hard to see where the mountains ended and sky began. “Say, I understand you and Brian stayed in touch via email,” she said, enthusiastically digging into her food.
“Yes,” Ty said. He poked at his salad. “We kept up, until about three months ago. Then I lost track.”
Caroline said nothing, but Ty knew the questions on her mind. They were the same as his own. The whole family had become alarmed when Brian suddenly left for the Middle East, leaving his PhD research unfinished.
“I’m as confused as everyone else, Aunt Caroline. I don’t understand the last minute trip to Egypt and God knows where else. I can’t understand why our government considered Brian a threat, or how he got involved with this, this…GIA. I don’t get it. It just wasn’t like him.” Ty pressed his fingers into the corners of his eyes.
Caroline allowed a moment of silence, and then gently asked, “Tell me, what was going on with Brian? I mean, before you lost touch?”
Ty leaned back and thought about the many email exchanges he’d had with Brian over the past year. Most were lighthearted talk of girls and parties and sports, the kind of chatter one would expect from two young men. But toward the end, Brian’s tone had become darker, more serious. More than once he referred to his dream research as strange or bizarre. The work was clearly consuming more and more of his time and energy.
Then, one night at nearly three o’clock in the morning, Ty’s mobile phone rang. It was Brian. He wanted to talk about the research, how he was conducting it, and most important, what he was finding. It was to be their last conversation.
“I’ll do my best, Aunt Caroline,” Ty said, “but this is a little hard to explain.”
Ty collected his thoughts, gazing out over the darkened valley, which was now sprinkled with electric lights. The shadowy figure of a possum slunk along the edge of the yard. Ty watched until it disappeared into the shrubbery, and then finally spoke.
“Brian’s doctoral thesis was on dream analysis, you know, comparing and contrasting how people from different cultures dream, finding similarities and differences. That sort of thing. He expected to present his final paper this spring. To collect data, he used a technique for extracting information from websites called ‘Web scraping’, sometimes also called ‘Web harvesting’. The simplest example of web harvesting is when you manually copy and paste, taking content from a website and sticking it into another software, like Microsoft Word.
“Sure,” Caroline said, “I understand. I use that technique all the time, but I didn’t know it had such a fancy name.”
“Well, Brian’s techniques weren’t so simple. He wrote a sophisticated software program, called a ‘bot’, using it to harvest web content from dozens of popular dream journaling websites where people record their dreams. That made it possible for Brian to collect massive amounts of data in just a few months.”
“Wait a sec,” Caroline said, “A bot? What the hell is that? Help me out here!”
“Sorry, Aunt Caroline,” Ty said, smiling. “Bot is hacker lingo for software robot. Bots typically automate computer techniques you would otherwise do manually, like cut and paste. It just does it way faster, 24 by 7, for months on end.”
“I get it,” Caroline said, “Brian’s ‘bot’ harvested dreams by the thousands…”
“Actually, tens of thousands,” Ty said, swirling his glass of tea and examining its ice cubes.
“Okay. Tens of thousands, which he then studied for his thesis.”
“Exactly,” Ty said. “Once he harvested the dreams from the on-line dream journals, he could organize the data and analyze it with advanced data-mining techniques.”
“Stop!” Caroline said. “You’ll have to forgive my ignorance of computer jargon. What is ‘data-mining’?”
“Data-mining uses sophisticated software to identify patterns in large databases of information. For example, credit card companies use data mining to track your spending patterns. If they, or rather if the computer, sees something out of the ordinary, they can investigate. That’s how they know when your card has been stolen and is being used fraudulently.”
“Hmmm. I always wondered how they knew that. A bit like big brother, don’t you think, Ty?”
“Well, sure, if used the wrong way. Brian’s idea was to understand how dreams might differ by nationality and culture. Data-mining was the perfect tool for his purposes, along with the Internet, which made it possible for him to easily collect data.”
“Interesting,” Caroline said. “So, was he getting dream data from around the world?”
“Oh, yeah” Ty said. From everywhere…China, Peru, Germany, the United States, even Iraq. It was pretty cool, actually.”
“I’m curious about something”, Caroline said. “How did he solve the obvious language problem?”
“Brian was a resourceful guy. He cut a deal with the university’s foreign language department. Their grad students would translate the dreams into English in return for credit. It was interesting work for them, easy for the professors, and good for Brian. Everybody was winning.”
The valley was completely dark now, and a thin, silvery sliver of moon was rising over the low shadowy roll of purplish mountains on the horizon. People were saying their goodbyes, and cars were streaming out from the property, their tail lights sailing away into the black woods like so many red fireflies.
Caroline was quiet for moment, and then said, “It all sounds innocent enough. So how did Brian find himself in all this trouble?”
“Good question. Brian launched his data-harvesting bot in December, just before Christmas. The project was a huge success. Brian was very excited, and very busy. It was about April when he started noticing something unusual..something he could not explain. The data-mining was turning up some odd patterns.”
“What kind of patterns?” Caroline asked.
“It was weird, you know? Some dreams would start where others finished. Certain characters, places, and objects would show up…again and again. It was implausible, because the dreams came from different people who lived on opposite sides of the world and who didn’t know each other. And yet, a significant number of the dreams yielded connections, some obvious, some hidden. It was an unexpected twist in his research.”
“Connections? You mean…one dream to another?” Caroline was leaning forward in her chair now, her hands clasped beneath her chin.
“Yeah. That’s right.”
“What did he think?”
“Well, by mid spring, Brian had developed and discarded dozens of working theories. It wasn’t until June, and three weeks after Brian had left the United States – that I received a text message from him, suggesting he had solved the puzzle. It simply said, ‘I’ve got it’.”
“Yeah…nothing more. The next thing I knew, Brian had been arrested by the Department of Homeland Security, just as he set foot on U.S. soil. They brought him to Lorton prison for arraignment. Five hours later, and before any family or our lawyer could visit, Brian was dead.”
Caroline sat in stunned disbelief for a long time. Then she said, “I’m so sorry Ty,”
“Yeah…it so sucks.” He was grateful for the darkness, as it hid the tears leaking from his clenched eyes. Finally Ty said, “I think I’ll drive into Charlottesville tomorrow and see if I can find Brian’s thesis advisor. Maybe I can learn something…anything…that might make some sense.”
“Do you know what you are looking for?” Caroline asked, shaking her head.
“I’m not sure,” Ty responded. “But certainly UVA has copies of his notes and papers. I’d like to at least see a draft of his thesis. But this much I know,” Ty looked straight at his aunt, “Brian said the dreams were leading him to something…something important. And he was scared.”
TY SPENT A RESTLESS NIGHT in a cheap motel outside of Staunton. The morning dawned steamy and hot. After a quick breakfast of generic fruit loops, bad coffee, and a green banana, Ty started the hour’s drive east on I-64 to the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. The truck had what Ty called “2-80” air conditioning, that is, you open two windows and drove 80 miles per hour. At least this will blow out the smell of the fertilizer, Ty thought, as the warm, humid air rushed in, stirring up cyclones of empty coffee cups and old receipts.
Ty plugged his phone into a creaky aftermarket stereo barely hanging in the dashboard, dialed up Best of ZZ Top and pushed play. The stereo needed a few whacks with his fist to be persuaded to play, but once it cooperated, he turned up the volume and leaned back.
The route took Ty over the Blue Ridge Mountains that he’d seen from his uncle’s porch the day before, and down into the lush green country that is home to UVA, or “Mr. Jefferson’s University” as its students like to call it. By about nine o’clock he was parked in front of the Department of Psychology, which like every other building on UVA’s grounds, is red brick with white columns. An oppressive heat assaulted him as he stepped from the truck, so he hurried to the front door and went in.
A plump, middle-aged woman sat behind a desk, talking on the telephone, twirling a lock of blonde hair in her fingers. An air conditioner buzzed in the window behind her, barely cooling the stale air. She cupped her hand over the phone and whispered, “I’ll be just a moment.”
Her voice had a hint of Southern to it. A tiny gold cross hung from her neck on a thin chain, dangling down into her cleavage like a blessed mountaineer rappelling into Valhalla. Ty wondered to himself what she might have looked like in her younger days.
He sat down and leafed through a recent copy of Psychology Today, stopping at an article about how sleep deprivation is used to torture prisoners in GuantÃ¡namo Bay Naval base in Cuba. He was just getting to the horrible parts when the plump secretary hung up the telephone.
“Thank you for waiting. May I help you?” she asked, leaning forward so her breasts squeezed together, bulging out as pink and plump as two ripe peaches. Ty wiped a trickle of sweat from his forehead.
“Yes. My name is Ty Drecker. I’m Brian Drecker’s older brother. He was a student here.”
“Oh yes,” the secretary said. “I’m so sorry. The whole department is upset about his passing. We heard he was…um…” She looked at Ty with embarrassment. The murder had made the papers, so everyone knew. He decided to make it easy for her.
“Well thank you,” Ty said. He changed the subject. “I’m hoping to retrieve some of his papers and so forth.”
“Of course,” she said brightly. For the next few moments, Ty was in her efficient command as she examined his driver’s license, called the Dean’s office and had him sign the proper releases. As he was signing the last form, she said, “We have to be careful, you know. You aren’t the first person to ask about Brian’s papers.”
Ty looked up. “What do you mean?”
She lowered her voice, as if sharing a juicy piece of gossip. “Well, there was a man in here yesterday afternoon. Said he was a relative, but I just didn’t see the resemblance, you know? When I asked to see some identification, he told me it was in his car and left to get it, but he never came back.”
Ty was puzzled. “Did he give his name?”
“No, he didn’t. But he was very polite. And a Christian too.”
“What makes you say that?” Ty asked.
“He noticed my calendar,” she said, spinning in her chair and pointing to a calendar pinned to the wall behind her. It was opened to August 12 and showed a picture of a Hollywood handsome Jesus holding a snow white baby lamb, under which were the words: “EVERYONE WHO CALLS ON THE NAME OF THE LORD WILL BE SAVED. Acts 2:21”
“So again, what makes you think he was a Christian?” Ty said, rubbing his forehead.
“Oh, because he knew the rest of the verse by heart,” she said, twirling her hair. “Hold on. I’ll look it up.” She reached under her desk and pulled out a Bible, its blue leather cover cracked and worn. After leafing through it for a few seconds, she exclaimed, “Here it is! Acts Chapter Two, verses sixteen through twenty-one. He recited it word for word, exactly as it’s written here.”
“Will you read the rest of the verse to me?” Ty asked.
“Sure!” the woman said. She cleared her throat.
But this is what was spoken of through the prophet Joel: ‘In the last days,’ God says, ‘I will pour out my Spirit upon all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy. Your young men will see visions, and your old men will dream dreams. In those days I will pour out my Spirit, even on my servants — men and women alike — and they will prophesy. And I will cause wonders in the heavens above, and signs on the earth below — blood and fire and clouds of smoke. The sun will become dark, and the moon will turn blood red, before…’
“Hold it!” Ty said. “Read that part about the dreams again.”
She traced her finger back to the spot and repeated, “…and your old men shall dream dreams.”
She looked up from her Bible, smiling.
Ty stared at her, his mind far away.
Her telephone buzzed, and she answered it.
“Yes, Dr. Granger? Of course. I’ll send him right in.”
“Dr. Granger will see you now. He’s been expecting you.” The woman smiled at Ty and played her fingers down the front of her neck. “It’s been nice chatting with you.”
R.L. Sidewith often couldn’t sleep at night, which made her a favorite with students who felt free to call in the wee hours needing help with their computer science projects. Brian Drecker was a frequent caller, especially in the last days of his project when the data was showing such inexplicable patterns. Then, even if it was 3 AM, he would hardly be able to contain his excitement.
“What does it mean?” he would ask, almost to himself as much as to her, and she honestly didn’t know. It was clear there were patterns emerging, and they became more apparent the longer the data mining software ran. But even with ten years in the U.S. Army as a cyber warfare expert, deciphering, or more often creating, some of the most sophisticated hacks in computing history, she had still never seen anything like the patterns found in Drecker’s data. They seemed almost alien.
Sidewith didn’t give much credence to the Jungian psycho-babble coming from Granger’s department — her mind was much too analytical for that. She sought a scientific explanation, but it was eluding her. She spent many long hours with Brian, more than she normally would have with a student, working through the endless technical issues, squashing bugs in the code, and fine-tuning the advanced algorithms needed to find the patterns. Sidewith considered it some of her best work, and when Brian was murdered, she was dismayed on multiple levels. Losing the man was bad enough. She didn’t also want to lose the mission. But it was the threats that really made her want to dig in.
The first one came from an unexpected place — a neighbor. And it came at an unexpected time — on the day of Brian Drecker’s funeral. Sidewith had attended the service, come home, and taken a 10K run to shake off her sadness. She was cooling off on her front porch with a recovery drink when Ralph Cartrell waived from across the street.
“Hey R.L.,” he said, making an unconscious swipe at his thinning hair. “Mind if I drop by for a minute?” Sidewith answered by shrugging her shoulders and beckoning with her glass, which she then drained down to the ice cubes. She didn’t know Cartrell that well. In fact, she didn’t know any of her neighbors that well. She didn’t keep their hours. Cartrell sidled over.
“Want some?” Sidewith said, lifting her empty glass as a greeting.
“No. No thanks,” Cartrell said. “I just had lunch. Plus they had cookies and punch after church today. I’m stuffed.” Sidewith suspected she knew what this was about. Stuffed full of deceptive myths from your barbaric and regressive religion, she thought.
“How was your run?” he said.
“Well it’s a great day for it,” he said, looking up at the cloudless sky. “A gift from God.”
“Maybe,” she said, and quickly realized her mistake. It was the opening he needed, as if he needed one. She hoped he wouldn’t go there, but he did.
“You are not a believer, are you?” Cartrell said.
“A believer in nice weather? Sure I am,” she said, lifting the empty glass to her lips and sucking out one of the cubes, crunching it to shards. Cartrell laughed. “No. In Jesus.”
“Bill, is this what this is about? Because I’m not interested. What I am interested in is a shower. So unless there is more to this conversation, I am going to get on with my day.”
Cartrell stopped smiling.
“Fair enough. I’ll cut to the chase. Whether you believe it or not, there are forces in the spirit world that control events in the material world. You would do well to be aware of them.”
“I’m getting in the shower. Thanks for dropping by, Bill,” Sidewith said, moving toward her front door.
“Sin has its consequences, R.L. I would hate to see you fall prey to a reprobate mind.”
Sidewith was about to say, “And what the fuck does that mean?” but she knew better than to mix it up with a fundamentalist. It was a waste of her time. So she muttered “Whatever,” and went inside, leaving Cartrell on the porch.
But once in the shower, she realized she was angry. She knew what “reprobate” meant — unprincipled — and she knew where the term came from — the Bible. If there is one thing I’m not, she thought, it is unprincipled. But it really wasn’t worth her time and energy. Cartrell is a dweeb, she thought, and decided to forget the whole ordeal.
Sidewith toweled off, spiked up her boyishly short, frosted hair, and pulled a bottle of Chardonnay and a chicken sandwich from the refrigerator. Sitting down, she poured a glass and studied the golden liquid in the soft afternoon light. Lifting her wine glass, she said, “To you, Brian,” and took a good drink. As the sun dropped, she watched narrow strips of light move up the wall, illuminating a frame she kept on a glass table. It held the only memento she cared to display from ten years in the Army — a distinguished service medal.
Then she made up her mind. You don’t leave comrades behind, she thought, and you don’t leave the mission unfinished. We are not done yet, Brian, she thought. Not by a long shot.
Now R.L. Sidewith, B.Sc. in Physics, PhD in Computer Science, ex-U.S. Army intelligence officer, decided to do a little digging. And she was about to prove there was nothing, absolutely nothing, wrong with her mind.
A dark, powerfully built man known only as “C” finished his evening prayers, rolled up the rug, and stepped onto his apartment balcony with a vodka and tonic on ice. The last burnt orange strands of sunset glowed softly in the western sky, and the white lights of Istanbul’s skyline twinkled against the indigo of a cloudless twilight. Beyond the ancient wall of the great city, red and green boat lights, looking like electric candies, bobbed on the royal blue Straits of the Bosphorous. From below, the throaty beckon of street hawkers mingled with a cacophony of car horns, diesel buses, and motorbikes. Istanbul, the gateway between east and west, is an eclectic blend of modern Europe and traditional Islam. Grand mosques, graceful minarets and exotic bazaars rub shoulders with upscale shops, offices and restaurants. But the city’s cosmopolitan fascia hides a volatile religious tension, one that has festered since fall of Rome and the Byzantine Empire, fueled by ancient vendettas and vows of righteous revenge.
C drained his drink and stepped into the hot streets of the bustling city. After a short walk, he entered a small restaurant and found a table in the back occupied by two other men. At the center of the table was a three-stemmed hookah pipe, from which the men smoked in silence. Rich tobacco smoke mixed with the aromas of roasted meat, cinnamon, cumin, garlic and allspice. The low murmur of men’s voices rumbled through the dimly lit space like the roll of distant thunder.
With only a nod, C’s table ordered Diner Kebab, a roll of grilled lamb garnished with mint and cucumber infused yogurt. The meal was brought to their table by a young female. The three men ate in silence, and then smoked some more. They became part of the backdrop of the place, and thus, invisible. Only then did they speak.
“Where is Z?” asked the eldest of the three.
“In a Federal prison,” C said, “in Lorton, Virginia.”
“Did he get to the boy?”
“And what did he learn?”
C paused, and then answered.
“Z does not believe the boy knew much.”
The older man looked up. “Is the boy dead?”
“Yes A, he is dead at the hand of Z,” said C.
“Z has failed,” A said, clenching the pipe stem in his teeth. “We had but one chance to learn the whereabouts of what we lost. The Americans who put the boy in prison may now know more than we do.”
A paused, and then asked, “Do we have other agents inside the prison?”
“Yes,” C answered. “Several, including some guards.”
Then A turned to the third man, who remained in the shadows.
“Z can be of greater service to Allah in heaven than on earth,” A said, pulling a long draw from the pipe. “It is time for him to enter into Paradise.”
With those words, the third man rose from the table and left the restaurant. Ten hours later, Z was found dead in the Lorton laundry, with a deep puncture in his jugular vein. From his wound, a river of dark crimson flowed onto the gray floor and past a pile of clean, white towels.
DR. JUDE GRANGER, chair of the University of Virginia’s psychology department, sat writing at a broad mahogany desk cluttered with paper. His door was open. The large office was comfortably decorated. Three windows, framed with heavy draperies, exposed a harsh view of the sun-baked parking lot. Ty tapped on the door frame to announce his arrival, and Granger looked up from his work.
“Mr. Drecker!” Granger said. He stood and walked out from behind his desk, smiling and extending his hand.
“Good to meet the brother of one of our finest students.” His face turned momentarily somber. “I’m so sorry about his passing. Please accept our heartfelt condolences. We share your grief.”
Ty took Granger’s hand. It was huge, but smooth and cool to the touch. Granger’s black hair was speckled with gray, and while he appeared to be in his late forties, Ty guessed he was more like fifty-five. Granger was neatly dressed, and had the build and posture of one who had been an athlete as a young man.
It occurred to Ty that this was the first time anyone outside the family had offered condolences. A wave of grief rushed over him like a flash flood, and then quickly passed.
“Thank you,” he mumbled.
“Let’s sit over here,” said Dr. Granger, motioning to a leather sofa and an armchair.
“Would you like a soda, or some bottled water? I have a small fridge here. No beer, I’m afraid.” Granger laughed.
“Sure. Thanks.” Ty responded. “A water would be great.”
Granger took out two bottles of water, handed one to Ty, and sat down in the armchair. He shook his head sadly. “I haven’t gotten over your brother’s death yet, as I’m sure you haven’t. Again, we are all very sorry here at the psych department. We were quite excited by his work.”
“Well, Dr. Granger, that’s why I’m here. I’d like to know more about Brian’s project. I’m hoping it might cast some light on his murder.”
“Of course. I understand,” Granger said, leaning forward in his chair. “What I can’t understand is why the police didn’t spend more time investigating Brian’s research. Oh sure, they called, and I talked to a detective so-and-so, but I just don’t think they got it. Maybe it was just too much for them. Over their heads — you know? Brian was on to something — something truly, well, wonderful. And I mean that in the full sense of the word. But his findings are —” Dr. Granger paused and leaned back, “hard to explain. Some of my own staff still dispute his conclusions. But—”
“But?” said Ty.
“Well, let’s face it. Human dreams from all over the world? Somehow connected? To many, it seemed like implausible poppycock,” Granger took a sip from his water, “but not to me.”
“What gave you confidence in the project?” Ty asked, his eyes studying the framed degrees behind Granger’s desk.
Granger smiled. “Have you ever heard of Carl Gustav Jung, Mr. Drecker?”
Ty looked perplexed. The name Carl Jung was barely familiar to him. Granger sensed his ignorance.
“Carl Jung is one of our favorites here at the psych department. A Swiss psychiatrist from the 19th century, he is considered the founder of analytical psychology.”
Granger took a long draw from his water, got up, and walked over to a cluster of black-and-white portraits hanging on the wall. “Freud and Jung,” he said, peering at the pictures through reading glasses. “They are the giants of our science. If you choose to call it science,” he added with a shrug.
“You sound doubtful,” Ty said.
“Oh, no, not at all,” Granger said, straightening quickly and turning back toward Ty. “It’s just that not everyone in my profession has the same esteem for Mr. Jung as I do. You see, Jung cautioned that modern humans rely too heavily on science and logic and would benefit from integrating spirituality and appreciation of the unconscious realm. His ideas are not typically respected as science in many university-level psychology programs. But here at UVA, we explore the impact of the humanities on our hard sciences. It was part of Thomas Jefferson’s educational philosophy.” He plopped casually down in his chair. “Even our engineering students get a good dose of humanities. It’s what makes us different here at the University.”
“So, what did my brother think of Carl Jung?”
“Oh my god,” Granger said, leaning back in his chair and gazing out the window. “He was a Jung fanatic.”
Granger looked wistful. “Brian really loved that whole Jungian idea of…” Granger waved his hand in the air, searching for the right phrase. “…a connection between the psyche and the world of dreams, art, mythology, world religion and philosophy.”
Granger looked back at Ty, but his eyes were unfocused, as if his mind were still elsewhere. “That’s what made Brian’s thesis so fascinating.”
“I know about the thesis at the 30,000-foot level,” Ty said. “What more can you tell me?”
Granger snapped back to attention, focused and alert.
“Brian’s thesis was born out of interests he developed as an undergrad — Eastern versus Western philosophy, alchemy, astrology, sociology, as well as literature and the arts. It really grew from there. And Brian did top-notch work, that’s for sure. Your brother was well on his way to becoming a fine theoretical psychologist. His work on dreams was super clean. If an independent test verifies his research — which I think it will — then he will have discovered something truly astounding.”
Dr. Granger looked intently at Ty. “Professionally, I believe the dream connections he discovered are real. It’s the interpretation I find hard to believe.”
There was a knock on the door, and the secretary came into the office carrying a box.
“Sorry to interrupt, but I’ve collected all of Brian Drecker’s papers and other personal belongings.” She handed Dr. Granger a manila envelope. “This is a release form, and a list of his passwords to the university email account and other systems.”
“Ah yes, thank you, Joan,” Dr. Granger said, scratching his signature on the form. “Have you informed Dr. Sidewith of the transfer?” “Yes sir,” Joan said over her shoulder as she left the room.
“That would be Brian’s technical advisor. She is an assistant professor and just starting out, but quite brilliant in her field from what I hear.”
“You were telling me about the interpretation of the dreams,” Ty said, taking the envelope from Granger. “What about it did you find hard to believe?”
“Okay, buckle up,” Granger said, “because this is going to sound kind of weird. Mind if I smoke?”
“Go ahead,” Ty said.
“Thanks. I’m not supposed to in the building, but the chair has its privileges.”
Granger reached into his desk drawer and pulled out a pipe, stuffed it with sweet smelling tobacco, and lit it. As he held the match to the pipe’s bowl, Ty noticed a silver signet ring on Granger’s pinky finger, showing an eagle in relief against a black background. A wreath of silver laurel surrounded the eagle.
Once the pipe was lit, Granger leaned back in his chair and watched his exhaled smoke drift up to the ceiling. It was a moment before he spoke, and then he did so deliberately and clearly.
“Your brother believed the dream connections were part of an intelligent design.”
“Intelligent design? Isn’t that — ”
“Yes, the term used by Biblical Creationists, who believe the world did not evolve, but was rather designed by a higher power.”
“Right,” Ty said.
“Yeah, trust me, I understand what you’re thinking. I had the same doubts, and I still do.”
“So what was the purpose of this design?” Ty asked.
“Your brother believed the dream connections were designed to help him find something – something profound.”
“What do you mean, to find something? What kind of something?” Ty said.
“Your brother never shared that with me. I always hoped he would.”
“And what about this higher power stuff? My brother was not religious. That much I know.”
“No, not religious: spiritual. There is a difference,” Granger said, relighting his pipe.
“So let me see if I understand you. My brother thought a ‘higher power’ was guiding him to find something profound, using this map of dreams as a kind of freaky treasure map? Do I understand you?”
“Precisely,” Granger said.
“Crazy.” Ty paused, “What did you think?”
“Well, it is an interesting theory. The trouble is, we can’t prove it. Unless…” Dr. Granger’s voice drifted off.
“Unless what?” Ty asked.
Granger exhaled and watched his pipe smoke drift to the ceiling. “Unless you can help us. Your brother was onto something. Something big. I think it’s the reason he was murdered. And the killer is still out there. Justice has not yet been served, has it? You are your brother’s keeper, whether you like it or not. But let me be clear, if you get involved, then your life may be in danger too.” Granger tapped a pile of ashes from his pipe onto an ashtray and studied them, as if he were looking for something. “But I’ll understand if you just want to leave things, well, as they are.”
“Look, Dr. Granger. I don’t know anything about psychology. I’m a landscaper. Dung? That I know. Jung I don’t. How could I be of any help at all?”
“Ah, Mr. Drecker, that’s where you are mistaken. As Brian’s brother, you have more to offer than you realize.”
“Access. Privilege. Insight. Things I cannot ever have, even as Brian’s department chair. The rules of privacy that tie my hands control my desk, but they won’t yours.”
“I don’t have a desk, Dr. Granger. Hell, I don’t even have a job.”
“Then what have you got to lose?” Granger said, still studying his ashes.
Ty studied Dr. Granger for a moment, and thought. What did he have to lose? He was unemployed. He was about to be divorced and running out of money. But most importantly, the one guy who had stuck with him through thick and thin, through the crashed cars and drugs, who loved him despite the failures that disappointed their parents, was his brilliant, wonderful brother. He owed Brian this. Ty resolved himself, then and there, to bring his brother’s murderer to justice — whatever it took.
“Fine. Let’s get started,” Ty said, extending his hand to Granger.
A slow, broad smile came to Granger’s face.
“Good,” he said, accepting Ty’s handshake. “Very good.”
Granger turned and walked to the windows. He pulled down one slat of the venetian blinds and looked out. Dust sparkled and twirled in the strong sunlight that came streaming in. He took a long, slow draw from his pipe.
“You must begin by learning as much as you can about a mysterious person now living in Egypt, whom we know only as Achibar,” he said with his back to Ty.
Ty was just about to ask how he was supposed to find this stranger when Joan burst back into the office without knocking.
“I’m sorry to interrupt, Dr. Granger,” she said with alarm. “But the President of the United States is speaking on something of terrible importance. Everyone is gathering in the break room. It’s urgent.”
Also by Brant
New from Brant Huddleston
For Christmas 2018, my brother, a pilot with American Airlines, gave me a gift that became the experience of a lifetime: 12 months of free travel anywhere American Airlines flies.
Thus began a year long journey that took me from the rocky coasts of Portugal, to the hot sands of Morocco, to the mangrove swamps of Panama, with many places beyond and between. In cheap hostels and the backwaters of the nomadic milieu, I discovered a treasure chest of colorful and fascinating people. I tell their stories and a bit of my own.
The trip became as much a spiritual and emotional journey inward as it was a literal outward one, and found me in a place those of you who are in the second half of life are likely to recognize.
With references to the philosophies of Carl Gustav Jung, Jesus, Bob Dylan, and the Buddha, Blue Skyways is an international romp by a man in his 60’s with not much more than a pack on his back, and still much to learn.
So sit back, relax, and enjoy a flight on my Blue Skyways.