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The End Begins - Sample

ONE

 February . . .

“Wha . . .? No, no, you can’t be here!”

Adam Afton couldn’t believe his eyes as he peered through the peephole of his apartment door and saw his colleague, Sam Renner, standing in the hallway. He quickly opened the door, looked up and down the hallway, and pulled the man by his jacket into the room. His heart raced, and cold sweat appeared on his brow.

“Man, you shouldn’t be . . . Why did you come here? W- we had agreed not to come to each other’s place.”

Sam looked ragged, disheveled as if he hadn’t slept for days. But then, Adam hadn’t seen much of the back of his eyelids either since the two had met and confided in one another four days earlier. What had started as a simple “How ya doin’?” had devolved into a nightmare neither man wanted nor anticipated.

“You shouldn’t have come here.”

For the past five years, Adam had made a point of living as much off the grid as he could, outside of work where he was so profoundly part of that grid, he felt like an electron bouncing between nodes on the deep web. Sam’s presence brought the grid to him.

He had provided no physical address to his employer, other than The UPS Store, where he maintained a postal box. His first Single Scope Background Investigation had been performed upon employment at CCS before his move off-grid. It resulted in his obtaining a Top Secret/SCI—Sensitive Compartmented Information—clearance level. With the onset of the Continuous Clearance program and its use of risk- and event-driven re-evaluations rather than calendar-driven assessments, his security clearance had not been risked by his move. By other things, yes, but not by the move.

His employer had his cell phone number, but out of caution, he made a point of turning that phone off and keeping it in a lead-foil-lined briefcase whenever he left work. On those nights when he was “on-call,” he stayed in a motel closer to the office. He used a burner phone to talk with his family and his girlfriend.

Well, ex-girlfriend. She had given him up as a lost cause months earlier. He couldn’t blame her. They had met while he was in rehab at the lowest point in his life. She was someone who’d been there, who understood some of what he was going through . . . still slogging through. Yet, there were too many things he couldn’t share with her . . . like, what he did for a living.

Despite caring for her, he had made the hard decision not to fight to keep her because he didn’t want her to get hurt because of him or what he’d discovered. And the hardest part of that had been not being free to tell her why he wasn’t begging her to stay. The less she knew, the better. Who wants to stay with someone with secrets?

His ex-wife, Rachel, had been an exception. They had been college sweethearts, the perfect couple, Ken and Barbie. His crunchy peanut butter to her sweet jelly. With one child—their two-year-old son, Arthur—and another on the way, he had been offered the job at CCS with all of its security clearances and work he couldn’t share with anyone outside of those with whom he worked. That was okay with her, as long as there were no other secrets between them. There hadn’t been.

And then came that tragic day three years later that changed everything. A day that was supposed to be a fun one in the park. A day that destroyed their family. She blamed him. Her family accused him. His family wavered between support and blame. Yet, he blamed himself. A month later, she and Arthur were gone. Maybe it was that hole in his heart he was trying to fill in with the ex-girlfriend. Maybe only Rachel could fill it.

The divorce was not so much acrimonious as it was the wrong stick in a game of Jenga®. She won all custodial rights and left for parts unknown. He began a trip through the bottle and might have lost everything if it hadn’t been for his little brother. Where had the kid gotten so much insight and wisdom? So much faith?

“Sorry. I made sure no one followed. I drove around for an hour, stopped at a convenience store to check for anyone following me, doubled around the neighborhood. I even parked two blocks away and walked. I didn’t see anyone. No one. Period. Not even that nosy, old lady across the street you always complain and laugh about.”

Adam sighed. The old lady was fiction, like all of his stories about his neighbors. He had justified choosing the apartment he now called home for three reasons, of which one was its anonymity. He knew names from mailboxes only. The occasional face he might recognize could belong to any one of those names. Still, he’d never be able to place one with the other.

He had provided Sam with his address in a moment of weakness. He regretted that now.

Adam walked to his fridge and retrieved two beers. He knew he needed something to help calm his nerves. He offered one to Sam, who raised his palm to decline.

“No, thanks. I need more than that, but I don’t want to risk getting a foggy brain. We get enough of that from rebreathing the carbon dioxide in our masks at work.”

Adam nodded and placed both cans back in the refrigerator. His friend had a good point.

“So, why are you here? We came up with a plan, and we need to stick to it.”

Sam began to pace in front of Adam’s large-screen television in the front room. “I know, I know. I-I just don’t think I can go back to work tomorrow and act as if everything is normal. We know too much. I don’t want to get ‘Clintoned.’ “

At one time, Adam would have chuckled at that comment. The ex-president and his ex-secretary of state wife had been the butt of many jokes and memes about dealing with their “enemies” through questionable suicides and robberies-gone-bad. Upon comparing “notes,” he and Sam had discovered proof of who was behind many, if not all, of those mysterious deaths. The Clintons had played their roles well. In return, they were under the protection of powerful men.

President Eisenhower had once warned of letting the military-industrial complex get too powerful. If he were president now, he might recognize Big Pharma and Big Tech as part of that modern technocracy that pulled politicians’ and bureaucrats’ strings throughout the government and protected those most useful to them.

“We talked about that. We just need a bit more information to blow the whistle. We can only get that through our computers at work. And once we go public, they won’t go after us. It would be too obvious.”

“Would it? I wish I was as convinced.”

Adam had his doubts, too. Yet, he had worked through the issues, as well as the names they could out. There were U.S. attorneys and an Attorney General at the Department of Justice who would take their proof and run with it. But the timing was critical. The next presidential election could change everything. President Graham was pro-law and order and had promised to clean house. His challenger was a socialist and globalist aligned with the technocracy.

“You know, we could have talked this through again on the phone. We both have secure burners. You didn’t need to come here in person.”

Sam stopped pacing and stood looking squarely at Adam. He reached behind his back and pulled a disc out from under his jacket. He’d had it stashed in his waistband at the small of his back. Sam also took a flash drive from his left pants pocket and then extended both to Adam.

“I came to give you these. It’s all the data I’ve collected, the stuff I told you about. I want out—”

As Adam took the items, he saw the red dot on Sam’s temple, and his mind shut down for a microsecond in disbelief. Recovering from the shock of what he knew was coming, he dove to the floor, trying to take Sam with him, as the window shattered a blink before Sam’s head followed suit.

He rose to his hands and knees, his breathing and heart rate again accelerating, and scrambled toward his bedroom. He rolled to his left as a bullet tore through the floor where he’d just been. This time he stood and sprinted from the room. Another shot hit the frame of the doorway to his bedroom as he ran toward his closet. He was out of view from the window, but the killer, or killers, would waste no time coming for him.

His appreciation for this particular apartment grew ten-fold. He grabbed his “go bag” from the closet, stashed Sam’s data inside, and ran to the second bedroom, which he used as an office. He had been searching for clues to his daughter’s abduction when he first discovered what became his treasure trove of incriminating evidence several months earlier. He needed more than a smoking gun but knew he might one day have to escape and go to ground. He had taken the time and spent the funds required to make that happen.

With Sam’s adding several missing pieces to his puzzle, they raced against the clock to blow the whistle. Now, Adam was too late. And yet, he was sure he was closing in on finding her . . . and that was paramount to him. He wouldn’t give up. And for her sake, he couldn’t let them find him.

Inside the “office,” he raced to the bookcase. It appeared to be built in, but that was the point of his craftsmanship. He pushed one specific title on the top shelf, and the case eased away from the wall, opening just wide enough to allow him egress through it. The route took him into a small janitorial closet adjacent to that wall of his apartment, which opened into a rarely used service hallway. He had installed cameras both in the closet and hallway to assess their feasibility as an escape route. After six weeks of review, he felt satisfied that they would work. The building janitor used the area twice a week. The other residents appeared either to not know of the hallway’s existence or to need its use.

He quickly pulled the wall shut and latched a separate hidden lock that would prevent the bookcase from opening again from inside the apartment. By the time his pursuers discovered what happened to him, he would be long gone—if they ever figured it out.

He pulled his phone from his pocket and opened an app he had developed. That app had been created to give him access to the small brick computer he used to monitor the cameras focused on the hallway and closet. However, it also allowed him to keep an eye on a camera in his front room and doorway. He checked and confirmed that it had caught the events of moments ago. He directed that computer to forward the video and audio files to an off-site location, his personal version of the cloud, and to continue to do so. Now, he could only hope that they wouldn’t find the computer before it uploaded its files showing who would undoubtedly enter his apartment in short order.

“Short order” was the key phrase in his mind. He needed to get out of there. He opened the closet’s door, checked to make sure the hall was clear, and raced toward the back of the building.

The large service elevator—used by people moving in and out with furniture and boxes—opened both to this service hallway and the main hallway’s back end. On the first floor, it opened next to a set of double doors leading to the alley—again used primarily for moving things in and out. He expected those doors to be covered, and he would be fully exposed by using them. Even activating the elevator could clue in the killers to his movement. As such, he made use of the fire stairwell and ran to the basement.

There he would make use of his third and final justification for renting the apartment—a utility tunnel connecting his building with its twin across the alley. He hurried through the tunnel, down a basement hallway past various storage units for the other apartment building’s occupants, and up a flight of steps to a fire exit on the opposite side of the building.

After checking the street, he ran across to an alley on the other side. Two blocks later, he slowed down and caught his breath. He then entered a long-term parking facility to his left, where he had rented a space for a six-year-old Chevy Sonic registered to a different name. He tossed his bag into the trunk and climbed behind the wheel. From the glove compartment, he pulled out a cheap costume beard, the kind that hooked to both ears like a mask. In keeping with the times, he had attached a real surgical mask to it so that he would appear to be a bearded man wearing a mask in his car. He topped off the disguise with cheap black glasses, frame only, and a baseball cap. Even a blind man could see past the disguise up close, but he would be driving in traffic and have the additional advantage of slightly tinted windows. Anyone looking for him wouldn’t glance twice at the image he presented now.

He had multiple options for getting out of the city. He reasoned they would expect him to head north into Maryland from his location in the capital’s northern neighborhoods, using one of two main arteries—16th Street NW or U.S. 29. Both would be the fastest ways for him to get out of Washington. Both would be covered if they were looking for him hard enough, which he had to assume to be the case.

Instead, he drove south and cut west past the National Zoological Park. From there, Connecticut Ave. NW would take him toward Bethesda. He picked up I-495, the Capital Beltway, and then I-270 to head northwest. Only then did he feel comfortable removing the beard and glasses, having left the traffic cameras behind him. An hour later, he drove down the gravel drive to a small rural cabin he had prepared for such a contingency, his mind weighing heavy with the few options before him.

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