HSS: Perfectly Invisible Chapter Two


(Perfectly Invisible is the first of the stories I’ll tell in the Homeland Security Services universe. In this world, the 1993 attack on the Twin Towers succeeded, killing over 60,000 people. It resulted in the passage of the 28th Amendment—something we’d recognize as The Patriot Act on steroids. It included the establishment of classes of American Citizenship, acknowledging in law the class stratification that already exists. A second terrorist strike in 1996 wiped out the Liberal Wing of the American political landscape and by 2011, an entire generation has grown up in a conservative nation.

These HSS stories will not be liberal nightmares, nor will they be Randian paeans to the blessings of an objectivist paradise. They’re a look at a universe so terribly close to ours, and yet removed from it by enough for us to wonder “what if?”)

Chapter Two

Miracle had been expected to bristle at Phil’s first use of the term snakes as applied to HSS agents. She’d noticed an all but imperceptible hesitation on Dr. Reynolds’ part as Phil said it again. When Homeland Security Services had been formed in the wake of the Twin Towers collapse back in 1993, pundits who tired of calling HSS agents “the American Gestapo” quickly reduced HSS to hiss, and then dubbed the agents “Snakes.”

HSS team leaders retaliated by nicknaming their teams after snakes, and even designed team logos and patches for them. Since this was the sort of thing military units did, opponents to the 28th Amendment—the Patriot Amendment—and its 1996 companion Act, the Good Citizen Act, used the practice to brand HSS teams paramilitary death squads. While the pundits’ hysterics made for good television and did cause some trouble for the Director of Homeland Security during Congressional Hearings, HSS leadership was content to take heat over cosmetic issues since they couldn’t talk about their actual operations without compromising security, and certainly didn’t want reporters digging to closely into their surveillance programs.

Seeing nothing more to be gained from her presence at the crime scene, Miracle hopped a subway heading downtown to the FBI district office. She’d been assigned to Krait Team which, like all HSS teams, had no jurisdictional limitations. Wherever they traveled, they descended on the local FBI office and commandeered what they needed to get the job done. Because Krait was based in New York, they had an office suite in the same unfinished skyscraper as the FBI, but one floor below it. They didn’t appear on the building directory and the only way into that area was through an internal stairway in the FBI offices.

Though Phil had been needling Miracle because they’d worked together before, many folks resented the Snakes. Phil’s description of them as the Green Berets of the Department of Justice had not been wrong. Personnel for the first teams had been yanked from the best and brightest of the FBI, Marshals Service, the military, CIA, NSA and State or Municipal police departments. The military saw them as civilians, and law enforcement saw them as entitled hotshots. Even she’d harbored a bit of resentment during her Metro days, despite her sister having been one of the early Snakes.

Miracle left the subway, headed up to the street and into the office building. She took the elevator up to the fifteenth floor and checked in with FBI reception. The receptionist handed her a visitor badge, which got her into the offices. Her HSS badge’s RFID chip opened the glass door on the stairs. She descended quickly and came out into a foyer which, through the window opposite, provided a panoramic view of the Scar.

She stood there, transfixed. When the World Trade Center’s North Tower had come down in 1993—foundational pillars having been blown by truck bombs planted beneath it—it came down like a tree notched by an expert woodsman. It slammed into the South Tower which fell like a domino into the city. Glass, steel and concrete, as well as papers, furniture and other ephemera of human existence, slashed a scar through buildings and burying roads. Likened to a flow of cold lava, it destroyed everything from ground zero to the entry to the Brooklyn tunnel, on east to Broadway and south to the financial district. The initial collapse took out buildings 3 and 4 in the complex, St. Nicholas’s Greek Orthodox Church, Trinity Church and anything else in the way.

The attack killed an estimated 67,000 people and even almost twenty years later there were credible claims that could add another twenty thousand to that count. And that didn’t include the deaths from asbestos and other noxious vapors first responders and residents breathed in.

“I wasn’t in favor of what they decided should be done, but it has grown on me.”

Miracle turned, not having heard the slender, brown-haired man approach. He wore the same dark suit she did, complete with a vest, but chose a textured gold tie to complete his outfit. His hair had been cut conservatively short. He wore a bemused smile and Miracle supposed he regularly met visitors this way, catching them unawares just to gauge their reaction.

“What did you think they should do?”

He offered her his hand. “I’m Austin Brand, by the way. I know you’re Miracle Dunn.” He took a step closer to the window, peering through their reflections in the glass. “I was in the Goldilocks camp. I didn’t want to see everything rebuilt as if the attack had never happened. I wasn’t looking forward to what they did do. I wanted a memorial park, sure, but also some light development, so we’d not have a huge cemetery on the West Side.”

She nodded. “I like the Green Fields, with the monuments, open theatre and ball fields. You can reflect, you can enjoy, you can live again in a place that was synonymous with death. Used to take my lunch down there when I was working Robbery/Homicide.”

“I know. We pulled footage of you from the archives.” Brand smiled. “This is a much better look for you, by the way. You carry it off well.”

“Thanks, I guess.”

Another man appeared, taller than either of them, fit; with white-blond hair, blue eyes and a ramrod straight posture. He extended his hand to her, giving her a chance to notice both a fresh manicure and gold cufflinks with diamond chips set in them. He wore a black tie, the knot of which was narrow and dimpled as per current fashion, and his collar was appropriate for the knot.

“Agent Dunn, I am Thom Carrollton. Welcome to Team Krait.”

“Thank you.” Miracle met his grip firmly and pumped his arm three times. “Glad to be working with you.”

“And work it will be.” Thom pointed at Austin. “Dowager Empress on two for you. Agent Dunn, I can show you where we make the worst coffee in the world, then to your desk.”

“Are you sure it’s the worst? In the Seventeenth we were under judicial order not to torture prisoners with ours.” Miracle followed Thom, noting that she didn’t even get a polite chuckle out of her joke. Without looking back he led her into a small break room which, unlike the rest of the office, had abandoned any claims at being antiseptic. The coffee pot appeared as if it hadn’t been cleaned in at least a month and the coffee had a viscosity to it which demanded dilution. She found some milk which was flirting with expiration and chanced it; all the while noticing that Thom was studying her.

“Do I pass?”

“Did you think this was a test?”

“Agent Brand ran his in the foyer; I figured this was yours.” She sipped her coffee carefully. She’d had better boiled in a rusty can over a campfire. “What’s the grade? Is there extra credit?”

Thom held up his hands. “No test, really.”

“Then, let me ask you, why is this break room a sty?”

“Janitorial cannot get clearance; the support staff resents the mobile team getting to travel while they remain shut up in the FBI’s basement, and we are just to damned busy to clean.”

Thom added a bit too much vehemence to the phrase damned busy for it to be true. Miracle coupled that with his clothes and manicure to guess that he led the sort of private life where he did have a janitorial staff, and a governess to care for his children. For a half-second she wondered if he’d gotten into law enforcement as his community service, then stayed in because he liked it; but he’d clearly been born a Patriot, so wouldn’t have been required to do community service. That meant serving in HSS was something he considered his obligation to society, but such obligations only went so far.

“Well, you’re in luck. When I need to think, I tend to clean.” She poured the coffee down the sink. “If we catch a really frustrating serial killer case, doctors will be able to perform surgery in here.”

Thom smiled. “Good to know. Tell me about the case we caught this morning.”

“Do you want me to brief you, or the whole team?”

Thom jerked his head toward the back of the office. “Our boss is down in DC for meetings on the Hill. Fyn has not arrived yet, so you have Brand and me. We will have to do. Come on.”

He led the way through an area of open desks and back to where partitions sectioned off the hindmost third of the office space. The solid walls held an array of flat-screen monitors, most of which remained black. Desks had been arranged to face the walls and partitions, with a large table composed of touch-screen panels in the middle. The entrance to the team room split the partition wall. Brand sat to the right, Thom to the left, and an empty desk sat opposite him against the exterior wall. The back right corner had been given over to a desk which had been turned to face into the room, with monitors arrayed like the crenels atop a castle wall.

Miracle moved to what was to be her desk, but didn’t pull the chair out. Just as with Green Beret teams, each member had a specialty which was his major contribution to the group. Based on the spreadsheets and records Brand had flashing over the trio of monitors on his desk, he was the financials and stats guy. Thom, given his grooming and confident air of command, handled the political and societal end of things. She was there for her abilities as an investigator, which left Fyn to do the heavy lifting.

Brand spun around in his chair. “I got the files squirted over from Metro. Nancy Pelham is clean and within statistical norms. Too much so.”

Miracle arched an eyebrow. “She the real thing, or have you found fingerprints?”

“Could be the real thing. I’ll know better when I compare her bills and litter to her file. I ran her ID for all commercial identity fabrication services, but nothing popped. Could be a custom Beauty job, but if it runs more than skin deep, I’d be surprised.”

“Not much litter to go on. I didn’t see a stack of bills or receipts. She had take-away in the fridge, but no menus in the kitchen, so she must have ordered drive-by. Credit cards should show that and I can follow up. Will you go through her computer and see about online billing and payment?”

“I’ll have a tech do the grab, then I’ll do breakdowns.”

Thom hit a button, turning a monitor on. “Send me her PR, please.”

“One Permanent Record coming up.” Austin ran a finger across the appropriate monitor, sweeping it toward Thom’s desk. In the blink of an eye the information appeared on Thom’s monitor.

The blond man scrolled up and down, pausing a couple of times. “No flags, no stand-outs. No next of kin notification. Parents are in a flat-flyover state.” Thom fished a large, silver coin from his desk and flipped it. “I will have the Marshals do the notification.”

She smiled. “Who was the other choice?”

Austin laughed. “Whoever pissed him off last.”

“Whomever.” Thom returned the coin to his drawer. “United Pharma offices open at nine. No reason to let them know you are coming. I will have Fyn meet you there. I will seed the relevant files to the cloud and you can pull down what you need.”

“If you don’t mind, please send me all the files. What you think of as relevant and what I need might not be the same thing.”

“Easy, Agent Dunn, I was not usurping your perogative.”

“It’s like this, Miracle. Thom insulates us from the boss, so he’s pretty literal. He would have sent you all the files, and a few more for good measure. The boss can play fast and loose with things, so Thom looks for precision.”

“Got it, thank you.” Miracle nodded. “I’ll rebuild Pelham’s life and we’ll see who put an end to it. As for the other body… I’m not sure where to begin.”

Austin turned back to his desk. “That’s a bit more interesting. The building got bought and renovated starting in February of 1999. It’s been in receivership twice and there’s no records of who holds the mortgage. City directories show two residents in 6A since that time, three in 6B and 2-4 in the apartments across the hall. Looking at Post Office changes of address it looks like there used to be six apartments on the upper floor, and folks on the sixth were moved down or out when the renovations began. The closed space would have been 6B, but last tenant in it moved in during 1990, got scratched in ’93. Chances are you took your lunch right where his mortal remains ended up.”

“Thanks for the cheery thought. That would have left the apartment vacant for six years before it was remodeled?”

“No, an executive housing firm snagged it; made it into a home away from home for temp workers and visiting corporators. The firm appears to be gone, but I’ll find its old website and see if any records are lurking out there.”

Thom had brought a second monitor to life. “Doctor Reynolds has ordered a hazmat crew to sample the air and dust to see if there are any poisons abiding in your tomb. She wishes to rule out anthrax or anything else dangerous before anyone goes in.”

Miracle frowned. “She didn’t seem that concerned when I looked through it. I could have been breathing something in.”

Thom, a small smile on his face, gave her a sidelong glance. “Reynolds probably knows more about you than you do. She knows you were inoculated against the things you are most likely to encounter. She also wanted to see how cautious you were.”

“Another test?”

Austin spun around, laughing. “Get used to it, honey, it’s a constant around here. If it’s not us keeping each other sharp, it’s the reporters, bureaucrats and bad guys. The good thing is that our tests will keep you alive, whereas the others are meant to kill you.”

Miracle almost bristled at being called honey, but Austin had sounded close enough to her father when he said it that it stayed her ire. “Just remember, what goes around comes around.”

“Bring it, sister.” Austin’s grin grew large. “Thom’s too by-the-book to be fun, and Kip, the guy you’re replacing, was a bit too into advancement to know when to lay off.”

Miracle jerked a thumb at the empty desk. “And Fyn?”

Austin sobered up and turned back to the screens.

Miracle looked at Thom.

Thom interlaced his fingers and settled his hands in his lap, in a gesture appropriate for a school boy beginning a lecture. “Fyn eschews testing. He believes it is waste of time. He just watches and waits. He knows life will test you and he is there to learn the results.”

“What does he do with them?”

“The results are what he bases his decisions on.” Thom nodded solemnly. “And that is usually whether he will save you or let you die.”

Perfect Invisible ©2011 Michael A. Stackpole

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Thanks for taking the time to read through the sample chapter of Perfectly Invisible. I had a lot of fun writing it, and am looking forward to more adventures with Miracle, Fyn and the rest of Team Krait.

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3 Responses to “HSS: Perfectly Invisible Chapter Two”

  1. Nice combination of CSI and alternative histories. Bookmarking this one for my to-buy list.

  2. I am really enjoying the sample chapters of your new book. But I think it is “Whoever pissed him off last” and not “Whomever” because whoever is the subject of the sentence. Unless I am misinterpreting what was said and Thom was not attempting to correct Austin’s grammar?

  3. I tend to let grammatical errors go through in dialogue if it is appropriate to the character.