The House of War – An Excerpt

The House of War: Book One of THE OMEGA CRUSADE 

Prologue

“America is therefore the land of the future, where, in ages that lie before us, the burden of the world’s history shall reveal itself.”

— G.W.F. Hegel: The Philosophy of History

 

New York City: November 21, 2031

Joe Corelli is exhausted. He’s been on the run for three days, in and out of cross-hairs as many times during the long, sleepless hours. He is in Grand Central Station making his way through the elbow-to-elbow thick crowd of mid-Manhattan workers scrambling for their rides home. Joe is also headed home. He is, however, taking a more meandering path. Moving targets, he knows, are harder to hit if they don’t travel in a straight line. He has to assume that he might still have a Knight Templar on his tail. Instead of going straight to his safe-house in Harlem, as his sleep-deprived body pleads for, Corelli decides to join the stream of people headed to the Number 7 platform. The Queens-bound train arrives almost immediately. Mercifully there are a few seats available and he takes the nearest one. He slips in between the rail and a young, plump, dark-skinned Hispanic woman. She is staring up, mouth open slightly, her head shaking slowly and sadly. She is watching the news. It is being broadcast on the screen stretched above the row of windows opposite them. The video screens in subway cars usually run commercials, interspersing them with public service announcements and cheesy spots by the mayor and local celebrities welcoming tourists to ‘the greatest city on Earth.’ At the moment, like most screens on the planet, they are playing video broadcast from the first response teams in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

The images, beamed back from the doomed city, have dominated the news for the last three days, haunting every hour of Joe Corelli’s flight. The slow panning shots show the world a devastation that is total, complete. The charred foundations of homes, smoking, hollowed husks of overturned cars and scattered piles of burning debris are all that is left of the city. Three days of searching have thus far failed to turn up a single body. The scroll rolling beneath the stark images announces:

[Santa Fe… A nuclear ghost town… 300k feared dead… Mexican Government denies involvement… Homeland Inquisition rounding up persons of interest…]

The girl at his side looks at him briefly and nods up at the screen. “It’s messed up, huh?”

Joe doesn’t look at her. He just nods in response. You don’t know the half of it, sister, he thinks to himself.

Corelli looks away as the train lurches forward into the darkness of the tunnels. He lets his heavy lids drop over his eyes. The rhythmic rocking and soft rattling of the car lull him, almost immediately, into much needed sleep.

Joe dreams of Sandi. She is seated next to him in his white-trimmed, dove-gray, Mustang convertible. It is a cool and crisp November night. It is election night 2028, a night many might have considered too cold for a top down, drive around the Beltway. They didn’t however, not them, not that night. He dreams of Sandi’s laughter and the flashes of sun-browned thighs exposed by her fluttering skirt. He dreams of the honey and milk-chocolate, corkscrew coils of her hair flying in the breeze like wind-whipped flags.

The subway car rises from the dark of the tunnel and onto the elevated tracks on the Queens-side of the East River. The light of a red, setting sun stings Corelli’s eyes through their closed lids, burning away the dream behind them. His eyes twitch open reflexively. An instant later, for a breathless beat, his heart stiffens, hardens like a brick in his chest with the dread realization that he is still being followed. The bilious taste of fear bubbles up from the pit of his stomach.

The new stalker is a young, clean-shaven black male in jeans and a three-quarter length, brown, woolen coat. He was eyeing Joe intently when he awoke and then suddenly looked away. Joe first noticed the man on the Amtrak Bullet between Chicago and New York. Corelli paid him little mind then; he was just one of the dozens of passengers sitting in the rows behind him. The young man is now seated almost directly across from him, squeezed in between a Hasidic, male, teen and an old, Korean woman. Without staring at him directly, Corelli takes in what details he can. Wedged in between the two passengers, the left cuff of the wool coat is pulled back slightly, revealing a wrist tattooed with a chain of barbed wire. A strand of five barbs leads from the wrist to the middle of the webbing between his thumb and forefinger. The middle three barbs are drawn smaller and closer together than the two barbs that bookend them. The Our Father, the three Hail Mary’s, to faith, hope and charity and the Gloria; Joe knows the design well. He can’t see it, but he knows the chain wraps around the man’s hand, ending in a Crucifix, centered in the palm.

The Knights Templar hunting him are fond of ink. Many of them wear the Rosary of barb wire around their arms or necks. Others sport scenes of The Passion or scenes from Revelation on their chests and backs. Many of their designs have made their way into the popular culture. Joe tries to convince himself that he is overreacting and the man seated across the car is nothing more than another poser, a wannabe. It doesn’t work. The man is a Templar; Joe feels it in his bones. The brick in his chest becomes a millstone. He feels it dragging him downward towards the crushing dark of despair.

Paranoia has served Joe Corelli as the better part of reason these last couple of years. He isn’t about to disregard its whispered voice, not now, when it is all he has left to trust in the world. Joe gets up and walks slowly to the back of the car. His tail keeps his seat. Joe opens the door and steps through. Between the cars, the rattling of the rails beneath the train grows explosively loud. The noise dredges up the memory of last summer’s firefight in Jerusalem. For a moment he is as paralyzed as he was that afternoon, face down between pews as sheets of automatic gun fire chewed up the church around him. He managed to overcome that fit of paralysis and crawled, eyes closed through the screaming, and running, falling and fallen bodies, to the sacristy and out of the church. He escaped the massacre. He survived. I can survive this too, he tells himself.

I can survive this, he repeats as he considers leaping off the moving train. Though there is no danger of being run over by an oncoming train, Joe quickly decides against it. If he doesn’t break his neck or leg in the jump, the move will not go unnoticed by the Transit Authority. There will be cops waiting for him at both ends of the track. As tempting as it is to stop his running, he dares not. He knows all too well that police custody will not protect him from the Templar.

Corelli opens the next door and keeps moving. Car after car the crowd thickens and he worms his way through them. The Templar is following him. He makes out the Knight’s dim reflection in the windows of the doors between cars. There is little more than six feet between them. Joe hurries through the last door and to the very back of the rearmost car. He stares out the back window at the receding city skyline. He listens for it, but Corelli doesn’t hear the door open behind him. Joe figures that his assassin thinks closing in on him in that crowded car, now that he has been spotted, would cause his prey to panic, force his hand, needlessly endangering the passengers around them. Corelli can not dispute the Templar’s assessment. The pounding of his heart affirms his stalker’s reasoning. His killer will be professional and not risk collateral damage; but soon, within minutes, they will be pulling into a station with plenty of traffic, elbow room and a whole lot of opportunity. One of them, the hunted or the hunter will have to make a move.

Joe buries his trembling hands into the pockets of his coat. His right hand wraps around the grip of his pistol. The train screeches as it slows along the platform. He thumbs off the safety. Unable to resist, he looks back over his shoulder to the door between cars. His tail is leaning against the conductor’s door on the other side. The young man is no longer trying to hide his purpose. He looks Joe straight in the face and winks.

Joe looks away.

The subway comes to a lurching stop. He takes a deep breath. The doors chime and part open. Corelli exhales and steps out. The Templar follows out onto the platform a few beats after him. He is ahead of Joe, between him and the exit. Joe considers turning back to the subway car. He might be able to fake him out and leave him stranded on the platform but the crowd is too thick for the maneuver. It presses at his back and sweeps him along towards the stairs. He grips his pistol tightly and continues forward. With every step the distance between them shrinks. The young man never takes his eyes off of Joe. A smile tugs at the corners of the Knight’s mouth. The hunter is savoring the sight of his prey scrambling for a way out of his fate.

Anger flares up through Joe and mixes with the tremors of despair. The Public Announcement speakers noisily crackle to life and blare out the next stops on the line. A narrow corridor opens up between the two men. They are four, maybe five feet apart. Joe pivots quickly to face him and fires a shot through his jacket pocket. The silencer, the PA’s loud, scratching warning of the closing doors and the general din of the busy platform swallow up the whisper of the muted shot. The bullet enters through the rib cage. The Templar folds over with a grunt and falls instantly. A young woman and her child trip over him. Joe lowers his head and continues forward. A small crowd gathers around the fallen trio. Two men reach down to disentangle them.

Corelli reaches the stairs that lead down from the platform. He is a few, short steps from the turnstiles when he hears the woman scream. He is past the turnstiles when panic starts spreading through the crowd behind him. He stifles his own growing sense of alarm. It urges him to bolt and run. Instead, he continues down the stairs to the street while faking a conversation with an imaginary wife on a cell phone that ran out of juice yesterday.

Once on the street, Joe makes his way to a falafel stand a few blocks away. As he hoped, there are taxis parked outside the eatery. He approaches a pair of cabbies picking at a basket of fries. He pulls out a hundred dollar bill and offers it to the first one who will take him to Lincoln Center. The turbaned cabbie is quicker on the draw than his Rastafarian friend. He pockets the bill and directs Joe to his cab with a smiling nod of his head.

Corelli falls asleep again before they make it up onto the bridge.

He dreams of Sandi again. She is leveling a gun at him. Her hands shake. Her eyes are red and swollen from crying. Tears and accusations Joe can’t deny spill from them. It was the last time he saw her. The dream is as vivid in detail and visceral in effect as the memory of their painful parting.

Thirty minutes later the cabbie wakes him outside of Lincoln Center. Corelli takes off his coat and drapes it, inside out, over his arm. Joe thanks him and steps out into the boisterous bustle of Broadway. A small, black woman rushes past him into the taxi while talking animatedly into a cell phone in Japanese. As she closes the cab’s door, the woman switches into English long enough to give the driver an address in Chelsea. After a quick look around him, Joe dismisses the idea of hailing down another cab. There are already too many people on both sides of the street trying to fish one out of the streams of rush hour traffic. He walks southward instead. At the corner of 60th Street, Corelli buys a Yankees cap and pair of cheap sunglasses from a street vendor. He dons them and makes his way down to the subway system again. He hopes the small changes will be enough to throw off the Homeland Inquisition computers that are now scouring through the tens of millions of images beamed to them from the hundreds of thousands of cameras throughout New York City. If he is lucky, Joe thinks, it will buy him enough time to get home unmolested. He grabs the first uptown-bound A-train. There are seats available but Corelli chooses to stand for fear of falling asleep, missing his stop; or worse, dreaming again.

It is a short walk from the 135th Street Station to his one bedroom apartment on the top floor of a four story, pre-war brownstone. Once safely inside, Joe retrieves his spare laptop from under his bed. He built it himself a few years ago; it will be safe to use, untraceable. Though his body aches for sleep, he dares not lie down. Instead, he leaves his bedroom and places the computer on his small, kitchen table. The bottle of scotch and half-carton of Marley’s cigarettes are still on the shelf beneath the cupboards, right where he left them six months ago. He pulls the cork cap off the bottle and takes a large swallow of the golden liquid. He draws immediate comfort from the spreading warmth of the scotch. Joe places his gun on the table and sits before the computer. He splits the laptop open and pulls a short antenna from its back. It immediately begins drawing energy into the drained battery from the apartment’s ambient electromagnetic field. Joe thumbs the power button. It reads his finger print and flashes green. He lights up a cigarette while he waits for the computer to boot up. When it is running, Joe plucks the stylus from its recessed sheath and begins writing on the kitchen table. The pen is inkless. Through it, the computer converts his handwriting into text on the top screen.

[I have little doubt that I will be remembered among such notables as Judas, Brutus and our own John Wilkes Booth. In a matter of days or maybe hours, assassins will find and kill me. Of this, I am certain. I am pressed therefore to tell you my story, which might just be your story as well…]

Joe blows a jet of smoke at the screen as he wonders where to start. The beginning eludes him but not because memory fails him. Quite the contrary, it inundates him with a series of incidents, each of which could be called a beginning. These points of history reach back years and even decades. In truth, the chain of events that have led Joe Corelli to this particular moment, sitting alone in the dark of his kitchen with a computer and a cocked Glock-33, began before he was even born. The yoke of history suddenly weighs heavier on him than the sleep deprivation. He takes another generous swig of the scotch. He follows it with a deep drag off the Marley. The combined effects of the alcohol and the cigarette’s THC begin to counter the adrenaline in his system. He turns the bottle in his hand until the label faces him. It is the last bottle from a case of twenty-one year old MacAllans’ single malt. It was given to him by the man he betrayed a few days ago. It was a gift from the man who turned the world on its head, the very man the Knights Templar would come to avenge.

The laptop’s prompt blinks in time with the ticks and tocks of the kitchen clock. Joe ignores their synchronized urgency and smokes his Marley slowly and deliberately down to the filter. When he snuffs out the cigarette, his hands have stopped shaking. He picks up the stylus and continues to write.

[Fifteen years ago, I was just another analyst working for the NSA. I was hired right out of college in 2016. Eight years after having won the White House on the promise to dismantle the ‘spy machine’ their predecessor used to ‘ride rough shod over American civil liberties’, Democrats were forced, not only to re-enact the programs, but also to expand their powers beyond the reach that George W. Bush permitted. They didn’t have a choice. The steady rise of terrorist attacks on our soil was proof enough that Jihadist cells were, in fact, living among us. President O’Neill kept the Democrats in power by reversing his party’s position on surveillance programs. He flooded the intelligence community with funds and hired more analysts. I was just one of the hundreds whose job it was to divine who the terrorists were and what their next targets might be. The intelligence chiefs were convinced that while the sleeper cell’s wake-up calls came from abroad, the plotting was being done within our borders. The administration was desperate to identify these enemy generals living behind our lines. It hoped that destroying the ‘head cells’ would be enough to win, what the President had dubbed, the ‘War for Law and Order’.

Toward that end, we were given a blank check and a free hand. We not only monitored ‘calls of interest’ coming into the country but as many within our borders as gave us cause. We listened in on calls, prowled invisibly through chat rooms and blogs and scoured through the billions of bytes that deluged our machines daily. We were Big Brother. We made no bones about it. If we were not everywhere watching everyone, it was not for lack of trying. We were looking for connections and patterns, searching feverishly for anything remotely resembling a warning sign that could spare us the next deadly attack. We looked for terrorists everywhere, even in our own military. It was my team that, after months of charting and analyzing military communications, noticed the unauthorized deployments of supplies and munitions. Assets of every kind were being shuffled around in an elaborate shell game and disappearing from inventories. We believed we had stumbled across the largest, most ambitious, illegal arms trading operation in history.

We were half right.

It was the only sign we would have of the cabal that was about to overthrow the government of the United States of America.

We at the NSA were alarmed, to say the least. The President, who resented his lack of popularity among the troops, was furious. He resisted, however, the suggestion of his VP to immediately go public with the investigation. O’Neill wanted to know exactly who the ‘SOB’s were rather than risk indicting the whole military with mere suspicion. Ever the politician, I can only guess that he didn’t want to be portrayed as openly antagonistic to the armed forces, not after so recently alienating much of them with a new round of budget cuts that reduced their funding in order to pay for his ‘Great Civilization Initiatives.’

Whatever his reasons, it was his undoing. His administration collapsed and his Presidency ended with a single, sniper’s bullet…]

1

The Church Suffering

“Freedom is a fragile thing and is never more than one generation away from extinction. It is not ours by inheritance; it must be fought for by every generation, for it comes only once to a people. Those who have known freedom, and then lost it, have never known it again.”

— Ronald Reagan

Rome 2019, Christmas Eve

24:00:01

“In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti. Amen.”

The Pope prays for peace.

He is an old man in a new century.

Not a single day of the century’s first two decades has known anything of that most benevolent of God’s manifold blessings, peace. Not a single one of its days has escaped the bloodletting scourge of war. The twenty-first century is on track to outdo the twentieth in barbarism. And again, Christendom seems bound to bear the brunt of it. Fifty million Christians, two-thirds of all the martyrs in Christianity’s two thousand years were slain in the last century. The twenty-first is on pace to double that number. His last two predecessors are counted among its first martyrs. Benedict XVI was killed in 2013 with hundreds of others when a fully fueled cargo jet was flown into Corcovado, making a torch of the wooded mountaintop and toppling its iconic, twenty-three hundred foot statue of Christ, our Lord. His successor, Pius XIII was shot by a sniper last Easter while addressing the crowds from the Papal balcony.

Outside the basilica, Saint Peter’s Plaza is empty. The faithful are kept out of the Holy City by troops, armored vehicles and sandbagged machine gun nests. Instead, the worshippers ring the Vatican in a halo of candle light, a million strong by the most conservative of estimates. They’ve gathered from all over the world, coming as close to their spiritual father as the new communist government of Italy will allow. The new regime wants to abrogate the Lateran Treaty, take back the Papal estate and, as its new Minister of Culture declared to the world, ‘liberate the treasures hoarded by the church.’ The Bishop of Rome’s tiny city-state has been under siege since October. No one has been allowed in or out. They have appealed to the World Court for help, but what few allies they had in the United Nations deserted them when the Holy See denounced their latest initiative for population control. Europe will not help them. They turned their back on the Church a long time ago. America, following Europe’s lead, has also turned a cold, secularist shoulder to their entreaty. Africa and the East are powerless to aid them and South America is too embroiled in the jockeying for power between juntas and strongmen to concern itself over affairs beyond their continent.

Inside the basilica, the peace the Vicar of Christ prays for descends upon him as he crosses into the sanctuary and the chorus fills the hallowed hollow of Saint Peter’s with the Introit, the processional song that begins the Mass. The music of the Dominus dixit is solemn and beautiful. It swells the heart to near breaking. The chanting voices are as divine as anything this side of Heaven can approximate.

“The Lord has said to me, Thou art My Son, this day I have begotten Thee…”

His Lord and God, waiting for the Bishop of Rome in the tabernacle draws the Pope onward and up the steps. The Holy Father has been making his way to Him all his life. He ascends to the altar of God, one carefully placed step after another, yearning to yet again perform his holy office with all the devotion that he has poured into every Mass for over sixty years. He bows atop the highest step and places the veiled and palled chalice on the altar. So close to the tab-ernacle, his heart quickens with the familiar ache to draw near to the Lord his God, to unite with Him once again in the Eucharist.

The Vicar of Christ, his aging, failing flesh bent by the gravity of time, bends lower still, in abject humility before the eternal promise of God’s Mercy, and kisses the altar in thanksgiving.

‘Why do the nations rage and the people utter folly?’ The Introit continues through the second Psalm the Missal assigns for Christmas Mass.

The Pope climbs back down the altar steps. The small exertion ignites arthritic fires in his knees and hips. He offers up the pain to his God. There are servers, young and strong priests, on either side of him ready to prop him up should his frail and faltering, ninety-two year old body stumble. The Community of Saints portrayed in the stained glass windows and statuary, they are also with him, bolstering his spirit. He can hear their voices threaded throughout the processional song of the Introit:

“The kings of the earth rise up, and the princes conspire against the Lord and His Anointed. ‘Let us break their fetters and cast their bonds from us!’”

“He who is enthroned in heaven laughs; the Lord derides them.”

“Filius meus es tu…” The words of the song’s antiphon resonate off the walls and through eternity. “Thou art My Son, this day I have begotten Thee.”

Peter’s successor bows.

“Introibo ad altare Dei,” The Bishop of Rome begins the prayers of the Mass. “I will go in unto the altar of God.”

“Ad Deum qui laetificat juventutem meam,” respond the server/priests at his side. “To God Who gives joy to my youth.”

The Holy Father prays for peace.

He is an old man and keeper of the New Covenant. His body is bent and nearly broken by the ancient burden his shoulders have borne for the sake of his brothers. Where they have doubted, he has held firm and unflinching to faith. Where they have despaired, he has held hope high above all darkness. Where they have readily embraced hate, he has simply and always offered love.

“Judica me, Deus…” The Pope prays before the steps of Saint Peter’s Altar. They are the words of the forty-second Psalm, which every celebrant and his ministers recite as they make private preparation for the miracle of the Mass, Christ’s bloodless sacrifice. “Judge me, O God, and decide my cause against an unholy people.”

“Emitte lucem tuam et veritatem…” the Vicar of Christ continues. “Send forth thy light and thy truth; they have conducted me and brought me to thy holy hill, and into thy tabernacles.”

“Et introibo ad altare Dei,” the servers respond with bows of their heads. “And I will go in unto the altar of God, who gives joy to my youth.”

The Introit ends, music and chanting fading into a deep silence.

The Pope raises his head heavenward, seeing through the marble roof of Bernini’s baldacchino and beyond the gilded dome raised above it. “To Thee, O God, my God, I will give praise upon the harp; why art thou sad, o my soul, and why dost thou disquiet me?”

“Spera in Deo…” the younger priests intone the last verse of the ancient psalm. “Hope in God, for I will still give praise to Him; the salvation of my countenance and my God.”

“Gloria Patri, et Filio, et Spiritui Sancto…” the Holy Father says while crossing his self. “Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost.”

“As it was in the beginning,” heaven and earth respond. “Is now and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.”

Pope and priests repeat the psalm’s antiphon one more time as the rubric of the mass demands.

“Introibo ad altare Dei…”

“Ad Deum, qui laetificat juventutem meam.”

His life is failing him, dissipating by the day; but the Bishop of Rome is still a child of God, young in the supernatural life of grace he entered through baptism ninety-two years ago. And young shall he remain and feel in the heart of him until the glory planted by the sacrament of baptism is revealed in him when he is at last with God. The Vicar of Christ feels that it will happen soon enough. He has no doubt that he is celebrating his last Christmas Mass. And now, more so than ever, it is the Mass itself that sustains him, imparting inalterable youth of soul and the promised, blissful immortality that steels him with an invincible optimism against the dark tide of history breaking against the walls of the Vatican.

“Our help,” the Holy Father asserts while crossing his self yet again. “Is in the Name of The Lord.”

“Who made heaven and earth,” the servers add.

All heads bow as everyone examines their conscience.

The Vicar of Christ brings his hands together. He looks at the Crucifix. The Bishop of Rome turns away from all temporal concerns. He turns his back on his congregation, on the city’s besieged walls, on the entire world and its every demanding will. He faces the reality of Calvary squarely and acknowledges that it is his sin which is responsible for the torture and death of his Lord.

The Pope bows.

“Confiteor Deo omnipotenti…” he prays, his voice quivering softly with anguish. “I confess to almighty God, to blessed Mary ever Virgin, to blessed Michael the Archangel, to blessed John the Baptist, to the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul, to all the saints, and to Thee Father, that I have sinned exceedingly in word, thought and deed.”

Mea culpa,” the Vicar of Christ insists, striking his breast. “By my own fault.”

Mea culpa,” the Holy Father repeats. He strikes himself again, accusing his own heart, hidden within his breast, of being the cause of sin.

“Mea máxima culpa,” Peter’s Successor admits to God and the world, striking his breast a third time. “By my own grievous fault.”

It is his own proud and insolent heart, he confesses, that deserves the punishment, the breaking and destroying. It should be him hanging on that cross, not the sinless Son of God. Forgive me, Father, he pleads silently; please forgive me.

“Therefore I beseech blessed Mary ever Virgin,” the Pope continues, straightening as well as his stiff spine will allow. “Blessed Michael the Archangel, blessed John the Baptist, the holy apostles Peter and Paul, all the saints, and you brethren, to pray to the Lord our God for me.”

“Misereatur tui omnipotens Deus…” the younger priests answer him. “May almighty God have mercy upon thee, forgive thee thy sins and bring thee to life everlasting.”

Together, the server/priests and people, their heads bowed in perfect contrition, pour their hearts out to their Creator as they, in turn, pray the Confiteor.

When they’re done, the Bishop of Rome echoes the response. “May almighty God have mercy on thee, forgive you your sins, and bring you into life everlasting.”

“Amen,” all intone.

The Vicar of Christ begs of heaven, “May the almighty and merciful Lord grant us pardon, absolution, and remission of sins.”

Amen.”

“Thou shalt turn again, O God, and quicken us.”

“And Thy people shall rejoice in Thee.”

“Show unto us, O Lord, Thy mercy,” the Holy Father pleads.

“And grant us Thy salvation.”

“Oh Lord, hear my prayer.” The Pope begs his God.

“And let my cry come unto Thee.” The young priests add their entreaty.

The Vicar of Christ turns slowly and carefully to face the pews. They are filled with priests, nuns and monks from all over the world and a good number of the laity who refused to evacuate Vatican City when they had the chance. He parts his hands and holds them, palms facing forward.

“Dominus vobiscum,” he says. “The Lord be with you.”

“Et cum spiritu tuo,” the faithful respond. “And with thy spirit.”

“Oremus,” the Holy Father bids them. “Let us pray.”

Confidant in the mercy of God, the Bishop of Rome turns around again and advances up toward the altar, praying as he climbs:

“Take away from us our sins, O Lord, we beseech Thee, that we may enter with pure minds into the Holy of Holies. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.”

“Oramus te, Domine…” the Pope pauses to pray on the top step. “We beseech Thee, O Lord, by the merits of Thy Saints whose relics are here and of all the Saints, that Thou wouldst vouchsafe to forgive me all my sins. Amen.”

The Vicar of Christ, mediating between Jesus and His Church, bows. The Holy Father kisses the altar on behalf of Christendom. The Church, the bride of Christ, through the office of the Bishop of Rome, salutes her bridegroom and Savior. The Pope offers up this most Holy Days’ Mass for the salvation of all souls and peace on earth.

Washington DC

23:51:59

 

“Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee…”

Monsignor Francis Green is hearing confessions at DC’s National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. In between penitents, he listens to the recitation of the Rosary. He hears the Angelic Salutation and, as he has done since he was a boy, falls effortlessly into prayer. Every pew in the basilica is full. The faithful are arranged by states, each of the fifty states assigned one of the Rosary’s fifty beads. Through three revolving shifts, the Rosary crusade has been going non-stop since October 7th. Another nearly fifty thousand faithful follow suit outside the Supreme Court building and at various other churches throughout the city. Three million more are similarly gathered in churches across the country and millions more around the world; every one of them praying for the survival of Christendom.

In the pews outside the confessional, Alabama leads the recitation through the first Joyous Mystery of the Rosary; the Annunciation, the meditation on Mary’s humility.

“Behold the handmaid of the Lord,” the young Mary answered the Angel Gabriel when he informed the young virgin that she was to bear the Child of God. “Be it done to me according to Your Word.”

With those words Mary set aside her own will and made herself the instrument of God’s. In humility, Mary said yes to God and thus His Word came into the world. Through her the Word was made flesh and dwelt among men. Her humility opened the Gates of Heaven to man.

“Blessed are Thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus…” Alabama continues the recitation.

“Holy Mary, Mother of God,” the whole congregation responds. “Pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.”

“Hail Mary, full of Grace,” Alaska begins the second bead of the ten that make up a Rosary’s decade. “The Lord is with thee…”

Monsignor Green has travelled cross country from California to serve tonight’s midnight Mass on the steps of the Supreme Court. The honor could have gone to a great many others of his brothers in Christ, but the recently incarcerated Cardinal Redding asked for him specifically. The media was proffering all kinds of theories as to why the Cardinal chose him, but Monsignor Francis insisted to the press that his boyhood friend, Andrew Redding merely missed his company. Serving the Mass was bound to land Father Green in jail before the night was over. The old friends would then have lots of time on their hands to catch up on each other’s lives.

“Blessed are thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus…”

The thought of being incarcerated didn’t worry the priest whatsoever. It certainly wouldn’t deter him. It would not be his first arrest. He knew that a monk’s cell could be enjoyed behind prison bars as readily as behind monastery walls. More importantly, he believed there were things worth the sacrifice of one’s freedom and even of one’s life. If honoring Christ’s birth at midnight cost him either, he would consider it an honor to hand one or both over to the authorities. And the priest took courage from the fact that there were nearly a quarter of a million Christians in town, thousands of which were ready to go to jail with him.

“Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen…”

He would not want for good company in prison, he thought with a smile.

Father Green made the journey and was taking the risk for the same reason as the other two hundred and fifty thousand. They gathered to defend Christianity against the latest assault from the ever more secularized government of the United States.

The ACLU had recently sued the Federal government, trying again to force the removal of all religious content from the nation’s public monuments. It was a decades-long crusade which finally met with victory. In their latest thrust, the civil libertarians made themselves bedfellows with Muslim interest groups. Together they claimed that since the religious content on the country’s monuments was Christo-centric, the displays were inherently discriminatory and thus doubly inappropriate for an open, all-inclusive, secular society. They won the opening rounds of the suit in the lower courts which, pending the final Supreme Court ruling, ordered the Federal government to cover up all scripture and other ‘religious propaganda’ on public grounds. Many cities and a few states refused, insisting they would wait for the High Court’s decision. Most however, did as they were told.

“Hail Mary, full of Grace…”

DC’s splenetic mayor, the first avowed socialist to hold the office, wasted no time implementing the court order. His administration got busy duct taping over every scripture and reference to God within their legal reach. Every cross in the capital, including those on the tombstones in Arlington and the one that topped the church where the old priest now sat, was covered up, their ‘offending shapes’ draped over by formless, black, plastic, garbage bags. This redacting of the nation’s religious heritage was as surreal as it was shameless to the Monsignor. The court ruling did, however, galvanize a great response from the American people. Concerned Christians of every denomination began to descend on the capital almost immediately after the decision was handed down in September. Positions were taken up throughout the city and prayer vigils were being held at the various monuments. The different denominations had all recently agreed to hold their respective Christmas services at midnight in a direct challenge to the law against public displays of religion.

“The Lord is with thee…”

It was that announcement that got Cardinal Redding arrested. The mayor called it an incitement to lawlessness and vowed to stop any religious ritual performed on his streets. There would be a great many people to arrest if the authorities went through with their threats. The priest prayed they didn’t have the gall in them to affront the Good Lord on Christmas Eve, but he was less than optimistic. It saddened the priest. Yet it was the least sacrilegious of secularism’s many sins. Denying the existence of God always precipitated playing God for those in power and Monsignor Francis Green grieved for the secularists’ insistence on doing just that. History was replete with examples and the government of the United States of America had proved itself to be as vulnerable to the temptation for tyranny as any other. The country made its Faustian pact five years ago when it signed on to the Shanghai Accord.

“Blessed are thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus…”

The signing committed America to the United Nations Population Control Initiative. Resolution 2112, as it was designated, was hailed as visionary, ‘the longest range plan for the betterment of mankind and the planet ever devised.’ The participating nations were applauded as ‘heroes in the service of humanity.’ Its celebrity-endorsed, media-championed aim was to ‘save both the species and the planet by bringing the two into a more harmonious balance through the responsible exercise of human reproduction.’ It was, in short, the most ambitious eugenics program in human history. The United States and the other ninety signatory nations agreed to lead by example in the global effort to whittle the world’s population down to the UN’s magic number of five hundred million people in five hundred years. Resolution 2112 pursued its eugenic ends primarily through prevention. Condoms, birth control and morning after pills were made free and universally available. Elementary schools began implanting birth control devices into girls at twelve years of age.

Resolution 2112 also enshrined abortion on demand as a human right that could not be infringed upon by anything as ‘frivolous’ as parental consent or ‘irrational’ as religious belief. It went as far as incentivizing the procedure by paying women for their participation in the ‘campaign against overpopulation.’ And since Resolution 2112 approached eugenics ‘holistically,’ forced sterilization and mandatory abortions were allowed for in the sweeping legislation. The practices were promoted as social duties and necessary procedures when their use could be demonstrated to be in the interest of the species and/or the environment.

United Nations computer models were created to identify those interests for the participating nations.

“Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen…”

Time Magazine gave its 2016 Man of the Year honor to the organization of the United Nations for taking ‘the first truly global and substantive step towards the creating of a sustainable human civilization, one that will coexist symbiotically with the planet.’ Monsignor Green thought it appropriate that the UN should receive the same honor from the very magazine that lauded that other visionary eugenicist, Adolph Hitler. The priest recognized the same hand of evil at work in the United Nations which once guided the National Socialists of Germany to their monstrous extremes of sin and depravity. He was not alone. Most Christians agreed. They balked at the changes the accord demanded of the country.

“Hail Mary, full of Grace…”

In response, secularists re-doubled their efforts to destroy Christianity.

“The Lord is with thee…”

Persecution of Christians was on the rise. Scores of churches were vandalized, attacked or burned every year. The body count of worshippers was growing alarmingly with every attack. The progressive government and their special interest proxies were assailing Christianity on all sides as well. ‘Priests,’ a pundit recently observed, ‘were spending as much time in courts these days as they were in their churches, and church coffers were being drained by legal battles rather than on the war on poverty.’ The Marriage Equality Act which legalized same-sex marriage across the country was being used by gay activist organizations as a legal pretext to shut down churches that refused to marry homosexuals. Seminaries that refused gays and women to the ranks of the priesthood were being charged with discrimination and closed. Churches that publically criticized the new laws were fined and often shut down.

The attacks were not limited to the clergy. Christian families could not escape the reach of the state. Home schooling was branded as subversive and outlawed as seditious. Parents were forced to send their children to schools whose curriculum not only preached that Christianity was a hateful creed but also encouraged and facilitated the exploration of their sexuality beginning at twelve years of age. Christian doctors who refused the United Nations mandate to add birth control and abortion counseling to their family practices were being fined, having their licenses revoked, and even imprisoned in a growing number of instances. Nurses who refused to assist with the procedures were summarily fired from their jobs. Christian hospitals which would not comply with the UN’s Global Healthcare policies were forced to close, their assets were seized and their protesting workers hauled off to jail.

“Blessed are thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus…”

Monsignor Francis Green knew about that only too well. He was arrested in San Francisco for delivering a sermon without a permit outside the state’s new fetal stem cell research facility. Ordinarily, preaching without a permit in the state of California would have incurred a fine and no more than a night’s stay in central lock-up, but; the prosecutor, wishing to make an example of the priest, charged him with violating the state’s hate speech laws. Equating abortion with murder, the state argued, ‘was misogynistic and slanderous of women who chose to exercise their right to have an abortion.’ The judge agreed and sentenced him to a year and a half.

“Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen…”

Portions of Christian doctrine were regularly labeled as hate speech in cities everywhere and the hate speech laws were becoming ever more vigorous, targeting anyone, laity or clergy, who promulgated traditionalist’s views on family, sexuality and personhood. If the High Court ruled against them in the coming spring, some of the more draconian, anti-Christian legislation would become the law of the land. It is this threat that brought Monsignor Green and two hundred fifty thousand other Christians to the nation’s capital.

“Hail Mary, full of grace…”

The door to the penitent’s side of the confessional opens and a figure slips in, drops to the kneeler and makes the sign of the cross.

“The Lord is with thee…”

“Bless me father, for I have sinned,” says the male voice behind the lattice screen. “Since my last confession three weeks ago, I accuse myself of lying. For this and all other sins, I am heartily sorry; humbly ask pardon of God and penance and absolution of you, Father.”

“Blessed are thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus…”

Lying, the priest reflects, is the easiest of sins to succumb to. And why not? The culture at large considered it basically harmless and often necessary. There was even a popular reality television show, ‘The Art of Lying,’ which celebrated the sin. It rewarded its contestants for the ingenuity and sincerity of the lies they used to win everything from lovers to concessions from companies. It is little wonder that it is so frequently heard in the confessional. Many spent their whole lives lying, to others and even lying to themselves, without giving it any more thought than they gave to breathing. It is a rare soul, the priest knows, which remembers that it was a lie, a plain and a simple lie, that wrought the whole wicked and woeful world of man into being.

“Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen…”

Monsignor Green speaks softly through the latticed partition between the booths. “And why have you committed this grievous sin?”

“I lied to help overthrow the government, Father.”

“Hail Mary…”

Monsignor Green has heard many excuses for lying in his thirty-three years as a priest but this one struck him mute for a moment. Is the confessor serious? Is this a joke, he wonders? There certainly is a lot of anger in the crowds that came to protest the growing secularization of the government. Yes, the government needs challenging, correcting and changing. But overthrowing? Could there be Christians out there plotting treason?

He prays not.

“Full of grace…”

The priest feels confidant identifying the voice of the penitent as belonging to a young, Alabama man he met soon after arriving in DC a week ago. The accent is certainly spot-on. The Alabaman is one of the many volunteers taking turns providing coffee, meals and blankets to the masses gathered to pray at the nation’s monuments. Anthony is the young man’s name. Yes, thinks the priest, that is it; Anthony Romero. Monsignor Green talked with the dark-haired young man and a handful of others just the other day. The group of them had taken turns introducing themselves to each other. At his turn, Anthony explained that he worked at the Pentagon. This elicited much interest from everyone at the table. He went on to say that he worked specifically in the cyber-warfare department, fending off hostile computer viruses while simultaneously creating programs with which to infiltrate enemy computer systems.

“It’s all very technical and very important work,” Romero explained. “Our country, like our Church, is constantly under attack.”

“The Lord is with thee…”

The priest was impressed with such earnestness in one so young. It is why he is now doubly disappointed to learn that so seemingly pious and patriotic a young man could involve himself in a plot to overthrow the government.

“Why, my son?” The Monsignor asks. “Lying is a sin against God; treason is a crime against Caesar. Surely you know that it is a precept of our Holy Faith that ‘there is no power but from God, and those who are in power, are ordained by God.’ Why would you put both your immortal soul and your mortal life in jeopardy?”

“Blessed are thou among women…”

“Does not our Holy Faith also instruct us that we should obey God and not man?”

“And blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus…”

“Only when obeying man would put us at odds with God,” the priest answers. “Surely, you know that?”

“Our way of life is under attack, Father,” the young Alabaman whispers fiercely. “Our Church is being driven underground. These politicians are never going to be satisfied with just a wall between church and state. They don’t want to separate the two. They’re fixing to entomb the church. That’s what they really want. They want to bury us, Father. I am a part of the government that’s driving our Holy Church underground. If I do nothing about it, I will be aiding and abetting in the persecution of my fellow Christians. Would that not put me at odds with God?”

Monsignor Green sympathizes with the penitent’s concern. It is precisely that fear which brought the thousands of Christians to Washington. It is why he left his parish in California to relieve other priests who also traveled from all over the country for the very same reason. They are all concerned. The policies of the new government have put the whole nation at odds with God.

“Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen…”

The problem is greater than the ceaseless whining of thin-skinned atheists offended by words etched in granite and in marble hundreds of years ago by better men than themselves. The problem is that progressives, in power now for over a decade, have grown ever more emboldened and their ambitions are best served through a secular state. A godless, religion-free state is, in fact, their ultimate aim. To secure it, the progressives need to do more than merely erase certain words from stone; they need to banish them from public discourse altogether. The proposed new law would go a long way to doing just that, silencing their opposition. The law, many fear, will effectively criminalize Christianity.

There is much at stake, yes; but treason? No. It is unacceptable to Monsignor Green.

“Hail Mary, full of grace…”

“Our hope lives in prayer,” The Monsignor admonishes. “We should rely on prayer, son. It is our shield and our best weapon.”

“Blessed are thou among women…”

“I do pray, Father,” the young man responds. “We all pray. But we must do more than pray!”

“And blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus…”

“Must we?”

“Holy Mary…”

“Yes, Father.”

Mother of God…”

“Including committing the grievous sin of lying?”

“Forgive us our sins, now and at the hour of our death. Amen…”

Anthony’s head bows behind the screen. “I’m sorry, Father. I truly am. It’s just that… It’s just that I saw no other way to save my Church and my country.”

Father Francis closes his eyes and prays for guidance.

“Hail Mary, full of grace…”

“Can this lie of yours be undone?”

“The Lord is with thee…”

“No, Father,” the young man answers. “It’s out of my hands now.”

Blessed are thou among women…”

“Is there to be bloodshed?”

And blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus…”

There is a pause as the penitent exhales slowly. “Not if we can help it, Father.”

“Holy Mary, Mother of God…”

It is then the Monsignor’s turn to sigh and to pause. “If we shed blood in our cause we cannot claim to be any better than our enemies. Can we, son?”

“Pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen…”

“We don’t want to fight, Father,” Romero says. “We certainly don’t want to hurt anyone. We just want to be free, as free as God created us to be.”

“Hail Mary, full of grace…”

“God wants us to be free of sin,” Monsignor Green says. “That is true freedom. Lying enslaves us to the world and to Satan, the Prince of lies.”

“The Lord is with thee…”

The boy’s head drops even lower. “I am sorry Father and I beg our Lord’s forgiveness.”

Blessed are thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus…”

The Monsignor detects remorse in the young Romero. It is perhaps not as much as the priest thinks is called for, but there is genuine regret mixed in with his rationalization for the lie. The young man is in a difficult position. He recognizes, at least intellectually, that he made the wrong decision, choosing to sin rather than trusting in God. It is a start, Monsignor Green thinks. It is something. It is better than no remorse at all. The priest prescribes Romero his penance.

“Oh my God, I am heartily sorry for all my sins,” the young man prays the Act of Contrition as Father Green absolves him. “And I detest them above all things, because they displease Thee, Who art infinitely good and worthy of all my love, and I firmly resolve, with the help of Thy grace, to do penance for them, and never more offend Thee.”

“Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen…”

“Go and sin no more,” the priest admonishes, as his brotherhood has been admonishing the world for more than two thousand years.

“Hail Mary, full of grace…”

The Alabaman thanks Monsignor Green and crosses himself. He slips a small laminated card through the lower frame of the lattice window.

“The Lord is with thee…”

“Merry Christmas, Father,” the boy says and slips out of the booth.

Blessed are thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus…”

The Monsignor pulls the card through the tight slot and examines it in the dim light. It is a holographic missal card. One side depicts the Archangel Michael defeating Satan. The devil’s throat is pinned under the angel’s heel. Michael’s sword is pointed at Satan’s head while the Archangel’s face looks rapturously towards Heaven. On the other side of the card is a Crucifix. A quotation from Saint Augustine circles the cross.

‘If you would be the friend of God, you must be the enemy of the world.’

“Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.”

23:44:56

 

The Georgetown bar is packed with political grunts not fortunate enough to be home for the holiday. Except for a lone man sitting at a booth tucked away in the far corner of the bar, everyone would like to be somewhere else. He is Congressman Lamar Reed, junior member of the House Intelligence Committee and he is exactly where he wants to be. His lean and muscled, six-foot-two frame is stretched out languidly with ankles crossed beneath the booth. He has a smooth, chestnut complexion and gray eyes that stare absently into the rocks glass held loosely between his long-fingered hands. Congressman Reed loves DC more than most and so he doesn’t mind postponing his vacation until the spring. He fell in love with Washington while still in college. He came down from Indiana to play a little ‘Hoosier Ball’ with the hometown Hoyas. Lamar and his Hoosiers trounced the Hoyas and he stayed on a few days to take in the sights.

At the time not many a college coach would leave a player behind on his promise to catch up with them. Discipline among athletes at both the college and professional level had been deteriorating for decades, but he was, Lamar Reed. And Lamar Reed was used to getting what he wanted. His grandmother had let him in on the secret as a child.

“A man who can be trusted rarely hears, ‘no, you can’t.’”

As a basketball player, Reed’s stats were respectable, but he was not the sharpest shot on the team. There were many other players in the league who were faster and stronger than he was, but none were as well respected and loved. He was the straight A’s, golden boy of college basketball. The media attention he received rivaled that of many pros. He belonged to more than his hometown of Bloomington and the state of Indiana. His sterling behavior on and off the court endeared him to the sport and beyond. A popular sports writer opined, ‘while many a star athlete can whip fans into various states of frenzy, few are of the caliber, the order of magnitude that can create fans and add devotees to their sports.’

Lamar made a long weekend of his first trip to DC and it changed his life.

It was the fall of 2007 and the capital was filled with anti-war demonstrators who came to cheer on what was being billed as ‘the trial of the new century.’ It was America’s first double impeachment of both President and vice-President. After having swept the Republicans out of power during the mid-term elections, the anti-war movement was flexing its muscle through the new batch of Democratic legislators and the country’s first woman Speaker of the House. In power after over a decade of Republican rule, the new Democrats made ending the war and impeaching the men who started it their first priorities. They were historic and heady times for Lamar and his generation. The atmosphere in Washington was electric with the charge of hope and change. Not only was the long hoped for end of the war finally in sight, but a new, progressive era of American politics promised to change the fundamentals of American life and government forever. It was there, among the protesting masses, the bustling to and fro of lawmaking and on the cusp of a new progressive age that the young Lamar Reed plotted a life for himself beyond basketball.

As he strolled those few days through the wide streets and marbled halls of the nation’s capital, Lamar heard his grandmother’s voice. It rose from a whisper out of the somber silence under the vaulted ceilings and off the walls of the pillared chambers of power. As a child on her knee, Lamar first heard her stories of the struggles for civil rights in the sixties. She was a Baptist minister’s wife and alongside her husband and thousands of others, she threw herself into the politics of the times. Like so many others of that age, they had curses hurled and dogs set loose on them. They were swept from streets by water cannons. They suffered harassment and beatings at the hands of both neighbors and the very police sworn to serve and protect them. They were burned out of two homes. And for their activism, she had to bear the ultimate pain when her husband paid the highest price for their cause the night he was hung from an oak tree in Atlanta.

“Sometimes there is no other way,” she said by way of explanation. “Lives must be sacrificed for change to happen.”

“It doesn’t seem right,” he protested as a boy.

“Of course it ain’t right,” she answered. “There is little that is right in this world.”

Standing before Lincoln’s Memorial the first time, looking up at the man who had sacrificed thousands of live, including his own, Lamar Reed determined that he would always seek a third way. When he returned to Indiana State, he changed his major from the liberal arts curriculum he was listing through without much enthusiasm, to the study of, the law. His new found passion endeared him to DC where he spent his off seasons and it made him the darling of the DNC. He was taken under the tutelage of Senator Duke Gordon of Tennessee who spared no effort in preparing and priming him for public service. Lamar surprised the sports world when he turned down a lucrative contract from an NBA team at the end of his time at Indiana. He told a flabbergasted media that he would instead pursue his studies at Harvard. He surprised the media yet again during his commencement speech four years later by announcing that he would run for congress right out of college. True to his grandmother’s words, no one told him that he could not do it. Reed threw his mortarboard in the air, his hat in the ring and in 2018, at the age of twenty-seven, became the youngest, and according to many pundits, ‘the most promising young man to enter American government in modern history.’

A little less than two years into his ‘historic’ first term, Lamar is still as excited as he was at the onset, but he is now, for the first time, apprehensive as well. There is something stirring in the country’s military that has people in government, those few let in on recent discoveries, very nervous. Machines and munitions have gone missing during the flurry of restructuring and base closings brought on by budget cuts. The general consensus is that they are dealing with an illegal, international arms trading operation run by unknowns within the US armed forces. The congressman hopes that is all it is. An irksome intuition worries him that it might be more than that, a threat unlike anything the country has ever faced. Even if he wanted to leave town, Lamar cannot.

There is much work to be done.

The congressman takes a sip of his Gimlet and scans the bar. Most of the people in the room work with or for him, either directly or peripherally. They are low to mid-level workers in the various branches of the intelligence community. It is the congressman’s job to help them work together, coordinate their operations and findings as well as smooth out whatever inter-agency rivalries might rise up from time to time. Reed likes to think of his job as rather analogous to his role as point guard on the court; keep the ball moving forward and the team focused on beating the opponent, not each other. Lamar listens casually to the conversations he can hear over the softly piped Christmas music. They are trading stories of Christmases past, waxing nostalgic for friends and families obviously missed. No one is talking about work. Just as well, thinks Reed. The last three months have been particularly hard on everyone. The discovery of the conspiracy within the military doubled everyone’s work load. A night or two off would do all of them some good.

He takes another sip of his drink and lets his sight drift to the flat screen hung over the bar’s three, mirrored tiers of bottles. Two men face each other across a desk. Behind them is a shot of Vatican City and the empty plaza in front of the church where Christmas Mass is being served. The broadcast is muted but you can almost hear the men yelling at each other despite it. The television is set on a news program and the pundits are going at it in the tiresome way networks decided was good for ratings. He watches their heated mime show as his mind drifts back hours to the White House, to another confrontation between another pair of irreconcilables.

Congressman Reed’s afternoon began with a three hour meeting with the President, his Cabinet and a handful of other advisors where ideas were bandied about for what President O’Neill referred to as the ‘issues du jour.’ As these meetings did too often for Lamar’s taste, it broke down into a heated exchange between his boss and Chairman of the Senate’s Intelligence Committee, Senator Duke Gordon and Homeland Security Chief, Earl Forrester. They wasted no time going at it when the attention moved from international to domestic issues. It began with the debate over what to do with the group the press had dubbed, ‘The Atlanta Eight,’ jihadists caught in a sting operation six weeks ago. They were found with a partially constructed dirty bomb. Forrester pressed, as he did every week since their apprehension, to have them transferred immediately to Homeland Security for interrogation. Gordon, as always, argued against it.

“Once again, might I remind the President that such a move would be highly illegal,” Senator Gordon said in a southern drawl that rolled out of his barrel of a chest like muted thunder. The pinstripes of the dark-blue, double-breasted suit contributed to the Tennessee Senator’s barrel-like carriage. A proportionately large head sat atop the man’s broad frame with thick, jet-black hair swept back in an oil-glistened wave over bright, blue eyes. “The arraigning judge did not rule them an immediate or clear threat. As American citizens, it would be illegal to hand them over to the Chief without such a rendering.”

“A Presidential order will keep it all nice and legal,” Earl Forrester countered. The Chief of Homeland Security was much thinner than the Senator. He was older, shorter and paler. Forrester’s hair was brown and thinned to wispy strands. His eyes were green and bright. “Your office is allowed such latitude exactly for these situations, Mr. President.”

“That is political capital you don’t want to spend unless you have to sir,” Senator Gordon said. “The move could easily be spun as an example of executive over-reaching on the administration’s part.”

“The move would be readily forgiven if it turns up the missing nuclear material,” Forrester insisted.

“If there’s any nuclear material to turn up at all is still anybody’s guess,” the Senator said and then turned from the President to the Chief of Homeland Security. “I don’t understand why you’re so keen on getting your claws into them, Chief. It’s not like they’re not being questioned thoroughly.”

“They need to be interrogated,” Earl Forrester responded, rolling the gold, globe-topped head of his cane slowly in his liver-spotted hand. “Not merely questioned.”

“What’s the difference?”

Forrester turned his hatchet-shaped head towards Duke Gordon. His thin lips stretched in the suggestion of a smile. “You know damn well what the difference is.”

“We don’t do that anymore!” The squat, bald and round-headed Burt Owens interjected.

“Save that crap for your friends at the New York Times, Owens,” Forrester said with a contemptuous glance at the President’s Chief of Staff. “Everyone in this room knows the government still reserves the right to do whatever it takes to protect the people.”

Senator Gordon’s smile beamed sugared sunshine. “Yes, we do Chief. And I would happily see the Atlanta Eight handed over to you to hang by the testicles and beat like piñatas if the judge had designated them an immediate threat, but he didn’t.”

“The judge is an idiot,” Forrester pronounced. “He can be overruled with a simple, executive order.”

Senator Gordon returned his attention to O’Neill. “Mr. President, the Atlanta Eight will be returning to court in February. I believe failing to trust due process will create more problems for us than it will solve. I understand the Homeland Security Chief’s concern…”

“Do you?” Earl interrupted. He did not wait for a response. “Mr. President, no one would build one of these bombs unless they had access to or were expecting delivery of some very toxic material. It is out there somewhere and while the Senator’s due process grinds on, it will become harder to find.”

“We would be risking a PR disaster, Mr. President,” Burt Owens warned from O’Neill’s side.

Forrester didn’t bother to look his way but kept his eyes fixed on the President. “Would you rather risk another nuclear attack?”

Senator Gordon shook his head and sighed. Burt Owens rolled his eyes. It was a running joke between the two, guessing how many times Forrester would say ‘nuclear attack’ in a single meeting. Owens began their private joke by comparing the Chief of Homeland Security’s use of the term to the frequency with which the impeached President Bush had used “9/11” during his administration. Gordon and Owens considered Forrester’s constant referencing to the 2012 attack on the Panama Canal as nothing less than fear-mongering. They felt Earl used it to wrest ever greater power for his agency and himself.

The room was quiet as the President removed his horn-rimmed glasses and considered the matter while he polished the lenses. “Sorry Duke, but if the FBI’s questioning hasn’t turned up anything in the last month and a half, it isn’t likely to produce anything in the next six weeks. We have to give Earl his piñatas.”

The President waited to get the Senator’s grudging nod of assent. He put his glasses on again and turned to the Chief of Homeland Security. “Try to keep it from the press as long as possible, Earl.”

Forrester flashed one of his rare smiles as he handed O’Neill a folder out of his attaché. “I’ll be as quiet as a church mouse, sir.”

The President bent over the transfer form, signed it and returned the folder to Forrester.

“And while we are at it sir,” Earl said, as he slipped the file into his attaché. “I would also advise the immediate raiding of the offices of the Atlanta chapter of the Nation of Islam.”

Senator Duke Gordon snorted sharply. “You can’t be serious?”

“I am indeed, Senator,”

“I really must protest that course of action, Mr. President,” Owens chimed in.

“Keep in mind Mr. President,” Forrester continued. “Three of the Atlanta Eight are connected with that office.”

“Barely,” Gordon scoffed. “One of them worked in the mailroom and the other two volunteered with their substance abuse outreach program.”

“It’s a question of perception, Mr. President,” Burt Owens added. “Fairly or not it would be seen as an attack on a minority religious body; a minority, Muslim, religious body. Mr. Forrester may have forgotten the riots of 2015, but I hope you haven’t. There were hundreds of deaths and hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of property damages across a dozen states because the government raided the New York offices of the Council of American Islamic Relations.”

“And why was that office of CAIR raided?” Earl asked Owens. When the Chief of Staff didn’t answer, Forrester turned his attention back to the President. “The funding for the Carnival Carnage was funneled through that office. That’s why it was raided.”

“We’re well aware of that, Chief,” the President said. “However justified that government action may have been I must take a more panoramic view if I’m to be sure that nothing my administration does sets off a firestorm of rioting.”

“Nuclear explosions also set off firestorms, Mr. President,” Forrester said flatly. “And while we’re looking at big pictures, let us recall that Ali Allam, public enemy numero uno, also worked out of that same Atlanta office for years.”

“It would open us up to all sorts of legal action,” Duke Gordon said.

“Yes,” Owens agreed. “If we raid that office we would be accused of impugning the reputation of a peaceful religious body based on the action of a few of its members.”

The Chief of Homeland Security let out a short, humorless laugh. “These pious ministers of the religion of peace are proselytizing all through the penal system. That office in Atlanta is where the prison ministry is coordinated. And I assure you, they’re not exactly preaching peace, love and brotherhood. They’re preaching jihad and armed resistance.”

“They’re just words,” Owens said.

Gordon shrugged. “They’ve got the same right to free speech as you and I.”

Forrester ignored them and continued to address the President. “Allam trained nearly every one of those recruiters in that very same Atlanta office. Two of the Atlanta Eight converted to Islam while serving sentences for gang related crimes, for violent, gang related crimes. Their Imam was the very same, Ali Allam. And while he may have since fallen off our radar, there are hundreds of others just like him raising an army right under our noses. Between them and the enemy combatants introduced into civilian prisons when you dolts shut down Gitmo…”

“It was Pelosi’s administration that shut Gitmo down,” Burt Owens interjected.

Earl shifted the cane from his left hand to his right and stabbed its pointed end in the air inches from Owens’ left eye. “You’re right Burt, but the present administration hasn’t done squat about it. Has it, Burt?”

Owens shrank back from Forrester’s palpable hostility. “Cuba isn’t going to let us back in, Chief.”

Forrester lowered the cane and rested it across his lap. “We can isolate the jihadists without having to dump them on another country.”

“Actually, we can’t,” Senator Gordon said.

“Why the hell not?”

“New Mexico and Arizona tried it right after the Border War,” Gordon explained. “They separated the Reconqistadores in their custody from the general population and were hit with lawsuits from scores of groups. In the end, political segregation in the penal system was ruled unconstitutional by the ninth circuit court and the states were forced to re-integrate their prisoners.”

“So long as it’s just a ninth circuit ruling, an executive order can get around it, Mr. President.” Forrester offered.

“It will be immediately challenged,” Duke warned.

“Damn the challenges,” Earl barked. “We can tie them up in court for years.”

Gordon turned his attention to the President. “Raiding the Nation of Islam office and/or segregating the prison population would most likely, in my opinion, set off riots all over the map.”

“I agree,” Owens said.

“Doing both,” the Senator continued. “It will almost certainly lead to armed confrontation in the streets. Maybe the good Chief has forgotten that we’re entering an election year. Allowing that kind of mayhem under an administration’s watch is not good for its re-election campaign.”

The Chief of Homeland Security drew a long, pained breath. “I am not paid to keep this or any other president in office. My job is to keep the homeland secure. Maybe the good Senator hasn’t noticed, but it’s on my letterhead.”

“I take it you already have a plan and a facility in mind, Chief,” the President interrupted.

Forrester pulled another file from his attaché. “I do, Mr. President.”

O’Neill took it from him. “I’ll give it a read and have an answer for you when I return from Cincinnati.”

“A lot can happen in five days, Mr. President,” Earl said. “At least allow the raid on the Atlanta office.”

“Don’t do it, sir,” Gordon pleaded. “Nothing good will come of violating their constitutional rights on such flimsy evidence. They’re American citizens, after all.”

“American citizens have turned on their country before,” Forrester said. “They wouldn’t be the first to plot against the nation while hiding behind the Constitution.”

“And you wouldn’t be the first to suggest dismantling the constitution to save it.” Gordon quipped.

Forrester barked another humorless laugh. “Gee, where was this great concern of yours for the Constitution when you voted to shred the Second Amendment by ratifying the UN’s Small Arms Treaty?”

“Play nice, boys,” the President intervened again. “We’ll tag the Atlanta office.”

The President chose to compromise. He would allow the communications of the Nation of Islam office to be monitored and have their computers plumbed remotely, but he would not allow the physical raiding of their premises. If the ‘tagging’ of the office produced more compelling evidence, the subject would be revisited. This was good enough for the Senator from Tennessee. The Chief of Homeland Security accepted it grudgingly.

For freshman Congressman Lamar Reed, Gordon and Forrester represented, in microcosm, the two sides of a divide he expected to see seamlessly sealed twelve years ago. It all appeared possible in that long ago spring of 2007, the end of the war abroad and the one at home between blue and red states. A year later, he even allowed himself to believe that the American people would, at last, come together behind a historic Presidency, the nation’s first woman President, Nancy Pelosi.

Nothing changed though, except for the worse. And it all fell apart so quickly. The newly formed US Department of Peace’ decision to separate Iraq along ethnic lines kept the blue/red divide wide open at home. In Mesopotamia, America’s decision was taken as an excuse for each side to wage war. Shia, Kurd and Sunni went at each other with genocidal abandon. The DOP’s refusal to meddle in Iranian affairs was used by Israel as an excuse to bomb Ahmadinejad’s nuclear facilities. In retaliation, Iranian troops then poured across the border into Iraq, bogging down the efforts to pacify Iraq and withdraw the troops. The war enlarged and the Middle East came apart at the seams as riot and revolution erupted in country after country. Despite the government’s every attempt at a peaceful resolution, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan ground on for another three years past the impeachments of Bush and Cheney.

Worse yet, it never really ended. Instead, the war came home. Jihadist cells began executing attacks within America’s borders with greater frequency and ferocity. It began with the Carnival Carnage of 2010 which killed nine hundred and nine people in a series of coordinated attacks across three southern states. Many jihadists joined forces with Mexican drug warlords and militant Reconquistadores in the Southwest. Homegrown militias like the Minutemen and others, dissatisfied with the government’s handling of the escalating violence, took matters into their own hands. Border state Governors defied the Federal government and marshaled National Guard troops to the ‘southern front.’ The Mexicans militarized their ‘northern front’ and skirmishes between the two began. President Pelosi summoned a Pan American Peace Summit in Panama in the hopes of negotiating a cease-fire for the contested border. She never got the chance to offer her proposal. During the opening ceremonies of the summit, the great hope of peace went up in smoke, ash and flame, destroyed in a mushroom cloud over the great canal.

Pelosi, Mexico’s Calderon and other leaders were incinerated in the attack. Soon after, in the vacuum of leadership on both sides of the Mexican-American border, war broke out in earnest. Sadly, the tragedy in Panama did nothing to bring Americans together. Neither did the fighting on the border. In the country’s interior, all the while that bullets flew and blood spilled, fiscal conservatives, angry at the government’s expansion and spending, clashed in the streets with public workers’ unions over threats of budget cuts and austerity measures.

The years 2012-2015 were some of the darkest the nation suffered since the civil war. Things have since settled, but the peace is an uneasy one, both at the border and in the interior. The center, like the poet warned, is not holding. Extremism rules the age. Narrow ideologies continue to grow narrower and nastier by the day. Protests and rallies devolve into riots at the drop of a slur. Blocs of states are openly threatening secession. The population seems split between the helplessly polarized and the hopelessly demoralized.

The dream of that long-ago spring of endless promise was stillborn.

On the television screen, the pundits’ debate reaches an all too common conclusion. One of the talking heads rises from the table in a burst of anger. He rips the tiny microphone off his lapel, throws it down and storms off the set.

The Congressman decides he needs another drink.

23:36:54

 

Across town, Carlton Quinn is on his belly atop one of the hangars at Andrews Air Force Base. The sniper rifle is cradled in his arms. He adjusts the scope, focusing on a piece of tin foil that has blown on to the tarmac. Light gusts blow at random but otherwise the wind will be cooperating with him today. Not that it matters much to Quinn. He has taken out many a target from tighter spots and from greater distances. Three tours in Afghanistan had, long ago, helped Carlton perfect his deadly craft.

This will be the easiest shot he will ever make. It will also be the most important shot of his life. It will be heard around the world, Quinn thinks with a smile. He pulls his hand off the rifle’s grip and crosses himself.

In nomine Patris,” Carlton whispers to himself. “Et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti. Amen.

Carlton quietly recites the Pater Noster, The Our Father prayer that Jesus Christ first shared with his apostles.

Our Father, who art in Heaven…

He has been waiting six years for this day.

Hallowed be Thy Name…

Through six years and two presidencies Quinn waited for the word.

Thy Kingdom come…

The order was issued this morning.

Thy Will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven…

And now that the word was given, the world would change.

Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us…

The old order will fall!

And lead us not into temptation…

One shot is all that Carlton needs to alter the course of history. Just one shot. Once he takes it, his fellow Secret Service agents will know where it came from, and they will know almost immediately. Their helmets’ CommLink ears are hitched to one another in a network of acoustic sensors. They will pinpoint the source and trajectory of the shot in nanoseconds. The visors on the helmets will then draw soldiers’ eyes to the source with a soft, pulse of light. There will be no escape. Within minutes scores of M-16 toting MPs will descend on him, every one of them locked and loaded and itching for a reason to tear him to shreds in a hail of automatic gunfire.

But deliver us from evil…

The prospect doesn’t frighten Quinn. At his age and after all he has been through, the only fear Carlton knows is the fear of God. No other fear is possible before it. No earthly need, no concern of the flesh can frighten the man that lives in the fear of God. Truly, it is the beginning of wisdom! It has seen Carlton Quinn through worse circumstances than the one he is about to propel himself into tonight. It will see him through whatever else will follow.

…Amen.

23:22:21

Felix Culpa is a Christmas extremist!

His facebook status post says so.

The bio on his profile page further informs the Cyberverse that Felix Culpa is a super hero, a sidekick & squire to The Holy Ghost, a Knight Templar, an Arch-Deacon of The New Inquisition & both president & founder of The Hair Shirt Club for Men. It goes on to say that Felix Culpa is also a highly skilled shifter of paradigms & a master manipulator of The Matrix. The profile lists two jobs for Felix Culpa: Crusader & Church Organist. The page claims that the latter is only a part-time job. Hard Knocks University is named his Alma Mater. The cyber sketch also states that Felix Culpa is Catholic, a Missal card carrying member of the One & Only True Religion. Politically, the site declares that Felix Culpa is a Theocrat!

Yes, with an exclamation point.

What part of ‘Thy Kingdom come, Thy Will be done on earth as it is in Heaven,’ don’t you understand?

The question is proffered as an explanation in the sub-slot box of text off of Felix Culpa’s disclosure of political identity. In the box for Favorite Activities one finds, God’s Will & fighting evil is named first among Felix Culpa’s interests. Scotch, cigars & dancing come in second, third and fourth.

This is all news to the people at facebook headquarters. It is, in fact, alarming news. The posting breaches every firewall they have. Felix Culpa is instantly friended by everyone in the network. This heretofore impossible feat sets off every alarm in the company. Scores of techs scramble to their consoles only to find they can do nothing about the breach.

Felix Culpa is Ralph Golden. Ralph Golden is Felix Culpa. Ralph Golden is the secret identity & Felix Culpa is the super hero’s nom de sacre guerre.

Ralph has just finished updating his alter ego’s facebook status with a quick posting from his room at the rectory of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. Ralph stepped out of the shower, feeling as clean as Christmas, spoke the words and his PalmPal personal computer plucked them out of the air & uploaded them to Felix Culpa’s facebook status bar at Golden’s command to, “Post it, Gracie.”

The PalmPal is the latest in portable computing. It is small & sleek, the size of a playing card & even with its Mother of Pearl shell, the device is no thicker than a quarter. The PalmPal’s state-of-the-art Nano circuitry delivers up every bell & whistle a cybernaut like Ralph Golden could want.

“Show me what’s going on, Gracie,” Golden says & the small device, on his bedside table, projects a three by two foot holographic screen in the air above itself. Accessing hundreds of cameras scattered throughout the city, the PalmPal creates a ghostly, slow-scrolling slideshow of video clips from sites Golden asked it to keep an eye on.

It begins with the high altar of the basilica. Servers are dutifully preparing it for the next Mass which will begin in a little over twenty minutes.

“Television on,” Ralph orders & the small flat screen mounted on the wall clicks to life. “Vatican.”

The television finds the channel broadcasting the Christmas Mass from the Holy City. The Bishop of Rome is at the pulpit finishing his sermon. Ralph keeps one eye on the flat screen & watches the holographic projection with the other in the full length mirror hung on the bathroom door.

“…So we take heart,” the Pope says, addressing the congregation & the world in Italian. “We proceed boldly into the future, trusting in our Lord’s promise that He will be with his beloved church unto the end of the world. Tyrants & heresies have come & gone & our Church has survived them all. Every malicious machination of every hostile regime has been powerless before the Holy Spirit that guides & guards us. We will thus fear for neither the stones of our churches or the bones of our bodies. Like the martyrs, who are the glory of Christendom, we know that they are both ephemeral, bound, in time, to be ground into dust. The Church, however, the mystic body of the bride of Christ will endure beyond the worst that this world can do. We, the Catholic Church, will always prevail because our God is The God of eternal life. Our God is He who knows the way back from the grave.

“Be of good cheer then, my brothers & sisters in Christ. Ours is The One & The Only True God. We cannot fail. We cannot fall.”

“You tell them, Pops,” Ralph Golden says.

With the sermon completed the Pope shuffles back to the altar.

Ralph picks up his scapular from the bed post over which it is draped. The scapular is a sacramental, an outward sign of an internal reality. It is made of two, small squares of brown, woven wool connected by two woolen strands. The scapular is a badge of the confraternity of Holy Mother Mary, a sign of Grace & a defense against danger & everlasting fire for those who wear it devoutly. It is a gift from the Queen of Heaven to Her beloved faithful. The Carmelite Saint, Simon Stock who received his from the holy hand of the Queen of all Saints, called the scapular the Jugum Christi, the yoke of Christ.

Ralph Golden gathers the sacramental up in the palm of his right hand & crosses himself. He then kisses the scapular & puts it on over his shoulders. The Jugum Christi, as advertised, is easy & light indeed!

“Credo in Unum Deum…” The Holy Father leads his faithful through the Nicene Creed. “I believe in One God…”

“Hail Mary, full of Grace, the Lord is with thee,” Ralph hears the angelic salutation as the view on the holographic projection pans out past pews of the faithful in the basilica. The footer on the screen informs him that Hawaii is leading the congregation through the second Joyous Mystery, The Visitation.

“Blessed are thou amongst women & blessed is the fruit of thy womb…” They chant the words of Saint Elizabeth to her cousin, Mary. Elizabeth exclaimed them when Mary’s greeting from the door caused the baby within her womb to leap with joy. Elizabeth the mother was filled, in that instant, with the Holy Spirit & her child who would grow to be John the Baptist was, through the divine virtue of Charity associated with the mystery, immediately cleansed of the stain of Original Sin.

“Jesum Christum, Filium Dei…” The worshippers in Saint Peter’s continue through the Credo.

Ralph gives each of his armpits a few dabs of an antiperspirant stick.

“Holy Mary, Mother of God,” the congregation responds as one to the Hawaiian delegation. “Pray for us sinners, now & at the hour of our death. Amen.”

“Hail Mary, full of Grace,” Idaho begins the second bead.

Ralph pulls his camel’s hair shirt off the bed.

“The Lord is with thee.”

“Deum verum de Deo vero…”

The shirt is his creation as founder of the Hair Shirt Club for Men. It is close fitting with sleeves that reach to the wrists. The outside is soft, calf leather & the inside is made of large, coarse tufts of camel hair that provides the wearer with maximum irritation. From Saint John the Baptist to Saint Thomas Moore, all of Ralph Golden’s heroes wore hair shirts. It is mortification he enjoys offering up to God in their honor during the penitential seasons of Lent & Advent.

The PalmPal gives him a quick tour of the Church’s crypt where young priests & nuns recite the Rosary, knelt in adoration before the Eucharist.

“Blessed are thou among women & blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.”

Over the hair-shirt, Ralph hangs his gold Miraculous Medal. The little, gold oval bears the image of the Blessed Virgin Mother on one side, arms outstretched with the words ‘O Mary conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to you.’ On the other side, the sacred hearts of Jesus and Mary are crowned with an arc of twelve stars before the cross & the letter M. Miracles beyond reckoning have been attributed to the medal since the design for it was revealed to Saint Catherine Laboure in 1830.

“Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now & at the hour of our death. Amen.”

Leaving the crypt, the PalmPal proceeds to give Golden a 360 degree viewing of the church grounds. The National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception is the largest Catholic Church in the country, the tenth largest in the world. It was built in honor of the Patroness of the United States, Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception. The church is also Ralph Golden’s forward operating base against the forces of darkness.

He has been living at the rectory since the first week of September. He came to play the church’s wonderful Moller organ for the feast Mass of Saint Peter Claver. That was on the ninth of September. Two days later, the courts ordered the covering up of the nation’s religious heritage. Two days after that the call was put out to Christendom to gather in Washington. Ralph Golden cleared his schedule for the rest of the year & volunteered to stay and help handle the logistics of the protest. Less than a month later, across the Atlantic, the Italian military lay siege to the Vatican.

Satan upped the ante on Ralph.

Golden was unfazed. The showdown has been a long time a-coming & Ralph was ready, eager even.

The PalmPal shows him the fleet of twelve mini-buses filing into the parking lot on time. The buses are filled with worshippers, the elderly & the handicapped, for the second of today’s Christmas Eve Masses.

Ralph pulls his tuxedo out of its garment bag & smiles in admiration of it. It is an eye-popping, startling, one-of-a-kind, thing of beauty! The Cutaway tux is white & overlaid with fist-sized hound’s tooth in Christmas green & red from collar to cuffs. He slips on its pants as the holographic projection flickers, changing from church to city cameras. It displays the scene outside the Supreme Court building. Twenty thousand fellow Catholics fill the grounds behind the Capitol building, sitting in neat, tight rows, reciting the Rosary, state by state, in unison with their fellow faithful in churches throughout DC, the country & the world.

“Hail Mary, full of Grace,”

Ralph sits on the edge of the narrow bed to put on his socks. One is red and the other is green.

“The Lord is with thee…”

He watches the images from the National Mall roll across the ghostly screen as he rolls his socks up past his calves. The park is packed with their fellow Christians, concentrated at the moment in & around The Ellipse across from the White House.

Ralph rises & puts on a silk, dress shirt. It has golden buttons & is green on the left & red on the right. He buttons the shirt and tucks it into his pants. His suspenders, cummerbund & bow tie are also green & red but they invert the colors against the silk shirt.

As he dons them, the computer shows him footage from the cameras in & around Lafayette & Mount Vernon Square as well as Franklin, Stanton & Lincoln Parks. Ralph Golden’s enemies, atheists, anti-Christians & nihilist agitators have occupied those sites. The news estimates their numbers at twenty-to-forty thousand & most of them seem to be back at their litter-strewn camps, resting up for tonight.

“All quiet on the Western front,” Ralph declares to his computer. The holographic screen disappears.

Golden puts on the tuxedo’s long-tailed jacket. He then snatches the matching cane & top hat off his dresser. He does a little dance with hat & cane, admiring his outfit & the toughest & tallest five foot nothing of a man wearing it. He puts the hat & cane back on his dresser top. There will be time enough for them later, he tells himself; it’s not Christmas yet. From the closet, Ralph pulls out an Inverness caped coat. Its wool is Advent violet. He puts it on, covering the riotous Christmas tux. He then slips his feet into a pair of matching violet loafers. Standing before the mirror, he gives his dark & waxed handlebar mustache a quick curling & himself a wink of a steely, gray eye.

“T.V. off,” Golden says & the flat screen goes dark.

Ralph then pulls his Rosary off the Crucifix over his bed. It is made up of American Revolutionary era musket balls strung through with a slender, iron, link chain. The Crucifix at its end is made up of three Civil War era railway spikes arranged in a cross, the bottom end sharpened to a pencil point. A solid 24 karat gold Corpus Christi, body of Christ, is mounted to it. The Rosary is Ralph’s favorite sacramental & the source of much of his power. He kisses the feet of his Savior & places the Rosary into his coat’s right pocket.

On his way out of the room, Ralph snaps up his PalmPal.

“Say good night, Gracie,” he tells his computer.

“Good night, Gracie,” the machine responds in Gracie Allen’s voice. The PalmPal shuts itself down before it reaches the bottom of his coat’s left pocket.

Ralph Golden is just beginning his day. & his days, the best of them at any rate, begin with Mass.

23:22:20

 

A half hour ago Lamar Reed took the time to greet everyone as he made his way to his booth at the back of the bar. After the initial greetings no one approaches him. They know that seated where he is, the congressman is awaiting the latest update from his two top analysts. Lamar takes a sip of a fresh drink and scans the room. He loves the people gathered about him. They are his people and he considers himself more than their boss. He is their servant as well. It is another lesson learned at his grandmother’s knee.

“Leaders rule justly when they serve,” she reminded him of it the night he won his congressional seat. “That’s what leading by example is all about. All else is pomp and ceremony.”

Lamar sees his job a simple one; he is to make their jobs as easy as possible. Money, machines, software, intelligence from every corner of the world, whatever they asked of him, Lamar bent heaven and earth to get it to them. Fueled seemingly by little else than caffeine, these, his people, had saved tens, if not hundreds of thousands of lives. They peered into the endless streams of numbers, bits and bytes of information that deluged government computers daily, they scrutinized volumes of intelligence reports, analysis and scoured through the babble of communications in every known language and medium to unearth plots against the nation. In the two years he has worked with them, their efforts have foiled schemes against the Mall of America, LAX, JFK, the Super Bowl, two attacks on the capital and, the most audacious of all, the recent plot to take down the Liberty Tower, freshly risen from the site of the old World Trade Center in New York. Their dedication to the nation and their jobs made them true professionals in a town sorely lacking in them. Their results made them the quiet, unsung heroes of the President’s War for Law and Order. Congressman Reed often and sadly wondered why their work ethic was so often lacking in the men and women elected to be their superiors; senators and fellow congressmen with far more vital responsibilities did not work half as hard as the least of those gathered around him tonight.

The television over the bar draws his attention to it once more. Lamar shakes his head at the slow, panning aerial shot of the crowds gathered at the National Mall. He does not want to think about them but can’t help it. Everyone in the bar will be keeping an eye on them through the night’s festivities. The whole world, in fact, will be watching, keeping a wary eye on the two hundred and fifty thousand anti-government protestors prepared to take on DC’s mayor and the Federal government at midnight. Sizable throngs of angry citizens are gathered in a score of other cities in solidarity with them. The blinking footer sums up the issue and the fear in a few words:

CHURCH vs. STATE

Congressman Reed’s thoughts turn to his grandmother once again. She was both the voice of reason and the inspiration for much of his life. She died last February at the age of ninety-nine. He misses her dearly. She was the last of his immediate family to pass. His mother succumbed to cancer ten years before. His dad was senselessly gunned down in the street when Lamar was only fourteen years old. Reed has other family; there are a handful of cousins in Fort Wayne, a pair of aunts in New Orleans and an uncle in Los Angeles. None of them, however, have the influence of the three who raised him. This was his first Christmas without them. It is as much a reason for his staying in DC over the holiday as is his workload.

Lamar takes another swallow of his drink as memories of them rise like ghosts in his mind. And as ghosts often do, they rise in accusation.

Congressman Reed knows that he would have been at odds with his family over the affair that brought the demonstrating masses to DC. They would have been unapologetic in their support of the crowds. Were they still alive, they might even be counted among their number. His grandmother, in particular, would have found the whole thing shameful. He remembers her indignation at the news coverage from San Diego three years ago, the sad shaking of her gray-haired head while she watched the cross atop Mount Soledad being pulled down by chains and tractors. The decision of the Supreme Court would not have sat well with her. She did not understand the world his generation was trying to build. She did not believe it was the kind of world the grandson of a Baptist minister should be helping to create.

“Our government is becoming godless, son,” she complained to him the night the cross came down in California. “Why must this government be so set against religion?”

“We’re not against religion,” Lamar argued. He had just won his election and was spending time with her before moving to DC to start his political career. “Religion has its place in the home, the church, the temple and the mosque. It’s just too divisive in the public sphere.”

“You really believe that?”

“Why sure,” he answered. “Religion has been the source of a lot of bloodshed over the centuries.”

“It has?”

“You don’t think so?”

“No,” his grandmother answered with a resolute shake of her head. “People are the source of bloodshed, son. Religion is just one among countless things people will fight and kill over.”

“Well then,” Lamar said. “We’ll give the people one less thing to fight over in the public sphere.”

“So you’re going to take the most important thing out?”

“Not everyone feels that way about it, grandma.”

“That doesn’t make religion any less important, Lamar,” she said. “How do you feel about it? Reverend Randolph tells me he hasn’t seen you at services in a long while.”

“I think religion is important,” he answered.

“But?”

“But I’m to be a congressman, a politician; not a preacher.”

“So what?”

“Well, they have separate roles, grandma,” Lamar said. “They should operate in separate spheres and see to very different needs of the people. I don’t think they should be mixed.”

“The Reverend Martin Luther King would have disagreed with you, son,” she said. “Your grandfather, God rest his soul, would have disagreed with you too. He was also a preacher who meddled in politics. And all those fire and brimstone, bible-thumping abolitionists who crusaded for an end to slavery, they would have disagreed with you too. Personally, I thank God those men and women didn’t think twice about mixing religion and politics. The country is a better, freer place for all their bible-thumping.”

“I certainly don’t want to take anything away from them,” he told her. “I’m as grateful as the next black man for their struggle, for your struggle and especially for grandpa’s sacrifice. I really am and I know that I can’t, that my generation can’t ever repay the debt we owe. It’s just that I can’t help but believe that religion, your religion and grandpa’s religion and the religion of all those wonderful people who struggled and fought for the freedom of their fellows was, well… is incidental.”

“Whatever do you mean by that?”

“I mean that good is good in and of its self and people today, good people today realize that,” Lamar explained. “In today’s world good people will do good things without any prompting from organized religion. There is no shortage of neighbor loving atheists in the world gran mama.”

“No there ain’t,” she conceded. “But the good they do, the good they and you recognize as good has come to you through religion.”

“Perhaps,” Lamar agreed. “Perhaps it was religion that transmitted the ideas of brotherhood, love and service through the ages but; those ideas, in this age of ours, are recognized as good in themselves, worthy of pursuing for their own sakes and not in the hope of an eternal, otherworldly reward. Those ideals can stand on their own legs today. We can treat each other as brothers and sisters today without believing that there is a God out there that demands it of us.”

His grandmother laughed at that. “Don’t be so sure. After all, we never practiced it too good while we still believed there was a God who commanded it. And you can sing all the hymns and praises you like for this great, modern and enlightened age of yours; but I don’t, not for a blessed minute, think separating religion from politics is going to make us anymore tolerant, kind or any more neighbor-loving. The further behind we’ve left religion the worse, the more hateful people have gotten. Life is becoming cheaper by the day. There’s no government program that’s going to turn that around.”

“You surprise me gran mama,” Lamar said. “I thought the thing about being a Christian is having faith.”

Lamar remembers the smile that lit up her face. He closes his eyes, feels them tearing up behind the lids as he is transported back to that evening at her home.

“The thing, as you put it, about an old Christian like me,” she said, her gray eyes fixed firmly on his own. “A Christian who has seen as much of this devil’s world as I have puts her faith in God and not in kings and princes and all their high-horsed plans.”

“What about young, bright, idealistic, handsome and newly elected congressmen? Have you got any faith for the likes of us?”

She giggled softly, almost girlishly. She put a hand to his face, stroked his cheek and pinched his earlobe. “I have a little faith that I can send your way.”

Lamar grinned. He took her small hands in his and kissed both of her palms. “That’ll do. I’ve heard a little is all you need to move mountains.”

“Truer words have never been uttered,” she said and then looked away at the flat screen television hung over the mantle of her living room. The set was off, its screen dark, but she stared into it as if she was seeing something other than the dull reflection of them sitting on her sofa. Her smile disappeared, the arc of her lips slowly relaxing until the mouth set into a stern, straight line.

She clasped her hands around his. “Lamar, my child, I know you had nothing to do with that dreadful business in California tonight. But pretty soon you are going to be part of this government. You will share responsibility before God for what it does, for everything it does.”

Lamar hesitated, not knowing what to say to her.

“You do believe in God, don’t you Lamar?”

“I don’t, gran mama. I’m sorry, but I just don’t.”

“You used to believe, son. What happened?”

“I guess it began with dad’s death,” he said. “It was so senseless, so pointless and random. It made no sense to me, none whatsoever. Even the preacher at the funeral said pretty much the same thing. I remember him quoting the book of Job, advising us that at such times we must remember that the Lord’s ways were not our ways, and we could not hope to make sense of why tragedies befell good people. All we could do was have faith that God would, in His ineffable way, in some indeterminate future, turn the evil into good. I remember thinking at the time, that’s just not good enough.”

“You were understandably angry,” she said.

Lamar nodded. “I was. The anger has since passed, but not the feeling that religion is just a crutch, a coping mechanism for loss. And that may be fine for some people. It’s just not enough for me. Not anymore.”

His grandmother smiled sadly or wisely or maybe both at once. He remembered it differently at various times. “You’re right about that my son. Religion is a coping mechanism for loss, especially the loss that is death, whether it is another’s or our own death. But if you think that is all it is, you’re shortchanging both religion and yourself. Religion is also the means through which man speaks with God.”

“Well then, God should talk back to us from time to time,” Lamar quipped.

“He is always talking to those who have the faith to hear him.”

“It comes down in the end, I guess, to whether one has the faith that believes in a God,” Lamar said. “I’m afraid I have lost mine.”

“I understand all about loss of faith,” his grandmother said, giving his hands a squeeze. “When I saw what was done to your grandfather, my faith flew from me with my rage and it bled from me with my tears. When I saw my husband, my good man lowered into a grave while he was still so young, while he was still so beautiful and so filled with love, my faith died. It was buried with him. It was a long time before it came back to me.”

“When did it come back?” Lamar asked. “How did it come back to you?”

“You’ll think me a silly, old woman if I tell you.”

“I would never think anything of the sort about you.”

“When you were born,” she answered. “When you first opened your eyes and looked at me as an infant. I saw Zeke in you, smiling up at me from your mother’s arms as surely as I felt him smiling down on me. And just like that, I believed again in a God whose ways are not our ways and whose mysteries I might never understand but trusted nonetheless.”

“Well, maybe one day I’ll find my way back to faith,” Lamar offered.

“You will,” she said. “I believe. I have faith in you, like I said.”

“Thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” she grinned. “But that don’t mean you’re off the hook with Reverend Randolph. Just because you’re an elected congressman with separate duties and such than a preacher’s don’t mean you got to stop going to church. If anything, it’s more of a reason to go.”

“Even if I don’t believe in God?”

“Especially if you don’t believe in God!”

“Okay,” Lamar conceded. “I’ll go see Randolph on Sunday.”

And Lamar Reed did go see Reverend Randolph’s services every Sunday until he moved to Washington two months later. Once in DC, his grandmother sent him a list of churches she thought he might enjoy. He promised to check them out once he got settled into his new job. He never did. She died in her sleep a few weeks after he took his oath. Her funeral was the last service he attended.

Yes, Reed knows it in his bones, his grandmother, if she was still alive, would be out there in the streets, walker and all, braving the cold and the government’s threats with the other quarter of a million Christians. He was not out there though. There were two senators and half a dozen fellow congressmen who joined the protestors. They were out there with them right now but he was not. Congressman Lamar Reed, grandson of martyred Baptist minister, Ezekiel Beaumont; he was not standing with the crowds in the National Mall. He was having drinks in a bar on the other end of town.

A small but insistent sense of guilt gnaws at him as he watches the huddled and praying masses. He supposes it is only natural. He was raised a Baptist, a Christian after all, and he could not deny that his grandmother’s religion contributed greatly to his making. He even shared her faith once, though it had since sloughed off, gradually and imperceptibly, like an old skin. He didn’t miss it, he told himself, because he had kept the heart of it, the important part. The values of love and service to his fellow man remained intact with him. Everything else about religion had come to seem like so much theatre to Lamar, the product of man’s need to ritualize his behavior and mythologize his experience.

The helicopter taking the aerial shot of the crowds zooms in on the snipers scattered around the many rooftops. They are part of the twenty-five thousand National Guard troops called in to keep the peace. So far they hadn’t had much to do, but patrol the streets and keep the protestors and the counter demonstrators separated. The President is expected to address them and the nation at 7 p.m. O’Neill will make his plea to keep the peace in less than half an hour. The congressman is eager to hear it. Not many people believe that anything will come of it. The media is expecting a deadlier riot than befell the ill-fated Tea Party demonstrators nine years ago. Lamar shudders to think that, had any of his family been out there with the crowds, one of those snipers on television could have been setting his sights on them.

The guilt bites deeper into him.

Reed stirs the last three, thin ice cubes in his glass, lamenting silently the state of affairs which has befallen his country. He recognizes the dark mood slowly eclipsing the light of his usual sunny resolve. It is the same doom-ridden fatalism that grips so much of the world. Never did so many people believe they lived, if not in the end of days, than on the precipice of another dark age. The twenty-first century, many felt, would be civilization’s last century, maybe even mankind’s last. There seemed little cause to discount those fears. And indeed, there were many who not only fervently hoped for one Armageddon or another, but diligently worked to bring doomsday down on everyone’s head.

The aerial shot sweeps across the north lawn of the White House and pans to Lafayette Square to an encampment of such doom-seeking nihilists. They call themselves Maxists, and like anarchists before them they seek to bring down ‘the system.’ Only it is no longer merely capitalism or the corporations or the nation-states they take aim at. The Maxists are out to destroy human civilization itself. Toward that end they practice what they called ‘cultural terrorism and moral mayhem.’ They flash-mob museums and churches, take box cutters, axes and spray paint to works of art, set fires in libraries, vandalized property, public and private, they ‘liberate’ zoo animals and incite riots every chance they can. The less brazen limit their assault on civilization by openly defying the norms of decorum. Defecating and sex in public are their favorite forms of protest. Anything that shocks sensibilities or challenges cherished mores is game. They all live off the dole and, in every imaginable way, try to be as much of a drain on society as possible in the hopes of hastening its collapse. ‘Max the system out!’ is their motto and war cry. The more rabid of them, see humanity as a plague on the planet. Bringing down human civilization is not enough for them. They want nothing less than the extinction of the species.

The news show turns back to their studio. A new pair of talking heads square off across the anchor’s desk.

“God help us,” the atheist congressman says to himself.

23:19:21

 

President William Jennings O’Neill is looking forward to catching a little shut eye on his flight home to Ohio. It has been a long day of meetings with his Joint Chiefs of Staff, various and sundry experts, advisors and journalists. The next five days will be a welcome respite from the White House grind. He knows of course that he can be summoned back at a moment’s notice if any of the dozen or so situations unfolding worldwide suddenly turns catastrophic. He hopes not. He and his staff need the rest before they add the stress of managing a reelection campaign to the trials of running the free world. And mostly, he is really looking forward to his wife’s roasted lamb dinner with the extended family tomorrow. The White House’s four-star chef is a good one, but he can’t hold a spatula to his wife of twenty-seven years.

The President is in the Oval Office preparing to address the nation. A middle-aged black woman with plaited hair dabs a small sponge in a jar of foundation and rubs the make-up into the creases around his eyes and mouth. Nothing short of a face-to-face with the Almighty ages a man as quickly as the Presidency of the United States. New wrinkles and the retreating line of thinning and graying hair on his broad head tell the tale. O’Neill knew it going into the job. One had to be a little crazy, he muses, to even want the gig in the first place. The Office piled responsibility atop responsibility ceaselessly, every hour of every day. He cannot remember the last night of unencumbered sleep that he has been able to enjoy. The world always intrudes into his dreams. Yes, he tells himself, the presidency is certainly taking its toll on him as it did to all who sat in its chair. It has robbed him of his boyish good looks to all but his adoring wife. As the makeup lady rubs foundation into his skin in soft, gentle circles, the President of the United States of America rounds the globe in his mind, visiting all the hot spots that sap him of sleep and serenity.

Half way around the planet the Sunnis and the Shiites are at each other’s throats again. The third, UN brokered cease-fire in a decade has recently broken down in Iraq. New waves of slaughter are sweeping across Mesopotamia. Elsewhere in the Middle East, after clearing away the rubble into which the Israelis bombed their nuclear program, Iran has managed to muscle its way back into the nuclear club. The Mullahs will be parading their warheads through the streets of Tehran on New Year’s Day. The Sunnis in Saudi Arabia, not to be outdone by their Shia rivals, have created a nuclear program of their own which many fear will start producing bombs in a few months. The two are embroiled in a dangerous arms race and an on again off again proxy war over Iraq.

On the North African coast, the Ikhwan Caliphate is the newest player on the Arab block. After a decade of uprisings, revolutions and civil war, the Muslim Brotherhood has come out on top and they are busy consolidating their command of the vast region stretching from Morocco to the Sudan. The Brotherhood’s fledgling empire is the largest caliphate since the Ottomans. They are eagerly flexing their new found strength, primarily through control of the Mediterranean choke points at Gibraltar and the Suez Canal.

All three of the Muslim powers are ratcheting up their anti-Zionist rhetoric and the Jewish State is naturally responding with saber-rattling of its own. Israeli strikes against Iran and Saudi Arabia seem likely, threatening another all-out regional war that could escalate into a nuclear confrontation in short order. The President has pleaded with the Jewish State, offering to renew the flow of foreign aid to the Israelis if they refrain from launching another pre-emptive strike. He is less than optimistic about their accepting his offer. The pessimism is born of the unintended consequences of a decade old policy decision, the landmark action of the Department of Peace during his tenure as Director which cut off aid to Israel. It was done in response to their pre-emptive strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities and in the interest of ending the war in Iraq. While the cutting of aid to the Jewish State did appease Iran into a cease-fire agreement, the move irreparably damaged the relationship between America and Israel. Ten years of struggling through emergency austerity measures has weaned the Jews off their dependency on America, and with it, whittled away whatever leverage the United States once had with them.

Farther to the east, the Pacific Union, with a nuclear Japan at its head, is at odds with China. The two sides are getting ever more belligerent in their dispute over the Senkaku Islands, access to sea lanes and offshore drilling in their crowded waters. Each side is alternately wooing and warning the Koreans, gumming up their re-unifcation efforts. Russia’s new President has yet to weigh into the regional jockeying. She has everyone guessing, and that is in itself troubling.

Closer to home, Cuba is a powder keg ready to explode off the coast. Since the death of the Castro brothers, the island nation has been making slight but steady progress towards democratization and modernization. All the while, elements of the old order appeal to Venezuela for aid and assistance in holding on to power as Cuban ex-patriots in America fund and stoke the fires of the opposition. Many fear that Cuba is on the brink of civil war. Shots have not yet been fired, but the language between factions is growing hotter and nastier by the day.

South America is not in much better shape. Venezuela, taking advantage of the power vacuum created by the 2012 nuclear explosion that killed most of the heads of states of the western hemisphere, is intent on becoming first among equals in the newly formed South American Union. There is a real danger of blood spilling before the ink on the South American Union Constitution dries. Directly south of the border, the new Mexican government is beefing up its military while its president speaks entirely too much about recovering the lands stolen by Yankee aggressors.

As always, there are various scenarios developing that could draw America and any portion of the rest of the world into a war that everyone would regret. The President has teams on the ground working around the clock to avert crisis. They are all good people; most of them worked with him during his tenure at the Department of Peace. They are all smart people, hand chosen by the President himself. O’Neill is determined not to make the great mistake of past administrations. He promised the nation and himself that he would not become just another ‘war president.’ His opposition never lets up on their criticism of his position and his pledge to go through his administration ‘without spending a dime on or spilling a drop of blood in war.’ They daily dismiss the peace he won from Mexico as a surrender of the border. They deride his efforts to improve America’s international image as pandering. Conservative talking heads persistently call for a strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities but he is resolved not to go there. He argues in turn that it would be seen as rank hypocrisy on the Arab street after America raised only the most formal objections when Japan decided to go nuclear five years ago. His reasoning does not dissuade them from branding him a coward.

The deplorable state of the economy however, is the biggest thief of the President’s sleep. O’Neill’s chief campaign promise to the American people was to affect a ‘real and substantive recovery’ for the country’s economy. Fixing the economy, the President feels, would go a long way to alleviating much of what ails the nation. He is three years into his term and things have not yet begun to turn around. When the reporter from the Washington Times suggested his failure to deliver on his economic promises might make another ‘one-termer’ of him, O’Neill insisted that the economy was stuck in a holding pattern because, “Do-nothing Republicans are obstructing my every effort to enter into a North American Union with Mexico and Canada. The Union, they so strenuously object to, would pool the resources of the entire continent for the betterment of all its inhabitants. Creating The North American Union will allow us re-entry into the World Bank, giving us even more resources to draw from, rebooting our economy overnight. Republicans however, are refusing to work with our neighbors simply because they are loath to drop the Dollar for the Amero.”

“They say such a union will cost the country its independence,” the reporter countered.

“The depression the nation suffers from is a global one,” The President responded. “A world-wide depression, so long a time in the making, cannot be recovered from in short order without a revolutionary change in the way business is done. That begins with abandoning the myth of independence. Republicans need to stop living in the past and realize that the twenty-first century is all about interdependence.”

The President inherited a shattered economy and the Herculean task of saving it. Like many in his generation, O’Neill watched the crash of the once great financial empire in the slow motion time tunnel of day-to-day life. The long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan strained the economy, weakened it so that it was unable to absorb the shocks of the credit and housing markets collapse. Those markets then dragged others down the sink hole with them. Heavy stimulus spending, first to bail out companies, then whole industries, half the states of The Union and even half of Europe depleted the last of the country’s capital reserves. The dollar tanked after so much deficit spending in so little time, losing its long held position as the world’s reserve currency. With the dollar dead, America went bankrupt and she became just another domino to fall in the globe-sweeping collapse of one world market after another in the great crash of 2013.

It was a nightmare for everyone everywhere. In Europe the fires were lit in Athens and spread, from the cradle of democracy, across the continent. Before too long they were flaring up in America. People everywhere fought along every demographic line. At home, the country came precipitously close to another civil war. Hostilities broke out, first on the southern border between Minutemen and Mexican drug cartels. With weakened central governments on both sides of the border, frontline state governors in America and their Mexican counterparts soon joined in, committing the troops under their commands into the fray. Beyond the border, unions and conservatives battled on city streets across the country. Terrorists and nihilists reveled in the chaos, upping the ante at every opportunity.

Things were just beginning to stabilize. It was only because he and a few others were willing to work with and through the United Nations that the war on the border was ended and something resembling order was reestablished across the land and in Europe. The President had no illusions about it though; the order was a tenuous one. Ideologues, demagogues and agitators everywhere where chomping on their bits to go at each other and at him. Half the states are threatening to secede if they don’t get bailed out of their latest fiscal holes and the other half threaten secession if yet another stimulus package is passed. But in the very tenuousness of things, William Jennings O’Neill sees the opportunity to create a new America, a country more compatible with twenty-first century thinking; in short, a true socialist nation.

It is the ideal O’Neill pursued throughout his entire political career, though he was always careful never to state it openly. That is a lesson he learned early in college while studying the life of Norman Thomas, Ohio’s three-time presidential candidate for the Socialist Party during the first heady decades of the twentieth century.

“The American people will never knowingly adopt socialism,” Thomas once told his comrades. “But under the name of liberalism, they will adopt every fragment of the socialist program, until one day America will be a socialist nation, without knowing how it happened.”

O’Neill’s home State hero proved to be eminently prescient. America is finally, for all intents and purposes, a socialist nation.

The President considers himself Thomas’ ideological heir. Just as Norman Thomas was there at the birth of Progressivism, William O’Neill will be there at its final triumph. All that remains to seal the deal is to make the recent changes to the government permanent. Towards that end, President O’Neill feels that a new constitution is needed. A draft of a revised constitution already exists, in fact. It is being circulated quietly among a few select individuals in Congress, the Senate, academia, the media and a handful of representatives from certain international organizations. The initial responses are all favorable, most people feeling that it addresses all the deficiencies of the original.

The President agrees.

The original Constitution, based as it is on limited rights, promotes an individualism which hobbles the state and stunts its reach. In contrast, the new draft of the constitution articulates a great many more rights. It will free up the government, expand its powers so that it can insure the amended list of rights. The ruthless excesses of the rugged individualism that defined America for too long would finally be curbed by the new, more expansive constitution. The President is confident that the concern over what government is allowed to do will be, at last, replaced by the imperative of what it must do. William O’Neill sees the revised constitution as the only means to both secure the gains that Progressivism has thus far won and lay down the legal groundwork for any further advancement.

Before he can introduce the nation to a new constitution, the President needs to win a new term. He needs to break the recent run of one term presidencies and secure himself the elbow room and the expanded license that comes with a second term. O’Neill can use the clout that comes with another term to push for a new constitutional convention. It might take him the whole four years to do it, but he is confident that it can be done. The convention will produce a new constitution for the country using the existing draft as the template. It is the only way to insure that everything which has been so hard fought over for a century can be passed on. A great many of the gains he wants to protect were only recently won by Congressional Acts and Executive Orders and are thus vulnerable to being undone by the very same means. Universal healthcare, free higher education, the government’s new and enhanced stewardship roles in energy, industry, housing and finance, it could all be undone with a single Republican victory. In fact, every Republican who has run against them since 2008 promised just that, to undo twenty years of the most progressive legislation in the nation’s history with strokes of their pens. They have been beaten back each time by only the slimmest of margins, and; that is too close for the President. William Jennings O’Neill does not want to leave office just to have some future administration take back the ground Progressivism now holds.

O’Neill believes he stands a better than fair chance of retaking the White House. He looks forward to the debates. The President even relishes the whole traveling side-show aspect of campaigning. He enjoys mixing it up with Republicans. And he is good at it. After all it was he, his team and their vision that pulled the Democrats out of the downward spiral they found themselves in at the beginning of the century. It was he who used the Republican’s own values rhetoric against them. Not that it was difficult, as they never failed to provide him with enough scandals with which to undo them. The Republicans were no less forthcoming with the rope necessary to hang them on fiscal policy either. O’Neill loves contrasting their laissez faire talk against their corporate welfare walk.

The Republicans do not worry him. William O’Neill is eager to go at them again. He already has the October surprise in his pocket. No, it is not the loyal opposition that stands in the President’s way; it is, sadly, his own left flank that is making re-election problematic for him. William O’Neill knows that he is less likely to get his wish of winning a second term if the streets of DC erupt into riot on his watch. There is enough tension between the quarter of a million Christians and the thirty thousand or so counter demonstrators who taunt them by burning bibles and desecrating crosses to ignite a holy war. It behooves the governments, Federal and local, to tread carefully. The situation is volatile and everyone rightly fears a repeat of the tragedy that befell the ill-fated Tea Party.

In a perverse anticipation of midnight, the media has been playing every inch of footage they possess of that decade-old, tragic, clash between citizen and soldier. The President doesn’t need to see any of the clips. He has his own vivid memories of the riots to remind him of what could happen on the streets tonight. O’Neill watched it all through the window of his office when he served as the first Director General of the Department of Peace. Beyond the millions of dollars’ worth of damages and the one hundred and eight deaths that resulted from the confrontation, the real tragedy, for President O’Neill, was the failure of leadership that caused the whole needless mess and further hardened the hearts of a whole generation against the government.

While there was plenty of blame that could be heaped on both sides, he had to place ultimate responsibility on the White House. The administration at the time refused to engage the Tea Party on principles and instead opted, with the help of their cohorts in the media, to vilify them. They were denounced as sexists and mere reactionaries who balked at the fact that America had progressed far enough to elect a woman president. They were called many other things besides, but the epithets only seemed to swell their ranks. When the congress-woman from California claimed that she was spat on and called a derogatory name by a ‘mob of Tea Party militants’, President Pelosi branded the demonstrators terrorists and ordered the National Guard to disperse the crowd of nearly two hundred thousand.

DC became a war zone overnight.

To keep that from happening, O’Neill insisted that no one in his administration stoop to name-calling and personal attacks when talking of the latest demonstrators. The protestors were never referred to by anything harsher than, ‘dissident Americans’ by his people. It is not enough however; the President also needs to have a little chat with the Mayor of DC, Barry Marion.

The very name of the man makes the President reach for his Rolaids.

The two men shared similar goals, but O’Neill detested Marion’s methods. The mayor was a socialist of the old school whose splenetic demagoguery and too easy resort to violence was antithetical to the President’s preferred soft-sell. In O’Neill’s opinion, socialists of Marion’s ilk ultimately undermined the cause. Mayor Marion however, was a rising and formidable star for the Left. He first rose to prominence during the Public Sector Labor Movement that swept across the states from 2011 through 2014. Marion was among the handful of union organizers credited with winning concessions from states with recalcitrant republican legislatures through their use of what the Mayor dubbed, ‘enhanced democracy’, and his opponents saw as plain, criminal intimidation. His use of social media to organize the ‘flash riots’ that defined the movement was deft enough that he escaped any litigable connection to the abuses and violence they caused.

Four years later, running on his union victories, Barry Marion won himself the mayor’s seat in his hometown of DC, making him the first Socialist Party member to hold the office. Barry Marion then went on to use his organizational muscle and win the District of Columbia its long sought representation in The House. The Washington Post recently called him ‘Unstoppable.’ There was talk of drafting him to chair the DNC and even running him for President in ’24.

William O’Neill didn’t begrudge the man his future prospects; he just didn’t want them compromising his own, which they were more than likely to if the Mayor went through with his threat to arrest anyone who performed a religious service in public tonight. O’Neill had no illusions about winning any votes from the religionists, but he didn’t want to appear weak and out of control to the country at large. While his administration was as plagued with terrorism as the last three, only one small riot had broken out during his term. It was not a minor thing for an anxiety-wracked public. The President meant to keep it that way even if he had to bring the full weight of his office down on an uppity mayor.

He glanced at the clock on his desk. It read 6:43. Two minutes before the scheduled call to his Honor, the Mayor.

William O’Neill catches the make-up lady’s eye and gives her a thumbs-up.

“Thank you, Mrs. Jefferson,” he says. “Give my best to your husband and kids. Penny has a little something for you and your family on the way out.”

“Thank you, Mr. President,” she answers. “Merry Christmas to you and yours!”

She gathers her things and heads out of the Oval Office. His Chief of Staff, Burt Owens enters after her.

“It’s time, sir,” he says.

“I know,” says O’Neill. “Let’s get it over with.”

The President thumbs his desktop video phone and is, in a matter of moments, connected to the Mayor’s office. The eight inch screen lights to life with the dark, bony features of Barry Marion. His eyes are large, dark and bright under the shiny, bald pate of his head. The Mayor is seated at his desk, his blue, pin-striped shirt open at the collar and his sleeves rolled up to the elbows of his wiry arms.

O’Neill smiles warmly. “Merry Christmas, Mayor Marion.”

“Good evening, Mr. President.”

The President smiles even more broadly. “Did you get a chance to read the speech I’ll be delivering in a few minutes?”

O’Neill had Owens send over a copy of the text an hour ago. Not the complete text. It was missing one part.

The Mayor nods. “Pretty speech, but it ain’t going to make a lick of difference to the crowds.”

“Perhaps not,” the President concedes. “But you can certainly make a great deal of difference tonight, Mr. Mayor. Let the crowds hold their ceremonies. I would consider it a personal favor to me, if you did.”

“Sorry, Mr. President,” the Mayor says. “But these Jesus freaks need to know that their day is over and done with.”

“Come now Mr. Mayor, we both know the court injunction is just a temporary one.”

“As we both know the Supreme Court is likely to make it permanent in the spring, Mr. President.”

“We’re agreed on that as well, Mayor Marion,” O’Neill nods. “So why not wait, in the interest of public safety, until the law is made permanent?”

“Because by the spring,” Mayor Marion says. “There will likely be a million of these bible-thumpers in town. It’ll be easier to take care of them now.”

The President shakes his head. “Not without the National Guard it won’t.”

O’Neill watches the news sink in. The Mayor’s jawline tightens and his eyes narrow ever so slightly.

“What are you saying, Mr. President?”

“I’m saying that I’m having the Guard pulled out after my speech,” O’Neill answers. “The Governor has agreed to my request. If you’re going to insist on trying to arrest a quarter of a million people you’re going to have to attempt it with just the DC Police.”

“Why would you do that, Mr. President?”

“Because you’re being unreasonable, Mr. Mayor,” President O’Neill says. “There is no harm in allowing the demonstrators one, last, public celebration of Christmas. If there are to be riots because of your unreasonableness, I want you and your office to bear all the responsibility for it. I want none of the blame at my door.”

“You don’t really believe this is going to score you points with conservatives, do you?”

“No, I don’t,” O’Neill responds. “It won’t lose me any points with conservatives either. That is neither here nor there, however. My concern is public safety and the maintenance of order. It’s been years since the nation has suffered through a major riot. I would think that we would all want to keep it that way.”

“So I should just ignore the law?” Marion asks. “Is that what you’re advising me?”

“I’m advising you, Mr. Mayor, to weigh your new-found regard for the law against the interests of public safety.”

The two men stare stonily at each other for several moments.

“Very well, Mr. President,” Mayor Marion says at last. “You can consider your hands washed of the matter. For myself, I shall press on with my original intention and duty to enforce the law.”

President O’Neill watches as the Mayor reaches across his desk and unceremoniously severs their connection.

“That went over about as well as I expected,” Owens says from across the President’s desk.

The President nods. “Do we still have Whittaker on board?”

“Yes,” Owens says. “I got off the phone with him minutes ago. If the Mayor issues the order to arrest the demonstrators, Whittaker will defect on the eleven o’clock news. He assured me that we can count on one hundred and forty-three officers jumping ship with him.”

“Good,” says the President.

Whittaker is DC’s Chief of Police. He was installed by Marion but their relationship has been deteriorating over the last year. Everyone expected the Mayor to replace him soon. Whittaker himself expected it. Burt Owens wooed him on the President’s behalf. Whittaker agreed to publically defy his boss if the White House asked him. The Chief of Police will explain that it is the President’s regard for the wellbeing of the demonstrators that convinced him to disobey the Mayor’s callous command. In return, a place would be found for him and his people in the administration. The President hopes the removal of the National Guard and the police chief’s surprise mutiny will be enough to derail the mayor’s plans and allow the night to pass uneventfully.

He knows he is only kicking the can down the road. The court’s decision in the spring could lead to confrontations as well, but he would deal with that later.

Burt Owens taps his watch. “Five minutes to seven, Mr. President.”

President William O’Neill spins lazily in his chair to look out at the crowds gathered beyond the Oval Office. He takes a deep breath and exhales slowly before spinning back around.

“Extremists to the left of me,” he says, nodding at the videophone. “Extremists to the right of me,” he adds with a nod to the window.

“It’s a real thin line you have to walk, Mr. President,” Owen says with a slight shake of his small, bald head.

“Thin as a razor,” says the President of the United States. “And it’s about as pleasant to walk on.”

[{ If you enjoyed what you’ve read thus far, please consider clicking on  the title link below to purchase yourself copy of:

The House of War. Thank you for your interest and support! }]

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