The House of War is a political thriller set in an all-too-possible near future where church and state clash head on for control of civilization.
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…]