Excerpt for I Am the Storm by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

I Am the Storm

Book III

The Adventures of J.J. Stone


W.J. Cherf

Beware, First Soul,” The Devourer of Souls sneered,

A storm is coming.

A storm of my very creation!

You will not withstand it.”

The First Soul laughed with derision and shouted back,

You are mistaken vile slime,

I am the Storm.”

Since earliest antiquity CMES—Consilium magorum et sagarum, The Council of Magicians and Witches, held sway over the paranormal communities of the earth. Their self-centered agenda of power and dominion, and blatant use of dark magic, chafed those allied to them and not.

For almost as long TIIIS—The International Integrated Interface Society, while vexed by CMES’ oppression, never found itself in a position to challenge it. That all changed when J.J. Stone, the carrier of The First Soul of Creation, became their new Lictor of Magic and champion for good.

I Am the Storm is the final installment of The Adventures of J.J. Stone. In it, Stone, now a well-seasoned soldier-magician and defender against evil, overcomes several challenges and, in the end, vanquishes CMES. Now so cowed, an uneasy peace settles upon the paranormal world.

Table of Contents


A GPS Adventure Book


Chapter 1: The Raid of Late 2010

Chapter 2: Post-Op Assessment

Chapter 3: The Thirty-First Floor

Chapter 4: Grand Opening

Chapter 5: The Oracle’s Overture

Chapter 6: The New Chapel

Chapter 7: Translocation 101

Chapter 8: R.I.P. Mr. Good

Chapter 9: Summer Course in Spell Casting

Chapter 10: The Crypt

Chapter 11: The Portent

Chapter 12: Paul Kiel

Chapter 13: The Barbecue Palace

Chapter 14: How to Address a Blight

Chapter 15: Secret Plans & Hidden Crimes

Chapter 16: Remoras

Chapter 17: Deep Cover

Chapter 18: Gainsworthy

Chapter 19: The Job

Chapter 20: Engaging Tigers

Chapter 21: The Tour

Chapter 22: The Debrief

Chapter 23: A Virgin Oracle’s Ire

Chapter 24: Interrupted Nuptials

Chapter 25: Banshee Piss

Chapter 26: Gearing Up

Chapter 27: A Devious Plan

Chapter 28: Vitrification

Chapter 29: A Gutted Liability

Chapter 30: General Mobilization

Chapter 31: First Blood

Chapter 32: The Challenge

Chapter 33: Pre-Game Prep

Chapter 34: Farce in the Desert

Chapter 35: An Unexpected Outcome

Chapter 36: A Prize Find

Chapter 37: Payback Is a Bitch

Chapter 38: High Fives All Around

Chapter 39: Recuperation

Chapter 40: West Side Renovation

Chapter 41: Irony

Chapter 42: European Rampage

Chapter 43: Surprise Visit

Chapter 44: The Trojan Horse

Chapter 45: Peace

About the Author

Also by W.J. Cherf

Copyright © 2017 William Joseph Cherf

A Smashwords Edition


Dear Sweet Sue.

This is the last of my madness.

But, as always, this one is for you.

A GPS Adventure Book

How many times did you wish you could go where the story took place? That mummy’s tomb? That Caribbean pirate ship? Normandy Beach or the Alamo?

For Harry Potter, there is Platform 9¾ at King’s Cross Station, the Reptile House at the London Zoo, Leadenhall Market, and the Tower Bridge. Universal has an entire Wizarding World devoted to the famous J.K. Rowling series.

But did you ever read a book that told you where to go? To actually see what inspired the writer? Or where the action took place?

Well, now you can. Sleuth out any of the following GPS coordinates of J.J. Stone’s first adventure. Be sure to have a USB adaptor handy that is appropriate for your device.

Good hunting!

1: GPS: Lat: 47°29’ 14.27” N. Long: 19°03’ 10.03” E.

2: GPS: Lat: 52° 30’ 37.16” N. Long: 13° 25’ 10.03” E.

3: GPS: Lat: 41° 23’ 50.87” N. Long: 2° 11’ 56.58” E.

4: GPS: Lat: 48° 51’ 04.60” N. Long: 2° 17’ 34.14” E.

5: GPS: Lat: 39° 37’ 01.34” N. Long: 104° 47’ 54.97” W.

6: GPS: Lat: 41° 48’ 36.70” N. Long: 88° 09’ 15.44” W.

7: GPS: Lat: 40° 45’ 36.88 N. Long: 73° 58’ 33.87” W.

8: GPS: Lat: 40° 43’ 09.22” N. Long: 73° 59’ 56.08” W.


What may seem to us as irreconcilable, the old ones took as complementary, and thus as confirmation of the manifold powers of the gods. Although ancient logic is not ours, it has its own consistency and integrity. Consequently, one must leave behind the world of rational and scientific causality in order to gain entrance to the world of magic.

The Knot of Eternity. A Commentary. T. Good. (Old Oaks Academy Press, 1963), 1.

Let me be clear, I am fully human.

Many of my opponents … not so much.

I’m the latest in a long line that has held the righteous title of Lictor of Magic. That makes me an actual demon slaying exorcist. The International Integrated Interface Society trained me for this gig and I have become … proficient. I still have a long way to go, in my mind, a long, long way.

From demon-possessed politicians to hellish fiends conjured by despicable practitioners, I have dispatched them all. Fortunately, these things are easily identified by their horrific auras, which are dark, black, and in the most hard-core cases, wriggle and squirm about like slimy obsidian eels.

I have a lot of work ahead of me. How much? At last count about eight hundred years’ worth of demons to hack through, ever since they began to illicitly seep into the mortal realm.

That leak was mended a year or so back. In truth, the soul I carry, the First Soul of Creation, actually performed all the fancy stitching, I just got us to the right place, at the right time. Now it’s up to us to put things back into balance once again. As I said, about eight hundred years’ worth of demons need slaying.

That’s lots of practice.

* * *

About two weeks earlier, the ever-venerable Mr. Henry and I sat under a weathered pine overhang at a scenic upland gas stop. Shaded from a cloudless New Mexican sun, we were frankly parched and hungry after our hike. Several guzzled beers later, we wolfed down some potato chips and a couple of god-awful microwaved hot dogs.

Then, in a burping, beery moment, the aged white haired man looked me in the eye and declared, “You’ve evolved. You’re now J.J. 2.0.”

Mr. Henry’s words launched me back several hours, to an obscure cave opening blocked with spider webbing. A swipe from a handy stick and we entered its split-rock opening, stepping over a tiny stream that dribbled out, mercury-like, into the sunshine.

Dark, quiet, and smelling vaguely moldy, we shined our flashlights within this narrow passage, skimming our beams over its towering walls. It then opened up into a chamber that swallowed our beams. Our shoes crunched on a dry, sandy floor.

“Well, J.J.,” Mr. Henry said, “we’re here. Can you feel it?” His voice echoed.

“Feel what?”

“A faint thrum … almost a harmonic that hits your inner ear.”

I concentrated. “Yeah. It sounds like a river flowing near us, in the rock, just beyond our reach.”

I reached out and touched the gently vibrating side wall. And that’s all she wrote, until I came to, on the floor, with Mr. Henry kneeling over me with a worried look on his face.

“J.J! J.J! Are you all right?”

“What happened?” I asked, dazed and confused. I won’t sugar-coat it, something had leveled me. I tasted copper in my mouth. I must have bitten my tongue.

Mr. Henry, clearly relieved at my return, said, “You’ve been out for a full minute. Boy, you gave me a fright. I even had to catch you before you cold-cocked yourself good on the floor.”

“I reached out to feel that wall. Never have felt anything like it before. It knocked me for a loop.”

“Oh,” the Fourth-Class Adept said laconically, as he hovered the palm of his hand over where I had pointed.

“That’s a powerful hot spot, got to be a side branch of the Silver Nile.”

I attempted to get up.

“J.J., stop. Take a good inventory. Are you okay?”

“I think so. But give me a hand. I don’t want to touch any more walls.”

Once up, I felt light-headed, but everything else seemed to work just fine.

“Jesus, Mr. Henry, you’re glowing. Your aura is really amped up.”

Looking down at his hands, then at me, Mr. Henry corrected. “No, it’s not me, it’s you. Your usual aura has become sparkly somehow. I think you’ve been charged up. Now, as a test, try to read my mind.”

I did, as easily as if I were looking into a beer cooler, and said so.

Well, now, that’s mighty interesting. I indeed had a frosty beer in mind, but I had my blocks on full. How hard did you try?”

“I didn’t. I just did it. This is really freaking me out. What else did the Silver Nile do to me?”

“There’s no telling, son. But just for safety, let’s get out of this god-forsaken cave. But take it slow.”

“By the way, Mr. Henry, where’s your flashlight?”

“I must have dropped it somewhere.”

“I can see you clear as day. Now let me find the flashlight. It’s got to be around here somewhere near. I can feel it.”

* * *

That’s why Mr. Henry called me, J.J 2.0. I had accidentally tapped into the ley line of the American Southwest—the Silver Nile—and received a dose of its psychic energy. That alone explained why I conked out, and my amplified physical and paranormal senses.

What do I mean? Consider this. I was born with an Innate Paranormal Ability Rating of ten. The scale doesn’t go any higher. Sixth Class Adepts, the highest known by my society, typically are rated at five to six on the IPAR scale.

On top of that, my Soul Numeral was one, meaning, I carried the First Soul of Creation. So right out of the block, I grew up as a hyper-sensitive paranormal who routinely perceived and interpreted the auras of living creatures.

To be completely honest, I’m not sure what the Silver Nile did to me. Just that afterward, I found my senses and abilities highly enhanced.

Since that experience, I have noticed that auras appeared brighter, more detailed, even rippled with signs of strength or exhaustion. My sixth sense sharpened to a preternatural level where my intuition became so sure that reality sometimes got fuzzy; as in “did that happen yet?” My motor reflexes, much augmented, were altered to a cheetah-like twitch. My ability to exorcize a demon from an unfortunate mortal, by touch alone, came naturally. It was like I had become their Kryptonite.

Once again, I found myself in uncertain territory at the worst possible time. Unsure of myself and my newly augmented abilities, I rode my brand new bike like it had training wheels. Meanwhile, I was on the run—staying two steps ahead of an evil international paranormal organization bent on putting me in the ground.

Truth be told, I had earned the rapt attention of the Consilium magorum et sagarum. Yes, I single-handedly eliminated one of their hit squads in the Santa Fe National Forest. Yes, I ruined their North American headquarters in Manhattan. And yes, I assassinated their regional director and stole his much-coveted Book of Spells.

By all counts, I admit these deeds made me a high-priority target. Fortunately, they didn’t know I had assassinated their international chairman as well—a man whose own blood-sworn oracle wanted removed. As they say, “he was not greatly loved.”

On the other hand, and in my defense, never forget that since my birth, CMES had targeted me for destruction several times. Why you might ask? Chiefly because I carried the First Soul. Add to that, each and every one of my actions against CMES I undertook in response to one of their horrible atrocities—like infant human sacrifice, crucifixion, and assassination.

Seldom had the biblical adage, “an eye for an eye,” been more rigorously applied. Usually, the paranormal community smoothed over such injuries with the more peaceful concept of Wehrgeld, “man-money.” Yes, this tit-for-tat feud between my society and CMES had spiraled into a low-grade paranormal war between good and evil.

When I first signed up to be the muscle for the paranormal “good guys,” TIIIS, little did I know how rapidly I would get such a long rap sheet. So who were these good guys I work for? Think of them as Nature’s own counter balance that represented good versus evil, light versus darkness, freedom versus oppression. Without question, TIIIS was an odd anagram for an obscure paranormal society made up of sensitives, telepaths, telekinetic athletes, and outright gifted white witches and wizards. Were they perfect? Hardly.

Before I showed up, TIIIS’ external policy had been that of a box turtle—passive, and defensive, with precious little desire for anything offensive or retaliatory in nature. CMES would dish it out, and TIIIS was content to absorb it and survive.

However, when I became their Lictor of Magic—their enforcer of external policy—that all changed. Since I was a decorated U.S. Marine veteran and non-com officer, I knew what a battlefield smelled like. Crucially, I had killed—many times. TIIIS’ then president recognized the opportunity and turned me loose.

In spite of TIIIS’ many odd turns of tradition and policy, I remained a man of moral conscience, who stood apart and jealously held to my own true nature. I could say no, and often did. But throughout all the mayhem I was never truly alone, for I had an ally, the First Soul itself. This spiritual companion I conversed with quite often.

Given my role in shaping TIIIS’ external policy, President Silver Moon directed me to lay low and off the grid. I wasn’t really all that surprised. I had been busy giving CMES fits. At the same time, I was on call on a twenty-four/seven basis. Which sorta puts a crimp in your social life, though management didn’t see it that way.

Then things got really interesting.

Chapter 1

The Raid of Late 2010

A choking gray smoke tried to fill my lungs, but the respirators in my urban combat suit’s facemask held it at bay. Instead, I tasted my own recycled bad breath of pizza, garlic, and onions. I licked lips covered with nervous sweat. My mask’s goggles, in one sense, protected my eyes from all the soot in the air, but not from what they beheld—the grotesque human carnage.

A portion of the TIIIS campus at Old Oaks Academy, nestled in a southwestern Pennsylvania forest, had been transformed into a modern battlefield. The blackened limestone remains of the campus’ once graceful gothic chapel amounted to one intact flying buttress and an adjacent wall fragment. The burned near-dead, looking like darkened and broken twigs, wailed for release, while the truly dead had been reduced to ash during the initial, surprise attack.

It was Christmas Eve and a fairytale-like snowfall had made it perfect and serene. The remaining holiday population, students and staff alike, had filed into the chapel’s spacious confines for Midnight Mass, about one hundred in all. In hindsight, it made for an-all-too-easy target, so very ripe for harvesting. It was payback for our ruination of their Manhattan headquarters.

* * *

The displays of Marauder One’s cockpit bathed its pilots’ helmets and goggled faces in red, making them look more like blood-thirsty praying mantises than men.

“Marauder One to flight. Engage IR and acquire target,” the lead pilot transmitted to his three comrades, who, one by one, promptly acknowledged.

Meanwhile, his copilot and weapons officer pressed his face into the soft foam padding of his IR camera’s targeting sight.

“Target acquired,” he confirmed into his stalk mike as his thumb caressed the fire button’s stub in anticipation. The sight was amazing. From this range and altitude he could make out row upon row of thermal blobs through the tall, spear-shaped stained glass windows. Three individuals stood at one end of the structure before the flickering pinpoints of six altar candles.

“Fire on my mark … FIRE!” the lead pilot ordered.

As one, four weapons officers pressed their fire buttons. The result was a something right out of the Fourth of July, but instead of going up, luminous trails arched down from the horizontal. All met at the gracefully built stone structure. And it was no more.

The weapon’s officer of Marauder One, upon firing his rockets, whispered, “Trick or Treat, motherfuckers.”

The first volley of eight Hellfire missiles simultaneously struck, ignited, and crumpled the four sides of the chapel, illuminating the surrounding grounds in a ghastly scarlet glare.


The second volley intersected and pulverized the collapsing roof before it had a chance to hit the ground.


The rockets of the last salvo flew right through the leveled structure, now engulfed in flame and smoke, impacting in a crisscross pattern the surrounding terrain. Many exploded leaving dirty scars in the white terrain, some did not. Instead, they simply burrowed into the earth or skipped across the snow-covered surface. Finally coming to rest, they transformed into dangerous liabilities for the bomb disposal units.

“Cease fire. Prepare to deploy.”

* * *

I saw them as they swooped in silently like owls in the night. Their heavily muffled engines and broad rotor blades made such stealth possible. After their rocket attack upon the chapel, they dared to land, full with bold intent, to mop up and plunder.

That’s when I got into the act, for I had been late to that doomed midnight service. I had been on the phone with mom and dad several time zones away. That was when I first heard the unmistakable sounds of full scale combat, something that I hadn’t experienced since my Marine days in Iraq. I got geared up and ran out of my dorm.

Moving about in my one piece UCS, its light-bending fabric making me an indistinguishable wraith, I hid behind the heavy snowfall and smoke. Methodically, I went about my grim task of hunting down and slaughtering their assault teams. My ceramic Bone Sword quickly claimed forty-three. These losses were quickly noted by their squad leaders as unit recall whistles began blowing all around me, echoing oddly against the curtains of snow.

Their departure, too, I would disrupt. They would not escape this horror they’d brought on.

I gutted all in the first helicopter as I ran up its lowered cargo ramp, silently claiming anyone in my path, transforming its hold into a splattered butchery. Its pilots, tucked away within their cramped and heavily armored confines, I dispatched with my 9mm—two rounds for each.

The second transport I caught just as it spooled up for takeoff. For whatever reason, its copilot had his side curtain ajar. Through that convenient opening I slam-dunked a thermite grenade, which I had liberated from a dead soldier. The lumbering machine, its cockpit transformed into an inferno, immediately augured into the ground, flipping the massive twin-rotor Chinook onto its back. Its rotor blades surreally wind-milling into a once manicured lawn, slewing out ragged clumps of shrapnel-like sod.

I sprinted away, sending danger. Moments later, an aviation-fuel-fireball engulfed the stricken airframe and plumed skyward, lighting up the scene with stark, hellish shadows. In the process, I saw yet another transport on the ground.

I made for it without a thought as to how to cripple it. All I knew was it was dead meat.

* * *

The pilot of Marauder Two overheard the terrified chatter of the ground troops and their squad leaders as something unseen attacked them left and right. No one had expected a hot landing zone. Wisely, Marauder One signaled for their immediate recall, but suddenly went off the air in mid-sentence.

Marauder Two’s copilot frantically asked, “How long will we wait?”

His seasoned pilot answered tersely, “Two mikes. Those grunts deserve that, at the very least.”

“Two minutes! That’s an eternity on a hot LZ!”

Almost as an exclamation point to the copilot’s concerns, a helicopter blew up in a fiery plume.

“Holy shit! Get us out of here!” the copilot begged.

“Steady, Freeman. I see a group of stragglers boarding in my mirror. Do something useful. Man the chain gun. Give them some cover fire.”

KRUMMP! The massive report of a second transport blowing up rolled over them. The shockwave shook Marauder Two’s airframe as if it were a toy.

The pilot checked his mirrors and seeing a partially filled cargo hold, made a hard decision, “Things are heating up fast. Time to fly.” With a heavy sigh of resignation he pulled back on his stick and lifted off.

“Jesus, Peters,” Freeman said while craning his head around, “there must be twenty guys we left back there. They’re waving at us to come back and pick them up!”

“They’re all dead men,” Peters said. “Just watch.”

As they gained altitude, the copilot saw the stragglers were now falling like puppets without strings.

There’s something out there mowing them down.

BRRRRRRRRR! Freeman stitched the earth with the chain gun in frustration while hoping to hit something he couldn’t see.

“How did you know?” the copilot gasped wide-eyed.

“Someone, or something, shut down three of our transports. I wasn’t eager to join them.”

* * *

Eighty-three dead. Twenty-seven injured.

That was the latest casualty report on the TIIIS personnel. Still full of blood-lust, I walked about in a daze, frisking my kills for any intel I could find, anything that would answer the questions of “who,” or “where from.”

I counted them, all the time wishing for more, like those poor bastards left behind by the last helicopter.

Among them I found no goons—half-human, half-demon surrogates. No. All were fully human. That fact alone shook me to the bone.

Examining closely a corpse while down on one knee, I thought, who in their right mind would willingly go to into battle on Christmas Eve? Much less fire volley after volley of Hellfire missiles into a packed chapel?

You already know the answer to that question, Soul Carrier, the First Soul commented, my spiritual partner-in-crime since birth.

Yeah. You’re right. It’s just hard to figure.

Not at all, Soul Carrier. We are dealing with evil, pure and simple, and it comes in all guises. They all knew what they were doing and getting into.

That clinical observation caused me to pause. But this fragile moment of introspection was broken by the voice of President Betsy Silver Moon, which instantly brought me back to the here and now.

“Lictor of Magic. Stand down.” She crisply ordered.

In response, I stood up, erect and at attention, with my Bone Sword in hand, and stared back at the feisty and diminutive Native American. I marveled at her command presence. In my eyes she stood ten feet tall in that dark trench coat.

“Yes, ma’am.” I replied hoarsely as I sheathed my sword across my back.

“Lictor of Magic, remove your facemask so I can better see you. That’s better, but you still look like hell. Do you have anything to report?”

“Yes, ma’am. All were humans. None had any ID or personal papers; that makes them pros. Their nationality appears mixed. My best guess, and you will not like this, is predominately Eastern European, maybe Chechen. Their weapons and ammo are all Eastern European knock-offs. Totally untraceable. I think their thermite grenades are of Chinese manufacture.”

The president paused a moment while she digested my intel. Her face took on a look of resignation, or, was it confirmation?

“Mr. Stone, do you even know what time it is?”

“No, ma’am.”

“It’s ten-thirty in the morning. How long have you been on duty?”

“Not sure, ma’am. Probably, maybe, nine, ten hours.”

“Then hit the showers, eat, and get some rack time, soldier. You got that?”

“Yes, ma’am. Is Old Main even open?”

“Yes, it is. Go there. Now.” She pointed. “They’re expecting you.”

* * *

Silver Moon could not believe her eyes. Before her stood this sword-wielding, blood splattered giant. His gore-covered UCS tried to blend into its blindingly bright white surroundings, but failed miserably, constantly shifting its coloration this way and that.

Stone, her society’s Lictor of Magic, had almost single-handedly saved the rest of the campus. What he hadn’t killed, the campus security unit did. This she knew because she too had counted the enemy dead. Stone’s telltales had been the easiest to spot—decapitations, torso guttings, missing limbs, atrocious wounds. By her own count, Stone had claimed close to eighty CMES troopers and, purportedly, three helicopter transports. Apparently, the fourth just managed to escape him. Stone, she decided there and then, was a one-man wrecking crew. But, really, she already knew that. What he had done to four CMES squads in the Santa Fe National Forest was proof enough.

She also knew for a fact that this bold attack on the Academy, CMES’ second such foray, was only the latest escalation in their ongoing war. Soon, there would be an outcry for revenge. Stone would surely want a piece of that action, and the war would grind on and ratchet up in an ever-rising tempo of destruction and mayhem.

I will have to tamp down the initial primal urge for vengeance. Our response must be measured, in kind, and appropriate. Otherwise, we will descend to their level of depravity.

Then an icy chill ran up her spine.

But Betsy, where will that response ultimately lead?

Taking a deep breath to calm herself, the TIIIS president caught the sweetness of death all around her, mixed in with the truly rank and putrid. She scanned her surroundings and noted for the first time the flattened and melting snow, the many patches of rusty, coagulated red where her colleagues and friends once lay. The black uniformed bodies of the CMES assault troops that wallowed in their own private pools. Towering over these fragile organic remains sat one inert helicopter transport and the strewn and twisted wreckage of two others that littered a once bucolic campus.

Finally, Silver Moon’s eyes settled upon the blackened chapel itself. In the bright sunshine its lone buttress looked like a charred brontosaurus rib leaning up against a slivered wall fragment.

“Excuse me, Madam President.”

Startled by his sudden appearance, Silver Moon turned to her assistant, Mr. Malcolm Porter.

“What do you propose we do with the remains of the CMES personnel? Strip their weaponry and send it all to the armory. Have a mass grave dug, at the edge of the tree line over there,” she indicated with her chin, “and burn them. Burn them all.”

This directive earned a frown from the impeccably dressed man.

Silver Moon saw his disapproval. With her hands on hips, she quietly said, “Mr. Porter. Would you prefer I FedEx them all to a certain Rome address?”

“Oh no, Madam President.”

“Good. Now, have our people been properly attended to?”

“Oh yes, Madam President. All the wounded are in the infirmary. Many of the dead have been claimed by their next of kin, but nineteen do not have … ah … a place to go.”

After a moment of thought, Silver Moon glanced back over at the chapel and smiled for the first time that morning. “The foundation of our ruined chapel will become their cenotaph. Raise nineteen pavement stones, and prepare each for burial. A campus-wide funeral service will take place in three days. Thereafter, I want their names properly inscribed.”

“Very good, Madam President. But what of the rest of the … debris?”

“After the funeral, I want all the unexploded ordinance cleared, the intact helicopter moved to our hanger, and this campus restored to its pristine condition, with one exception.” She pointed, “That chapel is not to be restored in any manner. It is to remain as a monument and reminder to all.”

* * *

I never liked funerals. I had participated in far too many of them in Iraq. But at least those memorials had been relatively brief, intensely emotional remembrances of one to eight heroic soldiers at a time—not seventy-three civilians.

I stood at attention dressed in my black suit throughout the reading of the names. Most I did not know. I probably would have recognized their faces, but I failed miserably at putting a name to a face.

But not all.

I lost Mr. Theodore Good, my favorite teacher of demonology, colleague in ancient languages, and source of good advice. My last memory of him was at the Pressure Cooker. He had been much relieved after I had destroyed an especially cunning demon, which he had accidentally conjured while translating an obscure text.

I lost also Mr. Gregory Loomis, the society’s master armorer, who constructed my UCS, crafted my Bone Sword, and initiated me into the way of the sword. I will sorely miss his thick Scottish brogue, dry humor, quick turn of phrase, and his goading at the pell.

On the other hand, a handful was counted among the living. They had sustained injuries, several severely, due to the assault.

Among them was Mr. Henri Dexter, who without question is the society’s master of lethal offensive and defensive magic. Mr. Dexter, while seated within the Chapel, had sensed the attack at the last moment. Spreading his arms out wide, he had saved himself and two others within a protective bubble of magic. In the process, he endured unspeakable burns to his back. While he will recover, many skin grafts will be necessary.

My young friend with the IT and Security Department, Mr. Joshua Remington, sustained multiple gunshot wounds, yet soldiered on in the defense of the Academy, its students, and staff. Many of his department, however, had not been so lucky. He’s young. He’ll mend.

My mind wandered and my eyes filled with tears of thanksgiving. Mr. Henry and Peter Glass had not been on campus during the raid. Neither had President Silver Moon and countless others. Best of all, my Mel was back in San Francisco, safe and sound.

It was then I heard President Silver Moon speaking words meant to heal and soothe. But for me, they were a clarion call to action.

* * *

Following what came to be known as the Christmas Eve Massacre, TIIIS resources began appearing at the Academy to take up the slack. One of those many was none other than Mr. Henry, whose presence I truly appreciated.

“Bloody business this,” he whispered into my chest upon greeting one another.

Looking me in the eye past his bushy white eyebrows, he asked, “How bad was it?”

“A nasty night fight. Very ancient in character. Very close, personal. What I always imaged the last engagement at the Battle of Thermopylae might have been like.”


A simple head nod.

“Used your sword?”

Another nod.

“Damn. I wish I’d been there. Maybe I could’ve saved Good. Then again, maybe not.”

He changed the subject.

“How’s that Professor Makris, J.J.?”

A smile must have creased my face, because his eyes twinkled.

“She’s just wonderful, Mr. Henry.”

“Does she know what’s she’s getting into?”

“Oh, yeah. Mel has even committed to spending the summer here for offensive and defensive training in lethal magic.”

“You don’t say … that sounds like she’s serious. But are you?”

“Yes, sir. I figure we’ll make a formidable pair.”

“I’ll just bet.”

* * *

Mel. My God, where do I begin? Professor Melaina Makris, my Mel, has more facets to her than a fancy cut Belgium diamond.

Let me start with the basics: born an Alexandrian Egyptian in 1970, Coptic Christian, fluent in Arabic, French, and English, the offspring of two powerful sensitives, educated at Oxford and the University of Chicago, now a full professor at Berkeley in their Ancient Near Eastern Languages Department.

Exotic, if not stunning in appearance, Melaina represented a mix of Egyptian and Greek. Her honeyed visage possessed a narrow long nose, high cheekbones, and full lips. Her shiny jet-black hair hid her large-lobbed ears and framed her deep brown, almond-shaped eyes, which were chock full of glinting intelligence. Lean and willowy of build, she stood five foot nine with delicate hands notable for their long, artistic, almost spidery fingers.

She was one of the white witches in attendance at my first academic presentation in San Francisco. Because of that paper, she later sought me out at the University of Pennsylvania, where my academic advisor, Peter Glass, introduced us. That “chance” meeting led to lunch, which triggered an intriguing and surprisingly frank shop talk discussion, after which I left the Greasy Onion with my head in a spin. She had pursued her academic career early in life, while I had enlisted in the U.S. Marines. Yet, here we were, discussing magic from two very different points of view. As the carrier of the First Soul, I was practically born to it, while she only realized her potential after finding and translating her family’s book of spells.

Frankly, I didn’t think much about the social aspects of that lunch. She was an older full professor at a big school and I was an awed, focused, heads-down studying undergrad. But the academic upside was formidable, because Peter Glass headed up a special research group dedicated to magic in the ancient Near East. Professor Makris was a part of that inner group. I was studying and translating demonic Sumerian tablets at PU. So, I figured that if I played my cards right I too might become a member of this select group.

That all changed, however, when Professor Makris presented me with a protective amulet to wear. Not thinking much of the little mummiform object on a leather thong, I considered the present a good luck charm and nothing more. Stupid me.

During a serious paranormal standoff between the evil Charles Smithers and his twin brother, the former president of TIIIS, Peter Smithers, I got roughed up quite a bit. Here’s the kicker—so did Professor Makris who had been wearing the amulet’s identical twin. The black eye and bruises that I got were shared with her. The amulet’s reciprocal nature I hadn’t known about.

Apparently, when Professor Makris experienced these injuries, she then understood why the construction of this particular amulet had been included in her family’s spell book. It was meant to be worn by family members. In essence, the amulets so crafted, shared and, therefore, halved the effect of any magic or physical harm that may befall its wearers. It was only later that she rather sheepishly admitted what had happened, but only after sharing a gunshot wound to her upper arm. As a result, the good professor eventually took off her amulet to prevent this sort of reciprocity from occurring again.

After I graduated from PU and began in earnest my duties as TIIIS’ Lictor of Magic, my interest in Professor Makris again shifted. What held me back was a well-grounded fear that someone would harm her for just being my friend. That had already been tried twice with my parents. But the First Soul’s counsel slowly turned this reluctant social dinosaur, and I began to seriously accept the idea that Mel understood the dangers involved.

What nearly broke it for me was Mel’s surprise visitation one evening as an astral projection and the concern about me that she shared. I almost balked, but my spiritual companion, the First Soul, did point out that she, once again, had reached out to me and what on earth was I waiting for.

But it was Mel’s invitation to give a paper on a panel devoted to ancient Near Eastern magic at the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute, finally kicked down the door. Even then, I surrendered to her charms only on the condition that she must take some offensive and defensive magical courses at the Old Oaks Academy. To this she agreed.

At that point, was I whipped? Yes, I can now admit it freely. Besides, when you confide with your parents that you have met a wonderful lady, well, that about says it all.

Chapter 2

Post-Op Assessment

Sitting in his temporary office off of Times Square, a modest hotel room on the thirty-first floor, William DeSalvo, the new assistant regional director of CMES North America, heard his laptop ping at 8:16 in the morning. Word finally arrived from his region’s head of Communications and Security—the post-action report on the assault of the TIIIS academy in Pennsylvania.

Anxiously, DeSalvo read its terse contents, reached over, and gulped down his coffee, dregs and all. He then threw the empty mug viciously against the opposite wall, making yet another impression in the wallboard, all within a tight grouping. Several deep breaths helped, but it didn’t calm the Roman. That the coffee mug’s handle now impaled the wall somehow did.

STONE! That son-of-a-bitch did it again!

DeSalvo paused and looked away from his laptop’s screen in disbelief.

How do you lose so many on a surprise attack?

How is that possible?

Do I have a security leak?

His mind reeled as he juggled the possibilities, searching for an explanation for this disastrous failure. He masochistically reread what had so vexed him.

The initial target was neutralized with an estimated kill rate of one hundred percent. Our tactical mistake was landing. Someone, or something, attacked our ground troops and helicopters. The return of Marauder Two, which took off early, leaving behind some assets, prevented the operation from becoming a complete loss.

Mio Dio.

DeSalvo rubbed at his clean-shaven chin in thought. Only one person could have done this—Stone. He did something like this before in the mountains of New Mexico. The oracle Valeria Costa specifically warned me about him.

Far more to the point, DeSalvo realized that his first foray against TIIIS came at a dear cost. Indeed, he had injured the enemy. TIIIS personnel had fallen. But at this rate, how far would the blood-letting go? Until both sides are bled dry?

DeSalvo sat back and steepled his fingers in thought. His brow wrinkled under curly hair that was going gray by the minute. The key to TIIIS’ new-found bellicosity and effectiveness centers on Stone. How do I get to Stone?

He punched several buttons on his desk phone.

“Mr. Kiel. I need you immediately.” Hanging up, I need to speak again with Signora Costa as well.

Several moments later, DeSalvo heard a knock on his hotel room’s door.


A fit man in his fifties did so while carefully avoiding the shattered remains of a coffee mug on the carpet.

“Sit,” the Roman pointed to the only chair. The man in the dark suit and tie did.

“Give me your assessment of Jonathan Joseph Stone’s weaknesses.”

After a few moments, the ex-government spook and operations officer thoughtfully began. “Devout Christian and Southern Baptist. Moral to a fault. An idealist. Unmarried. He has no known social interests. His parents are still alive, but are nowhere to be found; TIIIS has seen to that. In short, he’s got none.”

“How can a moral idealist be so brutally effective on the battlefield?”

“He was a U.S. Marine.” Kiel gestured with open hands. “Marine doctrine ingrains certain bloodthirsty qualities, while managing to preserve the conscience. The use of derogative names de-humanizes the enemy, which makes them easier to kill. In Stone’s case, demons and the demon-possessed are no-brainers. His religious upbringing sees to that. Since he can see auras, and understands what auras reveal about a full human, he can readily pass judgment on them with a clear conscience.”

“Mr. Kiel, your new priority is to find me a weakness.”

“Yes, sir.”

* * *

Several days later, DeSalvo flew to Italy, rented a bright red Guilia, and took a short drive into the Roman foothills. In a quaint family restaurant on a quiet side street in Tivoli, DeSalvo sat down with the most powerful oracle alive.

Signora Costa, what a pleasure it is to see you again,” DeSalvo murmured in his native Italian to the stunning middle-aged woman of ancient heritage and frightening ability.

DeSalvo, troubled, got right down to business.

Signora Costa, I come again seeking your wisdom about a matter that we have already discussed.”

“Ah, Signore DeSalvo. You must be referring to the l’umo potente, that American called Stone. What has he been up to lately?” She leaned forward against the white linen tablecloth with genuine interest. Her perfume scented the moment.

“He menaces our Gathering.”

“Oh, that. , that is true,” she said with a slight smile and nod. “Has he done something exceptional recently to heighten your undying hatred?”

“The loss of too many of our best troops.”

“Oh, so he has been busy,” she commented, again with that subtle smile, and followed with a sip of red wine. She twirled the hand-blown glass in the candlelight examining the legs of alcohol on the glass’s barrel. Finished, the oracle carefully placed the glass back down on the white linen.

“Well, signore, the last time we spoke I told you Stone would become something more if he ever came into contact with the ley line called the Silver Nile. Do you remember that?”


The waiter arrived with a linen-covered basket of freshly-baked bread and a plate pooled in olive oil generously sprinkled with herbs. After he left, she leaned in again, her perfume wafting.

“Well, he has. He’s now part of the most powerful ley line of the American Southwest. As a consequence, anything you tell me about the man, I will believe.”


The waiter returned to take their order.

“Richardo. Two daily specials, please.”

The waiter made a notation on his pad, silently nodded, and left.

The assistant regional director now leaned across the table and quietly said, “So, signora, how can I get to him, if I can’t kill him?”

Looking into her half full glass of red, the oracle cocked her head to one side. “Sadly, you can do very little, directly.” Her eyes flashed. “However, I can suggest several indirect possibilities.”

* * *

Not by chance, Tivoli was only some twenty miles from CMES’ central headquarters north of Rome. Per his agreement with Feng Bai, the newly appointed chairman of CMES, DeSalvo owed the man a progress report on Stone and what was being done about him. The assistant director wanted to tell his boss face-to-face not only the grim news of the disastrous raid, but also to offer a potential solution.

The Rome center consisted of a villa that stood atop a hillock of limestone and barren, lifeless sand. When seen from the air, its faded red tiled roof surrounded a parched gravel and terrazzo enclosure with deeply shadowed porticos. This desolate façade fronted a myriad of underground chambers that honeycombed the bedrock of this stoutly-defended outcrop.

Stark and forbidding, this was the home of CMES, with a membership that reverently referred to this hallowed ground as Romae matrem, “Mother Rome,” since its relocation there in 30 BC after the fall of Ptolemaic Egypt to Augustus’ legions.

DeSalvo met with Feng Bai within a newly renovated high-ceilinged chamber, an airy space which was once a grand dining room. Transformed to suit Feng Bai’s Hong Kong tastes, his office was a serene island of silk pastel carpeting centered on an inlaid wooden floor. A low desk and cushioned furniture made of fragrant teak woods completed it. Long removed were the ostentatiously gilded high baroque appointments from the previous administration. DeSalvo intimately knew all about this, for he had, as the former chairman’s assistant, been in charge of that administrative transition.

Still, upon entering the chairman’s office area, DeSalvo sensed a tension in the air he would have to somehow relieve. If he didn’t, he knew he would leave as a dead man.

Standing in his socks at the leading edge of the luxuriant carpeting, DeSalvo waited for the chairman’s acknowledgement before entering his space. He knew Feng Bai had heard his approach, but had continued on with his writing nonetheless. Finally, the man put down his pen, raised his bald head, and signaled the Italian to approach.

Still DeSalvo stood patiently, awaiting the invitation to sit. Feng Bai’s eyes softened ever so slightly at his guest’s careful deference, his appreciation of place, especially given the precarious nature of his situation. Feng Bai nodded toward a cushion. His subordinate sat.

After a few moments, a deep sigh came from the chairman.

Signore DeSalvo,” the chairman began in flawless high Italian, “my ears have heard some distressing news.”

Feng Bai, a kinesic empath and telepath, mastered languages with ease and enjoyed unnerving many by addressing them in their native tongue. Still, the man had his favorites—Cantonese, Mandarin, and Thai in the East, and Spanish and Italian in the West, based purely on their tonal qualities. The many Germanic and Slavic tongues he spoke as well, but he found their guttural sounds distasteful. No one knew what his preferences were on the many Arabic dialects, even though he could seamlessly speak them.

Ah, DeSalvo thought, I see that my superior in New York, El-Najjar, has taken the opportunity to sarcastically sing my praises.

“Chairman, I am burdened with far worse news.”

This caused the chairman’s eyebrows to raise, his round face to pale.


“Mr. Chairman, J.J. Stone, the TIIIS Lictor of Magic, has come into contact with a powerful North American ley line called the Silver Nile. The man has evolved, and my assault teams blundered directly into him. Prior to the raid, we did not know of this development.”

At this turn of events, the chairman sat back and slitted his eyes. “Tell me more.”

“Yesterday, I took the initiative and was informed of this information by Signora Valeria Costa, the former oracle of the Presto familigia. Just what Stone’s capabilities are, at this point, no one knows. Frankly, sir, I would counsel that we should henceforth expect the worst.”

Again, Feng Bai’s eyebrows rose, causing wrinkles to form high up his scalp.

“I am very familiar with Signora Costa’s flawless reputation and I commend you for consulting with her. But when you say, ‘expect the worst,’ what precisely do you mean?”

Signora Costa has called Stone an l’umo potente. While not a precise term, it is evocative of the man’s power and potential. Additionally, I discussed with the oracle a possible means of injuring him.”

“And …”

“She advised me to systematically and graphically remove all of his friends and relatives. She further suggested that such a course of action would eventually drive him mad with grief, perhaps even to suicide.”

Several moments passed as Feng Bai stared holes through DeSalvo’s head, who somehow remained resolute and cool.

Finally. “Is this not the same man who killed our security forces somewhere in the American West?”

, Mr. Chairman.”

“And Stone, now enhanced, has killed many more of our brethren?”

, Mr. Chairman.”

The chairman’s fingers began drumming rhythmically on his desk’s green leather writing pad.

“First, I find Signora Costa’s recommendations overly hopeful and ludicrously weak. If anything, if any harm befell Stone’s friends and family, I would fear the man’s vengeance long before his suicidal grief. Stone is a soldier, a warrior, a bannerman, first and foremost.”

“Second, is there any possibility that the man might become one of us?”

DeSalvo had never before entertained that audacious thought, and he even dared to say so.

“Every man has his price, Signore DeSalvo.” Feng Bai emphasized with a raised thick finger. “Find out Stone’s.

“Finally, Signore DeSalvo,” Feng Bai’s eyes hardened, “you are a cultured man. I have faith in you. Otherwise, you would be dead.”


The Thirty-First Floor

Times of high stress or grief motivate people. I experienced this all too often while in the military. So when an old acquaintance called me up, I wasn’t really all that surprised.

“Is that you, Mr. Stone?” a tentative male voice asked.

“Yes, it is.”

“Mr. Stone, this is Alex Grimes, we met a while back during a traffic stop on the New Jersey Turnpike. I was driving a bright yellow Ferrari Spider. Remember that?”

On the other end of the line was Gordi Meneer, a former CMES researcher and freelance news journalist, but now with a new identity—Alex Grimes.

“Oh, you bet I do.” I answered having finally put two and two together. “So how’s the Wild West working out for you, Mr. Grimes?”

“Just wonderful.” I could hear the crinkle of his smile in his voice.

“So what can I do for you, Mr. Grimes?”

In a conspiratorial tone, “Well, just yesterday, right out-of-the-blue, I was visiting the Georgia O’Keefe Museum in Santa Fe over on Johnson Street, when I ran into an old friend of mine. What are the odds? Well, she was bitching a blue streak about the poor morale in her finance department to the point she quit her job. She also told me where her former employer is located. It turns out that they’re all crammed in like sardines onto the thirty-first floor of a hotel overlooking Times Square. Needless to say, I figured that you would appreciate knowing that.”

“Indeed, I would.” Stone said juggling his smart phone against his right ear. “I have my pen ready. What’s the address?”

Later, after I had finished shooting the breeze with Grimes, I was back on the phone.

“May I speak with President Silver Moon?” I said to an unfamiliar male voice.

“And who’s this?”

“Sir, my name is J.J. Stone.”

“Sorry, Mr. Stone. I’m new at this post. One moment please.”

After a brief pause, a connection was made.

“What can I do for you, Mr. Stone?” President Silver Moon said in her crisp, business-like way.

“Madam President, I have acquired the address of the temporary CMES North American headquarters.”

“You don’t say.”

“Ma’am, what do you want me to do with this information?”

“I will leave that up to you, Lictor of Magic. Rely on your common sense and keep me in the loop.”

“Will do, Madam President.”

* * *

I needed to pull my team together who had, in the past, brimmed full of creative ideas. So I asked Peter Glass and Mr. Henry to join me at the Academy for the weekend. They agreed—eagerly I might add, because not being stupid, they had an idea of what might be on the agenda.

We gathered at the Acorn, the Academy’s pub in the basement of Old Main. Here, low ceilings, lower lighting, intimate nooks and crannies, wooden beams and woodwork long etched with names and loves, wonderful food, and even better beer all reigned supreme.

The wizened Fourth-Class Adept, Mr. Henry, as usual, brought his thirst. Smacking his lips following a long draught, he began the proceedings. “J.J., what’s got you all hot and bothered now?” he stated with a dirty grin dripping with conspiratorial anticipation.

“Do you remember a certain yellow Ferrari that we pulled over on the Jersey Turnpike?”

“How couldn’t I? That thing was an automotive wet dream.”

“Well, I got a call yesterday from its owner, Mr. Meneer, who is now Mr. Grimes courtesy of our security department, and he passed along the location of the temporary CMES North American headquarters in Manhattan.”

“You don’t say,” Mr. Henry said with another big grin.

“And gentlemen, President Silver Moon has given me a green light to use that information as I please. Hence today’s topic. We did a damn good job of planning and executing the removal of Presto. Now, what should we do about their temporary digs?”

Peter Glass adjusted his new wire-rimmed glasses and frowned over his pint. “Just how far do you want to go with this, J.J.? Do you intend a biblical one-for-one exchange? Exact direct retribution for the Christmas Eve Massacre?”

“Our president requested that I use my common sense in planning this op, which I intend to do. But no, Peter, my thought is not to go ape, but instead to simply unnerve CMES with a feat of sheer audacity.”

“What do you have in mind, J.J.?” Mr. Henry asked.

“Imagine for one moment how CMES would react if we again plundered their HQ like we did several months ago, but this time we abduct their new regional director. Once in our hands, we squeeze him dry of intel, and when we’re finished, we deposit him at the front door of the hotel we kidnapped him from. A quick in and out, with little or no bloodshed, but with a big message sent: You’re powerless to stop us.”

“I really like the minimal bloodshed angle,” Peter admitted. “What you describe sounds more like an elaborate prank. The more we make it look easy, the more it will hurt. Do we want to leave a calling card? Just to grind it in?”

“No, whatever we do has to be as sanitary as possible,” I said. “Let’s create some doubt and confusion within their operations and security personnel.”

“Dazed and confused, I really like that. Do I get to interrogate their new RD?” Mr. Henry wanted to know.

And before we knew it, we were off to the races, brain-storming and scheming. Our table fast became a forest of empty beer bottles.

“We’ll need some recon, J.J., to get a feel for the place, don’t you think?” Mr. Henry said rubbing his hands together and glancing over at Peter.

“My thoughts exactly. What do you say, Peter? Up for some good old fashioned astral projection recon?”

Peter smiled beneath his mop of salt and pepper curls. “I would love to.”

* * *

I personally experienced in Somalia and Iraq just how any planned action can fall apart, come undone, or go seriously sideways at the most inopportune moment. In fact, throughout military history, uncertainty had become so axiomatic that terms like SNAFU and FUBAR said it all.

My battlefield experience told me that magical confrontations had to behave the same way, since the paranormal, by definition, presented more variables, more unknowns. Once an aggressive undertaking was put into motion, the opportunity for those plans to unravel became extreme.

With these considerations in mind, our assault on the thirty-first floor began at six pm, on a Saturday, because my planning team wanted to keep civilian casualties to a minimum. But since preparations for the raid began the day before, CMES would have, at least potentially, more than enough opportunity to make things go terribly wrong.

Trouble nonetheless began, not with CMES, but rather with the hotel’s management, who could only provide us five of the eight rooms needed on the thirty-second floor. Our plan specified that these upstairs rooms were to be evenly spaced on the hotel’s square floor plan, two for each of its four sides. The actual distribution was decidedly lopsided leaving one side completely uncovered. Regardless, we went forward.

* * *

On the Friday before, Bill and Sue checked into the fancy hotel on Times Square. Posing as newlyweds, they were all giggles. But once they reached their passion-pit on the thirty-second floor, they flipped over the room’s bedding to reveal the carpeted floor surface beneath, complete with dust-bunnies. From her luggage wheelie, Sue handed out the safety goggles, removed a high-torque, low-speed power drill, and loaded up in its chuck a long, half-inch masonry bit.

Meanwhile, Bill busied himself with a magnetic rebar detection device the size of his palm. The gadget blinked a red light whenever it passed over a metallic object. After a few swipes, Bill tore off two pieces of blue masking tape and made an X on the carpeting.

“Here you go, Sue. Go slow and I’ll cover you.”

Slowly she began turning the drill bit into the fire resistant concrete slab that divided the two floors. Bill figured that it would take them about an hour before they reached their initial ten inch bore—one to two inches short of breakthrough.

During the drilling process, Bill removed a portable vacuum cleaner from his luggage wheelie. With it he vacuumed the floor in an attempt to cover any sound or vibration from Sue’s industry, and in the process, cleaned up any evidence of their handiwork and all those dust-bunnies.

A little over an hour later, and with their drill and vacuum all repacked, the team of Bill, Sue, and the three other TIIIS couples now sat back and waited for their appointed moment.

Unfortunately for the four couple-teams, the subtle rumble from one of their drills had been heard on the floor below. A quick call from the CMES Security Department to the hotel’s management confirmed that no construction-oriented work had been scheduled for the thirty-second floor.

As a consequence, the North American region’s armorer, Mitzi Randolph, posted a red flag warning, as the assistant regional director, Mr. William DeSalvo, was out-of-town. In his absence, the responsibility for their operational security temporarily fell to her. Now with their security cordon bow-string tight, no threat appeared. Hours dragged on and still nothing. After ten hours, Randolph eased the alert status, mindful of the strain, and much to everyone’s relief. The detected mystery rumble was all but forgotten.

Mitzi Randolph, nonetheless, remained worried because while the assistant regional director was overseas, she backed him up. Always had, always would. The two shared a bond that went way back. As for Randolph, she was a smallish, almost mousey woman of indeterminate age, with brown hair and eyes, a lean build, and about five-four. In essence, a face easily lost in a crowd, but a highly intelligent one.

Since Randolph was the region’s new armorer and DeSalvo’s long-recognized assistant, rumor said there had to be far more to Randolph than met the eye. For one thing, her oddly accented English grated on the nerves like fingernails on a blackboard. For another, she had a stiff, formal demeanor, which meant the armorer rarely smiled.

* * *

Bright and early on the day of the assault, a Saturday morning, four TIIIS agents posing as hotel HVAC engineers began their inspection of the ventilation systems for the thirty-first floor. These they accessed through a maze of narrow, walled passageways that serviced every room’s plumbing and electrical. Almost one fourth of the hotel’s footprint had been devoted to such service passages.

Standing before the HVAC schematic that had been posted on the back of the access passage’s door, the fingers of the four technicians traced and confirmed where they should go.

“Joey, this section is going to be a tough squeeze for you,” one quipped. “You gotta’ start laying off the pasta.”

With their inspection completed by noon, the four pseudo-HVAC engineers did what all such workers do, they went to lunch. Joey was predictably ravenous. When they returned, however, each member of the foursome carried a dark duffle bag and wheeled between them four large, high-pressure gas cylinders that looked like welding tanks. Once they got back into position within the access passages of the thirty-first floor, they too waited for their appointed time.

The welding tanks contained a sleeping gas called Penthrane. A volatile gas, when introduced into an environment, it readily vaporized. Pleasant smelling, Penthrane fit this assault’s non-lethal requirements and presented few medical risks.

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