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Authors: P. T. Deutermann

Cold Frame

BOOK: Cold Frame
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This book is dedicated to the operational-level men and women of all the agencies striving to sweep back the tide of global anti-American terrorism. They work long and hard, some in offices, others out alone in the dangerous weeds, both at home and abroad, and, in the main, they have succeeded in keeping us relatively safe, often despite Washington and all of its intricate and partisan political machinations. That problem is the genesis of the well-known bureaucratic greeting formula: Hello. We're from headquarters. We're here to help you. And, universally, in reply: Hello. We're
glad you're here …


The third-largest federal agency in the entire United States government, behind the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Defense, is the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). It has a $61
publicly disclosed budget, and subagencies that include the U.S. Coast Guard, Customs and Border Protection, the entire Secret Service, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). In 2013, it counted 240,000 full-time employees plus a slightly
number of contractors.

Today DHS is only
of eighty-five publicly acknowledged agencies of the federal government involved in America's War on Terror.



Whitestone Hall, Great Falls, Virginia, fall, three years ago

Hiram Walker pointed down at one scraggly-looking plant. “Now this little jewel, Mister Strang, discourages predation by blinding the animal temporarily the moment it takes the first few little nibbles.”

“How in the world does it do that?”

“Its leaves secrete a powerful toxin the instant the plant senses predatory pressure. The first bite is free. The second one causes an ocular migraine within seconds. The animal then experiences retinal flashes that it associates with a nocturnal predator eye-flash. It backs away immediately, which is when it discovers it can't see a thing. It usually freezes in place and often defecates in mortal fright.”

“So the plant stops the attack and gets some fertilizer in the bargain,” Strang said, peering closer at the plant. “Nasty-looking weed. What's it called?”

“We call it Sister Dark Surprise,” Hiram replied. “Its Latin name is unnecessarily complicated.”

“Is the damage permanent?”

Hiram Walker had been in full lecture mode as he walked carefully among randomly placed raised beds of what looked like tangled weeds. Carefully, because he was a full seven feet, three inches tall, and also because his joints, afflicted with Marfan syndrome, were increasingly unreliable, especially when he ventured out of the big white house up on the hill. He was wearing light, woolen trousers under what looked like a nineteenth-century frock coat, complete with a small white flower in his lapel.

Hiram was fifty-two years old but looked older, with an oversized head, thinning hair, a gaunt face, deep-set, almost hooded eyes, and very large hands. Because of the Marfan, he moved in a hesitant, jerky fashion, which inevitably reminded people of Dr. Frankenstein's outsized monster.

The manor house, known as Whitestone Hall in the Great Falls neighborhood, sat on ten acres of extremely valuable riverside property that was surrounded by a fourteen-foot-high, ivy-covered brick wall on all four sides, including along the river. The house was situated high enough that there was a river view from the back terraces. There were massive wrought-iron gates at the front entrance, and solid, almost medieval wooden gates on the river side that led to more terraces cascading down to the river itself, where there was a small boathouse. The ten acres were heavily wooded except for a wide avenue of descending walks and pools edged by formal gardens that ended down by those huge wooden gates. The front drive was packed yellowish gravel, but where one might have expected more formal gardens there seemed to be a complete jungle of plants of all descriptions spreading out to the front and side walls of the property, interspersed with trees and large, strange-looking shrubs. Not visible from the road was a rooftop greenhouse that spanned the entire width of the house on the back side, facing the river. Anyone driving by on Deepstep Creek Road could catch just a momentary glimpse of the house through wrought-iron gates, but otherwise, that imposing brick wall offered complete privacy.

Hiram was the only child of the man who had invented, and then, happily, patented, the compound that kept the oil in an automatic transmission from frothing under load. Hiram was thus now a very wealthy man. His father had built the house for him, meaning that every dimensional aspect of the house and all its furnishings had been designed for a man who was just over seven feet tall and more than a little shaky on his feet. He had seldom ever left since moving onto the property twenty-six years ago. Everything he needed or wanted could be brought to him, and had been since childhood, when he had begun to inspire people to back away when they first saw him.

“Not the first time,” Hiram said.

Strang smiled.

“The animal probably isn't amused,” Hiram said. “But after about ten minutes its vision returns. Sometimes it tries for another bite. Not a good idea.”


“Because Sister Dark Surprise is a rather short-tempered weed, Mister Strang. The first toxin is a precursor; if it's attacked again, a special bulb in its roots opens and pushes an alkaloid compound resembling the one in wormwood into all of its branches. A mouthful of that shuts the animal's autonomous nervous system down. It then pretty much drops dead.”

“Autonomous system meaning breathing, heartbeat, stuff like that?”

exactly like that,” Hiram said, patiently.

“Now, alkaloids—those are always bad, yes?”

“We botanists prefer to think of them as quick,” Hiram said.

“And it's the living plant that does all this, right? Not just, say, some of its dried leaves?”



Hiram chuckled. “Let's move on, shall we? I've lots more interesting plants to show you.”

They proceeded to the next cold frame. “Do Sister Dark Surprise's abilities occur in nature?” Strang asked as they were walking.

Hiram nodded. “The phase-one response does,” he said. “But, no, the second response is not found in nature. Yet.”

Strang gave him an arch look. “Your Phaedo Botanical Society bears watching,” he said.

“You have no idea, Mister Strang.”

“Well, I know a little bit,” Strang said. “The society was formed to investigate the possibility that plants had brains. Its principals do research on this theory in different ways, but focus primarily on how plants defend themselves.”

“That's a good, general description,” Hiram said. “As far as it goes.”

“And how far do this Sister Dark Surprise's abilities go?” Strang asked. “For instance, what would that badass little weed do to, say, a human being?”

Hiram stopped short and looked down at the man from the so-far-undisclosed government agency. “It sounds to me that we've come to the purpose of your visit, Mister Strang,” Hiram said. “Why don't we go inside now?”

Strang smiled and nodded. Hiram thought that Strang was the plainest-looking man he'd ever seen. There was absolutely nothing remarkable about him from a physical-appearance perspective. Plain face, five-eight, brown eyes, a mild, patient expression; he would probably be just about invisible in a crowd. Hiram couldn't guess the man's age, but somewhere between mid-forties and mid-fifties. His only interesting feature was his hands, which were elongated, sinewy, with curling fingers and what looked to Hiram like heavy calluses on the edges of his palms. Karate? He had that calm and totally balanced air of physical confidence that genuine martial arts masters displayed. The whole effect told Hiram that Strang was probably affiliated with the clandestine-operations side of the agency.

They walked back to the house and went up the steps to the front doors, which were opened by the butler at just the right moment.

“Thank you, Thomas,” Hiram said, stepping through the lofty entrance. “We will take coffee in the library, if you please.”

“Very good, sir,” Thomas Hennessy intoned as Hiram and his guest entered the main foyer. He followed them down the hallway with its thirty-foot ceilings at a respectful distance. Thomas was in his late forties, brimming with personal dignity and dressed all in black with the starched white collar and shirt befitting a proper English butler. His posture was ramrod straight and his expression reflected a watchful reserve. He spoke with a semipolished Cockney accent, smoothed out over the twenty years he had spent with an organization called the British Special Boat Service. That had been almost ten years ago, but he still carried himself with the assurance of someone who could take care of business should the need arise.

Hiram settled into a massive leather thronelike armchair in front of an equally massive fireplace, where Thomas had laid a crackling fire. He indicated a chair for Strang to sit in as Thomas pulled the library doors closed after checking the fire. Strang had to scoot back in the chair to get comfortable, which is when he discovered his feet no longer touched the ground.

“I apologize, Mister Strang,” Hiram said, eyeing his visitor's discomfiture. “All the furniture in this house has been sized for me, I'm afraid. I keep meaning to get some normal-sized things put in, but then, I don't often receive visitors.”

Strang nodded. He seemed to know that he looked like a kid trying out his father's desk chair for the first time. “Well, again, Mister Walker—thank
for seeing me. My boss said you were dealing with Marfan syndrome, which has made you something of a recluse.”

“More than something, Mister Strang,” Hiram said with a sigh. The half-hour tour of his special gardens had been an effort, and not for the first time he wondered how much longer he had on this earth. Marfan syndrome was a degenerative disease of the connective tissue, and the older Hiram got, the more he learned just how much connective tissue there was in the human body. If the daily pain in his joints was any indication, his prospects were not all that good. This wasn't news.

BOOK: Cold Frame
10.22Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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