As a fire-red sun crept over the horizon, one of the few remaining active airplanes kissed the runway. Few planes ran as what little fuel remained was expensive. Fortunately, Steelewood could afford it. Consequently, Isadora Fleming rarely felt the lack most experience post-apocalypse. Working for and eventually heading Steelewood meant a life with many luxuries. As her plane, which was by definition a private a jet, taxied, she reflected on this. Isadora realized she had always taken her many blessings for granted. Life never gave her time to appreciate the comfort around her. Everything, especially work, moved very quickly, leaving no time to stop and “smell the roses.” Besides the speed, Isadora was under constant pressure, constant stress. Her life was anything but easy. She lacked joy.
When the plane stopped, Isadora stood, slid on her jacket, and grabbed her bag, which was a brown leather messenger bag. She kept that bag by her side almost wherever she went. In it, she kept a notebook containing her personal notes (mostly written in code), a second firearm, ammunition, and a Bible. This particular Bible belonged to Sergei Pavlov, a man who affected Isadora very deeply. Her first handgun she kept on her belt at her back, just a bit to the right. The first was a Walther P99, the larger of the two, and the second a PPS, a pistol designed for concealment. Both were chambered in .40 S&W.
She stepped out the door to find her bodyguard and personal assistant, Stanley, who was absolutely unimposing and more of a PA than a protector, waiting for her. He stood holding open the door to her limousine. In no hurry, she stepped inside the vehicle as Stanley said in his boyish English accent, “Welcome back, ma'am.”
He came in after her and closed the door.
“How are you, Stanley?” Isadora asked as she pulled a folder out of her bag. She opened the folder and grumbled when she realized she needed her reading glasses. She slid them on briskly and got to working.
“I'm well, ma'am,” Stanley replied. “Where to?”
“The office,” Isadora did not yet make eye contact with him.
“Are you sure? I'm sure you've had a long flight. Certainly you'd like to stop at home and rest a bit?”
Isadora finally looked into Stanley's eyes and told him firmly, “There's a lot to do and I do not have the time.”
“Very well,” Stanley replied as he picked up the receiver and told the driver to take them to headquarters. The limo moved . "How was Kingston, ma'am?”
“Hot,” she replied without looking up. “I fear not much was accomplished. General Eichmann is damn stubborn, especially as of late.”
“That's unfortunate. Do you plan to do anything about it?”
“Only thing I could do is fire him and that would cause more problems than it would solve.”
“Goodwin can help put him in line,” Stanley suggested, referring to Steelewood's vice president. Goodwin, before the apocalypse, was a major in the US Army. Eichmann was also a soldier and for some reason Isadora could not understand, soldiers listened to one another more implicitly than anyone else.
“You're right, he can,” Isadora said. “I hate relying on him though.” She circled a bit of information in her folder then set it down. “How have you been, Stanley?”
“It's been stressful here, ma'am, but yes, I've been well.”
“How is your mother?”
“Hanging in there,” Stanley said quietly, sadly. His aging mother suffered from congestive heart failure. “The doctors seem less optimistic with each passing day.”
“I'm sorry to hear that,” Isadora said sincerely. “Do let me know if there's anything I can do at all.” She meant that. Stanley had been her assistant for eleven years and had proven himself reliable, intelligent, and trustworthy. In a strange way, he was also a friend. When she thought about this hard, it made her realize that truly she had no friends. Her life was work and she had no time for real relationships. Stanley, in other words, was the very closest thing she had to an actual friend.
The ride was silent as the limousine pulled in front of Steelewood's office building, which was a fifty-two story skyscraper once used as a multipurpose office facility. In many ways, this building was the center of world government rather than an office. Most of the world's power was concentrated there with Isadora right at the top. Oftentimes, she hated having so much power, so much pressure. But there was no one else she would trust with it. Perhaps Goodwin, but even that was a shaky decision. Goodwin was a solid leader, but he was ruthless in the worst of ways.
Isadora stepped out of the limo and made her way to the front door. Had she not been in a mild hurry, she might have noticed just how gorgeous the front lawn of Steelewood HQ looked in the morning sun. The fountain, surrounded by a professional floral arrangement, looked especially stunning. She also might have noticed the tired soldiers standing guard at the door, who found Isadora a welcome intrusion. But she did not pay them notice. She mentally registered these details, but paid them no heed. Stanley pulled open the large glass door and Isadora stepped through. The main atrium of Steelewood HQ was massive, with metal pillars abounding to represent power. The whole room was designed to make visitors feel small. It was like being in the belly of a beast, except it held a strangely inviting allure.
As she made her way to the elevator, she told Stanley, I'm going up to my office and I'm going to have a shower and breakfast. Have the cooks send something up. Also, set up a meeting with the executives – whoever is here.”
“In the afternoon,” she replied as the elevator door dinged open. Isadora stepped inside. “Later, preferably, but try to work with their schedules.”
“I'll take care of it,” Stanley said as the door closed.
When the elevator arrived at the top floor, Isadora pulled back her graying-black hair, sighed, and stepped off. There were four rooms on the fifty-second floor. The first room was an atrium leading to the others. The next room was the primary communications center for all of Steelewood.. It was a remote command center for all operations across the globe. It was truly an impressive facility. Finally, there was a smaller office and waiting room which led to Isadora's workspace.
She pushed open the door to the pre-room to be startled by the presence of Peter Goodwin waiting for her on the couch. He stood, making his height, a head above her's, well-known. He was in his early sixties and this age was easy to guess, but that did not leave him suspect to vulnerability. One of Goodwin's natural skills was to intimidate and he did so very naturally, often without realizing.
“Ms. Fleming,” Goodwin said with a tiny, slightly terrifying smile. He attempted to be friendly, and Isadora knew this, but it was difficult not to be taken back by his unnerving demeanor. “Good morning.”
“Peter,” she referred to him by his first name as a way of establishing hierarchy. She did this to everyone beneath her. She kept moving. At her door, she pulled out her ID badge and waved it at the scanner. The lock buzzed as she replied, “Can I help you with something?”
Goodwin followed her inside, “How was Kingston?”
Isadora took a quick breath of relief as she looked around her office. It was a large room colorized by very neutral black, white, and silver tones. One wall was entirely a window looking out towards Boston Harbor. The window half of the room had various couches, decorative plants, and other furniture. The sum gave a feel of modern, elegant simplicity. The other side of the room was Isadora's titanium and glass desk, which was dwarfed in contrast to the rest. She removed her jacket and hung it neatly on the rack close to the door.
“Hot,” she replied. “I doubt you've come to make small talk, Peter. What do you need?”
Goodwin snarled, “Yes, I just got word that my best team is dead.”
“Snapp's team?” Isadora asked. “What happened?”
“Someone gave them a stupid-ass order to assault the Fujikawa-Mitchell command center in Lisbon. They walked into a slaughter.”
“What were they doing in Lisbon? Who gave the order?”
“Ma'am, I do not know,” he growled. “I was hoping you did.”
“I wasn't aware we had operations in Lisbon.”
“We don't,” Goodwin said fiercely. “None of it makes sense! If they wanted to kill the line, why not do it here in Boston? Or why not attack then the Holdsworth isn't there? It just doesn't make any sense!”
“The Holdsworth was involved?”
“Yes,” Goodwin replied. “See what I mean? It doesn't add up in the least bit. I didn't give the order, so who did?”
“You have no leads?”
“Yes, one,” Goodwin paused. “Where the hell is Sergei?”
“Peter, you know you don't worry about him. I've got Sergei under control and his assignment has nothing to do with Lisbon.”
“Where is he?”
“I can't say. You know not to press that, Goodwin.”
“Yes, but my men are dead and I want answers!”
“Then find them! But they aren't here.”
“Yes,” Goodwin grunted. “Someone knows what happened and I'm gonna find them.”
“I hope you do,” Isadora said frankly. “This is a very troubling development.”
“I'll let you know what I find,” he said in a low, grumbling voice as he turned to leave.
“Thank you for bringing this to my attention,” Isadora told him as he opened the door.
“Yes, ma'am,” the door closed.
Isadora sighed in relief. She was in no mood for a confrontation or even a conversation at all, least of all with Peter Goodwin. Isadora knew for a very long time that Goodwin wanted power and being vice president no longer sated his appetite. Using political finesse, she managed to keep him under control, but doing such grew in difficulty constantly. She knew this in part due to an informant who sent her text messages with alarmingly accurate information. The source of the messages were hidden, but Isadora suspected Stanley of being behind them. Stanley denied the allegation, but it made sense that he would lie.
There was one last room and that was Isadora's personal bathroom. In it was a shower, sink, toilet, mirror, a jacuzzi tub which she had yet to use, and a closet containing a few outfits for days such as this. She stepped into the restroom and at once disrobed facing the mirror. She watched her clothes come off, Isadora was reminded of how old she had grown. Once upon a time, Isadora Fleming was quite an attractive woman. Considering her age, she still looked quite well, but she had lost much. It was not long ago that Isadora turned fifty-four.
Isadora could honestly not remember ever taking a hot shower. Certainly there was no heated water in Serezovnia where she spent her childhood. There was also not any in the English orphanage where she grew up. Perhaps at some point in between then and her joining MI-6 she had taken one, but those years blurred. The earliest shower she remembered definitely was after her very first kill. That one was cold, freezing cold. No other way seemed right. Since then, Isadora bathed in nothing but the cold. This was no exception. As the chilling water slid down her bare skin, Isadora forgot about her business at Steelewood and instead put her mind to one man in particular who had changed her life.
His name was Sergei Pavlov. Isadora was always the kind of person to keep meticulous control over everything. She had to know. Pavlov and Isadora had many discussions about life, philosophy, and, namely, faith. Pavlov was a pastor. He proselytized to Isadora, shared with her what it meant to live a life of faith. She remembered telling him, “Pastor, I don't think I could ever live that way - a life of faith. I could never live without knowing.”
“Isadora,” he replied very calmly, “it is only by faith that you can know.”
These words reassured Isadora when she remembered them. All of that business at Steelewood, she knew, in her mind, that she needed to get through it all, though her logical mind doubted that she could. With faith, not necessarily faith in God, Isadora believed she might endure. With that, she pressed on.
Isadora stepped out of the shower and dressed herself. As she reapplied her makeup, she heard the signature beeping of her cell phone. She picked it up and checked the screen: it was a text message with the contact hidden. It read, “GOODWIN UNTRUSTWORTHY. PLAN IN MOTION FOR COUP. PROCEED WITH CAUTION.”
She knew it was coming. She knew it. But the text made it real. And terrifying. In her mind, a wall erected itself. This wall blocked Isadora from a solution. It had to be in there somewhere, but she could not get to it. She could only see the wall. She could not think past it. The Goodwin problem could not be resolved, not now. Isadora fought for composure. What could she do?