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The Valley of Shadows: Chapter Five

       Last updated: Tuesday, October 2, 2018 19:10 EDT



    Phil Skorpio stood outside Bank of the Americas’ Wall Street tower and craned backwards to look as high up the building face as he could. He smiled at the perfectly reflective glass that sheathed the huge tower, ignoring the crick in his neck. His team protected the largest trading floor in Bank of the Americas’ considerable portfolio. That didn’t even take into account the bullion repository and the third of the board that operated from this location. In the years that he had run the New York City Building Security and Executive Protection team for BotA, there had never been a security failure.

    The wind whipped along the street, channeled by the tall buildings that lined every block, like canyons of man-made stone. Skorpio laid a proprietary hand on the building wall for balance as he straightened, then checked to make certain that his jacket wasn’t hiked up over his concealed pistol. Selected staff were trained and city licensed to carry firearms as a product of the increase in threat to banking operations. But only a small handful. New York was generally death on guns.

    He hadn’t left work since the Friday brief called by his boss. While they waited for some kind of screening test, Skorpio had doubled up on the number of security staff in order to visually check each employee for flulike symptoms. Sniffles, red eyes, sneezing–any of that was enough of a reason to peremptorily deny employees entrance and send them to work from home instead. In addition to the white N95 breathing masks and dark, biteproof gloves, each team member was equipped with a Taser. Each entry hall included at least one person with a discreetly carried hand gun as well.

    The sounds of a scuffle caught his attention.

    A food cart piled high with bananas, breakfast pastries and coffee served hungry commuters their last-minute breakfasts. However, one of the customers, a BotA employee judging from logos on his colorful badge lanyard, was having a fit and tearing at his suit. He had managed to knock over a display.

    Skorpio yelled for his team, and drew his Taser as he closed the distance. The wild-eyed man had kicked off his shoes, pants and was tearing his shirt off, revealing a well-muscled physique.

    “Sir!” Skorpio yelled. “SIR! Hey you!”

    The panting man, surrounded by a circle of onlookers who were jostling as they snapped photos with smartphones, lunged clumsily and fell, provoking nervous laughter. A few of the more thoughtful onlookers rapidly moved away as their coworker writhed, pulling at his remaining clothes.

    Skorpio’s shift lead and several BotA guards began shoving the gawking crowd farther back as the man, now fully nude, swayed unsteadily back to his feet.

    “Jenkins and Cordova, get ready to tase this guy,” Skorpio ordered. Without taking his eyes from the rapidly steadying man he added, “The rest of you watch the crowd in case there is another one.” He addressed the growling man.

    “Sir, last chance. Get down, stay down!”

    The new zombie looked straight at Skorpio and, faster than Skorpio anticipated, dove into him, covering the ten feet between them in an eyeblink.

    Even as the afflicted man moved, Skorpio and two others fired their Tasers, hitting their target but once. The zombie’s muscles immediately spasmed, but his momentum knocked Skorpio down. The Taser’s electrical charge transmitted to the chief, leaving Skorpio and the infected shuddering on the ground. The guard who had hit the zombie immediately let up on the juice, leaving the security chief to try to shove the shuddering zombie off himself.

    “Get this asshole off me!” Skorpio was as disturbed by the idea of a naked man lying on top of him as he was by danger of the virus. “NOW!”

    The zombie immediately began to revive, and clutched at Skorpio as it started snapping. A wrestling match ensued as the zombie rapidly regained strength. Skorpio kicked and fought in an effort to open the distance and rammed a forearm under the zombie’s chin until he could raise his legs and kick the zombie away. However, the zombie grabbed his trouser leg in a painful grip. Another Taser fired, causing the zombie to lock up again.

    Ignoring screams from the crowd, Skorpio yanked his leg away.

    “Jenkins, keep the goddam Taser on this time,” Skorpio yelled. “Cordova, stop spectating and get some flex cuffs on this guy. As soon as the flex cuffs are on his hands and feet, Jenkins gets a bite sack over his head and then we can cut the current.”

    Additional staff came forward and helped in the procedure. As soon as the zombie’s head was covered, it quieted considerably, but the keening and growling kept the attention of the now respectfully distant crowd.

    “Why didn’t you shoot this guy, Phil?” asked the shift lead.

    Panting, Skorpio looked at his subordinate with a Really? expression on his face.

    “Like I briefed all of you,” Skorpio said, still trying to shake off the Taser’s effect, “NYC hasn’t authorized deadly force unless everything else fails to stop an infected person. You want a manslaughter charge…I’d say go for it but be ready to enjoy your trip downtown.”

    He gestured around the busy street, where foot traffic was still flowing around the cordon of security staff and gawking smartphone wielders.

    “Also, not exactly an opportune backstop anywhere, right? Once you shoot, the bullets tend to keep going until they find something to hit.”

    He make a circle gesture over his head, a forefinger extended.

    “Okay, show’s over,” Skorpio said. “Cordova and Jenkins, get a tarp over this guy and sit on him till the cops come.” He looked ruefully at his torn suit leg. “Goddamit, this is a new suit!”

    He didn’t notice the minor scrapes on his shin.



    Paul accepted the restaurant recommendation from Tradittore, but eating in a darkened Italian trattoria was nearly too cliché to be borne. Officially, they were just on a lunch break, but their table at Fattore’s was covered with a checkered red and white cloth set for four. At this boss’s insistence, they arrived several minutes early to find Mr. Fattore himself waiting at the door to greet them.

    “Ah, Mr. Smith!” The short, swarthy, dark-haired and rounded owner waved them into the restaurant. “Iva been expecting you, itsa so nice-a to meet you, please to follow me!”

    The interior was dimly lit but nearly full of diners, most of which were dark suited men. Many glanced up to register the new arrivals. Most of those tracked them all the way to their table. It was a long walk to the back of the narrow, but deep restaurant.

    Tom had read the intel team’s file on the Cosa Nova backwards and forwards. The Sicilian mob had slowly declined in significance into the new millennium while the Triads, the Central American narco gangs like Mara Salvatrucha Trece and a new Afro-Caribbean organization had supplanted them in all five of the boroughs.

    There is a saying “Demographics is destiny.” While not always the case in the general populace, it certainly was the case in organized crime. The original Sicilian mobs had made their bones during Prohibition, a time when large numbers of Sicilians and Italians were emigrating to the United States. It was this continuous flow of immigrants, and large Catholic families, a trait shared with their primary competitors the Irish, which allowed the casualty attrition rates necessary to take over their somewhat violent business interests.

    Many causes had been attributed to the downfall of the traditional Mob. But the reality was that when the Cubans and Colombians started flooding in during the 1980s the Sicilians, who by then were second and third generation, were either already living a mostly middle to upper class lifestyle or had suffered the loss of most of their leadership. Constantly surveilled by the FBI over the years, the Sicilians simply did not have the sheer mass of desperate soldiers willing to fight for their territory.

    Thus, they dwindled in influence, got out of the most lucrative criminal enterprise, drugs, and generally faded into the background.

    However, Frank Matricardi had methodically built an import business by leveraging key contacts at Port Elizabeth in New Jersey. Anything that he could buy cheaply and wholesale dearly inside the U.S. would do. Bulk marijuana and generic oxycodone were a staple, and there were enormous margins in “unsexy” materials such as nonquota seafood, counterfeit luxury goods and even counterfeit super cars. His growing team, styling themselves the “New Thing,” was interested in anything illegal that would turn sufficient profit. And the profits were good.

    The New Jersey Sicilian community is quite close, and Matricardi’s business wasn’t exactly secret, even though proving something would be a challenge. His sons once chafed at being ribbed by their friends that their dad was a “fishmonger.” Before being sent off to college, they were allowed to see some of the books and realized that up to a third of the nearly five-billion-dollar-a-year U.S. seafood market was illegally imported goods, much of that controlled by dear old dad. It helped them settle right down.

    It didn’t hurt that they eventually got around to remonstrating with anyone foolish enough to persist in grade school name calling.

    Like any successful businessman, Matricardi took the long view. You do what you can with what you have and you don’t lie to yourself. He never tried to kid himself that he was anything other than a criminal businessman, but along the way he reveled in opportunities to retire some of the animals that sold heroin to kids, or traded kids. Yeah, he made a shady buck here and there. And yeah, he wasn’t going to change the world. Killing truly evil men was just a personally satisfying sideline.

    A zombie plague was a real problem though. Bad for business. Banks were an important component of his business supply chain, even though their counter money-laundering efforts were stringent and effective. Frank didn’t take it personally; he was a pragmatist. He regarded the antilaundering operations as another way to weed out the less fit competitors. However, the information that he had on the plague really bothered him. His family advisers included economists, politicians and smart lads like Tradittore. They all said, effectively, the same thing.

    “Find out what the really big money is doing, and copy that.”

    When Matricardi strolled into Fattore’s, he was effusively greeted by the owner. From the back of the restaurant, Tom Smith noted that the trim Sicilian was wearing what seemed to be the de rigueur uniform: a very traditional dark suit, wing tips and a nice tie. A bright white carnation sat on his lapel. He was accompanied by Tradittore and a third person, a woman. She stole the show all by herself. The black Helmut Lang dress that the brunette wore was styled in anything but a conservative manner. Its form-fitting cut hugged her curves and accentuated all of her body’s subtle movements. Men surreptitiously watched her pass.



    She watched everything but them.

    The party strode directly to the table where Smith and Rune rose to greet them.

    “Mr. Smith, Mr. Rune, please accept my thanks for meeting us today,” Matricardi said, offering a firm handshake. “I believe you are acquainted with Mr. Tradittore.” The suave aide nodded and shook hands with the two bankers.

    “I also asked my companion, Ms. Oldryskya Khabayeva, to join us. I hope that you don’t mind.”

    “Delighted to meet your associates, Mr. Matricardi.” Tom nodded at the companion. “How do you do, Ms. Khabayeva?”

    “Quite well, thank you,” the woman replied coolly.

    “Please, everyone sit.” The head of the Cosa Nova waited as the others sat in the chairs helpfully pulled out by the wait staff. “I’m delighted that we can all meet as friends and enjoy this restaurant. It’s one of my favorites.”

    As the group seated itself, Matricardi snapped his fingers like a rifle shot. Before the sound had faded, Fattore led a short squad of tray bearers to the table. It rapidly filled with wine, rolls, antipasti, frutti di mare and some very small crescent pastries. Rune saw that his boss hadn’t reached for anything, and copied his example.

    “Please, the appetizers are excellent,” Matricardi said, shoveling calamari onto his plate. “Talking goes better with eating, believe me.”

    “Perhaps I would be a little more comfortable if you asked your security, who is doing a bad job of ignoring me, to either join us or leave,” Smith said, smiling slightly. “Their watchfulness is ruining my appetite.”

    Rune controlled a start. He hadn’t noticed any surveillance. Matricardi smiled thinly and nodded to Tradittore, who tapped on his smartphone. Moments later two pairs of men rose from different tables and quietly exited the restaurant.

    Smith reached over and spooned some antipasti onto his plate and added a roll. He nodded to the door.

    “Thank you.”

    The charcoal-suited businessman shrugged and took a bite of his squid.

    “It’s a normal precaution,” he said. “But here, as I said, perhaps we can all be friends.

    “This zombie plague is scary stuff,” Matricardi continued. “At first a lot of people left the city, but then nothing happened. Every day some people turn zombie, maybe they bite some people, and then the cops snatch them up. My sources tell me that the hospitals are already nearly full. My sources also tell me that this might be some kind of biological weapon attack. They say that the government, the military, the banks and the biotech companies are all trying to make a cure. I notice that you banks are still running your operations in Manhattan, so maybe things aren’t so bad yet. Am I right?”

    He emptied a partial bottle of red into his own glass and motioned for more wine.

    “I am, at the heart of the matter, a businessman.” He gestured around the restaurant. “This disease is bad for business. More than that, even though my businesses may be unconventional, they fulfill a need and a purpose. Otherwise, why would I even exist?”

    “No argument here,” Smith said with a nod. He took another bite and tucked the bite into his cheek as he talked. “Here’s what I am ready to share now, here. One: the disease is synthetic. We think it’s a weapon, but we don’t know who made it or why. There appears to be no specific motive.”

    His audience was rapt.

    “Two: even though we are catching and isolating victims, the infection curve is still accelerating. We’ve started to get a feel for the natural resistance rate and it’s not good. Whereas with something like smallpox you’ve got a high enough natural resistance rate that society can continue to function even in a major outbreak, the natural resistance rate to this is low enough…so, very not good. Barring a cure or at least a vaccine, it will eventually reach a take-off point from which there is no recovery.”

    Tradittore laid down his silverware. Khabayeva hadn’t picked hers up.

    “Last: in order to have the best chance to find the vaccine and manufacture it in amounts sufficient to dose the entire population, we need the engines of the economy to keep turning.” Matricardi seemed unperturbed while Smith spoke. The mob boss chewed and swallowed and followed that with wine.

    “My business is a part of that engine, right?” Matricardi made a little open palmed gesture towards his side of the table.

    “Yes,” Smith agreed equably. “Businesses of all kinds preserve the feeling in all people that things are ‘normal,’ for values of the word normal. I understand that you sell a lot of tuna and swordfish.” He sipped some of the wine and nodded in appreciation. “This needs some of that prosciutto.” He forked prosciutto and green honeydew melon onto his plate.

    The Sicilian rotated one hand a few times, flipping it first palm up and them palm down.

    “Tuna, swordfish, orange roughy, seabass, cod, abalone, lobster…” Matricardi grinned. “Yeah, I import a bit of seafood.”

    “Let’s say that you supply something like fifty percent of illegally caught wild seafood on the East Coast,” Smith continued. “Round numbers. Looking at just one sector, let’s pretend you had to stop bringing flash-frozen swordfish into New Bedford, Port Elizabeth and Pompano Beach. That would cut the annual supply by a wholesale value upwards of a hundred million dollars or conservatively, what, thirty percent? There would be places that couldn’t keep it on the menu. Ditto other seasonal items. Ditto a number of other, lets call them consumer goods, including some truly impressive volumes of oxycodone.”

    Tradittore involuntarily grimaced. Matricardi’s genial expression didn’t change at all.

    “We all know that the price of unleaded changes overnight every time some Saudi prince breaks wind,” Tom said. His tone was light, even if his eyes were hard. “Food prices move almost as fast. If consumer prices for everyday expected goods spike or worse, the products are simply not available, then the man on the street assigns the responsibility for that missing item to the zombie plague. If he reflects on how his ‘normal’ is being changed, then he might be a little more susceptible to fear. He may start thinking about his participation in doing his ‘normal’ job. The absence of an expected good or service can prompt further inventory shortfalls, if you see what I mean.”

    While Smith talked, silverware clinked lightly and waiters poured more wine. Matricardi swirled the deep red liquid around in his glass as he listened. Tradittore and Rune ate but Khabayeva still hadn’t touched the food since Smith began sharing details.

    “So, you see…” He looked at each person in the party in turn. “…it isn’t just in my interest to keep the bank running…and the financial engine that fuels this city, this country and by derivation the laboratories and scientists searching for a cure to the Pacific flu. It’s in everyone’s interest.”

    Rune was attentive, Tradittore was blandly pleasant, but Khabayeva was unsettled. Or unsettling. Smith wasn’t certain. Her slightly tilted violet eyes were cool and intelligent, not appraising like the moll that he had expected.

    Something deeper was there.

    “Mr. Matricardi’s businesses are considerable.” Oldryskya spoke in clear, if slightly accented English, filling the brief pause. “But they are not comprehensive. Does your information cover the…other businessmen in the area?”

    Tradittore shot her a surprised look, almost shocked. One doesn’t expect a pet, no matter how beautiful, to participate in a meeting. Matricardi held up his hand to forestall an interruption and looked at Smith instead.

    Tom addressed her in a Slavic tongue.

    “No, not Volograd, farther south actually,” the woman replied. “But your accent is quite good. Still, the question is for you.”

    “The real currency in banking isn’t money,” Smith said, smiling a little crookedly. “We deal in information. Mr. Matricardi may not be the largest in all the markets where he…competes. But the Cosa Nova’s interests aren’t so different from Wall Street’s interests.”

    Matricardi didn’t quite frown, but his glance appeared to quell Khabayeva from saying more.

    “And yes”–Smith looked back to Matricardi–“the economic activity in your, pardon, in these sectors are as much a part of the economic engine as any other.”

    “Your information is quite good.” Matricardi thought a moment, then took a final bite of calamari. “I won’t pretend that I don’t know what you are talking about. As for the rest, that’s a lot to think about. This take-off point for the disease. You got a date?”

    Smith grimaced, showing his first real emotion of the meeting.

    “That’s the million, sorry, trillion dollar question.” He dabbed his mouth with a brilliant white linen napkin. “I’m trying to get the best estimates for designing and mass producing a vaccine to our market modeling analysts. Other teams are working on a therapy for the already infected. A number of factors are driving the infection rate, and we don’t yet know them all. An additional number of factors are complicating the vaccine design, and the best virologists are fighting over the desperately important details, which are not yet all finalized.”

    Matricardi gestured impatiently.

    “Other countries are not uniformly reporting their infection rate,” Smith continued. “And they aren’t aggressively using measures that we know work such as isolating anyone who has any flu symptoms and screening travelers, as well as protecting critical transportation and security personnel. These factors and more prevent me, with great regret, from having a precise answer.”

    “But…?” Matricardi slapped a palm on the table this time.

    “Best case?” Smith asked with a shrug. “We find a really cheap way to vaccinate and we make it past Labor Day and reach an equilibrium. We still take a big hit, deaths in the millions. But the general national framework holds mostly together.”

    Smith looked around the restaurant, then worked his shoulders and met the gangster’s eyes steadily.

    “Worst case: sixty days. Turn the lights out, shut the door, civilization is closed for the night, however long that night be. Very little chance anyone sitting at this table survives. At least with a functioning brain.”

    Matricardi grunted and glanced around the table at a very quiet group.

    “Two months, eh?” Matricardi said with a grunt. “Two months to doomsday. Just when I was getting the family business back on its feet. Wouldn’t you know?”

    He thought about that for a moment, then smiled broadly, revealing very white teeth.

    “So…who wants the calzone, eh?” he said, smacking his hands together and rubbing them. “They make it really good here!”

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