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The Valley of Shadows: Chapter One

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



May 15th
Bank of the Americas Global Headquarters
Manhattan, New York

    “How the hell did you not see anything until now?”

    Tom Smith was pissed.

    The managing director for Security and Emergency Response at Bank of the Americas, and late of the Australian Special Air Service Regiment, had been recruited as a straight-up protective-detail agent by Barclays in the Sydney office. Despite the cultural hindrance of a profile fit enough to prompt the secretary pool at the bank to joke that Clark Kent worked for the Bank, not the paper, he leveraged his ability to rapidly adapt to new and potentially hostile cultures, like those found in parts of the third world or really competitive banks. His attention to detail and discretion had caught the eye of the local managing director and he found himself bumped into the occasional broader duties. After some seasoning in Singapore, he was poached by BotA and eventually promoted into his current role–and his current headache.

    His job was a lot less glamorous than most imagined. The number one role of the BotA Security and Emergency Response (SER) team was to keep the bank trading as long as the market stayed open. The nightmare scenario for any bank wasn’t a robbery, or a kidnapping, or even a bombing. Though unpleasant, those sorts of events were, if not routine, at least well understood. No, true horror would be to be excluded from the market while everyone else was still in it. One of the banks in the World Trade Center had been a leading clearance house for euro-based trades and temporarily ceded the position to another bank as it relocated its operations to a new building after 9/11. It never regained the market and died, not because it lost physical infrastructure and staff to terrorists, but because the competitors scented blood and made a meal of their injured peer.

    Sharks are like that. Banks are smart sharks, the scariest of them all.

    To that end, Tom’s current employer didn’t just set up the traditional doormen and access control, or “Guards and Cards,” security division. Tom oversaw the usual Executive Protection and Building Security, but also directed a bigger team. The Anti-Fraud division fought wire fraud and protected high-value digital payments, Disaster Recovery and Business Continuity operated redundant, hardened trading floors and data centers, and the Protective Intelligence, or PI, team, looked deep into their crystal ball to predict what might be coming next.

    They didn’t seem to be doing a very good job.

    “We set up the Vietnamese wet market network,” Tom continued somewhat more mildly. “We have hooks into the CDC and the WHO, and you convinced me to fund permanent networks in North Africa and equatorial America. So, tell me, Paul, why has exactly none of this expensive early warning paid off?”

    Tom looked up from the Daily Intel Brief that PI released before the market opened every day.

    No one likes to be on the carpet and Paul Rune was no exception. As ambitious as he was intelligent, the fit and aspiring VP ran the PI team, having left a senior analyst position at the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency to give investment banking a go. It paid much better, but like a lot of intel types, he was an information junky. Bank of the Americas funded information access nearly as well as his old job, so he never regretted the move to industry. Usually.

    At the moment he was explaining a possible intel failure in front of his direct report whose nickname was “Thomas the Train Engine,” in part due to his drive to get things done. Also, he was quite large. And at the moment just a tad scary.

    Swallowing, Paul made his case.

    “Boss, we watched all the leading indicators,” Paul said. “I have been tracking the overnight swings in live poultry, not just in Vietnam and Korea, but anywhere there is a wet market for the last thirty-six months.”

    “Wet market,” referring to the “buy it live, take it home butchered” approach, was still the way of shopping for food in much of the world. Also, a really good way to spread disease.

    “We have been getting ready for the monsoon season in Asia, so we have a special watch right now,” Paul continued. “No way is this an avian flu variant that hopped the species barrier somewhere in Asia. No way in hell. We would have seen prices fall off a cliff as local farmers start dumping their birds. The network functions as advertised.”

    “Apparently not this time,” Tom said, crossing his arms. “The first warning–nonexclusive, mind you–that we have is that there are active cases of,” he consulted the brief, “‘potentially fatal, nonspecific flu with similarities to avian influenza’ and that comes from outside the bank. Six cases, including one fatality in Shanghai. Unconfirmed reports of more in three other cities in Asia. Anything else in Asia from last night?”

    “Nothing yet,” Paul said, squaring his shoulders. “I already sent the order to the Asia-Pacific center to disperse the Tamiflu to avoid local government seizure. The Tokyo and Shanghai bourses closed normally. The LSE has been open for three hours and nothing has twitched. We have a good network in the Gulf and eastern Europe, but nothing so far. And, Boss, we wouldn’t have even this much warning if I hadn’t recruited that analyst in Taiwan last year.”

    “Duly noted,” Tom said drily, “that you were doing your job. But good job on getting the antivirals out right away. Let’s assume that this is just an isolated incident. If there is more, update me ASAP. I’m going to let the chief risk officer know right away. He can decide if this is worth the CEO’s time or not.”

    “Boss, another thing.” Paul wasn’t done, yet. “If we know, you can bet CDC, NIH, USAMRIID and the rest of the usual suspects are already on it. If any release a statement, it could become too late to exercise the first steps for Plan Zeus.”

    Plan Zeus was the bank’s Catastrophic Market Suspension Response Plan. Tom privately thought of it as the “If It Gets This Bad We Are All Likely Dead Anyway So Open The Good Bourbon” plan.

    It was so sensitive that few even inside BotA were aware of its existence. Among those, the possibility was just so unlikely that even fewer took it seriously. It was so ridiculously expensive that it couldn’t be rehearsed. But “Train” Smith had made preparedness his hobby. Okay, his obsession. He was delighted that his job let him play “What if?” with other peoples’ money.

    Plan Zeus was his baby.

    Tom rubbed his chin, which was marked by a thin white scar obtained in a most educational way.

    “Can’t call Zeus unless we brief the CEO. Can’t do that yet. Stay in your lane for now, Paul, but keep me posted. At least every two hours, got it?”

    “Got it.”

    Tom called past Paul’s receding back for his administrative assistant, or “admin.”


    “Yeah, Boss?”

    “Ring Rich’s office–see if he can take a high-pri right now.”

    “On it.”

    Richard Bateman–Rich to his inner circle–was the chairman and CEO of BotA. As a rule, Tom didn’t take problems to him straightaway, usually working directly with the regional chairmen who ran the five top offices globally. However, Tom had worked enough emergencies for the Board that he had a feel for when to go directly to the top. When the Pakistani terrorists had attacked Mumbai and overrun a hotel where BotA was wooing investors at a swanky dinner, he jumped levels in command and activated bank assets that had saved lives and left the firm sitting pretty. It hadn’t hurt Tom’s bonus either.



    A potentially global issue such as a pandemic was a case where Bateman would expect to exercise his “Right of First Refusal”–electing to learn first and monitor closely. He would also react “unhelpfully” if he was being disturbed for something below his pay grade.

    That was the understood cost of access at the highest levels.

    “Train–sort of early, isn’t it?” the CEO joked. “Where do I send the lawyers and how much cash do you need?”

    “Sorry to disturb you, Rich–but remember the swine flu in Mexico City?”

    “Oh Christ, another bug hunt?”

    Bateman was also a secret science fiction geek. It made him easier to work for.

    “The intel team handed me a hot one.” Tom paused almost imperceptibly. “We’re not sure–but the reports suggest an avian flu variant, only a handful of cases, some fatal, unknown parameters–first reports in Shanghai, maybe two more cities. Nothing publicly released yet, but I’ve authorized antiviral dispersion throughout the Asia Pacific offices. I’m monitoring closely, but if it ticks up even a little bit, we’ll need to move to a Gold response. This will be in the morning papers before the markets open in Tokyo and Hong Kong.”

    BotA had elected to copy the framework for emergency response management originated by Scotland Yard and later adopted by the U.K.’s Metropolitan Police Department. “Gold-Silver-Bronze,” or GSB, corresponded to the levels of authority and control that an organization delegated during a crisis. Tom’s team could run local, minor issues to ground by invoking the Bronze team, confining issues to a single city and local management. If the calamity escalated up to Gold, Tom would integrate the executive board of the bank and all regional managing directors and would set the most alert posture for all Security and Emergency Response related staff. The board would choose when to integrate law enforcement and other governmental agencies. Initiating the GSB process officially acknowledged that there was an “issue.” The existence of Plan Zeus was only known to a subset of bank staff–not even the entire security team was aware, but all the players on a Gold call would.

    Bateman understood risk–but he also understood markets.

    “The reference to avian flu is going to make headlines.” The CEO’s tone was serious. “If you get anything solid, start the Gold call straightaway and don’t wait for my approval. Before we get to that I’ll send a note to Global Markets. They can turn a buck on anything. Also, if you get an inkling that this is going bigger–let me know right away. I’ll tell my admin to let you break in.”

    “Thanks Rich–more as I get it.”



    The bank usually over air conditioned its offices to the point where many of the female staff routinely complained. Ordinarily, Paul was sympathetic; he hated being unnecessarily cold too. However, as he liked to helpfully point out, they could always add a sweater but anyone who was too warm was constrained from taking off their shirt.

    The cool air wasn’t helping. Paul was sweating through his expensive, formerly crisp dress shirt. Once his PI staff knew what to look for, the count of “potential” cases of the new flu strain had increased, and the number of affected cities grew. There were reports of an anomalous, unseasonal flu and…unusual symptoms. His second report to Smith included two more cities, both in Asia. Within another hour, the news became alarming.

    There were three more “possibles,” all in Europe or the Mediterranean by the next time he reached Smith on the phone. His boss picked up before the end of the first ring.


    “It’s Paul.” The head of intel kept his tone level, but it took effort. “I’ve got six more cities with possibles: Tokyo and Freemantle make sense since they’re both Pacific Rim cities, but now we also have Athens, Cairo, Barcelona and maybe L.A. If these originate from the same pathogen, it’s less than likely this is a natural event. And by ‘less,’ I mean no damned way.”

    “Shit.” Paul’s deadpan delivery didn’t fool Smith.

    “Tom, another thing,” Paul added. “We’ve done some digging, and some medical staff are reporting that the families of the sick people report a severe flu preceding the current symptoms by as much as a week or so. The onset of the second set of symptoms includes”–Tom could hear the rustling of paper from Paul’s end of the line–“spontaneous sociopathy, severe anhedonia, aggression and instantaneous aphasia.”

    “‘Aggression’ I got.” Smith was in no mood for biotech-babble. “As for the rest, congratulations on winning this round of ‘stumping your boss,’ Paul. English please.”

    The intel chief paused, and then took the plunge. His boss wasn’t noted for asking twice.

    “In a word, zombies.”

    “Bloody hell, Paul,” Tom said wearily. “Are you tired of working for me?”

    “I swear I’m not making this up,” Paul replied. “The people that aren’t dying straightaway from the disease stop talking and start trying to bite everyone else.”

    “Right,” Tom said. It came out as “Royt,” the boss’s normally unnoticeable Australian accent kicking in a bit. There was a brief pause as his boss digested the analysis. “I am initiating the Gold call right now. Pull a short deck together with the confirmed and potentials plotted on a map, and get me the historical summaries for both H5N1 and the swine flu. Also, get the first three people on our bio-attack and pandemic expert list here, yesterday.”

    Tom hung up, externally as calm as his intel manager had sounded. His left hand hurt a little and he looked down to see that he was gripping the chair arm hard enough to stretch the thick leather to the point of tearing. With a deliberate effort, he relaxed his hand, but he couldn’t fight off the queasy feeling in his gut.

    Zombies? There was no way that he could initiate a Gold call with a zombie warning. The number of cities with the virus was bad enough. Also, an artificial event?


    He reached over to his second desk phone, hardwired only to interior numbers, took a breath and for only the second time in his career pressed the Executive Committee call line for a Gold call.

    The line was reserved exclusively for emergencies that required the immediate attention of the executive board and all five regional chairs. Upon activation, a specialized ring tone and text message would sound on every device belonging to each committee member, beginning with their personal devices, escalating through their immediate staff and ending with their private residences.

    Tom pressed the speaker phone button and leaned back in his seat. He had a moment until the senior most people in his bank joined the call and demanded just what the hell was important enough to disrupt all of the schedules for the bank’s top executives.

    The last time that he had employed this line he’d used the brief wait to rehearse his answers in order to have quick, confident replies on tap explaining the need to interrupt their routine.

    This time he had not a bloody clue what to say.

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