Authors: Jerry B. Jenkins
WASHINGTON, D.C., STILL KNEW
how to do holidays.
Though the city was now merely one of seven capitals of the United Seven States of America, at times like this it harkened back to its glory days and reminded old-timers of the turn of the century—before the war changed everything, including the calendar.
Dense snowfall didn’t slow traffic or seem to dampen spirits this December 24—Wintermas Eve—of 36
Lights bedecked the monuments, those that had survived the war or been erected since. Only the war memorials remained dark. While military heroes were acknowledged with appropriate burials, war itself had not been commemorated for more than thirty-five years.
The main thoroughfares of the historic city sparkled with blinking white lights that washed the trees with cheer. The West Wing, all that was left of the White House, shone through the splatty downfall. And behind it the Columbia Region’s Wintermas tree illuminated the lawn. Santas dotted street corners, ringing bells and thanking passersby for donations, but not to the Salvation Army, for neither
remained de rigueur. The money would go to international humanitarian relief.
On a tony, tree-lined street in old Georgetown sat a row of nearly identical three-story brownstones. In the driveway of one on a corner, snow slid off the steaming hood of a rented Ford Arc, and the car’s electric power pack began to cool. Fresh footprints—of two adults and two children—led to the front door. While there were no outside decorations, the den window boasted a gleaming Wintermas tree.
Inside that den, Dr. Paul Stepola, Jae Stepola, and their young family from Chicago awkwardly settled in with her parents, the former army Lieutenant General Ranold B. Decenti and his wife, Margaret.
This was the first Wintermas Eve in their ten years of marriage that the Stepolas had celebrated with the Decentis. Traditionally they spent holidays in Chicago with Paul’s mother, who was alone, while the Decentis—thanks to Ranold’s postwar ascendancy in the National Peace Organization, for which Paul also worked—attended a ceaseless round of high-level year-end parties. But Ranold had eased out of the administrative fray, and that September, Paul’s mother had passed away after a protracted and painful battle with brain cancer. Her death was expected and not unwelcome, so it wasn’t sadness at the change of venue that made the holiday greetings so stiff. The four adults had greeted each other with handshakes. Daughter Brie, seven, and son Connor, five, were formally acknowledged.
Paul had never settled on how to address his father-in-law. He had tried
Dad, General, Ranold,
and even the sixty-six-year-old’s last title in the NPO,
This year Paul called the man
and lied that it was wonderful to see him again.
Margaret Decenti might as well have been invisible. She smiled occasionally but rarely spoke. Her lot in life, it appeared to Paul, was to do her husband’s bidding. This she did, largely with a blank expression. Occasionally she would ask Jae to tell the kids to stop doing one thing or another.
Complicating this year’s festivities for Paul was that Jae was again on his case about the time he spent on the road—her code for not trusting him. He had been caught in an indiscretion, which she persisted in calling an “affair,” more than six years before. At thirty-six, a muscular six-foot-three, and possessed of a quick wit, he had always been attractive to women. Often when traveling he would have dinner with a female colleague who, after a few drinks, would radiate the signals of invitation, sometimes even brazenly. If the woman was appealing—and not infrequently she was—Paul didn’t say no.
These encounters were mostly onetime, no-strings flings that livened up the boredom of travel and, to Paul’s mind, had nothing to do with his marriage. But Jae sifted through his luggage like Sherlock Holmes and quizzed him relentlessly. Her jealous obsessions and tight-lipped silences were wearing him down. Paul used to love merely gazing at Jae. Now he could hardly stand being in the same room.
They had met in graduate school at the University of the District of Columbia in 22
, just after Paul had left the army’s top secret, elite counterterrorist strike unit, Delta Force. He had joined the army to honor his father, who had been killed in World War III when Paul was an infant. Despite his obvious proclivity for it, the military wasn’t much of a career since there was little armed conflict in the world anymore. So Paul had chosen to pursue a doctorate in religious studies, with the encouragement of his mother.
She had taught him that every war stemmed from the fairy tales of religious extremists and that the most rewarding career he could choose would be one in which he helped maintain an intellectual, humanistic society that eschewed both religion and war. “Study the major religions,” she’d say again and again, “and you’ll see. You’ll find out what makes people follow despots like sheep. Study history or be doomed to repeat it.”
It seemed everything Paul read of religion bore out his mother’s belief. His religious studies program was a virtual military history course, especially when it came to World War III. It had been sparked by the Muslim holy war against Jews and the West, which began with the American World Trade Center attacks in 2001. The U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 led to an escalation of the Israel-versus-Palestine conflict, prompting devastating terrorist attacks in the nations that tried to quell it—in both North America and Europe—in 2008. Meanwhile, Catholics and Protestants continued to war in Northern Ireland, culminating in the destruction of major landmarks in London; the Balkans exploded with the mutual persecutions of the Catholics, Muslims, and Orthodox Serbs; Hindus and Muslims battled over Kashmir; and various Asian religious factions skirmished. Soon the globe was ablaze with attacks, counterattacks, reprisals, and finally, an allout nuclear war that most thought signaled the end of the world.
Jae had been a local girl studying economics, and Paul’s immediate attraction to her was returned. She was tall and lithe, a celebration for the eyes. He—she said—would easily pass muster with her father, an ex-army general and one of the founding fathers of the NPO. They married in 26
right after grad school.
Paul dreamed of a corporate job, but when his Ph.D. in reli gious studies didn’t open those doors, Jae urged him to pursue the NPO. The National Peace Organization had risen from the ashes of the FBI and the CIA after World War III. Like the CIA, it was a foreign intelligence force—though a skeletal one, since in the postwar world the United Nations oversaw global peace-keeping. And like the FBI, it handled interstate crimes—which, these days, were as likely to be international—such as fraud, racketeering, terrorism, and drug trafficking.
Paul trained at Langley, Virginia, then spent his first few years in Chicago on the racketeering squad, where, surprisingly, his graduate work found purchase. Studying the world’s major religions had introduced him to a broad range of cultures, background that proved invaluable when investigations drew him or his colleagues overseas. Now he did much of his work abroad, on one of the consulting teams the NPO hired out to help other governments train their own peacekeeping and intelligence forces.
Ranold Decenti seemed to view Paul’s work as a cushy desk job. Paul never felt put down in so many words, but his father-in-law’s tone and demeanor were condescending. Ranold clearly considered the early years of the NPO, when he was helping build and run it from its original headquarters in Washington, as its golden age. “Back then guys joined the agency for the action, not to teach and consult. And no one wanted to get stuck in some regional capital. The best and the brightest came to Washington.”
“Well,” Paul said, “maybe that made sense when it was the capital of the country. Nobody listens to Washington anymore.”
“Tell me about it. Now, instead of visionary leadership, a national director baby-sits a bunch of bureau chiefs who all set their own agendas.”
“Task forces work across regional lines.”
The kids burst in, trailed by Jae, now in their pajamas and begging to know whether Wintermas presents might be opened that night instead of the next day. Margaret expelled an audible sigh.
Ranold gave her a look that could have stopped the snow. “No!”
He growled with such menace that Brie backed away, but Connor kept staring at the Wintermas tree. “Why do you have a flag on top of your tree, Grandpa? My friend Jimmy’s mom says when she was little people put stars or angels on top of their trees. She’s still got some.”
Ranold waved dismissively. “Not in this house. And not in yours either, I hope.”
“Of course not,” Paul said.
Connor climbed into Paul’s lap and wrapped his arms around his neck. Paul sensed the boy’s fatigue. “Why not, Dad?”
“We’ll talk about it in the morning,” Paul said. “Now why don’t you and your sister—”
“But why not? They sound pretty, like they’d look better on a Wintermas tree than an old flag.”
Ranold stood and moved to the window with his back to them. “That flag stands for everything I believe in, Connor.”
“He wasn’t saying anything about the flag,” Paul said. “He doesn’t understand. He’s just a—”
“He’s old enough to be taught, Paul.”
“It’s never come up before, Ranold. I plan to tell him—”
“See that you do! And you ought to check into that mother who’s harboring contraband icons.”
Paul shook his head.
“What’s wrong with angels and stars, Daddy?”
“I promise I’ll tell you tomorrow.”
“Tell him now, Paul!”
“Ranold, give it a rest. I’ll decide when and how to educate my son. . . .”
Jae stood and nodded at Brie, taking Connor’s hand. “Right now he’s going to bed,” she said.
“Tell him in bed then,” her father said.
Jae avoided Paul’s gaze as she led the children to the stairs. “Say good night to Grandpa and Grandma.”
Both singsonged a good night. Margaret formally wished them the same. Ranold said, “Yeah, yeah.”
Paul and Dad are already sparring.
When they were first married, Paul seemed to look up to her father, but there was always an undercurrent of competition. Paul had declined a good offer from the Washington NPO bureau, asking instead to be assigned to Chicago, his hometown, to escape his father-in-law’s shadow. For Jae it was an adventure to settle in a new city, and she was thrilled to land a position with the Chicago Board of Trade. Then the kids came along and she became a stay-at-home mom. Now that they were in school, she missed the camaraderie of the office but didn’t feel she could go back to work with Paul on the road so much. Even when he was home, he wasn’t much of a companion. In fact, he was so distant and distracted that her old suspicions came flooding back. She had been looking forward to Wintermas in Washington as a break from those worries.
At the top of the stairs, Paul caught up with her. “What?” she said.
“You know what. I don’t like your father criticizing the kids.”
“I don’t like it either,” she said, “but you know how he is. And you know what he lost because of a bunch of religious fanatics.”
“Jae, come on. He overreacted. Connor brought it up and—”
“He has a reason to be hypersensitive about it.”
“We all have painful areas, Jae.”
“Of course we do.” Jae steered the children toward their beds and tucked them in. “But, Paul, he did lose his entire army and the population of a whole state. Hawaii was a state then, you know.”
Paul bent to embrace Connor, who turned away, appearing upset by the tone of the conversation. “There were a lot of states then, Jae.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
They closed the kids’ door and stepped into the hall. “Just that it’s not like losing a whole region would be now. And it doesn’t give him the right to tell me how to raise my kids.”
“Oh, Paul, he doesn’t mean it that way. He was a general. He’s used to speaking his mind.”
“So am I.”
Tears welled in Jae’s eyes. “Paul, please—I want this to be a nice holiday. Mom thinks Dad’s testy because he’s having trouble adjusting to his consultancy—being out of the limelight.”
“That was his choice, to hear him tell it. He was tired of management and could be more ‘creative’ in special projects, whatever that means. And it’s been more than a year.”
“Yes, but for someone like him, it’s tough giving up the big staff and the authority and the perks, even if he’s doing what he wants. So go easy on him. Can’t you go back down there and try to make nice?”
“How’m I supposed to do that? I’m not going to apologize because I didn’t—”
“I’m not asking you to apologize. Just smooth things over. Have a drink with Dad. There’s a lot you two could talk about. Let’s not start the holiday off on the wrong foot.”
“I guess I could do that. Whatever you think, I don’t enjoy butting heads with the old blowhard.”