Fraser Sherman
“Two weeks?” Hearing Reginald Montgomery’s command, Serena Dean struggled to maintain her insincere smile. “Two weeks? That’s all I have?”
“I have convinced the Grandmaster to hold Synergy-21 here on the Carolina coast.” Sere, gaunt Reginald Montgomery, North Carolina’s ranking Templar, parted his thin lips in a satisfied smile. “You’re a meeting planner, are you not? Isn’t booking conference rooms part of your duties?”
“It’s the middle of summer. The hotels and conference centers have been booked for months.” Could he really be this dense? Was there any chance this was just a test? “All of them. Arranging everything the Grandmaster needs in such a short time—”
“I knew it was a mistake to promote you to fifth-level initiate.” Montgomery gave one of his weary I Know Better sighs. “The newspapers all say tourism has declined along with the economy. How hard can it be to find empty rooms?”
“If it was one of our Christmas mixers, not at all.” Serena brushed back her red hair, took off her glasses and wiped the lenses to buy a few seconds. Don’t panic: Unreasonable demands create opportunities to impress. “Even if it was a regular regional conference, not too much.” Which was a lie, but truth wouldn’t get her anywhere. “But we’ll be hosting representatives of the Freemasons, the Secular Humanist Conspiracy, the Elders of Zion and Opus Dei in the same room; it’ll be hard enough to keep them from an outright brawls, let alone putting them in the right mood to hear the Grandmaster’s pitch.”
“You’re calling a plan for the future destiny of all mankind a pitch?” His icy glare would have silenced most people, but most people didn’t have to face it a dozen times a week. “Have you no faith in Grandmaster DeMarco’s vision?”
“I have faith in seating charts. If we don’t keep the Trilateral Commission and the Rosicrucians well separated, we’ll have non-stop poisoning accusations. And, of course, non-stop poisoning.”
“And you can’t draw these charts up within two weeks? Are you distracted by women’s problems?”
“Menstrual bleeding hasn’t been a problem since I started my new medication, Master Reginald.” Montgomery’s jaw dropped two inches. His lips worked up and down without sound coming out. Remember, you should never allow stress to build up without obtaining relief.
But ultimately, that didn’t help. Serena groaned inwardly. “If the Templars need it ready in two weeks, MeetSmart will have everything in place: Security tight enough to please the men in black, kosher food for the Elders of Zion, decorations so tasteful even They will be in a good mood.”
“They?” Montgomery snorted. “Parvenus, a conspiracy barely two centuries—”
“What They say about fashion and style carries a great deal of influence these days. Think how much easier it would be to embed Templar propaganda in the movies if They told everyone in Hollywood we were cool and hip.”
“Cool. Hip.” He spat the words like curses. “We are the Templars. And if you fail the Templars in this, heads will roll. Literally. Starting with yours.”
Of course you should join the Templars, honey, Serena remembered her father saying. It’s great for networking, just like the Rotarians.
“Two weeks?” Serena’s assistant, Dennis James stared at her until the coffee overflowed his Transformers mug and onto his hand. Ow, ow, ow! And crap! That’s impossible, Serena!”
 “The Chinese symbol for crisis combines ‘danger’ and ‘opportunity’,” Serena said, though she remembered reading that wasn’t actually true. “If we pull this off—”
Nobody’ll care,” Dennis said glumly, picking up his breakfast bearclaw and joining Serena and Molly, her other employee, at the conference table. “I mean, if they knew it was impossible, they wouldn’t have left it this late, would they?”
“Blame the Supreme Illuminatus,” Serena said. “He and Grandmaster deMarco have bad blood between them, something about their kids competing for First Clarinet Chair in the same school band. From what I hear, he held off confirming the date as long as possible in hopes of screwing everything up.”
“Well he’s succeeded, hasn’t he?” Dennis said. “And what’s the point in getting together, anyway? Some of the other conspiracies are even crazier than we are.”
“Conspiracy is pejorative,” Serena said. “‘Covert unelected authority figures’ is the buzz-phrase of the moment.”
“They’re still crazy,” Molly said. “I had a Rosicrucian try to pick me up in the Skybar once, he was all ‘Yeah, we drafted the Constitution, we discovered gravity, we built the pyramids, would you like to see my big Egyptian obelisk?’ Give me a break.”
“I thought the Illuminati drafted the Constitution?” Dennis said.
“Dennis, read the briefing papers!” Serena said. “If we work with reps from the other groups, they’ll expect us to know their history; being covert, they’re very sensitive about not getting enough recognition.
“And no, the Rosicrucians drew up the Constitution to limit presidential power after the Illuminati replaced Washington with his exact double. It’s that kind of mess that shows why synergy is needed: All these groups working at cross-purposes interferes with the Templars’ grand vision for the future of humanity.”
“Which is?” Molly asked.
“I’ve never met anyone who knows, but they’re very clear it’s grand and ... visionary.” Serena shrugged. “‘Mongo just pawn in game of life.’”
“Even if we make it all come together,” Dennis said, “it still seems like a train wreck waiting to happen.”
“Then we need to make sure nobody blames us for the body count.” Serena chewed on her lip thoughtfully. “Dennis, hit the computers: Identify all suitable conference rooms, find who’s booking them, see if we have any Templar contacts who can cause a last-minute venue change, or if there’s any pertinent blackmail available.
“Also, Reginald gave me a list of all the attendees and the relevant contact numbers.” Serena slid a yellow legal pad down to the end of the conference table. “Handwritten, of course. Work up a database for special room requests, diets, allergies, whether anyone’s bringing wives or mistresses.
“Molly, you know a few low-level initiates from the other societies, right? See if any of them can help, or have contacts who can help—and, of course, thinks they’d benefit with their own higher-ups if they help Synergy-21 come off.
“And wasn’t your ex with They?” Molly nodded. “Could you talk to him, find out what They say is best for furnishings, carpets, that sort of thing?”
“No prob, I’ll give Rupert a booty call tonight.”
“Nice to know someone has an ex to call,” Dennis glared at Optimus Prime. “If I were working for the Trilateral Commission, I’d have dates. Those yuppie stuffed shirts with their big expense accounts—”
“Focus, Dennis,” Serena said. “And while you’re working on the routine but essential details, I’ll be working on the non-routine ones. All the ways this won’t be like any other conference this area has ever hosted.”
“And all that in two weeks,” he said.
“No defeatism.” Serena wagged her fingers at her staff. “Remember—”
“It’s not impossible until after you fail to do it.” They said her favorite motto in unison, but not with enthusiasm.
Glancing around the Hilton’s conference room, Serena grunted and resumed scowling at her iBook seating chart. Possibly if I move the Secular Humanists to the furthest table from Opus Dei ...But that puts Grandmaster DeMarco too close to the Supreme Illuminatus ...
“You Dean?”
“Who wants to know?” Serena didn’t look up.
“Ned Blackwell. We have an appointment.”
“Ned—” The light went on. “The Illuminati who called this morning?” Serena looked up, saw a dark-bearded twentysomething in Dockers and a blue shirt that complemented his hazel eyes. “I’m Dean. Hello, Ned!”
“So the Templars need the Illuminati to pull their fat from the fire again?”
“When have you ever pulled our fat from the fire? But of course, if you can help out a little—”
“With what?” He gestured at the conference room. “It’s a little cramped, but it looks great.” Serena decided not to mention the decorating tips from Rupert. “I’m amazed you could get one this time of year.”
“I lucked out. All it took was a couple of phone calls to the Peoria Templars and a manufacturer in the Midwest just went bankrupt and had to cancel their big conference. The Hilton was begging to have us book the room at a discount.”
“So what do you need me for?”
“I’ve maxed out my contacts and markers and I still have only half the hotel rooms I need. And I have to concentrate on finishing the seating charts and make sure none of the conferees is distracted with worrying about arsenic in their Dasani. And I’ve only one week left. Molly said you wanted to help, though if the Supreme Illuminatus—”
“The rest of my bosses love this. They’re convinced they can sway everyone to sign onto their big plan. I don’t know what it is—”
“But it’s big, right?”
“That’s what I hear, anyway. And my immediate superior, he uh—he’s not happy with me.” Serena waited. “His wife’s hot, OK? And she swore he wasn’t able to get it up.”
“Getting into TMI territory, thanks.” But when her eyes met his, Serena suddenly felt as if the air-conditioning had shut down. “Listen, why don’t we discuss this—
“Security is going to be a problem.” They both jumped as the Man in Black spoke. Serena had no idea where he’d come from. “This building has security cameras, Internet access, WiFi—we’re not going to participate if there’s any possibility of the Freemasons posting footage to the Web. You know what they’re like.”
“The assistant manager’s taking care of that,” Serena said. “He has a wife, two very expensive girlfriends, and a boyfriend. We have negatives.”
“Good work, Dean.” The Man—Serena knew better than to ask his name—gave an almost-smile and adjusted his dark glasses. “You’re the first Templar I’ve met who realizes security means more than some big guy with a broadsword.
“Now, I heard you talking about the poisoning problem.” The Man held up a computer disc. “I have this matrix I’ve been working on for calculating the optimum seating in these situations. The big boys haven’t been interested—”
“Oh, I’m so interested.” Serena took the disc, hoping the matrix would, in fact, help. “Just tell me how to identify you when they ask who deserves the credit.”
“Thank God for Starbucks!” Ned clutched his cup as he blinked into the morning sun, or what could be seen of it beyond a row of condo towers. “As I was saying, my mother pretty much guilted me into following her into the Illuminati, but—”
“Parents.” Serena rolled her eyes and bit into her biscotti. “My father—”
“Anyone ever tell you, you nibble food like a little mouse?” His eyes glinted charmingly.
Tarheels can kick Gator butt!” Dennis’s voice behind them spun Serena around. He and the Man in Black were still arguing college football, but pretending she found the debate interesting gave her a second to reign in her libido.
She turned back, saw Ned smiling as if he knew exactly what he was doing to her. “So, Ned, how’d you get the rest of the rooms to open in two days time?”
“The usual. Some blackmail, a terrorist threat that screwed up some airlines, a blonde executive with ... demanding tastes.”
“I gather you’re quite good at satisfying demands.” It didn’t come out as smooth as she’d wanted, and she flushed as Ned eyed her. “Let’s get back to the Hilton. I’m about to go over Reginald Montgomery’s head.”
“Agenda planning?” Templar Grandmaster Eric deMarco raised one graying eyebrow as Serena handed him the package. “Our agenda is clear, to work out a harmonious division of the spheres with—”
“This is a three-day meeting,” Serena said. “Have you thought about when it’s best to bring up control of the Federal Reserve, given how strongly the Trilaterals feel about that? How much time will be devoted to fiscal-year goals, and how much to long-range planning? Have you considered a visioning session? And will side negotiations be encouraged? I didn’t know, but I have several private rooms available for them.”
“And Reginald told me you were ...” DeMarco pursed his lips, then accepted the package. “But then, Reggie always was an idiot. Let’s sit down and you can go over this in detail.”
“Looking for something?”
“Ah—” Ned, clad only in boxers, jumped out of the chair in front of Serena’s computer and turned to face her. “Serena, believe me, it isn’t what it looks like!”
“Of course it’s what it looks like.” Clad in a loose cotton shirt Serena came over, pushed him back in the chair and sat in his lap. “So what were you after?””
“The agenda package you gave that guy. My superiors figured if we know the game plan—”
“I didn’t draw up a game plan, I just gave the Grandmaster guidelines for drafting one. And I had Dennis store everything on a flash drive he took with him, then wipe this computer clean. Just in case.”
“Why ask me up if you knew?” Ned asked. She gave him a Well, Why Do You Think look. “Oh, okay.”
“I wanted to see if you were all talk and no performance.” He waited expectantly. Good! “It’s not as if I wouldn’t have snooped around at your place. It’s our duty, right?”
“Yeah, but—” He raised his hand toward her breast, reconsidered, placed it on her hip. “When we met, I thought ... you seemed so innocent, just a bright-eyed kid, eager to make her mark—what’s so funny?”
“Bright-eyed? Eager?” She slapped his head, as hard as she could while giggling. “Do you read chick-lit novels or something? I’m a Templar, remember? I lost my innocence when I learned the real reason we made Fox cancel Firefly.”
“Okay, so I underestimated you. Should have listened to what mom told me about redheads.” Ned caught her chin and drew her face close to his. “So how much trouble am I in?”
“Stick around through breakfast and you’re forgiven.” She slid her hands over his firm shoulders. “I guess this is why they frown on inter-society sex, but I’ve never met a Templar I’d even want to make out with.”
“Women in our group are no picnic either,” Ned said. “Of course, neither are 90 percent of the men. Everyone’s so obsessed with advancing the grand strategy, they never eat right, never work out—’’
“I’ve heard the Grandmaster eats to relieve stress.” She giggled again, kissed Ned’s nose. “He’s very, very stressed.”
“My generation of Illuminated Ones is trying to get a better work/life balance,” Ned said, “but sometimes I wonder if we won’t end up just the same. I mean, trying to run the world without anyone finding out—”
“Every year our assassination and cover-up budget goes up 25 percent,” Serena said, wriggling his boxers off. “Used to be just reporters, now we have to watch our for paranoia Web sites, bloggers playing at investigative journalism—”
“And very sexy Templars.” Ned gave a small gasp as Serena’s mouth worked its way over his skin.
“My proposal is simple.” DeMarco spread his plump hands wide with a beaming smile. “We need to stop  screwing the world up.”
“We have never screwed the world up,” Cardinal Bernardo of Opus Dei said. “We simply want to restore the Catholic Church to the primacy of—”
“And unmake Vatican II which means going back to your Christ-killers smear and the blood libel, right?” Elder Solomon said sharply.
Watching from the shadows, Serena saw with alarm that the Secular Humanist spokesman was about to contribute to the conversation. Fortunately, DeMarco got there first.
“This is precisely the kind of thing I’m talking about, gentlemen. Everyone of us is dedicated to a great and glorious vision for the future, but none of us share the same vision.
“Consider: We, the Trilateral Commission and the Elders have been trying to steer the American economy to where it needs to be, but we’re frequently steering in opposite directions.”
“This is ridiculous!” The Illuminati leader left off fiddling with his crystal eye-in-pyramid pendant and threw up his hands. “You’re discussing the technical details of one nation’s budget when in our hands, we hold the collective destiny of the world! Of all time! And you spoke of vision?”
“Vern, I don’t recall you thinking long-range when—” DeMarco caught himself. “It doesn’t matter how long or short-range our planning is, what matters is that we are all able to strive for our goals with as little interference as possible.”
“Last year, for example—” He pointed at one of the nameless Men in Black. “The Freemasons decided to end the world’s oil dependence on the Middle East, but your leaders thwarted them by covering up all the cold-fusion breakthroughs.”
“The time wasn’t right!” The Man in Black folded his arms impassively. “Or have you forgotten Guatemala in ‘76?”
“According to you, the timing is never right—but I didn’t gather us here to lay open old wounds.” The Grandmaster shrugged. “The Templars are as guilty of being bad sports as anyone. But even so, we can lay out the groundwork here tonight for areas on which there’s common agreement, or none. Initiatives on which we can agree, or negotiate—trade a policy here for a policy there, n’cest pas?
“So, gentlemen.” DeMarco took a sip of mineral water. “You’ve seen the agenda; shall we roll up our sleeves and get down to work?”
“You were in the meeting!” Master Reginald hissed, jabbing his finger into her shoulder. “A meeting of the highest level! What possible justification—”
“It’s my job, sir.” Serena removed his finger, knowing she was on firm ground. “If anyone’s dissatisfied with the seating, the food, whatever, I’m ready to make immediate intervention—”
“If you had done your job properly, that wouldn’t be necessary!”
“—as Grandmaster DeMarco instructed me.”
She saw Montgomery consider denouncing her for going over his head, realize it was a little late for that, and settle for a frosty glare.
She was careful not to look smug. Remember, living well is not only the best revenge, it triggers the least amount of blowback.
“Serena?” The Man in Black—she was 90 percent sure it was the one she knew personally—came up to her and Ned at the buffet table as she stacked her plate with fruit. “My boss says the security is airtight. He wants to know, are you willing to cater meetings for other organizations?”
Ofcoursebutcanwediscussitelsewhere?” Serena hissed. “Why yes, that’s an excellent suggestion,” she said more loudly as a couple of 10th-level initiates passed by. “I will certainly take it under advisement.”
“Bad for your Templar status?” he said.
“If this meeting works out, I’m sure I can spin it as a synergistic effort ... Wait, you guys actually have regular conferences? Outside of the Area 51 bunker?”
“Not usually, but the buffet here is so much better than the rubber chicken 51’s caterers serve—“
“You got that right,” Tori, a Secular Humanist with a They-approved punkish haircut said as she accepted a slice of Asiago cheese from Dennis. “My boss loves this buffet too, by the way. The last conference I attended, the catering was for shit.”
“Why thank you.” Serena said, trying to sound as if she had her work admired every day. Under Master Reginald, it has been a while. “Dennis, of course, made a lot of the arrangements.” He shot her a grateful look. “So how do you think it’s going?”
“I think it’s a fantastic idea,” Tori said, “upon which our various supreme leaders will all ultimately rain cold water.”
“Same here,” Ned said. “To the High Illuminated Ones compromise means other people agreeing to do what we tell them.” Murmurs of assent filled the dining room. “And the only thing all the groups agree on is that the Buffalo Bills must never win a Superbowl.”
More murmurs, and a couple of embarrassed laughs.
“And I’ll bet nobody in this room has a clue what the big picture is, do they?” the Man in Black said. “I used to think it was just my bosses covering up even from us, but—”
To Serena’s surprise, even the 10th-level initiates were nodding.
“Yeah, what are we really controlling all the courts and the schools for?” Tori said. “Setting the educational agenda for America is fine, but it doesn’t help me get my kid into a good preschool.”
“You have a kid?” Dennis said. “I er, love kids—”
“Sometimes I think life would be a lot easier if we went public,” Ned said. “No more cover-ups, no more maintaining all those stupid front companies, the Illuminati could downsize by—”
“Cover-ups are 19 percent of our overhead,” Tori groaned. “And we waste so much money on lobbying—I mean, our lobbyists are never going to influence a Rosicrucian senator, but we can’t let people see how the system really works.”
“No?  What would happen if we did go public?” Serena said. “People already think corporations own the government, it hasn’t led to an armed revolt, has it? And we could do a lot better for people, just like the old political machines. They were crooked, sure, but street lights got repaired, people got jobs—if we did stuff like that, everyone would love us.”
“Honey, you sound serious,” Ned said, “I mean, this is just blowing off steam—”
“The public would never accept how we maintain power, would they?” a nun with an Opus Dei nametag said. “Assassinations, blackmail, overthrowing inconvenient foreign leaders—you have a point, we don’t sound that different from the federal government, do we?”
“And we could hire a think tank to issue three counter-charges for every accusation made against us,” Serena said. “Or we make blanket denials, then leave the media to do their balanced-reporting thing. You know, ‘Some say the Templars framed Nixon for Watergate, the Templars deny it,’ that sort of thing.”
“But what good would it do?” the Man in Black said. “I mean, it wouldn’t resolve any of the issues between our groups, would it?”
“I think it could change everything,” Dennis said. “If everything were out in the open, even halfway out, we’d have to start thinking differently. Maybe even they’d start to think differently.” Tori stared at him blankly. “Sorry, I don’t mean They, I mean the they in that conference room.”
“Wonderful,” Ned said with insincere enthusiasm. “And just how do we convince them of that?”
A long, long, long silence followed before Serena spoke. “Remember, the status quo is sometimes the riskiest place to be. There’s another hour before they take a break, let’s get started on our talking points.”
“Eighth-level?” Lying next to Serena—the lush carpet in his apartment this time—Ned whistled and clinked his wine glass with hers. “Congrats. And my news is just as good, my superiors are very happy with me right now. Okay, not the one whose wife I screwed, but—”
“If you keep bringing up your past conquests, I’ll have to describe how I worked my way through college as a call girl.” Ned gaped. “Oh baby, you are so gullible.”
“As I was saying, I’ve been assigned to administer the new Talk Illuminati radio network. It’ll be every bit as “fair and balanced” as Fox News, but hopefully a little subtler.
“Still, do you think we’ve made any real difference? Our agendas are still going to clash.”
“Which is great for me,” Serena said. “There’s so many meetings planned for this area, I’ve had to triple my staff. Templar/Rosicrucian, Secular Humanist/Trilateral Commission, Opus Dei/Templar—and the Men in Black with someone they won’t identify, they still haven’t got the openness thing down yet.”
“So you’ve got a double reason to be celebrating?” Ned bent down and nipped gently at the tip of her ear.
“And for tonight, at least—” Setting down her wine glass, Serena pulled Ned closer. “—I’m pretty sure both of us have exactly the same agenda ...”