June 11 2004
"Sir," Caitlin said into the phone, "you want me to go where?"
"Naples." John Lynch's voice on the phone was clear but faint; as often as he traveled, and as far, he might have been around the block or in Sri Lanka. He was a hard man to keep tabs on.
She glanced up and down the school corridor. Classes were about to start, but she wasn't the only girl standing by her locker with a cellphone to her ear. The boys were long gone, and Roxy had just left. Sarah, six lockers down, watched her curiously. "Not Naples, Florida."
"How? When? Why?"
He explained in his usual terse style. Part of his strategy for keeping them all out of IO's hands involved forcing the organization to look all over the world for them, diluting its effort. He had confidence in whatever he was doing to hide them from computer searches, but IO had hirelings scattered on the ground everywhere, and he wanted to keep "The Shop," as he sometimes called it, from getting even an approximate fix on their location. He'd traveled the world as a senior field operative for IO, and had made many useful contacts in and out of the clandestine community. Some of them were people he could trust; others were people he could use, if he knew which buttons to push. In the three months the kids had been guests at his house, he'd arranged for them to be "sighted" several times, in widely scattered parts of the globe. He'd hired look-alikes to impersonate most of the team, and allowed their pictures to be taken by freelancers looking for information to sell. Eventually, the false information always found its way to IO, and invariably triggered a rush to the site, drawing away resources that might have been used to find their real location. He likened it to a Whack-a-Mole game; but, up till now, a game where one mole never popped her head up.
"Because I haven't found someone who could impersonate you, Caitlin. Not convincingly, anyway, even from a distance. Not that I haven't tried." He sounded almost apologetic, as if he should have an easy time finding someone who looked like her.
"I get it. IO must be wondering where I am, why I'm the only one they never see."
"Yes. We have to lay a false trail for you, to put their suspicions to rest. I've contacted a man in Naples, a forger. His work isn't as good as mine," he said wryly, "but he doesn't know that. He also doesn't know that I'm aware he's a scumbag in IO's pocket. We'll use him as a conduit for misinformation. I'll give you some things to show him, and coach you in what to say. You meet him, tell him what we want him to hear, and then you hustle home and let him contact Ivana, to sell what he thinks he knows."
"Getting on a plane seems kind of risky."
"A commercial flight would be. Insanely. Pack two changes and sundries and meet me at Lindbergh Field."
"Lindbergh Field? Where-"
"San Diego International. Meet me at the commuter terminal at the east end of the airport."
She considered her commitments. It being the start of summer semester, she had a light course load; even the toughest summer classes offered at MacArthur were hardly more than refreshers compared to the academic boot camp she'd gone through at her last school… except it wasn't really a school. Best not to think of that. Besides, it was Friday. Once the day's classes were over, she could leave town for a couple of days with no harm done. Just a phone call to her water polo coach, and another to her lab partner, and she was clear. "Okay. What time?"
"I'm waiting for you, Caitlin."
Fifty minutes later, she entered the department-store-sized terminal, still in her school clothes, carrying a small bag and a little resentment at having to pack for an international flight in five minutes with zero notice. Mr. Lynch was lounging against a wall near the gates, dressed in his usual Johnny Cash traveling clothes and wearing a patch over his ruined left eye. The look of pleasure on his scarred face was all it took to banish her pique.
"You got here quick. Hungry?"
She eyed the meager offerings at the snack bar. "Always. Breakfast was two hours ago. I suppose this is my last chance for a decent meal before we take off?"
"Not exactly. We're eating on the plane." He led her past the regular gates to another door.
"What, box lunches and bottled water? How long is the flight?"
"Usually thirteen to fifteen hours. And I think we can do better than stale sandwiches and an apple."
They passed through the door and out onto the concrete. She slowed as she saw where they were headed. "Oh. My."
Their plane was a gleaming executive jet, crystal white, trimmed in burnished aluminum; to her eye, it looked less like a flying bus than a spaceship. The engines on either side of the fuselage below the tail were already starting to spin up, and the aircraft's built-in stairs rested on the ground, waiting.
She ascended behind her guardian. Ducking her head at the top of the steps, she almost collided with a handsome thirty-something man in a pilot's uniform. He studied her without a glance at Mr. Lynch. "I see why you waited."
"Caitlin, this is Barney, our copilot. Don't break his heart. He's a lonely man."
The ceiling was about six feet high in the center, too low for her to stand up straight. This close to the door, it was even lower, and she practically leaned over the man. She was glad she was wearing her shirt buttoned up to her collarbone, and acutely aware of the way her breasts strained against the fabric in this position. "Hi."
A gruff voice called from the pilot's compartment to their left. "You wanna finish the preflight? Maybe you can flirt when we're in the air."
Barney touched a switch with one hand, and the bill of his cap with the other. "Jim runs a tight ship. Thinks he's still flying for SAC. Once the door's up, you won't see me out of the cockpit much. Still, very pleased to meet you, Caitlin." The steps folded up as the door rose and sealed the opening, muting the whine of the engines. "Buckle up. We're ready to roll." He headed into the compartment forward. Instead of heading straight back to the passenger cabin, she paused at the doorway a moment, and she heard him say, "Oh. My. God."
"I saw her from the window. Guess Jack likes em tall."
"Oh. Yeah, that too."
"Pervert. Looks a little young."
"To you, they must all look young."
"Well, gee, maybe it's the schoolgirl outfit she's wearing. Looks real to me. Maybe you should take a closer look."
"Just give me the chance, Cap'n."
She dropped into a seat and looked around, amazed at the room and the luxury of the passenger accommodations. She was only looking at the front half of the cabin; the rest was closed off by a heavy curtain. This section, which would hold a couple dozen seats on an airliner, held precisely six, four facing forward, two facing each other across a table, each with its own window. The seats resembled living room recliners, with plenty of room to stretch her legs. The round windows, presently shuttered, were easily twice the size of the ones on commercial planes. The cabin walls were upholstered in a cream-colored plush fabric that complemented the carpet and seats, and accented with beautiful burl trim. "This is a limo with wings. What does it cost to charter one of these things?"
Her guardian settled into a seat on the other side of the cabin. "I don't know. This one's mine."
"You own it?"
A smile quirked the good side of his face. "I thought you were done being impressed by my money. Yes. As much as I travel now, it's safer and more convenient. Probably cheaper, too."
"You're spending yourself broke to keep us safe," she said quietly. "Aren't you?"
He snorted. "Girl, I'm worth more now than when I met you. I don't even spend the income from my investments. Going broke doesn't even make my list of worries."
The plane taxied to the end of the runway, turned, and rushed down the strip, pressing her into her seat harder than any Boeing she'd ever ridden. But the aircraft was quiet as a limousine, too. It lifted off the runway, tilted its nose impossibly high, and climbed. Within minutes, Captain Jim's voice came from a speaker somewhere in the cabin. "We're at cruising altitude, thirty-five thousand feet. Get comfortable, folks. We'll touch down at Charlotte to refuel in about four and a half hours. Then, it's ten hours to Italy."
She slid back the window shutter, and stared down at the scenery passing below. From this height, the mighty Rocky Mountains looked like a wrinkled bedsheet below her; clouds were cotton balls that squatted seemingly inches from the ground, casting distinct shadows. The works of Man were insignificant; towns were nothing more than smudges of different colors on the ground, and roads were invisible. She started to call home on her cell, but Mr. Lynch shook his head.
"Don't. It's probably safe, but most pilots get twitchy about cell phones in use on their planes. And this one's got more electronics than most. Wait until we stop to refuel." Mr. Lynch lowered his seat back and closed his eyes.
"I thought we were going to rehearse."
Eyes still closed, he said, "We'll do that over the Atlantic, when you've got nothing better to do. Enjoy the view. Go distract the pilots. Grab a bite. There's a galley aft, behind the curtain."
Hunger won out over curiosity. Behind the curtain was a burl table flanked by four more seats, a matching countertop with a tiny sink, a countertop microwave/convection oven, and a small refrigerator and freezer, both fully stocked. The frozen quiche, individually packaged in disposable containers, was Anna's cooking, orders of magnitude better than airline fare. She prepared two meals and took them to the kitchen table. While she ate, she looked out the windows at the cloud tops. The galley windows, she noticed, were equipped with handles on either side, and another that looked like a locking mechanism; then she spotted the "EXIT" signs above the windows. After disposing of her dishes, she visited the tiny bathroom at the back of the plane, then slipped past her sleeping guardian to knock softly on the door to the pilot's compartment. "Fellas, is it okay to come in?"
A short muffled conversation arose on the other side of the door, then Barney said, "Don't know what you mean by 'in,' but you can open the door."
She slid the low pocket door aside. "Jeepers. I thought this thing looked like a spaceship from the outside."
Jim and Barney were sitting side by side in a space that looked like a fighter cockpit built for two. She knelt and stuck her head in, resting a hand on the back of each man's seat. Instruments and controls covered the walls, ceiling, and a wide center console. The windows were much smaller than she would have expected; instead, four large LCD screens dominated the front of the compartment.
Jim, an older man in the left-hand seat, turned to meet his copilot's eye, his face inches from hers. "Did she really just say 'jeepers'?"
She eyed the tight seats, separated by the center console. "How do you get into the seat?"
Barney grinned at her. "Now you know why you have to pass a physical to fly one of these."
"And ten years of school, looks like. Why are the windows so tiny?"
"Bout the only time we use em is when we're taxiing." Jim indicated the LCD screens. "In flight, these are a lot more important."
She studied one; it looked like a map with another square full of numbers and graphs tiled in the corner. "This uses a Windows application."
"It's everywhere, miss. Did I hear Jack call you Caitlin?"
She extended a hand. "Most everybody calls me Kat. Have you known him long?"
He took it, awkwardly because of his position. "About five months, since he hired us away from the charter company. It's a sweet job." He smiled at her. "Very sweet."
Barney cleared his throat elaborately. "How's the wife, Jim?"
"Safe at home. Where's yours?" Jim shot back.
"Long gone, as you damn well know. I saw her first."
"He's joking, Kat. This is his idea of sweet talk. Now you know why he's single again."
The two men took turns telling her flying stories. Barney was a former fighter pilot, having flown F16s in the Air Force before his twenty-year retirement. "A lot of nasty in a small package, that bird. And after you've got used to flying one, you'll fall asleep on roller coasters." He described some the maneuvers he'd performed in them, using his hands to demonstrate. He casually mentioned that he'd learned a few of them dodging surface-to-air missiles.
Jim's flying experience was entirely in bombers, mostly flying B52s in the Strategic Air Command. "Got thirty-one launch alerts in twelve years. Most of them were drills, thank God. They usually gave the all-clear as soon as we were a safe distance from the base. But twice, we were over the Pacific, headed for World War Three with about thirty megatons. One of those times, I was looking at the Soviet Union through my front windows, and getting lashed by air-defense radar. Think SAMs are scary in a Viper, Junior? At least you can run and dodge. Buffs are slow. They have a turn radius that's measured in miles, and a radar signature that looks like a flying barn. You get lit up, all you can do is hope the countermeasures live up to the contractors' claims." After the "Peace Dividend" had mothballed most of the SAC bases, his aging but utilitarian bomber had been armed with conventional munitions and cruise missiles and sent on patrol in the Middle East, enforcing the Iraqi no-fly zones.
She asked, "Why do you call them 'Buffs?'"
"Ah…" Jim's ears reddened as Barney smirked. "It stands for 'big, ugly, fat… fellas.'"
Jim's last command had been a B1, a supersonic swing-wing aircraft designed to penetrate heavily defended airspace. "They were built to drop nukes on ICBM silos, or the Kremlin. These days, they're mostly for recon and electronic warfare. But their missions still have them going into the hot spots first. You have to know how to fly between the treetops."
"I'm not surprised you guys are the best. Mr. Lynch doesn't hire second-stringers."
Barney shifted in his seat. Jim gave her an odd look. "The pay is top-notch. And he's a thoughtful boss, though more than a bit demanding. But he doesn't give many straight answers to simple questions. Like what kind of business has him bouncing all over the world like a pinball for weeks on end, or dealing with people at midnight." He raised an eyebrow at her. "But this run is one-of-a-kind. You know, you're not the first guest he's brought aboard. But all the others look and act like him. What's going on? Care to drop a hint?"
"Um, no. Sorry."
"You pack pretty light for a weekend trip, Kat," Barney said casually. "Especially for a girl. But I suppose Jack'll buy you anything you need."
She nodded and opened her mouth, relieved at the change of subject, before she realized what he was really asking.
He ignored a warning look Jim shot him. "Nice of him to take his niece to Italy for the weekend. Bet you're gonna have a lot of fun." He turned to see her blushing from collarbone to scalp.
"He's an old friend of my father's. He's helping me with a problem. I can't say any more."
Jim flipped a couple of switches. "Kat, you should probably get back to a seat now. We're starting our descent for Charlotte." She backed out of the compartment and slid the door shut. She heard him say, "Nitwit. If she's not, you just lost any chance you had with her. And if she is, you couldn't afford her, not even on your pay."
Mr. Lynch was awake in his seat. "What happened to you?"
She walked like a hunchback to a seat and dropped in. "Your pilots think I'm a call girl you're taking on a trip to Europe." She recounted the cockpit conversation.
He nodded. "Good cover. I've been wondering what to tell them about you. Now they'll quit fishing."
She felt her face flaming again.
The descent was more gradual than the takeoff, and the landing so smooth she had to look out the windows to know when they'd touched down. Jim taxied up to a wing of the terminal far removed from the main building. "Half an hour, then we're on our way again. You can stretch your legs in the terminal if you want."
She did. They were once again in the commuter section of the airport, but there were several food stands open, and she indulged in a burger and ice cream as she walked about.
Her phone chimed. Roxy's voice was high and breathless. "What are you doing? Sarah said you're going to Italy with the Man in Black. How long are you gonna be gone? Are you going to get a chance to hit the beach?"
She checked her phone's call ID: blank. Roxy must be calling from her cell phone, one of Mr. Lynch's specially-programmed secure devices. "I don't think so. I'll be getting there in the middle of the night, and I don't think we're staying long." She looked out the terminal windows; it seemed like the sun was going down way too quick. The hands on her watch read three o'clock. But that's West Coast time. What is it here? And what time will it be in Naples when we arrive? She decided to catch some sleep before they touched down again, to minimize jet lag.
"I'm green anyway. Why did he take you?"
She explained to her sister, who must be getting out of school for the day by now. She described the trip so far, and Mr. Lynch's plane and pilots, as she strolled down the concourse and the rows of seats in front of the gates, licking her cone between sentences. "So, it's just a business trip. No fun at all."
"You could avoid having fun in an amusement park. Next time he takes one of us somewhere, it's going to be me. And you can bet I'll find a way to have some fun."
She finished the ice cream and began licking her sticky fingers, then stopped as she noticed an entire row of seated men staring at her, fascinated. "I'd better go. I don't want to miss the plane." She found a ladies' room to wash her hands.
Barney was waiting at the bottom of the stairs. "Kat. I'm sorry I embarrassed you. It's really none of my business either way."
She passed close by on her way to the stairs. He was less than six feet tall; this close, she towered over him. She looked down at his upturned face. "True." She boarded the plane without another word.
The flight across the Atlantic was interminable. Barney or Jim passed down the aisle occasionally, headed for the bathroom; she nodded to Jim, and ignored Barney. Jim broke for a meal while Barney stayed in the cockpit. "Good stuff. Been meaning to ask. Where does he get it?"
"From his kitchen. His housekeeper's a caterer too."
"You're right. He doesn't hire second-stringers."
Shortly after Jim left, she decided to fix a snack. While she was tucking away fruit and cheese at the galley table, the divider curtain spread wide, and Barney leaned in. He flicked a glance towards Mr. Lynch and decided to leave the curtain open. He pulled one of Anna's single serves from the freezer and nuked it. She felt his eyes on her the whole time the microwave was running. When it was done, he sat across from her and tried to strike up a conversation. The fact that the conversation remained completely one-sided for five minutes didn't seem to faze him. The harder he tried, the more uncomfortable and irritated she became. Finally, she couldn't stand it any more. "Barney."
He stopped talking as if he'd been switched off and smiled sunnily, perfectly attentive.
She looked down at her plate. "I'm flattered by the interest. Really. I just wish I knew if you're thinking of making me an offer or just looking for a freebie. But I'm afraid I'm off the market either way." Her eyes flicked past the open curtain to Mr. Lynch, who was reading a document of some sort, looking like a proper international businessman. "You see, my arrangement with Mr. Lynch is exclusive, and he pays too well for me to jeopardize it."
His face fell, settling into a stony expression. "I see."
"I thought you would. You work for him. You're a professional too."
"Yeah," he said quietly. "Don't want to get you in trouble with the boss." He left without finishing his meal.
When she returned to the front section, Mr. Lynch suggested she sleep. "We'll be arriving at one in the afternoon, local time, but your body will think it's three AM. You don't want to meet this guy with a fuzzy head."
"What about coaching me? What's my cover story? What do I do?"
"That should take twenty minutes, and you'll absorb it better when you're rested." He followed his own advice and tipped the seat back. With his eyes closed, he said, "Don't worry, Caitlin. This jerk is going to be easy to play. Stick to the script I give you and don't embellish. Avoid telling him anything personal, or volunteering information. This is a business transaction, and his line of work demands anonymity. He'll try to get extra information out of you, but avoiding his attempts won't make him suspicious."
She took a nap while the sun raced towards them from the other side of the world and the plane raced to meet it. She woke in time to watch the dawn come up ahead of them, while they were still over the Atlantic. She looked at her watch and saw that, back home, Anna would be locking up the house for the night. She decided to visit the cockpit and watch the sunrise.
Jim was sleeping in the pilot's seat, mouth open. Barney looked up as she entered. He gave her a polite smile and returned to his instruments. As she peered through the windows at the fiery cloud tops, she rested a hand on the back of Barney's seat. He leaned back, and she was acutely aware of the light pressure of his head against her fingers, and the feel of his sandy hair between them, and the light flooding into the compartment like a visit from God. It seemed too late to remove her hand, so she left it there and hoped he wouldn't notice. Eventually, he leaned forward, and she pulled it away. "It's beautiful," she said softly. "Do you ever get tired of flying?"
"Sometimes, but not for long. It gets to you, and you can't leave it alone. But the lifestyle can be lonely."
She almost accepted his half-baked apology then, but after the scene in the galley, it seemed a little late. She resolutely pushed the urge aside.
Jim woke and stretched. "Huh. Almost to landfall. Soon as we cross Spain, we'll start our descent."
She went back to the galley and ate again, while she watched land appear below them, slide by, and disappear as the sea returned. She woke Mr. Lynch. The way the man came out of sleep instantly was unsettling, as if he'd just been lying with his eyes closed, waiting for her touch. "What's up?"
"Us, but not for long. We're past Spain, over the Mediterranean. Jim says we're going to start our descent soon."
"All right then. Let's get to work."
Landing at Naples gave her a rush. The city was sprawling, and its recent growth had engulfed its airport. As she looked out the side window, the runways were nowhere in sight, and it looked like Jim and Barney were bringing them down into the heart of the city. Just as they seemed about to brush the rooftops, the buildings disappeared and she realized they were over the landing strip, seconds from touchdown.
As always, the plane taxied to a stop at a building far from the main terminal. Barney dropped the door and extended the stairs, and the air of a foreign land drifted into the cabin, mixed with bright afternoon sun. Sure enough, her watch read three o'clock.
"Change your clothes, Caitlin," her guardian told her. "Wash up in the sink a little. It won't be nearly as good as a shower, but you'll feel fresher."
Their copilot approached the table as she returned. Barney addressed Mr. Lynch as if she wasn't there. "Jack, we'll have the bird buttoned up in half an hour. How soon are you going to need us?"
"I don't want it buttoned up. We're not staying."
He blinked. "Well… where are we going?"
"Back home. Caitlin's dad and I were in the Service together, and I owe him more than one. He's got some urgent business in town she's taking care of for him. But she's got school Monday. I'm just doing him a favor, giving her a lift and taking her back on time." He glanced at her, deadpan. "I'm sure she's been inconvenienced enough, having to ditch classes Friday and then waste her weekend cooped up on a plane with a bunch of old fossils. She probably had to cancel a date tonight."
"Mr. Lynch, you know I don't date much." She looked out the window at the concrete. "It's no fun. Boys take one look at me and make the stupidest assumptions."
"Humph. Other girls complain about their looks, but they manage to find boyfriends. You should get out more." He turned back to his flummoxed copilot. "There's a car coming to pick her up. Meet it at the stairs, and make sure she gets in okay, will you?" He went back to his reading. Barney left, walking a little stiffly. From behind his papers, Mr. Lynch said, "A perfectly good cover story, shot in the ass."
"Thank you, sir," she said quietly.
"His wife caught him with another woman, I think you should know."
"Sokay. He's not my type." Through the window, she saw a car pull up to the bottom of the stairs. "Um, what about Customs?"
"Taken care of. Nervous?"
"Good. Helps you keep your edge."
As part of her cover story, she needed to appear to be a habitually single traveler; Mr. Lynch didn't even stir from his seat as she got up. "Caitlin. If I thought this was the least bit dangerous, I wouldn't have brought you. If it works, good for us. If not, if he's not fooled, we'll come up with something else. You'll be right back."
She ducked through the doorway, descended two steps, and straightened, looking out over the concrete. Off to the southeast, some miles away, a solitary cone-shaped mountain rose. In the outskirts of this busy metropolitan area, it seemed strange.
From the bottom of the stairs, Barney said, "That's Vesuvius. When you get off the plane, you'll almost be standing on the buried ruins of Herculaneum." Then he added softly, "Swear to God, you're enough to stop a man's heart, coming down those stairs. Please don't say anything yet."
The car's driver got out and opened the door for her as she descended the ten steps to the ground. He spoke not a word to her, but she could feel his eyes on her behind his sunglasses, and later, in the rearview mirror as he drove. She pretended to look out the window at traffic while she rehearsed her part.
Her next surprise was the forger. She'd expected some oily Neapolitan type; the man turned out to be German, maybe forty years old, trim, clean-cut, and engaging as a favorite uncle. "Please come in, dear," he'd said in the slightest of accents as the driver ushered her into his office, which was opulently decorated and furnished with a fortune in antiques. "Be careful, the doorway is low." He gestured her into a large upholstered armchair in front of his desk. "Would you like a drink? A snack?"
"No, thank you." She'd been warned not to accept anything to eat or drink from him. "I just ate." She sank into the chair; it was thickly padded, and very comfortable.
"Pity. Naples is famous for its food and drink." He smiled in a way that almost pulled an answering one from her. "This is where pizza was invented, among other things. An American favorite, yes?"
She did smile then. "Yes." It only occurred to her later that he might not have known her nationality.
He retreated behind his desk, a massive piece of almost architectural construction, with fluted columns and decorations, made of some dark wood. "I'm very pleased you've come to me for help. Your patron is a man of substance. A good man to do business with. I never believed the story about him blowing up that ship and killing all those people afterward. I think that was just the organization's way of, as you say, covering their own asses." He steepled his fingers, appraising her over them. "Still, it did make him the undisputed master of the trade, and cost him only a few millions."
She had no idea what he was talking about. Just one more reason for Mr. Lynch to make me uneasy. "He's a bad man to cross. Not a man who'd be pleased to find out I discussed his business with strangers, sir."
"Excuse me. I did not mean to pry." In a pig's eye. "Please, call me Dieter. I am not so old that I am comfortable with a lovely young woman calling me 'sir.'"
"Thank you, Dieter." She removed several passports from her purse and glanced pointedly into one of them. "And you can call me Fiona."
His smile faded somewhat. "Let us discuss the business at hand then. What, exactly, can I do for you?"
She rose out of the chair with some effort, and spread the passports, four in all, on his desk, and produced a printed list from her purse. "I need some extensive alterations. In particular, most of the stamps need to be removed and a few others inserted. The books are getting suspiciously crowded, and there are some places I've visited I want to make sure no one knows about."
He inspected the passports one by one. Two were U.S., one Canadian, and one Australian. The photos, of realistically poor quality, were all of her; she hadn't posed for any of them, and had no idea where Mr. Lynch had gotten them. They showed her with her own copper hair, as well as chestnut, blonde, and black; green, gray, brown, and blue eyes; hair lengths ranging from pageboy to bra strap length. "You don't appear to have spent more than a few days at a time anywhere in the past three months. Even spread among four passports, you're in danger of attracting attention in these suspicious times."
"Exactly. But I don't want all of them erased. A previous stamp from a country I'm entering lightens scrutiny. And there are places I plan to go for the first time that I'd like such stamps for." She showed him her list. "The left column is required deletions. The shorter list on the right is additions."
She sat back down and let him study the list. "Some of these are routine. But these two…" He tapped the names with a manicured nail. "These countries embed digital encoding into their passport stamps now. Customs officials run the document through a machine that prints the ID and enters it into a database. They routinely scan such stamps in any passport they examine, and they contain a great deal of information which must be fabricated. Forging such a stamp is almost worthless without an accompanying entry in the database. That is much more difficult… and expensive."
She lowered her eyelids and tried to look suave. "My patron is more concerned with results than economy, Dieter. If price had been a concern, he wouldn't have sent me to you."
He smiled wide. "I can't remember when a woman gave me such pleasure, and I haven't even touched your hand." He looked down at the passports. "I can have all four ready in a week, perhaps less."
"Perhaps much less. I need them in an hour."
He looked at her incredulously. "Fiona, this is not a drugstore darkroom. Each database is accessible to me only at scheduled times, and the database entries must be planned carefully."
"Make the physical alterations now, and I can avoid those countries that use the special stamps until you've hacked the databases."
He rested his elbows on the desk and propped his head on his hands, thoughtful. "I would have to duplicate the documents as blanks, and insert the required stamps, both old and new. That is the only way I might fill this order in time."
"Fine. Just be very certain you destroy the originals, Dieter. Believe me, hanging on to them is worth your life."
"That would be most unprofessional." He got up from the desk, no longer smiling, but intent on her. He rounded the desk and approached her seat. "I must say, I find it difficult to credit such a threat that comes from so lovely a creature." He gathered the hair at the side of her head in one hand, stroking her ear with his thumb.
If the opportunity shows itself, Mr. Lynch had said, give him a show of strength to establish your bona fides. This seemed like a perfect time. Her Gen-augmented speed gave him no chance to pull his hand away. She grabbed and twisted it, forcing him to turn until she was pressing his wrist up between his shoulder blades. She stood and bent him over the front of his desk. "Don't touch me without my permission, Dieter. It's rude. As for the other-" She brought a forearm down on the wooden desk, hard, inches from the man's head. The heavy block of wood split with a loud crack and collapsed, spilling the items on it across the floor. "I'd have to regard keeping those books as an attempt on my life. I'd only be defending myself." She released him.
The door opened, and the driver stuck his head and an Uzi through the opening. "Stay out of here, Paul," Dieter said, rubbing his shoulder. "The young lady is entertaining me." The man withdrew and the door shut. "Forgive me, Fiona. My behavior was boorish. I can plead only that I was overcome by your beauty." He smiled. "Which I had heard of, but found as difficult to believe as the stories of your… prowess. I now see that the stories are all true. I shall halve my price for the job, in atonement. Will you wait, or shall I send them to you?"
She refused another offer of refreshments and of a more comfortable place to wait. She sat in the chair, outwardly calm, while her thoughts spun. If Mr. Lynch was right about this man, he probably wouldn't keep the passports, but he'd sell IO the list of erasures and additions. Knowing where she'd been and where she intended to go could provide vital leads to tracking her and the rest of the team down. Assuming, of course, that she'd ever been to those places, or intended to be anywhere but La Jolla anytime soon. Those stamps would have IO chasing false leads all over the world.
An hour and three minutes later, he was back. "Here are the originals. Do with them as you will. And here are your new documents. Examine them carefully, to be sure they meet with your approval. Be careful not to mix them up."
She glanced at the covers, which appeared as worn as the originals. Which are also new. "I'm sure they're perfect, Dieter. Do my patron's payment arrangements meet with your approval?"
"Yes; quite secure. We need only settle the price."
"Charge what you think is fair. My patron is easygoing about money. But he dislikes personal dishonesty. He won't cavil. He'll just kill you if you cheat him."
"Have no concerns on that score. A man who can recruit someone like you is worthy of the greatest respect." He looked into her eyes. "As well as a man with his reputation for… penalizing… unsatisfactory performance. I advise you as a friend: whatever he demands of you, do not disappoint him, my dear." His mood lightened. "Arrivederci then, lovely girl." He extended a hand, his left. He grinned crookedly. "The right is a bit tender." She placed her left hand in his. But instead of grasping it, he raised it slowly to his lips. She felt a bit of heat rise in her face; then she realized he was reading the dial on her wristwatch, which she hadn't reset to local time. It's analog, a twelve-hour display, not twenty-four. I could have just come from Moscow or Riyadh; they're a lot closer than California. He let go, smiling. "I think I'll have a new desk made with pieces of the old. So I will remember you whenever I sit at it."
The car returned her to the terminal and the waiting plane. As her foot touched the bottom step, Mr. Lynch's voice came from somewhere outside. "How'd it go?"
She looked around, and saw him under the plane, sitting on the tarmac with his back against the nose gear. His black clothing had made him almost invisible until he stirred. He hinted I'm working for Keyser Sose, and warned me to watch my back. She remembered that line from Tolkien, about how true servants of evil tend to look fairer and feel fouler than the good guys."Just like you said, pretty much. What are you doing?"
"I was keeping an eye on the ground crew, making sure they weren't doing more than filling the tanks. Afterwards, it seemed like a good place to wait for you." He sort of rolled out from under the plane and dusted himself off. He put a hand on the stair rail. "Did you get a chance to show him a magic trick?"
"It was the easiest part. He made a pass at me. A rather strange one, unless European men do it differently. But a pass, for sure." She described Dieter's strange caress.
His eyebrows rose. "Really. I'd heard he was gay."
"Not gay enough." She stuck out a lower lip. "Humph. Before I ballooned out, guys hardly gave me a second glance. Do big bazooms really matter so much?"
The corner of his mouth quirked; the normal side, as usual. "In a word, no. A display of mammaries will catch a man's eye, no matter the size. Big ones will hold his interest, for a while anyway. They won't win his heart. Something about you turns men's heads and makes them dream on you, and it's more than your cup size. You should know it."
Since the change, I can count on my thumbs the men I know who've never looked at me as if they're imagining me without my clothes. You're one of them. And I'm strangely uncertain how I feel about that.
She shifted, and their hands accidentally met on the rail. She jerked hers back as if she'd touched something hot.
"Uh, guys?" Barney stood in the doorway above; she wondered what he'd witnessed, and what conclusions he'd drawn. "We're ready to go."
"Good." Mr. Lynch glanced up at Barney, then ascended the stairs without waiting for her.
Good grief. He's already seen me with my clothes off. I was naked when I met him.
Instead of waiting for her at the door, Barney came down the stairs, stopping one step above her, and put a hand on each rail, preventing her from passing. He smiled crookedly. "There. Now we're seeing eye to eye. Kat, I made a stupid assumption. More than one, actually. I assumed something between you and Jack I had no evidence for. I think I must have been jealous."
"Well I'm not. And we're not."
The charming smile he'd worn when she first met him reappeared. "In that case. Jack says he'll be getting off in Charlotte, and meeting us tomorrow in Memphis. We don't have to rush to take off after we refuel. We should be in Charlotte in the early evening, just before dinnertime, and… well, it's a beautiful town, with lots to see."
She felt the familiar freezing-up feeling taking hold of her again, the one she got whenever a guy pressed towards her. She pasted a smile on her face and said, "Thanks. But I'd just as soon not."
His face fell. "I really am sorry. Let me make a better impression on you."
"Barney. You know you're old enough to be my dad, right?"
Their faces were level, and no more than a foot apart. "Barely. I'm thirty-nine. You're what, twenty-one? Doesn't matter to me if it doesn't matter to you."
"Doesn't look that way from where I'm standing."
She shook her head. "I heard fighter jocks were all roosters. Is it part of the selection process, or do you all just buy into your rep? You're charming, and I'm not immune, but I don't date older men, Barney. Especially divorced ones." Not a lie; I don't date men of any age. To soften the blow, she added, "I'm quite sure you'd be too much for me to handle. Let me by, please."
He gave her a roguish smile, lifted his hand, and moved just enough for her to slide by without touching him. He followed her into the plane. "Well, I've got about ten hours to change your mind."
Somewhere over Spain, she said, "What are you going to do with these?" She slid both sets of passports across the galley table.
He took them. "Burning them's my first impulse. Maybe If I ever find a look-alike to impersonate you, I'll have her flash one. Not at a checkpoint, though."
She sliced a microwaved chicken breast. "Why? They must have cost a fortune."
"Remember why we chose this guy. I'm sure Hans copied them all. You're never going to use one of them."
"Hans Albrecht. Our forger."
"He said to call him Dieter."
"He enjoys his little jokes." He leaned back. "When he sells his copies to IO, they'll have an explanation for how you've been staying under the radar. A more prosaic one than us having a means of subverting the national ID system. We don't want them learning that. It might lead them to all manner of damaging discoveries."
"Barney said you're getting off the plane in Charlotte."
"I left a car there. And I have some business in Nashville. The pilots will be overdue for some downtime. Spend the night in a hotel, take off again in the morning, and pick me up in Memphis on the way home." He let his eyelids droop, a gesture as broad as another person's grin. "Maybe Barney won't be too tired to take you to dinner."
"Maybe I won't be hungry."
He glanced at her meal. "Where we took off from, it's dinnertime. Back home it's early morning. Is that why you're eating cereal with roast chicken?"
"I don't know. It just sounded good."
He raised a last bite of toasted bagel to his mouth. "You'll be hungry." He stood. "Good work, Caitlin. I'm going to rack out. Wake me up if something happens."
"Sir, are you okay? You're sleeping a lot."
His mouth quirked. "Air travel's no novelty anymore. And I don't know when I might get a chance to sleep again."
They arrived in Charlotte at almost the same time as before, and parked at the same terminal. She decided against a repeat of her previous adventure inside the building. But Barney wouldn't let her use her cell phone near the plane while it was refueling, so she entered the terminal and found a quiet spot, a row of seats in front of an empty gate.
Anna answered her cell phone. "Caitlin. Hon, it's so good to hear from you. Enjoying your little outing?"
"Mostly I'm sitting around looking out the windows and waiting to land. I've barely spent two hours out of the plane since Friday morning. I guess we're spending the night in Charlotte." There was no one around, but she lowered her voice anyway. "Anna, did you know he has his own plane?"
"I fill the galley, don't I? A Gulfstream G550. Quite pretty, don't you think? I'm so glad he didn't have it painted flat black."
"You know the pilots?"
"Jim and Barney? Or is Matt filling in? Is Mr. Lynch taking a hand at the wheel?"
"He can fly a jet?"
"Among other things." Anna's tone told her she wouldn't say any more about that.
"It's Jim and Barney. Anna, how well do you know Barney?"
"Well, I've talked to him on the phone a few times. He sounds handsome. Only good-looking men have the practice to be such casual flirts. But I know he's a good pilot. Combat veteran, logged quite a few hours in the no-fly zones in Iraq. He used to fly Wild Weasels."
"Pilot slang for anti-SAM missions. You draw fire from antiaircraft missile batteries so you can unmask them. Then you duel with them, dodging their missiles while you send back a few of your own. It takes skill and courage. Has he been telling you stories?"
"Not that kind. He wants to take me to dinner."
A pause. "Well?"
"He makes me nervous. He doesn't seem like a man who's used to hearing 'no.' I don't know how he'd take it."
"Are we still talking about dinner?"
"He mistook me for Mr. Lynch's party girl. A prostitute, actually. We're sharing a hotel. And Mr. Lynch won't be there."
"I see. Has he offered you money?"
"God. No." She flushed. "If he had, I wouldn't even be thinking about it."
"We're back to talking about dinner, yes?"
"Let him buy you a meal. I'm sure he can take a hint."
"I'm not good at this. I'm not sure I'd know how to 'drop a hint.'"
"I wasn't talking about you, hon. I'm certain Mr. Lynch won't leave you unless he's sure you're safe. Entirely."
She spent almost half an hour on the phone, talking to Roxy, Eddie, Bobby, and, last, Sarah. Their voices made her feel homesick, partly for her aunt and uncle and cousin in Seattle, but mostly for the beach house and her friends. "Be careful," Sarah told her. "Come back safe." A moment later, just before hanging up, she added, "We miss you." It was the warmest thing she'd said to her since the Academy.
When she returned to the plane, Jim was standing at the foot of the ladder with Mr. Lynch, both of them watching the ground crew disconnect the fuel hose. As she walked up, her guardian said to Jim, "That's it then. I'm about to shove off." He toed a black duffel bag at his feet. "You're booked at the Hilton. Three rooms," he said, with a meaningful glance at Jim, who transferred it to her.
"I'll make sure Barney knows."
"I already did. And I casually mentioned that Caitlin will turn eighteen next month."
"I wish I could have seen his face."
"I also asked him to take her to dinner, if she wants."
"You asked him to be her chaperone? I love it." Jim put his fist in the small of his back and arched it. "Last time I spent this many hours in the saddle was August of Ninety-one. We were orbiting off Kamchatka, waiting for a signal to end the world. The KGB was holding Gorbachev prisoner in his house, and there were tanks rolling down the streets in Moscow. The Pentagon didn't know whose finger was on the button over there. Getting too old for this, Jack."
"Thinking of retiring? Or just finding another job?" Mr. Lynch folded his arms. "I'll give you a severance check, and a recommendation."
Jim stopped stretching and looked at his boss. "Just like that, huh? You know, I might have just been hitting you up for a raise."
Mr. Lynch's eye crinkled. "Then hit me up. You're already making more money than you have in your life, but make your pitch." Even shooting the breeze with a friend, she noticed, he was never really at ease; his gaze swept all around the field, never still for more than a few seconds.
"I'd be doing it for Barney too. You pay good, Jack, no doubt about it. But we broke three FAA regs in the past twenty-four hours, all license-jerkers. I can't earn my pay if I can't fly."
"You'll have already earned it. If you ever lose your license following my orders, I'll pay your salary until you're reinstated, even if it never happens. You can take a consulting job or something, and you'll make even more."
"But I won't be flying, Jack."
"True." The restless motion of his eyes suddenly stopped, and his eye flicked toward the terminal, then to some emergency vehicles parked at the end of the runway. Then at the sky. "Jim," he said, his voice no higher but stiff with tension, "change of plan. Take off as soon as you can get clearance. You remember that little airstrip north of Temecula? Divert there, but not until the last moment."
"Jack, this is just what I'm talking about. We've been in the air twenty-two hours out of the last twenty-four. Even with two pilots-"
But Mr. Lynch wasn't listening. He reached for the duffle at his feet, his movements unhurried. "If you don't take off now, you never will. I'll make sure you're not interfered with."
She said, "Sir?" At the same time Jim said, "Jack?"
"I'm counting on you, Jim. Do whatever you have to do. Get her out of here now." He slipped around the plane's nose and disappeared.
They've found us.
Jim took one look at her face and called softly up to the doorway. "Barney."
"Almost buttoned up." Barney's voice came from the cockpit. "Where's Jack going? His car's the other way."
"Start the preflight."
"You heard me. Everything you can do without spinning up the engines or calling the tower. We'll do that last."
"Jim, we can't do that."
"I think we have to."
"We'll lose our licenses."
"Kid, was your base ever rocket barraged?"
"Then you got no idea how unimportant frickin clearance from the tower can be. Just get us ready to go without making it obvious." He turned to her. "This better be good."
She swallowed, restraining herself from looking around. "If I told you, you'd doubt my sanity."
"I'm doubting my own right now. Why do I feel like I'm still in SAC, and NORAD just flashed us a launch warning?"
"Because he saw something that spooked him. And you know he's a man accustomed to being around trouble."
"Hey, Jim. Any reason a fire truck should be rolling towards us? What the hell, a baggage truck too. What's going on?"
Jim gestured up the stairs. "Let's go." He followed her up the stairs, almost pushing her from behind. As the entered, he said to her, "Shut the door," and turned to the cockpit.
She kept a finger on the toggle switch that raised the door and listened to the two men working in the pilots' compartment: switches clicking, soft beeps and chimes. Then Barney said, "What are they doing now? For a minute, I thought they were trying to block the jetway. Jesus, he just ran down a marker. What's going on?"
The door sealed, and she was free to peek in. Through the front windows, she saw a fire truck bumping through the field near the runway, apparently driverless. It turned over lazily. A baggage truck sat just off the runway near the terminal, its driver slumped over the wheel. Three armed men in black uniforms and body armor spilled through the terminal doors and ran towards them. One of them fell flat to the ground, arms out, his pistol skittering across the pavement; the other two took cover behind the baggage truck. Jim turned and held her eyes as he answered his partner. "There's a world of shit dropping in on us, and the only way out is at the end of the runway. Jack's out there buying us time."
"Control, this is Charlie Sierra, Victor Kilo Adam, requesting clearance for takeoff soonest," Barney said. He sat silently, listening for an answer. Jim flipped a row of switches, and behind them, the turbines began to whine. Finally, he said, "They're taking too long to get back to us."
"I know." The plane stirred and began to roll toward the runway.
"Jim." No answer. "Jim, we can't taxi down a runway without clearance. What if someone's landing?"
"Guess we better be rolling out before they come in. Won't be the first time I've pushed a plane down the runway with my heart in my mouth. More like the thirty-second."
"Jim. We can't do this. If we're not killed, we'll never fly again."
"Kat, open the door. Barney's getting out."
"You got about a minute before I reach the start of the runway. Fish or cut bait."
"Keep the door shut, Kat. Cap'n, why are we throwing away our licenses?"
"I don't know what it's about, but I will before these wheels touch ground again." The jet turned onto the runway. "Belt in, Kat."
A thunderous roar filled their ears and disappeared. The plane vibrated and swayed on its gear. She gripped the edge of the doorway hard enough to squash the aluminum track. "What happened?"
"A 737 on takeoff just passed over us," Jim said. "Good news. The runway'll be clear for a little while." The plane rolled briskly down the concrete.
"Tower's ordering us back to the terminal. Says we have a terrorist on board. Law enforcement is on its way."
"Dammit, girl, go back and belt in!"
She did as ordered. As she snapped the belt together, she saw and felt the plane turn. The shifting view out the window showed a pair of black Suburbans tearing towards them from the main terminal, cutting across runways and tearing up the grass between. The Gulfstream rolled forward, picking up speed. She heard a sound over the powered-up engines that might have been gunshots.
Suddenly, the engines screamed and acceleration pushed her into her seat. She watched the runway slipping by, faster and faster, until it was a blur. The plane lurched sideways sickeningly just as the nose came up, then they were airborne and climbing, their ascent feeling almost vertical. A minute later, the plane leveled off and quieted. Jim's voice came over the speaker. "Kat, come up front now."
She unbuckled slowly, reluctant to face them. She didn't remember her father, but that stern tone made her feel young and in trouble, in a way that being shot at didn't. She advanced on the cockpit with tiny steps, listening to the men through the open doorway.
"Okay." Barney's voice was tight, controlled. "What, exactly, have we just done? Forget about our licenses. We're going to be arrested as soon as we land. Assuming we survive the landing. You know we lost the tires under the starboard wing, right?"
"Yeah. I think they shot them out, just as we lifted off. If the nose wheels hadn't been off the ground already, I don't think we'd have got away. Which reminds me." As she reached the cockpit, she saw Jim reach for a switch on his side of the center console, a small one enclosed in a plastic cover. Although Barney's controls were almost a mirror image of Jim's, there was no corresponding switch on the copilot's side. Jim lifted the cover and flipped the switch; nothing obvious happened.
"I've been staring at that switch for five months. You finally gonna tell me what it's for?"
"Jack had it installed. It cuts out the transponder. Maybe other things; I was scared to ask. I thought he was crazy when he told me about it. He didn't suggest I ever use it. Guess he figured I'd know when it was time."
Barney's face stilled. "Jim. Who have we been working for?"
The pilot looked over his shoulder at Caitlin. "He's a spook, isn't he? A senior one."
She took a moment to review everything these men were likely to know about her and Mr. Lynch. Then she took another moment to review everything Anna had taught her about lying convincingly.
"Well?" Jim raised an eyebrow.
"Yes," she said quietly. "Very senior. I don't suppose you've heard of the Operations Directorate?"
Both men shook their heads.
"No surprise. The U.S. has more security and intelligence bureaus than you can count on both hands, and most of them are clandestine. Right after Nine-Eleven especially, they started popping up like mushrooms after a rain. The Operations Directorate is an elite counterterrorism outfit. Mr. Lynch is deep undercover, posing as a prime-mover arms dealer. The cover's a little too good. Every law enforcement agency that knows he exists thinks he's real."
"So we're running from the Feds." From his tone, he might have said he was going to be shot in the morning.
"Not the way you mean it. Those weren't lawmen."
"I saw at least one of them wearing body armor with 'ATF' on it."
"How can you know they weren't? You said the cops are after him."
She swallowed. "If they were law officers, Mr. Lynch wouldn't have killed them." God help me if I'm wrong about that, about him.
"I wondered about that." Jim looked at his partner. "What? The ones who wanted to block us in, you think they just changed their minds? The fire truck's windshield was spiderwebbed on the driver's side, Barney. But no bullet hole. When it sorta turned off the concrete, you could see the broken part was pushed out, like somebody grabbed the driver's head and smashed it into the glass."
She swallowed again. Or induced a bone-snapping seizure that made him do it to himself.
"So who are these people, and what do they want with Jack?"
"Nothing. They're after me." She looked out the windows at the cloud tops, avoiding their eyes. "There's this agency. I won't say its name. I'm sure you've never heard of it, and the less you know about it the better. Think of the most outrageous stories you ever heard about the CIA. They're tame compared to this outfit. I don't have a clue how they get away with the things they do. The people who run it are bughouse crazy. I have a, call it a talent, that they think they can use. When they want something, they don't bother asking, especially if there's a chance you'll say no. They kidnapped me. When Mr. Lynch found me, they were… persuading me to work for them." She folded her arms across her and gripped her upper arms as if she was cold. "He got me free, and he's been hiding me ever since. He spends a lot of time and money keeping them off my trail."
"What's this 'talent' they want so bad?" Jim glanced at his screens and back at her.
"This is the part you're really going to have trouble believing."
"Girl, my disbelief went to lunch ten minutes ago."
"Okay. Well, it's kind of like ESP."
"You read minds?" He turned to Barney. "Oh, you are in so much trouble."
She felt her ears redden. "No, it's a kind of psychokinesis. I can move things I shouldn't be able to."
"Really." Jim pulled a pencil from a clip mounted on the wheel, and held it in the palm of his hand. "Move it."
"That's not how it works." She looked around for something, but couldn't find anything massive enough that wasn't bolted down. "I need something different."
Barney looked as if she'd lost her mind. Jim quirked a smile. "Something like a paper clip?"
"Something like a bank safe. I touch it, I can move it. I don't think seeing me move a pencil would impress you much. Tell you what. When we're on the ground, I'll pick up the plane and hold it over my head." She cocked her head. "Or could I convince you with an arm wrestling match?"
"No. Getting put down by you would only convince me I need to go back to the gym. You look like you work out every day and run a hundred miles a week. Getting in and out of this couch is my whole exercise program. I'll have to take your word for it." He turned back to his displays. "Cutting off the transponder makes us invisible to civilian ATC, but there's an awful lot of military radar between us and Temecula. I would have gone the other way, ditched in the ocean, and paddled ashore in the raft."
"Cap, that's a mighty casual attitude you're taking towards someone else's fifty-million-dollar plane."
"Think Jack gives a rat's ass about this plane, so long as we get her home safe?" He glanced back at her. "Would you?"
"That's an unfair question. I'll never own a Gulfstream."
"You'll never have an eighteen-year-old, six-and-a-half foot redheaded lingerie model either, I'm guessing." Jim eased the throttles back; the Smokies were already beneath them, and the wooded peaks seemed to reach up for the plane as she felt it descend. "We're already below most of the traffic lanes. I want to stay just high enough to avoid notice from the ground. Let's look over the radar map. Our ideal crossing point is a saddle outside a military reservation, so we can drop really low and cross in the blind spot between the mountain tops. Come into Temecula from the north." He called up a display showing overlapping fans of color.
"Gonna add some time to the trip." Barney called up a similar display showing a different sector of the Rockies. "The lower we go, the slower we fly. And the more fuel we burn, too, but we got plenty. You really think we'll get to California?"
"Been training to do this for half my adult life. Just never expected to be doing it over Chattanooga."
She watched them put their heads together, intent on their mission. "Guys." They turned to look at her. "I bet you thought hiring men like you to drive his limo was a rich man's vanity. Maybe you even felt like prostitutes, doing a job so far beneath your talents, just for a fat paycheck. The government didn't use you properly all the time either, but when it needed men to do what you do, nothing but the best would be good enough. Mr. Lynch isn't a vain man. He hired you because he was afraid he'd need a couple of hot pilots flying his plane someday."
Jim blinked. "Hm. Guess we're finally earning our pay."
The color that had appeared on Barney's ears at her mention of the word "prostitute" was fading already. "Still, why Temecula? It's not much of an airstrip; not even a car rental. Last time, we went there to meet someone. Are we supposed to land and wait a couple days for him?"
Temecula wasn't all that far from La Jolla. "I think he'll arrange for someone to meet us, Barney. You know Anna, right?"
"And the official cook for Lynch Airlines. She's very capable, and she can keep a secret. And she has a good opinion of you, I think," she added, to see what he'd say.
"I've only talked to her on the phone. She can't be as sweet as she seems." He lowered his voice, in volume and pitch both. "She's fifty and dumpy, with a harelip. Probably poisonous when she's not on the phone. Right?"
I'm glad to see you handle rejection so well, she thought wryly. "Humph. She looks to be early twenties. Five foot one, maybe a hundred pounds soaking wet. Light blonde hair, blue eyes. Reminds me of a pint-sized Barbie doll, or maybe that model Gemma Ward. She doesn't say, but she could be French."
"She and Jack…"
"Absolutely not. She's very professional."
She felt the corner of her mouth lift. "Happy hunting." Watching him make a pass at her could be very satisfying.
She went back to a seat at a table, the one near the front she'd shared with Mr. Lynch. She watched the mountains fall away into farmland as the plane approached the eastern Mississippi floodplain. She fretted.
She had no concerns about her personal safety. Mr. Lynch had left her in the hands of experts, and she was sure they'd deliver the plane undetected to Temecula. But as they passed over Nashville and fled westward, she worried about her guardian, alone among a host of enemies. He's been in plenty of tight spots, she told herself. He can handle trouble better than anybody.
But the phone clipped to her purse on the table stared at her. Only the fear that its ring might distract him or give him away kept her from picking it up. By the time the plane crossed the Mississippi and turned northwest, she'd reached for it half a dozen times. The urge to hear his voice and know he was all right was almost irresistible.
She sighed and leaned back in the chair. Something poked her in the back of her head. She leaned forward and ran her hand over the headrest: nothing. She leaned back again, felt it once more, and slid her hand between her head and the seat. Her fingers encountered something tiny and hard in her hair. She pulled, and it clung like a burr but came free.
It was a tiny gray cylinder, about half an inch long and a little bigger around than a toothpick. She went cold, and reached for the phone.
It picked up before the first ring ended. "Caitlin."
"He wasn't making a pass. The son of a bitch bugged me. Stuck his hand in my hair with it between his fingers, and stroked my ear with his thumb to distract me."
"Forgers are deft. Do you have it now?"
She turned it to dust between her thumb and forefinger. "Done. Where are you?"
"Still climbing the mountains. I've switched cars twice, and plates four times. I'm finally on my way. When you land, get the plane under cover. Anna will pick you all up at the airstrip and bring you to the house. It's going to be crowded for a few days until I change the ID on the plane and the pilots so they can go home. Where are you now?"
"Over the Ozarks. We're going to cross the Rockies north of the airstrip." She swallowed. "What about the bug?"
"We'll have to wait and see. It should be okay. At least we know how they made us in Charlotte. I'm just glad you found it before you put the plane down again." He paused. "Have you called home?"
"I was afraid to."
"Should be safe if you stick to your cell phones. Never call to or from a land line if you're worried about being traced or recorded. Believe it or not, IO can listen in on every conversation."
"You're talking to a computer geek, remember?" It wasn't as if tapping a phone actually involved physically cutting into a wire somewhere anymore. Every call made anywhere passed through computers; they were the only way landlines could handle the traffic, and the cellular system couldn't exist without them. It would be simple to add the capability of listening in on the calls and recording. It was just a matter of putting enough computer power on it, and matching your storage capacity to your filtering algorithm: knowing which conversations to keep, and for how long. Current technology would make it possible to identify words and even individual voices; assigning a score based on keywords, context, location, and the identity of the callers would make it possible to dump almost all of the calls after a short holding period, and keep the ones that might reveal something of interest. She could easily design a nationwide eavesdropping system capable of monitoring every phone conversation in the United States; human beings wouldn't have to listen to a thousandth of the calls to make it effective. She was sure the experts at IO had a system a thousand times better in place. "I'll stick with the secure phones, don't worry."
What I can't figure out is how to make a cell phone that can't be monitored and traced, yet still works. Mr. Lynch has some very, very smart friends.
"Good. But don't overuse those, either. I already called, and told Anna you're on the way home. Call her when you're about to come down out of the mountains, not before. I should be home in a couple of days." His voice softened. "Everything will be fine. Your worst danger now is sharing a house with Barney for a week."
She smiled. "Got it covered. I sort of fixed him up with Anna."
She'd thought he'd be amused; his reaction surprised her. "I don't think that's a good idea. Some ways, she's just a kid. What if he mistakes… that puppy-dog friendliness for something else? God help us, what if she decides to experiment?"
"Sir, she's not going to risk her cover unnecessarily." I never expected him to act so… protective? Possessive? "She'll shut him down before things get out of hand."
"I suppose. He'd just better not be too charming, that's all." They spoke for a few minutes more, and they disconnected.
She went forward. "Where are we?"
Jim glanced at his display. "We're in Kansas, Toto." He banked the jet to the left. "We passed over Arkansas and a little of Missouri and Oklahoma while you were on the phone. Jack?"
"Yes. He's fine. He wants you to hide the plane in a hangar and come home with us for maybe a week, until he gets back and squares this. He says he can change the plane ID and flight plans, make it look like it wasn't us."
Barney gave a short whistle. "Guy's not just a G-man. Homeland Security must send him Christmas cards. So, we're sleeping over at Jack's." He smiled. "Gonna find out how the other one percent lives."
"Um, Mr. Lynch also said to warn you about minding your manners with Anna. He used the word 'ingénue' twice." She watched the back of his neck flush. "I might extend that warning to cover Roxanne and Sarah."
"Oh? Jack's got four girls at home?" His voice deepened again. "Are they as pretty as you?"
"Opinions vary. I think I'm the Plain Jane of the bunch. But, aside from Anna, I'm also the oldest."
"Huh. I'm going to be spending a week in a millionaire's California mansion, surrounded by jailbait. And I'll never be able to tell a soul."
"Hope we can find you some swim trunks," she said, feeling mischievous. "We all spend a lot of time around the pool. Don't let Sarah talk you into skinny-dipping."
"Stop it. I'm dying here."
"I want to call home," Jim said suddenly. He unsnapped his belt as Barney took over the controls.
"Come back this way." She handed him her phone. "Use this one. Call a cell phone, if you can. Assume you're being tapped." She left him at the table and went forward to the cockpit. "What's the plan?"
"We scoot along the Colorado border, south of Fort Carson, and then jog north a few miles to a pass. We zigzag north and west between the mountains, coming out into the high desert just north of Moab, Utah. Then we travel almost due south through half of Arizona just to avoid all the military airspace in Nevada. We'll overfly the Grand Canyon and turn west at Lake Havasu, and sort of slide between the big bases at Chocolate Mountain and Twenty-nine Palms to insert into the last range. We'll come out of the mountains at Moreno Valley, turn south, and practically drop on the airstrip."
Barney nodded. "Jim planned it out. Buff pilots are sneaky. What he's got in mind about the missing landing gear, I probably don't want to know."
She kept the copilot company for some time, while Jim tried to explain to his wife that he was going missing for a week without giving anything away or sounding too cryptic. "You have someone to call?"
"No. I'm sort of between girlfriends right now. I could disappear for a month, and nobody'd miss me but my landlady."
All four of the LCD screens froze, dissolved into a riot of hashed pixels, and cleared. Mostly.
"Kat, your phone's out." Jim came up behind her.
"Oh, shit." Barney was staring at one of his screens. "We've got company. Two-nine-oh relative, twenty miles. Three of them. They look pissed."
She pressed against the wall as Jim pushed past and slid into the seat. "Closure?"
"Eight hundred. They'll be here before you can recite the Lord's Prayer."
Jim looked up at her. "Probably F16s out of Kirtland. We can't outrun them. Can we run them out of gas?"
"They're three hundred miles from home." Barney studied the screen, with its occasional blocks of hashed pixels. "They're nowhere near the limit of their combat radius. After all, they don't need a reserve for dogfighting, do they? And they probably aren't carrying a full ordnance load."
"Try the radio?"
"Didn't seem to be any point. They're jamming."
"Kat, maybe you should belt in."
She looked at the pilot's face; the man looked twenty years older. "Like Barney said. What's the point?"
Their pursuers closed to visual range moments later. She saw one take up position ahead, above, and to the right. She'd never seen a military jet except in pictures, which failed to do justice to its presence. It was like and unlike their sleek aircraft, similar in principle but clearly different in purpose, as a combat knife is to a paring knife. Comfort and a smooth ride didn't appear to have been design concerns: it was all huge scoops and sharp angles, practically shouting power and menace. There was no cabin; the pilot rode atop it in a plastic bubble. Missiles hung from its wings. Its roaring engine made the Gulfstream's airframe shiver, a well-bred pony surrounded by wolves.
"The other two are behind us." Barney studied his screens. "Can't see em, but I know they're there."
The radio hissed. "Charlie Sierra, Victor Kilo Adam. Come to course two-zero-five, descend to thirteen thousand."
Jim glanced at his screen. "Back to base. Kirtland."
"Some of the peaks around here are twelve thousand," Barney said wonderingly. "Who are they hiding from?"
Jim keyed his mike. "Kirtland flight," he said, for anyone else who might be listening, "be advised our landing gear is damaged. We'll need emergency equipment standing by."
"Think we're getting through?"
"Probably not. This is good gear for a civilian plane, but I doubt it's punching through the jamming."
The fighter moved suddenly, swinging across their field of view. Alarms howled as their plane shuddered and tipped thirty degrees. Jim and Barney both snatched at their wheels. She squeaked in reflex and grabbed at the door. The plane dropped like a stone for a few heart-stopping seconds before the men wrestled it back to level.
"Charlie Sierra, Victor Kilo Adam. Come to course two-zero-five, descend to thirteen thousand."
"Guess they're not interested." Jim loosened his grip on the wheel and banked the plane gently. Then he reached for the throttle controls. "I'm sorry. If there was something we could do, we'd do it. We can't run. Any one of them can knock us out of the sky without using its weapons. Three of them can herd us like a cow, and make us land. We're out of options."
"At least when they arrest us, it'll be public." Barney looked at her, trying to be reassuring. "Kirtland shares runways with Albuquerque's civilian airport."
"Kirtland is a big place, Junior. And it's been around a long time. All the runways they use now are shared, way up at the north end of the base, but they've got a few others they could have us set down on, quiet and out of sight. And Kirtland's got a long, shady history. The place is full of secrets."
The F16 took up its earlier position. It looked almost close enough to touch.
Her mind was racing. But she wasn't afraid. "Barney. I was going to go out with you. I was just playing hard to get, because I was miffed." It wasn't true, but she felt a need to give him a parting gift.
His face was pure misery. "I'm sorry. If we don't do what they say, we'll all die."
"Wasn't pleading. I just thought you should know. You guys are the best." She kissed the tops of their heads and backed out of the compartment. The door didn't quite shut all the way any more since she'd bent the track, but she slid it as far as it would go, then a little more, wedging it tight. It would take both of them to open it, she thought.
"Kat." Jim's voice had a haunted quality to it. "What are you doing?"
She paused. "They're not taking me again."
"Kat." Barney grunted as he twisted in his seat and threw his weight against the door. It didn't budge. The opening was just wide enough for them to see half of each other's faces. He put his hand through and pulled at the door; it didn't even rattle. "They claimed you're a terrorist on the radio. They chased us into the sky in front of an airport full of witnesses. They've got to deal with you publicly. Don't do this. Gitmo's bad, but it's not… forever."
"If they lay hands on me out of sight, I'll disappear, and the news will say what they tell them. They have their own holding facility. I've been there once. It makes Guantanamo look like a tourist destination. And if I fall into their hands again, it will be forever." She touched his fingers where they curled around the door. Then she turned, crouching, and headed for the kitchen, picking her purse off the table as she passed.
In the last three months, she'd experimented often with her ability to redirect energy, trying to establish her limits. From the moment she'd realized they would be forced to land, she'd been calculating. The math was simple, really. She guessed the Gulfstream's landing speed from prior landings; multiplied the velocity times her weight to arrive at an estimate of the energy she'd have to redirect in order to jump out of the plane safely just before it touched down. The numbers were rough, but well within what she was sure she could handle.
Then it had hit her that the Gulfstream's landing speed probably exceeded her terminal velocity, the speed at which air drag canceled G and the speed of her fall topped out. Which meant that if she was going to jump out of the plane while it was still in the air, it didn't matter if she did it at thirty feet, or thirty thousand.
In the kitchen, she went through her bag. She unbuttoned her shirt and clipped her phone to her bra, then buttoned it back up. She stuffed her cash, credit card, and ID in her pockets. As prepared as she could be, she grasped the handle that unlocked the left-hand emergency exit.
Then she paused and questioned her sanity. Depending on their position over the rugged terrain, she'd be a thousand to five thousand feet in the air. Once she jumped, it wasn't an intellectual exercise. It was a gamble with her life. Looking out the window, she saw folded ridges covered in trees. She took a breath and twisted the handle. It turned, but the door didn't open to a reasonable push.
"It's not meant to open in flight." Barney stood two steps behind her. His sleeve was torn. "I thought you were coming back here to cut your wrists. This is even crazier. There's a four hundred knot wind blowing across that door, thank God. You'd need explosives to open it."
"Guess you're going to get your demonstration, then." She gave the exit door a sharp push, and almost fell through the opening as it popped out and tumbled away. The air shrieked for a moment as the cabin pressure equalized. Barney snatched at a seat back. Her purse whipped out the porthole. The plane skidded sideways and dipped a wingtip.
Then it lurched, hard, almost throwing her off her feet. Out the right-side windows, she saw flames, and pieces flying off the wing.
The trailing F16 kept station below and to the right of the hijacked Gulf. The pilot's orders were simple: to shoot the hell out of the bird if it tried to run. He felt a little sorry for the pilots; chances were they'd been flying across the country at gunpoint. But if this dude was half as bad as they were told, he couldn't be allowed to get away. Homeland Security wanted him alive to answer questions, but those guys hadn't known anybody walking the halls in the Pentagon on Nine-Eleven. The Gulf probably had enough fuel to reach any target within a thousand miles. Hell, Los Alamos was close enough to throw rocks at.
The Gulf suddenly yawed and banked. Its tail swung into his gunsight. Hitting the trigger was almost involuntary, just a twitch, before he realized his target hadn't changed course. But, at two thousand rounds a minute, it was enough to send six twenty-millimeter cannon shells into the Gulf's tail.
Horrified at his mistake, he watched the starboard engine fly apart. Debris sleeted into the wing and tail. But the plane didn't disintegrate, as he'd been sure it would. It banked again, for sure and for good, and headed down, trailing flame.
"Barney!"Jim's voice, shrill as the alarms.
The copilot sledded down the sloping aisle to the front of the plane. She glanced at the open emergency door, and decided the men might need an extra pair of hands, or extra strength. She followed Barney to the cockpit.
"Bastards shot us." Barney keyed his mike. "Mayday, Mayday." He threw it down. "Still jamming."
Jim was frantically throwing switches and hauling back on the wheel, trying to bring it to his chest. The forested mountains ahead grew perceptibly, the tops rising up out of sight as the plane continued to dive. She reached in, placed her hand on the column on which the wheel was mounted, and pulled it toward him.
"Easy. Don't break it."
"You've got another." The wall of evergreens held stationary for a heartbeat, then began to drift downward. Not fast enough. The trees seemed to grow to the size of Sequoias as she and Jim wrestled the wheel back. Then sky and mountaintops dropped into view as the nose came up.
"I was talking about the tail. Gonna be skimming the treetops on the crest," Jim said tightly. "But we'll be okay."
She released the breath she'd been holding just as a tearing sound came from the back of the plane, followed by a loud bang. The plane shuddered and plunged downward. Trees flew towards them.
"Sherri, I love you."
A roaring flash, a sharp tug, and she was flying through space.
She saw her surroundings in snatches as she tumbled in three axes: the fireball spreading across the ridge top behind her; debris, some of it burning, flying through the air all around; the trees below, whipping past with blurry speed. She spread her limbs in a skydiver's starfish pattern, and her gyrations settled down, with her flying face-forward and slightly canted. The wind pressed hard against her, and wrung tears from her eyes. She was sure she was traveling way beyond terminal velocity.
The treetops were still falling away below her. She wondered briefly if she was still rising, and decided that the steep downslope was increasing her height above ground as she traveled almost horizontally through the air. Just as well, she thought. I'll have more air time to slow down, and I'll come down farther from the crash site. Maybe miles from it. She seemed to be half a mile in the air now, and the desert floor at the mountain's base was still miles away.
The forest below stopped receding, and accelerated towards her with frightening speed. Her flight didn't seem to have slowed her at all. She dropped into the canopy like a cannonball.
Branches hammered against her, too fast to register the blows individually. A trunk flashed before her. Redirect. It exploded away from her as she touched it; she flew through a shotgun blast of splinters without slowing. She approached the steeply sloping forest floor at a shallow angle, smashed into the ground, and rose through a cloud of dirt into the air, tumbling again. She got another short view of the treetops before she descended. Another flailing from tree limbs, and then she was bouncing and rolling down the slope, knocking down small trees and caroming off larger ones.
She didn't lose consciousness, really; but it seemed to take a long time to realize she'd stopped. Maybe because it took so long for her head to stop spinning. Eventually she became aware that she was lying facedown on the forest floor. Her ears were full of groans and loud pops as trees upslope fell to the ground.
Move, carefully. See if anything's broken. She wiggled her toes, and that felt all right, so her back must not be broken. Her fingers worked too. She got one forearm under her, then another; no pain. Then she realized her mouth was packed with dirt. Note to self: if something like this ever happens again, try to stop screaming before you hit the ground. She spit dirt and pine needles until her mouth went dry, partly clearing it, then she got on her hands and knees and finished the job using the contents of her stomach. When her retching had almost subsided, she thought of Jim and Barney, and vomited until she felt turned inside-out and nothing more would come up.
When she was sure she was done, she moved to wipe her mouth on her sleeve. It wasn't there. She stared dumbly at her bare right arm for a moment, then looked at her left, on which she was still leaning. Aside from a couple of inches of cuff covering her watch, that sleeve was gone, too. She rose to her feet, a little unsteadily, and felt the ground under her bare soles. She looked down at herself. "Oh, jeez. What else?"
She'd heard stories about NTSB officials investigating airline disasters that involved explosions or collisions at cruising altitude. They usually found the victims of such events stark naked, their clothes torn from their bodies by the wind during their long fall. Hers hadn't been nearly so far, but she'd hurtled through the forest at half the speed of sound; nothing that hadn't been close enough to her skin to be protected by Gen had survived. Which left her with only her watch and her underwear; even her socks were gone.
She looked over her remaining clothing. Her white cotton panties weren't white anymore, but they were all there. The watch's face was so scratched up she couldn't read it, but by some miracle it was still on her wrist. Her bra was another story. The cups were okay, if dirty, but she knew that the shoulder straps didn't stay down in front when she moved, especially without outer clothing. It looked like her left one could go any time.
Her ID, cash, credit card, and cell phone were scattered over the mountainside, of course. She looked upslope and saw a path of broken limbs, uprooted brush, and felled saplings. She couldn't see fire, but she smelled smoke, and imagined the blaze upslope marching down to meet her.
I've still got my brain and body; it's all I need for now. And Gen. Anything else I need later, I'll improvise. She bounded down the steep slope in thirty-foot leaps.
An HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopter lifted off a pad at the east end of Kirtland Air Force Base. The twelve-passenger SAR chopper was loaded very lightly, because its two passengers were in a hurry, and some of the ridges it would be crossing were near its operational ceiling. "It's about a hundred and fifty miles," the copilot shouted from his seat to one of the passengers. "We'll be there in an hour."
"I can hardly wait," the man replied as he slipped on his sunglasses. "It's been a lifelong dream of mine to see Eagle Nest, New Mexico. I hear some of the buildings downtown have indoor plumbing." His partner smiled and shook his head.
The man continued to grouse. "Three frickin fighter planes. And they couldn't ride herd on a goddamn business jet for twenty minutes without shooting it down. That's my tax dollars at work."
"Blame yourself for that one, Julius. The story you told had them thinking Bin Laden's boss was on it. Of course they were twitchy. Who's coming in for damage control?"
"Ferris. She's on her way with a team. Should be at the site right behind us, but until she is, I'm in charge." He hooked a thumb behind him, towards the base. "They dialed in?"
"The ones we need are. The rest know not to ask questions." One good thing about operating out of a place like Kirtland: people were used to following orders and minding their own business. The base had been building and testing secret weapons since the Manhattan Project. IO was just one of several tenants Kirtland didn't admit existed.
"What about local law?"
"Just a plane crash. NTSB takes jurisdiction. That's us." The partner shook his head. "I put on so many different hats since I took this job, I feel like fucking Bert the Chimney Sweep."
Julius settled into his seat. "They should have moved faster on that Kraut's offer."
"I hear he was asking for something besides money, and it complicated the deal."
He made a dismissive gesture. "If we'd had ten hours to get ready, we'd have had them in Charlotte. Five, even."
"Anything from there?"
"Fucker just mowed down everyone we put in his way and disappeared. It's him."
"Sure the girl's not with him?"
"Witnesses saw her board."
"Too bad. That's one down, four to go."
"If I thought that, I wouldn't be in a hurry to get there."
"Come on. The plane ran into a mountain."
"Ran into the trees at the very top of the mountain, actually. Not the same thing."
"They were doing, what, four hundred miles an hour?"
Julius Gierling reminded himself that his new partner wasn't a rookie; he just wasn't a Keeper yet. They were the same age, and had put in about the same time at IO. But manpower on the Genesis Project was expanding like mad, pulling in seasoned people from other sections. Mike Ireland was a recent transfer from the Intelligence branch of Planning & Administration, the Directorate that gathered intelligence and called the plays for the others. He was a real counter-terrorism guy, and used to keeping secrets; he knew there was more to IO than the Director included in her briefs to the Oversight Committees. But all that Ireland knew about Genesis was the carefully-edited "introductory" story IO used to ease people into the Project: he had only the vaguest notions of what Genactives were, and what they were capable of. "They can do stuff any sane person would think is impossible. That's why we want them so bad."
A thought struck him. He used his sat phone to call a number back at Kirtland. "When the flyboys get back in and debrief, call me. I need to talk to them. Especially the one with the itchy trigger finger." He hung up and turned to Ireland. "When Ferris gets there, she'll spread out and comb that mountainside. Let the local yokels think we're searching for survivors." From his jacket, he produced an envelope containing several photographs of her from the Project; after manifesting, but before the cells. "This is what she looks like."
"Smart, too. Fun to talk to. Great sense of humor. Loves long walks on the beach, candlelight dinners, and a man who listens, yada yada. Don't fall in love. She's a bigger threat to national security than Bin Laden."
"You know her?"
Julius smiled. "I recruited her into the Project."