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Sidney Archer has it all: a husband she loves, a job at which she excels, and a cherished young daughter. Then, as a plane plummets into the Virginia countryside, everything changes. And suddenly there is no one whom Sidney Archer can trust.
Jason Archer is a rising young executive at Triton Global, the world’s leading technology conglomerate. Determined to give his family the best of everything, Archer has secretly entered into a deadly game. He is about to disappear — leaving behind a wife who must sort out his lies from his truths, an accident team that wants to know why the plane he was ticketed on crashed, and a veteran FBI agent who wants to know it all.
Table of Contents
A Preview of No Man's Land
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THE APARTMENT WAS small, unattractive and possessed of an unsettling musty odor that suggested long neglect. However, the few furnishings and personal belongings were clean and well organized; several of the chairs and a small side table were clearly antiques of high quality. The largest occupant of the tiny living room was a meticulously crafted maple bookcase that might as well have rested on the moon, so out of place did it seem in the modest, unremarkable space. Most of the volumes neatly lining the shelves were financial in nature and dealt with such subjects as international monetary policy and complex investment theories.
The only light in the room came from a floor lamp next to a rumpled couch. Its small arc of illumination outlined the tall, narrow-shouldered man sitting there, his eyes closed as though he were asleep. The slender watch on his wrist showed it to be four o'clock in the morning. Conservative gray cuffed suit pants hovered over gleaming black-tasseled shoes. Hunter-green suspenders ran down the front of a rigid white dress shirt. The collar of the shirt was open, the ends of a bow tie dangled around the neck. The large bald head was like an afterthought, because what captured one's attention was the thick, steel-gray beard that fronted the wide, deeply lined face. However, when the man abruptly opened his eyes, all other physical characteristics became secondary; the eyes were chestnut brown in color and piercing; they seemed to swell to a size that completely engulfed the eye sockets as they swept across the room.
Then the pain wracked the man and he ripped at his left side; actually the hurt was everywhere now. Its origins, however, had been at the spot he now attacked with a fierce, if futile, vengeance. The breaths came in gushes, the face grossly contorted.
His hand slipped down to the apparatus attached to his belt. About the shape and size of a Walkman, it was actually a CADD pump attached to a Groshong catheter that was fully hidden under the man's shirt, where its other end was embedded in his chest. His finger found the correct button and the computer resting inside the CADD pump immediately delivered an incredibly potent dose of painkilling medication over and above what it automatically dispensed at regular intervals throughout the day. As the combination of drugs flowed directly into the man's bloodstream, the pain finally retreated. But it would return; it always did.
The man lay back, exhausted, his face clammy, his freshly laundered shirt soaked with perspiration. Thank God for the pump's on-demand feature. He had an incredible tolerance for pain, as his mental prowess could easily overpower any physical discomforts, but the beast now devouring his insides had introduced him to an altogether new level of physical anguish. He wondered briefly which would come first: his death or the drugs' total and complete defeat at the hands of the enemy. He prayed for the former.
He stumbled to the bathroom and looked into the mirror. It was at that moment that Arthur Lieberman started to laugh. The near-hysterical howls continued upward, threatening to explode through the thin walls of the apartment, until the uncontrollable outburst ended in sobs and then choked vomiting. A few minutes later, having replaced his soiled shirt with a clean one, Lieberman began calmly to coax his bow tie into shape in the reflection of the bathroom mirror. The violent mood swings were to be expected, he had been told. He shook his head.
He had always taken care of himself. Exercised regularly, never smoked, never drank, watched his diet. Now, at a youthful sixty-two, he would not live to see sixty-three. That fact had been confirmed by so many specialists that, finally, even Lieberman's massive will to live had given way. But he would not go quietly. He had one card left to play. He smiled as he suddenly realized that impending death had granted him a maneuverability that had been denied in life. It would indeed be an ironic twist that such a distinguished career as his would end on such an ignoble note. But the shock waves that would accompany his exit would be worth it at this point. What did he care? He walked into the small bedroom and took a moment to glance at the photos on the desk. Tears welled up in his eyes and he quickly left the room.
At five-thirty precisely Lieberman left the apartment and rode the small elevator down to the street level, where a Crown Victoria, its government license plates a gleaming white in the wash of the streetlight, was parked at the curb, its engine idling. The chauffeur exited the car briskly and opened and held the door for Lieberman. The driver respectfully tipped his cap to his esteemed passenger and, as usual, received no response. In a few moments the car had disappeared down the street.
* * *
At about the time Lieberman's car entered the on ramp to the Beltway, the Mariner L500 jetliner was being rolled out of its hangar at Dulles International Airport in preparation for the nonstop flight to Los Angeles. Maintenance checks completed, the 155-foot-long plane was now being fueled. Western Airlines subcontracted out the fueling component of its operation. The fuel truck, squat and bulky, was parked underneath the starboard wing. On the L500 the standard configuration had fuel tanks located within each wing and in the fuselage. The fuel panel under the wing, located about a third of the way out from the fuselage, had been dropped down and the long fuel hose snaked upward into the wing's interior, where it had been locked into place around the fuel intake valve. The one valve served to fuel all three tanks through a series of connecting manifolds. The solitary fueler, wearing thick gloves and dirty overalls, monitored the hose as the highly combustible mixture flowed into the tank. The man looked slowly around at the increasing activity surrounding the aircraft: mail and freight cargo were being loaded on, baggage carts were wending their way to the terminal. Satisfied that he wasn't being observed, the fueler used one gloved hand to casually spray the exposed part of the fuel tank around the intake valve with a substance in a plastic container. The metal of the fuel tank gleamed where it had been sprayed. Closer examination would have revealed a slight misting on the metal's surface, but no closer examination would be made. Even the first officer making the rounds on the preflight check would never discover this little surprise lurking within the massive machine.
The man replaced the small plastic container deep within one pocket of his overalls. He pulled from his other pocket a slender rectangular-shaped object and raised his hand up into the wing's interior. When his hand came back down, it was empty. The fueling completed, the hose was loaded back on the truck and the fuel panel on the wing was reattached. The truck drove off to complete work on another jet. The man looked back once at the L500 and then continued on. He was scheduled to get off duty at seven this morning. He did not intend to stay a minute longer.
The 220,000-pound Mariner L500 lifted off the runway, easily powering through the early morning cloud cover. A single-aisle jet with twin high bypass ratio Rolls-Royce engines, the L500 was the most technologically advanced aircraft currently operating outside those flown by pilots of the U.S. Air Force.
Flight 3223 carried 174 passengers and a seven-member flight crew. Most passengers were settling into their seats with newspapers and magazines while the plane climbed swiftly over the Virginia countryside to its cruising altitude of thirty-five thousand feet. The onboard navigational computer had established a flight time to Los Angeles of five hours and five minutes.
One of the passengers in the first-class section was reading the Wall Street Journal. A hand played across the bushy, steel-gray beard as large, active eyes scanned the pages of financial information. Down the narrow aisle, in the coach section, other passengers sat quietly, some with hands folded across their chests, some with eyes half closed and others reading. In one seat, an old woman gripped rosary beads in her right hand, her mouth silently reciting the familiar words.
As the L500 climbed to thirty-five thousand feet and leveled off, the captain came on the loudspeaker to make her perfunctory greetings while the flight attendants went about their normal routine—a routine that was about to be interrupted.
All heads turned to the red flash that erupted on the right side of the aircraft. Those sitting in the window seats on that side watched in the starkest horror as the right wing buckled, metal skin tearing, rivets popping free. Bare seconds passed before two-thirds of the wing sheared off, carrying with it the star-board-side Rolls-Royce engine. Like savaged veins, shredded hydraulic lines and cables whipped back and forth in the fierce headwind as jet fuel from the cracked fuel tank doused the fuselage.
The L500 immediately rolled left over on its back, making a shambles of the cabin. Inside the fuselage every single human being screamed in mortal terror as the plane whipped across the sky like a tumbleweed, completely out of control. Passengers up and down the aisle were violently torn from their seats. For most of them the short trip from the seats was fatal. Screams of pain were heard as heavy pieces of luggage, disgorged from compartments torn open when the shock waves of air pressure gone wild exceeded their locking mechanism's strength limits, collided with soft human flesh.
The old woman's hand slipped open and the rosary beads slid down to the floor, which was now the ceiling of the upside-down plane. Her eyes were wide open now, but not in fear. She was one of the fortunate ones. A fatal heart attack had rescued her from the next several minutes of sheer terror.
Twin-engine commercial jetliners are certified to fly on only one engine. No jetliner, however, can fly with only one wing. The airworthiness of Flight 3223 had been irreversibly destroyed. The L500 settled into a tight nose-to-ground death spiral.
On the flight deck the two-member crew struggled valiantly with the controls as their damaged aircraft shot downward through the overcast skies like a spear through cotton. Unsure of the precise nature of this catastrophe, they nevertheless were well aware that the aircraft and all lives on board were in significant jeopardy. As they frantically tried to regain control of the aircraft, the two pilots silently prayed they would collide with no other plane as they hurtled to earth. "Oh, my God!" The captain stared in disbelief at the altimeter as it raced on its unstoppable course to zero. Neither the most sophisticated avionics system in the world nor the most exceptional piloting skills could reverse the startling truth facing every human being on the fractured projectile: They were all going to die, and very soon. And as happens in virtually all air crashes, the two pilots would be the first to leave this world; but the others on board Flight 3223 would only be a fraction of a second behind.
Lieberman's mouth sagged open as he gripped the armrests in total disbelief. As the plane's nose dropped to six o'clock, Lieberman was looking face down at the back of the seat in front of him, as if he were at the very top of some absurd roller coaster. Unfortunately for him, Arthur Lieberman would remain conscious until the very second the aircraft met the immovable object that it was now racing toward. His exit from the living would come several months ahead of schedule and not at all according to plan. As the plane started its final descent, one word escaped from Lieberman's lips. Though monosyllabic, it was uttered in one continuous shriek that could be heard over all of the other terrifying sounds flooding the cabin.
WASHINGTON, D.C., METROPOLITAN AREA,ONE MONTH EARLIER
JASON ARCHER, HIS starched shirt dirty, his tie askew, labored through the contents of the piles of boxes. A laptop sat beside him. Every few minutes he would stop, pull a piece of paper from the morass and, using a handheld device, scan the contents of the paper into his laptop. Sweat trickled down his nose. The storage warehouse he was in was hot and filthy. Suddenly a voice called out to him from somewhere within the vast space. "Jason?" Footsteps approached. "Jason, are you here?"
Jason quickly closed up the box he was working on, shut down his laptop and slid it between a crevice in the stacks of boxes. A few seconds later a man appeared. Quentin Rowe stood about five-eight, weighed perhaps a hundred fifty, with narrow shoulders; slender oval glasses rested above a hairless face. His long, thin blond hair was tied back into a neat ponytail. He was dressed casually in faded jeans and a white cotton shirt. The antenna of a cellular phone sprouted from his shirt pocket. His hands were stuffed into his back pockets. "I happened to be in the area. How's it coming?"
Jason stood up and stretched his long, muscular frame. "It's coming, Quentin, it's coming."
"The CyberCom deal is really heating up and they want the financials ASAP. How much longer do you think it will take you?" Despite his carefree appearance, Rowe looked anxious.
Jason eyed the stacks of boxes. "Another week, ten days tops."
Jason nodded and methodically wiped his hands off before resting his eyes on Rowe. "I won't let you down, Quentin. I know how important CyberCom is to you. To all of us." A twinge of guilt hit Jason between the shoulder blades, but his features were inscrutable.
Rowe relaxed somewhat. "We won't forget your efforts, Jason. What with this and the job you did on the tape backups. Gamble was particularly impressed, to the extent he can understand it."
"I think it'll be remembered for a long time," Jason agreed.
Rowe surveyed the warehouse with incredulity. "To think the contents of this entire warehouse could fit comfortably on a stack of floppy disks. What a waste."
Jason grinned. "Well, Nathan Gamble isn't the most computer literate person in the world." Rowe snorted. "His investment operations generated a lot of paper, Quentin," Jason continued, "and you can't argue with success. The man's made a lot of money over the years."
"Exactly, Jason. That's our only hope. Gamble understands money. The CyberCom deal will make all the others look puny by comparison." Rowe looked admiringly up at Jason Archer. "After all this work you've got a great future ahead of you."
Jason's eyes took on a soft gleam and then he smiled at his colleague. "My thoughts exactly."
Jason Archer climbed into the passenger seat of the Ford Explorer, leaned across and kissed his wife. Sidney Archer was tall and blond. Her chiseled features had softened after the birth of their daughter. She inclined her head toward the rear seat. Jason smiled as his eyes fell upon Amy, two years old and dead asleep in her baby seat, Winnie the Pooh automatically clutched in one fist.
"Long day for her," Jason said as he unknotted his tie.
"For us all," Sidney replied. "I thought being a part-time law partner would be a breeze. Now it seems like I cram the same fifty-hour week into three days." She shook her head wearily and pulled the truck onto the road. Behind them soared the world headquarters building of Triton Global, her husband's employer and the world's undisputed leader in technologies ranging from global computer networks to children's educational software and just about everything in between.
Jason took one of his wife's hands in his and squeezed it tenderly. "I know, Sid. I know it's rough, but I might have some news soon that'll let you chuck the practice for good."
She looked at him and smiled. "You devised a computer program that'll let you pick the correct Lotto numbers?"
"Maybe something better." A grin flashed across his handsome features.
"Okay, you've definitely got my attention. What is it?"
He shook his head. "Uh-uh. Not until I know for sure."
"Jason, don't do this to me." Her mock plea brought a broader smile to his lips. He patted her hand. "You know I'm real good at keeping secrets. And I know how you love surprises."
She stopped at a red light and turned to him. "I also like opening presents on Christmas Eve. So come on, talk."
"Not this time, sorry, no way, nohow. Hey, how about we go out to eat tonight?"
"I'm a very tenacious attorney, so don't try to change the subject on me. Besides, eating out is not in this month's budget. I want details." She playfully poked him as she went through the green light.
"Very, very soon, Sid. I promise. But not now, okay?" His tone had suddenly become more serious, as though he regretted bringing up the subject. She looked over at him. He was staring rigidly out the window. A trace of concern came over her face. He turned back to her, caught the look of worry, put a hand against her cheek and winked. "When we got married, I promised you the world, didn't I?"
"You've given me the world, Jason." She stared at Amy in the rearview mirror. "More than the world."
He rubbed her shoulder. "I love you, Sid, more than anything. You deserve the best. One day I'll give it to you."
She smiled at him; however, as he turned to look out the window the look of concern returned to her features.
The man was bent over the computer, his face bare inches from the screen. His fingers were pounding the keys so fiercely they resembled a column of miniature jackhammers. The battered keyboard appeared ready to disintegrate under the relentless attack. Like pouring water, digital images flowed down the computer screen too fast for the eye to follow. A weak light overhead provided illumination for the man's task. Thick droplets of sweat clustered on his face, although the room temperature hovered at a comfortable seventy degrees. He swiped at the moisture as the salty liquid slid behind his glasses and stung his already painful, bloodshot eyes.
So intent was he on his work that he did not notice the door to the room slowly open. Nor did he hear the three pairs of legs as they made their way in, moving across the thick carpet until they stood directly behind him. Their movements were unhurried; the intruders' superior numbers apparently provided them with overwhelming confidence.
Finally the man at the computer turned around. His limbs started to quake uncontrollably, as though he had foreseen what was about to happen to him.
He would not even have time to scream.
As the triggers snapped back simultaneously and the firing pins rammed home, the guns roared in deafening unison.
Jason Archer jerked upright in the chair where he had fallen asleep. Real sweat clung to his face while the vision of violent death clung to his mind. The damn dream, it just wouldn't let go. He quickly looked around. Sidney was dozing on the couch; the TV droned on in the background. Jason rose and covered his wife with a blanket. Then he went down to Amy's room. It was almost midnight. As he peeked in the door he could hear her tossing in her sleep. He went to the edge of her bed and watched the tiny form as it moved restlessly around. She must be having a bad dream, something her father could well relate to. Jason gently rubbed his daughter's forehead and then picked her up and held her, slowly swaying from side to side in the quiet darkness. This normally chased away the nightmares; and in a few minutes Amy was back in a peaceful sleep. Jason covered her up and kissed her on the cheek. Then he went to the kitchen, scribbled a note to his wife, put it on the table next to the couch where Sidney continued to doze and headed to the garage, where he climbed into his old Cougar convertible.
As he backed out of the garage, he did not notice Sidney at the front window watching him, his note clutched in her hand. After his taillights disappeared down the street, Sidney turned from the window and read the note again. Her husband was heading back to the office to do some work. He would be home when he could. She looked at the clock on the fireplace mantel. It was nearly midnight. She checked on Amy and then put a teakettle on the stove. She suddenly slumped against the kitchen counter as a deeply buried suspicion exploded to the surface. This wasn't the first time she had awoken to find her husband backing his car out of the garage, leaving a note behind telling her he had gone back to work.
She made her tea and then on impulse raced up the stairs to the bathroom. She looked at her face in the mirror. A little fuller than when they had first married. She abruptly stripped off her sleeping gown and underwear. She looked from the front, side and, finally, the back, holding up a hand mirror to check this most depressing angle. Pregnancy had done some damage; the stomach had pretty much recovered, but her bottom was definitely not as firm. Were her breasts sagging? The hips did seem slightly wider than before. Not so unusual after giving birth. With nervous fingers she pinched the millimeter of extra skin under her chin as acute depression sunk in. Jason's body was as iron-hard as it had been when they first started dating. Her husband's amazing physique and classic good looks were only part of a very attractive package that included a remarkable intellect. The package would be immensely attractive to every woman Sidney knew and certainly most of those she didn't. As she traced her jawline she gasped as she realized what she was doing. A highly intelligent, well-respected attorney, she was examining herself like a piece of meat, just as generations of men had routinely done to womankind. She threw her gown back on. She was attractive. Jason loved her. He was going to work to catch up on things. He was building his career rapidly. Soon, both their dreams would be fulfilled. His to run his own company; hers to be a full-time mother to Amy and the other children they expected to have. If that sounded like a 1950s sitcom, so be it, because that's exactly what the Archers wanted. And Jason, she firmly believed, was right this minute working furiously to get there.
At about the time Sidney wandered off to bed, Jason Archer stopped at a pay phone and dialed a number he had memorized long before. The call was answered immediately.
"I'm telling you this has to be over soon, or I may not make it."
"Bad dreams again?" The tone managed to sound sympathetic and patronizing at the same time.
"You're implying that they come and go. Actually they're always with me," Jason curtly replied.
"It won't be long now." The voice was now reassuring.
"You're sure they're not on to me? I get these funny feelings, like everyone's watching me."
"It's normal, Jason. Happens all the time. If you were in trouble, we'd know it, believe me. We've been through this before."
"I have believed you. I just hope that belief is not misplaced." Jason's voice grew more tense. "I'm not a pro at this. Dammit, it's getting to me."
"We understand that. Don't go crazy on us now. As I said, it's almost over. A few more items and then you officially retire."
"Look, I don't understand why we can't go with what I've already gotten."
"Jason, it's not your job to think about those things. We need to dig a little deeper and you're just going to have to accept that. Keep your head up. We're not exactly babes in the woods on things like this; we've got it all planned out. You just hold up your end and we're fine. Everybody will be fine."
"Well, I'm going to finish up tonight, that's for damn sure. Do we use the same drop routine?"
"No. This time it'll be a personal exchange."
Jason's tone registered surprise. "Why?"
"We're nearing the end and any mistakes could jeopardize the entire operation. While we have no reason to believe they're on to you, we can't be absolutely sure we're not being watched. Remember, we're all taking chances here. Drops are usually safe, but there's always a margin of error built in. A face-to-face out of the area with fresh people eliminates that margin, simple as that. It keeps you safer too. And your family."
"My family? What the hell do they have to do with this?"
"Don't be stupid, Jason. These are high stakes. The risks were explained to you from the start. It's a violent world. Understand?"
"Everything will be fine. You just have to follow the instructions to the letter. To the letter." The last three words were said with particular force. "You haven't told anyone, have you? Particularly not your wife."
"No. Who the hell would I tell? Who would believe me?"
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- May 1, 2006
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