Disclaimer: Xena, Gabrielle and any other characters featured in the actual TV series are copyrighted to MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures while the rest of the story and other characters are my own.
"Okay people, let us through! Clear this area!" Pressing his way through a panicked, frightened airport crowd, James Mac MacArthur held his Orbis Airlines Strategic Operations ID high above his head, as though he were flying his colors into battle.
MacArthur was a big man, going at about six foot two and 220 pounds; just ten pounds or so over the playing weight he sported when he was attached to the FBIs Washington D.C. office.
"Mommy, is there a bomb?"
Mac hesitated only briefly to watch a harried looking young woman sweep an angelic-faced little girl up into her arms.
"I dont know, honey," she said, glancing furtively over her shoulder, "But were leaving."
"Mommy, Im scared!" The tot began to cry, reacting to the confusion and fear in the rush of people around her.
Mac picked up his pace as the wails of the child faded away behind him.
After 20 years with the bureau, hed been just six months into his retirement, sipping Budweiser and catching small-mouth bass on Lake Winnetonka in upstate New York. Then the call came from his old buddy Cyrus Vandegrift. He and Cyrus had shared casting lures one hot summers day on a muddy riverbank outside of Twin Forks oh, 15 years ago now, and theyd been fast friends ever since. They made it a point to rendezvous at least once every summer for a bit of fishing and a bit of bullshit in the Finger Lakes region. Far away from jobs, spouses, and hot showers, they loved every minute of it.
Cyrus had asked Mac if hed consider talking to this Catherine Phillips. As a favor. Would he simply drive into town and meet with her just once? That was all. Phillips was putting together some brand new unit at Orbis, dedicated to tracking and preventing terrorist activity.
Hell, MacArthur was retired! Hadnt he earned his pension and gold-plated desk set from the bureau? He was through taking orders from anybody, much less a woman.
But oh, what a woman, MacArthur thought, watching his boss cut her way through the mass of people as though she were the prow of an icebreaker slashing through frozen seas.
All it had taken was ten minutes with Phillips, and he knew he wanted to work with her, if shed have him. Her biting, pointed questions. Her studied indifference. Her cold, hard stare; reading him. Judging. And hed asked her a few questions of his own, too. What was her background? What was her stake in this?
She had answered him quickly, concisely, and with a command of clarity and purpose that hed rarely come across in his days with the bureau. He was impressed: a United States Air Force Academy grad, a top-notch pilot with Desert Storm experience, plus training in special ops and covert deployment. And, he knew, his buddy Cyrus Vandegrift thought the world of her. Cy did not bestow such status often, if ever.
In the end, they had sat silently for a moment, staring at one another across the great expanse of Phillips desk, piercing blue eyes locked on hazel. And then the tall woman had stood and thrust out her hand to him, offering him a job.
To his wifes subsequent consternation, Mac had heard the sound of his own voice accepting a position as the units chief investigator. That had been three months ago. Hed scarcely had the time since then to figure out just what madness had gotten into him. Damn that Cyrus Vandegrift to all hell!
It had been four months since flight #2240s hijacking, and since that time tensions had been running high not only at Orbis but at other air carriers as well. After a solid 3 months of investigative work, they still were no closer than they were that first day to determining who was ultimately responsible for funding and supplying the hijackers.
They couldnt have done it alone, the boss lady insisted, and MacArthur had to agree with her. Those Albanian patriots, with their expensive clothes, impeccable bogus identification, and high-tech weaponry that had managed to escape security detection. The M.O. bothered Mac, a lot, and he could see that Phillips fretted over it as well. Who knew when the terrorists might decide to strike again? And where?
They were almost at the entrance now to terminal D. It had taken them just 10 minutes to get there from the nearby low-rise office building where Orbis housed their flight and security operations. The alert had come in loud and clear: suspicious parcel, as airport security called it. A bomb scare by any other name. The parcel was a black Adidas duffel bag, left sitting unattended near a wash-room trash bin. A cleaning attendant had first noticed it about an hour ago. As time passed by and no-one claimed it, the attendant had done the right thing reported it to management.
"Hey, watch it you jerk!"
Mac heard the epithet at the exact moment when his elbow accidentally slammed into the shoulder of a thin, well-dressed businessman. Dressed in charcoal and sage pinstripes and wearing tiny, oval-framed glasses, the man had been more preoccupied with staring towards the drama at terminal Ds entrance than with where he was walking. Hed cut directly into MacArthurs path and, with the force of the impact, the computer case he had slung on his arm went careering off onto the ground.
"Sorry!" Mac tossed off behind him, but he kept going.
Any other day, Mac wouldve stopped dead in his tracks, and given that tight-assed little shit what-for. But not today, or Phillips would have his head. They had just now reached the top of the concourse, where an NYPD patrolman stood guard.
"Im sorry maam, but you cant go any further"
"Save it," Catherine Phillips growled. She flashed her ID without breaking stride.
"Wha hey!" The patrolman lunged after her.
"Easy, buddy," Mac placed a beefy hand on the young mans shoulder. "Were with Orbis Strategic Ops," he said evenly, giving the officer time to read his ID. "Phillips, there," he nodded towards the tall form moving down the concourse, rapidly leaving him behind, "is the director."
"Well, okay then," the cop said, mollified. He turned his eyes to stare reproachfully after Kate. "Lieutenant Rossi radioed you were on your way."
"Thanks," Mac smiled faintly, and jogged after his boss. Another rough moment smoothed over.
It was a familiar routine for him now, though at first it had taken some getting used to. Phillips was a hell-raiser, no doubt about it. And he, Special Agent James MacArthur (Ret), was left to sweep away the debris left in the wake of it all. When it came to incident analysis, critical thinking, working leads, and cutting to the chase, there was none better than Phillips. But somewhere along the line, the usual niceties of social behavior eluded her.
He was able to kid her about it from time to time at least, point out her to the way she blew into a room and took no prisoners. She would laugh and flash him a crooked smile, telling him she wasnt in this job to make friends.
Mac inwardly chuckled. No danger of that.
"Good thing that kids orders werent shoot-to-kill," he gasped, catching up to Kates side.
"Hrmph," she kept her gaze straight ahead. "He was so wet behind the ears I think there was something growing back there!"
"Cauliflower?" Mac suggested his favorite vegetable.
"Nah, he was too green. Broccoli, I think," Kate said, curling up the corner of her mouth in a half-grin.
The concourse had been cleared of all civilian traffic; gate after empty gate flashed neon departure and arrival information, all marked delayed or cancelled. A variety of official personnel dotted the walkway: airport security, police officers; Kate noticed the airport manager, Liz Furey, jawing it out with a florid-faced, middle-aged officer.
Whatever the officer was saying to the executive, it was obvious she wasnt liking it very much. Her cheeks were reddened, her eyes narrowed, and her mid-length brunette hair looked windblown. "That is a load of crap, and you know it!" she shrieked, just as Mac and Kate came upon them.
"Hi Bill," Mac interrupted. "You know Catherine Phillips here, dont you?" he struck a thumb at the dark woman.
"Sure," the officer boomed, gratefully seizing upon the opportunity of escaping the airport manager.
"Lieutenant Rossi," Kate proffered her hand, "what have we got?"
"What weve got," Furey said, her dark eyes flashing, "is 24 gates in this concourse completely shut down, air traffic stacked up from here to Albany, and revenue bleeding away out my ass. Oh, and did I mention the pissed-off passengers?"
"No," Kate studied the executive coolly, "But youre pissing me off.
"Dont start with me Catherine. Just because your little Orbis unit hasnt been able to get to the bottom of that hijacking." She put a hand on her hip. "Youve got this whole God-damned airport on pins and needles. Disrupting schedules! Upsetting our passengers! Hell, I feel like I cant even take a shit without notifying security!"
"Can we discuss your bowel problems at another time, Liz?" Kate asked, "Because the sooner you let me do my job, the sooner all that revenue will stop bleeding out your ass."
The smaller womans face purpled. "You just wait! Vandegrift will hear about this!"
"How embarrassing for you!" Kate replied, her voice hard and even. She watched the smaller woman turn on her heel and storm back up the concourse, tucking a sheaf of papers under her arm.
"What a piece of work," Mac muttered, shaking his head after the retreating woman, "You shouldnt let her get to you."
"Oh, she didnt. Not by a long shot," Kate said. "She aint seen nothing yet. Now," she turned to Rossi, "how long has it been since the parcel was first detected?"
"Were not sure, but based on when the attendant believes they first noticed it," the officer consulted his notepad, "we think about an hour and fifteen minutes."
"Bomb squad deployed?"
"Yup. And theyre ready to go. Its the mens john just past gate 16."
The officer pointed towards a spot halfway down the terminal. The immediate area and a good 50 yards around it was completely clear, save for a group of men gathered near the open space in front of the restrooms. They wore the gray, space suit type garb that marked them as members of the bomb disposal unit.
"Just say the word," he held up a walkie-talkie.
"Not yet," Kate said, taking off towards gate 16. "I want to be there."
"No ." Rossis Adams apple bobbed, "Youyou cant! Not without a protective suit!"
"Then get me one!"
"Oh, Christ!" the lieutenant turned to Mac, "Cant you stop her?"
MacArthur lifted his hands helplessly and grinned. "Nope. Wouldnt think of it."
"All right maam, now before we go in, there are just a few things I need to review with you."
"Fine," Kate said, her voice sounding hollow and muffled inside the helmet of her bomb protective suit. It was a strange sensation, the sound, compounded by the fact that the voice of Officer Andre Broome of the NYPD Bomb Disposal Unit was sounding both through the headset she wore, and naturally, through the insulation of the suit.
Broome was shorter than her by a few inches, wiry and dark, with a pair of deep-set penetrating eyes. He looked at her intently as he spoke, his voice flat and without emotion. Whether he resented her presence or merely tolerated it, she could not tell.
"Our goal here is to exercise a series of low risk options in order to ultimately render a safe operation, in keeping with our neutralization procedures. The position of the device has eliminated our election of a remote response"
"Meaning you cant get a robot in there, right?" Kate tugged uncomfortably at the thick gloves she wore.
"Correct, maam. Therefore, our technical support for this event will include manual intervention and manipulation, screening and possible disruption, with transfer of the device to a total containment vessel."
"So you go in, check it out, and get it the hell to the bomb disposal truck before were blown to smithereens."
"Yes maam. And I would add that I have not been blown to smithereens, yet." His voice was serious, professional, but through the faceplate of his suit Kate could detect a hint of a twinkle in his dark eyes. "Now, if youll just stay close behind me and do as I say, well get along fine."
"Youre the boss," Kate said, swallowing hard, fighting the butterflies in her stomach.
The remainder of the units support team stood in a semi-circle on the main concourse, outside the bathroom holding the suspect package. Kate had seen the looks on their faces when she had demanded to be a part of the operation. To them, she was just another suit, throwing her weight around.
Oh, Kate knew she couldve just sat back and waited for a report on the incident, like a Liz Furey would do. Kate sighed at the thought of the airport manager. Theyd butted heads more than once as her investigations had proceeded. And, though the pilot hated to admit it, Furey was right. She was angry that her unit had produced zero results so far. Unacceptable, by her standards. They needed a break, and soon.
Now, as she and Officer Broome cautiously entered the restroom, she came clean with herself. The truth was that she hoped by getting close to this device, by seeing it as the perpetrator had left it the way he or she had configured it she would get inside their head. See things through their eyes. Find something anything to go on.
She glanced back over her shoulder one last time. Through the picture glass of gate 16, she could see the reflection of the red flashing lights of emergency vehicles and the bomb disposal truck. Farther away, up the concourse, there was Mac, standing a head above Lieutenant Rossi. He saw her look his way, and gave her a thumbs up.
She lifted her thick-gloved hand in response. James MacArthur was a good guy. She was glad he was on her team. Cyrus had not steered her wrong.
"All right maam" Broomes voice crackled in her ear, "please stay low and close behind me, and keep your sound and movement to a minimum."
"Okay," Kate said breathlessly, and she watched Broome set to work.
Urinals lined one wall, a series of stalls stood opposite, and at the end of the room was a row of sinks beneath a narrow mirror. A trash can wedged in a corner between the urinals and sinks, was filled to overflowing.
They inched their way along sticky linoleum floor, and there it was. Just to the right of the waste bin, beneath a sink, was a black Adidas gym bag, trimmed in purple.
"I have the package on visual," Broome notified his colleagues.
"10-4 Unit 2. Keep us informed."
Broome squatted down about 5 yards from the bag and motioned Kate down as well. She drew up behind him and watched him silently open his kit, running his hands over the equipment it contained. He paused and gazed around the mens room, squinting up at the artificial lighting as though he were a sea captain testing the wind. "Not enough room in here to take a picture," he said, referring to the portable x-ray machine he carried. "Im going in for a listen."
Broome was a young man, barely thirty Kate estimated, yet he moved with a deliberate steadiness and maturity more common to one far beyond his years. The pilot idly wondered just what it would take to get the man excited, and she wasnt sure she wanted to find out at the moment.
Kate noticed the shape of Broomes hands: thin, delicate, almost womanly, as he reached into his kit and withdrew an electronic stethoscope. He lifted the front flap of his helmet and slid on the single earpiece.
Slowly, with a barely perceptible motion, he placed the chrome bell against the side of the bag.
Kate held her breath, waiting. She felt the perspiration trickling down the side of her face, inching down the middle of her back, but there was no way to easily get at it, not in these suits. They were ventilated, but fat lot of good that did, she considered, here on her haunches in an airport mens room. She could smell it now, the stink of too much piss and sweat, and not enough cleanser. God, the life of a cleaning attendant, she thought. No wonder they werent sure how long the package had been there! Judging by the overflowing trash can, it couldve been hours.
"Im picking up a low-frequency emission," Broome said softly, quietly.
Oh, shit. "What now?" Kates voice was a hoarse whisper, she dared not raise her voice.
"Im going to see if I cant take a look inside."
"Steady, unit 2. Be safe."
"Roger that, command 1," Broom replied, withdrawing the stethoscope and replacing it in his kit. Next, he produced a flat-screen display, a small control board, and a narrow cord of tubing.
"Whats that?" Kate wanted to know.
"A fiber optic inspection kit," Broome explained, in a voice as kind and patient as though he were speaking to a small child. "See how the zipper is open there?" he pointed to the edge of the bag where indeed, there was a narrow opening. "Im going to slip the video end of this tubing through that hole, and Ill be able to receive an image of the contents of the package here on this display."
"Reminds me of when theyre checking for ulcers!" Kate joked, trying to calm her own frayed nerves, "But I guess I dont have to tell you about that in this job, right? All this stress!"
"The technology is the same," Broome said, calmly flipping on the equipment, "But Im afraid I dont know what you mean about stress."
"Never mind ." Kate shook her head, "Never mind." Dammit Broome was showing her up. She needed to calm her ass down. It was the damn suit. So restrictive so confining. Shed never thought herself prone to claustrophobia, but now . Aw, hell. After all, it was just a gym bag. Probably had nothing more in it than a pair of dirty sneakers and a wet towel. Oh, and a device emitting a low frequency sound, ready to blast them all to kingdom come. Nothing to worry about. On the other hand, some small part of her hoped that the package was related to the terrorist activity, if it would bring them that one step closer to their trail.
Broome expertly guided the tubing into the bag, and on the monitor Kate was able to see the rough, textured edges of the inside of the duffel.
"Weve got your picture out here, unit 2," the command post squawked. "Proceed with caution. Bomb basket on standby."
"10-4, command 1. Will keep you advised."
Wow, Kate thought, this is one cool customer. He sounds as though hes reporting on the weather. She scooted a little closer behind him, feeling awkward in the bulky suit.
"Getting close to the source of the frequency," the officer said, and Kate wondered now whether the young bomb disposal expert could pick up on the wild pounding in her chest.
At that inopportune moment, the air conditioning in the bathroom decided to kick on. A great gust of air rushed in from a vent directly above them. Kates mouth fell open in a silent scream as the current blew a crunched film box onto the bag. The image on the screen wavered at the soft thunk of the impact.
Oh, Fuck! Kates heart stopped.
Andre Brooms hands froze in mid-air. "A foreign object has intruded upon the operation zone," he reported in a smooth, silken voice. From nowhere he produced a small pair of tweezers, and plucked the box away. "The event has been contained."
"Easy for you to say," Kate gasped, remembering to breathe.
"You know what the motto of my unit is, dont you?" Broome continued his fiber-optic exploration.
"No," Kate replied, finally giving in and pushing up under the front flap of her helmet piece in an attempt to brush the stinging sweat out of her eyes. Thank God at least shed braided her hair back this morning, anticipating another stifling New York summers day.
"Initial success or total failure."
"Nice," the pilot groaned, having succeeded only in poking herself in the right eye with an oversized thumb.
Now visible on the screen was a large field of white, lying just beneath a darker, deeply ridged mass.
"Perhaps," Broome said, reluctant to commit.
The angle of the tubing changed, and suddenly, there it was. An oversized numeral 1. Broome pulled back on the zoom, just as a second hand swept into view.
"A wristwatch," Kates voice was flat, unwilling to believe that they were out of it yet.
"Possibly." Activating the small grippers within the tube, Broome gently clipped on to the watchband and began to slide it back through the bag. The communication channel was silent, and the only sounds Kate could hear were her own harsh breathing and the hiss of the damnable air conditioning through the vents.
Not a peep from Broome.
After long, painful seconds, the possible watch came into plain view. Broome drew it closer, eyeing it carefully. And then, in a gesture that rocked Kate backwards on her heels, he released the watch with a flip, catching it with a gloved hand in mid-air.
"What the fuck are you doing, Broome?" Kate shouted, landing hard on her backside in a urinal.
He turned to her then, his white teeth flashing in a broad grin. "Yep, its a watch all right! A sports watch!" He dangled it out to her, laughing as she shied away. "Can you use one?"
"I dont work out," Kate muttered darkly, scrambling to her feet. She stalked out of the mens room, the sound of Broomes laughter still buzzing in her ear.
Catherine Phillips closed her eyes against the bright fluorescent lights of the elevator. Tired to the bone, she sagged against the rear of the car as it rushed her to her destination: the 42nd floor. At this late hour, nearly 2300hrs, she traveled alone, and was grateful for it. She was not in the mood for company, and even less-so for conversation. Not after the day shed had.
She felt the familiar lurch as 42 flashed on the overhead indicator. The heavy doors spilled open, and she gained admittance to the more subdued, discrete lighting of the apartment buildings hallway. She walked soundlessly on deep-pile carpet past closed doors; the silent, cold barriers keeping her out and whatever lay beyond them, within. And that was fine with Kate. She didnt know her neighbors, didnt care to.
Shed chosen this luxury high-rise on the upper west side not because of the security, the array of personal services available, or the status her address gave her in the eyes of some, but rather as a matter of simple convenience the location gave her. She had privacy, easy access to transportation, and she was able to live in the city without completely feeling a part of it being consumed, smothered by it.
Not up on the 42nd floor.
She paid more for it, she knew that, but it was worth it. She had to have it the view. Not of the stunning panorama of the city below, as others might prize. No. For Kate, the vista she valued was of the sky above. The closer she was to it, the more at ease she felt. On some days, when the clouds rolled in heavy and low off the Hudson, she swore she could reach up and touch the fuzzy edges of them with her bare hands. And on some nights since passed, when her soul was tired and her heart weary of the pain, shed sat on her starless balcony and thought she just might try.
But something had held her back during those bleak days, a dogged stubbornness perhaps, and she was glad of it now. Glad that shed happened to be piloting that Orbis flight #2240 those four months ago. Not only because the fates had put her in a position to be able to help save the aircraft from those hijackers but also, thanks to a certain young flight attendant crewing that day, her life had been salvaged as well.
Its been some shitty day, Kate thought, as she fumbled in her shoulder bag for her keys. She looked down at the wrinkles in her beige linen slacks; the matching blazer slung over one arm hadnt fared much better. And she was missing a button off the sleeve of her white blouse probably lost somewhere inside that damn bomb suit.
It took some doing to find her keys amidst all the paperwork shed brought home from the office, work that hadnt gotten done during the day. Her unexpected absence during the afternoons bomb scare had seen to that.
Her fingers seized upon the cold hardness of her keys, and as she turned the proper one in the brass lock, she thought about the appointment shed blown with Josh Greenfield from the CIA. Dottie West, her office assistant, had rescheduled the appointment, bless her semi-retired senior citizens heart. Unfortunately, the well-meaning woman had forgotten to remind her of it in the first place. Dottie had been provided to her courtesy of the Orbis Administrative pool, and Kate had instantly taken a liking to the big-hearted, motherly secretary.
Dottie had 5 grown children of her own, and Kate and her colleagues had been instant additions to that extended family. Dottie was wonderful on the phone, calm and soothing, and even better in person, warm and good-natured. But Kate, Mac, and Rory Calverton, the other investigator on-staff, had found out the hard way that the older woman was earnestly forgetful diligently scatter-brained. Kate didnt have the heart to let her go, not when Dottie seemed so attached to them all. And, truth be known, the pilot and her team felt the same way.
Home at last. Well, today cant get any worse. Kate pushed open the door of her darkened apartment and blindly tossed her bag on a small hall table, as she had done countless times in the past.
She blearily reached for a light switch while at the same time she heard a splintering crrrunch!
"Dammit!" she hissed, as the lights flickered on.
Her shoulder bag lay on the table.
Kate slowly picked up the bag, knowing what she would find there.
What had been a delicate, small crystal elephant, was now nothing more than a pile of shattered glass. She gazed upon it morosely for a time, resenting the intrusion of this foreign object into her personal space. She was angry with herself at having carelessly broken it, and missing like hell the woman it belonged to.
God, she sighed, when is Rebecca coming home? She slowly retrieved a dust pan from the kitchen and began to clean up the debris.
Home. And it was a home, she considered, now that Rebecca Hanson was in it. Just when had the petite blonde flight attendant moved in? They had never talked about it, not really. It just sort of happened. After each of the younger womans successive shifts, particularly ones that took her to her Los Angeles base where her family was, more and more things would mysteriously appear in Kates apartment.
The toothbrush, toiletries, and changes of clothes made perfect sense. Nothing wrong with that, of course.
Rebecca loved music, especially when they were together, and so the small stereo system and CD tower were naturally added to Kates bedroom.
With the start-up of the Strategic Operations unit, the pilot had taken to using her spare bedroom as an office, and Hanson had happily helped her with that, setting up a small but high-powered computer and peripherals, and selecting solid, ergonomically sound office furniture. Nothing alarming about that.
But how to account for the framed museum prints that now dotted her previously barren walls, the potted fiscus and dwarf palms that had suddenly sprung up throughout the apartment? And Kate did not even want to think about the controlled chaos that had become her kitchen.
The crystal elephant collection had been the latest tangible evidence that she now had a roommate. God, how Rebecca loved those elephants, Kate thought, as she finished sweeping up the deceased animal. The younger woman had been collecting them since shed been a kid. Trunks up was the only way to go, she would say. An elephant with its trunk up, waving in the air, signified happiness and good luck.
Oh well. Kate examined the pieces of crystal in the dust pan as she walked it to the kitchen. It had been one of Rebeccas favorites, an Indian elephant, festooned with a brightly colored howdah in a style reminiscent of the days of the Raj.
Even now, the rich colors of broken glass shimmered in the apartments subdued lighting, and Kate grimaced as she whisked away the remains of the poor beast into the trash.
But Rebecca would be devastated.
Too tired to eat, Kate opened the refrigerator and took out a cold bottle of mineral water. Popping the lid, she moved back into the living room and collapsed down onto the white leather sofa. She kicked off her shoes and propped her feet up on a chrome and glass coffee table, taking care to move her long legs to one side in order to avoid the small coleus plant thriving in the center of the glass.
The pilot struggled to marshal her energy reserves as she sipped at the water and debated her next move. The paperwork that awaited her? Her mind told her it needed to be done: budgets, scheduling, reports. How she hated the mind-numbing but necessary tasks! Or, should she tank on the work at hand, and pursue the sleep her deeply exhausted body told her she craved?
Funny. Tired as shed been these past 7 days since Rebecca had taken off, shed found no respite in sleep. Shed tossed and turned, her eyes snapping open at the break of dawn after the end of each restless night. It was always that way anymore, when Rebecca was gone. She felt unsettled incomplete, without her.
Kate sighed, reached one hand behind her head, and began to tug her hair free of the plait that tied it back. Her eyes drifted to the top of a bleached pine bookcase; prior to Rebeccas arrival the shelves had been two-thirds empty, now they were chock-full of books on a variety of subjects. Someday, Kate resolved, shed take a look to see what was in there. But for now, she was captured by the accusing gaze of another crystal elephant, slightly larger than the one lately of the hall, perched atop the case.
The elephant was of clear crystal, simple in design, trunk raised. Still, it was as if it somehow knew of the death of its brethren. And if given the chance, she suspected it would have designs on rising up as a darkened, avenging shadow in the night, evening the score.
"Thats right," Kates blue eyes glittered as she stared the animal down, "Im a murderer. Whatcha gonna do about it, big guy?"
You are losing it Phillips. She shook her head, and took another swallow of the cool water, enjoying the feel of it as it slid down her throat. There was utter silence in the apartment, save for the faint hum of the air conditioning. The luxury apartments had been well-built, with high ceilings and thick, sound-proof walls that suited Kate just fine. She relished the quiet. Craved it normally. But now Christ, when was that little Rebecca Hanson due back?! And why hadnt she heard from her in the last 2 days, 3 hours and 20 minutes?
The young Californian was quickly weaving herself into the fabric Kates life, and during these absences when Rebecca was working, the pilot helplessly felt herself become unraveled. It was something shed sworn shed deal with. After all, it had to be hard on Hanson, too. But dammit, this time, it seemed as though shed been gone forever. And each time they had to say goodbye, it was becoming harder and harder to let her go.
God, how she missed her!
Kate yearned for the sound of her voice, her softness; the gentle, capable way she soothed her rough edges into oblivion. The longer she was gone, the more difficult it was for the pilot to endure to hang on to that shred of self-worth, of value that the young blonde instilled in her.
Perhaps that was why she had pushed it today, gone where she really had no business going, instead of just letting the experts do their jobs. She was feeling the heat, the pressure shed put on herself, to validate her purpose through results.
Goose-egg was a score the pilot had no taste for.
Kates thoughts continued to whirl from one subject to another, and she was unaware of just when her eyes had decided to close and when her grip on the water had bottle loosened.
The rrrrrrinnnggg! of her phone roused her from her doze.
She bolted upright like a shot, and the water bottle tipped over in her lap.
"Fuck!" She lunged for the phone before her machine could pick up. "Hello!"
"Uh hi!" came a familiar voice across the line. "Did I wake you up? I forget its still early here!"
Kate turned a bloodshot eye towards her wristwatch. Nearly 2345 hours. Where had the time gone? "Ah no," she said, clearing her throat. "So how are you? Where are you?"
"Here in Los Angeles, at my parents place. I thought Id stay with them tonight, do some catching up, before I head back tomorrow." Muffled laughter and a bit of static, and then, "Mom and Dad say hi."
"Oh, hi back," Kate said gruffly, feeling a pang of jealousy that Rebecca was having fun, spending time with these important people in her life people whom shed never met.
Another thing they hadnt talked about.
"So, youre definitely coming back tomorrow?" Kate pressed, her voice more harsh than shed intended, "I wasnt sure. I mean you havent called since Tuesday."
The dark pilot heard a sigh at the other end of the phone. She could just imagine young Hanson running a hand through her short blonde hair. "I called your office yesterday and left a message with Dottie. Didnt she tell you?"
"And today, too, Missy. She said you were out on some bomb scare at JFK? What was that all about?"
"I didnt get the messages. Sorry," Kate said, her voice low. "And it wasnt a bomb scare after all. I helped defuse a pair of old Nikes, a dirty t-shirt, and a sports watch. But Ill save that gem of a story for you when you get home."
Silence for a moment, just a distant hum on the line, and then, "I miss you, Kate."
"I miss you too, Rebecca." Kate was scandalized at the sound of a catch in her voice at that.
"Kate," Becky sounded worried, "are you okay?"
"Im fine. I-- its just hard without you."
"For me too," Becky said, softly.
Suddenly, Kate couldnt help it. The guilt overwhelmed her. "I broke one of your elephants."
"Oh, no! Who dont tell me it was King Tusk?!"
"Cmon, Kate, spit it out! Youre killing me here!"
"It was Raj. Im-- Im sorry, Rebecca. Its was an accident." Dammit, Kate thought, what was the matter with her? There was a tightness in her throat, a heaviness in her chest she could hardly get the words out. All over a stinking glass elephant?
"Its okay," Becky said, sensing her lovers distress. It was hard, this being apart.
"If I knew where to get you another one"
"Dont worry about it Kate, really. As long as youre in one piece, thats all I care about.
There was more muffled conversation at the other end of the line and then, "Look, Kate, Ive got to go. Were meeting Johnny and Eileen and the kids for dessert and coffee. "Im wheels down at 3:30 tomorrow. Can you meet me?"
"Ah I dont think so," Kate said, half-desperate now. "Ive got some damn appointment, I think."
"No problem" Becky said quickly. Ill swing by the office. Okay?"
A pause, and then, "I love you, Kate."
"Goodnight, Hanson," the pilot said, her voice a strangled rasp.
The connection died in her hand, and she briefly held the phone against her forehead before slowly replacing it in the receiver. Kate pushed herself to her feet, ignoring the uncomfortable wetness of the mineral water on her lap, and she walked over to the floor-to-ceiling sliding glass doors that dominated the apartments living room. She pushed aside the thin gauze curtains that stood closed during the day, shielding the thick beige carpet from direct sunlight. Kate flipped open the lock and eased one door open, stepping out into the muggy night air.
Even at this height, at this hour, the faint breeze provided no relief from the relentless heat that had plagued New York all week. The wind stirred Kates hair as she lifted her head to the sky, probing. Searching. Not a star in sight. The clouds were rolling in. If she tried, shed bet she could touch them, even now. She breathed in deeply, and she could smell it, taste it; on her lips, her tongue, the back of her throat. Her senses told her it was coming, long before her mind could even process that singular thought.
A storm front was moving in. And there would be hell to pay.
Kate decided to take a cab to the office early the next day, after another long, restless night. The skies had opened in the early morning hours; suddenly. Fiercely. The pilot had lain in her bed and watched the lightning cut jagged, scarred streaks against the blackened sky, exposing the heavy, boiling clouds like a nocturnal predator revealed in a camera flash. Now, it merely rained steadily, the thunder and lightning a distant, near-mystical memory.
As Kate stood inside the doorway of her building, waiting for the sleepy door-man to hail her a cab, she debated whether she should retreat back upstairs for a raincoat. This was the worst kind of rain in New York, one that provided no relief from the heat, and instead fell warm and sticky through the polluted air, landing on the dirtied streets and sidewalks, creating a toxic, primordial soup of puddles and streams.
It would be just a short dash from the building to a cab, the pilot reasoned, and another quick leap from the cab to the J.P. Fleet building housing the Orbis offices. Kate decided shed take that chance. Holding her leather bag over her head, the tall woman jogged to the taxi hailed down for her, getting only moderately wet in the process.
It was barely 0630 hours when they arrived at the Fleet building, just missing the first rush of passengers for the day heading to the nearby Kennedy airport. The Strategic Operations office was on the 8th floor of the 10 story building, and Kate quietly let herself in.
She was not surprised to find herself alone; as a rule she was always first in, last out. And that was saying something, considering how competent and dedicated MacArthur, Calverton, and Dottie were. But it was this time of day, in the early-morning quiet, that she did her best thinking.
Fat lot of good it had done her lately, she considered, turning on the coffee maker and winding her way towards her office. She chose to leave the lights off and sat down behind her desk, enjoying the natural light, dim though it was, creep through the windows.
She could see the planes taking off and landing from her vantage point; activity at the airport was picking up. Liz Furey would be pleased, Kate thought archly.
The pilot could not help it; she felt a bit wistful watching the big birds lumber through the sky with a sublime grace. The power of flying, the feel of the stick in her hand, the thrust of the engines at take-off she missed it. Oh, shed kept herself sharp in the flight sim, doing her time as per FAA regulations; she could captain a flight today if she wanted to. All she had to do was ask Cyrus. Hed promised her that if she needed that break, felt the urge to fly, hed make it happen.
But Captain Catherine Phillips had already made up her mind that she had a job to do. She would never give up. She would complete the mission at hand, as shed promised Cyrus - and herself - that she would. There was no turning back.
A light rap on her door. "Katie?"
"Cmon in Cyrus," Kate felt a grin work its way across her face, chasing away some of the shadows. "I shouldve known youre the only guy who gets up early enough in the day to still beat me!"
"You won today, kiddo," the older man boomed, pushing the door open wide. A smile crinkled at the corners of his blue eyes, and he held two steaming mugs in his hands. "I smelled the coffee when I came in down the hall!"
Kate laughed at that. "Still cant make your own, eh?"
"With you around, why should I?" Cyrus Vandegrift, Director of Flight Operations for Orbis Airlines, handed Kate a mug before sitting down with a comfortable familiarity in a leathered chair opposite the pilots desk. "This weather is gonna be a bitch today if it keeps up."
"I thought the worst of it was over?"
"It is," the former Air Force Colonel responded, "here, anyway. Just rain the rest of the day. But another band of rough weather will be moving through the Midwest. Therell be delays up and down the line, from Cleveland to Chicago."
"But that shouldnt effect any trans-con flights, right?" Kates thoughts skipped to Rebecca out in LA.
"Not unless the equipment they intend to fly out on gets socked in elsewhere, first." Cyrus took a sip of his coffee. "Why? Expecting someone?"
Kate swung her head from the window to gaze squarely at her boss. Pale blue eyes sparkled impishly at her from behind a coffee cup.
More than a mentor, more than teacher from her fighter pilot training days at Randolph AFB, Cyrus Vandegrift was a friend. A confidant. Someone she trusted with her life.
Tall, barrel-chested, and still sporting a military buzz-cut, there was not an ounce of fat on the tanned, silver-haired veteran. A nose hed broken some years ago left his deeply lined face slightly off-kilter, yet it did nothing to diminish the rakish good looks and confidence that attracted womens admiration and mens respect. Hed never told Kate the story of how his nose had been broken, though he threatened to do so one day if she were able to get him drunk enough.
It had been Cyrus who offered her the job at Orbis when shed quit the Air Force, after her brother, Lt Brendan Phillips, had been killed. And Cyrus too, who had managed to talk her into staying when shed been ready to bail out on Orbis. But this job had been the ex-colonels biggest coup yet, talking the mercurial pilot into forming the new Strategic Operations unit. To track down the source of the terrorist activity, stop them in their tracks, expose their network, bring them to justice. So far, her efforts had been a failure on all fronts.
"Well," he leaned back in his chair, "want to tell me about what happened yesterday, Katie?"
"It was a fiasco. You know the drill. A suspect package. Only it turned out to be smelly sneakers and somebodys watch in a God-damned mens room. Oh, and I looked like an ass no make that fell on my ass," she waved her hand in the air with a flourish, "in front of the bomb disposal squad."
"Whats going on with you Katie?" Cyrus leaned forward, his eyes grown dark and serious. "Would you rather it had been a bomb?"
The pilot thought about that before answering. "Yes." The rain began to fall more heavily now, pattering against the window. "At least a part of me does. If we just had something to go on"
"Youre pushing too hard, Katie. It will come."
"God-dammit!" Kate swore, slamming her mug down on her desk. Coffee slopped over the side. "Im tired of waiting. Tired of playing this game on his terms!" She shoved herself out of her seat and stalked over to the window, clasping her hands behind her back.
Cyrus kept silent, giving her the time to work things through. Finally, she turned around to him, a pained expression marring her chiseled face. "I know its him, Cyrus. I can feel it in my gut." She squeezed a fist in front of her belly. "But hes like a ghost. Never leaving a trace of where hes been, or a shred of a clue as to where hes going. Sometimes, I wonder whether he even exists!
"He does Katie, he does. We know that much." Cyrus moved to the tall womans side, placing a hand on her shoulder. "What did Greenfield have to say?"
"Ha!" Kate barked out a laugh, and spun away from her mentor. "I was so busy playing bomb jockey yesterday, I missed our appointment." The pilot held up a warning hand and returned to her seat. "Dont worry. Hes rescheduled for this afternoon. Hopefully, hell give us something we can use."
"Those spooks always do," Cyrus observed. "You dont know where they get their information. You dont want to know!" he chuckled.
"Abbado El-Yousef," Kate whispered, as if to herself. "Its got to be him. It all makes sense."
Just the name of the international terrorist brought a flutter of excitement to the dark-haired womans stomach; fired in her the thrill of the hunt that set her blood racing. El-Yousef might not have been the hands-on perpetrator of the recent Orbis hijacking, but he certainly could have been the brains and the bucks behind it.
And he had the motive.
Abbado El-Yousef was one of 42 children born to the various wives of a Saudi Arabian oil magnate. A product of the top schools in Switzerland and England, devout Islamic fundamentalism soon drove him to advance his causes through violence and terrorism, rather than through peaceful, political means.
El-Yousef vowed to wage a jihad against all Western governments, particularly the Great Satan the United States, and its hated ally, Israel. The holy war was financed by a fabulous fortune estimated in the hundreds of millions that El-Yousef had inherited from his father, supplemented by bogus businesses and charities based in Switzerland which served as fronts for his illegal operations.
Embassy bombings, warfare in the Balkans, Afghanistan, Pakistan; even the World Trade Center bombings in the US all had the mark of El-Yousef stamped upon them. But nothing could pin him down, the trail was cold. His followers would support him to the death and beyond. And that was a problem for anyone Catherine Phillips for instance trying to bring the elusive and powerful terrorist to justice.
"If it is El-Yousef," Cyrus said, his face lost in the shadows of the dim room, hes covering his tracks well. But what else is new?" He drained his mug and turned to leave. "See what Greenfield has to say, Katie. But be careful. Dont rush into something thats over your head.
"I wont" Kate said, offering the grizzled Air Force veteran a small smile. "Thats why you put me in this job, right?"
"Riiiight ." Cyrus replied, nodding his gray head as he considered that fact. "Just keep me in the loop."
"You got it, you old buzzard."
Vandegrift closed the door behind him, and Kate continued to sit, quietly, blue eyes staring out at the gray sky; at the planes magically appearing and disappearing in the mists.
It would be some time yet before she would finally relent and turn on her office lights. Before she would allow the darkness to give way to the light.
It was another long, dreary day at the Strategic Operations unit, and the soaking weather outside did nothing to lighten the mood around the office. Kate and her team spent the day in a small conference room, poring over Interpol reports. They reviewed for the thousandth time the details of flight #2240s hijacking, comparing the specs of that case to other terrorist activity world-wide, searching for commonalties and potential links.
Kate paused at one point and pushed back from the table, rubbing her tired eyes. Guns, explosives, suicide bombers, diverted weapons shipments, chemical warfare, financial maneuverings, intimidation, threats the pilot was amazed at the countless ways human beings found to hurt and destroy one another.
And for what?
A misguided cause or a perceived wrong; for pure greed itself, or just for the hell of it.
Kate gazed across the table at James MacArthur. The big investigator had his shirt sleeves rolled up, exposing beefy arms, and he was following intently along as Rory Calverton walked him through a spreadsheet. Mac, with his formerly jet-black hair graying at the temples, was definitely old enough to be Rorys father.
Rory Calverton was the youngest member of their team, fresh out of the Wharton School with a masters degree in international business and finance. He was also one hell of a whiz at computers. The thin youth, of medium height and build, couldve had his pick of any job on Wall Street, and perhaps he still might some day. But for now, he found his thrills responding to the exciting pull he felt from the underbelly of the business world. A financial cesspool where bad people hid behind anonymous account numbers and money managers; where criminals laundered their money rather than investing it; where corporations funneled revenues towards supporting illegal activities rather than issuing a return on investment to stockholders.
Rory had been recruited by the DEA and was ready to commit to that deal, when a buddy of his from Wharton told him what Orbis was looking for. Working as a key member of a smaller unit within a larger organization appealed to Rory; hed never liked large crowds. He far preferred to spend time in front of his computer, tracking precious metals futures and off-shore banking activity.
Catherine Phillips had recognized she didnt know a hell of a lot about computers and finance, but she figured if her unit was to have any hope of tracking down an international terrorist in his lair, they needed someone who did. No, Kate was about contacts and experience. About putting together the big picture through exhaustive investigation and plain old hard work. And if there was any special operation that needed to happen as a part of that, then she was the woman willing to step up and get it done.
Rory Calverton had arrived for his interview sporting shaggy, shoulder length hair of a most unnatural shade of blonde, oversized jeans, a Penn t-shirt and a pierced nose. A Walkman hung loosely around his neck, silent, for the moment. Kate had been a bit taken aback, to say the least. She carefully read through his impressive credentials, talked to him some, and found herself mightily annoyed at the wad of bubble gum he kept popping in her face.
The pilot had taken him out to a computer and asked him to produce a listing of all the financial transactions initiated by or on behalf of Stefan Bukoshi, Mishka Rhu, Alexandra Sadrio, and Roberto Andizzi, within the past 24 month period. The four individuals had been the hijackers on flight #2240.
Kate had left the kid alone to get herself another cup of coffee and do some hated paperwork, thinking that was the last she would see of Rory Calverton. Within 35 minutes, the young, brown-eyed Penn grad was tapping lightly on Kates door, casually showing her a print-out of the financial activity for the hijackers and their immediate families, over a 48 month period.
Right then and there, Kate had told him that if he were willing to lose the gum, hed have the job. He had blankly told her hed think about it.
A week later, Rory dropped by the office as though hed just stepped out for a cup of coffee, and accepted the offer. Pierced nose and all, she hadnt regretted it since. Of course Dottie mothered him like nobodys business, and even MacArthur had warmed to the young man once hed seen what the kid could do. With Mac, actions and results spoke louder than looks and words ever would.
Kate threw up both her arms in a stretch, and was just about to wade back into the stack of printouts, when the intercom buzzed.
"Catherine, Josh Greenfield is here to see you."
"Show him to my office Dottie, Ill be right there."
"Right away, dear," Dottie signed off, and Kate could not help but cringe at the endearment.
"Well boys, I hate to leave this party but ." Kate grinned.
"Dont worry," Mac looked up over the spectacles hed taken to wearing whenever going over small print, "Itll still be raging on when youre through!"
"No doubt," Kate chuckled, heading for the door.
Catherine had met with Josh Greenfield a number of times over the past few months. Cyrus had prevailed upon the connections he still had in DC from his Pentagon days, to have the Orbis Strategic Operations unit receive periodic, classified briefings from the Central Intelligence Agency. Although the Agency was not usually the most accommodating in the area of partnering with outside organizations, theyd been hitting the wall too when it came to tracking down the funding source of the recent rash of terrorist activity.
The Powers That Be had determined that perhaps two organizational heads were better than one. Additionally, a key requisite of the unlikely partnership was a mutual sharing agreement. Meaning that whatever information Phillips and her team came up with, theyd have to relay to the Agency. And who knew? Maybe theyd get lucky.
"Hi, Josh," Kate came striding into her office, offering the agent her hand. "Uh sorry about yesterday. Bomb scare and all."
"I heard," Josh said, grinning. He stood to greet her. Agent Greenfield was boiler-plate agency issue: average build, average looks, with an above average intelligence. He wore an uninteresting blue suit, the better to complement his medium complexion and unremarkable brown hair. Greenfield was the type of agent who could fit in anywhere. Or simply disappear into nowhere.
He hadnt expected much from this assignment, at first thinking hed done something to disenchant his superiors. But hed soon realized that Catherine Phillips and her team had their shit together, even if they presented quite a preposterous picture when gathered together in their small conference room. They would never have made it at the Agency. Not Phillips, whose tall, stunning good looks would turn every head in any room she walked into. Not MacArthur, who though smart and dedicated, could sometimes be like a bull in a china shop. Calverton well he had potential, if only hed consider a Brooks Brothers makeover. And as for Dottie? She was a sweet woman. She just couldnt seem to be able to find the cream for his coffee whenever he visited.
"Whatcha got for me Josh?" Kate sat down heavily in her chair.
"This." He threw a file onto her desk. "Theres a lot of detail in there that you and your boys will want to review. But the readers digest version is that Abbado El-Yousef could definitely be our guy."
"Really," the pilot said, taking a sip of her coffee. "Tell me more."
"Hes headquartered somewhere in Afghanistan now, since his own people, the Saudis, kicked him out. So he isnt too far from all that messy Balkan stuff. Not that that means anything, he never stays in one place for too long. But wherever he goes, hes protected by an armed security force."
"Great," Kate said, shaking her head. "Thatll make him that much harder to get to."
"If we can link him to these events, then yes, it will be hard to get our hands on him, without local assistance. But I doubt that will happen the assistance, I mean." Greenfield took a swallow of bitter coffee. Black. "He believes hes the chosen one, destined to lead the umma, the worldwide Muslim community. Hes got a strong foundation of support, Catherine. Make no mistake of that."
"Weve got to find a way to connect him to these events." The pilot ran a hand through her loose, dark hair. "Youve looked at his e-trails? The banking end of it?"
"Endlessly. The problem is in tracing his funds. El-Yousef invests in about 60 legitimate companies, from banking to agriculture to construction any one of which could provide a cover for his terrorist activities."
"If not all of them," Kates voice was hard as she drummed her fingers on her desk. "So, if weve still got nothing to directly pin on him, why are you more convinced now that hes our guy? Not that Im sorry to have you finally agree with me." She gazed levelly at the agent.
"Its in there," he pointed to the file. "Your Calverton will want to really give it a going over. El-Yousef uses a system of laptop computers that transmit encrypted communications to his terrorist cells via satellite."
"WHAT?" Kates drumming stopped, and she sat straighter in her chair. "Whos keeping an eye on these guys? How can you just just access a satellite?"
"Welcome to the new millennium. How many cars do you think are driving around out there receiving satellite signals on Global Positioning Systems? Or receiving and sending on cellular phones? Look," he explained, "If youve got the money, you can get yourself access. Hell, El-Yousef could buy himself one, for that matter!"
"The connection, Josh," Kate pressed. "Keep talking."
"Last week, one of our listening posts in Madrid picked up a transmission. We think it came from El-Yousef. If it did," the agent grimaced, "hes planning something. Big."
"What? Where? Is there a timetable"
"Whoa, hold on," Josh held up his hands, "We dont have any more details than that. It was only a partial transmission, and encrypted, remember. Our experts couldnt come up with anything more specific. Believe me," his brown eyes grew sober, "I wish they had."
"So a fanatical international terrorist with unlimited funding and 21st century technology, is how do you say planning something big. Thats it."
"Thats it. Im sorry." Josh paused. "How about at your end, Catherine? Anything yet?"
"No," Kate said, letting her gaze wander to the window. "Were still analyzing the Interpol reports."
"Uh-huh. Well," the agent stood, "Lets keep in touch. If something breaks, it could happen soon, and well need to be ready to move."
"Right," Kate said, her mind whirling. She barely noticed when Greenfield departed her office.
An hour later Kate had finished going through the file the CIA Agent had left with her, feeling no closer to getting any answers. She tiredly massaged her temples. Her encoding skills were rudimentary at best; still, she had endlessly studied the encryption grid, hoping that something would jump out at her. But no. Greenfield was right. Perhaps Rory Calverton could make better sense of it.
The intercom on Kates phone buzzed just as her door burst open.
"Catherine, you have a"
"Hey there, stranger! Can I come in?" A rain-drenched blonde head poked around the doorjamb.
Wordlessly, Kate stalked out from behind her desk, pulled the visitor into her office, and slammed the door shut. In one swift motion, she swept the newcomer up into her arms, hungrily searching out lips with her own.
"Wow," Becky said, pulling away breathlessly at last, "Its good to see you, too!"
"I missed you so much," Kate dipped down and leaned her forehead against Rebeccas.
"Me too," Becky sighed, unwilling to break the contact, although she knew she was forming a puddle on the floor. "Look, Im getting you all wet."
"No kidding," Kate rumbled, finally allowing the smaller woman to wriggle herself free.
Rebeccas face turned scarlet. "Kate!" Green eyes flashed as the flight attendant shrugged off her trench coat. "I meant the weather!"
"Me too!" Kate innocently held up her palms, and then swooped in for another kiss. "Mnnn, you smell nice," she said, pushing a strand of damp hair away from Rebeccas brow.
"I dont know why that is." She wrapped her arms around Kates waist. "I feel as though Ive been in these clothes forever. And we had problems with the climate controls in the tube on the way in it wasnt pretty. I think my 18 hour deodorant surrendered after 6."
"Yeow," Kates voice was sympathetic. "Who was Captain?"
"Roger Sheridan," Becky replied.
"A good guy."
"Yeah, he was good," she lightly kissed the tip of Kates nose. "But Ive known better."
Kate lifted an eyebrow and looked down at her young lover. "Flattery will get you everywhere."
"Im a-hopin!" Becky smiled. "Its Friday, Ive got 4 days off, and I wanna go home!"
"You got it," Kate decided. She grabbed Greenfields file from her desk, swung her bag onto her shoulder, and came back around to Rebecca. "Im ready."
"I dont know how you find anything in this office, Kate. Its a mess! My messages are probably in that swamp somewhere" she took a curious step towards the mounds of paper strewn on the pilots desk.
"Ooooh, no you dont," Kate playfully grabbed at her arm. "Lets go."
"You dont have a coat?"
"Are you crazy? Kate, its pouring out there!"
"Geez, Hanson, calm down, will ya? I wont melt!"
"You !" Becky clicked her tongue disapprovingly, and allowed Kate to usher her out into the main office.
"Oh, just a sec." The pilot ducked into the conference room where shed left Mac and Rory. As promised, the party was still going on.
"Hey guys, Im outta here."
"Party-pooper," Mac said, smiling. "Youre not missing anything. This gig has been dead for a while."
"Yeah," Rory agreed. "Were like stuck."
"Go home, guys. We get to do it all over again Monday," she said, knowing that shed probably see them here in the office at least one time or another over the weekend. "Oh," she handed Mac the file. "Josh left this. Take a look at it. Rory, theres an encryption grid in there you might like to play around with."
"Really?" he said, his eyes brightening. "Cool."
Kate grinned and shook her head. "Gnight guys."
"Goodnight," they chorused back to her, already delving into the contents of the file.
Back in the main office, Becky was just slipping into her trench coat again. "I think theres an umbrella in my bag," she said, reaching for her pull-case.
"Forget it," Kate cut in front of Becky and grabbed the bag, "Lets go." The pilot lowered her head and buzzed next to the young blondes ear, "I want to get you home as soon as possible." She turned to the heavy-set, gray haired woman who sat near the front office door. "Have a good weekend, Dottie."
"Oh, goodnight, Catherine. And nice to see you again, Becky dear!"
"You too, Dottie," Becky leaned down and gave the secretary a peck on the cheek. "And give Mr. Chips a hug from me, will you?"
"Done!" the older woman beamed, adjusting the glasses on her face.
With a wave goodnight, Kate and Becky were gone.
"Okay," the pilot said as they headed towards the elevator. "I know Im going to regret asking this, but who is Mr. Chips?"
Becky stopped short, planted her hands on her hips, and cocked her head at her taller companion. "Why, Mr. Chips is her cat, of course! Shame on you for not knowing!"
"Rebecca ." Kate shook her head and chuckled as they resumed their trek towards the elevator. "You amaze me. How do you find these things out?"
"Its easy," Becky pressed the button and the doors immediately opened. "I just ask. Its called conversation." Her nose crinkled at her companion in a teasing grin. "You should try it, sometime!"
As a taxi took them back to Manhattan, Catherine gritted her teeth and did the right thing: knowing Rebeccas boundless appetite for a good meal, she offered to stop at a restaurant or grocers and pick something up. "You dont want to know whats going on in the refrigerator," she said.
"Thats okay," Becky said matter-of-factly, her face betraying no emotion. "We can go out later or just order up something." She kept her eyes on the rain-soaked cityscape blurring by, but she reached out her hand and laid it on the back of Kates own as it rested on the seat of the cab.
The elevator ride to the 42nd floor was definitely a local, with Becky pausing to chatter happily to the other tenants as they trudged on and off.
"Whats it doing out, Becky?" A young man dubiously cast a sidelong glance at the tall, dark, and soaked form of the pilot. Unfortunately, a renewed cloudburst had occurred just as the cab pulled up at the corner of their building. Kates leather bag had offered her little protection, and even now she could feel the warm water droplets trickling down her head, her arms, her back.
"Cant you tell?" Becky pointed a thumb towards her companion. "And this one refuses to wear a raincoat.
"Its just a shower," Kate mumbled through wet lips, vowing to take her revenge on Rebecca Hanson at her earliest possible convenience.
At last, their floor arrived. "Let me get it." Becky used her own key, unlocking the door and stepping inside. "Yeah, she said, reaching for the light switch, I can see now I never shouldve put Raj on that table. I dont know what I was thinking"
A strong hand suddenly grabbed hers, preventing her from reaching the lights.
"Rebecca ." Heated breath on the back of her neck in the dark.
"Hmnn?" A hot bolt of desire surged through the flight attendant at the anticipation of what she knew was to come.
"The fuck with the elephant."
They barely made it from the hall to the living room. A dim, opaque glow filtered through the gauze curtains, giving them just enough light to leave a barely discernible debris field of bags, shoes; a coat.
"Kate, I want to get out of these clothes," Rebecca weakly protested.
"I want you out of those clothes," Kate growled. She loosened the young blondes white Orbis blouse and pushed it off her shoulders.
"But I need a shower!"
"We both just got one ." The pilot assaulted the flight attendant with her kisses, her senses igniting with the salty taste of Rebeccas silken skin, the sweet juices of her mouth. At last she saw the blonde head roll back, eyes closed in surrender, and the small, lithe body melted into hers. "Thats right," Kates voice was hoarse as she gently lowered Rebecca to the floor.
The younger woman relaxed into the thick pile carpeting as though it were a feather bed, and quickly, Kate discarded her own ruined clothing. The climate controls had done their job throughout the hot, muggy day; the air was cool to the point of a chill inside the apartment just how Kate liked it. She could feel it now, like ice against the wetness on her skin. It energized her, invigorated her and it didnt stand a chance against the burning inferno, the desire for Rebecca Hanson, that threatened to consume her from within.
The pilot hovered over Hanson in the gloom, one hand tracing the line of the girls jaw. "Oh, Rebecca, I missed you so much!"
Green eyes blinked open, and Rebecca reached out, running her hands over the smooth, muscled skin of the taller womans arms and back. "I die a little bit inside when Im not with you. You know that, dont you Kate?"
The rain continued to tap against the windows, in a persistent drumbeat that matched the pounding of Kates heart. And in the gathering darkness, as the day slipped away into night, blue eyes were set aflame. "Then dont go. Dont ever go."
Catherine Phillips was in the middle of the most deeply restful sleep shed had in days. And her unconscious body was enjoying every moment of it.
Hanson had finally gotten the shower she wanted, after a fashion, and the pilot had taken diligent, lengthy care to make sure not a single spot was missed during the cleaning process. A product of years of military-style discipline, she was nothing if not thorough.
Later, Rebecca had thrown on a robe to take delivery of some Chinese take-out theyd ordered. Egg Rolls, Rice, Lo Mein, Szechuan Chicken, Spareribs, and something called Four Happiness Pork just because Becky liked the name of the dish.
They had talked for a time, Becky catching Kate up on the doings with her family, and the pilot filling the younger woman in on her long, frustrating week.
"Oh Lord," Rebecca had groaned, squeezing her eyes shut, "I cant believe you were trying to defuse some bomb. I cant leave you alone for a minute, can I?"
"It wasnt a bomb," Kate had protested, licking a dollop of spicy sauce from the corner of her lovers mouth.
"Yeah, but you didnt know that at the time! Wait--" the younger woman had halted her tirade, "Why should any of this surprise me? Calm " she breathed in deeply, "I must remain calm ."
"Does this help?" Leaning up on one elbow, the dark-haired woman had reached a hand over to Rebeccas middle, and begun a slow, circling massage of her flat belly.
"Well," Becky had carefully considered her bodys response to Kates intervention, "a little."
"You know what they say about Chinese food," the pilot had said then, flashing Becky a devilish smile as she shoved the take-out boxes to one side, "youre hungry an hour later."
Theyd finally fallen asleep as the night wore on, tangled in one another, their hunger at last sated. Catherine luxuriated in having Rebecca near; in her arms, her bed, her heart. Whether awake or asleep, it was a presence that soothed her, centered her gave her life meaning.
She was reluctant to leave this place of warmth, of bliss, not when shed just found it again. But there were demands upon her, people counting on her, calling her .
No! She would not respond. She didnt have to now. Rebecca was home. She would take care of everything .
"Katie! If youre there, please, pick up! Its"
"Cyrus?" Kates voice was thick with sleep and egg noodles as she pushed herself up on her elbows. Disoriented, she ran a hand through her dark hair. "What the hell" She picked up her watch from the bedside stand. Nearly 0300hrs. Damn. And she hadnt even heard the phone. This had better be good.
The tall woman reached across Rebeccas soundly slumbering form, and grabbed the receiver.
"Talk," she said hoarsely, trying not to wake her bedmate.
"Its bad Katie, real bad. I need you in here, now!"
"Cyrus, my God, what is it?" Alarm ripped through the pilots guts with the chill and intensity of an ice pick. Beside her, Rebecca was stirring. Sensing Kates distress, the girl reached out her hand. Kate eagerly clasped it and held it tight.
"Weve lost one, Katie. Fell right the hell off the scope with no God-damned warning at all."
The usually unflappable Vandegrift was shaken, Kate could hear it in his voice. A profound feeling of dread seized her. "No Cyrus " she shook her head as if trying to clear it.
It couldnt be. Perhaps she had heard wrong or was still dreaming. "Are you sure?" she blurted out, instantly recognizing the absurdity of that question.
"Katie," his voice broke, "Weve got a plane down."
Continued in Part 2
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