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…
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 starboard-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 upsidedown 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.