I’d explained my change of plans to Buzz, and he’d been fine with my not going along to New York. I’d decided that whatever Mike wanted to talk to me about, it had to be important, especially with Elizabeth Danfield hanging the specter of jail over my head. Mike had been absolutely paranoid about people finding out about this meeting, so I’d made sure to book a different plane to Hawaii, and I’d had Grace do it in her name. That had meant I’d had to incorporate her into my web as the second person I could tell I was coming here. It seemed pretty stupid to me that I had to be this secretive, but I’d promised Mike I’d adhere to his plan and I felt like I had to honor my word.
The plane touched down gently and taxied over to the apron, where I could see a non-descript limo with darkened windows, evidently waiting for me. I’d called Mike back and confirmed when and where I’d be arriving, and he told me he’d handle the rest of the arrangements, along with an admonition not to use my phone once I left California. I had it with me, but I’d done what he asked, and it was duly turned off.
I got out of the car and descended the steps confidently, even though my nerves were churning inside. The driver opened the door for me, and I hopped into the back of the car to find Mike waiting for me. “Hey,” I said, shaking his hand.
“It’s good to see you,” he said. “Thanks for coming out to Hawaii.”
“It’s not tough duty, it’s one of my favorite places,” I said affably. “Meeting with you is just a bonus.” The car began to move as we said that, and I noticed that the privacy screen was already up.
“You’re not here to meet with me,” he said a bit cryptically, then changed his tone. “Your son did very well on his deployment.” He was referring to Darius’ voyage this summer.
“I’m glad to hear that. I’ve never seen him so excited about something as he is about joining the Navy.”
“From what I heard, his strongest quality was his leadership ability,” Mike added.
“I can see that,” I said, thinking of Darius and his stellar personality. “He pretty much managed to keep his brothers in line, and based on their personalities, that would have definitely given him some excellent training.”
“And I cannot thank you enough for setting up that opportunity for Christopher,” he added. Christopher was his younger son, and he had an interest in the business world. Mike’s older son, Colin, was at Annapolis and looked poised to follow Mike’s footsteps and have a career in the Navy. Christopher was finishing up high school a semester early, so we’d set him up with an internship at one of the more dynamic firms we worked with.
“It was my pleasure. I should meet him, and so should Will, before he moves out to California,” I added. We had extended an invitation for Christopher to stay with us, but I wasn’t sure if that was still the plan.
“Maybe I can bring him out next month,” he offered.
“I think that’s a great idea.” I’d been tracking our progress as we drove up into the hills. The limo pulled up to a sprawling but pretty typical suburban house that appeared to be a single level, but the limo actually went down a ramp once it went through the entrance into what must have been some sort of underground garage. The driver got out of the car and opened the door for us, and I followed Mike into an entrance. The size of this garage and the structure of the building told me that despite what you saw from the street, this was no typical house.
“This way,” he said, and showed me into a small conference room and closed the door behind us, then gestured for me to have a seat.
“What is this place?” I asked.
“You’ve heard of ‘safe houses’?” he asked. I nodded. “This is the military equivalent. We use this for high level meetings between people who don’t want to be seen meeting.”
“Are the limos bugged?” I asked, wondering why he’d been so secretive.
“I just followed protocol,” he explained. “If I didn’t, it would make things suspicious, so what seems like a lot of unnecessary protections for you would in fact look shoddy if my staff were to notice.” In other words, he kept this as ordinary as possible, at least for a clandestine meeting.
“I understand,” I said. “So who am I meeting with?”
I stared at him. “She’s here?”
“She is,” he confirmed. “I want to talk to you first, then I’ll bring her in.”
“I thought she was under house arrest? This isn’t Connecticut,” I noted. He gave me a look that all but called me an idiot for suggesting he couldn’t overcome something like an ankle monitor.
“She is, and it is not,” he said. “There are a few things you should know.”
“Go on,” I said.
“She is working to negotiate a plea bargain on the charges from a few years ago,” he said, obliquely referring to our battle and how I’d framed her up with the murder of Carson and Brian. I wondered briefly if he was bringing this up to ask me to get her off the hook, but he wasn’t that stupid.
“I’d heard that was an ongoing battle, with the big sticking point being her refusal to do any jail time,” I said. That was what the lawyers told me, and I made a point to stay informed about her trial.
“It is, but I think that has been resolved,” he said. “She seems to have developed some medical problems such that jail time would be hazardous to her health. That has opened up a way to work around the need for jail time.”
I was amazed that they’d pulled that off, since I hadn’t heard anything about his mother’s health. Alexandra Carmichael was a resourceful woman. She must have found a medical professional who needed some money. “She’s OK, isn’t she?” I pretended to be mildly concerned, and it seemed to work.
“I think that as long as she can stay out of prison, she’ll be just fine,” he said, all but confirming my suspicion. “She’s been approached recently by Elizabeth Danfield.”
“I’m not surprised,” I said, with a small knowing smile. So that was Elizabeth’s plan. She’d release the info she had to Alexandra’s attorneys, and then the two of them would string me up by the balls.
“Then now perhaps you will understand the need for secrecy,” he said. “Elizabeth can offer my mother revenge against you, but the price for that is Elizabeth’s own success in whatever battle she’s fighting with you.”
“Does your mother still carry a grudge against me?” I didn’t think there was any way she’d get over that, since she was sociopathic in the way she hated me simply because her husband had an affair with my mother.
“She is doing better,” he said, making me chuckle. “You can offer her something that Elizabeth can’t.”
“And what is that?”
“Money,” he said. “She lost everything when Omega was dissolved. She had invested much more in the company than I had been led to believe, and she had done it on margin.”
“That would have been pretty costly.”
“Costly enough that it is forcing her into bankruptcy,” he said. That meant that she must have built up some pretty massive debts during our battle.
“I suspect her legal bills are pretty high too,” I noted, to draw him out.
“They are. I am quite aware of that, because I’m paying them. I’m also paying for her expenses, and she likes a comfortable lifestyle.”
“Comfortable,” I said ruefully, getting a slight smile from him.
“Indeed. And I have to subsidize David’s medical care, and as he is hospitalized, that is also quite expensive.”
“And you’re tired of paying their bills,” I concluded.
“I am, and my mother is tired of having to come to me, hat in hand, for money, especially since she seems to think that what money I have is actually hers by right.”
“So your proposal is that I transfer a significant amount of money to your mother, in exchange for what?”
He eyed me coolly. “Her admission of guilt as part of her plea bargain.” This was beyond the scope of my wildest dreams. I’d never imagined that she’d be willing to take the rap for those two murders.
“So the big missing variable is how much money is to be transferred?” I asked.
“There is one more thing she wants,” he said. “She wants you to state that the tape you gave Elizabeth Danfield was manufactured and not genuine.” That was an incredibly interesting pornographic home movie showing Alexandra fucking her own son with a strap-on dick.
“Have you seen the movie?”
“I have not,” he said, with real disdain. “I am aware that it exists, but I do not know what it contains.”
“I think that’s reasonable,” I agreed, since the tape would do me no good if I were in jail for the murders of those two assholes: Brian and Carson.
“So your certification, along with $100,000,000, should resolve this problem amicably for both of you,” he said. I said nothing, even as I thought about it. It’s not like a hundred million dollars was chump change, but it was certainly within my grasp, and even if it weren’t, Stef would help me out. It represented less than 10% of my net worth, though, so it seemed awfully cheap.
“I can agree to that,” I said, even as my mind began to wonder how exactly to structure it. I stopped myself, and focused on the business at hand. “Why are you negotiating this deal instead of her?”
“There is absolutely no sane reason for us to be at odds,” he said to me firmly.
“I’m sure you know that I agree with you,” I said.
“If my mother were negotiating this, she’d extract probably three times as much money from you as I just did, maybe more. And if she were negotiating this, she’d end up with control of that money. She’s much too dangerous with resources like that.” What Mike had done, and was doing, was taking control of his family, and that meant taking that control away from his mother. That was probably one epic battle.
“You’ll get no argument from me,” I said. “Thanks.”
“I think it’s the fair thing to do,” he said. Kevin had told me that Mike was an honorable guy, but I’d never expected him to be this upright.
He and I stood up and shook hands, binding the agreement, then he pushed a button on the wall. The door opened, and Alexandra Carmichael came walking in, dressed in a rigid business suit, looking much as she had when I’d last seen her, although perhaps a bit older, and a bit more worn what with her legal challenges. “Bradley,” she said in a somewhat friendly way. I faux-kissed her cheeks.
“Alexandra, you look the same as you did a few years ago. You haven’t aged a bit.”
“Listening to your flattery, and noting that it is a lie, reminds me of your father,” she said. That she compared me to my father shocked me, but that she said it with a smile just blew me away.
“I’ll take that as a compliment,” I said.
“And have you worked out an agreement?” she asked Mike.
“We have, just as I outlined,” he said firmly, getting a slight frown from her. She pasted her smile back on her face and turned to me.
“I am glad to bury the hatchet with you, and to put all of those bad memories and feelings behind me, she said. I hope you will do the same.”
“It will be my pleasure,” I said, only I was being honest, and I’m not sure she was. “I have a question for you.”
“What will you do when Elizabeth Danfield pulls out that document I showed Mike, the one that shows the transfer of top secret technology to an Israeli firm by a subsidiary of Omega?” I expected that to bother her, but it didn’t.
“You never used that,” she mused. I didn’t answer that, since it was obvious, and since I had only planned to use it if she came after me again. “That is why you got such a good deal from me.”
I could not hide my surprise at that. “I don’t understand.”
“That document was a fake,” Mike said. Coming from her, I probably wouldn’t have believed it, but from him, I was inclined to think it was.
“That whole file was fabricated?” I asked skeptically. I wasn’t following him, so Alexandra intervened.
“What would have happened to you if you’d have released that document?” she asked.
“If it was proven to be faked, I’d have looked like an idiot,” I answered.
“Think about that. Think about when you would have used it. It would have been when you felt threatened by me, and that would have meant that you were backed into a corner.”
“You wouldn’t have used it otherwise,” Mike explained.
“You must understand how Elizabeth works. She plants bombs and mines, and most of them have delayed fuses,” she said. “With this one, she gave you something to make you think she was your friend, but if you ever used it, it would blow up in your face.”
“It seems I committed a cardinal sin,” I said, almost to myself. “I underestimated Elizabeth Danfield.”
“Never do that,” Alexandra said, with so much conviction it was as if she were screaming.
Mike stood up, indicating that our meeting was over. “Thank you,” I said again, and gave her a more genuine hug.
“Watch out for my grandson,” she said. “Christopher is a good boy.”
“I will do that,” I promised.
She went to walk out of the room, but before the door opened, she turned back to face me. “Bradley, one more thing.”
“A small gift from me, to you,” she said, with her evil smile. I stared at her, to make sure she knew she had my full attention. “You would be wise to check into Lord Preston’s business affiliations.”
That I managed to hide my shock and only blink showed an amazing amount of self-control. “I will do that,” I promised. Then I got back into the car, alone this time, for the drive back to the airport.
August 21, 2003
Menlo Park, CA
“He wasn’t on the plane?” I asked Stef. “He’s alive?”
“He is,” Stef replied. I was so happy, but still sad over losing Buzz and the pilots, that my emotions were totally fucked up. I had so many questions, but I was too busy fighting back the tears. “I am sorry I did not call you earlier, and that you had to go through this. I just found out myself.”
“I thought I was all alone,” I said to him, then hastily corrected myself. “I didn’t mean that you and Grand weren’t there, I meant…”
“I understand,” he said soothingly. “And where are you?”
“I’m by the Bay,” I said, and told him where I was in the park. “I was pretty overwhelmed, and I needed to go somewhere by the water.”
“Can you make it home, or would you like us to send someone for you?” Stef hadn’t really shown me his caring side lately, but now, when I needed it the most, he did. It was really reassuring.
“I’m going to hang out here until I get my shit together, then I’ll come home,” I said. “But thanks.”
“I will explain things when you get back,” he said.
“Where was Dad?” Now my mind shifted, and I got a little annoyed that he was doing this secretive shit where he went off and didn’t tell us the deal.
“He is in Oahu, on a very confidential but important task,” he said. His voice was very firm, to tell me that this wasn’t something trifling. “He was pledged to reveal it to very few people.”
“And I was not one of them?” I demanded petulantly.
“You were not,” he said. “Only Grace and I knew, and I am sure you can understand why Grace was involved.” She was his assistant, and probably had to make arrangements for him.
“I understand,” I said, and let that go. I was so relieved to know he was still alive, I really wasn’t going to let those details mess me up. Besides, it wasn’t reasonable for him to have to tell me, or any of us, about every move he made.
“We will see you soon,” he said, and hung up.
I stared off into the distance, looking at the Bay, trying desperately to compose myself. I’d called Zach, but he hadn’t called me back yet. I called him again, and left a message this time. My shock faded, and my responsibilities emerged: I needed to let my brothers know what was happening. I called Darius first, since he was the easiest to talk to. I was lucky I got a hold of him, and just hearing his voice was like a balm. I told him what happened, and wasn’t surprised to hear him choke back some tears. “Sucks for those dudes,” he said, his voice cracking.
“No shit,” I agreed. “I was going to call Matt. You want to call JJ?”
“No,” he said, and was so definitive it made me chuckle. It was probably better that I did it anyway, since I knew JJ had been with Buzz.
“Fine, I’ll handle it.” I called Matt first, using that as a reason to put off talking to JJ, and had a relatively maudlin conversation with him, but then when that was done, it was time to stop procrastinating and call JJ.
“What?” he answered, in his bitchiest tone. I was so tempted to just hang up on him.
“Dad’s plane crashed,” I said succinctly. I was trying to shock him out of his asshole mode, and it worked.
“Was Dad on the plane?” he asked, almost in a panic. I knew how he felt; it was probably a smaller version of what I’d just been through.
“No, he wasn’t on it, but Buzz Dalby was.”
“So what happened to them?” he asked, not much more calmly.
“Buzz and the pilots are dead,” I said. There was no way to couch that, so I just told him the deal
“Buzz is dead?” I could hear the hysteria building in his voice.
“Yes,” I said. “The FBO called me about an hour ago, and then I talked to Stef and found out Dad wasn’t on the plane.”
“You waited an hour to call me?” he demanded, being really bitchy. That was completely typical of JJ, that he would hide his pain by being obnoxious, but I wasn’t in the mood to handle that. No way could I put up with him being an uptight diva right now.
“If I wouldn’t have waited, you’d have been like me, and spent the last hour thinking Dad was dead too,” I snapped.
In that way that we understood each other, he got that he was on thin ice with me. “I’m sorry you had to deal with that.”
“The whole thing sucks,” I said, to basically accept his apology.
We were silent for a bit, then he spoke up. “Thanks for letting me know,” he said sadly, then ended our call.
I felt like I’d left him hanging and all alone in New York. All I had to do was drive back to Escorial and I’d be around people I loved, but JJ would only have Alex, if he were even still there. I sighed, pulled up my contact list, and called Carullo to see if he’d be there for JJ. I started walking back to my car as I did.
“What up?” Carullo asked in his masculine, clipped way. I heard train noises in the background.
“I need a favor,” I said. “I need you to keep an eye on JJ.”
“Why?” he asked.
“My dad’s plane crashed,” I told him.
“Holy shit,” he said, going total drama on me. “Is your dad OK?”
“He wasn’t on the plane, but Buzz Dalby and the pilots were killed,” I explained, even as I wiped a tear out of my eye. More crying. God, I hated that.
“I’m sorry,” Carullo said, going from total drama into total sympathy mode.
“We’ll get through it,” I said, probably too abruptly, since I didn’t want to have another long, sad conversation like I’d had with Matt.
“JJ mentioned that Buzz Dalby dude,” Carullo mused.
“JJ hooked up with him,” I explained. “That’s one of the reasons why this will probably freak him out.”
“JJ hooked up with him?”
“Yeah, he blew him, only he didn’t do a very good job,” I said, which was a leap from what Buzz had told me, but it was probably true.
“Maybe he just needs more practice,” Carullo said in his flirtatious way, which made me smile for a second. “I’ll keep an eye on him and see if I can cheer him up.”
There was more train noise. “Gotta run,” he said, and then that call was over too. I got to my car and sat in it, and thought about the one last call I should probably make.
I rummaged through my contacts, cringing when I got to Buzz’s name, and clicked on the one below it, the one that belonged to his son. I’d never met his son, Dally, and I wasn’t sure if it was my place to talk to him about Buzz, but I remembered the hell I’d just been through. It was one of those things where I felt almost compelled to reach out and try to ease his pain, even a little, if I could. Besides, of all of us, since I was probably the most intimate with his father, it seemed appropriate in a weird kind of way. I hit the ‘call’ button, almost hoping it would go to voice mail, but it didn’t.
“Hello,” I heard a very deep voice say, one that was more surprised than friendly. The Texas twang in it seemed more pronounced even than Buzz’s had been.
“Dally?” I asked, to make sure it was him.
“No one calls me that,” he snapped. “Who the fuck is this?”
“Will Schluter, from California,” I said lamely.
“You’re the dude that my dad was talking about,” he said, but almost in a sneering kind of way.
“He’s been staying with us when he’s been here in Palo Alto,” is said.
“Yeah, I know,” he said. “So what do you want?”
“There was an accident today,” I said. He was being pretty belligerent, so this was probably a bad idea, but I pressed on. “My father’s plane crashed.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” he said somberly.
“My father wasn’t on the plane, but your dad was,” I said simply.
“What kind of bullshit is this?” he yelled. “If he was on a plane and it crashed, someone would have called us.”
“I didn’t know if they had called you or not, and I just found out, and I wanted to let you know,” I said.
“So what’s that mean?” he asked nervously.
“There weren’t any survivors,” I said. “He’s gone.” And then Dally ended our call.
August 21, 2003
Over the Pacific Ocean
I was sitting in my seat as the plane jetted back to Palo Alto, mulling over the deal I’d just made, and wondering how this would impact my battle with Elizabeth Danfield. If nothing else, Mike had confirmed to me that she was going to come after me. I wasn’t sure if that document was a fake, and I didn’t know what the deal was with Lord Preston, but the fact that Elizabeth had reached out to Alexandra and had tried to make an ally out of her told me there was one major shit storm heading my way.
I pulled out a notepad and started scrawling notes, both to record our conversations and to remind me of things to do. This was going to be not unlike my battle with Omega in 2000, but in this case, I wouldn’t need to involve a bunch of employees and distract them. This wasn’t a business war, this was personal, and that meant my army would consist mostly of lawyers and other unsavory people.
The cockpit door opened and the co-pilot came out, looking pale as a ghost. For a minute, I thought he was sick, until I saw him wiping a tear out of his eye. That meant that whatever he was going to talk to me about had to be sad news. Maybe the plane was out of fuel and we were about to ditch into the Pacific? “Mr. Schluter,” he said respectfully, as if he didn’t already have my attention. I just stared at him, non-verbally demanding that he go on. “There was an accident, and your plane crashed on its flight to New York.”
I stared at him for only a moment, while that news flew through my body, hitting every neuron I had. “What happened?”
“They don’t know yet,” he said. “They’ve found the black boxes, and they’ll be trying to figure that out.” The way he said that told me that my plane must be in pieces, otherwise finding the black boxes wouldn’t be a challenge.
“Was anyone hurt?” I asked, knowing that bad news was coming.
“There were no survivors,” he said. “Both pilots and Mr. Dalby were killed.”
I recognized that this was a big loss for him too, as he probably knew the pilots, and losing a plane would be a huge deal to him and the FBO. I managed to pull my head out of my ass enough to be polite. “I’m very sorry about that. They were all good men.”
“Yes they were,” he said.
“I’d appreciate it if you could get us back to Palo Alto as quickly as possible,” I said calmly.
“Yes, sir,” he said, and went back up to the cockpit. I sat there reeling from this news. My pilots had been working for me for over a year now. Tom Polanski was the lead pilot, and he had a wife and two children, both under ten years old. Joe Grissom was the co-pilot, and he was divorced with a 6-year-old daughter who lived with his ex-wife.
And then there was Buzz, a guy who I’d come to like, appreciate, and rely on. We’d already integrated him into our team, and I’d been amazed at how well he worked with Stef, Luke, and me. I smiled when I thought about the brief interlude I’d had with him, where he’d actually bottomed for me, then I frowned and shed a tear when I realized he’d been lost. Another thought popped into my brain and I picked up the phone to talk to the co-pilot. “Did they notify anyone about the crash?” I asked him after he answered.
“I don’t know, sir, but I assume they would have talked to the emergency contacts.”
“Thanks,” I said, and hung up the line, then got almost frantic. Will was on that list, and I hadn’t told him that I’d gone to Hawaii. If they called him and told him my plane crashed, he’d think I was dead. I had planned to avoid making phone calls on this flight, to keep my tracks to Hawaii and back relatively hidden, but I threw that resolution out the window and called Will.
Even as the phone clicked as it tried to connect to him, I was gripped with worry. “Hello,” he said sadly as he answered. He wouldn’t have known it was me because I was calling from the plane.
“Will, it’s me,” I said lamely. I almost wondered if I’d get a tirade from him for running off and not telling him about my trek to Hawaii, and for letting him think I was killed.
“I’ve never been so happy to hear your voice,” he said emphatically, the love so clear it brightened my otherwise shitty day. “I thought you were on your plane until I talked to Stef.”
“I’m so sorry about that,” I said sincerely.
“I’m just glad that you’re alright,” he said. That kind of blew my mind, and I chided myself for thinking he was the same kid who destroyed my wardrobe and ran away, and for wondering if he’d turn my car into a torch.
“I’ll be in Palo Alto in a couple of hours,” I said.
“I’ll see you then,” he said. I ended the call and only then did it dawn on me that, with the exception of Stef and Grace, the rest of the world would have thought I was on the flight to New York. Was it a mechanical failure, or was it an intentional attack? Was I the target? Was Buzz, and were the pilots killed in a failed attempt to assassinate me?