Ryan Chamberlain’s Gulfstream circled over central Florida and touched down on the tarmac at Orlando’s Executive Airport. The plane taxied to a private hangar and after a few minutes the plane door opened and Ryan’s assistant appeared in the opening.
“Welcome back. How was your flight?”
“Fine, and very safe.” Ryan glanced over at his traveling companion, an FBI agent with a military bearing. “They haven’t let me out of their sight since I left the Pentagon.”
“Is that it?” Shawn Falstaff asked, motioning at Ryan’s leather briefcase.
Ryan nodded. “All there, the signed contracts and the hard drive.”
“Jesus, we really have it,” Shawn said, taking a slight step back. He adjusted his wire-rim glasses and glanced at his watch. “Your department heads will be in the boardroom tomorrow morning at eight.”
“Good.” Ryan stood, his tall frame barely fitting under the cabin roof. “Are you riding with us?” he asked the agent.
The man had an earpiece attached to a coiled wire in one ear and he listened for a moment, then shook his head. “I’ll be in the car behind you.”
Ryan and Shawn moved through the small, executive terminal with a group of four agents trailing behind them. They slid into the rear of a waiting car and the chauffeur headed for Synergy, the Fortune 500 company Ryan had spent his career building. Two black Lincoln Navigators pulled in behind them.
“Serious looking guys,” Shawn said, peering out the back window.
Ryan nodded slowly. “Well, there’s some seriously bad missile technology in my briefcase.” He glanced over at Shawn and added, “Don’t look so worried, it’s encrypted. One of those FBI guys needs to be there when we download it into the mainframe.”
Ryan dialed a number on his cell. When a woman’s voice came on, he said, “Hi, we just landed.”
“Everything go okay in D.C.?” In the background were the sounds of a television and kids’ voices.
“It did. Shawn and I are headed to the office, then I’ll be home.”
“Deal,” she said. “See you in a while. Love you.”
“Love you too.” He killed the line.
Ryan slipped the phone into his pocket and turned to his assistant. “Let’s head straight to The Fort. I don’t want to stop at my office.”
“Late for dinner are you?” Shawn asked with a straight face.
The Fort, its nickname from Fort Knox in Kentucky, was the most secure spot on the Synergy compound. In the heart of the building was a stand-alone mainframe computer. Other than its connection to the power grid and a handful of cables snaking off to high-security terminals inside the building, the computer had no links to the outside world or the Internet. The chance of anyone hacking the system was pretty much zero.
Outside the car window, palm trees and manicured boulevards slipped past as dusk settled in. Ryan glanced at the briefcase sitting on the seat between them. The Joint-Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile had been a staple of the American weaponry arsenal for years, yet no one had come close to replicating its technology. Now his firm had been tasked with making it faster, more powerful, and invisible. He shuddered slightly at the impact a stealth version of JASSM would have on the balance of power if a country like North Korea or Iraq got their hands on it. They could attack neighboring countries and it would be impossible to prove who had launched the missile. He willed himself to relax, Synergy was building a game changer and he needed to get that clear in his head.
“Seriously, about dinner, what’s up at the Blackwell’s?” Shawn asked, then added when Ryan shot him a glance. “It’s in your calendar.”
“Their annual garden party. Alexis and I actually enjoy going. He’s a good man.”
Shawn grinned. “That, and a huge influence on the appropriations committee.”
Ryan nodded, staring at the clouds rolling in from the fringe of the hurricane pummeling Cuba and heading for Key West. What was its name? Lorraine. The twelfth storm of the season and it was only late September. It had been a bad year for the islands. They hardly needed another hurricane.
He snapped back to the present as the car pulled up to the gates of the Synergy complex. “Yeah, Blackwell is in our corner. He had a lot of pull on us getting the JASSM contract.”
Shawn handled things with the security guards, including getting the two Navigators through the main gate. Ten minutes later they were inside and on the short drive to The Fort.
“Things will be tighter at the gate in a few days,” Shawn said. “The new retina scanners are almost live.”
“Good. That will be better than the old card access system.”
“Way more secure,” Shawn beamed. “And we tightened up everyone’s security clearances.”
“Excellent.” Ryan slipped out of the car, the briefcase in his hand. “It’s unnerving, having this technology on site.”
The FBI agents fell in behind them as they entered the building and passed through the security checkpoint, first swiping their cards through a reader, then entering a PIN. The night guard scrutinized their photos on his monitor as they went by, and once inside it was a three-minute walk to the standalone mainframe in the heart of the building. Security outside the computer room was heightened, with two guards personally inspecting their ID’s and watching as they placed their right index fingers on a glass panel beside the door. The program confirmed all their identities and the door opened with a swish, but only the FBI agent who had accompanied Ryan on the Gulfstream was allowed in the room. One Synergy guard watched the hallway for potential threats, while the other kept an eye on the three remaining FBI agents and the bank of CCTV screens at the security station.
Inside the bunker, the only sound was the low hissing of ventilation fans hidden somewhere in the dropped ceiling. The mainframe sat alone under a bank of fluorescent lights, cut off from the world. The master set of plans for Synergy’s new design would be kept in this room, eliminating the chance of a working prototype being leaked to an unauthorized person. Pieces of the design could be locked in Ryan’s office safe for short periods, but never the entire missile specs at one time.
Embedded in one of the concrete walls was a massive safe where the specs would be stored. There were only six people who could open the door, Ryan and Shawn being two of them. Ryan swiped his card, then placed his finger on the glass. Once he passed the usual two-step authentication, a command appeared on the screen asking him to stand in front of a camera set off to one side of the safe. It snapped a picture of his face, then compared it to the one on file, using thousands of markers to ensure it was the same person. The green light lit up and the five-minute delay started to count down.
“Impressive,” the FBI agent said.
Shawn nodded. “Next time you’re here, we’ll have another level of security. Retina scans will be a baseline authentication procedure for every employee entering the complex.”
Ryan and Shawn spent the five-minute delay checking their phones and answering emails. Shawn pulled on the handle when the light on the door panel turned to green and it opened with no resistance. Inside, the safe was lined with metal shelves, all stacked with well-ordered piles of documents. Ryan removed the hard drive from his briefcase and set it on one of the shelves, then backed out and closed the door. The light turned red and the bolts slid into place.
“We’re done here,” Ryan said to the agent. “I’m heading home, unless there’s something else you need me to do.”
“No, we’re good. Keep in mind I have to be here when you transfer any data from the portable hard drive to the mainframe.”
“Right,” Ryan said. “Shawn will be in touch.”
The agent continued. “The only approved locations to store the specs are here, or in the vault in your office. No more than three of the individual components can be in your office vault at any given time.” The man locked eyes with Ryan for longer than necessary. “Are you clear on the rules?”
“I am,” Ryan nodded.
He and Shawn escorted the agents back to the entrance and saw them off. The security personnel didn’t ask for ID as he left the compound and that bothered him. The retina scans would be a great addition, but Synergy was only as secure as its weakest link. He made a mental note to have his head of security tighten things up across the board.
Rush hour was long over and Ryan kept to just over the speed limit, pulling into the driveway of his Winter Park home at twenty minutes past seven. Alexis met him at the door, threw her arms around his neck and kissed him on the lips. She pushed her body against his and they held each other close for a minute, then grudgingly parted. He couldn’t help smiling. He loved everything about her, especially her green, cat-like eyes that sparkled when she felt sexy.
Ryan ran his finger along the soft, tanned skin of her cheek and she gave him a hint of a smile. “What a day,” he said.
She grabbed his hand and pulled him into the house. “You’re home now and that’s what matters.”
He followed, like a glider behind the tow plane. “You know, you’re pretty sexy for a physics geek.”
She squeezed his fingers a touch too tight. “That’s why you married me.” They reached the kitchen and she let go, but her eyes still had that look.
“Hi, dad.” Zach’s voice shot through the room like a blast of ice water. “Had a good trip, huh?”
“Hi, kid.” Ryan tussled the youngster’s hair.
“Hey, don’t damage the merchandise.” Zach pulled back and smoothed out his hair. “I have an image, you know.”
“Yeah, okay. Got it.” He slipped his arm around Zach’s shoulder. “I heard something about a seriously good mark in science. Any truth to that?”
“One hundred percent,” he shot back. “That’s tough to beat.”
“No kidding. What was the test?”
“We had to dissect a frog and label all the parts. Easy-peasey. I like that stuff.”
Ryan rolled his eyes. “Our son, the thirteen-year-old coroner.”
“Yeah, that sounds cool.” Zach eyes grew larger. “People would be easier, the parts are bigger.”
Alexis shuddered and gave Zach one of her patented mom-looks, then turned to Ryan. “Do you want to change before we head out?” When he shook his head, she said, “We should probably get going.”
Alexis yelled at the hallway. “Patricia, come and say hi to your dad before we leave.”
Patricia poked her head around the corner and came running. Ryan scooped her up and gave her exactly the right amount of attention for a nine-year-old who hadn’t seen her father for a couple of days, which included a piggyback around the house and hanging her upside down until she squealed. He gave her a final hug and she scurried off to watch television after promising to behave for her older brother. Zach followed them out to the car, his head nodding like a bobblehead as they went over the rules, then he raced back into the house.
They slipped into the car and Alexis put her hand on Ryan’s arm before he could back out of the driveway. “Is the JASSM technology actually in the safe at Synergy?”
“It is.” He raked his hand through his hair. “Hard to wrap your head around, isn’t it?”
“Pretty scary stuff.”
“That’s an understatement.” He was quiet for a minute, then said, “It’s a first strike weapon, Alexis.” He put the car in drive and stepped on the gas. “If the wrong people got their hands on this thing…”
Alexis sensed there was more on his mind and she waited.
“Do you know how long a person has to live from the time they see the incoming missile?”
“Less than two seconds.” He shook his head. “Not very long, is it?”
“Hardly long enough to stick your head between your legs and kiss your ass goodbye,” Alexis said.
He glanced over at her, but she wasn’t smiling.