The ground twelve hundred feet below Perry Sachs’s feet scrolled by in a 110-mile-an-hour blur. He knew it was he who was moving and not the ground, but the plush interior of the Augusta A109 Power helicopter and the finely honed skill of the pilot made it feel otherwise.
The craft, aided by a spring sun directly overhead, cast a shadow that ran along the supple, green hills like a child on a bicycle trying to outrace his father’s car. Unlike many mountainous places he had visited, Perry saw that these hills lacked sharp angles, deep gouges, and jutting rock faces. Here the hills looked like ocean swells frozen in place.Where mound met knoll there was a smooth, sinuous valley. An abnormally wet Southern California winter had left the towering hills decked in a deep carpet of green punctuated by the thick trunks and outstretched limbs of ancient oak trees.
The dark leaves of the trees contrasted with the lighter bottlegreen of the wild grass.To him, the trees looked like monks stretching prayerful hands to the sky.
Perry was tired, his neck hurt like a bad tooth, and his eyes burned. He’d slept only a handful of hours over the last few days.
Two nights ago he had “hopped the pond” from Edinburgh, Scotland, to New York after a weeklong consultation with the European branch of Sachs Engineering. Travel was one of the perks of being vice president of the firm and the founder’s son, but it was also one of the curses. Losing sleep had never been a problem for him, but now at the age of thirty-eight, it was more difficult to do and much less fun.
The hopping continued from the Big Apple to Atlanta then on to San Diego where he arrived at one that afternoon. He then made his way through the Lindbergh Field terminals until he found the company’s bright yellow helicopter warming up on one of the helipads. SACHS ENGINEERING was painted along the craft’s body in maroon letters. Still dressed in the dark blue suit he’d worn at his last meeting in Scotland, he boarded the aircraft and found he was not alone. Five minutes later, everyone aboard the A109 was airborne and headed north.
“Thinking of jumping?”
Perry turned to look at the only other person in the sixpassenger cabin. John Dyson—Jack to everyone who knew him—was staring back, his ebony face creased with a subtle smile. Jack was big, the size of an NFL linebacker, yet there was more to him than met the eye. Many, to their embarrassment, had made the mistake of assuming that a large man couldn’t be quick in mind and wit. Perry knew differently. Both he and Jack had attended MIT, Perry taking a degree in architecture and Jack graduating at the top of his class in civil engineering. It was there they’d met and there where their friendship had been cemented. Jack joined Perry at his father’s firm immediately after graduation. In five years his skill and creative approaches earned him the title of project manager.
Over the years, Henry Sachs, the firm’s founder, had offered Jack many promotions, but all were declined. His degrees might be prestigious, but his love was rooted in hard work. He was his happiest when surrounded by big, noisy equipment, and it was there he planned on staying.
“I wouldn’t mind taking a little nap under one of those trees down there. I don’t suppose you thought to bring a hammock?”
“How can you think of sleep?” Jack said. “This is what you’ve been looking for since college. Don’t you remember all those late night lectures you gave me? ‘Building is great,’ you said, ‘but finding the hidden, that’s where the real excitement is.’ ”
“I remember. I also remember you falling asleep in the middle of my stories. It’s a good thing I’ve got thick skin.”
“How did things go in Scotland?” Jack asked, shifting his bulk in a seat made for men two-thirds his size.
“They went. The British government is excited. The project’s go. I’m looking forward to it.”
“More underground work?” Jack asked.
“Yup. Military communications complex. Guess who is going to oversee the project?”
“Let’s see,” Jack said as if contemplating a math problem. He raised a finger to his chin. “Military in nature, secret, underground, engineering intensive, why, it can only be a resident genius and your trusted buddy. . .me.”
“Good thing there are only two of us back here. Otherwise your ego wouldn’t have enough room to fit in this cabin.”
“You wound me. I’m not an egotist. Simply confident.”
“A rose by any other name. . . ,” Perry began.
“Ooh, Shakespeare. Not bad for a sleep-deprived mind.”
“Wait until you see how sharp I am after a meal and a nap.”
“Maybe I should sell tickets,” Jack offered with a laugh.
“We may have to,” Perry said. “This is costing the company a pretty penny, and while my father loves his darling boy, he does want to see some return. I assume the equipment is on the way?”
“Of course,” Jack replied. He looked out his window. “In fact, there they are now.” He motioned with his thumb.
Perry released his lap belt and slid across the seat to Jack’s side of the passenger compartment. Jack’s long legs filled the space between the opposing benches so Perry had to lean over the last seat to see. Below was the black asphalt river of State Highway 58. On the road was a caravan of two semitrailers, three flatbed rigs loaded with yellow heavy equipment tractors, a drilling rig, and a bus.
“I assume the rest of the equipment is coming later?” Perry asked.
“You’d assume wrong,” Jack answered. “Most of it’s already there. The porta-potties got there early this morning. I have the heavier equipment staged in Bakersfield and can have it on-site in less than two hours if we need it.”
“Gleason is on-site?”
Jack laughed loudly. “Try to get him to leave. He has his toys, a challenge, and an open-ended budget. He’s not going home anytime soon.”
“Good, we’ll need him.” Perry slid back to his spot and refastened his lap belt. Gleason Lane was Sachs Engineering’s “head techie.” An MIT graduate in computer science, he turned his back on the keyboard-in-cubical environment for outdoor tech.
“He’s been busy for the last two weeks. Just about worn out the ground-penetrating radar and fried every earthworm and squirrel in the area.”
“The results remain consistent?”
“Absolutely. Gleason found something. That much is for sure.”
Perry settled back in his seat, his fatigue evaporating under the heat of excitement. He’d built buildings in Africa and South America; he’d constructed secret military sites and large industrial complexes in Europe as well as the U.S.A., and he enjoyed every challenge. By comparison, this was a small project. But this went beyond all he’d ever done before.
He ran a hand through anthracite-colored hair. Gray had yet to touch his black mane, but he knew it was just around the corner.
A few more trips like the one he’d just taken would see to that.
Doubts surfaced like a whale breaching and spouting. The odds that he was right were astronomical, the evidence he followed was thin, and the experts who agreed with him were zero. Still, he thought he was right, and more importantly, he felt he was right.
And if he was, the world would never be the same.
“We should beat the caravan by twenty minutes,” Jack said.
“Those rigs don’t move up long winding grades very fast.”
Perry nodded, then slipped on a headset that would allow him to talk to the two pilots forward of the soundproof cabin. He asked how long before they would reach the site and was told five minutes.
“Take us around the area a couple of times,” Perry said into the microphone. “I want to get the lay of the land.”
The pilot confirmed the request and started a gentle turn to the right. Perry removed the headset and placed it back on the rack. Below him, he saw the terrain change slightly. Flying from the south, they’d cruised over the cities between San Diego and the Tehachapi Mountains. The larger urban areas of Riverside and San Bernardino had given way to the sparse, flat California high desert.
Joshua trees—their conical, viciously pointed leaves spread out like daggers—punctuated the tan, sandy ground. The path the pilots took was nearly twice as long, as if they had flown in a straight line, but Edwards Air Force Base, not many miles east, was particular about what aircraft passed through its air space. The pilots had flown farther north before banking west and were flying over the desert communities of Boron, California City, and Mojave.
Rising out of the stark dirt of the twenty-thousand square miles of Mojave Desert grew the round hills of the Tehachapi Mountains, an oasis of beauty between the desert and the fertile farm land of California’s central valley.
The helicopter bounced and slid to one side. Perry and Jack exchanged glances. “Wind,” Jack said. “The region is known for its wind.”
“Which explains those.” Perry pointed out the window near Jack’s head. Tall, white towers with gigantic three-bladed propellers stood in long rows like soldiers on a parade ground, the blades turning in lazy circles. “Wind-generated electricity. I read that it’s one of the largest wind farms in the world.”
“Impressive,” Jack replied. “Think we can install a few of those in Seattle?”
“Maybe we can just take a few home with us,” Perry joked.
The twisted oak trees that dotted the hillsides thinned, revealing clear, sloping grassland. Angus cows chewed the turf, confined by long stretches of barbed wire fences. “Looks idyllic,” Perry mused. “Rolling hills, grassland, trees, small communities. Maybe I’ll retire here.”
“Retire? You?” Jack laughed. “You’ll be buried with a shovel in one hand and a drafting pencil in the other.”
“You don’t know me as well as you think you do.”
“You’d be surprised,” Jack retorted.
Perry wouldn’t be surprised. There were precious few things that these two men didn’t know about one another. Perry knew he was fortunate. Most men made many acquaintances but few friends, at least close friends. Jack was family. In fact, Perry had been best man at Jack’s wedding.
“Tehachapi,” Jack said, gazing out the window. “Quaint little town of about six thousand.”
Perry waited until the helicopter turned enough for him to see.
“I see you studied for this project. Of course, we’ll be closer to Tejon, just outside their city limits.”
“Two miles outside,” Jack added. “So we can run in for pizza when the mood strikes.”
“A man your age should watch the cholesterol.”
“A man my age. How about a man your age?”
“I’m younger than you, remember?” Perry joked.
“By four months, that’s it. Besides, it’s not the age; it’s the mileage. And you’ve definitely got more of that.”
The power-producing windmills disappeared behind them, replaced by more open grazing land. They’d flown over the highest part of the mountain range and were now on the northwest side. The terrain was sloping downward; the highway changed from a sinuous course and became arrow straight. Again, Perry picked up the headset, this time directing the pilot to “Take us in.” The helicopter changed course and headed back toward the mountains. A few minutes later the pilot directed the craft in a lazy circle over a grove of oaks. Perry could see several large trucks nearby as well as a few Ford Explorers painted the same yellow as the helicopter.
“We’ll have to land uphill where it’s clear,” Jack said. “The site is near that stand of trees. I hope you’re not too tired to take a little walk.”
“I’ll manage,” Perry replied. His weariness was all but forgotten.
The excitement of arriving on-site had given him a jolt of adrenaline. “I want to see the images Gleason made from the GPR. I assume he did an EM survey too?”
“Just as you requested. The electromagnetic conductivity survey was done first, then the GPR. If I know Gleason, he may have tried a few new things too.”
The helicopter descended in a slow, fluid motion, but Perry noticed a slight tilt and sideward shift. Apparently the wind was not intimidated by the multimillion-dollar craft. Despite the stiff breeze, the pilot set her down as light as a feather. Perry exited the moment he felt the skids touch earth. Jack was on his heels. The men pulled their well-worn travel bags from the storage compartment, waved to the pilots, then started down the gentle slope to the grove they had seen from the air.
It was less than a quarter of a mile from the makeshift landing site, but the descent was made slippery by the shin-high grass that blanketed the soil. From the air, it had looked short, like green shag carpet. Perry was surprised to find it so tall. No cows had been grazing here. The wild grass, which had matured with heads that looked like grains of wheat, stuck to Perry’s pants. He wished he’d changed before leaving San Diego. Traveling in a suit was uncomfortable to begin with, but hiking through uneven ground with a tote bag of clothing and personal supplies thrown over his shoulder made it worse.
Five minutes later they exchanged the blue sky for a green canopy of leaves.Wind rustled through the branches, carrying the perfume of sweet grass and fecund hillsides. The verdant panorama, framed by the trees and augmented by the quiet countryside, made Perry feel as if he had walked into Eden itself.
“Well, look who’s here,” came a tenor’s voice. “It’s the man himself.”
“Dr. Gleason Lane, I presume,” Perry said.
“In the flesh,” Gleason answered. Gleason was taller than Perry’s six-foot height by at least two inches. He had kind blue eyes, a strong chin, and was known for his good humor. A devoted family man, he was fond of showing off pictures of his wife and two kids—photos he kept electronically filed in his handheld computer. Gleason’s wheat-colored hair was cropped close to the skull, but not so close as to be confused with a Marine in boot camp. He turned and shouted to a young man hovering over some equipment. “Hey, newbie, come here for a minute.”
The young man looked up.He was thin and sported brown hair that hung to his shoulders. He pushed the hair from his eyes. “Yeah, okay.” He sauntered over, and Gleason made introductions. “This is Brent Hapgood. He’s a senior at Caltech and helping us as part of his senior project.”
“Pleased to meet you,” Perry said, extending his hand.
“Hey,” Brent replied with a nonchalant head nod.
Gleason chuckled. “He’s not much on conversation, but he’s good with electronic equipment. A friend of mine who teaches at Caltech recommended him. He checks out and understands the. . . nature of what we’re doing.”
Perry nodded and studied the young man for a moment. He struck Perry as a cross between surfer and geek. He seemed fit beneath his T-shirt and jeans, and his handshake had been firm.
Still, Perry would have preferred that only men he knew be on the team, but that was impossible. Laborers had to be hired from Tejon and even Bakersfield. Not ideal, but necessary.
“What’s your major?” Jack asked.
Perry watched as Brent turned his attention to Jack. His eyes widened for a moment. Perry had seen this reaction many times. Jack’s size could intimidate anyone.
“Um. . .electrical engineering.”
“Pity, you could have gone into civil engineering. . .a real science,” Jack said.
“I tried,” Brent retorted, “but my grades were too high.”
“Oh, a comedian,” Jack shot back sternly. The boy’s eyes widened even more. “You’ll fit in nicely.” Jack stepped forward and gave him a slap on the right shoulder. It wasn’t brutal, just a gesture between men—albeit one that made Brent take an unplanned side step.
“If you don’t mind me saying so, Perry,” Gleason said. “You look liked warmed-over death.”
“Who signs your paycheck?” Perry asked.
Gleason said, “Like I said, you look great. Better than ever.
Even though you obviously don’t need it, do you want to ride into town with Brent and freshen up? We’ve taken over the Oak Glen Lodge. It has a pretty good restaurant.”
“Let’s hold off on that for a while. I want to see what you’ve found, and then I want to take a quick tour of the camp. Maybe after the caravan arrives.”
“You sure? You look—”
“I’m sure. I can sleep later. Show me your findings.”
Gleason shrugged and led Perry and Jack to a tiny trailer that had been towed to the site. Perry noticed that it was already leveled and blocked in place. “It’s cramped,” Gleason said, “but it works. I decided against the larger trailer since we’re only going to be here a few days.”
“You hope,” Jack interjected.
“Not hope,” Gleason retorted. “Experience and planning. I think we can do what needs to be done in a week to ten days. Two weeks tops, at least for the initial work. If you’re right, detail men will be here for months.” He opened the door, stepping up on a large block of wood that served as the only step. Jack followed, and Perry started in when he noticed Brent on his heels.
“Brent,” Perry said. “I have to make this a closed-door meeting.
I hope you understand.”
The student seemed shocked but quickly regained his composure.
“Um, sure, I understand. Let me know if you need anything.”
Perry said he would and pulled the thin door closed behind him.
“Let me guess. You want a take-home box.”
Anne Fitzgerald looked up from her plate and met eyes with the waitress standing next to her table. “Just because I ask for a doggy bag every time I eat here doesn’t mean I want one now,” she chided with a smile. The waitress was named Sara, and she had worked at the Tejon Table and Grille since her high school days two decades before. Anne knew her well and liked her. The friendly give-and-take had been their pattern of relating through the years.
“So you don’t want one.”
“Of course I do.Don’t be silly. I’m not going to throw half a tuna melt away. I’ll eat it for lunch tomorrow.” It was a habit. At the age of thirty-six, Anne had gained barely five pounds over her weight in college, but it was only because of her disciplined eating. For her, weight was a struggle against more than carelessness; it was against genetics and middle age. So far she had won, but victories came one meal at a time. Years ago, a doctor had told her to eat whatever she wanted—within reason—but to eat only half of it. So when she ate out, which was most days, she would dutifully cut the food in half, eating one portion and taking the other portion home for the next day’s lunch.
The waitress disappeared and returned a moment later with a Styrofoam container. “There you go, Mayor. By now you should have enough of those to fill a room.”
“Or a landfill, Sara.” Anne picked up her plate and slid the remaining fries and open-faced sandwich into the container. “How’s the family?”
“Pretty good. Living with a middle-aged truck driver and two teenage boys is making me old.”
Anne started to remind her that Sara’s husband was living with a middle-aged woman, but thought better of it. “Well, living alone isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. I can tell you that.” Anne had lived alone for five years. Five years since John’s. . . She refused to finish the thought.
“Maybe not, but there are times when I envy you. More iced tea?”
“No. I need to get back to the office.” The thought of her dead husband blew a dark cloud over Anne’s mind. She needed to move on to other things and to do so quickly.
“Which office today?” Sara asked as she picked up the empty plate and used silverware.
“Business, but I’ll be in the city building most of tomorrow. The mail is starting to pile up.”
“How you keep both jobs going, I’ll never know. Waiting tables taxes what little brain I have.”
“Don’t sell yourself short, Sara. There’s nothing wrong with being a waitress. And you’re a good one, even if you do give me a bad time every time I come through the door.”
“That’s part of the charm of this place—mediocre food but stellar service.”
“Stellar, eh? Is that the word? Stellar?”
“What word would you use?” Sara asked.
“I’d tell you, but you might poison my food.”
“What makes you think I haven’t already done that? I’ve been thinking about running for mayor myself.”
“Good luck,” Anne said. “There are days when I’d give it to you. That way you could hold down two jobs.”
“Well, selling real estate has to be easier on the feet than running between tables.”
“I’m sure it is, but it has its. . .challenges too.”
A low rumble vibrated the floor, window, and booth in which Anne was sitting. She turned and looked out the window. Just beyond the restaurant’s parking lot ran Tejon’s main road: Oak Glen Avenue. It was a four-lane strip of macadam the State of California had given the ignoble designation “Business 52.” A large and loud eighteen-wheeler rumbled past, immediately followed by another. Behind it came a flatbed toting a backhoe. A second later another flatbed rumbled past carrying a piece of equipment Anne didn’t recognize.
“Wow,” Sara said. “It looks like someone is getting ready to do some building.”
“Sachs Engineering,” Anne muttered.
“Sachs Engineering,” Anne repeated. “The trucks had Sachs Engineering painted on the doors.”
“Who are they?”
“I have no idea. I’m not aware of any large construction going on in the area. No permits were filed.”
“They’re building without permission?” Sara asked. “Don’t they need permits to do that kind of work?”
“They do if they’re building in the city,” Anne replied.
“Outside city limits they’d have to go through the county—”
“Look, there’s more.” Sara pointed out the window. Another flatbed went by with a large yellow tractor in tow. Immediately after came a bus. “I wonder who’s on the bus.”
“Don’t know. The windows were tinted. I couldn’t see in.”
Sara picked up Anne’s empty tea glass. “I guess we’ll know sooner or later. I just hope the bus isn’t filled with hungry people. The boss would like it, but then he doesn’t have to juggle all those plates of food.”
Anne reached into her handbag, removed her wallet, and placed several dollar bills on the table. “The rest is for you,” she said as she slipped from the booth.
“Back to the office?” Sara said.
“Yes, but I’m going to take a little detour first.”