Into Thin Air

Anson Barber

 

Chapter 1

I sat at the bottom of my indoor swimming pool, thinking.

First, that I was just a regular man who needed air to live just like any other man. And, if I didn’t kick off the bottom of the pool and break the surface of the water, I would eventually die. Just like any other man.

Second, if I didn’t do this soon, my four bodyguards would jump in and do it for me, ruining their expensive suits in the process.

I pushed up with my feet and took a huge breath when I broke the surface of the water.

“You need to get ready for your meeting,” Merrill, my assistant, announced as soon as I emerged. This was why I needed to go to the bottom of my pool to have a moment to myself.

“Yes, I know, Merrill. I’m not a baby.”

“Of course you’re not,” she said in her patronizing tone and clipped British accent. “I laid your clothes out.”

“Thank you,” I grumbled and got out of the pool, looking up at the glass over my head. It was raining outside.

I went upstairs through my bedroom and into my large bathroom. After my shower, I dressed in the clothes Merrill had laid out across my bed. Black dress pants, light blue dress shirt, black sport coat, no tie. Perfect.

I styled my dark hair with just enough product to make it look like I hadn’t styled my hair at all and then walked out of my room down the hall to my glass-walled office.

Four men were already waiting with Merrill. Dirk, my head of security. Jackson, my business manager. Christopher, my best friend and lawyer. And, another man, who was apparently my guest.

“Good morning, Mr. Ward,” everyone said in unison.

“Good morning.”

Merrill introduced us. “Jameson, this is Mr. Dashel from the Smithsonian. He is here as you requested.”

“Yes. Thank you for coming.”

“It’s my pleasure. I understand you may have something I would be very interested to see,” he said, eagerly.

“Yes. Dirk? Can you bring in the horse?” He nodded and went to the door to summon yet another person to bring the artifact.

Eventually, the small gold horse was brought in and placed on my desk.

Mr. Dashel got out a pair of white cotton gloves and picked up the statue to examine it closer. He pulled out a magnifying glass and began his appraisal. After about ten minutes he placed the horse back inside its glass box and stared.

I could tell by his expression that it was legit, and I smiled in anticipation.

“It’s authentic to the time. The damage to the feet would be expected. Of course, we have no way to officially know for sure. The drawings of the AOC are widely varied, but most historians believe it was guarded by two angels, as well as four horses. One on each corner.”

“So, it was a good deal, then?” I asked, just wanting to know if it was worth the two million dollars of aeronauticals I’d traded for it.

“How much did you pay for it?” He swallowed as he asked.

“Two million.” He didn’t need to know it wasn’t actual money.

“Yes. If this is what it looks like, it would be priceless. I can’t even calculate its value.”

“I guess that’s a yes then.” I chuckled and the small man tried to laugh too. “Dirk?” I pointed to the case, and he took it away. “Thank you so much for coming, Mr. Dashel. When I’m ready to move it out of my personal collection I’ll give you a call.”

“Yes. Thank you. And thank you for your other donations as well. It was an honor to be of assistance.” He held out his frail hand, and I was careful not to crush his fingers as I shook it.

When he left, Merrill patted my back. “Good job,” she whispered and followed him out with Dirk.

“What the hell is the AOC?” Chris asked when only he and Jack remained.

“Ark of the Covenant,” I enlightened him.

“Like Noah and the Ark?”

Jack rolled his eyes. “I need to speak with you. Intelligently.” He looked at Chris, implying he should leave.

“Fine. I’m going. Are we doing anything tonight?” Chris asked when he stopped in my doorway.

I looked over at Jackson, who shook his head.

“No. I’m not allowed,” I sighed, and pouted playfully. Chris laughed and left.

“You have a meeting with—”

“Hold on right there! Wait until Merrill comes back before you start telling me what I’m doing and when.”

“Very well. I did want to talk to you about something private.”

“Go ahead,” I encouraged.

“Well, there has been some talk about the upcoming changes with the company.”

“Yes.” I frowned.

The upcoming changes in my company were weighing heavily on my mind as well.

I am the designer of the world’s fastest and most accurate unmanned surveillance planes. I own the patents to the technology and the manufacturing company that sells these planes to governments all over the world.

My newest endeavor was to take the device from its sole purpose of surveillance to a weaponized version. Unmanned vessels that could take ballistic missiles, or nuclear armaments, anywhere in the world while controlled from my living room.

“The board is worried about your…reputation. There is concern about having you announce the launch of the XXJ at the shareholder’s meeting in October.”

“What? No one wants a cocky, twenty-six-year-old Air Force brat with his finger on the trigger?” I sniffed sarcastically.

“Something like that. The parties, the drinking, give you an air of irresponsibility. Not to mention, Christopher.” He glanced toward the doorway where my friend had exited.

“Are you going to be making a suggestion?”

“I think everyone would feel better if you settled down. Found a nice young lady and got married. You know, actions of stability and maturity.”

“Oh please!” Merrill said, as she walked back into my office in her six-hundred-dollar shoes. “Getting married doesn’t make anyone stable or mature, Jack,” she scoffed.

“You would know.” I laughed and winked at her.

“I would.” She smiled, unashamedly. She had been married three times. “So he has an appointment with a reporter this afternoon?” she asked, getting back to business.

“Yes, at four. They are writing an article about Jameson. The story is going be out the week before the shareholder’s meeting. It would be nice if Jameson could tell them stories of his youth. Things that make him seem more like the boy next door instead of the rich, jet-setting bachelor.” Jackson directed his answer only to Merrill, like I was their child. I hated when they did this.

“Okay, so I’m supposed to come off like a responsible, ordinary guy?” I laughed, inserting myself back into the conversation. I’d started a multibillion-dollar corporation when I was only twenty-one. That took a lot of responsibility. Not to mention, I was just an ordinary guy, as proven by my time in the pool earlier that morning.

“If you could manage that,” Jack said in his stately way.

* * * *

For the interview I dressed in a T-shirt, jeans, and sneakers. You couldn’t get any more “ordinary guy” than jeans and a T-shirt.

I peeked down to the foyer to see the reporter going through security. She was young and attractive. Blonde. My type.

“Don’t screw the reporter,” Merrill whispered from behind me, scaring me half to death.

“Don’t do that!” I said after my heart slowed.

“I mean it, Jamie. You don’t need her writing about the size of your wanker in this article.”

“There’s nothing wrong with the size of my wanker, Merrill,” I teased.

“I’m only your personal assistant, not your business adviser. But I do worry what will happen to you if the shareholders think you’re too great a risk to the company. Could you please listen to Jackson and try to give a positive image?”

“Yes. Okay. I get it.” I sighed. “How do I look?”

“Very ordinary,” she sniffed and patted me toward the steps. “Her name is Jessica Miller. Don’t sleep with her.” I nodded that I got that, too.

“Hello, Miss Miller?” I said as we descended the stairs toward her.

“Yes. Hello, Mr. Ward.” She appraised me openly as I approached, and I was happy to see that she was apparently pleased.

“Call me Jamie.” I smiled, ordinarily. “This is my assistant Merrill. She will be sitting with us. Shall we go into the study?” I pointed toward the room off the foyer. I followed her inside, checking out her ass. Very nice. Merrill elbowed me in the ribs. Very off-limits. “Please, have a seat anywhere.”

“Can I sit at your desk?” she asked with a smile.

“Sure! Go right ahead.”

My study was full of books. I was both proud and embarrassed to admit I’d read all of them. I’m a big reader. Especially since I spend a large part of my time being grounded in my home by my own assistants. I didn’t do much in my study but lie on the sofa and read books, so the desk was pretty much barren. The desk in this room was more traditional than the desk in my actual office upstairs.

Jessica quickly set up her laptop and a small microphone and then smiled as I sat down on the sofa.

“So, are you ready?” she asked.

“Sure,” I said, faking enthusiasm.

“As you know, we wanted to learn about the real Jameson Ward, so I’m going to be asking questions unrelated to what your company does.”

“Okay,” I said, waiting for her to ask an actual question.

“What gave you the idea to start your business?”

I controlled my urge to point out that her very first question was about my business.

“Well, I was home from MIT for summer break. I was in my backyard messing around with a remote-control helicopter I had gotten for Christmas. It was a kit, but I had changed some things around. Made a few modifications. It’s very technical.” Very technical meant I had put in a bigger power plant and stabilized the frame. “Anyway, I heard my neighbor’s wife next door having sex out by the pool,” I whispered scandalously. “I knew my neighbor was at work. So, I took my camcorder and duct-taped it to the helicopter and flew it over the tall board fence to get it on tape. And, ta-da, unmanned surveillance was born.” I held my hands out like it was a miraculous story.

“What happened to the neighbor?” Jessica asked.

Merrill shifted uneasily in her seat.

“Well, I took the footage over to her and told her I would erase it for a thousand dollars.”

“Oh, my!” Jessica giggled. “Did she pay it?”

“Yes. But sadly she got caught later that summer anyway, and her husband threw her ass out on the street.” I laughed.

Merrill shot me a glare. I wasn’t surprised.

“Are your parents proud of your accomplishments?”

“My father was a major in the Air Force, so he was happy that at least it had something to do with flying. My mom is a mother. Moms are proud of you no matter what you do, right?”

She laughed and nodded.

“Are you still close to your parents?”

“Physically? No. But we talk on the phone a lot,” I answered half honestly. I talked to my mother on the phone a lot.

“Your name is very unusual.”

“Yes, well, we’re Irish, and my father does love his whiskey.” I chuckled nervously. I didn’t want to talk about my father. “Speaking of that, can I offer you something to drink?”

“No thank you,” she said quickly. “Do you have a special woman in your life?”

“No. It’s difficult to meet people. I’m very busy.”

“I see.” Her eyes widened with particular interest in this answer.

“Not that I wouldn’t love to have a steady girlfriend. Or even get married someday,” I threw in for Jackson.

“Aww. That’s so sweet,” Jessica said, like I was a puppy. I looked over at Merrill, and she rolled her eyes.

I rested my ankle on my knee and waited for her next question.

“What did you want to be when you grew up?”

“A Power Ranger,” I joked, but it was partly true.

“So, some people say you came up with the unmanned plane because you’re too big to fit into a real plane, is that true?”

“Well, no. But I would have an issue being a pilot.”

“Let’s go over your stats. I have that you are third on the Forbes list. You are of Irish descent, twenty-six, brown hair, green eyes, six feet two, a hundred and ninety pounds. You run, lift weights, swim, and practice martial arts. Is that right?”

“Wow. You definitely did your homework.” I laughed uneasily. It was weird having someone know every detail about me. “Do you know what I had for breakfast?” I joked.

“I know it wasn’t shellfish because you’re allergic.”

I looked over at Merrill. Surely, it couldn’t be a good thing for people to know that. Merrill nodded that she would take care of it.

“So, why did you choose the Silicon Valley to set up shop?”

“It’s beautiful here, and my planes require a lot of computer integration. Where better to find a plethora of software engineers, programmers, and designers?”

She droned on for another hour. It was like an interrogation more than an interview.

“Did you ever get a chance to thank the neighbor lady for inspiring your multibillion dollar company?”

“No. I don’t know whatever became of her. She probably became a prostitute or something; she was such a slut.” I looked over toward Merrill again, and she was shooting daggers at me with her eyes.

“Well, I think I have just about everything I need.” She nodded once toward Merrill. “I got the notes from Ms. Tanner regarding your humanitarian efforts and your love of the arts. You will be able to read my article in the October issue of Behind the Man.”

“I look forward to learning more about myself,” I teased and got up as she gathered her things.

“I’ll show you out, Miss Miller.” Merrill gestured toward the door while I pulled out my phone to check for messages.

There was a picture and a text from Chris. He was at a club having a good time already, and it was only six o’clock. I went to a shelf and pulled out a book. With a sigh I plopped back on the sofa.

It wasn’t so much that I wanted to go to a club. I was actually happy to stay at home. The issue was that I was home alone. Being an only child hadn’t helped me prepare to become a lonely adult.

Merrill walked into the study and frowned. “You know someday someone is going to figure out that the slutty neighbor lady is me, and I’m going to have to quit working for you, Jamie,” she huffed.

“Never!” I laughed as she rolled her eyes again and left the room. “We moved around a lot, and I never said which summer it was!” I called after her.

Merrill was six years older than I and still had a problem being faithful to a man, or I would have considered her long ago as my “stable relationship.” She was hot as hell and liked to dress up, plus her accent was kind of sexy when she wasn’t using it to talk down to me or boss me around. For all those reasons, she was just my assistant and nothing more.

I read for an hour and then decided to go for my run about seven. I got dressed in a tank top and shorts and called Dirk on my cell as I laced up my sneakers.

“I’m ready for my run,” I announced.

“Yes, sir,” he said in his thick German accent. “I’ll make the arrangements.”

While they “made the arrangements” I stretched in the foyer. Suddenly the alarms sounded in the gallery. I was closest to the room since it was just off the foyer. I ran inside, hitting the key code on the wall, and looked around.

“Merrill?” I asked. Had she been there? No one.

Dirk and Vasyl came into the room.

“I’m still working on the calibrations. My apologies, sir,” Dirk offered.

I shrugged and looked around. “Reset the code, then.”

“Very well.” Dirk nodded. “We’re ready for your run, sir,” he assured me. I followed him outside. He got into one of two black cars parked in the driveway as I ran down toward the street. The one car stayed about a hundred yards behind me, while the other car circled the neighborhood scouring for villains, I guessed.

Years ago, I put a stop to having a person actually run with me. I wanted to be alone with my thoughts. I wanted to pace myself to my own breathing. It was too distracting having someone right next to me. Dirk seemed happy to give up running, and they put two teams in place to keep me covered.

I was thinking about what might be in the article as I neared a corner on my normal route. When I was about four feet away, a girl came around the corner and stopped.

She looked terrified. Her brown eyes were huge as she looked up at me in horror. Before I could ask her what was wrong, she came closer and pulled me over toward the wall.

“I think someone is following me. Please, help!” she whispered frantically as she pulled my face down and kissed me urgently.

She was apparently attempting to use me as a disguise. My mind was spinning, but I couldn’t break off the kiss. Her lips were soft and warm and tasted like strawberries.

Then, the four guns pointing at her head interrupted our otherwise nice time.

“I’m so sorry I got you involved,” she said, as she pulled her iPod from her arm band and threw it out on the sidewalk, shattering it to bits. “Here, take this! It’s all I have. I’m not carrying any cash!” she yelled and covered her face.

“Back off, guys!” I shouted at my overzealous security team as the girl crouched down on the sidewalk by my feet, waiting to be shot. I leaned down and tapped her shoulder.

She looked up at me, still frightened. She noticed the men had put their guns away and stood up slowly.

“I’m sorry. You weren’t being followed. I was,” I offered as I brushed her off. “This is my security team. They’re here to protect me from strange women kissing me,” I joked.

“Oh, my God. I am so embarrassed.” Her face flushed red, and she looked away from me. “I’m so sorry.”

“Don’t be.” I looked her over. She was very attractive. She was obviously out running too, from the looks of her ensemble. The tight shorts and shirt. The sneakers. And the ponytail holding back her long dark hair. Very, very nice.

“I’m sorry my guys scared you. Where did you take self-defense? I don’t remember the grabbing-a-stranger-and-kissing-him technique.” I laughed, and she turned even redder.

“I’m so, so sorry about that. I don’t know what I was thinking!” Her hands were still shaking from the experience.

“Come on, I’ll drive you home,” I offered.

“I drove out here. I don’t live nearby. I’m okay. I’m sorry,” she said again and turned away.

“Let me drive you back to your car, then.” I pushed, wanting to talk to her a little longer.

“No, thank you. I’m fine.” She turned and started walking; she was trying to get away.

I ran after her, catching up quickly. “I’m Jamie Ward.” I jumped in front of her, making her stop. I held out my hand to introduce myself properly.

She put her hand in mine. “Nika Demeter,” she answered. Ooh. Russian. Though she didn’t have an accent. “I’m such an idiot.” She covered her face again, trying to hide.

“Hey, don’t say that. You had every reason to be nervous. Two guys driving slowly in a black town car. What smart woman wouldn’t be on alert?” I said to make her feel better, though it was true. “Can I please make sure you get back to your car safely? What if the next time it isn’t my guys and there is no one around to kiss?” I laughed which was stupid, but I couldn’t help myself. “Please?” I begged.

She nodded and mumbled, “Thank you,” with her hands still covering her face. She was so cute.

I walked alongside her in silence for a little while. I licked my lips a few times, still tasting the remnants of her lip gloss.

“I don’t have anything, I swear,” she whispered. I looked over at her as she was pointing at her lips. Her brown eyes locked with mine for a moment.

“Oh, no. I wasn’t worried about that. I like the strawberry stuff you left behind.” I smiled.

She nodded and smiled back shyly. Her smile was amazing. As I was walking next to her I noticed how tall she was. Probably five eight. When she looked away again I checked her over more thoroughly. Toned muscles, long legs.

“Can you believe I actually do know self-defense and that was still the best I could come up with?” She chuckled and shook her head in disbelief.

We got to her car about ten minutes later.

“So what time will you be running tomorrow, so I can tell my people to leave you alone?”

“Trust me, I won’t be running around here anymore. It’s too dangerous,” she joked and got in her car. She rolled down her window. “Thanks for walking me to my car. I really am sorry I interrupted your run, and for the…” She gestured toward her lips, too embarrassed to say the word kiss.

“It was my pleasure.” I smiled back at her. “Take care!” I said as she started her car.

“You too.” She gave me a little wave and then pulled out onto the street.

I opened the door to the first town car. “Follow her. Find out where she lives,” I instructed, and walked back to the other car.

I jumped in and had the guys take me back to the corner where I’d run into Nika. I got out and picked up her broken iPod and got back in the car to go home.

I took the device down to my lab in the basement and tore it apart to get to the memory. Thankfully, the board wasn’t damaged. I opened up the files on my computer and laughed at her choices in music. Her songs were some of my favorites.

Dirk came in. “Her address.” He held up a piece of paper and then set it on the corner of the table.

“Thanks, Dirk. Can you find Merrill and send her down here, please?” I requested as I continued listening to her playlist.

“Yes?” Merrill asked at the door.

“I need you to do me a favor. Can you get me the best iPod they make?”

“Sure.”

“Then download all of these songs onto it and take it to that address.” I handed her a flash drive and pointed toward the paper Dirk had left on the corner of the table. “Deliver it yourself and take this note.” I handed her a piece of my personal stationary. I had sealed it in an envelope so Merrill wouldn’t peek.

“Is this about getting a girl into bed? I hate this.”

“No. It’s just about a girl who threw her iPod at Dirk to save us from being mugged.” I chuckled remembering her face. I licked my lips again. The strawberry remnants were gone now.

* * * *

After my swim the next morning, Merrill came in with a smirk on her face.

I jumped out of the pool quickly, eager to hear what happened.

“Here you go. I officially feel like I’m back in third grade now.” She sniffed as she placed something on the metal table and walked out.

I dried off and picked up the bulging envelope.

Jamie,

Thank you for the new iPod. You didn’t have to do that. I hope you enjoy your gift. I know it is slightly used, but it’s the only thing I know you like.

Thank you again,

Nika

I dumped out the contents of the envelope to see a tube of ChapStick, slightly used. Strawberry flavor. I smiled as I put it on and licked my lips.

“Dirk!” I yelled across the pool.

He came around in a flash. “Yes, sir.”

“Can you do a background check on Nika Demeter, the girl I had you follow last night?”

“Yes. Right away.”

“Thanks, I’ll be in my office.”

I went in to shower and change. I called Jackson on my way back to my office. “Do I have anything going on this weekend?” I asked, hoping not.

“Yes. A fund-raiser ball. You need a date. Should I line up someone?” He didn’t like my normal choices.

“Not yet. I might have someone. I’ll talk to you later.”

“Good—” I hung up before he finished.

Merrill and Dirk were in my office waiting.

“Go ahead,” I instructed excitedly.

“Nika Demeter, born June fourth, nineteen eighty-seven, Las Vegas, Nevada. Daughter of Nicholai and Jillian Demeter. Granddaughter of Alexandr and Binova Demeter; Alexandr was a Russian scientist who defected to the U.S. in nineteen fifty, then worked with the U.S. nuclear arms program.”

“You know what? This is going to take all day. Just give me the file and tell me whether or not she’s cleared so I can ask her to the damned ball.”

“I don’t see anything that would put you at risk, sir,” Dirk assured me.

“She wasn’t a stripper or a prostitute or a slutty neighbor.” Merrill laughed.

“Okay. Good. Did you notice what size dress she would need?” I asked, knowing Merrill would have been very thorough.

“Yes, of course.”

“Can you get a selection of dresses together? And get me her phone number.”

Merrill held up a slip of paper and smiled as she handed it to me. She winked as she pulled my door shut on her way out.

I read through Nika’s file twice. She was cleared for security, but she’d had a rough life from the looks of it.

I dialed her number. She picked up on the third ring.

“Hello?” she said in her clear voice.

“Hi. This is Jamie. We met on the street last night.” I was a little nervous. I wasn’t sure why.

“Yes. Did you get my note?”

“I did. And the present. Thank you.”

“Please. It wasn’t much of a present. Especially after what you did for me. You didn’t need to do that. It wasn’t your fault I threw mine on the sidewalk.”

“Well, it was a little bit my fault.” I laughed, feeling more confident. “I was wondering if you would like to come over to my house for dinner tonight.”

“Your house?” she asked tensely. I’m guessing she was worried I was trying to get her alone.

“I can’t really go out in public without making a scene. I was hoping you could come over, and we could eat here. That’s all, just food. And talking. I would say a kiss good-night, but I think I’m already ahead of the game.” I teased her and smiled when she laughed at my joke.

“Okay. Where do you live?”

I silently pumped my arm in triumph.

“I’ll have someone pick you up. You remember Dirk? He was the second gun on your left.”

“Blond hair?”

“Yes. That’s him. It’s safe to get in the car with him, I promise.”

“Okay, what time?”

“Seven?”

“Should I bring something?” she asked while I covered the phone and laughed.

“No. I’ve got it. Do you like burgers?”

“Yes.” She seemed to relax a little.

“We can have a cookout,” I suggested.

“Okay, I’ll be ready at seven.”

“See you then. Goodbye.”

“Goodbye,” she said softly and hung up.

I called Merrill back in.

“Do you have a date tonight?” she asked.

“Yes. I see here that she is a computer programmer, but she’s unemployed. Did she apply with us?” I pointed at her file.

“Yes.”

“Why didn’t we hire her?”

“Four words. Russian nuclear scientist grandfather.”

“That would be an issue? He died before she was even born. It’s not like she’s going to be telling him secrets.”

“Okay, how about these three words? Father, convicted felon?”

“Come on! My dad and I are nothing alike.” Merrill raised her eyebrow.

“How about her own record?” she countered.

“This? This breaking and entering twice when she was sixteen? She did her time! She must have learned from it. There’s nothing on her record after that. Besides, these are sealed. No one will ever see these but me.”

“It’s your company, Jameson. Hire whomever you’d like. I would imagine dating an employee would get…messy.” She sighed and walked out again.

Jackson came in a few minutes later.

“How are we doing today?” Jackson asked. He was in his early forties. He had been one of my professors at MIT until I offered him a lot of money to come work with me. He was a pretty decent guy, but sometimes still talked to me like I was one of his students. It worked, since I sometimes needed that.

“We’re doing very well. I have all the plans worked out. I’m getting ready to divide them for each facility. I’ll be done in time.”

“Good job. I’ll let you get to it, then. Do you need anything?”

“Do we have any job openings for a programmer?”

“We can always use programmers. Especially when the XXJ comes out.”

I nodded. The XXJ was my weaponized version of the XXS. Because of security issues the XXJ wouldn’t be made in one factory. Not one person could know its entire system. I would be splitting up the plans and programs so that no one person would have access to the entire unit. “I may have someone I want to hire,” I told him.

“Fine. Let me know.” He left my office to go coordinate with Merrill for the day.

I spent the rest of the day working and occasionally daydreaming about Nika after putting on the ChapStick she’d sent me.