René "Le Pistol" Pistolero was the pride of Spain. At only 21 he dominated the European Formula One circuit like no one his age had ever done. From Dusseldorf to Madrid and seemingly every city in between, in his very short life he had gone up against the best drivers on the continent and come away the winner. He woke on the morning of April 15th to the caress of a young woman whose name he was not sure he remembered, but he thought it was Christina.
They had met the night before at the club Les Bains, where the rich and famous went to drink, dance and indulge while in Paris. Against his better judgment he asked her to come with him back to his suite at the Hotel Scribe. He knew he had to get up early in the morning but he was sure this girl was the most beautiful woman he had ever laid his eyes on and he couldn't let her get away. Her strawberry blonde curls and perfect English belied the fact that she was as Spanish as he was, having been raised in the United States by a father who moved from Barcelona to Detroit when she was 3 years old. The pair left Les Bains together. When she climbed out of his Testarossa and turned to him and smiled, he knew he was in trouble. He had to get up in only a few hours, but he also knew that he would not be getting to sleep any time soon. As the doors to the penthouse elevator came together, so too did they. They stumbled out as the elevator doors opened to his 6,000 square foot suite. It was an hour before they even made it into the bedroom, having shed both their clothes and their inhibitions on the black and pink checked carpet in the foyer before heading to the giant whirlpool on the terrace.
The sweat of their bodies mingled as they lay intertwined on top of the king-sized bed. They were exhausted, and although René knew he wanted nothing more than to find out everything he could about this goddess who had just walked into his life, the 3 AM on his watch told him that tonight was not the night. Tired and exhausted he knew he had to get some sleep. The angel in his arms was already there. He looked at her as the moonlight danced across her face. He knew today was his lucky day.
A few hours later, after climbing out of the shower and getting dressed, René leaned over to Christina. They kissed passionately for what seemed like an hour. He ran his right hand over her beautifully tanned leg and up to her right breast. As he reluctantly began to stand, she pulled him closer and held his hand on her breast. The bell summoning parishioners to Sunday's first mass let him know that he too had some place to be. As he slowly pulled away from her they both smiled and he promised that tomorrow morning they could stay in bed as long as they wanted.
For René tomorrow morning would never come…On the fourth turn of the 120th lap of the Tour de Paris, René was attempting to take the lead with only ten laps to go. He hit the corner going too fast and could not hold the turn. His car flipped and tumbled end over end, breaking apart as it went. Rene's cockpit slammed into the wall with such force that he never had a chance. As his car careened against the wall, the left rear axle broke off and went flying into the stands.
Much in the way that the death of Archduke Ferdinand began a tumbling of dominos that stretched far beyond the length of that bridge in Sarajevo, Renés' death set in motion a sequence of events that would reach back to the Third Reich, crisscross the globe and resurrect the memories of Machiavelli, Darwin and Ponce de Leon.
Alexander Cooke was the youngest of William & Catherine Cooke's four sons. Catherine was the heiress to New York's Marks department store fortune. William was once the American Ambassador to the Court of St. James. His tenure in London was a rather short one however. Just months after reporting for duty he felt the need to resign for "health reasons." Coincidentally, this resignation occurred immediately after he was made aware of the existence of photographs capturing his intimate familiarity with the anatomy of two seventeen-year-old English schoolgirls.
Alexander, being the youngest of the litter, always felt like he was living in the shadows of the rest of the family. His oldest brother Jack was always first at everything. First at being born, a scratch golfer, a 3.9 GPA at Exeter and most of all, he was their mother's favorite. After graduating from Harvard Law, Jack became a Vice President at Marks with his eyes on the CEO's seat.
Paul, the next in line was the consummate little rich boy. He spent his entire academic career doing not even enough to get by, but never having to pay the piper. His teachers were more than happy to pass him along year after year rather than spend another semester with him disrupting their classes with his chicanery. College was not much different, and he was as surprised as his parents were when he was allowed to actually graduate from NYU with his degree in Philosophy. He never studied much but always seemed to figure out how to avoid outright failure. The choice of philosophy had little to do with his like or dislike of the subject matter, rather he choose it because he knew it was the major that would induce the greatest amount of displeasure in his father. Having never taken a philosophy class in his life, Paul had no idea he would actually love the subject. Although his grades were as bad they were in high school, everyone from his classmates to professors knew it was due to a lack of effort on his part rather than a lack of intellectual capital. Indeed, Paul became the captain of the forensic team in his sophomore year and led his team to the finals in the Nationals three years in a row.
Josh was the closest in age to Alexander, a mere 18 months older. Their closeness could not be exaggerated. While the older boys tolerated Alexander, Josh felt like his protector. From horse riding to baseball to skiing, they were inseparable. Josh was even indirectly responsible for Alexander losing his virginity. Both boys were chasing Victoria, the only sophomore on the Exeter girls varsity squash team. Tiring of the pair's snickering and stunted approaches, Victoria confronted the brothers. As the boys nervously smiled like two peacocks in a preening competition, she laid down the terms. "I will go out on a date with one of you." She stopped and looked at them. The two brothers looked at one another and then at her. "But which one?" Josh said, fully expecting Victoria to say his name. "You decide" she said, "and whoever it is, the other one has to go out with my older sister Veronica." Both brothers having seen but never spoken with Victoria's bookish and rather frumpy sister Veronica exclaimed almost in unison "What?" Josh followed with "What does that mean?" while Alexander asked "What the hell is that?" Staring at one and then the other, Victoria proceeded explain to the pair that the only way she would go out with one of them was if the other one went out with her older sister, and the four of them went out on a double date. The boys turned to confer with one another. Both assuming they would be the one to win Victoria, they agreed to her terms. Later that afternoon they tried to figure out a mutually acceptable way of deciding who would go out with Victoria. Josh started by saying that since he was older he should go out with her. Alexander countered that no, since Josh was the older of the two, he should go out with Veronica, who was also the oldest. Finally, after finding no mutually acceptable form of competition to decide who would go out with Victoria, the two decided on paper-rock-scissors. Much to Alexander's dismay, Josh won, paper over rock.
As will occur in life, things do not always turn out as they are expected to. Josh and Victoria had only that one date and it did not go particularly well, due largely to the fact that Josh was sure Victoria was more interested in the waiter than she was in him. After days of analyzing the situation and fact that Victoria had not cared at all who she went out with between he and Alexander, Josh decided that he had been played and that Victoria had simply been using he and his brother to get a date for Veronica.
Alexander and Veronica on the other hand had many more dates. For them the date was a stunning success. Veronica was a diamond in the rough, in more ways than one. Not only was she surprisingly beautiful, but she had a personality that kept Alexander in stitches all night. Alexander could not help but smile at this beautiful kinetic butterfly he had never really seen. Months later to two of them got a laugh out of the fact that Veronica had agreed to go on the date only because Victoria had told her that Josh refused to go out with her unless she found someone to go out with Alexander. Veronica remembered thinking to herself that that was kind of strange because Alexander always seemed so confident and didn't seem to have much difficulty with girls, but to make her sister happy Veronica agreed. Alexander and Veronica went on to date for a two years and the romance ended only when Veronica's father was transferred to Los Angeles. She was the one shining light that shone through the darkest moment in his life and Alexander was always glad he lost to Josh that day.
The friendship between Josh and Alexander ended far too early. The two were diving with their older brother Paul off the coast of Truk Island in the South Pacific when Alex was 16. The island is a graveyard of ships and material from WWII and offers one of the most spectacular diving adventures on the planet. Josh, Alexander and Paul were wreck diving on the last day of a week-long summer trip. All were great divers with significant wreck diving experience. Josh was by far the greatest risk taker and decided that he was going to look inside one of the zeros that littered the ocean floor. Unaware of the precarious perch the fuselage had held since it first settled on that coral ledge on the 17th of February in 1944, Josh attempted to lift the canopy. The resulting weight displacement caused the nose of the Mitsubishi to arch upward as its fragile, decades long balancing act was disrupted. As he attempted to swim away from the moving wreckage his mesh bag became caught on the exhaust manifold. Before he could pull out his knife and cut the line to the bag, he was pulled over the edge of the coral head into the crevice below. Alexander was 10 yards away when the plane started to shift. The fifteen seconds it took him to reach his brother seemed like the longest of his life. By the time he arrived, life had abandoned Josh's body just as surely as the air that billowed from his ripped regulator hose. It would not have mattered if it had taken Alexander only three seconds to get there. It was not the 20-ft drop that killed Josh, but rather, his brother was crushed between the wing of the plane and a head of staghorn coral. Both lungs were punctured instantly from the back. He never had a chance. He was seventeen years old.
Alexander spent most of the next year in an emotional cocoon. Veronica helped, but there was more going on than she could see or Alex would talk about. While he missed his brother and best friend tremendously, it was tangential to the darkness that had overcome him. He would never share with anyone the thoughts that crossed his mind as he swam to the surface with his brother's body. As life was ripped from his brother's body, it was not sorrow or anguish that first entered his mind. Instead it was mortality. He was struck by the finality of life. As he hovered in the water staring at his brother's lifeless body only five feet in front of him, the only thing Alexander could think of was where did his brother's life go? It was like watching light disappear as the switch is turned off in an empty room. One moment it was there, the next it was gone. Where had it gone? By the time Alexander turned 18, the darkness had lifted, but thoughts about the swiftness of death would never be far from his mind. Like the simple frame of Van Gogh's Starry Night that goes unnoticed as it outlines the visual cacophony on the canvas, the knowledge of the precariousness with which life rests on its perch would remain a paradigm through which Alexander would see the world for the rest of his.
Alexander went to Princeton after graduation. He and Veronica talked about going to school together but she had decided to attend Stanford and after that they slowly drifted apart. Arriving with no idea what he wanted to learn, was no closer to knowing when he left with an English degree four years later. He knew he had to major in something and since he already spoke what his London-born grandfather called "passable" English, he thought he had a head start. Like his brother Paul, Alex was smart enough to get by without a great deal of effort. Later he would look back fondly at his college career as mostly a blurry parade of women, beer and Shakespeare. At 21 he had no clue what he wanted to do with his life so he decided not to decide. His father wanted him to come to work for the family. He declined the invitation and decided to wander around until he found something that caught his attention. His first adventure took him to Whakapapa, New Zealand's largest ski area. He spent two seasons as a ski instructor there. During the summer months of December through March he spent much of his time surfing in Crescent Head and Port Macquarie on Australia's East Coast. At 23 he was still utterly clueless as to what he wanted to do. He next went to what was then West Germany, where he taught English at an International School located just outside of Dusseldorf. At 25, after an off-handed suggestion of a German girlfriend who worked in a bank, Alexander started dabbling in the rather volatile and potentially hazardous (or profitable) world of currency trading. Although he had little real experience with financial instruments, he had a mind like a steel trap when it came to numbers and he was a quick study. Within two years he was well on his on his way to turning the trust left to him by his grandfather into one of the world's biggest fortunes. Alexander had started on the road to his future. By 32, he had everything a man could ever want, yet he still felt an emptiness he could not with explain. Slowly, as he approached his thirty-third year he began to recognize what was bothering him. It was the darkness he had felt following Josh's death. They were back. It was not that he was missing his brother any more than he used to, but rather, it was the thoughts that had run through his mind as he floated there staring at his brother's lifeless body. The idea of inevitable death was once again creeping into his consciousness. The difference was that now he felt like he could do something about it. At thirty-three, with his fortune firmly in hand, he knew he had found his life's motivation…
Jonathan had lived on the island of Aislado practically his entire life. He and his Chinese teacher Sebring were it's only residents. When he was 2 years old he was brought to the island from a place he couldn't remember. Sebring supervised all aspects of his development, corporal and otherwise. Jonathan's existence was a simple one. After waking he would begin the day with a swim from the island's northernmost point to the far edge of its biggest sandy cove and back. The "circuit" covered a total distance of about 3 miles. He first began attempting the swim when he was eight years old. It took him a year before he was able to make it without washing ashore half drowned. Because the island sat on a sandy plateau and the water was only about 3-ft. deep for the first ½ mile from shore, there was really very little chance of him actually drowning, despite his protestations to the contrary. Nonetheless, he had made the swim practically every day of his life since he was ten. After his swim, he would train with Sebring in Martial Arts for three hours. He studied Hapkido, Judo, Shotokan, Bushundo and Karate. In the afternoon he would run around the 5-mile island twice, once in each direction. After a climb to the top of the "mountain" at the center of the island, his martial day would end with calisthenics and weights in a small gymnasium near the "cottage." Finally, after dinner the day would draw to a close with two hours of meditation on the patio overlooking the western side of the island as the sun escaped once again. After meditation he would then read for approximately three hours before heading to bed. The reading portion of his day was his greatest entertainment as he had probably the best stocked library in the South Pacific. There was Plato, Shakespeare, Hobbs, Goethe, Galileo, and many others. Although there were a few contemporary books, the majority of the collection reflected the standards that would have been appropriate for a library furnished in the 1930's. Jonathan could quote Beowulf, he knew the story of Ezekial by heart and he loved the Merchants of Venice. In addition to everything else, Sebring taught him four different languages; English, Chinese, Portuguese and French.
Jonathan appeared to be a perfect specimen of a man. He had it all. He was strikingly handsome. His physical conditioning would have allowed him to easily win any Olympic Decathlon he might have entered. And on top of everything, he was brilliant and could debate Sebring on almost any point after studying the subject for just a brief time. Occasionally he even won. In the wider world Jonathan's gifts would have been extraordinary. On Aislado however, they were simply what was expected of him.
Jonathan's meals consisted mainly of rice and fish, although occasionally he would feast on one of the island's seasonal birds. He had never once left the island since he had arrived. He couldn't. It was simply not possible. When he was two years old, he was diagnosed with a potentially fatal disorder. Although it would not kill him on its own, his contact with others had to be severely limited. The condition, while rare, involved an immune system deficiency that would not allow him to be in contact with most other people for extended periods of time. Unlike most healthy immune systems that become stronger over time as they are exposed to and to adapt to the world's various pathologies, Jonathan's worked in just the opposite manner. It started out like a brick wall then melted away as if it were made of sand.
The only regular visitor to the island was Jack, the pilot who came every couple of months to deliver food, sundries and anything else Jonathan and Sebring might need. He always left the day after he arrived. Besides Jack, the only others who had ever come to the island were doctors, who would come twice a year to give Jonathan a physical. No one ever stayed more than 24 hours. They could not. Jonathan's immune system could withstand new bacteria or viral elements brought onto the island for approximately 72 hours. His imperfect immune system, when combined with the island's natural salted air was enough to allow others to visit for a short period of time when necessary. Because of the lack of people acting as carriers on the island, from which bacteria or viruses might jump from one to another and mutate, most newly introduced pathologies died within 24 hours of when their hosts left the island. The 24-hour restriction was necessary to ensure that Jonathan's immune system would not begin to deteriorate. Jonathan never really understood the disease, particularly since he felt so strong. Nonetheless, he was told that by the time he was 25 he would either be dead or the catalyst that caused the condition would have grown sufficiently weak for his immune system to grow strong enough that he could leave the island. On their twice-yearly visits the team of doctors invariably pronounced him in excellent health, aside from one year his having a sprained ankle and of course the ever-present immunity condition. By the age of 15, Jonathan's life was very much a blur. One day seemed to blend into another. The days had not changed at all for as long as he could remember. Much like looking into one of those mirrors that has an infinite number of reflections of itself, each of Jonathan's days was like every other one. It never changed in any material way. When he turned 16 it changed dramatically. On Jack's first trip after Jonathan's 16th birthday, he brought with him a girl named Maria. Jonathan had never met a girl and although he knew what they looked like from pictures and knew about biology, he had never imagined one could be so beautiful. Sebring had told him that she would be coming and much about what to expect. Once Jack arrived with Maria, he and Sebring left and would not return until the next day.
Maria was 19 years old and had a great deal more experience than Jonathan. She had responded to a rather unusual ad in a Lima newspaper. The ad was run by a European pharmaceutical company doing immune system research with the University of Lima. The ad promised respondents a complete physical, a generous payment and free healthcare for two years. The only requirements stated in the ad were that respondents must be between the ages of 18 and 21 and be in good health. Maria responded and the selection process consisted of a man in a white coat looking over the 200 respondents who fit into the reception room. Twice that number actually responded, but those who did not fit into the room were turned away. Of the 200, thirty were selected and given a contract to examine. The contract detailed what they would be paid and what would be expected in return. Three things were expected of those selected, and they had to agree to all three before signing. The first was to submit to a comprehensive week long physical. The second involved being taken by plane to meet a young man and having sexual relations with him. The third was to submit to a harvesting of any fertilized eggs within one week of their return to Lima. The supposed goal of the study had something to do with an immune deficiency he suffered from which the University was seeking to treat. The University suggested that if his genetic material could be harvested from a naturally fertilized egg, they could develop a cure for his condition. In return participants would receive a lump sum payment equal to approximately half the annual salary of the average Peruvian and free healthcare at the University of Lima for two years.
Upon reading the contract, 12 of the 30 women left. The remaining 18 agreed to its terms. Each study participant was given a complete physical the following week and assigned a date sometime over the next two years when they should return to the University. For those whose dates were more than six months away, they would have a second exam before proceeding. After reporting to the clinic on their assigned dates and being given a clean bill of health from the study's doctors, each participant would then be taken to the airport. After each of the participants showed proof of their age and signed the contracts, the research coordinator called out the 18 names and handed out the date assignments. Maria opened hers and realized that she was first on the list. She would leave Lima immediately following the results of her physical. She reported to the University the next day and exactly one-week later was on her way to Aislado.
Maria was very pleasantly surprised when she met Jonathan. She wasn't sure what she expected, but he was not it. He was strikingly handsome and charming as well. He led her into the house where they enjoyed a wonderful dinner of lobster and rice. At the clinic they had explained that Jonathan was a shy young man who would likely be very nervous. He probably wouldn't know what to do or how to go about doing it so she would probably have to lead the way. After dinner she did so with abandon. She took his hand and told him to take her into the bedroom. She gently sat him on the bed and he sat there trembling, very unsure of what was happening to him. His head was beginning to spin and his stomach seemed to be nothing but knots. As he watched her stand in front of him and slowly peel her clothes off he was certain she was more beautiful than anything or anyone he had ever seen in his life. Finally, after a moment of standing there naked in front of him, she walked over to him and began to remove his clothes.
Jonathan literally thought he was going to die. Sebring had clinically
explained what to expect, but there were not enough words in the dictionary to
describe what Jonathan had just experienced. Not only was it the most amazing
thing in the world, he actually thought for a second that he had died and gone
to heaven. Continuing until the early morning and moving from his bedroom to the
surf to the deck of the pool, he felt this young woman was nothing short of an
angel sent from heaven. The feeling was utterly amazing and impossible to
communicate. He simply did not know such pleasure was possible in the world. As
the morning sun began to rise she was laying in his arms as they were
intertwined in the sheets. He woke her with a gentle kiss on her lips and then
proceeded to wake every inch of her body. Jack and Sebring returned around noon
and Jack left with Maria soon thereafter. Jonathan had a longing in his heart,
not wanting her to leave, wanting to keep her there, holding her in his arms. He
knew it was impossible because of his condition. Sebring tried to explain to a
deeply saddened Jonathan that it was impossible to see her again but that the
longing he felt would go away. As for Maria never returning, try as he might,
Jonathan was never able to get Sebring to discuss the specifics of why things
had to be that way. For the first time in his life Jonathan felt a longing for
something beyond the island. Nonetheless, time marched on and as Sebring said it
would, the ache faded, assisted by the fact that every other trip Jack would
bring a different girl and the process would be repeated.
Her name was Laura Stenton. She was 42 years old. Fifteen years before she had been the youngest agent ever kicked out of the Mossad for insubordination. She was railroaded by a colonel who was himself later ushered out due to "failures of judgment" and "failure to supervise". Although upon review a tribunal decided that her refusal to turn over the requested names of informants was in fact allowable, the fact that she refused so vehemently and with such vituperative insolence made her a persona-non-grata in the tightly knit organization. Surprised more than she was angry about getting the boot, she contemplated what was next as she sat on the balcony of her Tel Aviv apartment. She knew she could return to New York, where she grew up and attended NYU, but there didn't seem to be much left there for her. She never seriously considered staying in Israel, having moved there and served in the Mossad simply because she felt that was the organization where she would have the greatest opportunities as a woman in the world of security, something that had fascinated her since she was a child.
Her father had been a precinct captain in the NYPD and her uncle was an FBI agent working out of the New York office. To her the two were the dynamic duo. They were like superheros. Her father cut his teeth hunting down high-end burglars. He knew everything there was to know about security systems and safes. He always said that the only way one could defeat your opponents was to know more about their craft than they did. And he did. Their house was filled with antique safe doors, modern high tech locking mechanisms and a variety of tools of the trade, from old-fashioned stethoscopes to mirror assisted cameras for looking at tumblers through holes drilled into doors.
If one can trace their life's fascination to a singular event, for Laura it was a morning when she was 15. It was one of those ubiquitous Bring Your Daughter to Work days in the 1970's. She didn't really have any idea of what her dad did, but she had some notion that it would involve a desk and a lot of paperwork. Much to her surprise, they never even made it to the precinct. Instead, her father met her uncle at a branch of Second National New York Bank. The façade, which looked like it would have fit perfectly in ancient Greece or Rome, was the only thing ancient about the bank. As a clearinghouse for cash transfers for a wide variety of transatlantic companies, its main vault was easily one of the most secure in the world at the time. While the bank had all of the latest security features available such as cameras, timed locks and movement sensors, the crux of its security was a rather simple notion, that bank robbers, in order to succeed, had to escape. Essentially, there were a number of mechanisms that the bank had installed which were not intended to keep robbers out, but rather keep them in until the police arrived. All three were simultaneously triggered by any one of a number of events such as the concussion that might be felt from a blast intended to blow open a door, the opening of a safety deposit box during the bank's scheduled closing hours or 1 lb. of pressure on a false floor that was in place during those same hours. Between the false floor and the steel floor was a pocket of air. When more than 1 lb. of pressure was applied to the false floor the pocket would expand, triggering sensors located along the base of the vaults. Any of the three events would trigger the mechanisms intended to keep robbers from escaping. The first mechanism was an odorless sleeping gas, which would flood into the bank and the vault from 50 valves located throughout the bank. In less than 15 seconds the entire 84,000 cubic ft. of space would be filled with the clear, ordorless gas. Sleep was almost instantaneous, and the person would be asleep for no less than 30 minutes. The second mechanism that would fall into place would in reality rise into place. Spaced at five inch intervals in a square pattern ten feet beyond the walls of the vault were 24-ft tall stainless steel beams which would rise at a rate of 9 inches per second until they reached the ceiling, where they would set into harnesses which would keep them in place. The beams were three inches in diameter and forged of tempered steel. Even a heavy-duty blowtorch would take fifteen minutes to cut through them. The final mechanism for keeping the crooks from escaping was easily the most low-tech of the three, marbles. When any of the alarms was triggered, 400,000 ½- inch diameter ball bearings would flood out and cover the marble floor, both in the vault and without. That number was carefully calculated to cover approximately 95% of the floorspace within the vault and the surrounding floor. Just enough coverage so that it would be simultaneously too unstable to stand on and too ubiquitous to step over.
When Laura and her father arrived at the bank he told her to stick close as there were lots of people around. There had been an attempted bank robbery earlier that morning. When she walked in, Laura thought this looked pretty strange for a bank. There was a big cage on the far end of the room with four men dressed in black sitting against the wall. The four had not yet been handcuffed or taken into custody. Everyone else in the bank was standing around looking at the quartet and looking up at the ceiling. This had been the first time these security measures had been implemented, having been installed only recently. The architect and designer of the measures had been considered a little "eccentric" but his track record was unmatched. He designed a unique combination of low and high tech mechanisms for each location that took advantage of the specific characteristics of the facility. Typically no one but the bank president and vice president were told about all of the devices installed in order to minimize the amount of security information that might end up in the hands of potential thieves.
The men had done their research however. The four lowered themselves into the bank from above with a rope ladder, which they in turn expected to utilize for their escape, obviating the need to get through the bars they knew would encircle the safe. In addition, they carried gas masks to keep from being affected by the sleeping gas. Fatefully however, they were unaware of the last and least sophisticated security measure. After cracking the vault door by setting the tumblers via a hole bored into its face, they stepped inside knowing the pressure on the floor would cause the gas to fill the air and the bars to set into place. Knowing they had 10 minutes until the police arrived, everyone started their stopwatches. The lone guard on shift was of no concern as he was on their payroll. He had been with the private security agency for a year and had provided the thieves with a great deal of the bank's security data. What he did not know about was the 50,000 ball bearing marbles that would come cascading into the safe 30 seconds after they stepped on the floor. There was literally a wave of steel flowing towards them. It took every one of them off their feet and slammed them into the wall or out the door. Once on the ground they were pummeled by the bearings for almost a full minute. Frantically trying to stand, the four looked more like Keystone Kops than bank robbers. Not only were they unable to get to their feet, they had a difficult time moving on their hands and knees as well. This was a disaster and all four of them knew it from the second the steel marbles started pelting them. As close as they were to success, they all knew the robbery game was up and the new game was called escape. Their biggest concern now was getting back to the rope ladder and getting out of there. The problem was that every one of them felt like they had been taken out back and beaten with a pillowcase full of oranges, i.e. they wouldn't kill you, but they certainly make you feel like you were dead. Unfortunately for the four would-be robbers, it took them six minutes to make it back to the ladder, and they could only achieve that by basically crawling on their hands and knees. When they finally made it over to the hole it became clear that the four minutes they had left before the police arrived would not come in very handy.
Above the bank was an accountant's office, which they had broken into soon after closing time the night before. It had taken them almost 4 hours to cut their way through its floor and the steel reinforced bank ceiling. The plan called for the five to escape via the parking garage located below an adjoining building. The fifth thief, Jimmy, was supposed to be above in the accountant's office, keeping the rope ladder secure so those below could climb out. The problem was that once the bearings started flying and his partners seemed unable to get back to the rope, Jimmy took off at the sound of approaching sirens, which had nothing to do with the bank but rather someone who had run a red light. When the four finally made it over to where the ladder had been hanging, it no longer was. Using one another for support, they finally were able to get to their collective feet. For a moment the four stood staring up at the hole in the ceiling and then looking down at the rope ladder which was crumpled in a pile at their feet. They could see freedom perched a mere twenty feet above them and there was no way they could reach it. Unfortunately for his partners below, when Jimmy leaned into the hole to yell "I'm sorry guys" before he made his successful escape, he accidentally knocked loose the anchor that held the rope ladder in place. After watching the ladder fall to the floor below, he looked around like a child turning to see if his mother saw him break a piece of her favorite china. Rather timidly this time, he yelled "Ah… I'm REALLY sorry guys. Good luck!" and he left via the planned route in the garage next door and took off in the 1974 Dodge Dart they had stolen the day before. After a stream of obscenities aimed at Jimmy and his mother as they stared up at that hole above them, the four resigned themselves to the fact that they weren't going anywhere and leaned against the vault to wait for the police. They were still leaning there when the police finally arrived, late, ten minutes later.
As her father explained the situation to Laura as the day progressed, she found herself amazed that in the high-tech world around her it was something as simple as marbles that had tripped these guys up, smiling to herself at the pun. She began to follow the news about bank robberies and constantly pepper her father about them, almost to the point where he wasn't sure if she wanted to become a cop or a robber. Crime and law enforcement always made an odd pair. She was fascinated by the push and pull or tit for tat that banks and the robbers would go through. It was almost like a well-choreographed dance where the banks would introduce a new security tool and the robbers would eventually learn how to neutralize it or bypass it altogether. It was an arms race of money where everything one side does the other learns from and figures out how to take the competition to a higher level. Laura found it particularly fascinating when she would talk with her uncle, who handled interstate bank robberies all along the Northeast corridor. When her father and uncle were together she would have so many questions that they would actually give her money to go to the movies or shopping just so they could have some peace. Although at first they accused her of learning too well and becoming an extortionist herself, they soon discovered that her interest was genuine and would share with her many of the fascinating stories they would encounter.
Add her love of martial arts to her fascination with the choreography of security and she knew early on that at some point she would probably be following in her father or uncle's footsteps, even though she was quick to pick up on the fact that there were not a lot of women working with them in the field.
Twelve years later, after leaving Tel-Aviv she found herself in London visiting a friend as she tried to figure out what was next. While there, she decided that she would apply for a Masters in Criminal Justice Policy at the London School of Economics. She loved the city and felt like the degree would give her the flexibility to work practically anywhere she might want. In addition, a degree from the LSE would give her entrée into circles that would no doubt be of assistance if she ever decided to start her own security consulting business. She couldn't actually afford the tuition, but her 3.91 GPA in Finance and Ethics from NYU made the point moot, as she was able to attract enough scholarship money to cover all of her expenses, and then some. After graduation she moved back to New York and joined the FBI as an Assistant Director at the Securities Enforcement Desk in the same building her uncle had worked years before.
Five years later she had become the Director of the New York office. One day she received a phone call from one of her LSE instructors, Professor Lay. He was wondering if she would sit on a panel of experts during a symposium on white-collar crime that the LSE was running jointly with the Columbia Law School. She agreed and flew back to London the next month. It had been the first time she had been back to London since graduation. She found the sessions quite exhilarating and frankly far more exciting than what she had been doing for most of the last couple of years, which largely consisted of reviewing proposed policy changes and assisting on various federal and state prosecutions. After the symposium had wrapped up she was approached by a gentleman named Albert Pierson.
Albert worked for a company named Alexander Resources, which was one of the largest pharmaceutical and medical research companies in the world, with facilities on six continents. He attended the symposium at the suggestion of Professor Lay. He and Albert had served together in the Royal Marines many years before. Alexander Resources was looking for a security chief who was both supremely competent and able. Professor Lay suggested Albert attend the symposium as many of the smartest people in the field would be attending. "There is one person in particular you should meet" the professor told Albert. "She's an American and was one of my best students." He then went on to explain that her name was Laura Stenton and she would be on the panel.
Following the final panel discussion, Albert approached Laura, "Hello Ms. Stenton. I enjoyed your presentation tremendously." "Thank you. Laura please." She said, shaking his extended hand. "Hello, my name is Albert Pierson. Professor Lay suggested that I attend the symposium." "Really? He was one of my favorite professors." She replied. "Well, so what did you think" "I enjoyed it tremendously. Thank you." He continued "Actually, I came here specifically to meet you." "Really?" she said. "Yes, I work for a company called Alexander Resources, have you ever heard of it?" "Ah… no, I've been living under a rock for the last decade and I've not heard any news of the world." She said sarcastically. "I'm sorry" he responded, "I didn't want to be presumptuous." "Don't worry about it," she said with a smile and a dismissive wave of her hand, "I'm just kidding. Yes, I've heard of Alexander Resources. If I'm not mistaken they are headquartered someplace near Fontainebleau." "Yes, you are correct." "What a lovely area. I visited both the chateau and the town a couple of times while I was studying in London." They looked at one another for a moment and then she asked, "I'm sorry, why did you want to meet me?" "Actually, I think I'd like to offer you a job." "Really?" She replied, slightly taken aback. While she was by no means wedded to the Bureau, this was out of left field. "Well, please go on."
Albert proceeded to explain to Laura that Alexander Resources was in need of a Security Chief to ensure the physical integrity of its facilities and the data that traveled around the world on a private network. The network had been hacked into three times in the last six months and vulnerabilities existed. He explained that her responsibilities would include visiting their 17 research and manufacturing facilities around the world and developing security plans for each. Each facility had to be secure from without so thieves could not steal either the product or proprietary information. In addition to security from without, it was also imperative that secure data not leave in the hands of employees either. The key to any medical / pharmaceutical company's success is its control over its intellectual property and Alexander Resources needed a new Head of Security to rectify some recent problems.
They met the two days later for a long lunch where Albert answered the barrage of questions from Laura. She had weighed her options and decided that if their conversation went the way she wanted, she would take the job. After Albert finally answered all of her questions satisfactorily she agreed to take the job. She had to admit it had a great deal to offer. The first and perhaps most important issue was chain of command. She would report directly to Albert and Alexander Cooke, who owned the company. After spending five years in the Bureau and having been drummed out of the Mossad for what she was convinced were political reasons, she had had her fill of the posturing and putting political considerations before logic. Albert assured her that logic would rule the day and that she would have at her disposal all the resources and support she required. Second, her office would be in the Fontainebleau headquarters, although she would spend a great deal of time traveling. She liked the idea of being so close to Paris as it was a much easier jumping off point than New York for skiing in Switzerland, something she had fallen in love with when she lived in London. The salary would be very good as well. In a reverse on the notion of a golden parachute which many executives negotiate for when the join a company, she negotiated essentially the equivalent of a professional athlete's signing bonus. Upon joining the company she would receive $500,000, equal to four times her current salary. Her new salary would be $750,000 per year with a severance package of 30% of salary for each year worked that would kick in after three years. Laura had not proffered financial terms and let Albert lay them out. She knew that in negotiations the upper hand is always with the one who lets their opponent put forth a proffer. Invariably one of two things will occur. They will put forth an offer that is so low that both parties recognize it as a negotiating tactic or they will put forth an offer that they believe is considerably more than what is appropriate in order to seal the arrangement without drawn out negotiations. It was a given that Albert knew exactly what Laura was earning at the Bureau so it would seem that this offer was the latter. Nonetheless, Laura also knew that she was one of the most qualified people in the world doing what she did and she could easily double or triple her salary by simply moving to the private sector in New York or Washington. "Well, Albert, " she said after he made his offer. " You and I both know that the offer you have just made is certainly fair, but not overwhelming. I could get those terms by simply picking up and moving shop across the street at home. Nonetheless, everything is not about money and from what I know of Alexander Resources you have an outstanding reputation for both treating your people well and for producing cutting edge research. While I've never had a tremendous interest in biological and medical research, I certainly can appreciate that it helps millions of people." Laura stopped to give Albert the opportunity to say something. He didn't. He just sat there, with a slight smile, just listening. "Well then, given the terms you've just laid out, and a caveat that we reconsider the terms in two years, you have a new employee." Albert tilted his head slightly and looked up in a mock gesture as if he was evaluating Laura's offer. Smiling, he said "Excellent. Then we have a deal" and shook her hand. Albert knew that everything Laura had said was true and that they were indeed lucky to get her.
Three days later Laura was in Washington telling her boss, Assistant Attorney General Jason Cartwright, that she was leaving. She hadn't wanted to come down to tell him, but she knew she could not tell him over the phone. They had been dating until about a year ago. Their relationship began during a three-day Bureau training session at Abdereen Proving Ground a year after she joined the Bureau. The two had hit it off and soon she was driving down to Washington for the weekend or Jason was coming up to New York. After they had been together for about a year Jason was made Assistant Attorney General, making him her boss. Although Jason was sure that their breakup was somehow inexorably tied to his promotion, the truth was that three years into the relationship Laura realized that she no longer looked forward to their weekends. When she told Jason he suggested that she move to DC. She knew that was never going to happen. She wasn't sure when she knew it for certain, but at some point she simply awoke to realize that it was over with Jason. She felt like she was in high school when she told him "It's me, not you" but that was the truth and she knew there was nothing either of them could do about it.
On this Monday as they sat across from one another at the Old Ebbit Grill, on 15th street in Washington, directly across from the Treasury Department, she could not help but look out the windows almost continuously. Jason was not taking her news well. She knew that he had never fully gotten over their breakup, but she had hoped that by telling him face to face she could finally make him understand that he had done nothing wrong and that it was time to move on. Now he would really have to move on. Since their breakup he had made a couple of quick trips to New York to surprise her and they invariably ended up in bed. Both times she knew that she should have sent him to a hotel or better yet back to Washington, but when he was standing there in her doorway she lied to herself that he knew it was over and that this was OK because neither of them was involved with anyone else. Now, as the heretofore perpetual smile slowly disappeared from his face she could see that he was slowly getting the message that this was truly it. Paris was not New York and he could not just drive up to see her on an impulse. This was the last nail in their coffin. Staring out at the bright marble façade of the Treasury building she finally realized that there was probably not anything she could say that would make him feel better and that the thing that would actually allow him to move on was her doing exactly what she was telling him she was going to do, move four thousand miles away. The revelation buoyed her spirit and she turned to Jason and smiled. "Listen," she said as she clasped his hands as they cupped his third Dewars and water of the night "I'm not leaving the planet, I'm just leaving the Bureau and New York. You know that if you need something I'm there for you. Just call. I know that's not what you want to hear, but it's true. It's important to know that you are going to be all right." Jason looked up at her and smiled. "You know" he started, "I've been pretty broken up for most of the last year. Being without you has been tough. I can't say that throwing myself into my work has helped much, because we talk so frequently, but this will probably change that. I hate to admit it, but this is probably exactly what I needed." "Besides" he added, "now I'll have a place to stay on my next visit to Paris" That was just something to say to segue into saying goodbye and they both knew it. Jason hated Europe in general and Paris in particular. He had been drug around the continent many times as a teenager by his parents and on the one trip he made on his own he was mugged while walking through Paris's sometimes seedy Les Halles. He had vowed many times to Laura that he would never again cross the Atlantic and sometimes joked about giving up French fries. As he finished his drink the two of them knew the time had come. Although she would stay in New York for a month to allow her successor to have a smooth transition, they both knew that this would be her last trip to Washington for a long time.
Exactly one month after she told Jason she was leaving, she boarded a British Air flight at JFK headed for Heathrow. She spent a couple of days visiting friends in London before flying on to Paris. Within a week she had found an Apartment in the 8th Arrondissement, directly across the Seine from the Eiffel Tower, which made for something of a commute to Fontainebleau. She didn't mind the hour each way on the train because it was always the most relaxing part of her day. Watching the countryside whisk by gave her a feeling of calmness that she found in few other places. Besides, Albert had told her that she would spend far more time traveling than she would in the office. He was right of course, but she liked that as well because traveling was something she had loved since she was a teenager and her parents took her on a trip across the country. The trip was bittersweet, but she never lost the excitement for exploration it engendered.