Like millions of business travelers before him, Bob Burke found himself staring absently out the window of a 767 as it came in to land at Chicago’s O’Hare airport. Unlike all the others, however, as the suburban buildings passed beneath him, he watched a man murder a woman on one of the rooftops below. No one believed him, of course, but that didn’t matter. He knew what he saw, and Bob Burke wasn’t the kind of guy to let a thing like that rest.
He was returning home to Chicago from a quick business trip to Washington, D. C., on a United Airlines flight, sitting in a window seat in First Class. It was late afternoon. The weather was perfect. The visibility was unlimited. The 767 was on final approach and he enjoyed a bird’s-eye view of the sea of houses, shops, and offices that composed Chicago’s western suburbs. It’s hard not to look down as the world passes by beneath you. Makes a man feel a bit like God, he thought, or a 200-mile-per-hour voyeur, anyway. Then, in those next few seconds, his life changed forever.
The roof was on a big commercial building ─ maybe an office or warehouse of some type. It was big, flat, and covered with that light-brown pea gravel that roofers use for ballast. Whether on a rooftop like this, in a jungle, an arid desert, or a high mountain trail, the first thing that catches an infantryman’s eye is movement. In this case, the door to the building’s emergency stairwell suddenly flew open and a dark-haired woman ran onto the roof, looking as if the hounds of Hell were snapping at her heels. She wore a soft, thin white dress that billowed around her. Right behind her came a tall man in a dark suit, running even faster. She appeared pale and petite, almost delicate, and the man was twice her size. The woman turned and pointed at him, screaming and clearly terrified as he closed in, laughing. After all, she could run as fast as she wanted, but the roof was literally a dead-end for her.
She took a few more steps, stumbled, and fell. That was all the man needed. Her white dress, arms, legs, and gravel went flying in all directions as he jumped on top, straddled her, and wrapped his fingers around her throat. They were long and thin, and Burke thought they could circle her neck two or three times over. She fought back with a fierce determination, struggling to get away and finally struggling to breathe; but he was too big and too powerful for her. Terrified, she opened her mouth and tried to scream, but he leaned forward with all his weight, pressing down on her throat, slowly squeezing the life out of her. Besides, with the roar of the big airplane passing directly overhead, she could have screamed her lungs out and no one would hear her anyway.
That was the moment when her head turned. She looked up and saw Burke’s face in the airplane window. For that brief instant, he must have offered her some thin ray of hope, and she moved, made a sound, or did something to alert the man in the dark suit, because he also looked up and saw Burke staring down at him. From his expression, the man didn’t appear one bit concerned. He didn’t stop or even pause. Instead, he squeezed even harder and strangled the life out of her as Burke watched. Cold? Cruel? There was nothing Burke could do to stop him.
Over the years, Bob Burke had watched a lot of people die. He probably even killed more than his share; but that was during two wars, and this wasn’t Iraq or Afghanistan. He was flying in a 767 over suburban Chicago, and for a second he forgot where he was. He unbuckled his seat belt, stood, and shouted, “My God, that guy’s killing her,” and pointed out the window.
His Vice President of Finance, Charlie Newcomb, sat next to him on the aisle. Burke grabbed Charlie’s arm and tried to pull him over to the window to look, but Charlie was forty pounds overweight. His ample butt was scrunched into his seat with his seatbelt fastened tightly around him, so there was no way Charlie could move fast enough to see anything on the ground before the building passed out of view. As a last resort, Burke leaned out into the aisle, caught the flight attendant’s attention in her galley jump seat, and yelled for her to come and look, but that proved to be an even worse idea.
It had been a lovely late spring afternoon in Washington DC when he and Charlie hailed a cab outside the Pentagon and headed back to Dulles with their tails between their legs. There was a hint of cherry blossoms and azaleas in the air and the usual late-afternoon thunderstorms were already building over the Potomac to the northwest. In Chicago, the air would seem cool and crisp by comparison, but there was much more on the two men’s minds that afternoon than the weather. Their corporation had just taken a crippling blow, compliments of the US Department of Defense bureaucrats and the old Washington political “two-step.”
Slumped in his seat in First Class, Bob Burke tried not to think about it. He was well into his second complimentary scotch, one of the few benefits that still came with a first-class ticket. The pilot was finishing a series of long, looping turns to the north and back east until he had the big airplane pointed at the suburban cities of Wheaton, Glen Ellyn, Addison, Indian Hills, and finally at O’Hare’s runway L–110. Twenty miles out, the cornfields were replaced by emerald-green fairways, white sand traps, big-lot subdivisions, curving streets, cul-de-sacs, sprawling houses, three-car garages, freshly mowed lawns, and swimming pools with tall fences. The two-lane country roads widened to four and even six lanes, and gas stations, branch banks, and strip malls popped up at the increasingly frequent intersections.
He was finishing his first year as President of Toler TeleCom, a small, hi-tech telecommunications and software-consulting firm located in suburban Chicago. He and Charlie were in town to pitch what was supposed to be a routine renewal of their DOD contract to design and build encryption and recording devices for the Defense Department, only to be told that the DOD procurement gnomes suddenly decided to “go a different direction,” as they so pleasantly put it. With a smarmy smile and the scratch of a pen, Toler TeleCom lost its largest contract to Summit Symbiotics, a company they had never even heard of. “Lost” was a generous way of putting it. “Stolen” was more accurate.
After West Point and twelve years carrying out the toughest infantry, Special Ops, and Delta Force assignments the US Army offered, Bob Burke could read people like a hunting hawk and his survival instincts were honed to a razor’s edge. After all, that was why Ed Toler hired him. But when a disaster struck, different men react differently. Bob chose to stare out the airplane window and replay the DOD meeting in his mind, trying to find any subtle nuances or “tells” he might have missed the first time; Charlie spent the flight bent over his laptop with his eyes dancing across the spreadsheets in Summit’s winning bid, desperate to find some faint ray of hope. Why not? Charlie was a bean counter. He still believed that answers could be found in his neat rows and columns. Bob knew better. The DOD decision reeked of politics and bullshit, not numbers. In that arena, the answers were in what Burke saw in a man’s eyes, what he heard in his voice, and what he felt in his handshake. That was why he knew they were screwed the moment he heard the DOD procurement team say they were accepting Summit Symbiotics’ proposal instead of Toler TeleCom’s.
It was a setup, of course. Either the smiling DOD procurement people had been told what their decision was to be by the big brass in the Pentagon’s Inner Ring, or Summit left a briefcase full of cash or a job offer on someone’s desk. Call it a campaign contribution, a kickback, “pre-retirement profit-sharing,” or an old-fashioned bribe, but Summit submitted an impossibly low bid. In hindsight, it was probably all four. Everyone knew Summit would more than make up the loss through a string of subsequent Change Orders. Well, shame on the DOD, and shame on a top-notch Army combat commander and tactician like Bob Burke for not anticipating a trap, allowing himself to be blindsided by such an obvious tactic, and not being ready with his own countermoves. It was one more painful lesson that bureaucratic warfare on the Potomac could be every bit as nasty and to-the-death as the many firefights he engaged in during four tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. In the “desert,” the bad guys carried Ak-47s and RPGs, but the US Army gave him a gun of his own and let him shoot back.
“Man, this is so bogus,” Charlie continued grousing, mostly to himself, about Summit’s proposal. “This thing doesn’t even meet half of the specs.”
“Of course it doesn’t,” Bob replied calmly enough.
“We got screwed, Bobby, plain and simple. How could the Feds be this stupid? I can show you the stuff that got left out of their bid. They’ll come running back with overruns and Change Orders before spring and the Feds will have to accept them, because they can never admit they made a mistake this bad. You watch. No way is this gonna stick. Those bastards!”
“It’s Washington, Charlie. It is all about politics and payoffs now, not competence,” Bob answered as he drained his glass of scotch and held it up so the flight attendant in the galley could see his smiling face. “But we knew that a long time ago, didn’t we? Our mistake was going after the DOD business in the first place.”
“It’s not your fault, Bobby. Trying to stick our snouts in the Federal trough was Ed Toler’s big idea, not yours. He was a great guy, but you inherited his mess.”
“Charlie, Ed’s been in the ground for two years now. If the Army taught me nothing else, it’s that you can’t keep blaming your predecessor, not if you had enough time to change things. The only thing I regret is that it’s going to cost a lot of good people their jobs.”
The flight attendant, Sabrina Fowler, finally sauntered over holding another double scotch, but she wasn’t very happy about it. She looked at her watch and said, “We land in fifteen minutes, and both of you guys are looped.”
“Not him,” Bob glanced at Charlie with a pleasant, anesthetized smile. “He’s fine.”
“Gee. That is so funny,” she answered, deadpan, having already heard that sophomoric act too many times before. “Look, I’ve been on my feet since 6:00 this morning, and I don’t need another standup comic. Which of you is driving?”
“The Grinch next to me,” Bob lied. “We’ll behave, honest.”
“Okay,” she said as her eyes narrowed and she set the new glass on the armrest. “But if I get any blow-back, you’d better never end up on my flight again. Got it?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Burke said with a winning smile. He detested the unnecessary business expense of flying in First Class, but every now and then, there were advantages.
As the flight attendant walked away, Bob picked up the fresh scotch and downed half of it. He heard the whine and squeal of the 767’s landing gear coming down, and turned back to the window. Below, the big airplane flashed across a verdant suburban golf course and he saw a guy slice his tee shot into the woods, while his pals hit on the “beer-babe” in the drink cart. On the next green, an overweight foursome plumb-bobbed their bad putts. In rapid succession, the big houses and golf courses gave way to smaller houses, apartments, two-story office buildings, low-rise warehouses, and large distribution centers, as the jet dropped lower. They were the disposable shells of modern American commerce ─ the leased, multipurpose buildings that housed the vast majority of today’s suburban businesses. No one enjoyed living in a house or playing golf beneath a low-flying 767, but it wouldn’t bother a guy running a loud forklift or a clerk-typist sitting in a cubicle beneath a thick, insulated acoustical tile ceiling, which is why buildings like that crowded around a noisy airport like O’Hare. One thing that most of them had in common was a large, rectangular roof. It could be white, black, or different shades of brown, depending upon whether it was made of one of the newer hi-tech single-ply plastic materials, or layers of old-fashioned coal-tar pitch and black tarpaper. If the roof was light brown, it was usually “ballasted” with an inch or two of loose, round pea gravel for protection.
Bob let his eyes roam across the buildings below, while Charlie continued to rant about Symbiotic’s proposal. Bob tried to ignore him, but then Charlie hit a hot button. “Angie’s gonna crap when she hears we lost the contract, isn’t she?”
“Don’t worry about Angie. It’s me she’s gonna hammer, not you,” he quickly replied.
Charlie looked over at him. “Oh, you don’t look worse for the wear, Bob.”
“Trust me, that woman knows how to leave bruises and scars where you can’t see them,” he answered with a knowing smile. Angie was Bob Burke’s volatile and soon-to-be-ex-wife. She was Ed Toler’s only child. When Ed founded Toler TeleCom, he made Angie his Vice President in charge of absolutely nothing, with a big salary and a bigger expense account. As soon as he met Bob, however, Ed realized his new son-in-law would make an infinitely better successor than Angie ever could. He persuaded Bob to give up his Army career and join Toler TeleCom as his Vice President of Operations ─ a real job with real responsibilities. Initially, Burke laughed it off, but the cold, hard truth was that he was burnt out from almost continuous high-stress combat in one Third World country after another. You are what you are, and you are what you do, he knew all too well. So, in the end, he accepted. He was more than ready for a change and threw himself into his new career with no reservations. That was about the same time Ed Toler reached for the shiny brass ring of DOD business. Two years later, when Ed got sick and went in the hospital, never to come back out, he named Bob the new company President over his one-time heir apparent and successor, Angie. Their normally incendiary marriage had flamed out months before, but when the Old Man put Bob in control instead of her, that did it. All of Ed’s managers, the unions, and the banks quickly agreed with Ed’s choice, but Angie never would.
“Think she’s gonna sue us again?” Charlie asked.
“Probably. That girl’s always had more lawyers than brains.”
“And the sense of humor of a scalded cat.”
Bob smiled pleasantly enough, knowing Charlie couldn’t know the half of it, and turned back to his scotch and the window. The big jetliner dropped lower and lower, but his mind continued to be elsewhere. All things considered, it was dawning on him that his decision to get out of the Army might have been a mistake. True, Special Operations was a savage, no-holds-barred world, but it was important and invigorating, and he was exceptionally skilled at it. He loved the men he fought alongside. That was a cliché, but they were brothers and that bond would never break. And after a day like today, he’d rather be fighting on the Amu Darya River in Afghanistan than the Potomac. Sadly, it might even be safer.
Below, dozens and dozens of commercial, office and light-industrial buildings stretched toward the horizon. To his left, he saw a tall white municipal water tank. Painted on its side in bright green was the profile of an Indian chief in a full war bonnet. Almost directly down, between the airplane and the water tank stood a three-story, blue glass office building. That was when he saw the woman in the white dress run out onto the roof. He would never forget the image of her running, stumbling in the loose pea gravel, nor of the man in the dark blue business suit chasing her. He appeared older, with graying temples, a white shirt, and a rich, red-striped tie. He looked almost dignified, like a politician on a Sunday morning news show, one of those preachers from South Carolina on cable TV, or a jungle cat on the prowl ─ calm and under control as he ran her to ground. In that instant when she looked up at the airplane and at Burke, the man in the dark suit looked up at him too; their eyes locked on each other’s and his sadistic expression burned itself into Burke’s brain. Then, as quickly as the two figures appeared below him, they were gone from his view.
Desperate to stop him, Burke unbuckled his seat belt, stood, and tried to step over Charlie to get into the aisle, but that accomplished nothing. Sabrina Fowler, the flight attendant, leaped out of her jump seat in the galley and dashed down the aisle to their row.
“Mr. Burke, get back in your seat. Now!” she ordered. Like a good middle linebacker, she cut him off and boxed him in. Her knees were flexed, her weight was evenly distributed on the balls of her feet, and she stood in a perfect “triple-threat” athletic position to stop him cold. She placed the palm of her hand against his chest and shoved him back into his seat before he could get one foot into the aisle. Wherever he thought he was going, he wasn’t going to get there.
“You told me you’d behave,” she glared down at him.
“Come over here and look,” he turned and pointed out the window, his jet-black eyes flashing. “There’s a woman being killed down there!”
“I don’t think so, now fasten your seat belt!”
“I’m serious, come here and look,” he asked as he leaned toward his window.
Her patience exhausted, she said, “I knew I shouldn’t have given you that third drink!”
“But he’s strangling her.”
She leaned forward and got right into his face. “Buckle that seat belt, or I’ll have you arrested when we land. You got that?”
Finally, he complied and snapped the belt in, but he continued to argue with Charlie and with her. “You saw her, didn’t you, Charlie?”
“Bob, I was over here with my nose in a spreadsheet. I didn’t see…”
Reluctantly, Burke turned back to the flight attendant. “Look, ask the captain and the rest of the crew up in the cockpit. They must have been looking out there too. Or ask the other passengers on this side of the plane. Someone else must have seen it.”
“I’m not about to ask anybody anything until after we land.”
“Okay, but I want to talk to the police as soon as we do.”
“Oh, that won’t be a problem, Mr. Burke,” she answered sarcastically. “I’m sure they’ll want to talk to you, too. Now sit down, and shut up!”