Novelist. Screenwriter
MICHAEL CASSATA
MICHAEL CASSATA

                     SHANGRI-LA 199

PROLOGUE

 

            Not Too Distant Future

                                                                                   

            The cool breeze swept in low off the Santa Barbara coast, whipped its way past a spate of Chinese tourists on Stern’s Wharf, and ventured clear up State Street eventually angling toward the Mission. Stevens and his two colleagues, Jacobs and Mallum, noticed the swirl a block before it hit and secured their drinks and plates as the rush of wind blew past.

         “How many foreigners just lost their lunch on the pier?” Mallum asked with an amused air of superiority.

         Stevens caught Jacobs’ eye before responding, “Don’t you mean tourists ... you seem to forget Jacobs and I are Polish?”

         “That’s right, now how did you guys get past security?” Mallum replied devilishly as the server refilled his drink.

         “We told Mendoza we knew you,” Stevens replied dryly, baiting the American chemical engineer. 

         “The only people who get the undistinguished privilege of seeing Mendoza are the ones being interrogated.”

         “Ah, you’re right, then we must have slipped through the cracks,” Stevens said, “or, if you’re Jacobs here, have a father in high places.”

         Jacobs didn’t flash his usual self-deprecating grin and instead gave a quizzical look down the street. “Speaking of Mendoza, I swear I just saw him run across the street.” Stevens and Mallum turned. “It looked like he was chasing someone.”

         “Come on, that’s not like him,” Mallum replied. “He has others do the dirty work while he sits in his high palace sifting through our files.”

         Stevens and Jacobs suddenly glanced at each other, seeming to share a common understanding.

         “What? What did I miss?” Mallum asked.

         In both Stevens and Jacobs’ right eyes streamed the message:

 

         Titan Pharmaceuticals

         Security Alert

         All Employees Return to Campus Immediately

 

         “Crap,” Jacobs snapped, “we didn’t even finish lunch.”

         “I didn’t get the message yet,” Mallum said pleadingly. “What did it say?”

         “It said you need to upgrade your implant or there will be hell to pay,” Stevens jibed.

         “I should switch carriers ... mine sucks.”

         “Well it will have to wait because –“

         “There it is,” Mallum interrupted, “Another damn security alert.”

         As Mallum concentrated on the streaming message in his right eye, a chaotic noise grew from inside the restaurant. The three Titan employees joined the rest of the patio and craned their necks toward the commotion. The shadowy outline of a man quickly came into view trailed by the carnage of tossed over tables and chairs that once blocked his path.

         “Holy crap!” Jacobs exclaimed as the man stepped into the light of the patio, his eyes frantically scanning for an escape route. He spotted Jacobs with a hint of hope then arched his back. The grimace on his face explained everything. The man threw Jacobs one last pleading look before his eyes rolled back and he fell forward, crashing onto their table. A woman a few seats over screamed as Jacobs, Stevens and Mallum stared in disbelief.

         “I got him!” a voice thundered in the patio doorway. He was tall, broad-shouldered and menacing. He stared at the dead man with the uncaring disgust of having just killed a pest at the dinner table. 

         “Mendoza...,” Jacobs whispered.

         Mendoza glanced at Jacobs with the pleasure of knowing the fear he instilled in all Titan Pharmaceutical employees. “Mark my location and pick him up,” Mendoza stated authoritatively then momentarily turned his attention to the three men. “Did you send out the alert?” Stevens awaited the silent answer with as much curiosity as Mendoza. “Then why do I have three Titan employees still sitting around a café as if the order hadn’t been received?” It was an obvious rhetorical question that produced the desired result.

         “We were just leaving,” Mallum said, swallowing hard.

         “Maybe your ocular sensor needs an upgrade,” Mendoza expressed snidely.

         “Yes, I think you’re right. You’re definitely right.”

         A vehicle rolled up to the curb and out popped two security men in gray suits and sunglasses. Mendoza nodded to his men and disappeared into the restaurant.

         Stevens, Jacobs and Mallum quickly rose and headed back to campus.

 

*          *

 

         Back on campus tensions ran high. Although incidents like the one earlier in the day didn’t happen frequently, they happened enough to remind the employees of Titan Pharmaceuticals that theirs was a business of high consequences. In light of the world’s evolving depopulation crisis, corporate espionage had become an essential card in the high stakes poker game between the world’s four main powers.

         Mallum, a project manager in the biocybernetics division, winced as his third cup of coffee since lunch touched his mouth. His upper lip pulsated with a burning sensation that he welcomed as a temporary distraction from the anxious atmosphere engulfing the lab. His second sip wasn’t as dramatic and he felt his heart rate return to its previously unhealthy state.

         “How can you work?” Mallum asked rhetorically as he stepped in front of Stevens’ desk. “Seen Jacobs around?”

         “Can’t say that I have.”

         “That’s not good.”

         “Relax, he’s probably just grabbing a snack or actually doing some work.”

         “No, it means he’s in ‘Mendoza’s Locker’ is what it means.”

         Stevens cocked an eyebrow picturing instead what some of the old-timers called the ‘Operating Room’. Even though most would never see the insides of the interrogation room, all new Titan employees were encouraged to diligently avoid paying an undue visit. Rumors added to the notoriety, but one didn’t wait long before understanding that a workover by Mendoza could turn out to be much more than career ending.

         “Damn, I hope I don’t get the call,” Mallum continued.

         “What are you worried about, you haven’t been selling secrets, have you?”

         Mallum’s eyes just about popped out. “Of course not ... and don’t say that so loud.”

         “Relax. Besides, if anyone should be worried, it should be us foreigners, right?”

         Mallum studied Stevens in a new light. The man’s steely composure impressed him, but also raised a subconscious red flag.

         “I guess you’re right,” Mallum replied.

         “Good, now if you don’t mind, I’d like to finish this report before I’m summoned.” However, just as the words came out, a message streamed in his right eye:

 

         Titan Pharmaceuticals

         Security Division

         Jedrek Stevens: Report to Security Immediately

        

         “Speak of the devil,” Stevens said as he punched in a few keys.

         “Really?” Mallum said somewhat excitedly. Stevens nodded as he moved around his desk.

         “I’ll let you know if there are any dead bodies in the locker room when I get back.”

         As Stevens headed toward the elevator, Mallum whispered, “If you get back.”

 

*          *

 

         Outwardly cool, but inwardly anxious, Stevens rode the security elevator up to the seventh floor. Captivated by the floor-to-ceiling window, the Channel Islands emerged in the distance behind a loose strand of clouds. A swath of deep blue water followed to be capped off by the white rush of waves into the coast line.

         He reflected on the coming scene, one which contrasted sharply with the current serenity. Light gloves or heavy hand? What would be their angle of attack? What did they know or better yet, what did they think he knew? He wondered how soon he would be reflecting on the distant islands or if he would even get the chance. The adjacent elevator didn’t yield such a pleasant view and one knew that riding it down was more than symbolic; it was the beginning of the end.

         A slight jolt and the doors slid open. Stevens stared curiously at a gray wall, taking in the moment in a sort of sick pleasure. The faint sound of office work echoed from a distance providing the slightest flicker of normalcy. But Stevens knew better and stepped out.

         The hallway was modern and clean, but not as antiseptic as a hospital ward. He reassessed the décor and decided the walls were not really gray, rather silver, exuding the glint of a sharpened blade.

         A man stepped through the glass door at the end of the hallway, his head down, seemingly unfocused. Stevens knew right away from how he held himself in that lumpish sort of way that it was Jacobs. He prepared himself, but as Jacobs approached and their eyes met, the man walked past as though a ghost unfamiliar with its surroundings. Stevens decided to let it go and walked through the door, but couldn’t help notice how an already pale man seemed to have had every last pigment sucked out of him.

         As Stevens stepped up to the desk, he wondered which elevator Jacobs was now riding and whether he would see him again.

 

*          *

 

         The questioning room, as the clerk had called it, was sterile with light gray walls that angled toward each other near the ceiling. The slightly claustrophobic effect was subtle, but intended. The door was heavy and windowless. The temperature was a chilly fifty-five degrees. Stevens sat at an uncommonly low table – the edge at his thighs – and continued his observation. The only other oddity in the room was a half-sized door, three-feet high, tucked near one corner, easily visible from his position. He studied it, wondered what it could be then noticed a faint, dark stain on the floor that carried under the door. It had obviously come from some sort of pooling, but what? A janitor’s closet?

         The door opened and a man in his early thirties, black suit, black tie, black shirt, quickly walked to the opposite side of the room, ignoring Stevens, and punched a code into a small console in the wall. Stevens hadn’t noticed it before and realized that at his angle, it blended seamlessly into the wall.

         The man threw Stevens a disappointed look as he exited.

         Stevens stared at the blank wall, repositioned his head a little this way, a little that way, but still couldn’t see the console. Then he noticed it was directly above the half-door and his mind jumped back to an unanswered, evolving question – was the dried stain blood?

         Mendoza entered calmly, confidently, and walked over to the console, his big shoulders blocking it from view. Stevens noticed that his feet purposefully avoided the stain. He also noticed Mendoza’s outfit matched the other man’s, except Mendoza wore a dark red shirt. Was this some sort of rank thing? Mendoza stepped back and took a seat.

         “Thank you for coming in, Mr. Stevens.” Stevens nodded, wiping sweaty palms on his knees. “It’s my understanding you’re a chemical engineer,” Stevens nodded again, “a Class II researcher in the Genetics Division. Is that correct?” Oddly, Stevens couldn’t muster his vocal cords, so he nodded for the third time. “Please, there is no reason to be nervous; this is simply a general inquiry into personnel matters.” Another nod. “What project are you currently working on?”

         “A gene manipulation study called Nerocin A-21,” Stevens replied, getting his voice back.

         “I see. And who is running the R & D?”

         “Dr. Formosa. I don’t see him often, but I’ve been on the project for the last two years.”

         “Yes, Dr. Formosa does have several projects under his supervision. I can see why he would be a hard man to get to know.”

         “Well from my short conversations with him, he’s very knowledgeable and precise. He doesn’t like mistakes.”

         “None of us does, Mr. Stevens.” Stevens took a breath and reminded himself to not encourage unnecessary conversation. Mendoza continued, “Your background is interesting – you’re from Poland, correct?” The nodding resurfaced. “How did you happen to come to the U.S.?”

         “An exchange program in school … which is where I met my wife, who’s American.”

         “I see. Do you ever go back?”

         “No. Most of my family, including my parents, died from the flu.”

         Mendoza nodded. “A lot of people died during that time, including my son.” Stevens was shocked at the revelation. Was this a tactic? Then suddenly, “Did you know the man I killed in front of you this afternoon?”

         “No, no I don’t.”

         “You mean didn’t.”

         “Right, of course, I didn’t know him. Who was he?”

         Mendoza ignored the question. “How well do you know Jacobs?”

         Stevens looked around innocently while formulating a response. How much trouble was Jacobs in? Could they seriously be considering him a viable threat or was it a knee-jerk reaction causing all foreigners to become more suspect than usual.

         “More of an acquaintance than a friend.” Mendoza narrowed his eyes wanting more. Stevens fought the impulse unsuccessfully. “We have lunch once in a while and chat about meaningless stuff in the hallway. I don’t work with him if that’s what you’re getting at.”

         “We know you don’t work together. Do you ever get together outside of work?”

         “Once in a while with some of the others … we might have a few drinks, but again, idle chit-chat is all.”

         “I see.” Mendoza paused to consider and after a few moments nodded. Stevens wasn’t sure why but figured the man had reached some kind of conclusion. “Okay then, Mr. Stevens, I think that will be all.”

         “If you don’t mind my asking, is Jacobs in some sort of trouble?”

         “Frankly, we’re a little suspicious of him.”

         “Hmm, I would’ve never thought that about him.”

         “Well nothing’s certain and we’re not in the business of persecuting innocent people, especially talented folks who contribute to the company’s success.”

         Mendoza guided Stevens to the door.

         “One more thing, what do you know of Project Shangri-La?” Mendoza asked innocently.

         “Never heard of it.”

         “I see. Thank you.”

         That wasn’t too bad, Stevens thought, as he rode the elevator down, enjoying the ocean view.

 

*          *

 

         Stevens walked into the Press Room anxious for a drink and an update on the latest gossip swirling around campus. The day’s events had obviously riled up Titan’s employees and been the cause of numerous conspiracy theories. The best one floating around the Genetics Division laboratory was that the unfortunate soul who Mendoza shot earlier was really an actor and the whole thing was a charade. The rumor continued to spread until being quashed by the chief of the Cryogen Division, who let it be known that he was, in fact, one scientist short. Stevens wondered which other theories were competing for top prize.

         He spotted Mallum, who was already halfway into his beer, and joined him at a table protruding from the wall two-and-a-half feet. A row of flags representing various countries flapped casually above them. They sat underneath Old Union Jack and the Mexican flag while a British pop song from fifty years ago crackled in the background.

         “Jesus, man, I was afraid something happened to you too.”

         Stevens looked at him curiously. “How many of those did you have?”

         “You scared the hell out of me.”

         “I had to finish that report I mentioned earlier. The security meeting with Mendoza threw my whole afternoon out of whack.”

         “Yeah, well you seem to be holding up much better than your Polish friend,” Mallum exclaimed. Stevens cocked an eyebrow and Mallum continued, “Nobody’s seen him since he was called into Mendoza’s Locker – I guess the old-timers are right, it is the Operating Room.”

         “He did seem pretty rattled when I saw him.”

         “When was that?”

         “Just before my operation ... but he was by himself.”

         “He was? Which elevator did he take down?”

         Stevens shrugged and became curious. The way Mendoza made it sound was as though they were simply going to keep an eye on Jacobs. He didn’t get the impression anything more severe was going to take place. Just then he looked up and a silhouette approached through the glare engulfing the doorway.

         “Speak of the devil.”

         Mallum spun around as Jacobs staggered up to their table and grabbed a stool for support. “Christ, what happened to you?” Mallum exclaimed. “I thought you were dead!” Jacobs had the same pallid tone as earlier but with an even more glazed-over look.

         “Don’t mind him,” Stevens interjected, “he thinks we all got taken out by Mendoza this afternoon.”

         Jacobs glanced at both of them before turning his head and signaling the bartender. “I need a friggin’ drink. How about you guys?” Both men nodded and Jacobs ordered a round for the table.

         “So what the hell happened?” cried Mallum.

         “They scared the crap out of me is what they did.”

         “That’s obvious, but what else?”

         “They kept asking me about the dead guy and whether I knew him and about my daily routine and how I could verify it.” The bartender laid the drinks on the table. “I told them I didn’t know but they kept pressing and asking the same questions over and over in different ways trying to trip me up.”

         “Did they ... you know … hit you?” Mallum asked with a combination of terror and excitement.

         “I can’t remember. They may have, but I don’t know. I mean I feel sore all over, but I don’t think that was from anything like that.”

         “If you had been knocked around, you’d remember,” Mallum insisted.

         “And you wouldn’t be sitting here with us now,” Stevens added.

         “So what elevator did you ride down? Mallum asked.

         “Isn’t it obvious?” Stevens said.

         Jacobs gulped his beer and a glint of color returned to his pale cheeks. He must have felt it too because he quickly took another swig before continuing.

         “Then they asked me about some project I’d never heard of or at least may have heard someone mention in passing, but I couldn’t recall and that made them even more suspicious.”

         “What project?” Mallum asked, hoping it wasn’t anything he’d know.

         “Shangri-La.”

         “Yeah, they asked me about it too,” Stevens said.

         “Now I remember the weird part. They had a doctor check my eyes.”

         “What the hell for?” Mallum asked, sipping his beer.

         “I have no friggin’ idea, but I’m sure it has to do with that Shangri-La project.”

         “Thank god I’ve never heard of it,” Mallum rejoiced. 

         “I wish Titan had never heard of me right now,” Jacobs exclaimed and looked at Stevens. “Was it as bad for you?”

         Stevens swallowed his beer and slowly shook his head. “No, sounds like you got the worst of it ... must be the different sections we work in.”

         Jacobs cast a disappointed look his way for a small part of him wished Stevens had had to share in the cruel experience. He nodded. “I guess you’re right.”

         “Let me get the next round,” Stevens offered and signaled the bartender.

 

*          *

 

         On Saturday morning, Stevens took his modified Mustang out for a spin. A local shop that specialized in upgrading classic cars for modern highway functionality had been working on it for three weeks and he was glad to have it back. Despite the electrical configuration, he could still feel the raw power when called upon – thank god they allowed waivers for that, he thought and punched it.

         He merged onto State Route 166 heading east, checked the time, and pictured his playing partners teeing off on the par-three first hole nestled majestically against the ocean. He had told the guys he would finally tackle a three-month old to-do list for his wife, while letting her believe he would be trying to break eighty for the first time. Of course, neither was true and he didn’t feel particularly bad about deceiving either party.

         The plush valley had quickly become a desert plain tucked between two mountains as he coasted 120-miles per hour toward his destination. He was making good time and enjoying the sun as it danced across his windshield in mesmerizing waves created by the endless rows of wind mills. A large patch of solar-photovoltaic facilities was up ahead when his car chimed in ... “Cruising ... Switching over to reserve power.”

         Crap, he thought, this was not the place to break down. He wondered what it could be and kicked himself for not having driven the car around town a few more days before taking it out this far. A large gust of wind pounded the driver’s side sweeping the car a few inches toward the edge of the road. It startled him and he tried to figure out how the wind could be playing havoc with the car’s electrical system. Then he spotted a roadside crew working on the nearest wireless electricity transmitter that lined all major arterials.

         “That explains it,” he said relieved, “Wind must’ve knocked out some of those buggers.”

         Stevens slowed down and continued at that pace for the next twenty miles until reaching the Burger Barn.  

 

*          *

 

         Stevens entered the old white brick building with a sense of awe. The sweet smell of chili pepper permeated the room and instantly wrestled his salivary glands awake. Then a waft of onions, lots of onions, and the unmistakable sound of sizzling beef pulled him forward.

         It was early and he was one of the first in the small place. Only one of the handful of booths was taken and none of the stand alone tables was occupied. That would soon change, he figured. Give it a half-hour.

         “Hi there, what can I get you?” a sweet voice asked from behind the counter.  Stevens knew what he wanted, but glanced at the pictured list of twenty-five mouth-watering burgers bursting with names like Texas Bass Mouth Big Boy and Chili on Chili Volcano. His favorite, though, was the Speak Easy Sand Shot, which came with mayo, mustard, ketchup, three cheeses, onions and a splash of tabasco sauce. He tried it once, loved it but couldn’t risk it again. He’d pulled over three times on the drive back for a drink. It was worth it, though, he’d convinced himself, just for the experience.

         “I think I’ll go with the Guadalupe Geyser on potato bread.”

         “One Geyser coming up,” she said loud enough for the cook to hear. “Anything to drink?”

         “Lemonade, please, no ice.”

         “All right, that’ll be twenty-three fifty.”

         Stevens swiped his card and waited for his order, his mouth already in overdrive. 

         Two minutes later, basket in hand, he slid into a corner booth. The crackle of tires on gravel gave notice of another set of customers arriving. Maybe a half-hour was too generous, he thought, and glanced out the window, but the glare prevented him from seeing anything.

         Stevens sipped his lemonade and a wily grin spread across his face. The drink rattled with ice on its way down and he knew the message had been received. He lifted the burger, which was wrapped in a thin paper sack, and eyed the receipt underneath. A drop of grease from the burger struck it silently and trailed down the sheet toward a larger pool of brown juice. Stevens quickly snatched the paper up, shook it slightly and flipped it over. A short, handwritten note greeted him.

         “Hope we didn’t give your car any trouble out there?” a voice asked.

         The interruption startled him. Stevens looked up into the anxious eyes of a young man in a roadside worker’s uniform. He quickly switched mental gears and shook his head.

         “No problem. She’s loaded and ready for bear.”

         “That’s good to know,” the young man replied, pulling out his chair. Stevens noticed he wore his bright orange and yellow safety vest with pride. “She sure is a beauty, but some of those older cars that get fixed up don’t quite respond well to the transmitters.”

         “Slight drop in power, but nothing worth worrying about. Thanks for asking.”

         The young man nodded while sipping his drink and turned to enjoy his meal. Stevens took a satisfying bite out of the Guadalupe Geyser and turned his attention back to the note. Absorbing the simple instructions, he crumpled it up and dropped it in the pool of juice. The remaining two workers joined their partner. They too wore vests, but judging by their age, it was more likely than not to hide their protruding bellies. He smiled and finished his meal.

 

*          *

 

         With a full belly and a refilled cup of lemonade, Stevens continued east on Highway 166 keeping an eye out for the marker that would take him to his final destination. Wind mills dominated now, but Stevens spotted a small patch of photovoltaic panels just ahead on the left and nodded. He slowed down to make the turn.

         A total of fifty panels in five rows of ten stood a few feet off the ground like a blemish at the edge of the wind farm. Despite being a needle in a wind mill haystack, the solar panels had actually been installed first as a test run prior to full development. Obviously, though, the approvals, financing, or test results hadn’t panned out leaving the remnants of a defunct endeavor at the intersection of this desolate highway and a barely noticeable dirt road.     

         As Stevens drove down the dirt road wide enough for only one vehicle, he wondered why that electric utility crew had taken lunch so early. The car dipped twice upon hitting a series of potholes and Stevens swerved to avoid the third. I guess they just couldn’t wait another hour to get back to Santa Maria, he thought ... if that’s where they were based. Besides, the Burger Barn was a must-eat and he’d probably have done the same.

         He continued slowly for about a mile, squinting every few seconds. The constant whoosh of the wind farm’s blades had a mesmerizing, if not blinding effect. The subtle vibrations coursed through his body like a warm, electric blanket. He shuddered and reached for his sunglasses when a figure near the base of one of the white giants emerged. 

         Krol, a barrel-chested man with rounded, slouching shoulders betraying his fifty-five years, remained expressionless as Stevens approached. He neither minced words nor used a lot of them, which was something Stevens appreciated. The two men nodded and Stevens waited for the Station Chief to initiate the conversation.

         “We move forward tonight,” Krol said. Stevens had had inkling, but was a little surprised it was happening so fast. Krol continued, “His keyboard is fingerprint sensitive meaning if any finger other than his touches even one innocuous key, the whole damn thing shuts down and elevates to Level 5 protocol.”

         “How do we get around that?”

         “We have his fingerprints,” Krol replied without pride and pulled out a thin metallic box. “There is also a contact lens to replicate his right eye. You’ll need this to gain access to the vault where his keyboard and hard-drive are stored. Remember to wear it in your left eye.” Stevens understood. An employee’s Blackberry was stored in his or her right eye. The left eye was generally considered ‘your eye’. By using the lens in his left eye, the chance of data cross-contamination would be eliminated. “Any questions?”

         Something Jacobs mentioned could be cause for concern. He believed he knew the answer, but decided to throw it out there anyway.

         “Someone said security inspected his eyes yesterday,” he said glancing at the box.

         “Doesn’t surprise me,” Krol replied. “Check the eyes of this one, the hands of that one, and scare the crap out of some others – maybe even get physical – all to send a message.”

         “Which they know will get out when people talk,” Stevens added.

         “Precisely. They’re grasping at straws. If they knew of another spy, yesterday’s scenario would have already played itself out again. Besides, this is standard protocol. It helps emphasize the seriousness of yesterday’s actions and puts doubt in any would-be saboteur’s mind.”

          “What about the outbound flight?” Stevens asked.

         “Take the ‘tele’ from the wharf. You’ll have thirty-five minutes to make the flight. Transmit the data once you reach international airspace. Arrangements have already been made in Hong Kong to shuttle you from there.”   

         “Why should we expect to fool Mendoza this time?”

         “They’ll never expect a second attempt so close to the last one,” the silver-haired man said confidently. “Besides, he was trying to access the formula a different way.”

         “How’s that?”

         “No matter. He was in a different department, working on projects not related to yours and he was deeply imbedded – much higher up the corporate food chain.”

         The comment triggered a thought in Stevens’ mind, one he didn’t want to consider too much as it might prove distracting. Simpler was better, he thought, but wondered if the failed attempt with a person in a high position was a clever form of distraction. If so, then Stevens could strike with less scrutiny. After all, Mendoza would undoubtedly believe he cut off the dragon’s head. Very well could be, Stevens thought, but reminded himself it wasn’t his job to worry about those contingencies – not yet anyway. There would be time for that soon enough. After the success of this operation, a promotion would come placing him in a position to call more of the shots. He just needed to execute the plan now.

         “Remember,” the man said with squinted eyes, “this is bigger than both of us. I don’t need to remind you how much our people need this ... the future of Poland depends on it.”

 

*          *

 

         Stevens checked the time, swiped his employee card, and walked through the main entrance of Titan Pharmaceuticals. He had approximately twenty minutes to accomplish his task and be on his way toward the wharf. He had told his wife he would meet her for dinner at a place on Upper State Street at the same time his flight was scheduled to take off. He’d miss her, but duty to the homeland trumped their relationship. Besides, he figured with a little high-level diplomacy, they could be reunited after a year or so. It was a gamble, but he knew the score when he had initially entered the exchange program back in college. He was just glad that scare a year ago hadn’t turned out to be a pregnancy.

         The lobby was vacant except for a security guard positioned near the double doors that led to the research facilities. Stevens knew two other guards were constantly making rounds and he would most likely run into one of them. However, he had planned for that likely event by coming in on Saturday evenings at least once a month in order to establish a pattern. As a result, Stevens knew only a few other employees would be burning the weekend oil. Titan wanted full productivity out of their employees, but didn’t encourage overtime on weekends. The national work ethic had changed since the flu outbreak years ago, coupled with the population dilemma, and most people had become accustomed to a thirty-hour work week.

         Stevens approached the security desk when the double doors unexpectedly swung open and much to his surprise, Dr. Shin and a five-person entourage stepped through. Dr. Shin was the chief scientist in charge of Project Shangri-La – the very formula Stevens was set to steal. Stevens’ stomach immediately began doing flips and he wondered if he had been compromised. He’d never met Dr. Shin or any of the others in his small group and was relieved when they acted as though he were invisible. The guard immediately turned his attention to the group, which began laying visitor cards on the desk. Stevens took this opportunity to step into the lab and survey the area.

         He moved quickly toward his wing, glad his team’s lab was in the same part of the building and on the same floor as Dr. Shin’s. He turned the corner and his gut somersaulted.

         “Sorry, sir,” the guard said, apparently not as unnerved as Stevens. “Doing some weekend work again?”

         Stevens hesitated before exhaling, “Yep, gotta get this report done quickly or my wife will kill me for standing her up.”

         “I understand that ... have a good weekend.” The guard continued his patrol. Actually, Stevens was glad he had run into the man at this point of the hallway, as Dr. Shin’s lab was only twenty feet away. Thirty seconds later and the whole situation could have turned out differently.

         As he approached Dr. Shin’s lab, a door slid shut around the corner and he waited for someone to emerge, but after ten seconds no one appeared. Now was the time. He steadied his breath and concentrated on the entrance console. He placed his right index finger and left thumb on the pad and waited ... three seconds later the door beeped and slid open. The latex fingerprints secured over his own had worked so far. He only hoped the rest of the prints would fool the keyboard security system.

         The lab was large with a main corridor down the middle and private offices branching off on each side. Stevens had thought it might be similar in design to his lab, but that proved to be wishful thinking. He had been prepared for this, though. Based on the diagram provided by Krol, he knew Dr. Shin’s workspace was at the back through a series of smaller labs.

         Keep moving, he thought and stepped forward, but suddenly stopped at the crunching sound emanating from the ground. Lifting his foot revealed a cracked visitors pass, which alerted him that someone from Dr. Shin’s group could still be in the lab ... or someone had forgotten it and they would be back. Stevens’ heart began to race and he decided there was no turning back now. He kicked the pass to the corner where it bounced off a wall with a small echo and slid partially under a desk.

         He worked his way back towards Dr. Shin’s workspace and cringed when the first bead of sweat emerged on his forehead. As he lifted his hand to wipe it, he suddenly stopped, remembering not to touch it with his fingers as the salt might damage the latex. He wiped it with the back of his hand and stepped into the area holding the prize.

         A small part of him hoped that Dr. Shin had left his terminal outside the vault as a result of having just given some sort of demonstration. However, a quick scan of the room confirmed his hoping for things tonight would not result in the payoff he’d wanted. Dr. Shin was a man of stature and certainly didn’t rise to that position without a good awareness of his surroundings, including prudent security protocol.

         Stevens turned his attention to the vault, which was prominently placed in the corner of the room. He approached and covered his right eye with his palm, positioned his left eye in front of the scanner, and waited three seconds before the vault door slid open with a hissing sound.

         Inside the vault, Stevens quickly moved to the keyboard and placed his fingers in the ready position. Three seconds later, the screen attached to the keyboard lit up and automatically logged Dr. Shin into the system. Ignoring the beads of sweat creeping down his scalp, Stevens removed a pebble-sized, silver device that resembled a rain drop and placed it on the keyboard. Within seconds, the device activated a pre-programmed series of commands and Dr. Shin’s hard drive was downloaded. Stevens replaced the shiny object in his pocket and stepped out of the vault.

         Beads of sweat now poured down his cheek and nose. He wiped them instinctively with his fingers and cringed, but realized he had what he came for and wouldn’t need the false prints again. Stevens began his exit.

         As he stepped into the last work area before reaching the main corridor that would take him out of Dr. Shin’s lab, he heard voices. They seemed to come near the lab entrance and Stevens slipped into one of the offices lining the main corridor. Once inside, he waited with bated breath…

         “Maybe I dropped it back here?” a woman’s voice echoed from down the hall. “Wouldn’t your security cameras show that?”

         That was the last thing Stevens wanted. Although the labs themselves didn’t have cameras, the hallways did. After several incidents of low-tech espionage years ago, it had been determined that even a closed-circuit video system posed too much of a risk. Corporate espionage was in full bloom in the pharmaceutical industry. Krol was well aware of this security posture and used it to his advantage. Not having to worry about cameras in the lab, he had arranged for a passive loop to play for one hour in the hallway in which Dr. Shin’s lab was located. This would give Stevens enough time to get in and out unnoticed. However, if security rewound the tape, the ruse would be up, and with it, the operation.  

         “If we can’t find it, we can always check the cameras,” the security guard stated, “but let’s work our way back towards Dr. Shin’s workspace.”

         Stevens held his breath and squatted behind a chair as two sets of footsteps carried past the door and into the lab area. Five seconds later, he peered out of the office and moved toward the lab door.

 

*          *

 

         Ten minutes later, Stevens was running along Cabrillo Boulevard toward Stearns Wharf. The evening tourist crowd was beginning to percolate as the sun descended below the horizon leaving streaks of purple and crimson in its wake. Stevens sidestepped a couple exiting the circular booth and inserted his credit card. He located his destination, tapped a couple of keys, waited for confirmation, and stepped inside.

         Twenty seconds later, Stevens exited the booth and walked into the Santa Barbara International Airport. The eleven-mile trip had taken less time than it would for him to spell his name backwards. He wondered if Poland had this fairly new commercial transportation wonder. He’d soon find out.

 

*          *

 

         A couple of giggling Chinese students took their seats a few rows ahead and Stevens checked the side window for any signs of trouble. No sirens. No unusual activity. In fact, the only activity was the baggage tram pulling away.

         The captain announced their departure and transferred the preflight announcement to the flight attendant. The plane’s engines snapped to life and Stevens breathed a sigh of relief. He subconsciously felt the inside of his jacket for the flash drive and grinned.

         The flight attendant’s monotone voice played in the back of his mind as the plane edged backwards. The flight to Hong Kong would be a long one and he was glad the seat next to him was unoccupied. Once they reached international airspace and he had successfully transferred the contents of the hard drive, he might be able to coax himself into getting some much needed sleep. The day’s activities had been more draining than he thought possible. But the hard part was over and he would soon be back in Poland visiting places long forgotten.

         The flight attendant signed off with a click and the fuselage fell into a vacuumed silence. Stevens checked the window again and all seemed fine. As he turned his attention toward the front, he noticed a woman moving down the aisle, slowly, casually glancing at the seat numbers etched above each row.

         “27-B,” the woman said and glanced at Stevens with a smile. “I guess this one’s me.” She wore a business suit and only carried a purse. Stevens nodded, conflicted between being annoyed that he would have to sit next to someone the entire flight and acknowledging that she had a nice figure and might be good company. “Sorry to dash your hopes of being able to stretch out … I know that’s what I’d be thinking.”

         “Not to worry,” Stevens replied. “It goes both ways, I guess.”

         She smiled and settled in just as the lights went out and the plane engaged its thrusters.

         Fifteen minutes later, the Pacific Ocean painted a dark and infinite blanket below the plane’s belly. The aircraft gradually approached international airspace and Stevens calculated another forty minutes before the transfer could begin. For now, he replayed the evening’s events in his mind and a question suddenly occurred: why hadn’t the security guard and the woman seen the visitor’s pass near the lab’s entrance? Of course, he remembered, his kick had sent it near the wall, but he couldn’t recall where it landed. They must have overlooked it.

            Thirty minutes...

 

 

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© Michael Cassata