For years, Air Force Captain Jason Conrad flew and instructed in the supersonic T-38. Despite his decline into a self-destructive lifestyle, he was considered one of the best instructors on the base. Following a terrifying jet crash, Jason finds himself on a very short list of people on their way out the door. It is a surprise to everyone when he is assigned to the home of the U.S. Air Force Flight Test Center. Jason should have known that in a ‘one mistake Air Force’ where you ‘do more with less’, everything would not be what it appears. Attached to a secret project with a shadowy contractor, Jason is caught between two complications; an overbearing, retired general determined to see him fail; and an aggressive television reporter who wants him in prison. When a ghost from the past shows up and a beautiful, yet mysterious woman enters his life, Jason soon discovers his special project has more secrets than anyone knows about . . . and it could cost him his life.
April 14, 2001
SHERRI DAVIS APPROACHED THE ENTRYWAY, already regretting her decision. After filling out paperwork and release forms for thirty minutes, she stood hidden behind the filthy curtain covering the doorway, the knot in her belly growing tighter. She pulled a small section of the worn fabric to the side. Colored lights blinked rapidly, and several spotlights locked on the mirrored ball above the stage, creating hundreds of dancing reflections around the large room.
“It doesn’t hurt, ya know,” a voice said over the loud music.
Turning her head, Sherri spied a girl in her late teens standing next to her.
“You look nervous. It’s your first time, isn’t it?” the girl said to Sherri.
“Yes,” she said, releasing the curtain and facing the woman. In the dark hallway, Sherri could barely make out the girl’s features, though her heavy eyelashes and straight black hair were clearly prominent. It was the young girl whose locker was next to hers.
“It’s not like sex. Doesn’t hurt the first time.”
Sherri nodded. “Got any advice?”
“Have fun sweetie, that’s my advice,” the girl said. “Go out there and relax. You’ll do fine.”
“Relax,” Sherri replied. “Right.”
“Honey, once those assholes start handing you twenties to sit on their lap, you’ll relax,” the girl said. “Now get on out there and bring home the bacon,” the girl said as she patted Sherri on the rear. Sherri noticed the pat was a little too soft and lingered a little too long before the girl retreated back down the hallway toward the stage entrance.
Sherri sighed heavily, her hands pressing the pleats of her skirt. She cupped her breasts for a quick adjustment and pulled her shoulders back. Her transition from the dark hallway to the work area was dramatic. The mist spewing from the smoke machine burned her eyes, and her ears pulsed each time the deep bass vibrated through the speakers. Her steps were short and deliberate, as if she had a choice in these five-inch stiletto heels. She gave up the security of the doorway, crossed her arms in front of her breasts and meandered between the tables, dodging a waitress carrying a tray full of beers.
The girl, nineteen at most, took the stage like a veteran and danced around the pole while a variety of wishful male suitors watched her every move. Sherri scanned the crowd. The darkness of the bar, the mist, and the flashing lights made it difficult to see anything in detail. The music made her head hurt. Unable to see the two men she was looking for, she began to worry she might be wasting her time.
“Hey, baby,” an overweight, drunk businessman said as he reached out and tried to grab her arm.
“Not tonight, sweetie,” Sherri replied, pulling away, never making eye contact. She gave the bald drunk the brush-off with her right hand. He shook his head and walked off toward another girl; alcohol making him more optimistic than he had a right to be.
While she looked the part—plaid miniskirt and a white button-down tied in front of her push-up bra—she realized she wasn’t acting the part. She sensed her movements through the bar were awkward. Relax. Standing in place, she tapped her foot to the music and rhythmically swayed her body. Sherri closed her eyes and started a slow, seductive dance in place. Her hips swayed like sea oats blowing in the ocean breeze. It didn’t take long before the men nearby stared at her instead of the stage, waving twenty dollar bills at her. Feeling more confident, she moved around the bar again. She had to work fast, as she was scheduled to make her stage debut in half an hour.
After a couple minutes meandering through the crowded bar and refusing three more requests for lap dances, she saw the first subject. He had come out of the men’s room and returned to a table located away from the stage. His name was Ahmed Alnami, a Saudi Arabian living in and moving around the United States. Now he was in Pensacola, sitting at a table with Saeed Alghamdi, his partner now getting a lap dance from one of the girls. Alnami sat at the table where he took a long swig of his beer and gave his partner a big smile. Weren’t these two supposed to be devout Muslims? Why were they here?
Sherri recognized her opportunity and approached the table. She leaned toward Alnami, her breasts at eye level, right in front of him. He stared in her eyes, looking fearful. Not the fear of danger. The innocent fear, like a teenage boy about to lose his virginity. “Hey, big boy,” she cooed, “are you lonely?” Alnami continued to stare, clearly unsure what to do.
Sherri smiled and pointed at her eyes. “Honey, you need to change your focus from here, to here,” she said as she moved her hands to her breasts. Alnami’s face beamed.
“Yes, please to sit,” he said in broken English. Sherri sat on his lap. He was a small man; Sherri was taller than he. No wonder he was smiling—a blond Amazon had landed in his lap. She reached over and ran her hand through his hair. It was oily and hadn’t been washed for a while. Wiping her hand on the back of his shirt, she cringed, yet forced a weak smile. Alnami lunged his face forward and buried it in her breasts. Sherri pushed him back. She wanted to punch him, but that would undo all she’d accomplished.
“Settle down, big boy, we need to get to know each other first.”
“This is what I want,” he said, pointing at his partner, whose lap dancer was grinding aggressively into him.
“Oh, you’ll get that and more,” she replied. “We’ve got to do some talking first.”
“What is this talking?” he said in a louder voice. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a roll of bills. The smile faded and his eyes bulged. “I want boobies! I want the grind-a-grind!” The teenage innocence disappeared, and the self-absorbed arrogance of the immature adult surfaced. He started to push her off his lap. Sensing she was losing her opportunity, she grabbed his head and shoved his face back into her breasts.
“Better?” She pulled his face from her bosom, and the big smile had returned.
“Now, before I give you the grind-a-grind, we’ve got to get to know each other. What’s your name?”
“Ahm—” He paused. “Keevin. My name is Keevin.”
“Kevin? Okay, Kevin will work for now. My name is Bambi. What do you do, Kevin?”
“I do fine. Thank you, Bom-bi.”
Sherri cringed. This was painful. “What’s your job?”
“Oh, I train to be pilot.”
Interesting. She shifted herself on his lap and ran the fingers of her left hand along the buttons of his shirt. “Are you out at the Navy base?”
“Yes.” His eyes remained focused on her breasts.
“How long are you in town?”
“Two more weeks.”
Sherri thought for a moment. The two Saudis had already been in Pensacola for two weeks. Obviously, they weren’t students, and they weren’t flying with the Navy, but they were there to fly something.
“You must be really smart,” she said. “Not everybody gets to fly airplanes.”
“I am one of Allah’s warriors,” Alnami said, his voice rising. “Allahu Akbar.”
Sherri studied Alnami. “What is Allah having you do?” She bit her lower lip, realizing she might have pushed the conversation too far, too fast.
His eyes moved from her breasts back to her eyes. His nostrils flared as he bared his yellowing teeth. “No more talk of this!” Alnami shouted, unnoticed by the rest of the room. “I want grind-a-grind from you!” He pulled a fifty out of his pocket and waved it at her. Sherri sighed, realizing she would not get any more information unless she took it to the next level. That was not going to happen. She took the bill and stuck it in her bra.
She rose from his lap and posed in front of him, hands on her hips. He’s done talking. It’s time to get out of here. She slowly swayed back and forth, running her hands along the sides of her hips up to her breasts. The dancing must have been good, because she noticed his partner staring at her while still getting his lap dance.
Sherri leaned forward, nearly rubbing her breasts from his knees to his head, her body barely missing contact with his. She said in his ear, “How about you and me leave this place?”
Alnami’s smile grew bigger. “Yes, please!”
Pushing herself away from him, she moved behind his chair and ran hands down the front of his chest. “Okay, I’ve got to go clock out and change clothes. I’ll be back here in fifteen minutes. Don’t move.”
“I not move. Don’t change your clothes! You sexy momma!”
Sherri forced a weak smile. “Okay, baby. Whatever you want.”
She left the table and headed to the entryway with the dirty curtain.
She walked through the dark hallway, entered the dressing room, and pulled the door behind her, shielding her eyes from the steady light. As her eyes adjusted, she walked to her locker and gathered her things. Standing in front of one of the mirrors, she pulled off the blond wig, and her deep red hair fell to her shoulders. Pulling out a brush, she touched it up from where the wig had pressed it down or tangled it. She then grabbed her tan overcoat and slipped it over her shoulders. Retrieving her clothes from her locker, she knew making a quick exit was more important than comfort. A few of the other girls gazed at her with curiosity and envy.
“Sorry, ladies, I’m not cut out for this,” she said. She turned and walked out the back door of the strip club.
Reaching the exit, she glanced left and right as she walked out the door. The light by the back door was burned out, making the parking lot dark. She clutched her purse tightly and gripped the can of mace in her coat pocket as she walked to her rental car, a shiny new red Toyota Celica. She grabbed her keys and cell phone from her purse and climbed in. Kicking off the stiletto heels, she cranked the engine and pulled on to Highway 98, dialing on her cell phone as she drove.
The phone answered on the first ring. “Did you get it?” the voice asked.
“No, I didn’t get that far. Alnami was getting a little too friendly.”
“I told you this might happen. Did you find out anything?”
“They’re here two more weeks, and they’ll be flying next week, but I don’t know what and I don’t know why. Sorry, it’s the best I was willing to do under the circumstances.”
“Okay,” the voice replied. “Get back here tomorrow. I’ve got something else for you.”
“Like what?” She was more interested in getting some rest at this point.
“Our informant in New York wants to meet with you ASAP.”
“All right,” Sherri said begrudgingly. “I’ll see you tomorrow.” As she hung up the phone, the car lurched forward. The phone slipped from her fingers, falling to the floorboard as her body slammed into her seat belt. She glanced in the rearview mirror as a car slid back and accelerated toward her again.
“What the hell?” she said, assessing the situation.
She put both hands on the wheel, and her foot pressed the accelerator as the car made contact with the red Celica a second time. As she reached the Pensacola Bay Bridge, the vehicle behind her changed lanes. She struggled as it maneuvered to strike her car in the left rear fender in an attempt to spin the car. She accelerated again, making the assailant miss his mark. Traffic was light this time of night, but there were enough vehicles to put between her and her attacker.
The mystery car pulled behind her, two car lengths back. She managed to accelerate away from it, but still had a good two miles to go on the bridge. Every time she passed a vehicle, the car followed her. Who the hell was attacking her? Could it be Alnami? No, she hadn’t been gone long enough. He would still be waiting for her inside the strip club, probably constructing ridiculous fantasies in his head.
It was a dark, starless night, and the rise in the bridge was a half mile away. This hump in the bridge allowed larger boats to enter and exit Pensacola Bay from the Gulf. Once on the other side, she would be in civilization again.
Vinyl and glass shards flew everywhere inside the vehicle as bullets pierced the back window of her car and hit the passenger side of the dashboard. She screamed and let go of the steering wheel, her foot coming off the gas for an instant.
Her eyes darted back and forth as her car veered toward the rail to her right. Grabbing the steering wheel, she pressed the accelerator once again as she jerked her car away from the side rail.
“Oh, God,” she said, “why the hell are they shooting at me?”
She swerved to put another car between them, then pushed the accelerator to the floor. The innocent car she just passed bumped into the guardrail, sending sparks flying. It spun around as the assailant hit the car from the rear, then continued on. The dark sedan accelerated and closed the distance between them. She felt trapped as her Celica could not gain any more speed.
Another burst of machine-gun fire. Sherri screamed as the bullets struck the rear of her vehicle. At the bottom of the hump, she checked her rearview mirror. Shattered glass and bullet holes in the rear window were all she could see. There was no sign of the vehicle chasing her. Her heart raced as she hoped they’d stopped their pursuit. Based on the lights in the distance, she estimated she’d reach the end of the bridge in less than a minute.
With a quarter mile to go until she reached the end of the bridge, the car shuddered. Sherri’s gaze shifted to the front of her car, and her shoulders slumped. She beat her fist against the steering wheel as smoke rose from under the hood and the car started decelerating.
The speedometer read 80 mph at this point, but the car no longer responded to her foot pressing the accelerator. She pushed it all the way to the floor, but nothing. In her rearview mirror, she noticed the assailant closing in behind her. The car had closed within three car lengths when another round of bullets hit her vehicle.
Her heart raced as she reached the end of the bridge and the Celica slowed to 55 mph.
“Shit! If I break down on this bridge, I’m done,” she said as she pumped the accelerator. “Who the hell are these guys?”
The Celica slowed to 25 mph now, and other cars quickly caught and passed her.
Searching for her assailant in the mirror, she saw the dark-colored sedan make a U-turn at the end of the bridge and head toward Pensacola.
In front of her, red-and-blue lights danced on top of a parked car. Sherri had driven into a speed trap, and her assailants had turned and run.
“Yeah!” she shrieked. “Take that, asshole! You’d better run!”
A faint nervous smile eased across her face as she glided the unpowered vehicle into the right lane and onto the side of the road. The car came to a stop, and as soon as she put it in park, her body began shaking as the adrenaline faded. Leaning forward on the steering wheel, she started sobbing. She had almost been killed. A myriad of thoughts raced through her head as the police car pulled in behind her. The officer walked up and tapped on the window with his flashlight. Her finger pushed the button aft, lowering the window, and she covered her eyes as he shined the light in her face.
“Driver’s license and registration,” he said.
“No problem,” she replied. Automatically, she dug in her purse for her driver’s license. When she reached into the glove box for the rental agreement, she glanced in the passenger’s side mirror and saw the dark outline of the officer’s partner approaching the other side of her vehicle. You think he’d say something about the smoke coming from under the hood, she thought, or the blown-out back window.
She stopped digging and glanced back at the officer who spoke to her. Is he wearing jeans? With a quick glance back to the passenger-side mirror, she saw his partner approaching the vehicle was wearing—shorts? Wait, how could this guy not have noticed the bullet holes?
“Hey, what agency are you guys with?” she said as she turned back to the cop. Before she could react, he jammed a long stick through the window and pressed it into her neck. The electric shock was fast and intense, then—blackness.
April 15, 2001
A SMALL SLIVER of glistening sunlight cut through the dark hotel room, illuminating its small interior. Dust particles danced through the piercing beam like fireflies on a clear summer night. The light pried into his consciousness while the grinding gears of a construction vehicle outside ripped it open. Jason Conrad buried his face in a pillow and moaned as his head felt ready to explode. He recognized this place, barely. The hangover reminded him that his recent lifestyle choices had their consequences.
It didn’t take long for his body to tell him he needed to relieve himself. Sitting up, he swung his feet off the bed and glanced next to him, rubbing the sides of his throbbing temples with his fingertips. The blonde lay strewn out, nude on top of the sheets. She had every appearance of being attractive from here, but he struggled to remember her face. He definitely could not remember her name.
Jason tiptoed to the bathroom, as much to protect his pounding head as not to wake the blonde. After relieving himself, he washed his hands and face and brushed his teeth. When he left the bathroom, she was sitting up in the bed, watching him. She is pretty. Now, what is her name again?
“Good morning, sexy,” she said. She sounded much more awake than he did.
“Hi,” Jason said. She was too bubbly for early morning.
“I can’t believe you’re up,” she said in a strong Texas drawl.
“Am I still beautiful?”
Jason grinned. “Absolutely.”
“You’re quiet this morning. You wouldn’t stop talking last night.”
Vague memories of the night before pushed themselves into his consciousness. He crawled back into the bed, and she leaned over and kissed him.
“Oh, you brushed your teeth. I’ll be right back,” she said, climbing out of bed and walking to the bathroom.
Jason studied her figure. She had all the right equipment. He could see why he would have been talkative. Now he wished he didn’t drink as much. He realized this was a night he would have liked to remember.
Yesterday started off well. As flight lead of a four-ship of T-38s, they’d done a flyover for a Texas Rangers game. It was a great TDY, or temporary duty, to Dallas, with per diem. The flyover during the national anthem at the Ballpark in Arlington was uneventful, and they landed at Naval Air Station Fort Worth, formerly known Carswell Air Force Base, right afterward.
When they finished securing their jets, a limousine arrived to pick them up outside Base Operations. One of the Rangers’ owners provided the limo for their ride to the stadium. It contained a cooler full of beer and a tray of cheese and crackers to tide them over until they arrived at the stadium in Arlington.
It was a tight fit with eight sweaty, cocky T-38 instructors, but they didn’t care. They were amazed at the red carpet treatment and relished every minute of it. The pilots were treated like rock stars in the owners’ VIP suite, with all the food and alcohol they wanted. After the game, the limo drove them to the West End in Dallas. Jason and his buddies found themselves in Gators, a piano bar/restaurant with dueling white grand pianos and a rowdy crowd. He remembered meeting her at Gators. What is her name?
Jason rolled over on his back and stared at the ceiling. What have I become? Is this the life I want to live? The nameless faces of his women over the years skipped through his thoughts. He felt empty. Like every other one-night stand, she crept back into his head. What happened to the one who’d slipped away six years ago? Whatever happened to Kathy Delgato?
The door to the bathroom opened, and the blonde sauntered back into the room. She took the time to brush her hair and put on lipstick. Posing at the end of the bed, she riveted her eyes at him wantonly.
“Oh, good, you’re still awake.” She traipsed around the bed to the window and opened the curtain, standing nude in front of the window.
“I can’t help it,” she said with a wry smile, turning to face him. “I’m an exhibitionist.”
“What time do you fly back?” She posed seductively in front of the window.
Jason glanced at the clock. Red digital numbers displayed eight thirty-three. The pilots planned to leave the hotel at noon. “I need to be at the base at eleven,” he lied.
“Oh,” she said, sauntering toward him.
“Do I…” He paused. “Do I need to get you a ride home?” Jason couldn’t remember how they made it back to the hotel.
“No silly. I drove us, remember?”
No, and I can’t remember your name either, so please don’t ask.
“Well,” he said, glancing at the clock, “we have some time.”
The blonde smiled and crawled back onto the bed. Jason stopped hating himself as she wrapped her arms around him. Even drunk, he had done very well.
SHERRI SHIVERED from the cool breeze as she lay on her back. Fading in and out of consciousness, she tossed her head from side to side. Various colors edged their way into her brain as she awoke. She writhed in place, and the ground shifted slightly. Her muscles ached, but the sun on her face was irritating. When she tried to open her eyes, her hand shielded them from the brightness. The smell of saltwater filled her nostrils as waves crashed onto the shore.
She was at the beach.
The sun glared as she struggled again to open her eyes. The sky was a bright blue, and seagulls called out to her as they bobbed and weaved ten feet overhead, floating rather than flying.
Her body ached. Rolling her head to the right, she saw nothing but white sand and sea oats. To the left was more of the same, but with a stinging sensation as she turned her head. Sherri managed to roll over on her left side and prop herself up on her elbow. Her joints were stiff and her skin covered with goose bumps. Her head hurt as she tried to figure out how she ended up here, wherever here turned out to be.
Shifting her weight, she managed to sit up on her knees and check herself out. Nothing was broken, and she didn’t notice any injuries other than the neck pain, stiff joints, and sore muscles. She realized she still wore the schoolgirl outfit from the strip club the night before. Checking her bra and panties, she found everything in place and Alnami’s fifty-dollar bill still tucked in her bra.
What the hell happened? Someone chased her on the bridge and shot up her car, but she managed to escape. The cop. He did something to her. When she placed her hand on the left side of her neck, the pain shot through her body again. The cop shocked her with something. Only he wasn’t a cop. Who were those guys? They had to be working together. She was an easy target and nobody is that bad of a shot to miss her for that long. Whoever it was, they were sending her a message. The thoughts made her head hurt as she shielded her eyes from the sun, which was inching its way above the horizon.
Sherri rose to her feet and realized she had no shoes. She inspected her clothes, what little she wore. Rolling off the white stockings, she tossed them in the sand and untied her white shirt to cover her belly. She buttoned up her shirt and felt a little more comfortable. She slowly brushed the sand off her thighs, waist, and arms. Placing her hands in her deep red hair, she desperately tried to shake out the sand. It would take days, she determined, if not weeks, to get all of the sand out. She searched around her immediate area: no purse, no phone, and no car keys.
When she started on this story, Sherri never realized she would experience something like this. She always enjoyed the sense of accomplishment from hard work. As an investigative reporter, she put herself in many compromising situations, but this had been the worst. Being shot at wasn’t something new, but being shot at with automatic weapons was a twist. Even in Sarajevo, she hadn’t faced such firepower. There she’d been dodging sniper fire.
Sherri tried to analyze the events, but her head ached, and she realized she was dehydrated. She scanned the beach. The closest people to her were an elderly couple using metal detectors a hundred yards to the east. To the west, more people in the distance, the silhouettes of condos and hotels, and the familiar water tower of Pensacola Beach. She guessed it was about three miles away. Leaving the solitude of the sea oats and sand dunes of this isolated portion of the beach, Sherri trudged toward the water, then west, toward civilization.