More Precious Than Gold

by Mark and Karen Eidemiller

Chapter Four

The people sitting around the table in the conference room were very quiet. Terror has that effect on people.

It wasn't a fear of death, but a fear of extinction.

The large double doors opened, startling a young man in a brown suit. Pausing momentarily to scan the room, she stood like an operatic diva alone on stage, commanding the attention of everyone else. She was fashionably stunning in a retro-1940's dress and beehive hairdo, yet her countenance lent itself to Medusa herself. She received very few glances as she walked the length of the table and sat down in the executive throne.

The meeting was inevitable, but not welcomed. It was to discuss the state of the company. And everyone around that table knew it wouldn't be good news.

"All right," said Pat Savage, in her persona of Penelope. Her tone was like ice. "Let's begin. Hiram?"

Hiram Baker, a veteran to Patricia, Inc., turned to his notebook computer and recited in a monotone, "Over the past six months, the company has suffered the loss of thirty-four of our West Coast operations, broken down as follows: twenty-one COPPER PENNY boutiques ... six factories ... five chemical substations ... and two semi-truck trailers demolished while en route to our distributors." He paused and took a deep breath. "Loss due to damage is estimated at $13.4 million dollars. Projected losses due to decreased revenue could be as much as a billion by the end of the calendar year."

She appeared to be taking the headlines well, but those who knew what to look for saw the tension in her arms and jaw. She didn't comment on Hiram's data, but looked to a man off to her right. "Ted?"

He consulted his notes. "Without the factories to process the chemicals, we've had to trim back on our suppliers. Since our shortfalls have only occurred on the West Coast, we could redirect some of the supplies to our East Coast facilities to make up the difference. However, this will mean increased funding to distribution." He nodded to another man, presumably his counterpart in the distribution field, who nodded back an acknowledgment.

Pat\Penelope paused a moment, then looked at a long-haired woman on her left. "Margaret?"

"Throughout our West Coast processing plants, we've had to shift employees from destroyed plants to form a third shift at some of the other facilities. This keeps us busy, but the unions are starting to breathe down our necks. We've increased security around the remaining plants, but there's still a sense of fear. We've redirected funding from expansion to cover the rebuilding, but it's slow going."

There was another pause. "Kwan?"

A handsome Eurasian man met Pat's eyes briefly. "Due to the fact that two of our shipments were ambushed, there's also been a sense of fear among the drivers. There's increased unrest among the unions, and there's rumors of a walkout if things don't improve quickly. We're trying to compensate by increasing the East Coast operations, as Ted has mentioned, and we're considering independent drivers to take up the slack."

She turned to another woman. "Tasha?"

"As expected, sales are down from the last quarter, primarily in our Copper Penny boutiques. We're still doing well at the retail level. Apex seems not to be targeting, for example, Big-Z stores just because our products are sold through them. However, as I said, our West Coast boutiques are suffering. We've increased security at those stores, but there's still a lot of scared people around there. Both the employees and the customers are expressing concerns that Apex will strike at a time when the store is occupied, rather than after hours. It's an irrational fear, to be sure, but a real one." She paused, then delivered the bottom line. "Our estimations put sales down 31%, with very little hope of increase before this Apex matter ends."

She looked at another man. "Ron."

He smiled broadly. "Advertising and PR are doing well. We've been working round the clock to alleviate fears and assure shoppers that the remaining stores are safe. The press has been favorable towards us, even sympathetic."

She looked over the group, then nodded. "Very well," she said slowly. "Hiram, how soon can we be back to where we started?"

"The major factor is Apex. As long as they're around and doing us damage, the longer and harder it will be. If Apex were to cease today, we could be back on top in six months."

She dreaded having to ask. "And if not?"

The veteran closed his notebook computer and replied soberly but directly. "The company will be forced into bankruptcy within nine months."

There was a long, nervous silence. "Ladies and gentlemen, bankruptcy is not an option," she said with determination. "We will survive this, and we will be back on top. Thank you ... dismissed."

Silently and swiftly, everyone left the room.

Pat breathed heavily and looked out the picture window at the San Francisco skyline. Then she reached over to an intercom and pressed a button. "Daniel, would you please come in here?"

Within thirty seconds, a side door to the conference room opened, and a handsome black man glided in. Dressed in black with gold jewelry, he seated himself in a chair near Pat.

"This looks bad, Pat," he commented in a low voice. "Very bad."

Pat pivoted, her face exposing the frustration and anger she'd been hiding from the rest of her staff. "How do they know, Daniel? How do they know where to strike? My God, they even got our trucks! Is there somebody on the inside?" She paced the room. "Daniel, what about that Woodward person ... Jillian Woodward. When she resigned, she wasn't very subtle about her feelings. Could she be in on this?"

He leaned back slightly in the chair. "I don't know, Pat."

She pressed. "But you two had a thing going at one time, didn't you?"

"Sure, we went out a few times, but that's been years ago. I haven't seen her since she quit." He paused, smiling. "Besides, she's a scientist, not a terrorist."

Pat ignored his comment. "That doesn't matter. You two were close. Check her out for me, will you? Where is she living nowadays? What is she doing? Where is she working?" She turned and put her arms around his neck, smiling seductively. "You'll do it for me, won't you, Danny? Besides, you're the least likely to be suspected as my spy."

He leaned in, and they kissed for several moments. "All right, I'll try. But I think you're wasting our time."

"Thank you, Danny," she replied, giving him a loving look.

"Anytime." He walked to the side door, but stopped and looked back with a grin. "Hey, cheer up! If all else fails, we can start looking for pots of gold at the ends of rainbows."

She grinned in return at his remark. Yet, after the door had closed behind him, standing in the empty conference room, something in the back of her mind started nagging at her. "Gold?" she mused to herself, and sat down at the table.

Franklin's seemingly-glib comment haunted her like an old familiar song.

Alone in her bedroom, back on Caroline Island, she couldn't sleep. Donning her robe against the night chill, she walked onto the wide terrace. The terrace, as well as her own home, had been constructed on the tallest hill of the island, ending in a mesa-like formation. Standing at the stone wall that circled the edge of the mesa, she could look out upon the island. This was her island, her domain. She was mistress of all she surveyed. It gave her a good feeling, a powerful feeling.

But tonight she was disturbed.

In the quiet, she spoke the name of that disturbance. "Hidalgo. The Valley of the Vanished."

She remembered that seemingly-magical land in Central America, lost within the mountains like the mythical Shangri-La, home to generations of surviving Mayans. "Does it yet exist?" she mused aloud, then her eyes narrowed as truth came to her. "Of course it does ... that's where he's getting his funding for that Institute of his. He's somehow found a way to tap into the gold supply again. There's got to be millions ... billions? ... trillions? And he's using it for some stupid goody-goody school. It's not fair." Thinking of all that gold, just asking to be taken, agitated her. She paced along the wall, talking to herself. "It's just not fair. Why should my cousin be allowed to prosper while I face bankruptcy? It should be mine."

She stopped, and looked out at the heavens. "WHY CAN'T IT BE MINE?" she shouted, then lowered the volume. "I know the way there, I know the people there. All I need to do is turn on the charm."

Then, for the first time since Apex entered her life, she laughed.

Then she started planning.

Daniel Franklin would've felt comfortable driving his company car to the rendezvous, since Pat was back on the island. But for the sake of security, he proceeded normally, switching to an older-model station wagon at a parking garage in the city. Confident of himself, he drove to an apartment complex in a small suburb. The sign said ROLLING HILLS APARTMENTS, serving mostly senior citizens. He pulled around back and into a carport next to an aquamarine 1968 Pontiac LeMans. He hadn't seen anyone, and felt he hadn't been seen by anyone. He climbed out of the wagon and strolled down a stone walkway to Unit 31, where he used his passkey to let himself in. The faint smell of freshly ground coffee beans greeted his nostrils, and he heard someone in the kitchen.

"It's me, Jill," he announced.

"Coffee'll be ready in a few minutes, Danny," a female voice replied.

He rounded the corner into the kitchen and smiled. The attractive woman was dressed in a Seattle Mariners sweatshirt and bluejeans. Although the outfit was a tad on the baggy side, it still revealed a dynamite figure. Her hair was pulled back and loosely tied, and her attractive face was the color of Jamaican tan. The only thing that was out of place was the Glock 9mm automatic pistol setting on the counter-top. Repressing his disgust, he came up from behind the woman, wrapping his arms around her waist and kissing her smooth neck. She hummed a quick note of pleasure and said, "Glad you're here, baby. Been missin' you."

"Missed you, too," he agreed, then angled his head towards the pistol. "Do you have to bring that here?"

She took it in stride. "Sorry, hon, but I hardly go anywhere without it nowadays. When you're wanted in three states, paranoia kinda comes with the territory."

She turned to face him and wrapped her arms around his neck, holding him tight and meeting his kiss. They separated after a few moments, and attended to the coffee. He took down a pair of mugs from the cabinet, and placed them where she could pour. The apartment was sparsely decorated. It was more a meeting place than a home. He took his mug into the living room, sitting sideways at one end of the couch. She followed a minute later, and sat at the opposite end, facing him. Franklin noticed that she still carried the gun, and placed it on the coffee table within easy reach.

"So what's the buzz from the top?" she inquired.

"Well, you're definitely making a dent in the organization," he commented. "There was a staff meeting Monday, and guess who was the topic of the hour?"

"And ...," asked Jill eagerly.

"Your strikes have made an impact on just about every aspect of the company. Stress levels are high, and everyone's afraid they'll be next on your hit list. The two key factors are her ability to rebuild -- which is going to take quite a chunk o' change -- and if Apex packs up and bugs somebody else. Bottom line, if things continue, she's six months away from total bankruptcy."

She whooped and clapped her hands together. "Good! She's starting to hurt like we've hurt!"

Franklin changed the subject. "Have you seen the press coverage?"

"Have I ever," she exclaimed. "All the major networks, the cover of Newsweek, and even a topic on Dirk Hunter's show last week. But none of them have a clue. NOW wants to bestow sainthood on us 'cause we've taken out the porno shops. And the reporters and the cops are watchin' the Copper Penny boutiques day and night, just waitin' to catch us in the act."

Franklin smiled and changed the subject. "How's the crew managing?"

"As well as possible. It's a motley crew in every sense of the word. But they continue because they have a cause to follow, and that's good enough for now. Individually, Jodie's been taking to the younger ones like a mother hen, especially Jade, Pooh, and Lizzy. But I keep worrying about Janie and Janice."

"The lesbians, right?"

"Yeah, but it's more than just that. They're loose cannons in every sense of the term. The only reason why I keep 'em around is that they're the best female weapons experts the Corps ever kicked out, and -- just between us -- I'd rather have them where I can keep an eye on them, rather than have them on the loose."

"Better with you than against you, right?"

She nodded. "Exactly. Besides, they've turned pyrotechnics into an art form. They're good ... very good." She stood up and refilled her coffee. She brought the pot and topped Franklin's cup. "So what does Miz Penelope plan to do about us?"

"I'm not entirely sure. She's starting to take an interest in Central America."

There was a puzzled look on her face. "What's in Central America?"

He shrugged. "I don't know. But something tells me she's planning some sort of expedition." He paused. "How's your group set for traveling if they have to?"

"We're not. Are you sure about her going to Central America?"

He shrugged again. "Like I said. But I do plan to find out. And as soon as I know, I'll call you."

"Okay. I'll bring it up to the group, and start getting ready. Just in case."

Jill stood and walked around the room. "All we want to do is let her hear our story, Danny ... give Miz Penelope a look at what her actions have done. Maybe let her see Jodie's face without the hood for an hour or so."

Franklin shuddered. "That'll impress her."

She came around the back of the couch and slid her hands down his chest. "What'say we go into the other room, Danny?" she cooed into his ear.

"Anything you say, baby," he replied.

She walked slowly, seductively, towards the bedroom, with Franklin close behind.

The outside of the warehouse looked deserted. The windows were boarded up, and graffiti covered most of the outside walls. The company name -- CARLUCCI AND SON PRODUCE -- was barely recognizable, buried under countless hues of spray paint.

The LeMans cruised into a parking spot near the rear door, and Jill Woodward slid her slim legs to the pitted asphalt. She looked around casually once or twice, her eyes alert to any change in the environment, and smiled; the neighborhood was well deserted, and it would be hours before the gangs made their rounds. She walked up to the door; it would take a close examination to see the fact that a thick steel plate lay behind the ancient wooden panel. Sweeping aside a piece of newspaper that had blown onto her foot, she held a magnetic key close to a section of the door. A moment later there was a satisfying click, and she pushed the door open -- just in time to receive a three-pistol greeting, leveled at her head.

The trio of cyclopean dogs of war met her eye-to-eye, and Jill could see their handlers just waiting for her to give them a reason to loose them. She froze, calculating some sort of defense. Her hand was too far away from the Glock to make a difference, and they had her outnumbered. Her eyes darted from one face to the next, and she shifted her jaw. Then she exercised her only available option.

She stepped inside, and, with practiced calm, closed the door behind her. Then, her eyes narrowed, she calmly told the center shooter, "You're too close."

Her arms remaining at her sides, she continued in a casual tone: "All it would take is for me to lean in six inches, grab your arm, then pull you in front of me and make you my shield. While Dana and Lisa are deciding whether to shoot around you or through you, I've grabbed your gun hand, and used your own pistol against them. Finally, while you're still in shock over what's happened, I snap your neck and step over your dead body."

Never taking her eyes from Woodward's face, the center shooter moved cautiously back three steps.

Woodward smiled. "Much better, Tracy," she said. "At ease, ladies."

The three women lowered their weapons and relaxed.

"Want me to bring the car in, boss?" asked a plump brown-haired woman.

"Sure." She handed her the keys. "Thanks, Rhonda."

As Woodward walked through the cavernous warehouse, she surveyed her people. The term 'her people' seemed to be a bit incongruous for this bunch of street kids, ex-housewives, and oddballs rejected from society. But to Dr. Jillian Woodward, late of Patricia Inc.'s Research and Development Branch, they were the next best thing to a family unit.

Right now most of them were biding their time, seeking to improve themselves as they waited for the next opportunity to use the skills they were developing.

Jeannie and Kristi were tinkering under the hood of the black sedan they used for most of their drive-by hits. Cherry, Roberta and Geraldine were in the area dubbed the Exercise Yard -- a few mats and some homemade gear -- working out; Geraldine lifted weights while the other two sparred in a loose martial-arts kata. Janie and Janice -- her two loose cannons -- were at the makeshift workbenches, maintaining the group's weapons. Still others sat around a large-screen television set, watching with interest a video on combat techniques of the SEALS; Jill noted that Rosa and Dusti were taking notes. The rest were in the corner of the warehouse used for living quarters -- such as they were -- and the kitchen.

She knew each and every one of them by name. She knew why they were here, and most of their stories of how they came to know her. Many of them laughed when people called them terrorists -- they were far from that -- but they were the best she had.

And she cared about them.

As she acknowledged waves, nods, and assorted greetings, she spotted Tracy standing off at the side, looking depressed. Approaching from behind, she surprised her for a moment with a comforting arm around her shoulders.

"I'm sorry, Jill," the blond-haired girl immediately apologized, staring at the floor. "I haven't learned a thing."

"Yes, you have!" encouraged the black woman. "You've learned where you shouldn't be. That's what these situations are for, to expose our weak spots now, rather than in the field where lives might be lost. You're learning ... just keep at it." Tracy smiled and they hugged. Changing tactics, she clapped the younger girl on the back. "I'm going to call a meeting. Let's get everybody over by the tv."

"Okay, Jill," she said, electrified.

While Tracy rounded up the others, Woodward headed straight for the television. "Iris, kill the tape," she instructed a demure redhead holding the remote control. They exchanged a smile, and the black woman stood in front of the large screen, and waited as the others gathered around.

Looking at the faces of these, 'her people,' she felt a strong sense of pride and humility. When most of them were assembled, she raised her arms with fists high, and they quieted.

"LADIES!" she yelled to get their attention. "I have just left a meeting with my inside contact, and I am happy to say that Miz Penelope Savage is starting to feel our heat!"

The crowd erupted in cheers and applause. Jill waited a moment, then held up a hand for silence.

"If things go on the way they are, in six months Patricia Inc. will be EXTINCT!"

More cheers. Woodward waited several seconds before calling for quiet. They deserved this moment of hope, she thought.

She paused a few moments, commanding their attention, before continuing. "There's something else afoot," she said ominously. "My contact has informed me that Miz Penelope has been taking an interest in Central America. Why, we don't know. But if she does, I want us to be ready." Having tweaked their imaginations, she paused, slowly panning the crowd. "Don't ask me for details, 'cause I don't have any ... yet. But assuming that she is planning on going to Central America sometimes soon, she may put herself into a position away from her security staff, where we can ... seize her."

She got down to planning. "If she goes, she'll be taking her precious Osprey." Moving back and forth before the television, she picked out a few faces from the crowd. "Alana, Bonnie, Emma, Rachel. What can we get our hands on in the way of aircraft?"

A tall, amazon-like brunette stood. "Right now, nothing. And before we consider flying into Central America, we're gonna need to know more about what kinda terrain's ahead. That tilt-rotor Osprey of hers'll go just about anywhere and land on a dime. So I say we focus on gettin' us a few helicopters with a high flight ceiling and a decent range, rather than fixed-wing aircraft." She sat on the arm of the couch.

"Thanks, Bonnie," replied Woodward, nodding. "Alana?"

Another woman stepped forward. Underneath a mop of brown hair and a distinct nose, she bore a striking resemblance to a younger Ringo Starr, and the large sunglasses only emphasized her features. "Bonnie's got the right idea. I can get us couple of Hueys. No weapons, but we can improvise if we need to."

Another woman spoke up. "I've got an uncle in the Florida Keys that refurbishes twin-rotor helicopters. I can give him a call and see what he's got."

"Good," answered Woodward.

A couple more offered their contributions, in the form of fuel and landing areas for refueling, including one inside of Central America. Woodward was pleased at the contributions.

"Excellent. Okay, let's take inventory. How are the weapons -- Janice, Janie, Phyllis?"

The fatigue-dressed Janice stepped forward, and listed firearms from automatic weapons to handguns. She tag-teamed Janie with a low-five, and she listed explosives and related munitions, including ammunition. The silver-haired Phyllis listed off the rest of the weapons -- from tranquilizer guns to clubs and knives.

Woodward nodded. "Until I hear from my source, we'll assume things will be going down soon. Any questions?"

Someone raised a hand. "Do you want to abort tonight's mission?" "No. Keep the pressure on. But don't waste what we have. Any more questions?" Silence. "Very good. Dismissed."

Renewed in spirit, the crowd disbursed. Woodward got Bonnie Clayton's attention, and they met a few minutes later in an office Jill was using. As the black woman flopped into a chair behind the desk, Clayton looked at her with a concerned expression.

"How're you doin', Jill?" she asked.

She met the brunette's eyes, and gave her a half smile. "Good. This is encouraging."

Clayton sat in another chair. "So what's up?"

"I've been wondering what's in Central America that's got her attention. Worse case scenario: drugs. And drugs usually mean troops, somebody to protect 'em." She looked the other woman in the face. "How would they stand up against us -- honest opinion?"

Clayton had done some mercenary work, so she understood exactly what Woodward was asking. "They're okay in a low-key, covert situation. But out in the open against the type of troops that ..." She shook her head.

"Agreed," Woodward sighed. So if there's the possibility of fighting actual troops, we'll need something to even the odds. Any ideas?"

She slowly nodded. "I can think of a couple. Let me see what I can come up with, and I'll get back to you. How soon do you need it?"

"The sooner the better. At least by the time I talk to my contact again."

"Okay. I'll see what I can come up with by tomorrow evening."

"Good. Thanks."


Daniel Franklin strolled into his quarters in the house on Caroline Island. He put his jacket into the closet and picked up the remote for his stereo. Settling into a recliner chair, he punched the play button on the remote and picked up a notebook from the side table. As he adjusted the volume on the Rembrandt Brown CD, he reviewed his notes on Pat's endeavor.

ITEM: during Pat's trips away from the island, he had entered her room and checked out changes in her wardrobe. There were several outfits missing, all which were ideal for camping. (jungle?)

ITEM: Pat's own handgun, a heavy Frontier Single Action six-shooter she'd kept in immaculate condition, was missing from her room. Another box, containing a holster, cleaning tools, and ammunition, was also gone from its place.

ITEM: he had discovered various books in her room, on Central America, and an ancient treatise on Mayan culture written by a Professor William Harper Littlejohn.

ITEM: additional drums of fuel were being delivered to the Osprey's hangar, along with refueling equipment. The only way she'd need that would be if she'd be some distance from the last gas station.

ITEM: weapons and ammunition, including explosives, had been transported to the hangar, along with other gear. (battle? combat?)

ITEM: in the hangar, behind closed doors, Pat met with Ron Balboa and Hal Mason, two of her guards. After the meeting, he tried to find out what was discussed, and they were both very tight-lipped and politely told him it was "top secret". (FYI -- Balboa and Mason, according to their personnel files, had been recruited from the U.S. Special Forces. They were very good soldiers.)

Over the next few days he observed them requisitioning additional clothing and personal supplies, and duffle bags to carry them in.

ITEM: also in the hangar, behind closed doors, Pat met with her pilots, John Sykes and Emma Hall. He tried questioning them as he had the two guards, with the same response. Pat had them all sworn to secrecy, and he knew she was able to back it up.

Franklin looked up from the notes and laughed.

His mind flashed back to that night all those months ago, in her bedroom. She had been drinking a little too much that night, and her tongue ... among other things ... was loose. She was blabbering about her past, and someplace in Central America. A wonderful place where Mayans still lived, and gold flowed like water. It was an interesting dream, but he didn't really take it seriously until after Apex started coming into the picture.

They were damaging Pat's company, but their petty attempts weren't making a dent. He suspected that Jill had a hand in it, and so he worked his way back into her life, her good graces ... and her arms. Playing the naive little lover, he was able to give Jill inside information into key facilities.

Pat was feeling the heat now. And she was hungry for money. So he reminded her of this mysterious place in Central America, hoping she would take it from there.

And it worked. She had taken the bait. And he could see the proof that she was walking into the trap.

He got up and sat down before his personal computer. While it booted up, he touched a lever and opened a panel in the side of the desk, revealing additional electronics. He pressed a couple of buttons, waited, then beamed a wide grin.

"I got you, babe," he cooed.

He remembered last year's hijacking of the Osprey, and the steps he had taken to plant a special GPS tracking device within the aircraft's body. His intent was to prevent another such incident by allowing him to follow and locate the Osprey wherever it went, to be able to report such information to the authorities and merit his mistress' appreciation. But that little independent move was now going to change history.

He checked the display and smiled. Soon it'll all be mine, he thought.

The moon was high over the island when Franklin came to Pat's room.

He wasn't really surprised at the two half-filled duffle bags. Pat, dressed casually in tee-shirt and shorts, came out of the closet with a couple of items. She smiled at him as she added them to one of the bags.

"Hi, Danny," she said.

"Looks like you're running away from home," he quipped, taking on a naive tone. "This is more than an overnighter, isn't it? I wish you'd let me come along. I'm worried."

She picked up an envelope from her desk and walked over to him. "Don't be worried; I'll be fine. I'll keep in touch, and hope to be back within a couple of weeks. And I need you here, Danny. It's important. In this envelope are specific instructions for you." The concerned look on her face seemed out of place to Franklin, as he took the thin envelope. "I really need your help on this."

He feigned indignity. "On what? You didn't think I'd notice all the activity around the Osprey's hangar. With all this secrecy, you'd think you were planning to invade Kuwait! That's not like you ... at least, not with me."

She gave him a motherly look and said, "I know, and I'm sorry. But this is big ... really big, on a need-to-know basis. But I can tell you that, if everything goes off without a hitch, we'll be financially secure beyond our wildest dreams." She changed the subject. "Now here's where I need you. You won't be able to contact me, but I'll contact you. This envelope contains the radio frequency I'll call you on, once a day at noon. There's also another envelope in here with specific instructions for you. Follow them precisely to the letter -- this is imperative to my plans."

He turned the envelope over as if the outside held some key to the mystery. Then he looked at her and nodded. "Okay, Pat. I'll take care of it. You're leaving in the morning?"

She nodded, and closed the distance between their bodies. "So tonight is for us," she said softly, wrapping her arms around his neck and kissing him passionately.

The sun was barely above the horizon as the Osprey lifted gracefully into the morning Mediterranean sky.

Wearing a silken bathrobe, Franklin stood on the balcony and waved dutifully as it disappeared into the distance. After a few moments, he smiled and casually strolled back into the house, making his way back to his quarters.

Not bothering to lock his door this time, he went straight to his personal computer, tapped a key and entered his password to bypass the screen saver.

Cracking his knuckles like a piano maestro, he sat down and got to work. The program on the screen showed several active windows. The largest was a map of the world, with a blinking icon moving slowly in one section. He boxed in the icon with his mouse, and keyed in a few instructions. Another window appeared, giving a detailed readout on the icon -- latitude and longitude, altitude, direction and speed, elapsed time and distance from point of origin, and estimated fuel expenditure. The figures recalculated every few seconds.

Franklin smiled wickedly and whispered, "Gotcha."

He watched the display for a few minutes to make sure everything was functioning properly, then retrieved his cell phone and tapped in a sequence of satellite-relayed numbers.

A few moments later, Jill Woodward's voice answered, "Operator Seven."

"This is the Game Warden, ma'am," he replied, using an official-sounding bass voice. "The eagle has left the nest."

"Thank you." A click ended the call.

Franklin put the phone down and picked up the envelope. "Okay, let's see what she wants me to do."

Bonnie Clayton hurried to her boss' side in response to her abrupt summons. "Yeah, Jill! What's up?"

"She's airborne!" the black woman announced with a grin. "Pass the word: we break camp in one hour."



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