The bed is so comfortable that Elizabeth Sterling sleeps through her alarm, high above the Pacific, reveling in the comforts of the most luxurious airliner ever built. It’s the flagship of the newly revived Pan Am, the most audacious experiment in aviation history. The airline’s backers believe they can redefine commercial air travel by providing luxury at forty thousand feet—and they need Sterling to get them off the ground.
A Wall Street titan with a love of flying, Sterling is up to the challenge. But when the venture comes under attack by its lenders, competitors, and a shadowy cabal of international terrorists, she needs more than a new business strategy. With help from chief pilot Brian Murphy and investigator Creighton MacRae, Sterling masterminds a risky plan to defeat the sinister forces that are sabotaging her new airline and threatening her life.
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By John J. Nance
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1994 John J. Nance
All rights reserved.
Friday, February 17
La Guardia Airport, New York
The ground dropped away beneath Elizabeth Sterling with stomach-churning suddenness as the helicopter leapt off the western end of the overcrowded airport like a startled cat, clawing for altitude over the Grand Central Parkway as it headed toward the south end of Manhattan Island. The leaden sky above was an Impressionist painting of impending snow set off by wild swirls of alto-stratus clouds, nature's brushstrokes of winter on the gray canvas of a high overcast, framed by leaf-whipping winds.
"Good grief!" The words were half-muttered as her senses rebelled at the acrophobic recognition that only the raw power of the Jet Ranger's turbine engine was holding them aloft. Elizabeth was a low-time, fixed-wing private pilot, and to her the lack of forward airspeed was unsettling.
Eric Knox was grinning at her behind the microphone boom of his headset, fully aware she had a death grip on the arm rests. One of the senior partners of Elizabeth's investment banking firm and worth many tens of millions now, Eric could afford to commute by helicopter. Forty-two and single, he owned a mansion on eastern Long Island equipped with its own airfield, and spent his spare time indulging a grand passion for flight. With the retirement of his father, he was now the Knox in the highly respected investment banking firm of Silverman, Knox, and Bryson.
"Wait'll you see what's ahead, Elizabeth! Only the worst weather days can force me to take the train. I love coming to work in Cinemascope and Surround Sound!"
They reached five hundred feet and began moving forward faster toward the East River as Eric gently banked the Ranger twenty degrees left toward the heliport by the South Ferry dock near their office building.
Elizabeth's eyes scanned the magnificent cityscape ahead, her apprehension draining away as the chopper accelerated and began to behave like a traditional air machine — as if someone had finally equipped it with some visible means of support, such as wings.
How could twelve years have passed so fast? She had been utterly thrilled to move to New York. The day she first drove into the city, even from the cluttered perspective of the Triboro Bridge, she'd luxuriated in the intimidating visage of Manhattan's skyline, drinking it in with the wide-eyed excitement of a cat in an aviary. The years in Harvard Business School had been nothing short of brutal, especially for a widowed mother going through the lonely trials of raising a baby daughter alone. She had fallen in love with a fellow MBA candidate — an ex–Air Force pilot named Brian Murphy — whom Kelly had begun to regard as her father. But Brian had had six months to go to his degree and couldn't accompany them to the big city as Elizabeth began her new job.
Nevertheless, New York had taken her in and hugged her those first few weeks. First she had had the amazing good fortune of finding an affordable flat in Greenwich Village, a flat, she reminded herself, owned by Hilda Biggersford, a somewhat lonely, retired schoolteacher. Mrs. Biggersford began helping with baby-sitting chores in the first few months. She grew protective of Kelly and Elizabeth over the following year, and disapproved sternly when an unmarried male named Brian moved in with mother and daughter just before Christmas.
Slowly, with Elizabeth and Brian both working, Mrs. Biggersford became four-year-old Kelly's nanny. When Brian left them to fly for a start-up airline in Phoenix four years later, Kelly had turned to Mrs. Biggersford in her inconsolable grief of losing the only father she had ever known.
The memory caused her smile to fade, but Eric hadn't noticed. In the distance, Elizabeth could see the buildings near Washington Square where Mrs. Biggersford had been run down by a delivery truck on Kelly's eleventh birthday. The elderly woman had lingered for weeks in pain, and Kelly's tearful vigil had shocked Elizabeth to the depths of her being. She'd had no idea how strong the bond had become between Kelly and Mrs. Biggersford in recent years. As the kindhearted woman lingered at death's door, there was nothing to be said about Kelly's grief, or about the sinking reality that Elizabeth had all but lost her daughter to the endless nights and weekends on the job.
After the funeral, Elizabeth had changed her lifestyle completely, arranging to stay home each morning until Kelly had been picked up by her car pool, and making sure a newly hired housekeeper was there when Kelly came home each day, to bridge the ninety-minute gap until her mother, the successful investment banker, returned from Wall Street. Elizabeth learned to work late at night from home, using computers and fax machines after Kelly had gone to bed. She was there at each basketball game and school play, aggressively making time for the two of them as she fought back the tears at Kelly's continuing rejection. For nearly two years an angry and rebellious Kelly withheld a significant part of her love as she continued to punish her mother, not quite able to trust the change in her. But, gradually, Elizabeth's love and determination to make up for lost time won Kelly over. By the time she entered junior high school at the age of thirteen, a precocious and rapidly blooming Kelly discovered that she had a smart and successful mother who loved her deeply. With that realization, the defensiveness dissolved at last.
The helicopter turned south now, the bustling urban squalor of Little Italy and Delancey Street visible to the right.
Elizabeth's own metamorphosis into a blasé New Yorker had come all too fast. Within a few years she had more or less crusted over with a veneer of suspended appreciation for Manhattan — a façade that sophisticated New Yorkers seem to adopt as they use the city without admitting to loving it.
During the last few years, the selfishness and pointlessness of her job had begun to gnaw away at the linings of her conscience. Every new stock issue, debt exchange, or junk-bond package was publicly hailed as a benefit for the corporations involved, but she knew better — and lying to herself had never worked. What she did for a living, she had finally admitted to herself, was similar to a financial shell game: she thought up ways to magically change the ownership of hard-earned corporate profits. With that recognition, a hard edge of cynicism had begun to overtake her.
But then the Pan Am project had come along, fraught with the opportunity to create new employment and new, productive wealth. She had believed in it and fought for it and ultimately succeeded brilliantly. But afterward, everything had snapped back to the same pointless routine.
Kelly had noticed her growing distress, but her associates had not.
I'm scared to leave, she admitted to herself, and I'm scared to stay.
The helicopter ballooned suddenly on a gust of wind, the blades slapping the air for a few seconds with a different sound. Eric grinned again and steadied his ship, watching Elizabeth's wide-eyed reaction in his peripheral vision.
"Why would you leave this behind, Elizabeth?" Eric's voice cut through the noise again, paring her thoughts with spooky timing as the sweep of his left hand took in most of Manhattan. "Seattle's pretty, but it's a backwater. Hell, it's under water most of the time, with the rain. This is your home, and we're your professional family. Support Pan Am, for chrissakes, but don't marry the bastards."
"I haven't decided yet."
"Well, decide now. Decide no," he countered.
"I'm thinking about it."
As deftly as he had handled the departure, Eric slowed and maneuvered the Jet Ranger with precision, kissing skids to concrete in a perfect touchdown despite a troublesome crosswind, and appreciating the fact that Elizabeth had been impressed.
The short walk to Old Slip Street and their building was taken at double time. Elizabeth smiled at the receptionist as she breezed through the double glass doors and headed for her office with Eric in hot pursuit. She stood before the floor-length window by her desk, her eyes scanning the same cityscape from a slightly safer aerial perspective, her thoughts suddenly far away as Eric sat on the couch and studied her, wondering for the thousandth time what her body was like beneath those elegant clothes.
Eric Knox had toyed for years with the fantasy of linking his life outside the office with Elizabeth. There were times he even ached for her, but she had always kept him at a distance — which he had never really minded, since there was always tomorrow.
But now she might be leaving, and in the throes of wondering what he should do, he had made an amazing discovery: he liked being single.
Eric watched her carefully as she stood with her back to him, her amber-blond hair cascading gently over her sculpted shoulders, the broad angles of her face turned from him but etched in his mind. In heels, she was almost as tall as he was, and he liked that fact. Her nose was perfect, diminutive and slightly upturned, in symphonic balance with her broad mouth, set off by laugh lines. She had to work to look stern or unhappy; the edges of her mouth did not naturally turn down, they had to be forced, and sometimes the effect was more comical than threatening.
But as Eric had discovered with secret pride years before — after hiring Elizabeth Sterling as much for her looks as for her professional qualifications — any male that mistook her gentle female image for weakness rapidly slammed into a brick wall of confidence and determination. Her captivating femininity cloaked a confident, capable businessperson who had all the toughness necessary to make gender irrelevant.
"Um-hmm." She was still looking out the window, still deep in thought, her right hand absently tugging at a gold loop earring.
"If you'll stay, we'll change the masthead for you."
She turned, surprised. Eric's father had been adamant that the firm name always stay the same, regardless of how many partners they had.
"Silverman, Knox, Bryson, and Sterling?" Her voice was tinged with incredulity. "Your dad would kill you!"
"I'll even change it to Sterling, Silverman, Knox, if you'll stay."
Elizabeth searched his eyes and smiled slowly. "Sure you will, Eric."
"This new Pan Am could fail miserably, you know."
"I'll have a golden parachute."
"But you won't have us."
"I know," she said, softly. That part would be hard.
The day was brutal, with all the problems and phone calls held at bay during Elizabeth's quick trip to Tokyo now crashing through the dam of secretaries to overwhelm her. Nevertheless, she managed a constant barrage of outbound calls as well, calls about Pan Am to friends and contacts from Manhattan to London, as she absorbed the responses with equal speed.
"Be careful, Elizabeth. They're a bright hope, but they've got a ways to go to full viability."
"Take it, babe! Check the parachute first, but take it and run. You can always write your ticket back on the Street if they crash."
"Elizabeth, they're making some bold moves, and if you're a name in the annual report when they really succeed, well, you'll hang your star."
And one odd response from the most negative curmudgeon she had ever known, Stanley Mossler of Salomon Brothers. She had expected Stanley to tell her to forget it. He advised her instead to take it, but with a strange caution:
"Elizabeth, they're upsetting some very powerful people. Be careful."
At 4:45 P.M. she put down the phone, closed her briefcase, and headed for the ladies' room, anxious to get back to her apartment. Kelly would already be home from school.
She was in the process of touching up her lipstick when the soft voice of Linda Wright wafted out of one of the stalls behind her as Linda herself appeared in the mirror, straightening her skirt.
"You've never looked better, Mizz Sterling!"
Elizabeth turned to face her, reminded suddenly of the mousy woman in oversized glasses she had "discovered" years before in a sales position, a female who knew more about the sale and feeding of junk bonds in the post-Milken period than anyone else on the Street. With Elizabeth as her mentor, she had flowered. A statuesque redhead who had finally learned to wear feminine clothes and makeup, she was now bond manager.
"When I heard you might be leaving," Linda continued, "I realized I'd never told you how much I've always admired the way you balance things. You know, businesslike and ladylike too."
"Lady like?" Elizabeth tried to look incredulous.
"Well-l-l ... I mean ... oh hell, sexy, okay? Sexy but in charge and no nonsense."
Elizabeth looked down and shook her head, trying to keep from laughing. "Thanks, Linda ... I think!" She looked at her watch with obvious intent, and inclined her head toward the door. "Linda, I've got to run."
"No problem. I'll walk with you. I take the same train."
They headed for the elevators and the street, with Elizabeth trying to guide the conversation to more comfortable territory. She had never felt secure with overt compliments. She had been raised to pity vain people. She refused to be vain.
Elizabeth set a brisk pace as they left the building and walked toward the subway. Linda, refusing to be sidetracked, launched in again, recalling their first meeting and how it had shocked her to find a woman so effortlessly penetrating the firm's male exclusiveness.
"You didn't hide yourself the way I did, Elizabeth. You remember? I used to wear tweed suits and glasses and pull my hair back, scared they'd figure out I was female — until you came."
"You were always attractive, Linda." Elizabeth had to jump sideways to avoid an onrushing formation of dark-suited men charging in the opposite direction toward some urgent purpose, briefcases flapping in the breeze. Linda followed in tight formation.
"Yeah. Now I look okay. Before, whenever I'd dress like a woman I'd get plenty of dates and no sales. When I wore pants, I'd spend my evenings alone, but I could sell bonds, boy.
"I remember going to dinner with a client once in this little cocktail dress with my hair down. I'd decided to wear girl clothes for a change," Linda continued. "When I showed up, this guy was stunned. He hadn't seen a woman at the office, he'd seen a suit with a high voice, so suddenly it wasn't a business meeting, it was a date. I spent the evening studying his prospectus while he spent it talking to my chest. It was a disaster."
They found the stairway together to the Rector Street station and descended, the dank smell of stale air carrying the faint stench of urine as the rolling thunder of a passing train rumbled up the filthy concrete steps from the bowels of the station.
"Anyway, after that experience, I went back to business suits. It took another year and your arrival to convince me to look like a female again on the job. I'll miss you, Elizabeth."
"I haven't left yet. I haven't decided."
The doors of the uptown A train opened. The two of them stepped aboard automatically, amid the motley collection of rush-hour commuters and other passengers. There were no empty seats and no chivalrous males aboard the subway car, so they both grabbed handholds and braced themselves as the train lurched forward.
"So what does your number-one daughter think of this prospective job change?" Linda asked, several stops later.
Elizabeth smiled and sighed, gesturing toward her street, two stops away, and hoping Kelly had remembered to give their housekeeper the packet of instructions Elizabeth had prepared.
"I'm taking Kelly to our Cape Cod place in the morning. The beaches are unbelievably beautiful this time of year, and sometimes we get snow covering the dunes. We're going to pig out on crab at the Lobster Pot in Provincetown, walk the beach, and hopefully make a decision."
"Sounds idyllic!" Linda said.
"Going up there was her choice. She was very definite that I couldn't decide this without sand between my toes, even if it is the middle of winter."
Saturday, February 18, evening
Saturday blew in on a freezing east wind accompanied by a full moon hung in a frosty indigo sky. Provincetown, no longer awash with the tide of tourists that normally ebbed and flowed through the narrow streets in the summer, had an intimate atmosphere, even in the cold. Elizabeth was glad she'd succumbed to Kelly's wishes, though the beaches adopted a strange and ethereal character in the pristine frostiness of a maritime winter.
It was eleven by the time Elizabeth and Kelly returned to the cottage from their evening of seafood. Kelly had already decided what her mother should do, and with a seriousness beyond her years she had sat Elizabeth down at the small kitchen table and paced like a worried adult as she restated the obvious in order to announce her conclusion.
"Mom, as long as we keep this place, moving is the right thing to do."
Excerpted from Phoenix Rising by John J. Nance. Copyright © 1994 John J. Nance. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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