The corporate tower jutted through the evening gloom like a bayonet.
A ring of floodlights circling its base illuminated the tower against the brilliant night sky. Although the tower’s architectural style reflected the latest in minimalist design, the height of the scraper was anything but minimal. It loomed a thousand feet skyward, and boasted sixty-seven floors concealed behind mirrored-glass walls. Even the vast campus over which the tower dominated belied its size. It, too, mocked the minimalist façade: ten lush acres of well-manicured grounds and sleek parking decks. A small outcropping of buildings dotted the perimeter, their function serving a utilitarian nature. All of this was surrounded by what the tempered brass euphemistically referred to as a “high-energy deterrent fence.” A granite plaque planted in the landscape like a tombstone carried the building’s name: TRINISYS.
Inside, just above the stairwell on the sixty-sixth floor, Stephen Miller hung like a trapped animal, his arms trembling to support his one hundred and ninety-plus pounds of body weight. Sweat beaded in large globules, trickled down his brow and rolled down his neck, slipping under the black windbreaker zipped to his elaborately camouflaged chin. His middle-aged face grimaced as the realization dawned: he wasn’t in shape for this amount of physical exertion.
In his teeth was clenched a metallic disk case.
He sucked in a breath through his teeth. His eyes were wide and fear-laden as he watched the uniform guards jog down the stairs below him. They each carried their short, black, tactical machine guns at the ready.
The leader of the guards was Ty Falero, a semi-professional MMA fighter whose black and well-toned body strained the tight fabric of her fatigues. She had the face of an Egyptian queen, dominated by a strong yet sexy, well-defined chin. She stopped just below Miller’s hanging body...
“Half of you go that way,” Falero ordered, pointing to a door by the stairwell. “The others come with me.”
The guards split up, three disappearing through the door by the stairwell. The remainder followed their female leader, heading down.
With the coast seemingly clear, Miller dropped to his feet and immediately fell into a crouch by the closed door, listening intently for movement. When no sound came, he released a sigh, expelled a long-held breath. Slowly he unzipped his windbreaker and slid the silver case inside. Looking up, he saw the large red arrow painted on the wall above him with the word ROOF stenciled upon it. He closed his eyes as a wave of euphoria swept over him. He was almost home free. He rose unsteadily to his feet and then made his way up the stairs.
✥ ✥ ✥
Stephen Douglas Miller was a programmer.
He had worked at TriniSys for fifteen years, joining the company in its humble beginnings when it was nothing more than an online content-provider trying to survive the burst of the internet bubble in the late 1990’s. Through a series of well-timed mergers, along with the help of anonymous angel investors, the company managed to stay afloat, turning its attention to the newly emerging world of Virtual Reality. Today, their continued existence relied solely on the success of a new, cutting-edge headgear, a highly sophisticated piece of hardware that plugged the user directly into the V-R experience.
And what name did the marketing geniuses high aloft in their ivory-towers choose to bestow upon this new product and its corresponding, mind-bending software?
It was only by accident that Miller discovered what the company – with its headgear and nefarious software – was actually up to, and it didn’t take him long to realize that exposing TriniSys in the public eye could be the answer to all his problems.
Miller was recently divorced, and the one thing he wanted, almost as much as life itself, was to get his beloved Marian to come back home, back to him.
Although months in the planning, his plan to expose TriniSys was actually very simple.
First, he would hide in the building until everyone had left for the day. The TriniSys tower had lots of places to hide, with only a handful of guards assigned to each floor, and in short order Miller had discovered which hiding places were the best and most reliable.
Second, he would sneak into the data center, log into the main frame using stolen credentials (developers were notorious for leaving their access codes on business cards hidden beneath their keyboards) and from there he would copy the incriminating details of the company’s plans onto a disk.
Third and lastly, he would make his way to the roof, don a parachute pack he had carefully hidden there just the day before, and leap off the building unseen into the empty space of night. As he frequently reflected on his plan in the coming months, he would smile gleefully at the thought of him floating quietly to safety like a phantom in the night: gliding unseen over the heads of patrolling security guards and their unsuspecting, snarling, drooling Dobermans. Over the barbed-wired rim of the highly-charged electrified fence that surrounded the campus. Over everything.
Once clear of the fence and safely on the ground, all he then needed to do was make his way to the Night Rod Harley hidden in the bushes; bushes that lay just off the small service road running parallel to the fence that surrounded the complex.
For the twelve weeks leading up to his moment of glory, he had been base-jumping in secret, working with a small group of young thrill-seekers he had met online, youngsters impressed by the older man’s willingness - no - eagerness, to face danger.
Upon frequent self-appraisal, Miller’s new persona pleased him. Base-jumper, Harley-owner, renegade, spy. These were traits, traits of a man of courage and daring, to which his ex-wife was certain to be drawn. The man she once knew no longer existed.
The computer geek.
The couch potato.
That man didn’t exist any longer.
That man was dead.
Now, he was cool.
To show how much he had changed, how cool he’d become, he’d even gotten his ear pierced over the weekend at a tattoo parlor across from the Harley dealership. He was even seriously considering a tattoo painted across his chest. A massive bald-eagle with its wings spread wide. A symbol of freedom and courage. A force to be reckoned with.
But despite the increasingly romanticized regard in which he held himself, despite losing weight and developing the courage needed to jump from the roof of a high-rise at night, Miller knew he couldn’t gamble on everything going exactly as planned. There was always the element of the unknown, the unexpected. He was too smart, too careful; his mind too well-trained not to concede this simple fact: things sometimes go awry. He knew he needed a backup plan. Relying on it might end up hurting his chances with Marian because relying on it meant getting help from the outside. Unreliable help. Help he wished he could do without. And for that reason alone, Miller was loath to consider it.
Nevertheless, he knew it was there if he needed it.
✥ ✥ ✥
Miller reached the top floor and paused by the door to the roof. He peered out the narrow, mesh-covered window. He could see nothing but darkness and in the absence of evidence to the contrary, he assumed the coast was clear. He grabbed the handle, lowered his head against his chest and released a sigh of relief: he was almost home free. He sucked in a breath, pushed the door open and started to run, but he immediately froze in panic. The thunder of helicopter blades beating the air just over his head paralyzed him in his tracks.
“Shit!” Miller gasped, as the door closed shut behind him.
He fell back against the closed door, dropped to a crouch, sinking into whatever shadows were there. Above him a circle of light scoured the surface of the building, searching for him. It was the helicopter’s search beam, and it moved in unsteady jerks back and forth across the surface of the roof. They were pulling out all the stops, using every resource, trying to find him. His heart was beating furiously and he fought like hell to keep it from pounding its way out of his chest. He tried desperately to merge with the murky darkness at his feet, thin shadows cast by the outcropping of the stairwell building with its door leading to the outside. From the door’s narrow window came a thin ray of fluorescent light, light from inside the stairwell. If that light landed on him, gave away his position...
And then the helicopter moved away, not finding anything of interest, and the disk of light slipped over the side of the building. The beating blades receded into the night as the chopper continued its search elsewhere and Miller put a hand on his knee and took a moment to catch his breath.
He looked up. The night sky was clear, brilliant, with a thousand points of light shining down through the cosmos. Now was his chance. He rose, sprinted across the gravel surface, keeping his body tucked in tight. He made a beeline straight for the corner of the roof and fell against the inside of the concrete ledge, keeping his head as low as possible. He licked his lips, swallowed. All that remained was finding the parachute he had hidden in the shadows, putting it on and…
It wasn’t there!
A flash of panic surged through him. His hands groped in the darkness, frantic to find its prey. His heart pounded a cry of defeat from deep within his hollow chest. His hands came up empty.
“No!” Miller gasped.
Sweat pouring down his face, he caught his breath and took hold of himself, trying desperately to remain calm. Keep it together! He glanced around, saw one of the metallic air vents that protruded from the roof’s surface. He crawled on all fours a few feet to reach behind one of the vents. He struggled, groped and grimaced. Finally, his hand landed on something, something with the feel of fabric, something soft and pliable. He closed his eyes and whispered a silent prayer. It was his canvas parachute pack. Miller grabbed it and rested against the ledge, hugging it to his chest, tears forming in his eyes, another sigh of relief escaping from his lips. It was almost over. He got unsteadily to his feet, slipped his trembling arms through the straps, and then tried to steady his hands as he fastened the belt tight around his torso. In a few minutes, he’d be over the fence, and this crazy adventure would be behind him. A nervous smile crossed his lips as he thought about Marian, not to mention the fame and fortune, waiting for him below.
Miller turned to the corner of the ledge, placed one foot on it, and then carefully placed the next. He stretched his arms out to his sides to help maintain his balance. From this vantage point, he could see the helicopter’s searchlight searching in vain over another part of the complex. He looked down for a split second before catching himself. The sound of his beating heart pounded in his ears. He bent his knees to jump…
A sound behind him caused him to flinch. “Going somewhere?” a man’s voice calmly asked.
Miller’s body jerked reflexively and he almost lost it. It was an older man’s voice. A familiar voice. He knew at once to whom it belonged.
Carefully, his arms still outstretched, Miller pirouetted like an out-of-shape ballerina afraid of losing her balance.
The first thing Miller’s eyes landed on was the glint of cold steel emerging waist high from the darkness. It was a semi-automatic pistol. Held in a gloved hand.
Miller took a deep breath. “If you use that,” he managed to say, indicating the pistol in the man’s hand, “they’ll know it was murder.”
The man holding the gun slowly emerged from the shadows, his face becoming illuminated by the night sky. He was tall and thin; his shoulders narrow. His face was sharp-edged, punctuated by severe pockmarks, craters in his cheeks. He wore a dark overcoat with the collar turned up, a fedora, the brim angled low across his brow. His mouth had the shape of a smile, but its effect wasn’t friendly. It was sinister, and his eyes were ice cold.
“You know something,” the man said, stopping and looking down at the gun in his hand. “You’re right.”
He looked up at Miller and casually slid the gun into the pocket of his trench coat.
A wave of relief washed over Miller as he felt the blood return to the muscles in his arms, legs and thighs, his vital organs. He straightened, feeling a sense of renewed vitality - nay, a sense of victory - taking root within him. He smiled and gave the man a friendly, two-fingered salute. “Goodbye, Detective,” Miller said and then turned to jump.
“Goodbye, Mr. Miller,” Castillanos replied, removing his hand from the trench coat’s pocket.
Miller turned toward the emptiness of space, but found himself doing a double-take and his body froze. His eyes had caught sight of something, something dangling from the Detective’s fingers and his mind was working overtime, trying desperately to register what it was. He blinked repeatedly as the realization suddenly dawned on him.
What was Castillanos twirling so nonchalantly in his gloved fingers?
It was the red metallic-handled ripcord belonging to Miller’s parachute pack.
Miller looked down at the straps; his hands went to his chest, searching in vain for the handle. All his fingers could find was the severed wire where the ripcord had been. Miller’s knees weakened and his legs wobbled. Stunned, dazed, and bewildered; he was losing his balance, falling backwards over the ledge.
His eyes, wide with fear, met with the calm, impassive eyes of Castillanos. Miller’s face turned pale as the realization hit him: he was falling over the edge of a towering skyscraper with nothing in his parachute pack but a useless nylon tarp. It might as well have been dirty laundry for all the good it would do him. He was a dead man, and he knew it. He screamed.
And in the next instant, he was gone.
✥ ✥ ✥
Castillanos expected to hear the satisfying sound of Miller’s diminishing scream as he fell to his death, a scream which would be abruptly cut off by the more satisfying sound of a body hitting the pavement. Oddly, he heard nothing. He stepped forward and bent over the railing to have a look.
Miller was hanging on to the exterior guard rail, in mid-air, a foot below the ledge, his body writhing in frenzied panic. He was struggling to maintain his hold on the rail as his hands fought for the best possible grip. His pale, ashen face was flush with fear and panic. The smug confidence he had so brazenly brandished moments before was gone.
“Please!” Miller cried up to him. “For God’s sake, help me!” Wind-streaked tears ran from the corners of his eyes and his face was frozen in a grotesque, contorted grimace. What a sight the poor man was!
Castillanos found himself smiling.
The Detective regained his composure and hefted a foot, putting it on the ledge. He bent over the edge to get a better look at Miller’s predicament. He shook his head and whistled. After a long, long, pause he said, “I’ll tell you what, Miller. I’ll make a deal with you. Give me the disk and I’ll give you a hand.”
Castillanos watched as Miller consented with a frantic nod. He let go with one hand – his body twisting in the air, writhing like a worm on a hook – and he reached inside his windbreaker. In the next instant, his hand emerged holding a metallic disk case. He hoisted it up to Castillanos, stretching upward as far as he could.
Castillanos bent down and took it, and then he bent over the railing again, this time offering his gloved hand to Miller.
Some of the fear eased from Miller’s face and he took hold of the Detective’s gloved offering, first with one hand, and then the other. A look of gratitude mixed with relief swept over his face and he released a tremendous sigh from within. He looked pleadingly up into Castillanos’ eyes. “Help me?”
“Of course,” Castillanos replied.
A look came over Miller’s face, a look that said it all: Everything was going to be okay. Everything was fine. This was all just a bad dream, a nightmare. The look of a man who had bitten off more than he could chew, a man who had challenged Death and lost, but whom Fate had mercifully granted a reprieve.
But just as quickly, the look vanished, and Miller’s eyes widened in horror. His consciousness was just now coming to grips with the reality of which Castillanos was well aware: the glove on the Detective’s hand was slipping.
Before Miller could react, the glove slipped completely free and Miller fell, his mouth parted in a half-opened surprised gasp of incredulity. On the way to his death, Steven Miller - stunned, bewildered, completely in over his head - stared up at the Detective in shocked disbelief.
And Castillanos waved bye-bye, enjoying every gleeful second of it.
✥ ✥ ✥
As Miller fell, Detective Castillanos leaned over the railing. He watched with restrained delight as Miller’s flailing body diminished in size until it became that of a small sack of potatoes, landing in a heap on the pavement a thousand feet below.
Behind him, the door to the stairwell banged open, and he turned to see Falero emerge onto the rooftop, her ample chest rising and falling heavily from over exertion. Her team of armed security men soon appeared, shuffling out of the stairwell door in single file, coughing and gagging behind her. The guards, exhausted from their rapid ascent up the stairs, leaned on their knees, the building, and each other, as they tried to refill their lungs with air. Falero sucked in a breath and arched her back while notching fingers on the belt around her curvaceous hips. She was the least spent among the others.
Castillanos was amused.
“Get him?” Falero asked.
Castillanos grinned and answered the question by making a vague gesture with his hand to the ledge of the rooftop behind him. He turned his attention to the disk case.
He opened it.
A flash of anger surged through his body, burning his ears. But then, just as quickly, it faded.
Castillanos grinned and nodded.
Falero’s dark eyes flickered with curiosity at the Detective. He merely sighed and snapped the case shut. “Have your men search the body,” he said.
He strolled past Falero as she was making her way to the ledge to have a look for herself. When he had passed her, he paused, sniffing the air. He glanced down at his uncovered hand.
“What is it?” she asked, looking down at the unrecognizable dark blotch of human remains, now surrounded by guards, and dimly illuminated by the building’s floodlights.
“Bring back my glove.”
And with that, Castillanos walked off and he knew her eyes were on him, appraising him. And the knowledge of this made him smile.