Ashley lay prone beneath the black arrowhead of her hang glider’s sail.
Seen from a distance the sail blended into the black of the clear but moonless night sky overhead. So did the clothes she was wearing—jumpsuit, rubber-soled boots, gloves, the helmet on her head—the pack on her back, and the duffle containing her equipment, fastened to the glider’s frame.
Save for the control bar, there was absolutely nothing below Ashley for the fifteen hundred feet down to the shimmering black water of the Hudson River. She was exposed to the world, feeling the wind in her face and through the fabric of her jumpsuit as she rode the air currents, while the sail above her responded to her movements like an extension of her body—like wings growing out of her back.
She felt incredibly free, flying like this, even though she was on the job, and an exceptionally demanding job at that. She had to set this glider down on the roof of a building in Midtown Manhattan, a task which seemed like finding a single tree in a forest, and had her flying a minutely planned course, with the aid of a navigation system projecting her airspeed, coordinates and distance to the next waypoint onto the inside of her helmet’s visor, data she had to continually track and check against her surroundings to make sure everything was working as it should be.
Despite all of the planning and the technology, a great deal could still go wrong—just as a great deal had already gone wrong to put her up here, starting with the phone call she received two weeks earlier. The caller didn’t identify himself, but dropped all the right names to get her attention, and pointedly told her to come to the Winchester Hotel. “Not the front door, the service entrance,” he told her, where she found waiting for her a crew-cut, granite-faced, sunglasses-wearing upmarket bodyguard type who escorted her up to the caller’s suite. There, a similarly spectacled blond woman with much the same demeanor searched her for a weapon before admitting her into the room where the man all these people served sat with his face shadowed.
The man told her how he came to hear about her, in the process presenting a disconcertingly full picture of her activities during the past four years, and reminded her of what someone, such as a state prosecutor, might do with that information. Then he came to what he really wanted from her: the recovery of a disc from the office vault of one Harold Northrop.
Ashley knew the name, of course. Harold Northrop, Chief Executive Officer of Thorn Credit and Commerce, was one of the richest men in the country, and not at all shy of the publicity that went with that status.
He seemed to be everywhere. Grinning from the cover of his book on leadership, Take Command! On his reality show dressing down washed-up celebrities desperately clinging to the last seconds of their fifteen minutes of fame, and hopefuls clinging with equal desperation to what they hoped would be the first seconds of theirs. On the news channels, being entreated by fawning anchormen and anchorwomen for a comment about anything and everything from an election in Greece to the real estate market in Shanghai to the budget of NASA, with even his most banal pronouncement invariably repeated and repeated and repeated as if it were oracular, just because it came from him.
Once upon a time, Ashley would have been impressed. But she’d spent too much time near people like him, listening to their wants, taking their commissions, slipping into their homes and offices and seeing what they were really like, to be impressed by the carefully cultivated and thunderously promoted public personas. To her, Harold Northrop was just another mark, and she said so.
“Good, very good,” the man with the shadowed face said, and made clear that her compensation would be exceptionally generous—though he would also need the job done in short order. That left her less sure that taking the job was a good idea, but he also made it clear that he could provide much of the intelligence the break-in required, speeding things along. Still, even with that help it seemed to Ashley and Logan that they didn’t have the time to plan around more routine methods, not with the gauntlet of locked doors and guards and cameras to be negotiated on the way up to Northrop’s ninetieth floor office from the street. The alternative was a more direct approach to that office, from the virtually unguarded roof above it—
The icon that indicated that she was coming up on the final waypoint flashed on her visor. She looked at the island again, searched for the landmarks by which she would orient herself. There was the bizarre glass shard of the Vandermeer Tower, and to its right the ninety story tall Thorn headquarters building, identifiable less by any distinctiveness of the architect’s design than the giant neon letters mounted along the uppermost floor, which she recognized by their collective shape.
Ashley leaned her whole body rightward in her harness, the shift of her weight pulling the glider in that direction after her. She maintained that shift until she had the glider pointed straight at the headquarters of Thorn C & C, then centered herself beneath the glider’s keel again to keep herself on course to that building. The water receded behind her, while the cityscape spread out below her like a picture she saw of a microchip once, the illuminated streets below like circuits on its surface, aglow with blazing energy as electricity raced through them.
Ashley spared just a moment for that view before returning her attention to the object at the end of her flight path, and again reassured herself that she was on the right course when she was close enough to actually read the letters. Once she did that she turned from the letters to the windows below them, looking for lights anywhere near the areas where she planned to go. None seemed to be on along the ninetieth floor, or any of the other upper floors for that matter, at least on the side of the building she could see.
She pushed the control bar forward, yanking the wire running from it to the sail’s nose, tipping it upwards. The glider slowed, and in the process descended as she drew closer to the flat, parapet-enclosed roof of Thorn C & C. An empty roof, on which she could now make out the recently installed helipad. Aiming for it she pushed the bar forward yet again, raised the sail’s nose again, slowed again, descended again toward the roof. Kept the pressure on the bar until she pulled the sail into a nearly vertical position and herself with it, the building right beneath her . . .
And her feet touched the heli-pad. She took a step, and then another, and then another until she no longer felt herself being pushed forward. Now standing, she finally released herself from the harness, set down the glider, turned off the computer, flipped up her visor and took off her helmet, letting her hair tumble out from beneath it to blow in the breeze.
The glider would be visible in the open, but there were few buildings tall enough and near enough for anyone in them to see it, while the aircraft’s small size and coloring would help to conceal it from anyone who did happen to be looking. And as the roof was not part of the guards’ ordinary rounds she could hope that it would go unnoticed during her brief time inside the building.
Ashley turned to minimizing that next, setting the helmet down next to her aircraft, then unfastening her duffle bag from the glider’s frame and extracting a pair of night-vision goggles from it. She strapped the goggles around her head and slid them up to rest on her forehead, then slung the bag over her shoulder, and walked to the concrete emplacement containing the steel access door leading down into the fire escape.
Ashley checked the door’s knob and found it locked, which prompted her to turn to her duffle again and pull out from it a lock-pick gun and a tension wrench. She applied the trench to the lock’s plug, then slipped the gun’s needle into the lock and turned the device as the needle vibrated. Fifteen seconds later she heard a click, then adjusting her grasp of the tools she was using, carefully turned the knob with the hand holding the tension wrench and pulled the door toward herself. It responded to her exertion, moving out of its jamb. No longer needing them, she returned her pick-gun to the duffle, and then opened the door fully to reveal the bare concrete steps heading down to the first landing.