San Francisco, California Thursday evening, November 24th
Twice now on the way back from dinner Diane Lacombe had aborted the process of lighting a stale cigarette. She'd been dredging them from the depths of her purse -- her emergency stash buried just in case she had to fall off the wagon some night -- but once again she tossed the unlit cigarette into a street-corner trash can, pushing back her mane of auburn hair with an unsteady hand. Relaxing right now was an apparently useless quest, and the need to rummage for yet another cigarette was rising.
She calculated the number of blocks back to her Mission District apartment and dug in her purse for an emergency package of chewing gum instead. Too much agony with nicotine patches to blow it all now.
The Tonga Room had been fun, and all the more so since it was one of her dad's favorites, set amid the elegance of the grand old Fairmont Hotel. Some of her best childhood memories centered around lush, elegant dinners with her parents, the princess daughter scrubbed and dressed up and feminine, demonstrating impeccable manners and basking in family privilege and tradition. But this evening's visit to that world had felt like a hologram. She could see it, but she couldn't actually touch the old warmth of those moments, though nothing in the hotel had changed. Since she'd left for college, the childhood years were now only glimpsed through a murky lens, as if they belonged to someone else. It was an awful feeling she was determined to change.
A neighborhood tavern she'd frequented over the years was just ahead and she decided to duck in for their usually pathetic attempt at an espresso. She took the tiny cup to a dark corner like an addict, placing her laptop case by her feet where she could keep an eye on it.
Not for the first time she felt around in her coat pocket for the reassuring shape of the CD that she'd intended to hand to her father at dinner. Just the thought of committing that act was the source of her jangled nerves. It might as well have been a small nuclear device, she thought. It would have killed him just as surely. What had she been thinking?
Diane knew that California State Senator Ralph Lacombe had wondered through coffee and dessert why his beautiful, educated, twenty-seven-year-old daughter was so jumpy and distracted. Fit and distinguished in his late fifties with a large trademark smile, his full head of dark hair belying his age, the senior Lacombe had sat in patient, paternal puzzlement waiting, Diane supposed, for the explanation which never came. All the normal subjects they had once shared in open father-daughter communication seemed flat and forced -- the 49ers, the latest political betrayals in Sacramento, the plans for a summer Lacombe family reunion in the wake of her mother's surrender to cancer -- and nothing had reduced her jittery demeanor or ended her constant denials that anything was wrong. There she sat, elegant in a reasonably conservative, calf-length little black dress, smiling at him and lying her head off by saying none of the things that needed to be voiced. He knew his daughter was fibbing by omission, and she knew that he knew, but they played the game anyway, more like two strangers being courteous than familial confidants.
And all the while the CD had been burning a hole in her heart. The last thing she wanted was to make him a casualty of what she had to do.
How would he have reacted if she'd been foolhardy enough to hand it over? Would the most ethical man on earth fall to the level of ordinary mortal before her very eyes?
And how could he not?
How would the conversation have gone? she wondered. Oh, here, Dad, just a little hard seismic evidence that the critics were right after all about your old friend Mick Walker's Cascadia Island project, which means that not only is Mick going to be ruined, but my engineering firm may end up like Enron's accountants, and, oh, by the way, you'll probably be publicly accused of misusing your political influence on behalf of Walker for promoting his resort.
Was there any way a loving daughter or anyone else could expect Ralph Lacombe to say, "Sure, Honey, you go on and do what you have to. Blow the whistle. Destroy everything." Not even her father was that brave. Or foolish.
He would end up asking her not to pull the trigger, and she wouldn't be able to stand his plea or her denial.
No. It was going to be far easier to deal with the damage after the fact, even if that method was cowardly.
The island was always a time bomb, Dad, she thought. Pity poor old Mick didn't know it in time.
What she'd found in the seismic test data meant that Cascadia Island off the Washington coast was too dangerous an outcropping to support any human habitation or facilities, and especially not a resort hotel and convention center. There was a massive split down the middle, a hidden fault line so profoundly active that Walker's resort would end up pulled in two with any substantial earthquake. And that same data, she knew, would also be seized upon by a certain scientist in Seattle as validation of his discredited hypothesis about the entire island being some sort of sensitive seismic trigger. According to the paper he'd published, Cascadia Island's small, rocky mass was supposedly resting on the geological equivalent of a hair-trigger detonator connected to a massive fault zone deep within the Cascadia Subduction Zone. Other seismologists had loudly rejected Dr. Lam's ideas, but he continued to insist that any significant vibrations from that island could set off a chain reaction of amplified resonant vibrations and trigger a great earthquake equal to or greater than the monster that tore through Alaska in 1964.
No one disputed the fact that the Cascadia Subduction Zone was one of the world's most dangerous tectonic faults. But the idea that the pile drivers and explosives used to build Mick Walker's world-class resort could uncork three hundred years of unrelieved tectonic strain was just too far out to be real.
Diane sipped the last of the extremely bitter espresso and smiled to herself. Dr. Lam's "Theory of Resonant Amplification" was utter nonsense. If subterranean nuclear explosions were insufficient to trigger major earthquakes, a little construction activity on a coastal island had no chance of doing it. Maybe the rocks below did amplify any compression waves from a pile driver or rock blasting, but such impacts were ridiculously puny against the massive forces of nature.
Nevertheless, she was very glad for Dr. Lam and his theory. He was exactly the man she needed for the dirty work of blowing the whistle on the hidden fault her firm had apparently missed long before construction began.
Diane felt her heart accelerating. The last thing she needed was more caffeine, but if she had to have an addiction, coffee was fairly benign, especially after wrestling nicotine to the mat.
She stood to go. I'm outta here.
She picked up her laptop case, paid the tab, and left quickly, setting a course for her flat and trying to retain just enough situational awareness to avoid becoming a hood ornament on various passing trucks.
There were millions of dollars at stake. Maybe even a hundred million of Mick Walker's dollars. And God knew how much she was about to damage Chadwick and Noble, the globe-girdling, prestigious firm that had reached down from the heavens of architectural engineering to pluck her from the newly graduated masses. She felt another brief and distant echo of guilt over that. The chairman, Robert Nelms, was a straight shooter, or so she'd always believed. But how could he do anything but suppress, cover up, deny, and hide when he discovered what the real data said?
She recalled her first meeting with Robert Nelms so clearly. She, the Stanford graduate student shown into the elaborately decorated corner office. He, a man whose girth made him look like an amalgam of Charles Laughton, Raymond Burr, and Marlon Brando in his later years. The effect had been instant intimidation heaped on a towering platter of insecurity, even though Nelms couldn't have been nicer, rising with surprising ease and polished courtliness to take her hand and welcome her. It was clearly an interview, as she had hoped, but he made it pleasant, impressing her with the easy way he wore the mantle of power of the managing partner of such an august firm -- not to mention his own impressive professional history as a brilliant engineer. She had left the office not only aching to work for Chadwick and Noble, but wanting to work for and please Robert Nelms in particular. The memory still made her feel good, eliciting an unbidden smile that quickly faded as she returned to the reality of what she was doing.
What she was doing was disloyal in the extreme, and she professed to hate disloyalty. But her mission was righteous, and if it meant she had to repay the kindnesses they'd shown her with disloyalty, so be it.
Feeling guilty about impacting Robert Nelms was one thing, but the potential effect on Jerry Schultz was entirely another.
The memory of her first serious professional interaction with Schultz, her new supervisor, was all too clear. She'd sought help with a problem involving an extremely important construction project in the Philippines and was flabbergasted to realize that he was either a poor engineer or a poorer manager with no grasp of details he should have known. It was clearly on her shoulders alone, and the only elements of her work he did seem interested in were the signatures and other means of tracking who might be responsible for mistakes. Schultz was all about covering his own tail. He was a raging incompetent, she'd told a close friend. A dangerous incompetent with delusions of adequacy.
Somehow she'd transcended Schultz during her first year and had become a guardian of the stellar reputation of Chadwick and Noble. She'd been loath to accept the reality that the firm had grown too big to maintain its quality or even its integrity, and she'd resisted the conclusion that the managers cared only about preserving their careers and paychecks.
Finally, however, those realities became unavoidable, and in the Cascadia Island fiasco, the properly constituted managers of Chadwick and Noble had wanted to hear no criticism of their prior decisions.
They had been so pathetically predictable! Once the firm had anointed the island as buildable, the managers were arrogantly certain that not even God would dare to second-guess their decision.
She'd had no authority to push it any further, nor any desire to do so. After all, she was an engineer, not a seismologist. That gave her an ironclad out when the truth finally exploded into the public arena. How could anyone have expected a mere engineer to know what seismic data revealed? Especially since she wasn't even supposed to see the data. Even if she had known, who was she to say the data was right, the Chadwick and Noble cognoscenti were wrong, and Cascadia Island was doomed?
But the data was right and the island was indeed doomed.
She wondered if an answer from Dr. Lam would be waiting for her on her computer. The anonymous e-mail she'd carefully worded and sent contained a way for him to answer through an intermediate e-mail address that would prevent her having to reveal her name -- a bit of necessary cat and mouse to focus his interest without leading to her doorstep. But she could only check that intermediate site once a day, and she'd been doing so every night without results. Eventually he would have to respond, since he was sure to realize that what she was offering would be a vindication of his own discounted, discredited theory.
There would need to be a face-to-face meeting, she figured, to actually hand over the disk. But Dr. Lam could be expected to quickly trumpet the results to the geophysical world. She was sure of that. As sure as she was that if the name Diane Lacombe wasn't involved in the publicity storm that would undoubtedly envelop Chadwick and Noble, Senator Ralph Lacombe couldn't be drawn in either.
That was very important. It was not going to be pretty.
Walker may still survive, she thought. He's worth hundreds of millions.
Diane's right hand closed around the doorknob to her apartment as her left hand approached with the key, but the door was neither latched nor closed, and for a moment she stood in confusion, wondering if she'd left it that way hours ago.
No way! I always check it.
Maybe the manager was inside.
But he's not supposed to...
Perhaps her father...
He doesn't have a key. But Don does!
The impulse to call the police and try to have Don Brevin arrested for breaking and entering was already forming in her mind, a deserved retribution for his being a boorish ex-boyfriend and for refusing to return the key when they'd argued earlier in the day. He'd probably come back for his meager belongings, she decided. He wasn't dangerous, just a slob and an egomaniac, and she couldn't fathom why she'd ever dated him, let alone allowed him to move in for two very long, very unsatisfying months. Just another in a long line of toxic rebound boyfriends, and her tastes were getting worse.
I should have changed the locks.
She pushed open the door and stood stunned by the chaos that had been her apartment. Someone had ransacked her things, pulling out drawers, opening cabinets and spilling the contents. She stepped in, leaving the door to the hallway open in case anything moved inside and she needed to flee.
Her largest suitcase was in the corner, pulled from the back closet and opened and left at an odd angle. The sofa had been ripped open, its stuffing strewn everywhere. The recliner had also been gored. In all the mess, she couldn't tell whether anything was missing.
The new high-definition TV she couldn't afford still stood untouched where she'd left it in the corner of the living room, and she felt a momentary spark of relief, as if now everything would be all right.
The spark quickly died.
f0 Diane stepped over the strewn clothes, papers, and books and moved cautiously toward her bedroom door. Inside, it appeared little or nothing had been taken, but virtually everything had been dumped and, she assumed, pawed through -- including lingerie. She felt violated and dirty, as if she, and not her apartment, had been raped.
And she felt an old familiar rage escaping from its cage again.
But this didn't make sense. Brevin was a sideshow, and a harmless one at that. He wouldn't do such a thing. Would he?
A sudden realization chilled her. Brevin wasn't the cause. Someone was looking for something!
The small, toxic object in her pocket was the target. Someone was on her trail and this was a very clear message.
But how on earth could they already know? No one was supposed to know of her plans, but someone must have figured she might have the records.
And here I stand with the CD waiting for whoever did this to come back!
A crystalline memory of what she'd written in her e-mail to Dr. Lam popped into her mind. Was there anyway it could have been intercepted and tracked back to her?
No! She concluded. I didn't even send it from my computer. But what else could have tipped them off?
She thought about Jerry Schultz, her boss, the dithering neurotic she secretly called the world's only walking invertebrate, a man scared of his own shadow. Her purported supervisor, she'd labeled him. There was simply no way Schultz could have figured out what she'd done, let alone have been brave enough to invade her apartment. Who then?
At least I had the disk with me instead of leaving it here, Diane thought. The overall mission was intact, even if her apartment wasn't. She'd been more than naïve, but considering the money at stake, the loss was small.
Don Brevin forgotten, Diane revised her plan on the spot. She jumped like a startled cat and began rummaging quickly through the spilled contents of her top bureau drawer until her passport emerged from underneath the wild display of her costume jewelry. There was a small gym bag in the middle of the floor which used to be in the closet and she grabbed it and began scooping a supply of basics into it before dashing to the bathroom and dumping in makeup and toiletries to accompany her toothbrush and dryer. The bag was too stuffed to be zipped fully closed, but she grabbed it up anyway, holding the straps extra tight to keep the contents inside as she dashed to the door.
Distance and anonymity were the keys to success -- and safety -- now that someone was on her trail. She raced into the empty hallway and headed for the stairwell, focused on ways to evaporate from San Francisco.
Copyright © 2005 by John J. Nance
Lam has spent years researching the Cascadia Subduction Zone. He published a theory that the unrelieved tectonic strain beneath the idyllic landscape of Cascadia Island could be triggered with modern construction processes -- with catastrophic results. The paper was disregarded, even ridiculed, by his peers and by megawealthy developer Mick Walker, who stands to earn millions from the construction of a luxury resort on Cascadia. The elegant casino, hotel, and convention center will reap millions for him even if the tiny island only lasts for a short time...
When a series of earthquakes begins to shake the Northwest Corridor, Doug's worst fears are confirmed. In an attempt to convince Walker to evacuate Cascadia immediately, Doug hurries to join guests arriving for the resort's grand opening. As the tremors wreak havoc across the Northwest coastal area, the military is left with too few resources to assist the people on Cascadia. Convinced that the island will be in ruins within hours, Doug reluctantly calls upon his girlfriend, Jennifer Lindstrom, president of Nightingale Aviation -- a major medical transport helicopter company -- for help.
With snow falling, visibility dropping, and winds increasing, Doug embarks on an impossible mission with Jennifer and Nightingale's helicopters to evacuate over three hundred people, while smaller earthquakes continue to herald the approach of a catastrophic tsunami.
John J. Nance hurtles readers along a nail-biting quest to rescue hundreds of stranded vacationers and resort staff. Meticulously researched, and with the signature authenticity only a veteran pilot could provide, Saving Cascadia is a hair-raising thriller of awesome magnitude.