(NUMA Files – 2)
With a POWERFUL KICK FROM ITS twin turbofan engines, the sleek executive jet lifted off the runway and shot into the vaulted skies above Sao Paulo. Climbing rapidly over the biggest city in South America, the Learjet soon reached its cruising altitude of thirty-nine thousand feet and raced toward the northwest at five hundred miles an hour. Seated in a comfortable rear-facing chair at the back of the cabin, Professor Francesca Cabral peered wistfully out the window at the cottony cloud cover, already missing the smog cloaked streets and sizzling energy of her hometown. A muffled snort from across the narrow aisle interrupted her musings. She glanced over at the snoring middle-aged man in the rumpled suit and wondered with a shake of her head what her father was thinking when he assigned Phillipo Rodriques as her bodyguard.
Extracting a folder from her briefcase, she jotted notes in the margins of the speech that she planned to deliver at an international conference of environmental scientists in Cairo. She had gone over the draft a dozen times, but her thoroughness was entirely in character. Francesca was a brilliant engineer and a highly respected professor, but in a field and society dominated by males, a female scientist was expected to be more than perfect.
The words blurred on the pages. The night before Francesca was up late packing and pulling together scientific papers. She had been too excited to sleep. Now she cast an envious glance at the snoozing bodyguard and decided to take a nap. She set the speech aside, pushed the back of her thick-cushioned seat into its reclining position, and closed her eyes. Lulled by the throaty whisper of the turbines, she soon dozed off.
Dreams came. She was floating on the sea, gently rising and falling like a jellyfish buoyed by soft billows. It was a pleasant sensation until one wave lifted her high in the air and dropped like a runaway elevator. Her eyelids fluttered open, and she looked around the cabin. She had an odd feeling, as if someone had grabbed at her heart. Yet all seemed normal. The haunting strains of Antonio Carlos Jobim's 'One Note Samba' played softly over the sound system. Phillipo was still out cold. The sense that something was amiss would not go away. She leaned over and gently shook the sleeping man's shoulder. 'Phillipo, wake up.'
The bodyguard's hand went to the holster under his jacket, and he came instantly awake. When he saw Francesca he relaxed.
'Senhora, I'm sorry,' he said with a yawn. 'I fell asleep.'
'I did, too.' She paused as if she were listening. 'Something isn't quite right.'
'What do you mean?'
She laughed nervously. 'I don't know.' Phillipo smiled with the knowing expression of a man whose wife has heard burglars in the night. He patted her hand. 'I will go see.'
He got up and stretched, then went forward and knocked on the cockpit door. The door opened, and he stuck his head through. Francesca heard a murmured conversation and laughter.
Phillipo was beaming broadly when he returned. 'The pilots say everything is okay, Senhora.'
Francesca thanked the bodyguard, settled back in her seat, and took a deep breath. Her fears were foolish. The prospect of being freed from her mental meat grinder after two years of exhausting work had given her the jitters. The Project had consumed her, drained the hours from her days and nights, and demolished her social life. Her gaze fell on the divan that stretched across the rear of the cabin, and she resisted the impulse to see if her metal suitcase was still safely stored in the space behind the sofa cushions. She liked to think of the valise as a reverse Pandora's box. Instead of evil, good things would pour out when it was opened. Her discovery would bring health and prosperity to millions, and the planet would never be the same again.
Phillipo brought Francesca a cold bottle of orange juice. She thanked him, thinking she had grown to like her bodyguard in the short time she had known him. With his wrinkled brown suit, balding pepper-and-salt hair, thin mustache, and round spectacles, Phillipo could have passed for an absentminded academic. Francesca couldn't know that he had spent years perfecting the shy, bumbling manner. His carefully cultivated ability to merge into the background like faded wallpaper made him one of the top undercover agents in the Brazilian secret service.
Rodriques had been hand picked by her father. Francesca initially balked at her father's insistence that a bodyguard accompany her. She was far too old to have a baby-sitter. When she saw his genuine concern for her welfare, she went along. She suspected her father was more worried about good-looking fortune hunters than for her safety.
Even without her family's wealth, Francesca would have drawn male attention. In a land of dark hair and smoky complexions, she was a standout. Her blue-black almond-shaped eyes, long lashes, and almost perfect mouth were the legacy of her Japanese grandfather. Her German grandmother had passed along her light brown hair, her height genes, and the Teutonic stubbornness of the delicately sculpted jaw. Her shapely figure, she decided long ago, had something to do with living in Brazil. Brazilian women seem to have bodies especially designed for the country's national dance, the samba. Francesca had improved on the natural model by many hours spent in the gym where she went to relieve the tension of her work.
Grandfather had been a minor diplomat when the Empire of Japan ended under twin mushroom clouds. He stayed on in Brazil, married the daughter of a Third Reich ambassador similarly unemployed, became a Brazilian citizen, and switched to his first love, gardening. He moved the family to Sao Paulo, where his landscape company served the rich and powerful. He developed close ties with influential government and military figures. His son, Francesca's father, used those connections to move effortlessly to a highly placed position in the commerce department. Her mother was a brilliant engineering student who put her academic career aside to become a wife and mother. She never regretted her decision, at least not openly, but she was de lighted that Francesca would choose to follow in her academic footsteps.
Her father had suggested that she fly on his executive jet to New York, where she would meet with United Nations officials before boarding a commercial flight to Cairo. She was glad to get back to the States, if only for a short visit, and wished she could make the plane move faster. The years she had spent studying engineering at Stanford University in California would always be pleasant memories. She glanced out the window and realized she had no idea where they were. The pilots hadn't re ported on the flight's progress since the plane left Sao Paulo. Excusing herself to Phillipo, she went forward and stuck her head in the cockpit.
'Bom dia, senhores. I was wondering where we are and how much longer we'll be in the air.'
The pilot was Captain Riordan, a rawboned American with crew-cut straw-colored hair and a Texas accent. Francesca had never seen him before, but that wasn't surprising. Nor was the fact that Riordan was a foreign national. Although the plane was privately owned it was maintained by a local airline that sup plied pilots.
'Bowanis deeyass,' he said with a lopsided grin, his Chuck Yeager drawl and butchered Portuguese grating on her ears. 'Sorry for not keeping you up to date, miss. Saw you were sleeping and didn't want to disturb you.' He winked at the copilot, a thickset Brazilian whose over muscled physique suggested he spent a lot of time pumping iron. The copilot smirked as his eyes roved over Francesca's body. Francesca felt like a mother who had come upon two mischievous boys about to play a prank. 'What's our timetable?' she said in a businesslike manner.
'Waall, we're over Venezuela. We should be in Miami in approximately three hours. We'll stretch our legs while we refuel and should be in New York about three hours after that.'
Francesca's scientific eye was drawn to the screens on the instrument panel. The copilot noticed her interest and couldn't resist the chance to impress a beautiful woman.
'This plane is so smart it can fly itself while we watch the soccer games on TV,' he said, showing his big teeth.
'Don't let Carlos blow smoke up your flue,' the pilot said. 'That's the EFIS, the electronic flight instrument system. The screens take the place of the gauges we used to use.'
'Thank you,' Francesca said politely. She pointed to another gauge. 'Is that a compass?' she said.