CONFIDENTIAL MINUTES TO ALL OPERATION PERSONNEL: DESTROY IMMEDIATELY AFTER READING.
THERE WERE TWELVE MENin the heavily guarded underground chamber, representing twelve far-flung countries. They were seated in comfortable chairs set in six rows, several feet apart. They listened intently as the speaker addressed them.
"I am happy to inform you that the threat with which we have all been so deeply concerned is about to be eliminated. I need not go into details because the whole world will hear about it within the next twenty-four hours. Rest assured that nothing will stop us. The gates will remain open. We will now begin the auction. Do I have a first bid? Yes. One billion dollars. Do I have two? Two billion. Do I have three?"
SHE WAS HURRYING ALONG Pennsylvania Avenue, a block from the White House, shivering in the cold December wind, when she heard the terrifying, earsplitting scream of air-raid sirens and then the sound of a bomber plane overhead, ready to unload its cargo of death. She stopped, frozen, engulfed in a red mist of terror.
Suddenly she was back in Sarajevo, and she could hear the shrill whistle of the bombs dropping. She closed her eyes tightly, but it was impossible to shut out the vision of what was happening all around her. The sky was ablaze, and she was deafened by the sounds of automatic-weapons fire, roaring planes, and thewump of deadly mortar shells. Nearby buildings erupted into showers of cement, bricks, and dust. Terrified people were running in every direction, trying to outrace death.
From far, far away, a man's voice was saying, "Are you all right?"
Slowly, warily, she opened her eyes. She was back on Pennsylvania Avenue, in the bleak winter sunlight, listening to the fading sounds of the jet plane and the ambulance siren that had triggered her memories.
"Miss - are you all right?"
She forced herself back to the present. "Yes. I'm - I'm fine, thank you."
He was staring at her. "Wait a minute! You're Dana Evans. I'm a big fan of yours. I watch you on WTN every night, and I saw all your broadcasts from Yugoslavia." His voice was filled with enthusiasm. "It must have been really exciting for you, covering that war, huh?"
"Yes." Dana Evans's throat was dry. Exciting to see people blown to shreds, to see the bodies of babies thrown down wells, bits of human jetsam flowing down a river of red.
She suddenly felt sick to her stomach. "Excuse me." She turned and hurried away.
Dana Evans had returned from Yugoslavia just three months earlier. The memories were still too fresh. It seemed unreal to walk down streets in broad daylight without fear, to hear birds singing and people laughing. There had been no laughter in Sarajevo, only the sounds of exploding mortars and the anguished screams that followed.
John Donne was right, Dana thought. No man is an island. What happens to one, happens to us all, for we are all made of clay and stardust. We share the same moments of time. The universal second hand starts its unforgiving sweep toward the next minute:
In Santiago, a ten-year-old girl is being raped by her grandfather...
In New York City, two young lovers are kissing by candlelight...
In Flanders, a seventeen-year-old girl is giving birth to a crack baby...
In Chicago, a fireman risks his life to save a cat from a burning building...
In São Paulo, hundreds of fans are trampled to death at a soccer match as the stands collapse...
In Pisa, a mother cries with joy as she watches her baby take its first steps...
All this and infinitely more in the space of sixty seconds, Dana thought. And then time ticks on until it finally sends us into the same unknown eternity.
Dana Evans, at twenty-seven, was lovely looking, with a slim figure, midnight-black hair, large, intelligent gray eyes, a heart-shaped face, and a warm, contagious laugh. Dana had grown up as an army brat, the daughter of a colonel who traveled from base to base as an armament instructor, and that kind of life had given Dana a taste for adventure. She was vulnerable and at the same time fearless, and the combination was irresistible. During the year that Dana had covered the war in Yugoslavia, people all over the world were spellbound by the beautiful, young, impassioned woman broadcasting in the middle of battle, risking her life to report on the deadly events occurring around her. Now, wherever she went, she was aware of signs and whispers of recognition. Dana Evans was embarrassed by her celebrity.
Hurrying down Pennsylvania Avenue, passing the White House, Dana looked at her watch and thought, I'm going to be late for the meeting.
Washington Tribune Enterprises took up an entire block of Sixth Street NW, with four separate buildings: a newspaper printing plant, newspaper staff offices, an executive tower, and a television broadcasting complex. The Washington Tribune Network television studios occupied the sixth floor of building four. The place was always charged with energy, its cubicles humming with people at work on their computers. Wire copy from half a dozen news services constantly spewed out updated news from around the globe. The immensity of the operation never ceased to amaze and excite Dana.
It was there that Dana had met Jeff Connors. An All-Star pitcher until he injured his arm in a skiing accident, Jeff was now an on-air sports reporter for WTN and also wrote a daily column for the Washington Tribune Syndicate. He was in his thirties, tall and lean, with boyish looks and an easy, laid-back charm that attracted people to him. Jeff and Dana had fallen in love, and they had talked about marriage.
In the three months since Dana had returned from Sarajevo, events in Washington had moved swiftly. Leslie Stewart, the former owner of Washington Tribune Enterprises, had sold out and disappeared, and the corporation had been bought by an international media tycoon, Elliot Cromwell.