Thursday, September 10, 1992 8:00 P.M.
The 727 was lost in a sea of cumulus clouds that tossed the plane around like a giant silver feather. The pilot's worried voice came over the speaker.
"Is your seat belt fastened, Miss Cameron?"
There was no response.
"Miss Cameron...Miss Cameron..."
She was shaken out of a deep reverie. "Yes." Her thoughts had been drifting to happier times, happier places.
"Are you all right? We should be out of this storm soon."
"I'm fine, Roger."
Maybe we'll get lucky and crash, Lara Cameron thought. It would be a fitting end. Somewhere, somehow, it had all gone wrong. It's the Fates, Lara thought. You can't fight the Fates. In the past year her life had spun wildly out of control. She was in danger of losing everything. At least nothing else can go wrong, she thought wryly. There is nothing else.
The door of the cockpit opened, and the pilot came into the cabin. He paused for a moment to admire his passenger. The woman was beautiful, with shiny black hair swept up in a crown, a flawless complexion, intelligent eyes, cat-gray. She had changed clothes after they had taken off from Reno, and she was wearing a white, off-the-shoulder Scaasi evening gown that accented a slender, seductive figure. Around her throat was a diamond and ruby necklace. How can she look so damn calm with her world collapsing around her? he wondered. The newspapers had been mercilessly attacking her for the past month.
"Is the phone working yet, Roger?"
"I'm afraid not, Miss Cameron. There's a lot of interference because of the storm. We're going to be about an hour late getting into La Guardia. I'm sorry."
I'm going to be late for my birthday party, Lara thought. Everyone is going to be there. Two hundred guests, including the Vice President of the United States, the governor of New York, the mayor, Hollywood celebrities, famous athletes, and financiers from half a dozen countries. She had approved the guest list herself.
She could visualize the Grand Ballroom of the Cameron Plaza, where the party was being held. Baccarat crystal chandeliers would hang from the ceiling, prisms of light reflecting a dazzling diamondlike brilliance. There would be place settings for two hundred guests, at twenty tables. The finest linens, china, silver, and stemware would adorn each place setting, and in the center of each table would be a floral display of white orchids mixed with white freesias.
Bar service would have been set up at both ends of the large reception hall outside. In the middle of the hall would be a long buffet with an ice carving of a swan, and surrounding it, Beluga caviar, gravlax, shrimp, lobster, and crab, while buckets of champagne were being iced. A ten-tier birthday cake would be in the kitchen waiting. Waiters, captains, and security guards would all be in position by now.
In the ballroom a society orchestra would be on the bandstand, ready to tempt the guests to dance the night away in celebration of her fortieth birthday. Everything would be in readiness.
The dinner was going to be delicious. She had chosen the menu herself. Foie gras to begin with, followed by a cream of mushroom soup under a delicate crust, fillets of John Dory, and then the main course: lamb with rosemary and pommes souffles with French beans and a mesclun salad with hazelnut oil. Cheese and grapes would be next, followed by the birthday cake and coffee.
It was going to be a spectacular party. She would hold her head high and face her guests as though nothing were wrong. She was Lara Cameron.
When the private jet finally landed at La Guardia, it was an hour and a half late.
Lara turned to the pilot. "We'll be flying back to Reno later tonight, Roger."
"I'll be here, Miss Cameron."
Her limousine and driver were waiting for her at the ramp.
"I was getting worried about you, Miss Cameron."
"We ran into some weather, Max. Let's get to the Plaza as fast as possible."
Lara reached for the car phone and dialed Jerry Townsend's number. He had made all the arrangements for the party. Lara wanted to make sure that her guests were being looked after. There was no answer. He's probably in the ballroom, Lara thought.
"Yes, Miss Cameron."
The sight of the huge Cameron Plaza Hotel never failed to give Lara a glow of satisfaction at what she had created, but on this evening she was in too much of a hurry to think about it. Everyone would be waiting for her in the Grand Ballroom.
She pushed through the revolving door and hurried across the large spectacular lobby. Carlos, the assistant manager, saw her and came running to her side.
"Later," Lara said. She kept walking. She reached the closed door of the Grand Ballroom and stopped to take a deep breath. I'm ready to face them, Lara thought. She flung open the door, a smile on her face, and stopped in shock. The room was in total darkness. Were they planning some kind of surprise? She reached for the switch behind the door and flicked it up. The huge room was flooded with incandescent light. There was no one there. Not one single person. Lara stood there, stunned.
What in the world could have happened to two hundred guests? The invitations had read eight o'clock. It was now almost ten o'clock. How could that many people disappear into thin air? It was eerie. She looked around the enormous empty ballroom and shivered. Last year, at her birthday party, this same room had been filled with her friends, filled with music and laughter. She remembered that day so well...
One year earlier Lara Cameron's appointment schedule for the day had been routine.
September 10, 1991
5:00 A.M. Workout with trainer