It was Rayford Steele's turn for a break. He pulled the
headphones down onto his neck and dug into his flight
bag for his wife's Bible, marveling at how quickly his life
had changed. How many hours had he wasted during
idle moments like this, poring over newspapers and magazines
that had nothing to say? After all that had happened,
only one book could hold his interest.
The Boeing 747 was on auto from Baltimore to a
four o'clock Friday afternoon landing at Chicago
O'Hare, but Rayford's new first officer, Nick, sat staring
ahead anyway, as if piloting the plane. Doesn't
want to talk to me anymore, Rayford thought. Knew
what was coming and shut me down before I opened
"Is it going to offend you if I sit reading this for a
while?" Rayford asked.
The younger man turned and pulled the left phone
away from his own ear. "Say again?"
Rayford repeated himself, pointing to the Bible. It had
belonged to the wife he hadn't seen for more than two
weeks and probably would not see for another seven years.
"As long as you don't expect me to listen."
"I got that loud and clear, Nick. You understand I
don't care what you think of me, don't you?"
Rayford leaned close and spoke louder. "What you
think of me would have been hugely important a few
weeks ago," he said. "But--"
"Yeah, I know, OK? I got it, Steele, all right? You and
lots of other people think the whole thing was Jesus. Not
buying. Delude yourself, but leave me out of it."
Rayford raised his brows and shrugged. "You
wouldn't respect me if I hadn't tried."
"Don't be too sure."
But when Rayford turned back to his reading, it was
the Chicago Tribune sticking out of his bag that grabbed
The Tribune, like every other paper in the world, carried
the front-page story: During a private meeting at the
United Nations, just before a Nicolae Carpathia press
conference, a horrifying murder/suicide had occurred.
New U.N. Secretary-General Nicolae Carpathia had just
installed the ten new members of the expanded Security
Council, seeming to err by inaugurating two men to the
same position of U.N. ambassador from the Great States
According to the witnesses, billionaire Jonathan
Stonagal, Carpathia's friend and financial backer,
suddenly overpowered a guard, stole his handgun,
and shot himself in the head, the bullet passing
through and killing one of the new ambassadors
The United Nations had been closed for the day, and
Carpathia was despondent over the tragic loss of his two
dear friends and trusted advisers.
Bizarre as it might seem, Rayford Steele was one of
only four people on the planet who knew the truth
about Nicolae Carpathia--that he was a liar, a hypnotic
brainwasher, the Antichrist himself. Others might suspect
Carpathia of being other than he seemed, but only
Rayford, his daughter, his pastor, and his new friend
journalist Buck Williams knew for sure.
Buck had been one of the seventeen in that United
Nations meeting room. And he had witnessed something
entirely different--not a murder/suicide, but a double
murder. Carpathia himself, according to Buck, had
methodically borrowed the guard's gun, forced his old
friend Jonathan Stonagal to kneel, then killed Stonagal
and the British ambassador with one shot.
Carpathia had choreographed the murders, and then,
while the witnesses sat in horror, Carpathia quietly told
them what they had seen--the same story the newspapers
now carried. Every witness in that room but one
corroborated it. Most chilling, they believed it. Even
Steve Plank, Buck's former boss, now Carpathia's press
agent. Even Hattie Durham, Rayford's onetime flight
attendant, who had become Carpathia's personal assistant.
Everyone except Buck Williams.
Rayford had been dubious when Buck told his version
in Bruce Barnes's office two nights ago. "You're the only
person in the room who saw it your way?" he had challenged
"Captain Steele," Buck had said, "we all saw it the
same way. But then Carpathia calmly described what he
wanted us to think we had seen, and everybody but me
immediately accepted it as truth. I want to know how he
explains that he had the dead man's successor already
there and sworn in when the murder took place. But
now there's no evidence I was even there. It's as if Carpathia
washed me from their memories. People I know
now swear I wasn't there, and they aren't joking."
Chloe and Bruce Barnes had looked at each other and
then back at Buck. Buck had finally become a believer,
just before entering the meeting at the U.N. "I'm absolutely
convinced that if I had gone into that room without
God," Buck said, "I would have been reprogrammed
"But now if you just tell the world the truth--"
"Sir, I've been reassigned to Chicago because my boss
believes I missed that meeting. Steve Plank asked why I
had not accepted his invitation. I haven't talked to Hattie
yet, but you know she won't remember I was there."
"The biggest question," Bruce Barnes said, "is what
Carpathia thinks is in your head. Does he think he's
erased the truth from your mind? If he knows you know,
you're in grave danger."
Now, as Rayford read the bizarre story in the paper,
he noticed Nick switching from autopilot to manual.
"Initial descent," Nick said. "You want to bring her in?"
"Of course," Rayford said. Nick could have landed
the plane, but Rayford felt responsible. He was the captain.
He would answer for these people. And even
though the plane could land itself, he had not lost the
thrill of handling it. Few things reminded him of life as it
had been just weeks before, but landing a 747 was one
Buck Williams had spent the day buying a car--something
he hadn't needed in Manhattan--and hunting for
an apartment. He found a beautiful condo, at a place
that advertised already-installed phones, midway between
the Global Weekly Chicago bureau office and
New Hope Village Church in Mount Prospect. He tried
to convince himself it was the church that would keep
drawing him west of the city, not Rayford Steele's daughter,
Chloe. She was ten years his junior, and whatever
attraction he might feel for her, he was certain she saw
him as some sort of a wizened mentor.
Buck had put off going to the office. He wasn't
expected there until the following Monday anyway, and
he didn't relish facing Verna Zee. When it had been his
assignment to find a replacement for veteran Lucinda
Washington, the Chicago bureau chief who had disappeared,
he had told the militant Verna she had jumped
the gun by moving into her former boss's office. Now
Buck had been demoted and Verna elevated. Suddenly,
she was his boss.
But he didn't want to spend all weekend dreading the
meeting, and neither did he want to appear too eager to
see Chloe Steele again right away, so Buck drove to the
office just before closing. Would Verna make him pay
for his years of celebrity as an award-winning cover-story
writer? Or would she make it even worse by killing
him with kindness?
Buck felt the stares and smiles of the underlings as
he moved through the outer office. By now, of course,
everyone knew what had happened. They felt sorry for
him, were stunned by his lapse of judgment. How
could Buck Williams miss a meeting that would certainly
be one of the most momentous in news history,
even if it hadn't resulted in the double death? But they
were also aware of Buck's credentials. Many, no
doubt, would still consider it a privilege to work with
No surprise, Verna had already moved back into the
big office. Buck winked at Alice, Verna's spike-haired
young secretary, and peered in. It looked as if Verna had
been there for years. She had already rearranged the furniture
and hung her own pictures and plaques. Clearly,
she was ensconced and loving every minute of it.
A pile of papers littered Verna's desk, and her computer
screen was lit, but she seemed to be idly gazing out
the window. Buck poked his head in and cleared his
throat. He noticed a flash of recognition and then a
quick recomposing. "Cameron," she said flatly, still
seated. "I didn't expect you till Monday."
"Just checking in," he said. "You can call me Buck."
"I'll call you Cameron, if you don't mind, and--"
"I do mind. Please call--"
"Then I'll call you Cameron even if you do mind. Did
you let anyone know you were coming?"
"Do you have an appointment?"
"With me. I have a schedule, you know."
"And there's no room for me on it?"
"You're asking for an appointment then?"
"If it's not inconvenient. I'd like to know where I'm
going to land and what kind of assignments you have in
mind for me, that kind of--"
"Those sound like things we can talk about when we
meet," Verna said. "Alice! See if I have a slot in twenty
"You do," Alice called out. "And I would be happy to
show Mr. Williams his cubicle while he's waiting, if you--"
"I prefer to do that myself, Alice. Thank you. And
could you shut my door?"
Alice looked apologetic as she rose and moved past
Buck to shut the door. He thought she even rolled her
eyes. "You can call me Buck," he whispered.
"Thanks," she said shyly, pointing to a chair beside
"I have to wait here, like seeing the principal?"
She nodded. "Someone called here for you earlier.
Didn't leave her name. I told her you weren't expected
"So, where is my cubicle?"
Alice glanced at the closed door, as if fearing Verna
could see her. She stood and pointed over the tops of several
partitions toward a windowless corner in the back.
"That's where the coffeepot was last time I was here,"
"It still is," Alice said with a giggle. Her intercom
buzzed. "Yes, ma'am?"
"Would you two mind whispering if you must talk
while I'm working?"
"Sorry!" This time Alice did roll her eyes.
"I'm gonna go take a peek," Buck whispered, rising.
"Please don't," she said. "You'll get me in trouble
Buck shook his head and sat back down. He thought of
where he had been, whom he had met, the dangers he had
faced in his career. And now he was whispering with a secretary
he had to keep out of trouble from a wanna-be boss who
had never been able to write her way out of a paper bag.
Buck sighed. At least he was in Chicago with the only
people he knew who really cared about him.
Despite his and Chloe's new faith, Rayford Steele found
himself subject to deep mood swings. As he strode
through O'Hare, passed brusquely and silently by Nick,
he suddenly felt sad. How he missed Irene and Raymie!
He knew beyond doubt they were in heaven, and that, if
anything, they should be feeling sorry for him. But the
world had changed so dramatically since the disappearances
that hardly anyone he knew had recaptured any
sense of equilibrium. He was grateful to have Bruce to
teach him and Chloe and now Buck to stand with him in
their mission, but sometimes the prospect of facing the
future was overwhelming.
That's why it was such sweet relief to see Chloe's smiling
face waiting at the end of the corridor. In two decades
of flying, he had gotten used to passing passengers who
were being greeted at the terminal. Most pilots were accustomed
to simply disembarking and driving home alone.
Chloe and Rayford understood each other better than
ever. They were fast becoming friends and confidants,
and while they didn't agree on everything, they were knit
in their grief and loss, tied in their new faith, and teammates
on what they called the Tribulation Force.
Rayford embraced his daughter. "Anything wrong?"
"No, but Bruce has been trying to get you. He's called
an emergency meeting of the core group for early this
evening. I don't know what's up, but he'd like us to try
to get hold of Buck."
"How'd you get here?"
"Cab. I knew your car was here."
"Where would Buck be?"
"He was going to look for a car and an apartment
today. He could be anywhere."
"Did you call the Weekly office?"
"I talked to Alice, the secretary there, early this afternoon.
He wasn't expected until Monday, but we can try
again from the car. I mean, you can. You should call
him, don't you think? Rather than me?"
Rayford suppressed a smile.
Alice sat at her desk leaning forward, her head cocked,
gazing at Buck and trying not to laugh aloud as he regaled
her with whispered wisecracks. All the while he wondered
how much of the stuff from his palatial Manhattan office
would fit into the cubicle he was to share with the communal
coffeepot. The phone rang, and Buck could hear both
ends of the conversation from the speakerphone. From
just down the hall came the voice of the receptionist.
"Alice, is Buck Williams still back there?"
"Call for him."
It was Rayford Steele, calling from his car. "At seven-thirty
tonight?" Buck said. "Sure, I'll be there. What's
up? Hm? Well, tell her I said hi, too, and I'll see you
both at the church tonight."
He was hanging up as Verna came to the door and
frowned at him. "A problem?" he said.
"You'll have your own phone soon enough," she said.
"Come on in."
As soon as he was seated Verna sweetly informed him
that he would no longer be the world-traveling, cover-story-writing,
star headliner of Global Weekly. "We here
in Chicago have an important but limited role in the
magazine," she said. "We interpret national and international
news from a local and regional perspective and
submit our stories to New York."
Buck sat stiffly. "So I'm going to be assigned to the
Chicago livestock markets?"
"You don't amuse me, Cameron. You never have. You
will be assigned to whatever we need covered each week.
Your work will pass through a senior editor and through
me, and I will decide whether it is of enough significance
and quality to pass along to New York."
Buck sighed. "I didn't ask the big boss what I was supposed
to do with my works in progress. I don't suppose
"Your contact with Stanton Bailey will now funnel
through me as well. Is that understood?"
"Are you asking whether I understand, or whether I
"Neither," she said. "I'm asking whether you will comply."
"It's unlikely," Buck said, feeling his neck redden and
his pulse surge. He didn't want to get into a shouting
match with Verna. But neither was he going to sit for
long under the thumb of someone who didn't belong in
journalism, let alone in Lucinda Washington's old chair
and supervising him.
"I will discuss this with Mr. Bailey," she said. "As you
might imagine, I have all sorts of recourse at my disposal
for insubordinate employees."
"I can imagine. Why don't you get him on the phone
"To find out what I'm supposed to do. I've accepted
my demotion and my relocation. You know as well as I
do that relegating me to regional stuff is a waste of my
contacts and my experience."
"And your talent, I assume you're implying."
"Infer what you want. But before you put me on the
bowling beat, I have dozens of hours invested in my
cover story on the theory of the disappearances--ah,
why am I talking to you about it?"
"Because I'm your boss, and because it's not likely a
Chicago bureau staff writer will land a cover story."
"Not even a writer who has already done several? I
dare you to call Bailey. The last time he said anything
about my piece, he said he was sure it would be a winner."
"Yeah? The last time I talked to him, he told me about
the last time he talked to you."
"It was a misunderstanding."
"It was a lie. You said you were someplace and everybody
who was there says you weren't. I'd have fired
"If you'd had the power to fire me, I'd have quit."
"You want to quit?"
"I'll tell you what I want, Verna. I want--"
"I expect all my subordinates to call me Ms. Zee."
"You have no subordinates in this office," Buck said.
"And aren't you--"
"You're dangerously close to the line, Cameron."
"Aren't you afraid Ms. Zee sounds too much likeMissy?"
She stood. "Follow me." She bristled past him, stomping
out of her office and down the long hallway in her
Buck stopped at Alice's desk. "Thanks for everything,
Alice," he said quickly. "I've got a bunch of stuff that's
being shipped here that I might need to have you forward
to my new apartment."
Alice was nodding but her smile froze when Verna hollered
down the hall. "Now, Cameron!"
Buck slowly turned. "I'll get back to you, Alice." Buck
moved deliberately enough to drive Verna crazy, and he
noticed people in their cubicles pretending not to notice
but fighting smiles.
Verna marched to the corner that served as the coffee
room and pointed to a small desk with a phone and a
file cabinet. Buck snorted.
"You'll have a computer in a week or so," she said.
"Have it delivered to my apartment."
"I'm afraid that's out of the question."
"No, Verna, what's out of the question is you trying to
vent all your frustration from who knows where in one
breath. You know as well as I do that no one with an
ounce of self-respect would put up with this. If I have to
work out of the Chicago area, I'm going to work at home
with a computer and modem and fax machine. And if you
expect to see me in this office again for any reason, you'll
get Stanton Bailey on the phone right now."
Verna looked prepared to stand her ground right
there, so Buck headed back to her office with her trailing
him. He passed Alice, who looked stricken, and waited
at Verna's desk until she caught up. "Are you dialing, or
am I?" he demanded.
Rayford and Chloe ate on the way home and arrived to
an urgent phone message from Rayford's chief pilot.
"Call me as soon as you get in."
With his cap under his arm and still wearing his uniform
trench coat, Rayford punched the familiar numbers.
"What's up, Earl?"
"Thanks for getting back to me right away, Ray. You
and I go back a long way."
"Long enough that you should get to the point, Earl.
What'd I do now?"
"This is not an official call, OK? Not a reprimand or a
warning or anything. This is just friend to friend."
"So, friend to friend, Earl, should I sit down?"
"No, but let me tell you, buddy, you've got to knock
off the proselytizing."
"Talking about God on the job, man."
"Earl, I back off when anyone says anything, and you
know I don't let it get in the way of the job. Anyway,
what do you think the disappearances were all about?"
"We've been through all that, Ray. I'm just telling you,
Nicky Edwards is gonna write you up, and I want to be
able to say you and I have already talked about it and
you've agreed to back off."
"Write me up? Did I break a rule, violate procedure,
commit a crime?"
"I don't know what he's going to call it, but you've
been warned, all right?"
"I thought you said this wasn't official yet."
"It's not, Ray. Do you want it to be? Do I have to call
you back tomorrow and drag you in here for a meeting
and a memo for your file and all that, or can I just
smooth everybody's feathers, tell 'em it was a misunderstanding,
you're cool now, and it won't happen again?"
Rayford didn't respond at first.
"C'mon, Ray, this is a no-brainer. I don't like you having
to think about this one."
"Well, I will have to think about it, Earl. I appreciate
your tipping me off, but I'm not ready to concede anything
"Don't do this to me, Ray."
"I'm not doing it to you, Earl. I'm doing it to myself."
"Yeah, and I'm the one who has to find a replacement
pilot certified for the 'forty-seven and the 'fifty-seven."
"You mean it's that serious! I could lose my job over
"You bet you could."
"I'll still have to think about it."
"You've got it bad, Ray. Listen, in case you come to
your senses and we can make this go away, you need to
recertify on the 'fifty-seven soon. They're adding a half
dozen more within a month or so, and they're going to
be running them out of here. You want to be on that list.
More money, you know."
"Not that big a deal to me anymore, Earl."
"But the idea of flying the 757 is attractive. I'll get
back to you."
"Don't make me wait, Ray."
"I will get Mr. Bailey on the phone if I can," Verna said.
"But you realize it's late in New York."
"He's always there, you know that. Use his direct,
"I don't have that."
"I'll write it down for you. He's probably interviewing
a replacement for me."
"I'll call him, Cameron, and I will even let you have
your say, but I am going to speak to him first, and I
reserve the right to tell him how insubordinate and disrespectful
you've been. Please wait outside."
Alice was gathering up her stuff as if about ready to
leave when Buck emerged with a mischievous look.
Others were streaming from the office to the parking lot
and the train. "Did you hear all that?" Buck whispered.
"I hear everything," she mouthed. "And you know
those new speakerphones, the ones that don't make you
wait till the other person is done talking?"
"Well, they don't make it obvious you're listening in,
either. You just shut off the transmit button, like this,
and then if something happens to hit the speakerphone
button, oops, then you can hear a conversation without
being heard. Is that cool, or what?"
From the speakerphone on her desk came the sound of
the phone ringing in New York.
"Stanton. Who's this?"
"Um, sir, sorry to bother you at this hour--"
"You got the number, you must have something important.
Now who is this?"
"Verna Zee in Chicago."
"Yeah, Verna, what's happening?"
"I've got a situation here. Cameron Williams."
"Yeah, I was going to tell you to just stay out of his
hair. He's working on a couple of big pieces for me. You
got a nice spot there he can work in, or should we just
let him work out of his apartment?"
"We have a place for him here, sir, but he was rude
and insubordinate to me today and--"
"Listen, Verna, I don't want you to have to worry
about Williams. He's been put out to pasture for something
I can't figure out, but let's face it, he's still our star
here and he's going to be doing pretty much the same
thing he's been doing. He gets less money and a less prestigious
title, and he doesn't get to work in New York,
but he's going to get his assignments from here. You just
don't worry yourself about him, all right? In fact, I think
it would be better for you and for him if he didn't work
out of that office."
"Something else, Verna?"
"Well, I wish you had let me know this in advance. I
need you to back me on this. He was inappropriate with
"What do you mean? He came on to you, made a pass
at you, what?"
Buck and Alice pressed their hands over their
mouths to keep from bursting with laughter. "No, sir,
but he made it clear he is not going to be subordinate
"Well, I'm sorry about that, Verna, but he's not, OK?
I'm not going to waste Cameron Williams on regional
stuff, not that we don't appreciate every inch of copy
that comes out of your shop, understand."
"I'm sorry, Verna, is there more? Am I not being clear,
or what's the problem? Just tell him to order his equipment,
charge it to the Chicago account, and work
directly for us here. Got that?"
"But shouldn't he apolog--"
"Verna, do you really need me to mediate some personality
conflict from a thousand miles away? If you
can't handle that job there ."
"I can, sir, and I will. Thank you, sir. Sorry to trouble
The intercom buzzed. "Alice, send him in."
"Yes, ma'am, and then may I--"
"Yes, you may go."
Buck sensed Alice taking her time gathering her
belongings, however, staying within earshot. He strode
into the office as if he expected to talk on the phone
with Stanton Bailey.
"He doesn't need to talk with you. He made it clear
that I'm not expected to put up with your shenanigans.
I'm assigning you to work from your apartment."
Buck wanted to say that he was going to find it hard
to pass up the digs she had prepared for him, but he was
already feeling guilty about having eavesdropped on her
conversation. This was something new. Guilt.
"I'll try to stay out of your way," he said.
"I'd appreciate that."
When he reached the parking lot, Alice was waiting.
"That was great," she said.
"You ought to be ashamed of yourself." He smiled
"You listened too."
"That I did. See ya."
"I'm going to miss the six-thirty train," she said. "But
it was worth it."
"How about if I drop you off? Show me where it is."
Alice waited while he unlocked the car door. "Nice
"Brand-new," he answered. And that was just how he
Rayford and Chloe arrived at New Hope early. Bruce
was there, finishing a sandwich he had ordered. He
looked older than his early thirties. After greeting them,
he pushed his wire rims up into his curly locks and tilted
back in his squeaky chair. "You get hold of Buck?" he
"Said he'd be here," Rayford said. "What's the emergency?"
"You hear the news today?"
"Thought I did. Something significant?"
"I think so. Let's wait for Buck."
"Then let me tell you in the meantime how I got in
trouble today," Rayford said.
When he finished, Bruce was smiling. "Bet that's never
been in your personnel file before."
Rayford shook his head and changed the subject. "It
seems so strange to have Buck as part of the inner core,
especially when he's so new to this."
"We're all new to it, aren't we?" Chloe said.
Bruce looked up and smiled. Rayford and Chloe
turned to see Buck in the doorway.