Mirage

( 3 )

Overview

A mental whiz who runs a cyber-encryption company, John Berger is at the top of his game and sure that all his hard work will soon pay off. After playing in a two-day chess tournament, he arrives at work to find his office building bombed and several people killed. When questioned by the police, he explains he was playing chess at the time of the explosion. Then comes a greater shock -- the police tell him the chess tournament never took place.

Thus begins a terrifying spiral of...

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Overview

A mental whiz who runs a cyber-encryption company, John Berger is at the top of his game and sure that all his hard work will soon pay off. After playing in a two-day chess tournament, he arrives at work to find his office building bombed and several people killed. When questioned by the police, he explains he was playing chess at the time of the explosion. Then comes a greater shock -- the police tell him the chess tournament never took place.

Thus begins a terrifying spiral of events that thrusts Berger into a dangerous world of madness and conspiracy. He becomes both the FBI's and the police's prime suspect in the bombing. Then Berger, the renowned thinker, suddenly finds himself hallucinating and losing his grip on reality. After someone tries to kill him with a bomb in his own home, Berger goes on the run.

Jill Landis, the FBI agent assigned to track Berger, is puzzled by the case. Why would a Stanford Ph.D. insist that he attended a nonexistent chess tournament? And could these bombings be connected to a similar one in Orlando? Jill manages to trace the few thin leads to a covert military project code-named Mirage-only to discover that all the senior officers, including the director, have vanished.

Although a consummate logician, John Berger knows that his mind is rapidly deteriorating. Desperate and frightened, he must now solve the mystery of his missing weekend. For hidden in the depths of his tortured psyche are the answers to this lethal puzzle. But the secrets of Mirage will not unravel without a deadly fight with their keepers. And for John Berger, the killers are quickly closing in...

A breathlessly paced tale of intrigue and suspense, Mirage will leave you gasping and guessing-and totally mesmerized-until the last page is turned.

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Editorial Reviews

Mystery Review
...infused with plenty of energy, intrigue and skillful detail...
Toby Bromberg
In Mirage, Passman has done a fine job of creating a tension-ridden situation that will have you wondering, even as you enjoy the thrills and chills.
Romantic Times
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The unlikely hero of Passman's second thriller (after The Visionary) is a ponytailed couch potato named John Berger, a computer cryptographer with a Stanford Ph.D. On his way to work at EXC Labs in Los Angeles on a Monday morning, Berger is stopped by a guard who informs him that EXC was blown up over the weekend. As the week wears on, things only get stranger. Interrogated by the FBI, Berger discovers that the bomb was planted in his own desk. And his alibi--he attended what he thought was a chess tournament--is blown out of the water when the FBI discovers there was no real tournament that weekend. Confused and distressed, Berger tries to piece together what might have happened and prove his innocence, with the assistance of Florida FBI agent Jill Landis, who spots a pattern after a similar bombing brings down a building in Orlando. It soon becomes clear that Berger was hypnotized the weekend of the bombing, but under whose direction? The key to the mystery lies in a secret project called Mirage, once funded by the U.S. government and shut down three years before. The project's director, Kenneth Combs, frustrated and bitter, is now in cahoots with a ring of international terrorists, and he is desperate to silence Berger, who was supposed to die in the EXC explosion. To make matters worse, Berger is hearing strange voices in his head that he must muffle if he is to save himself and the thousands of other people Combs's associates plan to eliminate. Berger is no James Bond--lacking in muscle tone, he's also a "lousy liar, and not a particularly good actor" but Landis somehow falls in love with him anyway. Short on elaborate plotting and high-level suspense, Passman's latest does possess a quirky charm. (Oct.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
An evil genius and a naïve nerd fight to the death as a fearful world waits trembling.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780759500211
  • Publisher: iPublish.com
  • Publication date: 10/28/2000

Read an Excerpt



Chapter One


Piedra Alta, Colorado


The patient known as Oliver was in the final stages.

Gamma observed him through a square hole in the thick metal door. Duty required the guard to keep watching, even though he knew he'd dream about it for weeks. He always did.

Inside the windowless cinder block room, Oliver's khaki pants were soaked with perspiration and other bodily excretions. He twisted against the leather straps that pinned him to the bed, clanking metal hooks against welded bolts, and chafing his wrists to the bleeding point. Oliver's raw eyes, depleted of tears, scanned in terror for unseen attackers. His neck muscles strained into tight cords as he screamed in guttural yells.

Kenneth Combs, Director of the Mirage project, elbowed the guard aside and peered through the small opening. Gamma could hear Oliver whimpering like a dog with a broken leg.

Combs ran his hand over his bald head. His face betrayed no emotion as he studied the scene, then said, "Dispose of him in the usual way."

As Combs turned to leave, the guard said, "Sir." His voice cracked slightly.

Combs spun back and lasered his obsidian eyes into the man. Gamma looked down as he continued. "Based on some of the others, there may be a chance this patient-"

"Did I ask your opinion?"

Gamma cleared his throat. "No sir."

"You're aware there's an inspection in two hours?"

"Yes sir."

Combs walked away and spoke without looking back. "Dispose of him in the usual way."

General James Weston sat in the back of a black Chevy sedan. His driver was dressed in civilian clothes so as not to attract attention. Asnowstorm whipped the car, oblivious to the pitiful efforts of the windshield wipers, and the wind whistled through an invisible seam somewhere in front.

"I'm sorry, General," said the driver. "I can't see the turnoff in this weather. I'll swing back around."

Weston grunted, adjusted his large frame on the seat, and pulled off the heavy wool overcoat. The shirt of his uniform, now soaked with perspiration, clung to his skin.

He looked out the window and could hardly see the aspen trees' bare limbs through the hazy gauze of snow flurries. Focusing on his reflection in the window, Weston studied his features intently, hypnotized by the rhythmic squealing of the windshield wipers. It seemed to him that his wrinkles were even more deeply creased than usual, and he was surprised by the spiderwebs of red veins in his eyes. Having to deliver this news wasn't helping.

"Here it is, sir," said the driver. The general was thrown against the door as the car turned sharply right. He could hear the chains on the tires crunch against the ice, and he felt the rear wheels fishtail.

About two miles down a rough road, Weston saw antitank barriers-giant piles of rusted metal girders sticking out of the ground like rifles stacked in a teepee formation. They surrounded the first of the checkpoints, which was a small booth with thick, bulletproof glass. Jutting across the road was a red and white striped pole, almost three feet in diameter.

A sentry approached the car. When the driver lowered the window, a cold gust assaulted Weston.

"Afternoon, General," said the sentry with a salute. His mustache was laced with ice.

"Afternoon."

"Sir, I'm sorry, but security doesn't allow your driver inside. We have a van to take you from here."

Weston hobbled out of the car, moving slowly to buy a little more time. The wind sounded like a huge bellows, and the sharp cold assaulted his skin as he climbed into the van. He dragged his overcoat behind him, leaving a rough trail in the snow.

They drove several miles in silence, clearing two more checkpoints. The road finally led into the mouth of a man-made cave. A six-story cavern that was an abandoned NORAD site, meant to withstand nuclear attack. Overkill for the current project, yet convenient enough for the required secrecy.

The van stopped in an open area that was bathed in a wash of halogen lights. The rock walls, cold and damp as though weeping, did little to shelter the workers.

"This way, General," said a pleasant young woman in a heavy wool coat. Her breath was visible when she spoke. "I'm called Dorothy here."

He followed behind her, aware of the icy echoes of his footsteps.

Combs sat in his office, fighting to remain calm now that General Weston was on the premises. He ran his hand over his bald head, worrying whether the fuzz had grown visible since yesterday's shaving. Then he began pacing across one of the few carpets in the facility.

By reputation, Weston was a tough scrapper, which was necessary to champion a controversial project like Mirage. Maybe today's visit meant he'd gotten enough money to kick the research into high gear. Combs certainly hoped so. Their breakthrough in the last few days had opened a whole new range of possibilities. The chance to tell the General about it personally was an unexpected plum.

He stood ramrod straight and examined himself in the mirror. His right shoe was scuffed on the side. There was no time to polish it, so he'd stand with his left to the General. He straightened his tie an eighth of an inch and smoothed the sharp creases in his white shirt. Finally, he examined his beard, making sure it was evenly trimmed.

Dorothy arrived with the General, and Combs rushed to greet him. The General lowered himself slowly into an armchair that barely contained his girth.

"General, I'm told you like two sugars, no milk," said Combs, handing him a steaming coffee.

"Your spies informed you correctly," said Weston. He cupped his hands around the mug and blew across the top of the liquid. Then he sat back and took a sip.

After an awkward silence, Combs spoke. "Sir, I want to be respectful of your time. Shall we start the inspection?"

"Uh . . . not now."

Combs drummed his fingers behind his back. "Our biggest frustration is that we can't discuss what we've achieved. I'm looking forward to telling you everything."

Combs thought the General looked as if he were sitting on something uncomfortable.

"Major Combs-" began the General.

Combs whispered. "Sir, I'm sorry, but here I'm only called the Director. Even in my own office. The security-"

"Yes, yes, sorry. Son, the problem is . . . well . . ." Weston grimaced, then took another sip of the coffee. "The problem is . . . I've got to shut you down."

It took a beat for the words to register. When they did, Combs felt as if he had been punched in the solar plexus. He leaned against his desk for support. "Shut us down?"

"I'm here to see that everything is dismantled by tomorrow at oh-eight-hundred. There'll be vans for the equipment, and buses for the personnel. All the documents have to be shredded by then."

"Sir, we've had some astounding breakthroughs. Have you seen the reports?"

"Of course I've seen the reports. The problem is Peterson, that bleeding-heart pinko senator from California. He got wind of what you're doing up here. You've got a Judas in your ranks, son. That's the only way he could've found out."

"We have a leak?"

"Yes sir. Peterson went to the Finance Committee and threatened to go public if the plug wasn't pulled in forty-eight hours."

Combs's belly felt like it was on fire. He mentally scanned the faces of his personnel, trying to divine the traitor. His voice was tight when he spoke. "There must be a way-"

"There isn't. It's over, son. You got to retreat when you're licked."

The room seemed to swirl around Combs. The only sound was the low hum of a floor heater.

Weston continued, "You still divided into three sectors?"

Combs nodded.

"Keep the divisions physically isolated. And only the top dogs do the shredding." Weston pushed himself up, using the arms of the chair to support his large frame. "I'll be here at oh-seven-hundred for a final walk-through."

"You mean we have to start now?"

"Right now."

Within an hour, the personnel had been ripped from their duties and assigned to packing. Combs walked the facility in a daze. The scene was like an animal carcass being picked apart by buzzards. His top men reduced to filling cardboard boxes with years of research. Others wrapping lab equipment in tissue paper. Vans and buses parked outside, waiting like hearses.

He almost lost it when they wheeled in the four shredders. One for each of his Section Chiefs. And one for Combs himself. The boxes of paperwork from each division were sent to three separate staging areas, where each Chief had to personally shred his own material. They wheeled Combs's shredder right into his office. Strangers! Waltzing right into his most private space!

Inconceivable.

Just after 9:00 p.m., Section Chief Delta sneaked away from his shredding and dialed the number. He knew that security prohibited outside calls, but since they were shutting everything down, fuck 'em.

"Honey, I've got to work late," he whispered. "I won't be able to make it."

"Oh, no," pouted Penny, the twenty-something ski instructor he'd met when he fell down her slope. "I'm leaving tomorrow for three weeks."

"Believe me, I'm sorry."

"I bought a short nightie and some jasmine oil that's supposed to heighten your sexual livid-or something like that. The store said it's better than the oil from India. You remember the Indian oil?"

He remembered all right. That Indian oil had lit up his balls like Christmas bulbs. "If there is any possible way, I will get there."

"It's going to be awfully cold if I'm alone tonight," she purred. "I'm lying on the bed and reaching my hand into my panties."

It took all of Delta's willpower to hang up and go back to the shredding. He had at least six more hours of ripping up this shit, by which time Penny would be ice cold and he'd have blue-balls.

How could they give a menial shredding job to someone of his rank? Hell, the way things were divided up, no one could make heads or tails out of this crap anyway. So why did it have to be him? Did he accidentally piss off Combs or something?

Combs sat with his companion, Jack Daniel's. Although he rarely drank, tonight he was halfway through the bottle and finally getting numb. It was the warmest he'd ever felt inside this Ali Baba cave.

The most confidential materials were locked in his office. Since Combs was the only one who had access, he was the only one who could shred them. It had been more than four hours since they'd brought in the shredder, yet he hadn't been able to start.

He poured himself another shot, and threw it down the back of his throat. Then he stood up and found himself wobbly. Combs stumbled over to the shredder, pushed the green button, and the machine whirred to life. After fishing out his three-sided key, he unlocked the file cabinet and took out the oldest folder.

As he walked toward the shredder, he felt as though he were about to violate a sacred oath. Combs stopped and looked through the file. The very first experiment. He smiled at the na?vet? it reflected. Especially compared to where they were now.

The rage began to build again. He'd hoped the booze would lower the flames, yet his anger seared right through. Those sonsofbitches. They didn't even bother to find out where he was before they pulled the gallows trapdoor.

Combs stood in place a long while before putting the folder into the shredder. As it tore up the paper, he felt as though his skin was being flayed. He sat down for another shot of advice from Jack, who told him that he had to get through this. No one else could see the material.

Wait.

No one else could see the material. The germ of an idea took hold and started to grow. He was the only one with the whole picture. And while the research and data were voluminous, the conclusions were relatively simple. No one could shred what was in Combs's head, and once he destroyed these documents, no one could even get that.

He began to smile.

Combs grabbed an armload of files and whistled as he fed them into the shredder.

Delta's fingers were slick and greasy from shoveling printed pages into the machine. The image of Penny fondling herself kept replaying in his head, and the piles of documents didn't look any smaller. He was already cramming in such large batches that the shredder had jammed four times in the last half hour.

Shit. Make that five.

He cleared the machine's blades and walked into the hall to work off some of his frustration. Delta strode down the corridor in long steps, his fingers fidgeting for lack of a cigarette. The place was buzzing with people in white jumpsuits loading pallets of equipment. He glanced into the open door of a lab and saw Private Green neatly laying out his equipment on a workbench. The man handled each piece like it was a newborn infant. He remembered Green as one of those geeky types who always had his nose in a book. The kind that worked late even when there wasn't any overtime pay.

Delta stepped inside and sidled up next to Green. Green smiled, proud of his work. This guy would be perfect.

"Green, come with me a minute."

"Sir, I can't leave the lab."

"It's okay. I'm giving you an order."

Green glanced around the room, looking for a rescuer. "I'm not supposed-"

"I said I'm giving you an order."

"Yessir."

Green trailed reluctantly behind Delta to the shredding room.

Green stopped at the door. "This is a classified area. My clearance doesn't permit-"

Delta put his arm around Green's shoulder and dragged him along. "You're with me. And I'm giving you permission." Green resisted, like a stubborn horse being pulled from a barn.

"I'm redeploying you, Green. From now on, you shred these materials."

"I'm supposed to pack up the lab."

"You the only one in the lab?"

"No . . ."

"Then start shredding."

"I don't think I can do that without the Director's-"

"Fuck the Director. All the rules went out the window when they decided to shut down this Roach Motel."

"I still have two years to go in the Army, sir, and-"

Delta leaned in close. "Look, Private. Lemme give you a real-life lesson about the Army. You can refuse me, and I can put something in your record about insubordination. Or you can take care of this shredding and nobody will know but us." Delta was bluffing of course. He didn't even know Green's real name.

"Sir, with all respect-"

Delta whispered conspiratorially. "Kid, you gotta learn how to grab opportunities when they drop in your lap. Shredding is a helluva lot easier than packing up lab equipment. And a lot less dangerous than some of those chemicals."

Green hesitated. "I don't know . . ."

"I got a hundred dollar bill in my pocket that says you make the right decision. Think, kid. A hundred dollars, or a demerit."

"Colonel Delta, I don't think it's right to accept money. If this is important to you, I'll take care of it."

Delta grinned. What a sucker. "Atta boy. Now I owe you one. See how it works?"

Green tentatively picked up a handful of papers.

Delta pulled on his coat. "Don't you read any of this shit, you hear?" He slapped Green on the back, then left with his mind and groin already soaking in jasmine oil.

For the next two hours, Green fed papers into the ravenous shredder, which gnashed its teeth as if calling for more. Just to change the monotonous routine, he went to the opposite side of the room and grabbed a handful from the boxes stacked there. On his way back to the shredder, his eye caught the heading on one of the pages. He looked around to be sure no one was near, then closed the door and began reading.

Green found himself involuntarily shaking his head, as if to deny what was on the paper. Still stunned, he locked the door and continued reading through the files.

This was absurd. No one would really do this. It must be one of those diversionary operations, where they pretend something happened just to confuse the enemy.

But what enemy? We weren't at war.

Could human beings actually do something like this?

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Interviews & Essays

Letter from the Author
Mirage explores the fine line between sanity and insanity. There's a brilliant computer cryptographer, nearing a breakthrough in his newly formed business, who becomes the unwitting victim of a brainwashing project. A female FBI agent, still grieving from the loss of her husband, is assigned to track the cryptographer when he becomes the suspect in a bombing. Soon the cryptographer is beginning to hallucinate, and the FBI engages a cult deprogrammer/mind control specialist to unlock what's in his mind. Together they race against his impending insanity to thwart a full-scale terrorist attack.

Mirage was sparked by a casual dinner conversation. I was with a friend, a psychiatrist and professor at UCLA, who told me of his colleague Dr. Jolley West, one of the world authorities on brainwashing and cults. The concept of mind control was so powerful that the novel literally spun out from that thread. It led to a meeting with the late Dr. West and in-depth research into the subject.

The hero is a computer cryptographer -- another subject I find fascinating. I tracked down a UC Santa Barbara crypto professor who gave me a "crash course" on how data is encrypted and decrypted. I was surprised to learn, for example, that most of cryptography is not used for spies and secrets -- it's such daily activity as ATMs, pay television, and the like. The process essentially converts data into numbers, then manipulates them through a computer algorithm. The process is open and freely distributed; it's the "key" that's secret.

Mirage also deals with explosives, and through a friend who is a federal prosecutor, I met an ATF explosives expert. In researching this topic, I learned that fires and explosives are not necessarily related and that quite powerful explosives don't necessarily erupt in flames. Further, I discovered that a person may be killed by an explosive without any outward damage to his or her body -- the shock wave is of such intensity that it collapses the lungs.

Perhaps the most difficult bit of research was the female FBI agent, in that I had to write the FBI in Washington and request permission to interview an agent. It took almost four months before I was allowed to do so -- no doubt while they probed through every crevice of my past.

I'm currently working on my third and fourth novels simultaneously, because I'm a bit obsessive. I'm also the author of a nonfiction work, All You Need to Know About the Music Business, which is now in its fourth edition.

Sincerely,

Donald S. Passman

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
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