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Playing A Losing Game
 

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Playing A Losing Game


  PLAYING A LOSING GAME

  by

  M.F. Bishop

  Preface

  I wrote most of this story in 1990, setting it in 1999. I made some minor revisions incorporating GPS in 1995, but for the most part this is my view of 1999 politics and technology from 1990.

  Prologue

  A deserted stretch of coastal highway on the island of Osaka in Japan dips to within a few feet of the waves, then climbs steeply toward the top of the cliffs. The lights of three trucks carve sharp pieces from the predawn darkness as an 18-wheeler sandwiched between two vans grinds slowly up the grade. The engine sounds blend with the roar of the surf. Near the crest of the hill the road narrows, pinched between the stone of the cliff wall and the sheer drop to the ocean. The trucks slow even more and swing close to the cliff. A thundering explosion drowns the engine and surf noise as a Claymore mine blows the lead van off the road. As it tumbles down the cliff, uniformed soldiers are flung from the flaming wreckage. A hail of machine gun fire echoes the mine explosion, smashing the cab of the semi and killing the driver. The truck stalls and stops.

  The last truck also stops, and more soldiers leap to the road, unslinging machine pistols and assault rifles. They fire up the cliff, aiming at muzzle flashes. Their quick reaction brings down two of the attackers, but the defenders never know it. Trapped between the drop on one side and the stone of the mountain on the other, they are shot down in minutes.

  A sharp command to cease fire brings silence back to the hills. Several figures in dark clothes, wearing night goggles and carrying submachine guns, check the bodies. Four dead men. Moving fast, the attackers cut open the doors of the semi trailer with a welding torch. Their lights reveal several large wooden crates. Each crate is neatly stenciled in line after line of Kanji.

  "Bingo!", a voice mutters softly. Three of the dark figures leap into the trailer and buck the crates to the door. Another man directs a small truck backing down the road.

  In minutes, the crates are transferred from the truck to two cargo helicopters. They fly out low and fast, touching the tops of the waves washing over the wreckage and bodies at the foot of the cliff.

  Within hours, the crates are on Guam. Within days, they are on the banks of the Potomac.

  Chapter One

  John Jacob Holtzman believed he would have another drink. "A man's got to believe in something," he muttered, and chuckled. Maybe he was drunk enough, if that was funny. "Marilyn!" He called and clinked the ice in his glass. No Marilyn. "Bitch," he whispered, then said it louder, "Bitch! Bitch!" The house felt empty enough to echo, but the hangings, thick rugs and soft furniture muffled his voice. Definitely no Marilyn. Not a sound. John Jacob Holtzman put his head in his hands.

  After what seemed a very long time he looked up, over the sofas and divans and love seats, past the huge tile fireplace, through the two story window to the acre of newly planted flowers, shrubs and small fruit trees. A gardener edged the lawn with a power trimmer, but no noise penetrated the triple-paned, soundproof glass.

  Sitting on expensive new furniture in an expensive new house located in an expensive new suburb of Alexandria, Virginia, he was absolutely, totally alone. Time for another drink.

  He stood up carefully and was pleased to find he had plenty of balance left, more than enough for the trip to the kitchen. He moved deliberately, didn't stagger at all, and stopped at the first refrigerator. No ice. He felt in the corners of the ice tray. Empty. "Dammit," he said, "This is supposed to be an automatic ice maker. Where the hell is the ice?" He threw the empty tray to the floor and looked for the other refrigerator. There it was, over there, right where he left it. This one had ice, but he seemed to have misplaced his glass. Taking two cubes in his hand, he searched for the glass.

  It was a long, winding road, but he finally found the glass, with a little ice melting in the bottom. Why had he wanted the glass? Oh, yeah, time for a drink. Need some ice.

  "No," he said aloud, "I had ice, where's the damn ice? Oh." A cold trickle down his leg reminded him that the ice was in his pocket. He dug it out and looked at the two cubes dripping through his fingers. They were speckled with lint.

  "Jesus," he said, "damn you, Marilyn." He sat down and began to cry, little choking sobs as tears leaked through his tight shut eyelids. He cried for a few minutes, then fell asleep.

  He woke to a soft touch on his arm. He opened his eyes just a little and looked at the hand that gently tugged his sleeve. A woman's hand. He almost said "Marilyn" but it wasn't Marilyn's hand, so he said "Helen" and looked up into the blue eyes of Helen Holtzman.

  Although she was dressed for work in a severe dark blue suit and ivory silk blouse, his daughter-in-law's blond hair and sunburned, freckled face as always reminded him of the proverbial girl next door.

  "Hi, girl-next-door," he mumbled. He'd called her that the first time Alan brought her to the house. Almost short at five foot four, she was solidly built, but still sexy, he thought, in her fresh scrubbed way, even if she didn't have much in the way of tits. Breasts, rather, John guiltily corrected his thoughts. Marilyn got pissed whenever he said 'tits'. To hell with Marilyn. Marilyn...where was Marilyn? Oh, yeah. Damn.

  "C'mon, John," Helen said, interrupting his confused reverie, "time for walkies." She smiled as she pulled on his arm, but she looked worried. "Had another one of your liquid breakfasts, I see. And smell, yuk."

  John let himself be coaxed to his feet. "I got an early start. Early to bed and early to rise...."

  "Gets the worm in the tequila bottle. Anyway, it's not early now, it's nine o'clock. You should get down to the office. Alan could use your help." She got him moving toward the back of the house.

  "Your husband can do just fine without me. Just like his mother. Did I tell you Marilyn left?" He caught himself on a door jamb and turned to face her. "I went to the store yesterday...or the day before that...when I got back she was gone...left this note." He reached into his pocket and brought out a piece of wet paper, the ink blotched and running.

  Helen recoiled, "John!"

  "Ah, it's just from the ice cubes. Look." He smoothed the note against the wall. "Damn, it's all smeared." He wanted to cry again, but didn't.

  "Ice cubes? You had ice cubes in your pocket?" Helen stepped back. "God, you're a mess. It was yesterday. Marilyn called me last night. That's why I came by. Whattaya expect, John? You haven't been sober three days straight in weeks."

  "I wish to hell I had never taken that job." He turned his face against the wall. "It wasn't worth it."

  Waving her hand at the rugs, the hangings, the garden, Helen said, "Holtzman Electric has done pretty well this last year. That's what paid for all this."

  He laughed. "Yeah, I've done great, haven't I? The country hasn't done so great, of course. Maybe its time I did a little worse and the country did a little better. Ah, Helen, I know you meant well, it's not your fault, but I can't take it any more. I've got to make things right, talk to somebody, the FBI maybe...."

  "There's really nothing to talk about," she said sharply, "you did a good job and you were paid what the work was worth."

  "Maybe a little too good a job, huh? C'mon, you know something's wrong over there." He grabbed both her arms and looked blearily into her face.

  "Hey," she said. He dropped his hands to his side and backed away.

  "Sorry, sorry, like you said, I'm a mess." He ran both hands through his hair.

  "It's done, it's over." She slapped him gently on the cheek. "Take a break. Get out of the house. If you won't go to the office, go to the boat. Pick on some fish."

  He brig
htened a little. "Yeah, OK, OK, I'll go down to the boat."

  "First you clean yourself up while I clean up the kitchen." Patting him on the shoulder, she turned to the front of the house. Outside the window, the gardener trimmed a grotesque ornamental shrub.

  When she heard the shower, Helen punched a number into the phone. It picked up on the first ring. "He's all unglued," she said, "He's making come-clean noises again." She listened. "He's going out on his boat, Marbledock Marina, slip 21 or 22, its called the Future Shock." She listened again, then laughed a hard laugh. "Stall him for an hour? Consider him stalled."

  When John came back, Helen had the kitchen reasonably clean and was breaking eggs into a bowl. "Hey, much better," she said brightly. "Now for a little something solid."

  "Not hungry." He waved the food away. "I do feel better, though. I need some time to think. I need a few hours on the river. I need some time to decide how to do what I've got to do."

  "Uh, uh, plenty of time for that. First a light breakfast, then thinking." She spotted a bottle of vodka behind the mixer. Good God, there was booze everywhere. Taking tomato juice and ice from the refrigerator, she found a glass and mixed in a dollop of vodka. "Here's just a little of the hair of the dog. To be taken slooowly and chased with a decent meal."

  "OK, OK, Helen, thanks." He took the drink and sipped it obediently . "I appreciate this Helen, dammit. You take better care of me than Marilyn ever did."

  She held up her hand. "Hey, speak no ill. Marilyn's taken good care of you and put up with a lot while she did it. Sit right there. I'll have this omelette ready in two shakes." She rattled pans and plates. She made haste slowly.

  He sipped his drink. "Why aren't you at work? What if the honorable senator should need a thought?"

  "Be nice, John, Dugan is a real patriot. He works hard for this country." She glanced at the clock on the stove as she slid the eggs onto a plate. She popped the plate into the oven. "A couple of pieces of toast will set this off just right. Where's the bread?"

  "Cupboard over the black 'fridge. Come on, Helen, Dugan Loughlin has to work hard to tie his shoes. Without you and that boy wonder telling him what to say, he'd still be shagging groceries." John looked at his empty glass. "Hey, I'm out. How about one more?"

  "Dugan was a New York State Senator, as you know perfectly well. A good one, too." She took the glass and put it in the sink. "No way. You've got to drive a boat, remember? I don't know why you pick on Dugan so much. He's sincere, and honest...."

  "Yeah, sincere, honest and stupid. Admit it, Helen, the man has no brain as we think of it."

  She turned to face him, hands on her hips, her chin sticking out. "Now stop it, John, you're making me mad...oh, damn it, now I've burned the toast!" She swung back to the toaster and put in two fresh slices of bread.

  "I'm sorry, Helen." John put his elbows on the table and rested his head in his hands. "I've got to fix this mess I've made." He sat up and looked at her. "But I'll never involve you, Helen. Don't worry about that. Does Alan know anything?"

  "Not from me. I've never told him." She put the omelette and toast in front of him. "Eat up, then get on down to ol' man river. Think on it, John. You'll see that everything is OK. All we have to do is ride it out. Everything we've done will be for the best in the long run." She looked at the clock on the stove. "Now I do have to get to work, but I'll see you off first."

  He cleaned his plate and accepted her second refusal of another drink. "Here, take your jacket," she said, "it's cloudy. It could be cool on the river." She kissed him on the cheek and guided him out the door. He's a sweet man, she thought as she watched him drive away, too bad he's such a Wimpy Willie. She wondered what would happen today, but veered away from that topic. Better to be surprised by events. She returned to the kitchen and picked up the phone.

 

  Chapter Two

  Across the continent, in the Blue Mountains of Oregon, it was an hour past sunrise. Dew still puddled on the blind where the bow hunter crouched. The blind was well placed; a faint trail came toward it then curved back up the ridge. A deer on the trail would be right in the sights and less than fifteen feet away just before it turned. Water dripping from leaves made tiny plinking sounds. A bird sang a short morning song.

  Stepping softly, head up, looking and listening, a mule deer came slowly down the trail. Its big ears cocked and turned, but heard only the water and the birds. It stopped, then came on, almost to the turn of the trail. Then it stopped again, startled by a pungent smell. It looked all around, but the blind was cleverly built, so it saw nothing. Still, the smell...the deer spun around and was gone.

  The man rested against one side of the blind. His rotted fingers clutched his bow. His empty eye sockets pointed down the trail, over his mouse-gnawed cheeks.

  Chapter Three

  John Holtzman gunned the Mercedes when he hit Granning Road, pushing it over ninety on the long, empty straight before Bekin's Crossing. After Helen's attention, he felt better than he had in weeks. He touched the brakes and slowed at the town limit. Downshifted hard, the old 450SL rapped like a Porsche, the sound pounding through its special exhaust. He loved doing that in front of die hard Mercedes fanatics. A few years back an old man threatened him with a cane for 'desecrating' a Mercedes. He grinned at the memory as he swung through the short main street and accelerated hard onto the open road.

  It took fifteen minutes to reach I-95. He still felt good as he approached the interchange, but every cell in his body cried out for a drink. He went under the freeway to a little town on the other side. The liquor store was in a small shopping mall. As he stepped from the car, he was momentarily amazed at his body's urge to run, but held it down to a fast walk.

  Purchase made and back in the car, he watched his hands shake as he unscrewed the cap on the fifth of Johnnie Walker. He took three quick gulps, gasped and gagged. Then he felt much better, even better than Helen had made him feel. After one more swallow he headed back to the freeway.

  Just south of Alexandria, Marbledock Marina shared a small cove with a flock of expensive houseboats. John swung the Mercedes past the security booth, which was empty, as usual. Once parked, he had another quick shot, then pulled himself out of the car.

  "Just a little buzzed," he muttered, "no problem." And not so buzzed, he noted proudly, as to forget his notebook. He carried a notebook in the car, handy for ideas on circuit design or construction problems. Slipping the bottle back into its paper bag, he noticed it was more than half empty. No matter, there were a couple more in the boat. Organization and preparation, that was the secret.

  He opened the notebook as he walked to the dock. The last dated entry was four months old, and so cryptic he couldn't understand it. The last note - no date - was a reminder to get more liquor for the boat. He stopped for a moment, holding a used bottle of whiskey, feeling the rest of the alcohol warm inside him, looking at his dog-eared notebook. He turned to the first page. The entry was six years in the past, a diagram of the wiring closet layout of his first big cable job. He looked again at the last entry, "Jack Danls fr boat". Maybe Marilyn was right, maybe he did have a problem.

  "Ho, ho, JJ old buddy, you got a bigger problem than a little too much boozing." His worries were coming back and it was time for another drink, but he stopped to admire the Future Shock. She was a genuine antique, a forty-eight foot Wheeler built in 1953. He had been living aboard when he met Marilyn and they had lived on her together until Alan was born. She was still trim and beautiful, like Marilyn...damn her. He pulled the gangplank down and went aboard.

  The small refrigerator produced ice for a civilized drink, before he unhooked the umbilical and fired the twin Chryslers. Once they were warm he loosed the bow line. There was just enough current to hold her against the dock until he got to the stern line. When she was free, he goosed the engines and s
wung downstream. She was really too big for the Potomac, much more at home in Chesapeake Bay or cruising to the Outer Banks. Still, the feel and sound of the engines and the slight pitch and roll as she hit the main channel were always exhilarating.

  A creek cut into the west bank a few miles below Mt Vernon, creating a little harbor lined with trees. He anchored there and sat for awhile in the silence. Time to get to work. He gathered up the notebook and a fresh bottle, some ice and a pencil, and settled into the starboard casting chair on the foredeck. The first step, he thought, is to write down just what the hell it is I know. I know that Helen came to me about the job on the Omniac computer.. No, I'm not going to mention her at all, ever. He had written her name, but now he erased it and ran heavy lines through the smudge on the paper.

  John Jacob Holtzman sat in the shade on a warm June day, drinking and making notes. Aft, loosened fittings on the fuel lines leaked a fine spray of gasoline into the engine compartment.

 

  Chapter Four

  The same June sun that warmed John Holtzman shone brightly on a gigantic landfill near East Lansing, Michigan.

  In the early afternoon, the dump was almost deserted; one final garbage truck waited to unload. After the compactor rolled by, it backed to the tipping line. The engine roared as the hydraulics pushed East Lansing's trash to its final resting place, then sputtered and stopped when the load jammed in the hopper.

  "Shit," the driver said, "another fuckin' jam. Ronny, git out there and shake it loose."

  "Ok, Pop." Ronny hopped out of the air conditioned cab into the hot, dusty stench. On a father and son team, there's no question who does the donkey work. Ronny was pissed. He didn't mind the dirt and the stink, but they were already late, and Pop had let his cousin Martin head for home after the last pick up. That fucker Martin always had some excuse, this time it was a dentist appointment for chrissake. Now a fuckin' jam...the guys would leave for the lake without him, if they didn't hurry, and now a fuckin' jam.

  Thinking his bitter adolescent thoughts, and occupied with tugging at the thick wire, Ronny didn't notice the new smell for several minutes; a thick, almost sweet odor that curled heavily out of the hopper.

  "What the fuck is that," he muttered, then screamed as he saw the answer.

  "You all right, kid?" his father called. Then he cried out as Ronny's staring eyes loomed in the rear view mirror. "Hey, you little shit, you scared the piss outta me. You get back there...." He stopped as Ronny frantically scrabbled at the door.

  "Pop, Pop," he screamed, "somebody's back there, in the hopper. Oh, Jesus." As the older man scrambled out of the driver's seat, Ronny turned away and lost his lunch. Pop's nose wrinkled with disgust as he examined the body. Been dead for a while, by the look and smell of it. Ronny gave up his breakfast. His father climbed into the cab of the truck and rummaged in the toolbox that rode behind the seat. He emerged with a large pair of nippers.

  As he snipped the wire tangling the ram, he saw that it was attached to the body. "Jesus, Mary and all the saints," he muttered, "tied with wire." Behind him, Ronny had finished with breakfast and appeared to be working on last night's dinner. Pop freed the ram, climbed into the cab and started the engine. The hydraulics squealed as they leaned into the load.

  "Pop, Pop, whattaya doin?" Ronny was so pale he was green, but he was back at the door of the truck, pulling on the handle. "We gotta get help, call the cops."

  Pop gunned the engine and spoke over the roar. "That poor fool has been past help for weeks, and we aren't going to any cops." He checked the mirror and disengaged the power. "Look at this," he said as he climbed once more out of the cab. Ronny held back. "C'mon, boy," Pop said, "you look at this." He grabbed Ronny by the arm and dragged him to the back of the truck.

  The body had spilled from the hopper and lay on its left side, its legs half-buried in torn magazines and orange peels. Ronny gulped hard and averted his eyes, but his father forced him to look.

  The face was partly hidden in the garbage, but the skin of the back of the head and neck was greenish-brown. A few tufts of beard on the right cheek told them it had once been a man. The arms were pulled behind the body and thick black wire circled the wrists. Pop indicated a small hole behind the withered right ear.

  "Tied with wire," he snarled, "and shot behind the ear. This is a mob hit, son." He released Ronny's arm and the boy tottered away, gagging and crying. "We'll say nothin' to nobody," Pop continued, "unless we want to end up like this fool. You want that?"

  "N-n-no," Ronny howled, "I won't say nothin'. I want to go home. I don't feel good."

  "Get in the truck," Pop commanded. He got in himself and restarted the ram. In less than two minutes the unloading was complete, the body covered with household debris.

  Ronny shivered in the cab while Pop checked for the body. "No sign of 'im," Pop said as he climbed back in. He put the truck in gear. "Remember, boy," he added, "not a word." Ronny nodded mutely and wiped his mouth and nose on his sleeve.

 

  Chapter Five

  Somewhere north of Hawaii, the attack submarine USS Manassas headed south at flank speed. She was making nearly thirty knots, seventy meters down. Her sonar probed delicately ahead, detecting and reporting thermal boundaries in the water, but nothing else. The Manassas was the center of a three boat fleet. Sister subs ran fifteen miles to the east and fifteen miles to the west. At 0400 the boats obeyed previously given orders and turned slightly east, dropping their speed to twenty knots.

  At 0415 the Manassas picked up the sound of propellers. Small propellers, moving fast. Possible long-range torpedo. The fleet quickly shifted to silent running, moving noiselessly at ten knots. Seven minutes later the torpedo and the Manassas came together.

  In the war room, the commanding Admiral slapped his forehead. The battle display on the wall showed a red blotch where the Manassas had been. The sub's serial number and the word 'destroyed' were superimposed on the blotch.

  "They got the Manassas! Order the other two to turn back."

  "Aye, sir," the signal lieutenant responded. His fingers flew over his keyboard.

  Another officer pointed at the board. "Too late, sir, the Dutch Harbor is gone, too." East of the Manassas, another blotch, another serial number, another notation: 'destroyed'.

  The Admiral turned to the signal lieutenant. "Any detection reports? Did any of them see a damn thing?"

  The lieutenant checked his screen, then conferred with two assistants. "Just the torpedo warning from the Manassas, sir. The Dutch Harbor never even reported that. Further orders sir?"

  The Admiral looked at three officers nearby. Each one sat at a computer console. "Well, gentlemen, what do you suggest?"

  "I can't properly say, sir," said one.

  "Nor I," said another.

  "Of course, gentlemen." The Admiral turned away from them to the third. "Norris?"

  The sub commander shrugged. "Pull back." He glanced at his computer screen. "We still haven't seen a thing. If three boats couldn't get through, one isn't likely to make it."

  "Lieutenant," the Admiral said, "make this order: NOPACOM to Task Force 7: operation terminated. Return to base." He slumped in his chair as the signals officer made the order.

  "Sir," Norris was surprised. "You're canceling the whole operation? Recalling the entire fleet?" The order to retreat appeared on his screen and his hands moved over his keyboard as he spoke. The other two submarine commanders had turned their computers off and were talking quietly together.

  "They beat us, Norris. If we keep on, they'll just beat us some more." He looked up at the dots that were Task Force 7 of the United States North Pacific fleet. The battle screen displayed little directional arrows that now pointed north. "We can't just throw the ships away."

  Norris pounded the arm of his chair. "Damn Japs," he muttered.

  The Admiral
held up a warning hand. "Watch your mouth, Norris." He glanced back at the rows of observers, who were mostly UN officials with a sprinkling of military officers from neutral countries. "Name calling will get us bad press."

  Chapter Six

  After shooing John Holtzman off to his boat, Helen Holtzman went to work. Jumpy and distracted all day, by evening she was relaxed enough to tell Alan about her visit with John in the morning. She left out the phone calls. Alan was too tired from work and too filled with resentment toward his father to be interested.

  "Let me know when he comes up for air," he snapped, "until that happens, I don't want to hear about him." John had rarely been at work in the last several months and when he did show up he was drunk and disruptive. Alan was exhausted by the strain of running his own projects and also managing the business.

  Helen said no more. As so often happened these days, they went to bed and fell asleep without speaking.

  Chapter Seven

  The lights burned late that night on the banks of the Potomac. It has been many years since the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C. had much to do with ships. As nautical functions slipped away, the empty barracks and warehouses were turned to other uses. Government and military agencies without the political clout to gain space in more attractive and comfortable quarters were pushed into the drafty, peeling buildings.

  Young organizations, recently formed, often lack clout. The CIA was one such organization; not the Central Intelligence Agency, but an organ of the United States Army designated (possibly in a spasm of bureaucratic humor) as the Computer Intelligence Agency. This CIA occupied the bottom floor of an ancient warehouse; computers, logic analyzers and power cables resting uneasily on warped board floors.

  During the day, a dozen technicians worked on computers or parts of computers gathered by American agents and industrial saboteurs, or, in especially difficult circumstances, by full-scale clandestine military operations.

  But only two dedicated computer spies worked into the night. Major Mary Grier was aided by her humble assistant, Major Bobby Britton.

  Bobby, a tall, thin man with a boyish face, held a hot soldering gun.

  "So, my pretty, you won't talk," he said, "perhaps this will loosen your tongue." He carefully applied the gun and laughed maniacally as smoke curled from the sizzling target.

  "Will you stop screwing around? I can't think with all your damn prancing and giggling." Mary Grier was a short, overweight blond. Packed into a threadbare, grease stained military uniform, she sat at a long table covered with paper and several computer terminals.

  The man held up the gun and blew gently on the tip. "This is an interrogation. You're supposed to prance and look crazy and threatening during an interrogation." He found his reflection in a shiny surface and smoothed his hair. Although he was an officer in the United States Army, he wore a stylish rayon shirt and baggy pants under his lab coat.

  "Bobby, this is a computer. We are, as you put it, 'interrogating' a computer. It doesn't care how you act, you dumb shit. Only I care how you act. Straighten up." She turned back to the terminal. He soldered a few more leads.

  "Ok, try it now," he said. "Start with three volts this time, then crank it up." The victim was strapped into a rats-nest of wiring that attached it to several other computers. Bobby watched a display screen as the chubby blond adjusted the current. "There it is! We got it! Four point three volts. Give me five minutes." He worked silently, carefully fitting computer chips into sockets. "Full power, Mary. Great, great, great." He laughed again.

  "Will you shut the fuck up." She sounded genuinely annoyed, so he shut up. "I've got the logic analyzer programmed," she continued, "hook it up and we'll see how this son of a bitch thinks."

  Four hours and twenty cups of coffee later, they sat back and looked at each other.

  "I don't get it," he said.

  "Beats the hell out of me," she said.

  "It's past three," he said, "let's knock off for the night."

  "Too right. See you tomorrow, I mean later today." Mary grabbed her uniform jacket and was out the door.

  Bobby looked longingly after her, sighed and turned off the lab fluorescents. The computer they were studying was still powered on, its red and blue indicator lights glowing in the dark. "We'll uncover your secrets, my pretty," he promised as he closed and locked the door.

 

  Chapter Eight

  A few miles north of the Navy Yard, other public servants unwillingly worked late. A student group agitating for DC statehood held an evening rally at Washington Circle. They had no permit. The new police chief was trying to make a name for himself. He ordered his tactical units to disperse the illegal gathering. They moved in with rubber bullets and tear gas. The crowd broke through the police lines and surged down the streets around George Washington University, breaking windows. Some of the rioters seized the Foggy Bottom Metro stop and blocked the tracks. Trains were halted and pulled back up the line. The Special Operations squads blockaded the exits from the station and settled down to wait things out.

  Hours later, four Metro police standing at one end of the Foggy Bottom platform watched the throng milling around the escalators and benches. Outnumbered twenty to one, they were forced to be spectators.

  There was a lot of yelling; signs and trash containers had been thrown off the platform onto the tracks. Most of the rioters seemed to be college students taking a break from studies. It was a racially and sexually mixed bunch, mostly black but with a scattering of other colors and mostly male but with a scattering of other sexes. The cops were two black men and two black women.

  "What're these young fools doing?" The oldest and largest of the forces of law and order shook his head sadly. "This is no way to get what they want, wastin' their time, wastin' our time."

  "Hell, Harley, they're getting what they want. They want to have some fun, let off a little steam." The woman sergeant leading the squad was ten years younger than Harley, and more sympathetic to the excesses of youth. "DC's finest have the stairs sealed off. We just wait until they get hungry and thirsty, arrest a few as a lesson to the others...." She paused and held up a hand, listened to her helmet headset. "Shit! There's a bomb on the platform!"

  Harley turned from the crowd and the other police gathered around. "Just a threat, some crank," one of them offered.

  "Maybe," the sergeant said, "and maybe not. The warning is from a white supremacist bunch that's planted bombs before. We can't take a chance. Rochelle, use the loudspeaker. Tell them the stairway is clear and they are free to go." She looked past the end of the platform into the tunnel. "Harley, make sure nobody got past us onto the maintenance catwalk."

  "No problem, I'll be right back." Harley got his ponderous body moving, heading down the catwalk. The walk was narrow, with a four-foot drop to the live rail. He stepped carefully, shining his flashlight on the path. Behind him, some kid on the station p.a. shouted 'Free Washington' and other inspired slogans. The sounds mixed with the noise of the crowd and echoed down the tunnel. The empty tunnel; there was no one here. He was already stopped and turning when he saw the light, a brief flash far away in the darkness. "Damn," Harley muttered, "damn, there is someone down there. How did they get past us?"

  Moving at a heavy jog, he covered the one hundred feet to the light. Even in the darkness of the tunnel, he could see they were workers not rioters; a salt and pepper team in white coveralls. They were closing a door set into the wall of the tunnel. He was right on them before they saw him.

  "Yow! Hey!" One yelled, as they both jumped back.

  Harley grinned to himself. Surprised by two hundred and ninety pounds in a dark alley, he thought. No wonder they jumped. He put on his tough-cop voice. "This area's been cleared, you two. There's a riot on the platform. You deaf or somethin'? Didn't you get the word?"

  The two men shuffled their feet.
"Uh, well, we were jus' finishin' up, a little communications problem...."

  "Well, now we've got a bomb threat, so move it out. I've a good mind...." Harley swung the beam of his flashlight over the door, then stopped. The door was stamped with a federal seal. "What? That's a security installation!" One of the men stepped in and stabbed him under his upraised arm. He cried out and fought, but they were both on him, stabbing him again. He pushed at them and grabbed for his gun. One kicked him in the leg. The other slammed him in the chest. He went over the edge. The live rail flashed and popped.

  They peered at his still body. "Man, I hate doin' a brother like that," the black workman said.

  "I ain't never seen those feelings slow you down any," his partner answered, "you finished yet?"

  "It's workin' jus' fine. Let's get outta here." They picked up a tool box and trotted down the catwalk, away from the platform and the body lying on the tracks.

 

  Chapter Nine

  After an uneasy night, Helen considered dropping by the Holtzmans' again before work, but decided to hold off until she knew how things had gone. John had to be persuaded to keep quiet, no matter what it took, but John was a stubborn man, and she feared to think how much 'persuading' he might need.

  She was preparing for a strategy meeting with Senator Loughlin and his senior staff when Alan called.

  "My God, Helen, Dad's... Dad's...," His voice cracked. "Helen, he's dead. My Dad's dead."

  The tension broke and surged through her. Stomach churning, she collapsed into a chair, screamed and cried. It was not an act.

  "What happened? Are you sure? Oh, Alan!" The office staff looked at her in startled sympathy, then turned politely away. Helen didn't care. Tears streamed down her face.

  "His boat blew up. Yesterday afternoon. They didn't identify him until this morning. There's not much left." Alan was sobbing now. "I've got to call Mother."

  "Wait, Alan, where are you? I'll come home." She pushed herself to her feet, thought of her day's plans, appointments to cancel....

  "I'm still at work." His voice was anguished.

  "I'll come there, wait there, I'll get a cab, no, I'll bring my car." She was babbling a little. Alan agreed to wait for her. Maybe, she thought as she hung up the phone, maybe it really was an accident.

  In control of herself again, Helen gathered her jacket and her purse. Her face felt tear-stained, but cleaning up could wait. She looked for Terrell Dennerman.

  He was in the large conference room, focusing an overhead projector. "Terrell? I've got to go. Something awful has happened. Alan's father has been killed." She watched Terrell, hoping....

  He finished adjusting the projector and switched it off. Although he was Dugan Loughlin's chief of staff, Terrell concerned himself with every detail in the office. He smiled thinly and cocked an eyebrow. "Well that certainly is a surprise." He rubbed his mustache, leaned against the conference table and grinned at her. His resemblance to a young Clark Gable was almost startling and he wore a Gable-like mustache to enhance the effect.

  "You don't look very surprised, Terrell." Helen realized she was accusing herself; she was the one who had called Terrell, she was the one who had delayed John.

  "Why, Helen, you are upset. But this is such an important meeting. Must you rush off?" He patted her shoulder and grinned again. "Yes, I guess you had. Better to keep up appearances." She was sure then, terribly, terribly sure, that whatever had happened on the boat wasn't an accident. She pulled away.

  "Damn you, Terrell." Then the tears came again and she hated herself for crying. "Is this what we've come to? How much did he really know?"

  "He knew enough to ask questions that we don't want asked. He knew enough to call attention to people and actions we don't want noticed." Terrell took her arm and gripped it hard. "Remember, this is bigger than Holtzman, bigger than you, bigger than me. Our friends have their own ways of handling problems." He squeezed her arm harder still and looked into her eyes. "Any problems."

  He released her as she backed through the door, holding her jacket and purse in front of her like a shield. A memory, another awful thought, came crowding in. "Nelson?" She said, "Was Nelson a problem? You said he and Harry changed their minds about wanting more money." She turned away, but he followed her into the hall.

  "Your Oregon boyfriend? The mighty hunter? He changed his mind alright. He's not a problem now. And his buddy, the Mouthy Mex, he'll never be anyone's problem again." His voice was smooth. "Remember that, Helen."

  Chapter Ten

  Approaching nine AM, Major Bobby Britton was sleeping well until the sound of his own snoring woke him up. He rolled over and pulled a pillow around his head. He drifted off. The phone rang. "Christ on a crutch," Bobby cried, and pulled the pillow tighter around his ears. The phone rang some more, its shrill whistle piercing the pillow. Hopelessly awake, he grabbed the receiver. "Alright, dammit, hello."

  "Hey, Bobby, how the hell are you? This is Frank Jervis. Did I wake you up?" Frank didn't sound concerned.

  "How'd you guess? Call me later. 'Bye." Bobby started to put the phone down.

  "No, no, I must talk to you, Bob. Seriously." Frank did sound serious.

  "Ok, Frank, I'm awake now anyway," Bobby sighed, "why are you calling at such an ungodly hour?"

  "The office said you pulled a late-nighter, so...."

  "Hey, thanks, pal. So you thought you'd keep me from getting too rested?"

  "You're the one who stayed up half the night playing with toys," Frank answered, "anyway, I could use a little help, so I'm calling in some chips."

  On his feet now, Bobby combed his hair, then looked in the mirror. Woah, still pretty ragged. "Listen, Frank," he said, "God knows you've got chips to call in, but first let me get cleaned up. Want to meet?"

  "Thanks. Brunch at the usual, as soon as you can get there." Frank hung up, leaving Bobby awake and committed. He sighed again and headed for the shower.

  Cleaned, combed and shaved, he carefully selected a casual look; open-necked linen shirt, linen pants, boating shoes and a Greek fishing cap. I'll make a nice contrast to Frank's three piece suit, he thought as he checked himself in the hallway mirror.

  Picking up a Post at the L'Enfant Plaza Station, he read a few pages as the Metro carried him under the Mall to the Federal Triangle Station. The lead story concerned the hurricane that had just battered South Carolina. A small box directed him to page three for war news. On page three the news wasn't good. The headline read: SACRAMENTO VALLEY OFFENSIVE FAILS. The sub-head stated: JAPANESE TIGHTEN GRIP ON CITY. Another article pointed out that with the fall of Santa Barbara the Japanese held the entire California coast south of Mendocino. The official explanation for the defeat outside Sacramento had obviously been cut short to make room for a furniture ad.

  When Frank said 'the usual', he meant the Old Post Office. Bobby liked the food and Frank Jervis liked the crowd. Carrying a tray heaped with burritos and tacos, Bobby scanned the seating area. Frank already had a table staked out, surrounded by tourist families, each family with at least one tired four-year-old. He was eating sprouts and yogurt.

  The Old Post Office processed Washington, D.C.'s mail in years past. Now its central sorting room serves meals, with hundreds of tourists and government office workers choosing from food stands at the rear of the huge room and crowding around tiny tables to munch away, entertained at noon by folksy local talent.

  At ten thirty in the morning the stage was quiet, but the tourists were noisy. No one could be overheard and even long-range microphones would be defeated by the din of shouted conversations, accented by the crying four-year-olds. Frank liked his meetings confidential.

  Some of the tourists looked at Bobby, noticing his unusual height and, he thought, his impeccable dress. No one looked at Frank, who was just a stocky black man in a plain
grey suit.

  Bobby leaned close and spoke under the noise. "How do you do it, Frank? Nobody notices you at all."

  "Just think inconspicuous, my man. But that's not your technique. I do have some fans in the crowd." Frank made a slight motion toward the mezzanine that overlooked the crowded floor.

  Bobby whistled. "I see them. Secret Service. So now you travel with heat?"

  "Cramps my style, but the man insists." Frank grimaced. "Things are starting to get nasty."

  "So nasty that you're in danger?" It occurred to Bobby that if Frank was in danger then maybe he himself was also in danger. He turned and scanned the railings that ran around the room. He had known Frank for a long time - college, graduate school, then several years of working together at IBM. Bobby was the one who was noticed, but Frank was the one who got what he wanted, rising through the ranks at IBM until he took a leave to work on the senatorial campaign of a fresh young politician. Now the fresh young politician was President of the United States and Frank was the first black White House Chief of Staff.

  "Ever think of going back to IBM?" Bobby asked as he swung his head. "Much more quiet."

  "Relax, you know how cautious the Pres' can be. He's just taking no chances," Frank smiled, "and I don't think of going back to IBM any more than you do. Even now." He stopped smiling. "Listen, Bobby, I need your help. You know how things are going?"

  "If you mean the war, I know we're getting our butt kicked, and I saw in the paper today that it just got kicked again."

  Frank leaned close. "Its worse than that. We were pounded in the Pacific yesterday. Had to abandon our attempt to break the J's supply lines. That's not public yet."

  "So why are you talking to me? I'm just a major with a voltmeter and a screwdriver. Maybe there are some generals and admirals that need talking to." Britton took a bite of one of his burritos. It was already cold. The family at the table on their right was replaced by six loud teenagers.

  "You know computers. You have a brain. I trust you." Frank leaned back and looked terribly tired. "I swear to God, Bobby, I don't know who to trust anymore. I want you to take a quiet look around OMCOM."

  "Omniac? The war computer? Why? I'm in the middle of something right now, Frank...."

  Frank leaned forward and looked into Bobby's eyes. "Listen to me. This is serious. This string of defeats has given the anti-war faction a big boost. Dugan Loughlin started out with very few allies. Now he has a following. If things go on...he could be the next President."

  "Christ on a crutch. The 'anti-war' faction. Very nice. But why me, Frank? You've got the Army, the Navy, the FBI...."

  "Have we, Bobby? We're not sure who we've got. I smell treason, Bobby, and I smell a rat. I need somebody I can trust, somebody I can believe. Please, Bobby." Frank seized Bobby's hands with his. One of the teenagers glanced over and nudged a companion.

  Bobby pulled his hands away. "Your plea has touched my heart," he said, "I owe you some big favors anyway. But I still don't see what I can do for you."

  "Look," Frank said, "visit OMCOM, visit the Pentagon. Get a feel for the thing. Then decide. I'll be in touch."

  "Well, whatthehell. I'll need to get around. Can I have a driver?"

  Frank got up. The Secret Service agents waited at the top of the stairs. "A car and driver for the duration," he said, "and, of course, no uniform."

  Bobby grinned. "Right. Shake on it." They shook on it.

  Chapter Eleven

  "Its all right, don't get up," Bobby called as he ambled into the lab. It was an unusually warm day, even for Washington in June, and he had celebrated by stopping at his apartment after meeting Frank and changing to seersucker slacks and matching pale blue blazer. He checked his reflection in the glass of the lab door and liked what he saw.

  "Don't you worry, Bobby boy." Mary Grier was stretched out on her stomach, attaching two thick electrical cables together. "Life will go on like you weren't even here." Her plump bottom filled her uniform slacks just to overflowing. The slacks themselves were faded and worn. "And speaking of not being here, where the hell have you been?" The cable ends snapped home with a loud click. "Whoo", she said, and rested on the floor with her arms stretched out over her head.

  Bobby watched her lying there and had the impulse to reach down and pat her rump. Someday, he thought, I will actually do that and then she will kill me. Instead he said, "Missed me, eh? My charm? My sense of humor?"

  "Your idiotic laugh?" Mary sat up. "I've been here since eight and you stroll in at one in the afternoon? I thought this was a priority project."

  A technician came by with a requisition for Mary to sign. He waved his hand at Bobby. "Hiya, Major," he said, "did ya hear? We found out what they call this beast. The Dragon Mark Seven."

  Bobby laughed. "A dragon, huh? Christ on a crutch, an Electric Dragon."

  "Hey, the Electric Dragon," the tech chuckled, "that's pretty good." He took the paper from Mary. "Thanks, Major Grier," he said, "see ya."

  Mary dived back into the tangle of cables. Bobby hung up his blazer and put on a lab coat. He wondered if he should tell her he was being transferred to Omniac. I'll call her, he decided, that will be safer.

  "Any thoughts on what this Electric Dragon really is?" he asked, "it sure as hell isn't a computer."

  "Nothing I can say for sure yet. I found some microcode that's probably used for controlling the input cache. Once we've analyzed that, we'll have a better idea." Mary was all animation now, her eyes sparkling and her blond hair flying around her head. She moved as she talked, hooking more cables into the net around the Electric Dragon and flicking on a linked series of computerized oscilloscopes and logic analyzers. Mary was chubby, profane, untidy and cared about nothing but computers. Bobby loved her madly.

  In the course of the afternoon they learned one of the Electric Dragon's secrets; most of the circuitry was analog rather than digital. Therefore the Dragon responded to continually varying electrical signals rather than the series of ones and zeroes that instruct digital computers.

  "Analog," Mary said, that means speed. But...."

  "But there isn't any way to program it," Bobby interrupted, "it's more like a giant analog calculator."

  "Which is calculating exactly what? No idea," Mary said, "let's start documenting the current flow." She gave rapid directions to several of the technicians.

  Bobby hovered anxiously in the background. He knew little about analog circuits. Maybe the Omniac project would get him out of the lab before he looked inept in front of Mary. He prayed that the transfer would come through soon; in the meantime he would have to fake it. He was puzzling over just how the hell to fake it when his prayers were answered. One of the lab phones buzzed. Mary punched the speaker button.

  "Major Britton to the Commander's office," the phone said.

  "Time for your monthly lecture on never wearing a uniform." Mary smoothed her regulation dress and smirked. Bobby looked at her scruffy outfit and said nothing, just flicked a speck of lint off his slacks and shrugged into his blazer. He waved goodbye, laughed his crazy laugh and slipped out the door.

  Mary went back to work.

  The Operations Section of the Computer Intelligence Agency was at the far end of the building. The commander's office was as dreary as the rest of the place. The commander himself was a greying full colonel who got to the point as soon as Bobby was through the door.

  "The toy boys have finally come to their senses and asked for us, Britton. Or the White House brought them to their senses. Here are your orders, detailing you to...what the hell are you wearing?" He looked Bobby's stylish summer outfit up and down. "Change into uniform, Major, you're going to be entering a war zone."

  "Yessir," Bobby said. The Colonel had never seen Bobby in a uniform, but pretended to be continually surprised by his unmilitary dress. Bobby knew he owed Fr
ank Jervis for that permanently bad memory. Now Frank was showing his power again; forcing the Army bureaucracy to cut a set of orders in four or five hours must have been a strain even for the President.

  "Can Major Grier manage without you for a few days?" the Colonel asked.

  "We've got it roughed out, sir. Mary and the team can fill in the details." Bobby didn't point out that Major Mary was by far the better scientist. "It isn't making a lot of sense so far, though, sir."

  "Isn't it what we sent them to get?" The Colonel always doubted the ability of the strong-arm squads.

  "Yeah, its the real thing, a damn hot box. All the intelligence about the Dragon Mark Seven was right. Except...," Bobby hated showing doubt or hesitation, but they just didn't know. "It's mostly analog circuitry and incredibly fast, makes a supercomputer like the Cray look like a desk calculator. But...it is very, very stupid. It's not really a general purpose computer at all. So far we have no idea what it's supposed to do."

  "There has to be some reason why the J's invested so heavily in this model, and why they kept it secret for so long. Now, you get a tour of the war rooms at the Pentagon today and OMCOM tomorrow. You're going under light cover." The Colonel checked his copy of the paperwork. "Hm. A reporter for the USAT, the armed forces television network? That's damn light cover. Who thought this up?"

  "Well, sir," Bobby said helpfully, "I was a reporter in high school."

  "Get out of here, Britton. There's a car waiting outside." The Colonel made shooing motions. Bobby checked his reflection in the glass of the office door and got out.

  Frank Jervis was better than his word: the 'staff car' was a new Lincoln limousine. The driver wasn't fooled, though. He didn't move from his seat, just waved and indicated the rear door. Bobby stepped in and stretched his legs out over the pile carpet. He sighed and leaned back as they left the Navy Yard.

  He had the driver take the scenic route, up New Jersey and then down Independence, along the Mall. Tourists gawked at the limousine and peered in the mirrored windows. Bobby loved it. They crossed the George Mason bridge and wound through the gigantic parking lots around the Pentagon.

  Dropping Bobby at an entrance, the driver promised to wait. Once out of the car, Bobby was given a press pass by a bored guard and passed into the warm embrace of the public relations arm of the United States Armed Forces, personified by Seaman First Class Joslyn Herbert.

  Joslyn was a diminutive brunette who introduced herself - "call me Jo", gave Bobby his visitor's pass - "sign here, big boy", complained about his presence - "not much notice on this, buddy", voiced suspicion at his credentials - "never had someone from the service network before, you sure you're for real?", and hurried him down the hall - "let's get moving, the show's almost over", all in one breathless minute.

  "Don't get much press at all, nowadays," Jo said as she stalked along, "they don't waste their time on losers."

  "There's news on TV and in the papers," Bobby said.

  Jo chuckled. "That's me, buddy. They take my press handouts and read them or print them. They don't even bother to change the wording. Ok, we take this elevator down a couple of floors and we're at the war room. Try not to be overcome with excitement."

  Chapter Twelve

  A lone United States submarine moved cautiously through hostile waters, thousands of miles from any support. Traveling deep and slow, the boat delicately probed the defenses of Japanese-held Midway. With no sign of enemy action, she planted a pod of surface to surface missiles and withdrew...she planted a pod of surface to surface missiles...she planted....

  "Dammit!" snapped the Admiral Commanding, "it's the damn computer again. Signal officer, contact OMCOM."

  "I have sir," replied the signal officer, "they say it's the Geneva computer. We may have to repeat the last hour of play." The Admiral snarled and slammed his fist down on the keyboard in front of him.

  "Sir!" The signal officer was scandalized, but he was only a lieutenant (jg). When the Admiral glared at him, he turned back to his phones and keyboard.

  Bobby watched this warlike exchange from the VIP gallery at the rear of the Naval War Room (SIM) in the Pentagon. The room was the size and shape of a small theater, with steeply raked rows of comfortable seats overlooking about twenty computer terminals and desks. Only a few of the terminals were occupied, mostly by lower ranking naval officers. A large computer display screen covered the back wall. The screen had shown blips representing Midway and the submarine, but now it was blank except for a message in foot high letters: SYSTEM FAILURE - PLEASE STAND BY. The message blinked at about heartbeat speed. Bobby found it rather hypnotic.

  "Naturally," Jo said, "naturally, we get some press in here and the battlefield crashes."

  "Happen often?" Bobby started thinking about why computers went down.

  "Maybe once a week. It's that damn Swiss AGC 7500 the UN has in Geneva. The latest optical computer, but they left out the reliability. Now we get to watch Admiral Robinson unwind."

  Jo was obviously enjoying the show. The Admiral clutched his headset in one hand and yelled into the mouthpiece while pounding his computer keyboard with his other fist.

  "I demand that you recognize our last move." He slammed the keyboard. A key popped loose and arced lazily into the first row of observers' seats. "The hour was up, we had completed our moves." More keys flew into the cheap seats. The occupants ducked. There were a few chuckles, quickly stilled. "All right! I'm lodging a protest!" The Admiral threw the headset to the floor and looked at the crumpled keyboard with disgust. A wisp of black smoke curled up from it. He swept it to the floor and stalked out of the room.

  "Not bad," Jo said, "not great, but not bad. I'd give it a seven."

  "So what's the problem?" Bobby was enjoying himself. This was a lot more interesting than watching a bunch of blips moving around on a computer screen.

  "Hey, we just snuck a bunch of missiles into range of a major J base. That's hard to do. Then the battleground computer goes down. When that happens we have to repeat the last move. Maybe the J's will spot us this time. Have a raisonette." Jo peered around the hall. "Nobody famous here today. Oh, there's the French ambassador, but she's not very famous."

  "Who are these people?" Bobby asked. Only the first few rows of plush rocker seats were occupied. Most of the audience was now up and moving around, talking and helping themselves to refreshments from tables placed along the walls.

  "Observers mostly, from neutral nations and the UN. Making sure we don't cheat. Also some VIP curiosity types. They like to get down and mingle. Makes them feel part of the action. Not many of those, though. The rules say that once someone comes in, they can't leave until play is over for the day, and it's not that interesting."

  "Christ on a crutch," Bobby said, "you mean we're in here for the rest of the day?"

  "Oh, not us," Jo answered, "we've got security clearances. Anyway, they're almost done. It only lasts for seven hours. They would have finished by now if the computer hadn't gone down." She pointed to the computer consoles in front. A repair technician was replacing the murdered keyboard. "The back row of consoles is where the shore commanders and signal officers sit. The rows in front are for the fleet and ship commanders. Each ship is crewed and controlled by just the captain. Sometimes the captain really is a captain or commander, but usually it's lower ranking officers, or even petty officers. Each move takes an hour of real time but represents a day of game time. We make seven moves a day, or one week of game time."

  "They let petty officers command ships?"

  "Did you notice the designation on the door?" Jo asked in answer. "Naval War Room (SIM)?" Bobby admitted he had not. "Well, it's there," Jo continued, "everything associated with the Game is followed by a 'SIM', which stands for 'simulated' which to the military means it doesn't really exist, especially since 'SIM' now also stands for 'loser'."


  "So officers avoid Game duty?" Bobby asked.

  "Too right. One reason Robinson is wound so tight is that he was yanked from a sea command - a division of subs in the Pacific. Rumor has it that he was brought in to save our simulated bacon, but he sees it as the end of his distinguished career. He was probably the best tactician they could find that didn't have enough political clout to keep from being thrown to the lions or the wolves or whatever." Jo smiled happily up at Bobby.

  He was about to reply when the big computer screen came to life. The uniformed players rushed to their consoles. After displaying the message: MONTH 34, DAY 9, 0100 HOURS -- COMMENCE PLAYING, the screen presented a large scale map of the Pacific around Midway. A blip marked the submarine. Its name, Leyte Gulf, was printed neatly above the blip. The observers settled in their seats with their snacks and soft drinks.

  A lone United States submarine moved cautiously through hostile waters, thousands of miles from any support. Traveling deep and slow, the boat delicately probed the defenses of Japanese-held Midway. With no sign of enemy action, she planted a pod of surface to surface missiles and withdrew as slowly and silently as she had come.

  "Wazoo," Jo said, "we got away with it. Good thing. The Admiral would've had kittens if we'd been caught this time. The Army Game won't be over for an hour yet. Want to take it in?"

  "No, thanks," Bobby said, "no way the Army could put on as good a show as the Admiral."

  Chapter Thirteen

  It had been a difficult day, Helen thought as she lay in bed that night. Alan was hit hard, but his reaction was nothing compared to that of his mother. Marilyn Holtzman was devastated, consumed by guilt at having left John to die. The family doctor had finally checked her into Sibley and ordered her sedated.

  Helen had done everything: called the doctor, packed an overnight bag for Marilyn and arranged to have what was left of John moved to a funeral parlor after the autopsy. She wished that Marilyn hadn't been so pathetically grateful; if Marilyn had said one more time how wonderful and helpful Helen was, wonderful, helpful Helen would have knocked poor Marilyn on her butt. Of course, she thought wryly, wonderful, helpful Helen had been more helpful than Marilyn could imagine.

  Now it was very late and Alan was sleeping an exhausted sleep beside her.

  What they were doing, she and Terrell and the others, must be very important, she decided, to be worth all this suffering. She rolled over and went to sleep.

  Chapter Fourteen

  Terrell Dennerman was also awake that night, pacing the living room of his Kalorama Heights apartment. He had attended a reception at the Sudanese Embassy and then walked the few blocks home. He was satisfied with the evening; he had cornered The Honorable Albert Lind, Congressman from the great state of Missouri and pressured him into attending a meeting of the Pacific Rim Peace Committee. Representative Lind was the Democratic Whip; recruiting him would be more than just a coup.

  Alone in the night, his satisfaction was blunted by anxiety about Helen. Would she turn soft on him? She had been so committed, so determined. She was naive, smart but naive. Never have to worry about an old fool like Loughlin, but if Helen got sentimental about that drunken loser Holtzman.... Terrell had plans that reached all the way to the White House. Helen knew more than enough to spoil those plans.

  Terrell worried over the problem but couldn't come to a solution. He would have to convince her to stay with them when she came back to work. This wasn't the right time to kill her.

  Chapter Fifteen

  This is the life, Bobby thought as he settled into the leather upholstery. One phone call, and within a few minutes he was in his own private limo, with a 10AM appointment at OMCOM. He hadn't called Mary yet, he remembered guiltily, but it was late when he got in from the Pentagon last night. I'll call her tonight for sure, he promised himself.

  They passed through Georgetown and went by the Naval Observatory. Two miles farther on, the car paused at a guarded gate marked 'Omniac Command Center'. After the exchange of salutes and credentials, they were admitted to the war zone. The command center itself was mostly underground, but the visible structure was brick, marble and beveled glass, set off by attractive plantings.

  Bobby admired the architecture. Obviously, he thought, war is no longer hell. The driver stopped the car just long enough to let him out, waved and was gone. Major Britton stepped inside the paneled entry and showed his papers to the pair of chrome-helmeted guards. One eyed him suspiciously and fingered her machine pistol while the other negotiated with another guard who was visible on a view screen. After several minutes, the armored inner door hissed open and he was allowed to step forward, directly into an elevator.

  The mirror and rosewood interior of the elevator was very civilian, but it dropped fast and stopped abruptly, like a military elevator should. The reception committee was small; several captains and majors, a light colonel and a sergeant. The sergeant carefully inspected his orders before handing him a clip-on visitor's badge nearly four inches square.

  "This is Lieutenant Colonel Haismith of our public-relations unit, sir." Having delivered the visitor safely to a senior officer, the sergeant disappeared.

  Colonel Haismith was large and hearty, with a broad freckled face. His handshake was hearty and his laugh was hearty. "Howdja, Major, call me Marty."

  Hearty Marty, thought Britton. The rest of the crew didn't look very hearty. They looked tired. There were few smiles as he met the chief programmer, the Major in charge of quality control, the head of computer operations and several other supervisors, managers and group leaders. After introductions and a few muttered pleasantries each one slipped away until Bobby and the PR man were left alone in the corridor.

  "A great bunch," Marty boomed, "and busy, busy, busy. Right this way to the briefing room. I'll give you an overview of the operation before your appointment with General Walsh."

  The briefing room was a small auditorium. Bobby settled into a plush chair while a trim and attractive Navy rating poured him a cup of truly excellent coffee. Haismith charged to the front of the room and powered on a control panel the size of a small organ. The entire front wall lit up with an image of a huge American flag that waved gently as two foot letters announced: 'Omniac - Defending America in the Modern Age; Defending America the Modern Way'. The Star-Spangled Banner boomed out, shifted to a military march, then faded as Haismith played the controls and began to speak.

  "Omniac was born as the Real-Time Census Project, intended to process inputs from thousands of sensors and stations located all over the United States, instantly providing up-to-the-minute information on the population and economic condition of this great country." The Colonel's voice was enhanced to a fruity baritone. Bobby wished he had the microphone; it would be more fun than singing in the shower. The screen displayed a rapid montage of old black and white footage of census takers knocking on doors and rows of punched-card machines dissolving to modern data terminals and animated illustrations of information flowing across a brightly colored map of the United States and Canada to Washington.

  "It was - and still is - the biggest, fastest, most versatile computer ever built." Haismith's voice swelled with pride as he described the three separate processors, each one capable of executing a billion instructions a second. The screen filled with bright cartoon diagrams of computer bits rushing from one pulsing box to another. The music came back, more somber this time, but with hopeful undertones as a distant view of the Supreme Court building panned and cut to a shot of the court itself in session. His voice hushed and respectful, Haismith intoned, "But the Supreme Court found that the project violated the citizens' right to privacy and Omniac was never used by the Bureau of Census. For two years this great machine worked only one hour a day, processing the payroll for the entire Federal government."

  The screen showed a picture of the closed gates of the Omniac complex, but then
switched abruptly to sharply edited scenes of crowds surging down city streets interspersed with views of tanks, aircraft and ships, all over a background of the American and Japanese flags. The music became threatening and Haismith's voice dropped half an octave. "Tension between the United States and Japan had been mounting. Incidents on both sides brought angry crowds into the streets. Military conflict seemed likely." The screen swirled with angry red and black designs, but then paled and dissolved to a peaceful shot of the United Nations Building in New York, as Haismith described the intervention by the UN and other international organizations and the unique, daring, far-seeing solution to the crisis.

  The threat of war hung over the Pacific as the two major powers to the east and west were unable to negotiate their differences. Everyone realized that war would be ruinous to the entire world. Allies applied pressure, deals were made, and giant computers on three continents were pressed into service in the attempt to avert tragedy.

  If the war must be fought, then let it be fought in the computers; a war game, rather than an actual war. Treaties ensured that there were very real penalties for losing the make-believe conflict, but no lives would be lost, no property destroyed. Everything would happen in the computers. And so it came to pass.

  Haismith moved his hands over the keys and rolled out the words. Bobby leaned back and sipped his coffee. He watched the Navy rating moving around the edges of the room. He admired the paneling and the huge marble table. The story Haismith told was all old news.

  On the screen, pictures of tanks and planes metamorphosed into line drawings of tanks and planes and columns of marching soldiers melted into arrows and lines on a map. The music was military but with a cheerful lightness as Haismith described the War Game. Military planners and commanders from all the services directed the electronic troops and machines. Omniac in Washington, D.C. played against a Japanese computer located just outside of Tokyo. The battleground was the World Health Organization computer in Geneva. For seven hours a day, Monday through Thursday the war raged. The music rose to a triumphant crescendo as Haismith announced the dawn of the new, rational, modern art of conflict resolution. The screen displayed rapid cuts of military action that shifted to peaceful city and country scenes and ended back at the huge American flag. The room brightened.

  The Colonel came around the table, slapped Bobby on the shoulder and dropped into a neighboring chair. "Whaddaya think, Britton, pretty flash, eh? Seven minutes flat. Haven't had a senator doze off yet." He was sweating. Bobby checked his shoulder for stains.

  "Nice, Marty, very, uh, 'flash'. Now, how about some technical details, the computer internals, the communications lash-up?" Bobby knew what the answer would be. Damn! There was a stain! Tomorrow he would wear something dark, maybe the tweed with the leather patches at the elbows. The professional look would go with his reporter image.

  Haismith answered his question, sounding falsely apologetic. "Not really my line, let old Walsh level you on that, he's the techie whiz... and nows the time." Haismith chuckled as they left the room. He obviously thought that 'technical details' were just a little silly.

  General Walsh was a small, pale man made smaller by his huge desk and executive chair. As he rose to give Britton a limp handshake, he looked more like an eighth grader elected mayor-for-a-day than the chief operations officer of the most important computer in North America.

  "How can I help you, Major?" Walsh in action turned out to be brisk and all business. He noticed Haismith hovering in the background. "That will be all for now, Colonel, thanks very much." Haismith looked disappointed as he left. With the war being lost, the politicians were staying away. Britton's visit was the most interesting event in several months.

  "The Colonel said you could answer some of the technical questions, his presentation was pretty much...uh... an overview." Britton tried a wry smile and got one in return. Two experts sharing a sneer at the layman. It looked like he and Walsh could get along.

  "Let's keep things simple, Major," Walsh said, "as I presume you know, Major General James Gotts commands this base. He and I and the security officer are the only ones who know why you're here. For everyone else, you are a reporter doing a story on OMCOM for the military television network."

  "No problem there," Bobby smiled, "I was on the paper in high school."

  Walsh ignored the joke. "Take a look at this," he said, and pressed a control on the edge of his desk. The room darkened as the wall to Bobby's left became transparent. "And call me Tony. We're not much on formality in here."

  "Ok, Tony, my informal name is Bobby." They moved over to the newly revealed window. Some small men try to achieve dignity by moving deliberately, but Walsh was quick and rabbity as he flicked his hand across the scene. His office was at the balcony level of a large room filled with rows of computer terminals. Most of the terminals were occupied.

  A huge map of the world was projected on the far wall of the room. Military forces were depicted in various colors. Every few seconds a part of the map would change to a sub-screen showing a larger scale view of some specific area. As Bobby watched, most of North America was obscured by a detailed map of Northern California. There were more symbols, and arrows showed movement and direction. He pointed to a pulsing red area just east of Sacramento. "Battle?"

  "Right, that's today's attempt to re-take Sacramento. Its not getting anywhere." None of the figures in the room looked at the battle. "This is the operations room. The war gamers themselves are over in the Pentagon. We have a fiber optic link to a communications processor that gives them a series of displays like that one. This bunch keeps the computer going and maintains the gaming program software. You met a few of them when you came."

  "Yeah, they weren't happy campers. Morale is not good?"

  "Things aren't going well. It's not their fault, they don't fight the war, they just provide the battlefield. That view screen lets them know what's going on. Lately I've thought of turning the damn thing off." The General whipped back to his desk and slapped the controls. The window became a wall as the lights in the office came up. Bobby noticed that the wall had pictures on it and wallpaper that matched the rest of the room. Careful shading gave the picture frames dimension. Tony saw him looking and grinned. "Not bad, eh? I programmed that display myself. Got to keep my hand in." He tapped his desk and a view screen and keyboard appeared just beneath its surface. "Lets get down to business."

  They got down to business, spending an hour happily discussing bits and bytes, communication protocols and baud rates. Omniac up close wasn't as impressive as Haismith's glossy view.

  "This whole project was a fucking boondoggle," Walsh said, "the New England computer industry was on the rocks and a certain powerful Senator pushed the 'Real-Time Census Project' as an excuse to spend a lot of money on computer equipment. A consortium of Massachusetts and New Hampshire mini-computer manufacturers built it." Walsh chuckled. "Wait 'till you see the computer room. It's fucking huge, full of boxes that are mostly empty inside. They wanted something that looked impressive to justify the millions of dollars this thing cost."

  "So if it isn't even a very good computer, how did it come to be picked as our war machine?" Bobby asked.

  "The powers that be were pretty eager to use it for something after the Supreme Court shot down their bright idea. And the computer was specifically designed to take data and display it graphically, so using it as a giant game player makes a certain amount of sense."

  Bobby hesitated at his next question. Walsh might be offended. "Uh, look, no offense, but speaking of graphics...."

  Walsh laughed and waved his hand. "Why aren't they more flashy?"

  "Well," Bobby said, "well, yes. They seem damn plain. Frankly, Nintendo does a lot better job."

  "So do the computer simulation games we use internally," Walsh said, "but all the players had to agree on common symbols and the whole th
ing had to be coded up in a hurry; it's the best we could do on short notice. There are teams here and in Japan and in Geneva working on a more fancy version for the next war. If we survive this one, which is looking unlikely."

  Walsh leaned back in his chair, looking smaller, younger and more tired. "It's not the computer that's losing the war. I've watched a lot of the action, and talked to some of the officers playing the Game. It doesn't seem to matter what we do, the J's are on us like flies on shit."

  "Ok, Tony, so Omniac is a great toy, but what's the point?" Bobby also leaned back and finished his sixth cup of coffee. "This is just a game. Moving pictures. If we don't like the way it's going, let's pick up our electronic marbles and go home. Nobody's been hurt."

  Walsh bounced to his feet. "Just a game! I know you intelligence types call us the 'toy boys'. This is a helluva lot more than 'just a game'."

  "Well, in my end of the business," Bobby drawled, "real people really get killed, so...."

  "So if there's no blood and guts it can't be important?" The little General banged on the desk for emphasis. "Dammit, Bobby, that's one big reason that it is important. Yeah, I heard about the beating we took on that raid last month and I heard the Japanese took a worse beating. I hope what you got was worth it. But remember this, those casualties were nothing compared to the damage in even a small war, and we and the J's were working up to something a lot bigger than a small war."

  Bobby was looking for the door to a rest room. "Ok, point made. Electronic casualties are better than flesh-and-blood casualties. But they are electronic casualties; no damage done. So we're losing. So let's quit."

  "Our good buddies around the world won't let us quit. If we quit - or if we lose - they'll enforce the outcome. They suffer in a real war. Everyone wants to see this bloodless approach work. We signed a treaty guaranteeing to abide by the results, whatever they were." Walsh tossed a thick notebook across the desk. "Here's a summary of the treaty. If we lose, we dismantle our base on Guam, we withdraw our objection to Chinese annexation of Taiwan, we're frozen out of the Singapore and Indonesian markets, Japan gets a free hand in Siberia...there's a lot more."

  Bobby looked doubtfully at the book. "I'll pass on the diplomatic bullshit, thanks," he said, "but not everyone is in favor of the game."

  "That's Game with a capitol 'G'," Tony answered, "yeah, there's a lot of opposition in this country, and some other countries, too. There's groups that have a lot to lose if this little tune plays to the end."

  "The military, for one?" Bobby smiled, "and the defense industry? They've already been hit hard by the peace break-out in Europe."

  "Too right. The troubles with Japan were seen as a great excuse to fire up that old war machine. Then there are the 'true patriots', people who think that real men and real countries don't play games."

  "One of the problems those 'true patriots' are having is that we're getting our ass kicked. You don't have any idea why?"

  "Beats the hell out of me," Tony answered, "I'm no strategist, but I've been around the military for a long time, and the players on our side look competent enough. The J's don't always win, but when the chips are down, it's as if they fucking know exactly what we're going to do."

  "One last question from this humble reporter," Bobby said, "what does 'OMNIAC' stand for?

  Walsh grinned. "You mean, is it an acronym for something? Nope, just some public relations type being too clever. Back in the forties, one of the first computers was named ENIAC, which was an acronym that stood for Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer. Then they had the UNIVAC, and that was an acronym too, I forget for what."

  "So 'OMNIAC' is...," Bobby prodded.

  "Is a takeoff on ENIAC and UNIVAC. It's a play on 'omnipresent' and the 'iac' in ENIAC." Walsh smiled again, looking like Beaver Cleaver on a bad day. "Some people think they shot themselves in the foot with the name - the idea that this computer would be 'omnipresent' made the Supreme Court nervous as hell. So they shit-canned the project." Walsh waved his arm at the door. "The mens' john is down the hall to the left."

  "Thanks." Bobby gratefully exited. Tony had matched him cup for cup but apparently had an iron bladder.

  Chapter Sixteen

  Bobby washed up and carefully combed his hair. He checked his shoulder in the mirror and was relieved to see that the mark of Haismith's sweaty paw was barely visible. When he got back to the office Walsh was talking with an Army captain. She was tall, with a pale freckled face topped by flaming red curls. She smiled at Bobby and cocked an eyebrow as they exchanged perfunctory salutes.

  "Major Britton, this is Captain Allbright, our assistant security officer. She'll show you around the computer room. Don't hesitate to get back to me if you have any questions or," Walsh smiled wryly, "any answers."

  Alone, Walsh made his office wall transparent once again. He sat at his desk and watched the giant war screen on the far side of the control room. The glow of battle near Sacramento had dimmed, but another red splotch showed that the Japanese had opened an offensive west into the Sierras. He sighed and went back to work.

  Out in the hall, the captain looked up at Bobby. "Hey big guy," she said, "looking for a little fun?"

  Bobby hesitated. Captain Allbright was a big woman, tall and remarkably attractive. Her face was too sharp featured to be beautiful, but it was set off by a warm smile and bright blue eyes. Momentarily panicked, he regained control of himself and gave her a quick hug. "Triple A," he cried, "I heard you made captain. Congrats."

  "Thanks, ranger. I'm in charge of physical security for the underground section of the complex. We have an hour together, then you meet the base commander, General Gotts." Captain Alexa Alecia Allbright was over six feet tall in her flat Army shoes, but she still had to look up at Britton. That was one of the things she liked about him. "Hey, long time no hear from," she continued, peering at his ID badge. "Well, a TV reporter. From the West Coast, no less. You do get around, Bobby."

  He winked. "Ask me no questions, just give me the tour. The cameras will be along later."

  "Too right, mate, no questions, no lies. The same old Bobby." She motioned and he followed.

  The hallway was paneled with inlaid veneer and floored with deep pile carpet. It was almost one hundred feet from Walsh's office to the door of the computer room, which blocked the hall. A large sign advised that Authorized Personnel Only Would be Admitted. Alexa pushed Bobby ahead. "You go in first. Show your badge to the camera."

  The door opened as he approached, then clicked loudly as it latched behind him. He was in a small room and facing another closed door. A large arrow indicated the camera's view port. Bobby bent over slightly to position his badge and the second door let him through, into the computer room. He waited while Alexa joined him.

  "You're in charge of physical security, Alexa. So who's in charge of electronic security?"

  She shrugged. "Nobody, down here. This place is completely shielded, not just the computer but the whole underground installation. The electronic security team is on the surface. It's run by my boss, Major Grinnell."

  They moved down a narrow passageway, pressed in on each side by metal cabinets almost six feet high. There was no carpet here and the lights were bare fluorescent tubes. The metal of the cabinets was enameled an electric blue. The floor and ceiling were white tile. The corridor turned and branched, giving the effect of a brightly colored maze. A humming sound filled the space, passing through their bodies. It was almost cold.

  Bobby buttoned his jacket. "This is a strange place, Alexa. What's the noise?" He had to speak loudly to be heard.

  "Cooling system, water cooled, that's all I know." The Captain ignored the temperature, but walked fast. The cabinets they passed came in different shapes; some were shorter than others, and some had ventilation grills. They were all the same shade of blue. Each box had a metal plate on one corner marke
d with what Bobby surmised was a model number. They passed a row of 8044s, then a tight phalanx of 1541s.

  "What are these things?" He gestured at the 1541s, and at a small bunch of 9314s, which were somewhat tall and thin, though just as blue.

  "Damned if I know, we just keep the streets safe. There's a patrol through here every four hours. No one else comes around except maintenance and repair staff." They both walked fast, impelled by the chill and the inhuman surroundings. "Shouldn't I be asking you about this stuff? You're the computer wizard. At least you were," she smiled, "before you became an ace reporter."

  Bobby sighted down a side aisle. It opened onto a field of short round cylinders with clear plastic covers. "I've never seen a computer this big. They don't make 'em like this anymore. Probably just as well." He felt he had to display some expertise, so he pointed toward the round cases. "Probably disk drives, or some other kind of information storage."

  Alexa made a face. "Spare me," she said, "I already know more than I want to about this thing." Bobby noticed another feature. Every few feet a black number was stenciled on a cabinet face. For a time it was 5G, then it changed to 6G. He pointed to the code.

  "Location grid," Alexa explained, "twenty feet square. Ten number rows and ten letter rows. Gives you an idea how big this thing is."

  "Hold on just a second." Bobby looked around. They were almost in the middle of the computer room, according to the grid markings. He could just see over the tops of the tallest cabinets, but the white of the ceiling merged with the white of the distant walls and the room looked infinite. Here were the brains and guts of Omniac, the three separate central processing units that drove its logical operations, and the disks and solid state devices that stored the billions upon billions of units of information about the war. There was no movement and no sound beyond the steady roar of the cooling system.

  If this thing was designed for effect, they sure as hell succeeded, Bobby thought, no wonder the politicians thought they could win a computer war.

  "Shall we go?" Alexa asked. Bobby nodded. They moved on. There was nothing else to see.

  After another minute of forced marching, Alexa stopped. They stood in a small 'square' where four passageways came together. She gestured and said, "Here we are, the edge of the world. That's the east wall of the complex. This is ghost country, actually...hm...what's that?" Down by the floor, one corner of a cabinet door was ajar, held open by a torn piece of paper.

  The door was the usual computer enclosure door, flush with the walls of the cabinet, with hidden hinges and no handles. Waving Bobby aside, Alexa slapped the door with her palm. The spring latch popped open. Dim light inside the cabinet illuminated several people lying on the floor. "Oh, shit!" someone screamed.

  "Run! Get 'em." another voice cried. Barely seen figures scattered. The sharp sound of breaking glass echoed incongruously off the tile and metal.

  A man rushed from the darkness. His head was down, his arms flailing. As he reached her, Alexa grabbed his hair. Twisting his head up and sideways, she chopped into his throat with the edge of her other hand. She yelled to Bobby, "Back, back, look right!"

  Bobby backed away as the man Alexa hit smashed into the edge of the doorway and through, landing on the floor. He was bleeding, his blood a shocking red intrusion into the blue and white universe.

  Just to the right, another door in the same cabinet crashed open. Bobby stood frozen with surprise. Several brown-uniformed figures scrambled through the door and pushed past him. Two or three - he wasn't sure how many - broke away and ran.

  The legs of the last one tangled with Bobby's and they both tripped and went down. The man smacked into a cabinet across the passageway, popping another door open. He didn't resist as Bobby pulled him face down to the floor. "Arms out," Bobby commanded, and the man obeyed. He was bleeding from his contact with the computer. Flecks of blue paint mixed with the trickle of blood that ran down his cheek and dripped on the white tile.

  Alexa knelt by the other figure. Blood ran from his head and pooled on the floor. She felt his throat for a pulse as she spoke rapidly into a portable phone. "Condition red! Security to... Baker 10! Base leader! Con...." The sound of sirens blasted down the blue and white passages. Alexa patted the man on the floor and gave Bobby the thumbs-up sign. The sirens stopped in a few seconds, leaving Bobby's ears ringing.

  Bobby noticed that the man he was guarding wore a civilian coverall, while the other was an Army Corporal. "What the hell is all this? What happened? Who are these people? Christ on a crutch." The abrupt switch from eerie isolation to furious action left him confused and dizzy.

  Alexa looked grim. "Maintenance and cleaning staff, taking a little break. Hold on, here's the cavalry."

  The jangle of equipment announced the arrival of the security team, two men booted and helmeted but armed only with batons; guns would risk stray bullets hitting the computer. A few more minutes of stamping around and phone conversations produced a medical team which quickly bundled the injured Corporal onto a gurney and rolled him away. The other captive was led off in handcuffs.

  Alexa and Bobby were alone again. The only indications of the action were the pools of blood on the floor and the open doors of the battered enclosures. Bobby peered inside. "Don't touch," Alexa cautioned, "the evidence team will be along in a few minutes." She listened to her phone. "Ok, they caught the others at the mantrap. Go ahead and look, just don't touch."

  He leaned inside and looked. The dim light came from a small bulb in a holder on the floor. The cabinet was completely empty, the space inside about six feet wide and longer than the light could reach. Several large paper bags were on the floor. They were stuffed with something that crackled when he poked it with his foot, probably crumpled plastic sheeting. The bags were obviously being used as pillows. The torn piece of paper in the door was from one of the pillows. Posters taped to the walls advertised popular sports figures. An object made of glass tubing lay broken on the floor near the light.

  "What a cozy lay-up," Alexa said bitterly, "A nice little cool-draggin' pad. And a big black mark in my file."

  "Cool?" Bobby didn't know the term.

  "Where you been, man? 'Cool' is a synthetic opium. Very smooth, laid back high, they say. When they smoke it, it's called draggin'. When they shoot it, it's called 'droppin'. Damn them!" For a moment Alexa looked close to tears, then she shook it off and was back to business, barking orders into her phone.

  "So these were part of Omniac's crew? Don't they screen these people?" The smell of the drug added to Bobby's dizziness.

  "Sure, back when they were hired. But morale is at the bottom here. And the maintenance crew doesn't have much to do, this thing never breaks. Idle hands find evil work. Where's that damn evidence team?" Alexa snarled into her phone.

  Bobby turned away from the door, then stopped as he heard sound effects in the cabinet; a rapid series of thin musical notes. Mood music? But there was no tune at all, just the tinny sound, now higher, now lower, with no pauses. He realized it was coming from a portable phone lying on the floor and guessed what the tuneless playing was. He put his hand on Alexa's arm. "Omniac's song?" he asked.

  "I guess you could call it that," Alexa said, "the phone must belong to that damn fool corporal." She tapped the tuning button on her own handset. It began to produce tones similar to the other, but not quite the same. "Each of the three processing units in the computer broadcasts on a different frequency. You can tune them in on the phones." She laughed. Bobby was glad to see her humor returning. "A clever programmer wrote a series of instructions that play 'Stars and Stripes Forever' in three-part harmony. But this is the sound of Omniac fighting the war."

  The investigators arrived and Captain Allbright was feeling well enough to chew them out for taking so long. While she gave orders, Bobby looked into the other computer enclosure, peering past the b
ent door. It was dark inside, but he could see that this cabinet was also empty.

  Alexa finally beckoned and they moved down the corridor, leaving the investigators poking at the debris. Bobby's head began to clear.

  "Thanks for the help," Alexa said, "they might have been able to pound me and get away."

  "Hey, no problem," Bobby replied modestly. He knew that Alexa knew that any help from him in a fight was completely accidental. He also knew that Triple-A could handle two or five panicked druggies with no help at all. Still, it was kind of her to thank him. He remembered the empty enclosures. "Alexa," he asked, "why are those cabinets empty? Walsh said the insides of these boxes was mostly space, but I didn't expect there would be nothing at all. You mentioned 'ghost country' just before the fun started. Is that what you meant?"

  "Too right. When Omniac was built, it was tied to the Department of Commerce by a fiber-optic communications line. When the military took over, they cut the line and pulled out all the gear that controlled it. That left a nice empty space that we never thought to check. But the maintenance crews knew what was there. They moved in and made themselves a comfortable little spot." Alexa looked grim. Bobby felt sorry for what the bad guys were going to go through when she got to them.

 

  Chapter Seventeen

  General James 'Blood and Guts' Gotts was as tall as Colonel Haismith and almost as wide, but no one would call him 'hearty'. His brush cut grey hair topped a round, grey face. His small eyes were also grey, hard and unsmiling. Grim, grey Gotts, thought Bobby, a nice contrast to Hearty Marty.

  The General knew why Bobby was here, the word coming direct from Frank Jervis. Frank had pointedly relayed the best wishes of the President himself before informing Gotts that the Computer Intelligence Agency was going to be involved in his war. General Gotts was not a happy man.

  "No uniform, Major?" Gotts looked mightily displeased and left Bobby standing. "Found the answer?"

  "Uh, nossir, not yet. I do have a few questions if you don't mind. Sir." Bobby had barely had time to recover from the fight and straighten his tie before being sent up another elevator and ushered into the Presence.

  "I'll talk to you. Orders are orders. Don't see the point. It's treason, pure and simple. That computer. Treason. Simple as that." Gotts was breathing hard now, snorting invective. He expanded on his notion of the computer as traitor. Bobby suppressed an image of Omniac being hauled before a firing squad in sections and waited for an opening.

  "I was a Captain in Saigon in '75. Last chopper out. Worst day of my life. Until now." Gotts sagged back in his chair.

  "Sir? Any chance the J's are beating us fair and square? Just out...." Bobby stepped back as Gotts lurched forward and pounded his desk with both fists.

  "Out fight us? Out think us? We have lost every battle! They sank the whole damn Pacific fleet! Has to be treason! They know every move we make!" Gotts' face reddened, his little eyes bulged. He stood, leaned over his desk and shouted, "That idiot Dorrian-Smith! He agreed to this! Couldn't lose, he said, bound to beat them, he said, we have better computers, a bigger navy, better tacticians!" The General sat down. "The Japanese," he intoned, "are at the Nevada border. Once they take Colorado and the Air Defense Command, it's all over."

  Fearing Gotts might have him shot for practice, Bobby moved his investigation right along. He thanked the maddened General kindly and asked permission to speak to the electronic security officer. Gotts referred him to an aide and didn't look up as he left the room.

  The aide was a nervous first lieutenant. "That J breakthrough in the Sierras hit the General hard," he said, "all day he's been talking about Saigon in '75." He introduced Bobby to the Major in charge of electronic security. He was also Alexa's boss, Bobby remembered.

  Major Grinnell's thin face was dominated by a long, narrow nose. The Major pursed his lips and managed to look down his nose, even though Bobby was at least six inches taller. Stiffly shaking Bobby's hand, he indicated a chair and sat himself stiffly behind his desk. He tipped his head back slightly and regarded Bobby with an expression of distaste.

  "You seem to have upset the General," he said, "is that another of your many talents?"

  Bobby was puzzled. Did he know this guy from somewhere? "Have we met?" he asked.

  Grinnell smiled a supercilious smile. "Your reputation precedes you," he said. "Special buddy to the President's right hand man. A position gained solely on merit, I have no doubt."

  "I wouldn't be here if Jervis didn't think I could do some good," Bobby said. Christ on a crutch, what a snappy comeback. "You're in charge of electronic security, I understand. Gotts smells treason. Maybe the J's are breaking into the computer."

  Grinnell flushed and twisted his thin lips. "This base is electronically secure, period," he sneered, "only someone with no understanding of the field could think otherwise."

  Gotcha! "Someone such as your commander," Bobby answered quietly. "He says the J's couldn't be winning so big without help."

  "If they're getting help, it's not from here." Grinnell stood abruptly. "You're wasting my time, but orders are orders." He walked out of his office and down the hall without looking back. Bobby hurried after him.

  They entered a room lined with computer terminals and television screens. A second lieutenant with a bad complexion was supervising two men and two women.

  The lieutenant threw a snappy salute as Grinnell entered the room, but the enlisted types didn't look up from their computers.

  "All secure, sir," the lieutenant snapped.

  "Very good, McSherry, carry on," Grinnell said grandly. He didn't explain Bobby's presence and the lieutenant didn't ask, although he looked desperately curious.

  "What's your procedure?" Bobby asked.

  "Full spectrum patrol, the entire grounds and about one thousand feet beyond the perimeter. Fixed and mobile detectors." Grinnell indicated the computer screens. Most of the screens displayed unmoving grids. "The only time we see something is during drills. Nothing is getting out of here, except over the communication lines to the Pentagon. Those are electronically and physically patrolled every minute of every day."

  Bobby remembered the 'edge of the world' in the computer room below them. "What about the lines to the Department of Commerce?"

  "Those were cut, and the communications controllers removed," Grinnell answered. "They may still run through the city to the basement of the Commerce Building, but obviously there are no signals there."

  "Gotts thinks it's the computer; Omniac turning on its masters or some such. Is there any way the Japanese could be sending signals in and affecting the operation of the program?" Bobby knew he was grasping at straws.

  Grinnell favored Bobby with another superior smile. "We monitor incoming as well as outgoing on all frequencies. Besides that, about the only rules in the Game are no tampering with the other guy's machinery. If the J's tried that and got caught, it could cost them the war. Now, if you don't mind, we have suffered a genuine security breach that I must deal with."

  If you're so damn smart, why're we losing?, Bobby thought. Unable to think of a clever put-down, and unable to see any holes in Grinnell's electronic screen, Bobby felt doubly frustrated. The Major's smirk as he said goodbye rubbed salt in the wound.

 

  Chapter Eighteen

  Bobby felt depressed, intimidated and put down. Sitting in the sterile cafeteria on the lower level of OMCOM, he reviewed his life. The Army was a bummer, even with Frank's help. The Electric Dragon project was going nowhere, and if it went somewhere it would be Mary's doing, since the damn thing was mostly analog, and he, Major Robert Edward Lee ('Bobby' to his few friends) Britton didn't know jack shit about analog. Speaking of Mary, there was a hopeless quest if one ever existed. Christ on a crutch, she alternated between ignoring him completely and delivering crushing insults, and the best he c
ould do was to act like a gibbering adolescent whenever he was around her.

  He owed Frank, there was a truth, so agreeing to poke around a little at OMCOM seemed harmless enough. Ah bin put down, kicked aroun', and not an idea in sight. Go back to Frank and confess failure? I hate that worse than anything. Run away from home? Shit? Go blind? Bobby munched on his burrito, sipped his cherry Coke and brooded.

  Well, he thought, who do we see coming through the checkout line? Tall, short red curls, buxom figure, pissed-off expression? Yes, it's Triple-A herself, probably nursing some bruised knuckles. He waved. Alexa stopped to pick up silverware, then approached his table. Her faced thawed a fraction of one degree.

  "Mind if I join you?", she asked.

  "My pleasure," he answered gallantly.

  She sat, arranged her salad and skim milk, and looked sadly at Bobby. "How was the rest of your day?", she asked.

  "Shitty," he answered, "Gotts skinned my body, Grinnell skinned my psyche. Did you say that supercilious asshole was your boss?"

  "The all-knowing, the ever-perfect Major? Yup. My lord and master. The one who signs my fitness report," she said, "which isn't going to look good after today."

  "How did it go?"

  "The Happiness Gang sang like canaries when we applied a little pressure. They set up their clubhouse about three months ago, after they figured out that the computer room security patrols never went to that section." Alexa touched Bobby's hand. "They might have never been caught if I hadn't been giving you the royal tour."

  "Maybe better for you if they hadn't been caught?"

  Alexa frowned. "I'm responsible for the computer room, and those shits were breaking the law. I'm glad we got 'em."

  "If you were a judge, they'd call you 'Maximum Allbright'. They were just trying to relieve the tension a little."

  "Not on my watch, they can't." Alexa touched Bobby's hand again. "I've been in the Army since I was eighteen, but basically I'm a cop. I did a six-month exchange with the DC police last year and I loved it."

  "Ever think of changing careers?"

  "No," Alexa answered, "I like being an Army cop. What about you? You don't like the Army. I've never seen you in a uniform, even."

  "It shows, eh," Bobby said, "I don't like the Army, but I like the chance to play with the toys the Army collects for me, and the deal is that I have to be in the Army or I don't get to play with the toys."

  "So you're having a good time with the toys?"

  "Until lately, yes," Bobby said reluctantly, "our latest project turns out to be an analog box, and let's face it, I'm a digital kind of guy."

  Alexa sighed. "As usual, I don't have any idea what you're talking about."

  "Isn't it time to go home and bring this day to an end?"

  "Damned if you're not right on," Alexa said as she checked her watch, "time flies when you're having fun."

  "Can I get a ride with you?" Bobby asked, "I'll have to call for a car, otherwise."

  "Still not comfortable driving yourself?"

  "Hey, I drive OK," Bobby said defensively, "it's just not something I enjoy. You can drop me at the nearest Metro station."

  "Sure, pal, no problem. Let's go." Alexa bused her tray and led Bobby out the door.

  When they got to her car, it was Alexa's turn to be defensive. The car was a battered Cavalier. "This is a loaner," Alexa said, "my truck is in the shop."

  "What the hell, as long as it runs," Bobby said as he folded himself into the passenger seat. "Want to stop for a drink? I'll buy."

  "We can stop by my place," Alexa answered, "I got a new place a few months back, over by George Washington University. It's a nice little apartment, complete with a supply of Cuervo Gold."

  "Um, well, OK," Bobby said reluctantly.

  "If you'd rather not...."

  "No, no," he said hastily, "that's just fine. I'd like to see your apartment."

  Even in rush hour traffic, it didn't take long to pass through Georgetown and cross Rock Creek.

  "What I like about this place," Alexa commented as she swung the car off 25th into a parking spot, "is that it's got parking with it, but it's not one of those new, sterile boxes...oh, sorry." She had remembered that Bobby lived in a sterile box.

  "Better sterile than septic," Bobby said, "but this place doesn't look too bad - for being really old."

  "Watch it, ranger."

  "Just kidding. This looks OK, but I like my sterile box. It's easy to keep clean."

  Alexa unlocked the security gate. The building was a brick row house converted into flats. She led Bobby to the second floor.

  "Here 'tis," she said. They stepped into a long narrow space that started as living room, became dining room and ended as kitchen. The walls were sandblasted brick, which Alexa had covered with bright hangings set off by several African and Northwest Indian masks. The floor was polished hardwood, covered in the 'living room' section by a plush oriental rug. The few pieces of furniture appeared to be antiques from the twenties. The place looked warm and comfortable. The only incongruous note was a battered Soloflex exercise machine sitting where the dining room table should have been.

  "Christ on a crutch, Alexa, this is really nice," Bobby said, "not like your other, uh...."

  "Not the depressing dump I was living in two years ago?" Alexa smiled. "I'm in a lot better mood than I was back then. Have a seat." She indicated an overstuffed couch situated behind a mahogany coffee table. "Cuervo and lime with a beer chaser?"

  "My favorite. Thanks." Bobby settled gratefully onto the couch. The apartment was a pleasant surprise. Maybe Alexa had lightened up a little the last couple of years.

  She came back with their drinks, put them on the coffee table and settled herself on the floor by the couch.

  "So how you been?" she asked.

  They talked for a while, had another drink, talked for another while, had another drink. Bobby slid off the couch and sat on the floor beside Alexa.

  "I'm glad you came over," she said, "after today, I would have been depressed to sit at home by myself."

  Bobby indicated the Soloflex. "You still deal with your depression by working out?"

  "Too right. If you weren't here, I'd be a sweaty mess by now."

  "You're never a mess, Alexa," Bobby said sincerely.

  Alexa ran her hand gently across his cheek. "You're a sweet guy, Bobby," she said, "sometimes I'm sorry we didn't stick together."

  Bobby pulled away. "I don't know, we both agreed it was for the best...."

  Resting her chin on her hands, Alexa looked at him sadly. "Yeah, it seemed like the right decision at the time, but you were the one who backed out first."

  "Christ on a crutch, Alexa, you cracked two of my ribs. I had to go to the damn hospital."

  "Ok, so I was a little over-enthusiastic. Up 'till then we were having a good time."

  "I worry about you getting over-enthusiastic again," he said.

  She sat her drink on the table and blew gently in his ear. "I promise to control myself."

  He ruffled her hair. "Friends? Nice to each other?"

  "Absolutely."

  "C'mer' then." He pulled her over and they rolled together across the rug. Laughing, she ended up on top.

  He ran his hands up her sides and across her breasts. She kissed his ears as he unbuttoned her uniform blouse.

  "It's in the front," she murmured as his hands moved across her back. He found the bra snap in front. Her breasts spilled across his face.

  "Oh, Bobby," she cried as he circled one nipple and then the other with his tongue. He ran his hands down her back and between her thighs, gently stroking her buttocks.

  She pulled away long enough to loosen his tie and unbutton his shirt, then rubbed her breasts against his bare chest. They kissed, a long merging of lips and tongues. Alexa pulled away first.

  "Whoo," she said, "I can't breathe." Sh
e finished opening his shirt and ran her tongue down his chest and stomach, traced a circle around his navel, and back to his mouth. "I've got my breath back." They kissed again. Bobby's hands roved across her back and her breasts, between her legs, then to her waist.

  "I can't get your damn Army belt unfastened," he said.

  "Let me," she said, and slipped out of her uniform pants. She was wearing camouflage pattern bikini underwear.

  "My God," Bobby laughed, "you are Army through and through."

  "Aren't they cute? They were on sale at the base exchange. Most women were too embarrassed to buy 'em."

  "But not you." He pushed her onto her back and rubbed his face against the camouflage.

  "Umm, yes, yes, not me. What are you wearing? Jockey shorts with little computers on them?"

  "I do not wear jockey shorts," Bobby said indignantly, "I have low-cut Lee Wrights with little computers on them."

  "Let's see. But first...." Alexa grabbed his tie and pulled it over his head.

  "Hey," he protested.

  "Hey, nothing. Nobody fucks me while they're wearing a tie. Let's see those little computers." She fumbled with his belt while he slipped out of his shirt. "Well, they're not jockey shorts, but they don't have little computers either, so off they come." And she slipped them down his legs.

  "Let's get rid of the camouflage, too," he said, and they were both naked.

  Alexa leaned over and ran her tongue across the tip of Bobby's penis. "Hi," she said, "long time no see."

  He ran his hands across her body, and touched her most secret places. She made little sounds and bit his neck and his nipples.

  "Me on top," she said.

  "No, me," he said, "and pushed her into the rug.

  "OK, you talked me into it. Oh, Bobby."

  Stroking her hair and kissing her face, Bobby gently pushed himself into Alexa. She arched her back and locked her legs around him. They moved slowly together, then faster. Bobby groaned.

  "Oh, Alexa, oh God." He felt himself pour out, his being flooding hotly into her, thrusting, thrusting as she opened herself to him. Then it was over. He lay spent, his face against hers.

  After a few moments she stirred. "Uh, Bobby, ranger," she said, "I didn't quite make it...."

  He rolled off and slid his hand between her legs, began to rub gently. "How's that?" he asked.

  "Oh yes, oh yes." She moved against his fingers, made a soft humming sound. He put his lips to her breast and continued to move his fingers. Her body jerked and she cried out. Then she relaxed against him.

  "Thanks, Bobby," she said.

  "My pleasure, ma'am," he said.

  Chapter Nineteen

  Bobby lay sleepless in bed, staring at the smooth ceiling of his sterile, boxy bedroom. The day that had started well had gone badly. Did it end badly, he wondered? That was a question. Until he saw her, he had forgotten that Alexa was assigned to Omniac. Would he have said "yes" to Frank if he had remembered? Oh yeah, face it, he was flattered to be asked for help by Frank Jervis.

  Bobby had admired Frank long before he became White House Chief of Staff. Frank had a quiet, competent assurance that Bobby knew he lacked. Frank was an adult, while he himself was an overgrown kid. Now, to go back to Frank and confess failure...damn!

  Let's think about something else for awhile. Alexa, for instance. The good humor that usually marked her sharp-featured face concealed a very tough interior. Was he afraid of her? Well, yes. She was stronger than he, even though he probably outweighed her by thirty pounds. But she liked him, that was obvious, even to an insensitive jerk such as himself.

  Did he like her? Well, sort of. She was fun to be with, laughed a lot, sometimes even enjoyed his silliness. She also cracked two of his ribs as easily as breaking an egg, snatching him in a bear hug that literally put him in the hospital.

  Bobby rolled over, discomforted by the memory. She had been depressed by a recently failed love affair and stressed by the leadership course they were both attending. She was happier now, in a better mood, she had said. Maybe not as dangerous?

  "I'm a lover, not a fighter," Bobby said aloud. He sighed. Always a little clumsy, always a little confused about the proper way to act. Always a total idiot around someone he was really attracted to. Mary Grier for instance.

  Christ on a crutch. Bobby made a determined and finally successful effort to get to sleep.

 

  Chapter Twenty

  Alexa worked out after Bobby left. She concentrated on her legs; this quarter was the leg quarter. In July she would work on her neck and back. It wasn't a system the fitness coaches recommended, but it worked for her. She sweated for forty minutes, feeling the alcohol working out through her pores, and feeling Bobby's semen staining her tights.

  Staining's the wrong word, she thought, that sounds negative and icky, and actually it feels pretty good. How long's it been? Oh, well, months anyway. So what is it with Bobby? Hold on, girl, let's concentrate on what we're doing. She put Bobby out of her mind, but her body remembered him.

  Once in the shower, she let herself worry about Bobby. Yeah, she agreed with him, that little affair during the leadership seminar had been a mistake. He sure as hell wasn't her kind of man. Yet, her heart had leaped when she saw him.

  Alexa usually ended her showers by turning the water to cold and counting to sixty, but tonight she stepped out still warm. Dried, powdered and in her favorite Air Jordan T-shirt, she rolled into bed.

  Shit. She couldn't stop thinking about Bobby. What about this guy? Sex? It was OK, not the best, but OK. Passion? Definitely not. Face it, girl, you only get passionate about men who turn out to be assholes. Basic rule of relationships: heavy attraction equals total jerk.

  So I'm not passionate about Bobby, she thought hazily as she drifted off to sleep, I guess maybe that means Bobby's an OK guy.

  Chapter Twenty One

  Night and day were the same in the underground room where Omniac lived. The white floor tiles were cleaned of blood, and several of them were lifted, exposing the space below. The investigation team found a small cache of drugs tucked in among the electrical cables and coolant pipes. They took pictures, made notes and carefully replaced the tiles.

  Now Omniac was alone, and the night was no different from the day. But Omniac knew what time it was; a tiny chip on the backplane of the computer calculated the exact time a million times a second. Omniac asked for the time a million times a second. Omniac liked to know exactly what time it was.

  Late at night, most of the programmers and analysts were in bed, many of them dreaming of the code they had written that day or would write tomorrow.

  Left to itself, Omniac did not sleep. Maintenance programs continuously put every part of the computer through diagnostic exercises, searching for parts that had been weakened by age or use. Omniac examined itself as ceaselessly and thoroughly as an aging hypochondriac; couldn't be too careful. The results of the search were stored in diagnostic logs and displayed on maintenance terminals.

  In the rare instance when Omniac actually found a serious problem, the computer would put in a call to the head of the maintenance division. The groggy officer would listen to the computerized voice, mutter reassurance, and roll out of bed, explaining to his bemused wife that 'Omniac needs some hand holding.'

  But this night no problems found, so no calls made; the maintenance chief slept undisturbed. Each of the three computer processor chips noiselessly performed its duties: the central logic processor tested itself and each of the billions of bytes of memory; it checked every arithmetic and address register; it tested every instruction it could be asked to execute. The input-output processor tested the channels that moved data to and from the central processor and the rotating and solid-state storage devices. The communications processor broadcast bits of information down the line to the Pentagon and listened for ackn
owledgment of successful reception.

  Occasionally, a program executed that tested how well all the processors worked together. Like a well trained basketball team, the processors passed electrical signals back and forth, noting the results of each test. Each processor module glowed red in the darkness of its cabinet; without the cooling water, they would have literally melted from the heat of their operation.

  When the operations crew reported for work in the morning, the computer reported itself ready for another day of playing the Game.

  Chapter Twenty Two

  Helen remained away from work until the following Monday. It was a hard six days for Terrell. He thought of going to the funeral, even watched the paper for the announcement. He stayed away in the end, afraid to see Helen in public, afraid of what she might say or do at that emotional time. The days of heated anxiety convinced him she was his worst danger.

  The morning she returned, he waited for her in the underground parking garage of the Dirkson Office Building. It was just before seven AM and the dim grey concrete space was empty of cars. Terrell knew this level would stay empty until nearly 7:30. He fantasized questioning her and killing her with his bare hands if she threatened to betray him. He had run through that fantasy several times, and found it oddly exciting. He wore thin driving gloves to the garage, but it was warm and his hands were sweating badly, so he took the gloves off and stuck them in a jacket pocket. Terrell waited in the shadows near the elevators. Helen's Sunbird screeched into its assigned spot and Helen leaped out, in a hurry as usual. She was almost running when she passed him. He stepped into the light.

  "Hullo, Helen." His voice shook a little and he cursed himself.

  "Woa!" Jumping away, she threw her hands up, then saw his face. "Jesus Christ, Terrell, what're you doing? I almost wet my pants." She had dropped her purse and bent down to retrieve it.

  Terrell fingered the gloves in his jacket pocket. His voice caught in his throat. "How, how are you Helen?" Damn! Calm down! He looked at her closely. "We need to talk. How are you?" There, he sounded better, felt better too. Helen actually looked relaxed and confident, not shaky and tearstained as he expected. She was dressed in one of her severe suits, matched with a high-necked blouse.

  "It's been rough. I've done a lot of thinking." She stood up and flipped her purse strap over her shoulder, then put her hands on her hips. He was under a small ceiling spotlight and she could see his face clearly. She was surprised to realize that he was afraid. Is he afraid of me, she wondered, afraid of what I might do? Terrell was always so mocking and self confident. Seeing him anxious and uneasy gave her a sense of power. He was working his hands nervously in his jacket pockets.

  "And?" He put one hand up and rubbed his mustache. He was feeling much better. His other hand still clutched the gloves.

  "And? And what? I've just been to a funeral. I've got my mother-in-law under sedation. I've got a husband close to a nervous breakdown." She still stood with her hands on her hips and glared at him. "And you jump out at me in dark places. What's your damn problem, Terrell?"

  "Listen, Helen, don't get smart-ass with me. The last time I saw you, you were making crazy noises. I want to know where you stand, are you with us or not?" He had to decide what to do. They were right in front of the elevator. Someone was bound to come by soon. Maybe he hadn't thought this through well enough.

  She brushed past him and punched the elevator button. "Up yours, Terrell," she said, but then she stopped and turned to face him. "No, maybe you do need to know." He took a pair of gloves from his pocket. His face was working strangely, but she concentrated on what she wanted to say. "I remembered that what we're doing is damned important. You said it...a few days ago, or whenever that was..., that this is big, bigger than you or me, bigger than John or Marilyn or Alan. That's what I remembered. It's hard, but what's done is done. Damn right I'm in."

  "You...you're with us?" His voice caught in his throat again. He felt a flood of relief and...something else. Disappointment? Think, man, think, is this OK? The elevator door opened. Two people were already on the elevator. Helen stepped inside and he followed, feeling slightly dazed.

  They rode in silence. By the time the elevator reached the ground floor he had decided. Helen was over her shock. She was her old determined self. She was worth a lot to him alive and she would be a lot of trouble dead. He was calm and self-assured as they stepped out of the elevator and walked toward the security check point. "So," he drawled, "welcome to the den of conspiracy. Cabals to the left of us, intrigues to the right of us...."

  Helen giggled. "And the White House in front of us. Let's go get 'em." Terrell was smooth and confident again. But she remembered his look of fear in the parking garage. She decided to keep that memory handy.

  Terrell briefed Helen as they walked down the hall, and they both laughed at his stories. Young, successful and attractive, they strode the corridors of power.

  Once past the greetings and expressions of sympathy, Helen plunged into her work. God knows things had piled up while she was gone. Senator Loughlin was scheduled for an appearance before the Japanese-American Peace League in three days. She still had half the speech to write. Terrell looked over her draft and rattled on about how important this speech was.

  "These are solid business types," he said. "If they get behind us, it will give us middle-of-the-road legitimacy." He stroked his mustache. "They're against a make-believe war between us and Japan. And so are we."

  Helen smiled, but Terrell didn't seem to be as insightful as she remembered. She did remember that it was she who had suggested trying to widen their anti-war-game coalition to include groups who were against any kind of conflict with Japan, real or imaginary. She took the pages back from Terrell and didn't make any of the changes he suggested.

  Several hours of hard work gave her a complete first draft. She took it in to Senator Loughlin. He frowned as he leafed through it.

  "Aren't these people Japanese?" he puzzled.

  "Well, no, sir," Helen replied, "they're Americans. Their ancestors came from Japan."

  "Don't they favor Japan in this, uh, conflict?" He still didn't get it.

  Helen stifled a sigh. "They don't want a conflict with Japan, even a game. They want us to negotiate our differences. Now they're afraid of a backlash in this country if Japan wins the Game."

  "Well...." He held the paper as though something on it might stick to his fingers. Dugan Loughlin was the junior Senator from New York, in his first term, but he was not a young man. With his craggy face and white hair, he looked every inch a United States Senator. After serving years as a New York State Senator, representing a prosperous suburb, Terrell Dennerman persuaded him to run for the United States Senate and engineered a successful campaign. Helen admired Loughlin's strong stands for the good of the country, and always felt he was much wiser than he let on.

  Now, looking at him with new eyes, she was not so sure about his hidden wisdom. Terrell tended to treat the Senator as though he were slightly retarded. Maybe Terrell was right. Still, he was a true patriot, and he was all they had to work with. If their plans continued to go well, he would be looking every inch the President of the United States.

  "Believe me, sir, these people can be a great help to us. Once we've achieved our goal, if they don't agree with the actions we take, well...." She shrugged her shoulders. The Senator looked doubtful but allowed himself to be convinced.

  Helen banged out the final draft in less than an hour, copied it to a computer disk and gave it to a secretary to prepare for the prompter. She settled back at her computer and brought up the database of current and potential supporters. The next few months were crucial and she was deep in planning the Senator's meeting and speech schedules when Terrell ambled by.

  "Ho ho, back up to speed. Good girl." He patted her shoulder. Helen hated it when he patted
her shoulder, but she smiled as he leaned over to look at the computer screen. "What's this? The Boston press club? No, no, never do. Too unfriendly, we can't take a chance on him looking bad in front of a hostile audience."

  Helen stood up. "Dugan is going to have to face unfriendly audiences sooner or later. This is the press. They'll go easy on him. It'll be a good learning experience."

  "We can't take the chance now." Terrell stroked his mustache and grinned. "Once he's better established, maybe. But not now. Take that one out. Put him in front of the Navy League or the NRA."

  "For God's sake, Terrell, you can't keep him wrapped in plastic forever. I can write a speech that will bring them around."

  Terrell stopped smiling. "Take the damn meeting out, Helen. I'm the chief of staff. I make the decisions." He turned and stalked away.

  Helen watched him go. She felt her eyes start to sting, but she shook that off. "Bullshit," she muttered and went back to her computer. She left the Boston Press Club date on the schedule. Terrell spent so much time calling meetings and making sure the chairs were lined up straight, he wouldn't notice the schedule until it was too late to change it.

  Chapter Twenty Three

  Major R. E. L. Britton was caught in a dream. He stumbled through a blue and white computer room, looking for the control console. The machinery shifted and changed shape as he lost his way in the maze of equipment. The floor opened beneath him but he didn't fall; he looked down into a tangle of wires that changed to a smoking hookah. The tubes of the hookah curled around his feet and he hit at the glass bowl. Computer chips sprouted from its top as it rang with a tinny, electronic sound. He opened his eyes and looked at the clock. The numbers flashed to 6:58. His phone chimed, a tinny, electronic sound.

  Bobby didn't move; he lay there and hated the phone, which rang twice more and then fell silent. He closed his eyes. The senseless dream circled around the edges of his mind. He couldn't quite remember it. He almost slid back into sleep, and ragged, distorted images of the last few days drifted behind his eyes. They faded and he was awake.

  "Damn," Bobby moaned, and rolled out of bed onto the floor.

  He decided to do a few push-ups while he was down there, and grunted and pumped up and down two dozen times. He thought about getting into a regular work out routine, but he had tried that before and never had enough discipline to keep at it. So he did a couple of stretching exercises and headed for the showers.

  He scrubbed vigorously in the shower; being clean helped him think and he needed to think. He thought about Omniac and Tony Walsh and his staff of depressed programmers. He thought about the druggies hiding inside the computer. He thought about General Gotts and shuddered. He thought about the contemptuous Major Grinnell. He thought about Mary Grier, her blond hair and flashing green eyes. He thought about always acting like a fool when he was around her. He thought about Alexa, good God, Alexa, what was he going to do about her? Or did he need to do anything about her? The trouble was, he had too damn much to think about, with none of it bringing him any closer to something positive for Frank.

  Halfway through a breakfast of burritos and orange juice, he was startled when the phone rang again.

  "Bobby? Bobby Britton?" He didn't recognize the woman's voice.

  "In person. And I have the honor to speak with...."

  "This is Marilyn Holtzman, Bobby. Do you remember me?" He didn't, not at all. Was she that disastrous blind date last New Years?

  "Well, uh," he stuttered as he searched his memory. He knew he had heard the name. "Don't tell me...."

  "I'm your aunt, sort of," she reminded him, "I married your uncle Harry's sister's husband's brother."

  "What?" At least she wasn't some past social embarrassment, but who the hell was she? "Never mind, uh...."

  "Bobby, I need help, I knew your mother, OK, and I knew your uncle Harry. I met you at the party your folks threw when you graduated from Stanford." She sounded strained. "I heard you're some kind of detective. The police won't help me."

  He finally remembered her, somebody's distant relative. She was attractive, very black hair and very white skin. He had noticed her at the party because she was exceptionally tall for a woman, and she had laughed a lot and gotten a little drunk. "Oh, yeah, Marilyn, yes, right. Look, I'm not a detective, I work with computers."

  "Computers, John worked with computers sometimes." She began to cry, snuffling and sobbing into the phone. "Bobby, I think John was, was murdered." She cried in earnest now, trying to talk between sobs. "I'm, I'm, sorry, sorry." Who was John? He could barely remember this Marilyn, and couldn't place John at all. "Now, Marilyn, now, now, uh, look, have you talked to the police?" Bobby had a hard time with tears.

  She was silent for a moment, and seemed to be blowing her nose. "Sorry. John is...was...my husband. John Holtzman. The police won't help. Did you see the article about him? It was on the front page of the Post." She laughed sadly. "It wasn't really because of John, it was because of that computer."

  "What day?" Bobby always bought a Post, but didn't always read it. The last two weeks were neatly stacked in the broom closet. He pulled out the pile. "I've been pretty busy the last few days."

  "Day before yesterday. Its not very long. Bobby, they said it was poor maintenance...." She was sounding more composed.

  He pulled out the paper. "Just a second. Here we go...well, Christ on a crutch, Omniac!" The article was short, at the bottom left of the front page. John Holtzman, a Washington-area electrical contractor, had died in an explosion on his boat. The cause was thought to be a fuel leak, possibly from poor maintenance. Holtzman was best known for his work as the electrical contractor on the Omniac conversion. Bobby sat back and read the story again.

  "Omniac! So John did the electrical work when Omniac was converted from civilian to military? Why do you think he was murdered?" he asked.

  "The police said it was bad maintenance. Loose fittings on the fuel lines of his boat. It was a gas boat, not diesel. Gas fumes blew up when he started the engines." She started to cry again, just a little. He could hear her soft sobs. "He, he was drinking a lot, way too much, but he was still an engineer, and he loved that boat. He would never neglect her, he always checked everything after every trip."

  "Well, yeah, maybe so." Bobby spoke carefully, hoping to avoid more tears. "But maybe it was some kind of accident. Not necessarily murder. Why murder?"

  "I don't know. But he had been really upset for months. I need to talk to you, Bobby, please."

  "Ok, Marilyn, I can't promise anything, but, sure." Bobby got her phone number and address. She lived in suburban Alexandria. He would have to struggle with public transportation or contact the White House motor pool, so Marilyn agreed to pick him up. Bobby saw the faintest glimmerings of a break, if someone connected with Omniac had really been murdered.

 

  Chapter Twenty Four

  By the time Marilyn rang the buzzer, Bobby was feeling discouraged again. He didn't want to go through with this, but he had said he would. He reluctantly headed downstairs.

  Marilyn was indeed the person from the long ago party; black hair, white skin. She looked older than his memory, with faint lines around her mouth, and a hint of a double chin. Dark glasses hid her eyes, but her nose looked a little raw; apparently the crying jag on the phone wasn't just for his benefit. A bright red and blue scarf tied her hair back, but the rest of her clothes were black; black slacks and a black pullover. Was this the dress of a suburban matron-in-mourning, Bobby wondered?

  Marilyn's car was an old Mercedes two seat convertible. Bobby guessed the car must be close to twenty years old, although its dark blue paint looked like new.

  "Hi," she said with a trembling smile, "I'm Marilyn. Remember me now?"

  "How could I forget?" Bobby slid into the passenger seat and Marilyn moved the car smoothly away fr
om the curb. She was a conservative driver, not taking advantage of the Mercedes' acceleration or handling, Bobby noted approvingly. He regarded automobiles as inherently unsafe, and liked cautious driving.

  Neither spoke for several minutes, long enough for Bobby to become uncomfortable with the silence.

  "Nice car," he offered.

  "It was John's," she said, "I brought it to show you how well he took care of things he liked. He did all the work himself...." Her upper lip quivered, and Bobby braced himself for more tears, but she recovered and went on. "I just can't believe that he wouldn't take care of the Future Shock as well as he ever did."

  "Future shock?"

  "That's our boat, or was our boat. Not much left of it now. It was a big old cabin cruiser, a lot older than this car. John was funny that way, he worked on all this new stuff, computers and things, but what he really liked was old machinery." They crossed the Potomac into Virginia. Marilyn headed south on Memorial Parkway, down the west bank of the river. Bobby couldn't think of anything else to say. They drove in silence for several miles, until Marilyn pulled off and parked at a scenic overlook. The tourist season was well under way, and families clustered around the telescopes that gave close-up views of the Maryland shore.

  "They put the Future Shock on a barge," Marilyn said, "it's a few miles farther on. I want you to look at it with me and help me figure out why it blew up."

  "I don't know anything about boats," Bobby objected, "and I'm not really a detective, I work with computers."

  "But no one else will help me," Marilyn said. Her lip was quivering again. "I remember you were really smart. Maybe you can think of something."

  "What did John do with Omniac?" Bobby asked quickly, hoping a distraction would avoid more tears.

  "I don't know much about it. They had to do a bunch of electrical work to change it from civilian to military, and John was the prime contractor. It was a big job; he had to hire extra people." A tear rolled from under the dark glasses. "He made a lot of money. We bought a new house."

  "Let's take a look at the boat," Bobby sighed. Marilyn blew her nose and got the car back on the highway. Bobby thought the Mercedes was a little loud for an expensive car, but it seemed to run all right, and the body and interior were in perfect condition. They came to a small town, no more than a wide spot in the road. The business district consisted of a small marina, a service station and a couple of taverns. Marilyn parked next to the office of the marina.

  "The barge is moored down there," she said, "I'll tell them who we are." She went into the office. She was tall, but shorter than Alexa.

  Bobby walked down a gangplank and onto a floating walkway. Two huge barges sat in the water at the end of the dock. One of the barges carried a large crane. The charred wreckage of a big wooden boat rested on chocks at one end of the other barge. The stern of the boat was completely gone, and the cabin had burned away. The engines had apparently been salvaged separately; they sat a few feet from the rest of the wreckage, two tangled and blackened lumps of metal. Bobby was surprised that the bow was unmarked; from the cabin forward, the varnished planks glistened in the morning sun.

  A railed gangway reached from the dock to the barge, but Bobby wasn't sure if nautical etiquette allowed him to simply march on board. As he hesitated, Marilyn walked past him and onto the barge. He followed quickly, catching up with her at the foot of an aluminum ladder that leaned against the hull of the shattered boat.

  "I don't know if I can go through with this." Her lips were quivering again.

  "I'll look around, you wait here," Bobby said. How did I get into this? He started up the ladder.

  "No, I've got to do it." She pulled gently on his arm. "Come around here." They walked to the stern of the boat, or where the stern once was. Marilyn gestured at the black shapes of the engines, and then at the boat. "The engines were right about here in the boat," she said, "and the lower helm was over there on the right. The explosion probably blew him overboard but he was still, was still," she gulped and swallowed before continuing, "was still burned beyond recognition. They did an autopsy. His blood alcohol was 'way past drunk. Oh, God." She collapsed, sobbing, into Bobby's arms.

  He held her gingerly, resisting the impulse to say 'now, now' or 'there, there' or some other inanity. She cried for a minute or two, or possibly an hour, or so it seemed. She finally pulled away.

  "Sorry," she sniffled, "I've got to get hold of myself." She fumbled a handkerchief out of her pocket and blew her nose, then led the way back to the ladder.

  The foredeck of the Future Shock was surrounded by a light metal railing. The deck itself was made of narrow mahogany planks. A cushioned casting chair was bolted to each side of the deck, a few feet ahead of the burned out cabin. A small metal locker sat under each chair.

  Bobby peered into the gutted cabin. Nothing there but charred timbers; there wasn't even much left of the structure. "Christ on a crutch," he muttered.

  "What?" Marilyn asked. She was standing between the chairs, twisting her hands nervously.

  "Nothing. What's in those boxes?"

  "The lockers? Sun tan lotion, towels, hats, I don't know." Marilyn wandered toward the bow.

  Bobby snapped open one locker and looked inside. Yep, suntan lotion, a hat and a towel. The other locker held another towel and an empty Jack Daniels bottle. Bobby decided not to mention that. As he closed the locker, he noticed something jammed between it and the pedestal of the chair. He squeezed under the chair and pulled the object out. It was a spiral bound notebook, with heavy cardboard covers.

  "Marilyn," Bobby asked, "what's this?" He held up the book.

  "Oh, God, that's one of John's notebooks." She came back from the bow and took it from him. "I'd forgotten about this. He always carried a notebook, in case he had an idea, or anything he needed to remember. There's a place for a pencil inside." She opened the book. "Yeah, here's the pencil. Where'd you find it."

  Bobby indicated the spot.

  "He liked to sit up here and read or think. He'd stuff things between the locker and the chair so they wouldn't fall overboard." Her mouth was quivering again, but she regained control after a moment. "He must have been writing in the notebook."

  "Let's see." Bobby took the book and flipped to the first page, then leafed through. There weren't many entries. Most were electrical diagrams or floor plans. Bobby saw that the plans were for wiring closets, showing the placement of equipment racks and cable pulls. Through most of the pages, the drawings were clear and the labels were neatly lettered. The last few entries were cryptic notes, some of them so carelessly scrawled that they were illegible.

  The remaining pages were blank, but Bobby turned them over one by one. He found more writing almost at the back of the book. 'Omniac' was written at the top of the page in large block letters. Under it were three sentences: 'Don't ask questions.', 'What happened?' and 'They know!' An arrow stretched from the last sentence to the names 'Brad Farrell' and 'Harry Gonzales'.

  "Who're these guys?" Bobby asked.

  "That one, Brad, worked for John. I don't know the other one," Marilyn said absently. She twisted a strand of hair around one of her fingers.

  "Look," Bobby continued, "the last thing on the page is a rectangle completely blacked out with pencil, with a question mark after it. What could he have meant by that?"

  "I don't know," Marilyn said. She climbed over the rail and down the ladder.

  "Where are you going," Bobby called.

  "Back to the car. I can't take any more. I think the Xanax is wearing off." She didn't look back as she walked down the gangway.

  Bobby scrambled after her, clutching the notebook. When he caught up, she was in the car, digging into her purse. She found a small bottle and popped two pills into her mouth.

  "There, I'll be OK in a few minutes." She leaned her head against the steering wheel.
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  "Are you driving on that stuff?"

  "Sure, it just calms me down a little. Give me another minute."

  "Let me drive," Bobby said. He was thoroughly pissed, but kept his voice calm. Cars were dangerous, unpredictable things at best, and he had been riding with an impaired driver. He pulled gently on Marilyn's arm. She resisted initially, but then allowed herself to be persuaded into the passenger seat.

  Bobby figured out the controls and got the Mercedes off to a jerky start. By the time they were out of the small town, Marilyn was asleep.

  Not knowing what else to do, Bobby drove back to his apartment. Marilyn woke up as he stopped the car.

  "Did I doze off?" she asked.

  "Yes," he said through gritted teeth, "yes, you took some little pink pills and drifted off. No connection, I'm sure."

  "They're just mild tranquilizers," Marilyn protested, "I feel alright now. Was there anything else in the notebook?"

  "Just the one page. Can I borrow it for a few days?"

  "Oh, yes. Do you have any ideas?" Marilyn sat up and fluffed her hair under the scarf.

  "Well, no, but he was worried about Omniac. I want to think about it some more. You sure you're OK?"

  She got out of the car and walked around to the driver's side. "I'm fine. Will you call me if you find anything? Here's my number." She gave him a card with a phone number written on it.

  He reluctantly climbed out and watched her take his place behind the wheel. "Ok," he said, "be careful."

  She flashed a bright smile. "Thanks, Bobby," she said. The Mercedes growled away from the curb.

  Bobby looked at the notebook. It wasn't much, and he had no idea what it meant, but it was a clue. Was this how a detective felt?

  Chapter Twenty Five

  Terrell was glad to have Helen back at work, and glad she was still committed to the cause. He was still very concerned. Helen was valuable as a speechwriter and a political strategist, no question. Terrell watched her charge around the office as she pounded out hundreds of words on her computer, and planned meetings and speeches. She was a dynamo. Not indispensable, Terrell thought and watched her and stroked his mustache. Not indispensable, but very useful. He had been right not to kill her, not a good move at all. But how could he be sure of her? She seemed different, more assured. She didn't take his advice as she had before. How could he be sure of her? The days passed, and Terrell tended to details and worried about Helen. He had trouble sleeping, and dreamed of running down streets with men and dogs pursuing him.

  Senator Loughlin's speech before the Japanese-American Peace League was a tremendous success. Helen was ecstatic. "They loved us! The Chief knocked 'em over!" She slapped Terrell on the shoulder hard enough to make him wince. "Now its time for your masterful dealings - get the Hawaiian delegation in our pocket. Go gettum, mate!"

  "Don't rush me. It's not quite time." Terrell stroked his mustache and turned away from Helen. She opened her mouth for an angry reply, then said nothing as Loughlin strode toward them.

  "Terrell, Helen, fine job, both of you." He put his hands on their shoulders and turned them toward a waiting photographer. They saw the camera and smiled. The Senator smiled. The camera whirred dryly. "Terrell, my boy," the Senator murmured, "Mr. Chiyaha thinks it may be time to have a talk with the Hawaiian delegation. What do you think?" Helen smirked at Terrell, patted the Senator's arm and turned away.

  Chapter Twenty Six

  Terrell found Helen at her word processor. "How's the speech going?" He puffed on his pipe and looked over her shoulder.

  She moved to block his view of the screen. "It's going just great. Watch that pipe, Terrell, you'll set me on fire. Don't you have anything to do?"

  "Take a break. It's time you met our friends." Terrell smiled his superior smile. "They've heard about you, and now they need your help."

  Helen made a doubtful face, but she turned off the computer and stood up. "Need my help? What for? Is this one of your smart-ass jokes?"

  "You'll see. Get your jacket and we'll go for a drive. I got my new car yesterday. Did I mention that?" Terrell led her to the parking garage and his new Cadillac. After a brief and complex conversation with the anti-theft system, the car let them get in.

  Terrell squealed the tires as he left the garage, swung past Union Station and up Massachusetts Avenue. "Isn't this a beauty? The ultimate American car." He stroked the wood rim of the steering wheel and patted the soft leather upholstery.

  Helen was impressed, although she tried not to show it. The Cadillac was a beautiful car, with smooth, curved sides and a stylishly short nose. She liked the glossy wood-grain finish on the dashboard, the purring air conditioning, the green and blue lights of the instrument panel. She touched the upholstery. Terrell watched her, smiled to himself and stroked his mustache.

  Helen was giving the car most of her attention and didn't realize where they were until he turned north onto 11th Street. "Terrell! What are you doing? Where are we going?" She looked out at the garbage on the sidewalks, the crumbling brick row houses, the plywood-covered windows. "God damn, this is a dangerous part of town!" The police come north of N Avenue and east of 15th Street for murders and riots, and very little else.

  Terrell smiled, gunned the engine, and swung the car around the potholes in the street. "Just a few blocks. It's the middle of the day. No need to worry. Unless the car breaks down." He chuckled.

  Helen gripped the door handle. "Terrell, I swear to God, if this...."

  "Here we are. Enterprise Magnetics." Terrell stopped in front of a tiny grocery covered with signs in Spanish.

  "That?" Helen was still shocked, and ready to believe anything. She stared at the grocery and at several young Hispanic men lounging in front.

  "Ho, ho, no, no, Helen, over here." Terrell gestured across the street. A three story apartment building took up the entire block. The green stucco walls were peeling and stained. A small sign announced the home of Enterprise Magnetics. The main entry was a new, solid metal door, but the first floor windows were boarded over. Beyond the entry, several garage doors opened onto the street. Terrell guided the Cadillac slowly toward one of the doors and through the opening. A short tunnel led through the building to a large central courtyard. Terrell winked at Helen and hopped out of the car. "Walk this way," he said, and strode briskly toward the edge of the courtyard. He didn't lock the car.

  Helen ran to catch up. "Lock the car?"

  Terrell waved his hand airily. "No need. This is the safest place in the District, all day, all night. Better than the front porch of the White House."

  Helen slowed and looked around. Then she stopped completely and looked again. The part of the courtyard she could see was paved with smooth asphalt. An eight foot plywood fence painted light grey blocked her view of about half the area. Terrell's Cadillac was lined up with four other expensive cars. They nosed against the fence, each one under a nameplate. Helen was amazed to see that one of the nameplates belonged to Terrell; 'T. Dennerman', it said, in neat black stencil. The building's walls were the same green stucco as on the street side, but here the stucco was in good repair, the windows all intact. The lowest row of windows were against the ground and probably opened into the basement. The three floors above appeared to be a typical old apartment house, with bedroom windows and small kitchen windows and smaller bathroom windows. All the many windows were closed and most were covered with shades pulled all the way down. Here and there around the courtyard, steps led up to first floor doors. The courtyard looked like the courtyard of any big old apartment house. Except for the expensive cars. Except for the plywood fence. Except for the closed windows. Except for there not being a soul anywhere in sight.

  Terrell stood by the nearest set of steps and watched Helen. He smiled and stroked his mustache. He had her attention now, no doubt about it. But any more dela
y and they would be late. He did not want to be late. "Come on, tourist," he said, and trotted up the steps.

  Helen followed, still taking in the sights. She shivered. "This is a damn spooky place. Where is everybody? What's with the fence?"

  The door at the top of the steps looked like the other doors, but it hissed open when Terrell touched it. "Come on, come on. There are people here, just not very many." The hallway didn't look like the hallway of an apartment house; it looked like the hallway of a government office building, a white, anonymous government hallway. The elevator that took them to the second floor was blue and grey and anonymous. Bland music played quietly as they rode.

  When the door opened, Helen caught her breath. She looked into a large room, fifty feet across, maybe more. The floor was covered with a plush, short piled carpet. Its cream color was set off by bright oriental rugs. Comfortable furniture was arranged in conversational groupings around the rugs. The overstuffed chairs and sofas and the low slung walnut and mahogany tables were all expensively stylish.

  As they stepped onto the soft carpet, Helen saw a stunningly beautiful black woman working at a computer built into a large mahogany desk. She got up as they approached. She wore a fashionable silk frock. Helen didn't look down at her own simple suit and cotton blouse, but she knew they were tacky and out of date.

  "Good afternoon, Mr. Dennerman, Mrs. Holtzman." Not only was this woman beautiful, and beautifully dressed, but she had a warm, beautifully modulated voice. "Mr. Green will be with you in a moment. Please be seated. Help yourself to a drink, if you desire." She touched the screen of her desk computer and a small walnut buffet whirred and clicked and converted itself into an automatic bar.

  "Why thank you, Michelle, don't mind if we do," Terrell drawled. Peering at the display screen of the bar, he touched a symbol on the screen. The machine did more whirring and clicking, then chimed softly as a door opened and disclosed a large glass. Terrell picked up the glass. "Ah," he said, "an old fashioned, just the way I like it. Ever see one of these auto bars? Choose your drink by touching the screen. What'll you have?"

  Helen settled onto a couch. The room was dim, lit for the most part by table lamps and the light over the desk where Michelle tapped on her computer. Helen realized there was a fire in a fireplace in one corner of the room. Several people stood and sat near the fire, but she couldn't see them clearly. Terrell repeated his question. She looked at him.

  "What? Drink? Oh, I don't know. Beer? No, no, hell, I don't know." She thought she was talking too loud and dropped her voice almost to a whisper. "A...a gin and tonic, I guess." She sat on the edge of the couch and gripped her purse in both hands. She realized what she was doing and put the purse on the floor. It looked dark and ratty against the carpet. She picked it up and put it on the couch next to her. She was hating the purse when Terrell brought her drink and sat down beside her.

  Helen took the drink and clutched Terrell's arm. "Why didn't you warn me," she hissed. "I'm not dressed for this... for this...."

  "Hey, no problem." Terrell patted her arm. Helen usually bristled when Terrell patted her, but now she didn't notice. "You'll like Howard. That's Mr. Green. Howard Green, one of the really important men in Washington. He controls most of the construction companies in Northern Maryland. He's a man who gets things done."

  As if the brief introduction were a cue, Michelle turned from her desk and said, "Mr. Green will see you now. Please come with me." She stood and moved smoothly toward the fire. Terrell followed her, carrying his drink. Helen left her drink on the bar and her purse on the couch. Michelle smiled at a chubby, balding man who was not much taller than Helen, and announced their presence.

  "Ah, Terrell," the man said, seizing Terrell's free hand in both of his own, "so glad you could make it." He dropped Terrell's hand and turned to Helen, and took her right hand in both of his. His hands were warm and smooth. "And you must be Helen Holtzman. I've heard so much about you. I am Howard Green. Welcome. These gentlemen were just leaving, but let me introduce you before they go."

  There were three men, shadowy against the light of the fire, but Helen could see that two of them were in military uniform. Howard introduced the civilian first. "You may already know Chuck Halloran, the assistant director of the FBI." Indeed, she did recognize Mr. Halloran. She dazedly shook hands, first with Halloran and then with Admiral Manning and General Bimmons. The Admiral was in charge of the Norfolk naval base, while General Bimmons was visiting from Texas, where he commanded the Sixth Armored Division. "And this is Helen Holtzman, gentlemen," Howard said proudly, "the little lady who writes the speeches that have Senator Loughlin in such demand on the after-dinner circuit." Everyone chuckled and Helen blushed down to her toes.

  "Always glad to meet a true patriot, especially one who has done so much for our cause." the General said gravely.

  The Admiral took Helen's hand again. "We're all depending on you, Mrs. Holtzman. A tremendous pleasure meeting you."

  Terrell stood by the fire, his even white teeth gleaming in a huge grin. He stroked his mustache. Everything was going very, very well.

  After a few more pleasantries, the FBI man and the General and the Admiral went on their way.

  Howard Green gently took Helen's arm. "Now, come into my office," he said, "and we will talk about our serious troubles, and how you can help us."

  Chapter Twenty Seven

  Helen stopped short at the office door. Terrell bumped into her. She didn't notice. She looked around the incredible room as Howard waited. The floor was gold colored hardwood, with an intricate ebony inlay. Soft swivel chairs on rollers edged a long marble conference table. A peaceful forest scene covered most of one wall, giant spruce and fir shading a small stream.

  "Pretty flashy, eh, mate?" Terrell gestured at the forest and Helen realized the water was flowing and the needles of the trees were swaying in a gentle breeze. For one disoriented moment she thought the forest was real, a piece of the West magically transplanted to the slums of Washington. It was a projection, of course, but it looked so real. Terrell whispered in her ear. "High definition TV, fifteen foot screen. Ask him about it."

  "That, that's real pretty, Howard," she stammered. This place was amazing. And those men she had just met. An Admiral. A real General, a real, live armored division commander. They were on her side, along with the FBI Assistant Director. And this man, Howard Green.

  Howard smiled benignly. "Thank you, my dear. No reason to be captive to our dreary surroundings." He moved behind his desk, touched a control. The picture changed to a lively city street. Helen thought it might be Paris. It changed again, to a bleak but beautiful desert of orange sand and red rock. Howard left it there. "One of my favorites," he said, then motioned toward low, cushioned chairs in front of his desk. "Come over here, sit down. Would you like some refreshment?"

  Helen perched on the edge of her chair, felt awkward, sat back and crossed her legs, felt exposed, and finally put her feet together on the floor with her hands in her lap. I've got to get hold of myself, she thought, this is all so amazing. "Thank you", she answered hesitantly, "maybe some, some coffee?"

  "Certainly," Howard touched his desk again, "cream? Sugar?" She shook her head dumbly. Terrell ordered light cream with his coffee. Howard beamed as a cabinet rose silently out of his desk and opened to reveal three cups of coffee. Howard handed the cups out. The cabinet disappeared into the desk.

  A clear plastic kiosk behind the desk displayed several diplomas. Howard saw Helen looking at the diplomas. "Ah," he said, "my little conceits, my display of educational achievement. Still," he waved at the largest of the diplomas, "I feel I have a right to be proud of my MBA from the Wharton School of Business."

  Helen sipped her coffee. It was excellent. "You aren't...uh...." Her image of their 'friends' had been a far cry from this opulent setting. She t
ried again. "This is all so...."

  "So at variance with your expectations?" Howard smiled. "Did you envision a godfather, surrounded by extras from a bad Italian movie? Ah, my dear." He leaned back in his executive chair and folded his hands across his chubby stomach. "My dear, we are simply independent businessmen, entrepreneurs in the best American tradition. Our fight is against the ruinous regulatory and tax policies of our socialistic government. And now, of course, against the criminals who have put the welfare of our country in the hands of game players."

  "But, but, John, my father-in-law, did, did you...." I've got to stop stammering, she told herself furiously. She tried to sit up straight, but kept sinking into the chair's soft cushions. She shot a glance at Terrell. He was slouched in his chair with a big grin on his face.

  Howard leaned forward and put his arms on his desk. He looked hard at Helen, then at Terrell. "Young lady, I said we were entrepreneurs. I did not say we were frivolous. We take our business very seriously, more seriously than most. If someone threatens our enterprise, we don't wring our hands; we take the necessary steps. Sometimes the actions we must take are distasteful, but success does not come to the squeamish." He looked defiantly from Helen to Terrell and back.

  Terrell put his coffee down, and leaned forward. "Oh, we agree. Don't we agree Helen? Great enterprises require firm measures."

  "Well," Helen said doubtfully, "well, I guess...."

  "Let me tell you about our business," Howard interrupted. "After graduate school, I went into construction." He flicked his hand at the diploma from Wharton. "In a short time I realized that the biggest problem with the construction industry was the unions, and the second biggest problem was government regulation. Recognizing reality, I learned to work with both. Now, here I am in Washington. I have a good relationship with the unions, I have a good relationship with the government. My projects come in on time and under budget. I am famed for honoring my commitments." He leaned forward and glared. "And I am famed for ensuring that others honor their commitments to me."

  He looked across the room to the televised desert. A small, brightly colored lizard crawled across the orange sand. Helen followed Howard's gaze. The wall-size display was incredibly beautiful and impressive. Howard was right, she thought, true commitment meant total commitment.

  Howard spoke again, "Let me introduce you to our operations officer. While we wait for him, I will tell you a story that illustrates my point. We chose this neighborhood for its convenient location and its very reasonable rents. Of course, it has problems." He smiled and finished his cup of coffee, then went on with his story. "The safety of our offices and our employees is very important to us. Therefore, we contacted the local...governing body, if you will. The area is dominated by a gang called the 'Honchos'. For a reasonable sum, a relatively small amount of money paid every month, the Honchos guarantee the safety of everything and everyone on this block."

  A tall man came in from the back of the office. "You called, Howard?" He said in a cold voice. Helen thought the voice matched his face, which was square jawed and hard. He had bright blue eyes and close cut blond hair.

  "Ah, Gunnar," Howard said jovially, "yes, yes, come in, sit down. Meet our brilliant speech writer, Helen Holtzman. Helen, this is Gunnar Christianson, our operations officer. Gunnar, you know Mr. Dennerman." Gunnar inclined his head slightly and settled into a chair at the conference table. Howard turned back to Helen. "As I said, we made a security arrangement with the locals. Unfortunately, the arrangement didn't last. In a matter of weeks, one of our secretaries was accosted and terrorized. She got away with only a bad fright and some bruises, but still, it was a violation of the agreement. We took action. We picked up the leader of the gang and one of his lieutenants. It took us only an hour to make them see the wisdom of observing the contract as negotiated." Howard held up his hand. "Ah, no permanent damage. We simply...got their attention." He leaned back in his chair and beamed. "Haven't had the slightest trouble since." Helen glanced at Gunnar, who permitted himself a wintery smile.

  Terrell checked his watch. "Uh, Howard," he said, "I have a meeting in an hour."

  "Forgive me, Terrell, of course." Both Howard and Gunnar leaned forward. "Helen," Howard said, "we asked you here because we need your help. We have a situation that threatens our entire venture. Some weeks ago, a police officer discovered a key part of our system. There was a struggle with two of our technicians. The officer was left for dead. Unfortunately for us, he survived. He is at Baldwin Memorial Hospital, in a coma. If he regains consciousness, our operation will be fatally compromised." Howard looked into her eyes. "My dear, he must not recover."

  "What's this got to do with me?" Helen asked, "how can I help?"

  Now Terrell leaned forward. "You were a nurse, Helen, you can get into the hospital," he said eagerly.

  "What? Me?" Helen leaped to her feet, spilling her coffee. "You've been watching too much TV, Terrell. No damn way." She saw her coffee puddling on the floor. "Oh, my, I'm sorry. Damn!"

  "Think nothing of it, my dear," Howard said smoothly. "Here, let me get you a fresh cup. Now Helen, are we not engaged in something of vital importance to our nation? Will you stand by and let us fail?" He passed her another cup of coffee.

  She accepted it dazedly. "Why me? You have so many...technicians."

  Gunnar spoke. "We are talented in electronics and communication. We have no one who can move easily in a hospital. If this person survives, we are ruined. Without your help, we are ruined." His voice was like ice.

  Helen sat down. "I was only a student nurse. What can I do? What can I do?"

  "You know your way around a hospital. You know how to act." Gunnar looked at her with sharp blue eyes. He held up a pen. "Deliver this. The man will never wake up. Painless."

  Helen looked at the object. "What is it?"

  "A refinement of an old device," Howard said. "A pen that actually writes, but press the end, then the clip, and it sprays a form of cyanide gas. Into the nostrils, or just directly into the face and the heart stops in a few minutes. Completely painless. Won't you help us, my dear?"

  Terrell stroked his mustache and watched Helen intently. Say yes, he thought, say you will. Ah!

  Helen said, "Yes."

  She and Terrell left after several minutes of Howard's effusive thanks. Helen's agreement had relaxed her, made her feel more than ever a part of the 'enterprise'. She clutched Terrell's arm as they rode the elevator and walked to his car.

  "Oh, Terrell, that was all so amazing, that office, those people." Terrell drove and smiled. Helen chattered excitedly, ignoring the tiny thought in the back of her mind, that she had just agreed to kill a man.

 

  Chapter Twenty Eight

  The evening after meeting Marilyn Holtzman, Bobby sat in his apartment, alone with the notebook and the scrawled, cryptic words written in the last hours of John Holtzman's life. The two mysteries were how he had managed to write so little while going through a fifth of Jack Daniels, and what, if anything, was hidden under that dark smudge.

  Holding the page up to a strong light, Bobby tried to see a pattern in the solid block of number two pencil lead. No success. He turned the paper sideways and peered across the surface. It was slightly scored, there were faint ridges on the back of the page, and indentations on the sheet below, but no identifiable letters or numbers. Bobby put the notebook aside and mixed a margarita without ice. A little forensic analysis would get under the blackout. Should he take it to the police lab? Frank said trust no one, especially the police, and trust the FBI even less. There must be somebody...of course. He smiled and finished his drink. He dropped the notebook into a small backpack and called a cab.

  The cab dropped him off at the entrance to the Navy Yard. He signed in at the guard station and headed for the lab. It was after nine, but he knew Mary Gri
er would be working. Lights were on in the lab. Bobby's heart pounded in his throat. Maybe this wasn't so wise. Maybe it was just an excuse to see Mary. Who was probably still royally pissed. What the hell. He went in.

  Mary had Dragon guts scattered all over the lab. Circuit boards rested in untidy rows on the work benches. Some were in test racks, but many were carelessly stacked, each one tagged with its location in the body of the Dragon. Mary was nowhere in sight.

  "Hey, Blondie," Bobby yelled, "I've come back into your life."

  "Well, aren't I the lucky one." Mary poked her head out of a large metal cabinet. She was inside the Dragon. "Come over here and give me some help." She ducked back into the cabinet.

  Bobby sighed. Mary always hid any joy she felt when she saw him. He stepped over tangles of wire and power cables. "So how goes the battle?" He asked.

  "It's going just fine, no fucking thanks to you. Hand me that tester on the workbench." Mary's uniform blouse had a tear in one sleeve and there was a smear of greasy dust across her right breast.

  Bobby longed to wipe the mark off her, uh, blouse. He laughed instead. "Missed me, eh? My charm, my...."

  "I miss having somebody to hand me tools and hold up the other end of two by fours. Now, fuck off. I've got work to do." She turned away and leaned farther into the computer. As usual, her class 'B' uniform slacks were spotted and worn and too tight in the seat. Bobby loved those slacks.

  "Mary," Bobby said, "I need your help."

  "Fuck off, Britton." She didn't look around.

  "Come on, please, Mary." Oh, God, now I'm whining. Should I tell her what I'm doing? Frank said not to let anyone know. Well, to hell with Frank. Mary's no traitor, couldn't possibly be. He touched her arm. "Mary...."

  She whirled toward him. "Damn you, Britton. You walked out of here with no notice and left me with all this work and a bunch of lab assistants who don't know shit. Now you want me to help you. Go to hell." She turned back to the computer.

  "Hey, no fair," he protested, "I was reassigned. National security stuff. Don't you want to hear what I'm doing?"

  She sighed and said, "No I don't. What I want is for you to get the hell out of here and stop bothering me."

  "I'm working on the war," he said, "I'm working on Omniac. I'm supposed to figure out why we're losing the war."

  Mary backed out of the cabinet and turned around. Her expression was wary. "You? You're going to save us? Fat chance. What do you want from me?"

  Bobby grinned. "I knew I could find the key to your heart. You're a sucker for old computers."

  "You said you wanted help. You said you're working on solving Omniac's problems. True?"

  "Well, yeah."

  Mary poked around in the electronic wreckage until she found a towel. She wiped most of the grease and dust off her hands. "Ok, then, you want my help or not?"

  "Well, yeah." Bobby was surprised Mary was so interested in Omniac. It took almost an hour to bring her up to date. He hadn't intended to tell her so much, but she kept asking questions and he kept answering them.

  Finally satisfied that she knew everything Bobby knew, Mary said, "Let's see the notebook."

  Bobby dug it out of the backpack. "Don't get it dirty," he said, and immediately regretted it. Mary had already picked up the towel and used it to carefully cradle the notebook. She ignored him and tipped it open.

  "Hm." She held the page up to the light. "Ha. No problem." Snapping the book closed, she stepped over the wires and computer parts to the door. "I have a key to the imaging lab," she said over her shoulder.

  Bobby hurried after her. "Can you do it, huh? Huh? Can you?"

  "I can do it, and I will if you shut the hell up." The imaging lab was filled with printers, copy machines, scanners and small computers with large, high resolution display screens. All the equipment was neatly arranged and very clean. Mary circled the room, turning on one machine after another. She left black finger prints on the smooth white cases. Bobby grabbed a paper towel and followed behind, removing the greasy evidence from each power switch.

  "All right, dammit," Mary finally said and washed her hands in the corner sink. "We'll use this full page scanner to take a picture of the front and back of the page. Lay the notebook on here like this and hold the cover down."

  Bobby held the cover down on a device that looked like a small copier. Mary tapped the keys of a computer sitting nearby. The scanner hummed.

  "Now the other side," Mary commanded as she tapped the keys. "Ok?"

  "Ok."

  "Time for the fun." Mary sat down at the computer. On the screen in front of her, two small images appeared, the front and back of the notebook page. "First, we flip," she muttered. The picture of the back of the page became a mirror image of itself. Mary's fingers moved over the keyboard, then she switched to a mouse. A grid of fine lines was superimposed on the screen and she carefully moved the images until they were exactly aligned with the grid.

  "What will that do?" Bobby had been afraid to say anything, but curiosity and his natural gabbiness finally drove him to speak.

  Engrossed as she was, Mary forgot to be rude. "This lines the pages up exactly, within one thousandths of an inch." She clicked the mouse, made menu choices, moved the images about on the screen until they were exactly on top of one another. "The scanner can pick up tiny variations in color and shading," she said, "and we can use false color to emphasize the differences."

  "Wow."

  "No big deal. There should be enough variation on the blacked out space to bring out whatever's underneath, but the impressions on the back will help." She continued to use the mouse to move the cursor around the screen. Waves of color rolled across the image of the page. After each pass, Mary worked with the mouse to adjust the mix of hues. The smudge gradually faded away. Underneath, one word appeared.

  "Helen," Bobby said, "Christ on a crutch. Who's Helen?"

  "Dunno. You asked, you got. I'll print this off. How many copies you want?" Mary was clearly pleased with herself.

  "Oh, three. Uh, gee, thanks, Mary. Uh, I should do something for you. I could help on the Dragon tonight." Bobby squirmed inwardly, waiting for her sharp rejection.

  "Well, hell, sometimes you know what you're doing. Ok." Mary switched off the computers and headed for the door. "But you keep your damn mouth shut."

  Bobby was a happy man.

 

  Chapter Twenty Nine

  Helen's days whirled past after the visit to Enterprise Magnetics. In a scary meeting with Gunnar, she learned to use the deadly pen.

  "Standard hospital issue," he pointed out, "with a few effective modifications." Gunnar produced a map of the Baldwin Intensive Care Unit and stepped Helen carefully down the hall and into the private room where the unconscious officer lay. His cold, precise voice described the features of the nurses station and the ICU computer center.

  A little shop in Arlington outfitted Helen; she left carrying a neat white uniform complete with the blue striped cap and name tag worn by special duty nurses at Baldwin. The uniform wasn't quite new and the name tag was slightly scratched. Helen wondered if 'Kim Hewett' had actually been a nurse at Baldwin, but Terrell assured her that the tag was a clever forgery. Howard gave her a car, an anonymous four year old Tercel. She spent several evening hours in the emergency room at DC General watching the routine and eavesdropping on the nurses and doctors.

  She had dinner with Terrell late on the second day. "It's all coming back, Terrell," she said, "I remember the smells, the pagers, the way the doctors snapped at us." She rested her chin on her hands and looked dreamily out the restaurant window. "God, I hated it. I'm so glad I got out of that."

  Terrell let her rattle away and stroked his mustache. She was caught up in the excitement and play acting and the hint of danger eased by Howard's flattery and assurances of success.
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  The next day Helen was fitted with a brown wig and brown contact lenses. She practiced in elevator shoes that made her taller and changed her walk.

  On the fourth day she drove to Baldwin in time for the morning shift.

  The butterflies started as she went through the employees' entrance. She stopped for a moment, watched the nurses and aides hurrying past, and willed her stomach to stop churning. After a few deep breaths, she felt better; not exactly calm and confident, but OK.

  The ICU was on the third floor. Helen rode up in the back of a crowded elevator. The tired night staff greeted their relief with wisecracks, then compared notes and handed over the patients. Helen knew there would be a few minutes of confusion as the two shifts mingled and talked and teased each other. No one would notice an extra nurse with a clipboard.

  Moving slowly down the hall, she kept a firm, purposeful smile on her face and avoided eye contact. When she reached the nurses station, she paused and stepped behind the counter. Look like you belong here, she told herself, just check the charts, take a look at the monitors, don't understand a damn thing on those monitors, but what the hell.

  As she left the station, a young male nurse caught her eye. "Special duty, huh?" He smiled, "We got some 'biggum' on the floor?"

  Helen's stomach came back with a rush and climbed into her throat. She swallowed and smiled back. "Nothing but the best for them that can afford it." Trying to look brisk and distantly friendly at the same time, she pushed past him and turned away from the cop's room. She walked down the hall and around the corner without looking back. Alone for a moment, she stopped and leaned against the wall. Her heart was pounding. Sweat rolled down her back. Her hands clutched the clipboard, the knuckles white. Time to breath again. She forced her hands to relax and consulted the clipboard, which made no more sense to her than had the computer monitors.

  The shift change was almost over. Time to get a move on. OK, OK, Helen, suck it up. She headed back past the nurses station. The guy was still there and her stomach churned again. He was bent over one of the monitors. Don't look up, don't look up. She was past and down the hall and there was the room, OK, OK, oh, let it be empty and it was and she slipped inside and the door closed behind her.

  The room was dim and quiet. All she could see were the screens of the vital signs monitors and all she could hear was the clicking and hissing of the life-support system. Helen moved quickly to the bed. The cop was there, eyes closed, oxygen lines to his nose, an IV in his arm and monitor leads taped to his temples. Man, she thought, even after weeks in bed, this guy is huge. His breathing was smooth and even. She started to check his pulse, and stopped herself with a smile. I'm really getting into this nurse game, she thought.

  It was so easy. Sorry, buddy, she mouthed silently, no fault of yours, this is bigger than both of us. She snapped the cap on the pen, stuck it under his nose and pressed the clip. She heard a faint hiss, just as Gunnar described. The gas would take about three minutes to work, but if Howard was right, there wasn't a thing in the world that could save this guy now. His breathing didn't change.

  She wanted to slip quietly out of the room, but instead she threw open the door and strode through. There was a stairway a few feet down the hall. She went up to the fourth floor, over to the elevator and down to the main lobby. Even early in the morning there were patients and staff coming and going. When a group of people left, she drifted along with them, out to the parking lot.

  She got on the Anacostia Freeway and then the Baltimore-Washington Parkway. She pulled in at the first rest stop, changed out of the uniform, put it in the trunk and got back on the parkway.

  A few miles later, she came to a Smucker's restaurant. She stopped and left the Tercel in the closest available parking spot. Her car sat at the edge of the lot, as Howard had promised. No problems. She felt great. She headed back to Washington and the office. She had a speech to write.

  Chapter Thirty

  Even after months of defeat, its huge industrial and population base allowed the United States to create new divisions wholesale. Twenty of these divisions were thrown into a surprise attack on the Japanese left flank, a few miles south of Chico. Inadequate training reduced their efficiency, but they were well equipped, and made good progress for several days.

  "The J's are going to break." The colonel in charge of the attack pointed at the display screen. "We caught 'em off guard this time."

  "It's not over yet," one of his staff cautioned, "they haven't committed their reserves."

  "They shifted their reserves east," another staffer said positively, "that's why this drive will work. If we retake Sacramento, we can cut off the whole army group."

  The US offensive continued to drive south, and the observers in the theater seats began to talk excitedly. The colonel pounded his computer keyboard. The Japanese front opened up. Sacramento was in reach of the leading armored units.

  "Hold on," one of the army commanders said, "enemy tank units spotted to the northeast." Fighters and observers looked at the display screen. A unit designation appeared, then another. Arrows indicated movement against the right rear of the United States forces.

  "Those are the units you reported moved toward Lake Tahoe," the colonel snarled to his intelligence officer.

  "They snuck 'em back," the officer said defensively, "and hid them right where they could do the most damage."

  More Japanese armored divisions popped onto the screen. The colonel ordered the Sacramento attack abandoned, and turned to face the unexpected threat. Too late. Caught in the flank and rear, the United States divisions were rolled up and cut off. By the end of the turn, their position was hopeless.

  "Fifteen divisions captured or destroyed," the intelligence officer moaned, "I swear to God it's like they know exactly what we're going to do."

  Chapter Thirty One

  They met in the lounge of the Red Pepper, a few floors up in the Watergate. Through the windows the Kennedy Center and the Potomac steamed in the June sun, but the couple ignored the view. Sitting close together, they examined something on the table. The waiter was an old romantic, and at first he approved of the pair, both tall, both dark haired, so obviously caught up in the moment. But when he took their order he could see that the woman was at least twenty years older than the man. Women have no shame anymore, he thought sadly as he headed back to the bar, not like when he was young.

  "Ok," Bobby said when the waiter had gone, "here's the enhanced image. The blacked out area covered up the name 'Helen'. Mean anything to you.?"

  Marilyn Holtzman touched the shiny paper, traced the shaky print. This is about the last thing John ever did, she thought. It seems like a damn silly epitaph. "Helen might be Alan's wife."

  "Alan's your son."

  "Yeah, Helen's his wife, our...my...daughter-in-law. Why would he write her name down? And black it out? Oh!"

  "Oh?" Bobby asked.

  "That other name, Brad Farrell." Marilyn stopped for a moment and dabbed at her eyes. The waiter brought their drinks and thought, ah, she's using tears on him, the old vamp.

  Marilyn went on. "I didn't think of this the other day, but seeing Helen's name reminded me. Brad Farrell was a boyfriend of Helen's, from back in Oregon." She pronounced it Or-e-gone.

  Bobby learned at Stanford that you said Ory-gun. Pay attention, Bobby, he reminded himself, this weepy dame is the only help you've got.

  Marilyn drank half her Bloody Mary and continued, "Brad came out East just before Alan and Helen were married. At first he caused trouble. Alan told me he and Brad almost got into a fight in a bar one night." Marilyn smiled at the memory. "Until Helen hit Brad behind the ear with an empty champagne bottle. Brad went down like he'd been shot, Alan said. Helen thought it was funny." Marilyn caught the waiter's eye and held up one finger.

  "Helen must be quite a daughter-in-law," Bobby s
aid dryly.

  "Oh, she's a tough one, but she's real sweet. She got along really good with John. She was the only one who could do anything with him when he was drinking." Marilyn's eyes started to fill again. "Sorry. Damn it." The waiter looked disapproving as he served her drink. What's his problem, Marilyn wondered, maybe he only likes happy faces.

  Bobby sipped his Cuervo Gold and chased it with Corona. He traced Helen's name with his finger. "So is that why John would write her name? Because they got along good? And what about her old boyfriend?"

  "Well," Marilyn said doubtfully, "well, I don't know - except he went to work for John. He was an electrician, Brad I mean, a journeyman. So John hired him when he got that computer job. I always thought Helen talked John into hiring him."

  "So this guy worked on the Omniac conversion," Bobby said. "Could this other name, Harry Gonzales, could he have worked on the conversion too?"

  Marilyn finished her drink. She looked around for the waiter and had no trouble getting his attention. "Brad did for sure. I think Helen had John give him a job so he would leave her alone. I guess John owed her one, anyway."

  "And why is that?" This is getting complicated, Bobby thought. The waiter came over and Marilyn requested another Bloody Mary. Bobby ordered nachos. He still had plenty of tequila and beer.

  He's putting up a fight, the waiter silently cheered, not letting the waterworks get to him. Good for you, young fella.

  "She asked her boss to put in a good word for John on the computer job. Oh, he'd already had a couple of small government contracts. But this was 'way bigger than anything he'd done before. John said he got it because Senator Loughlin put in a good word." Marilyn laughed. She was well into her third drink. "Oh, I said that, didn't I? 'Good word?' That's what John called it, though."

  "No matter," Bobby said, "Have some nachos. So Helen's boss is Senator Loughlin? I saw him on TV the other night talking about how bad this war game is, how it's sapping the nation's spirit." Bobby took his own advice and ate several nachos. Marilyn's getting blasted, he thought, I'd better get my answers quick.

  Marilyn laughed again and looked at the bottom of her empty glass. "Thanks Bobby. I feel better talking about all this. Alan and Helen won't talk about it."

  Bobby tapped the paper again. "And this other name, Harry Gonzales? Did he work for John?"

  "I'd like just one more drink," Marilyn said. "You already asked me that, didn't you? I don't remember him. Do you think Helen got him the job so he would leave her alone? Brad, I mean. Did I say that already?"

  "Christ on a crutch," Bobby said, "I forgot. Are you taking those damn tranquilizers?"

  "No," Marilyn answered blurrily, "I don't need those anymore. I'm just perf, perf-ect-ly fine."

  "Time to get you home." Bobby dropped three twenties on the table and helped Marilyn to her feet.

  The waiter watched them out the door. The woman was clutching the young man's arm. She's still got him on the line, the blind young fool. Bussing the table, he picked up the twenties. Ha! Nobody tips like a blind young fool!

 

  Chapter Thirty Two

  An elderly black man rang Bobby's apartment bell at the ungodly hour of eight AM and told him to visit the Sheraton. Groggy with sleep, Bobby found the incident made surreal by the man's dress. He was wearing a yellow wind breaker over a light blue knit shirt above loud plaid knickers. The outfit was completed with knee socks that matched the shirt. He was carrying a putter.

  "Frank," the man said, "will be in suite eight-twenty. Go straight to the room and knock like this: knock-knock, then knock-knock. Ten o'clock. Don't be late. Goodbye." He waved the putter and disappeared down the hall.

  Precisely at ten o'clock Bobby arrived at suite eight-twenty. He knocked the secret knock, not sure whether to feel absurd or like a real conspirator. After a brief pause Frank Jervis opened the door and pulled Bobby into the room, a combination living-dining-kitchen furnished and decorated in bland good taste. Two soft chairs and a couch faced each other over a small coffee table. A short hallway led to the bathroom and bedroom.

  "Thanks, Bobby, sorry about the short notice. Have a seat. Coffee? Tea? Diet Pepsi? Coke?" Frank pushed Bobby to a chair and gestured toward a serving cart.

  "Coffee, please, lots of cream and sugar. I'll get it." Frank's nervous, Bobby thought as he ladled sugar into his coffee.

  "So," Bobby said, "who's the messenger?" No harm in trying to relax things a little.

  "My uncle. Great guy. Does things for me sometimes. Never says a word. Absolutely trustworthy. Lives for golf." Bobby sat again but Frank remained standing.

  "Did you get a look at the Game?" Frank asked. He was trying to sound casual but his voice was tense.

  "Yeah, pretty boring. The graphics aren't very good and not much happens." Bobby grinned at one memory. "Some admiral put on a good show, though. He broke things."

  Frank managed a tight smile. "Robinson, old 'Rocket' Robinson. He commanded part of the Pacific fleet. The Pentagon transferred him to the Game when things went all to hell. He wasn't too happy about it." Frank stopped smiling and looked down at Bobby. "Ok, Bobby, you've seen the Game, you've had some time to think. Are you going to help me? Us?"

  Bobby sipped his coffee, then smiled again. "Ah, yeah, sure I'll help you. I owe you anyway, Frank. They would've bounced me out of the Army a long time ago if it weren't for you. Can I keep the limousine, huh?"

  Frank relaxed slightly. "Sure. Keep the damn limousine. Take two, I don't care. If you're going to help, there's someone I want you to meet." As he spoke, Frank walked into the hall. "Could you join us, Richard, if you don't mind?"

  Bobby almost spilled his coffee as he pulled himself out of the chair. Someone else here?

  The someone else was a tall, lean man who appeared to be close to eighty. He walked with the aid of a knobbed wooden cane and wore an expensive, conservative suit. Bobby was glad he himself had chosen to wear a dark suit, although it did have the modish wide lapels. Bobby didn't recall ever meeting this elderly gentleman, yet he looked vaguely familiar.

  Frank did the honors. "Richard, meet Major Robert E. Lee Britton, of the Army Computer Intelligence Agency. Major Britton, this is Richard Dorrian-Smith."

  Once reminded, Bobby remembered him. The former Secretary of State. The former noted Harvard political science professor. The man responsible for the Game. Now a political pariah.

  The ex-great man shook Bobby's hand. "How do you do, Mr. Britton? I'm very pleased to make your acquaintance. I gather I am not unfamiliar to you?"

  "Chr...uh...sir. Uh, Mr. Secretary." As usual, Bobby found himself awed and tongue tied in the presence of fame and authority, even if faded and discredited. Come on, he reminded himself, you get along with Frank OK, and he's the White House Chief of Staff, for Christ's sake. But he had known Frank for years, from the days when Frank was a harassed, over-age graduate student at Stanford.

  Dorrian-Smith smiled sadly. "Very much a former Secretary I'm afraid, and very much a former power in this city. I must admit that some of my hope in your talents is personal; discovery that the Japanese have been winning by cheating would be at least partial vindication."

  Frank stepped in. "Bobby, when we met before, you asked me what was the point of all this, why the Game, why was it important, why did we care. Who better to explain...." He indicated Dorrian-Smith. "You have the floor, Professor."

  Dorrian-Smith clasped his hands behind his back and stood looking out the window. The Capital dome was visible to the left. "We are near the end of the Twentieth Century," He said slowly. "The very end; only a year to go. The most bloody century." He turned to look at Bobby. "Yes, far and away the most bloody century. Until the next one. Frank tells me you are a computer expert."

  "Expert? Well, uh, I've worked with computers." Bobby found
himself shifting from foot to foot.

  "Are you familiar with some of the toys your fellow technicians have dreamed up? One of the latest is an anti-personnel robot helicopter. Heard of it?"

  Bobby dumbly shook his head. Not his area.

  Dorrian-Smith chuckled. "You know about it, don't you Frank? You know about the little tussle on the Colombia-Venezuela border." Frank looked embarrassed. Dorrian-Smith continued. "The helicopter is not large, only about ten feet long, and not very fast. But it is quiet, hard to detect, and intelligent. Send it over enemy lines and after a certain distance, or between satellite-determined coordinates, everyone it sees is an enemy. And it sees very well, especially at night. It fires what are called 'super flechettes', but they're actually miniature rockets. Only this long." He held his hands less than two feet apart. "Smart little rockets. They track with infra-red, radar and visible light. They don't often miss. Their warhead is only a few ounces, but when that hits a human being, even someone wearing body armor...." He turned back to the window.

  "Uh, sir, the Game, how does the Game fit into that?" Bobby finished his coffee and helped himself to more.

  Without turning around, Dorrian-Smith waved his arm at the view. "Imagine two hundred of those devices over Washington some night, eh? Unthinkable? Well, what about Tel Aviv? Or Cairo? Or Pretoria? Not so unthinkable, is it?" He turned back to face Bobby and Frank. "We must change our ways, or the twenty-first century will make the twentieth century look like a snowball fight."

  He paused, picked out a soft drink and sat on the couch. "We were facing a question that hasn't come up very often in our history; what happens when two major democracies clash? Neither government wanted war, but certain politicians rode the issue, stirring up the people, arousing mutual hatreds. There was a very good chance that demagogues on both sides would push us into a ruinous, bloody conflict."

  Closing his eyes, Dorrian-Smith leaned back in silence for a moment. He continued speaking without opening his eyes. "I saw a demonstration of a strategic-tactical war game at the Naval Academy. Although more realistic and elaborate, it resembled the game you saw a few days ago at the Pentagon. Why not? Get people interested in simulated conflict; if we can't get rid of the urge, maybe we can sublimate it."

  He opened his eyes. "So we set it up, signed a treaty outlining the rules and another treaty describing the penalties for losing. Only no one was supposed to lose big. The idea was play the game to a virtual draw and accept the compromise solutions outlined in the treaty." Dorrian-Smith leaned forward and pounded the coffee table in front of him. "We...weren't...supposed...to...lose. Or win. Or at least not lose seriously or win seriously. This was a way to make compromise palatable."

  "Someone has tilted the playing field," Frank said, "and if we do lose big - as big as it looks like we're going to lose - it will cost this country a great deal. The Japanese gain tremendous economic advantage in the Western Pacific and Siberia. Of course, our war party will never stand for that. They'll get their real war."

  "And the twentieth century will end with one final blood-letting." Dorrian-Smith looked at his watch. "I must be on my way. Have we answered your questions, Major Britton?"

  "I didn't know," Bobby said, "I didn't know all that. Actually, I thought it was a little silly...."

  The old man smiled. "I still have some contacts. I know about your own toy, and how it came to be here in Washington. The Dragon Mark Seven, is it not? A number of good people died, men and women, to bring it to you. And a number of good people on the other side died trying to keep it from you. It will take some time to eliminate all the bloodshed. For now, we are just trying to cut down the really big stuff. Thank you. Good luck." He rose from the couch, shook both their hands and departed.

  "For now," Frank said, "you can keep your television cover. Watch your mouth, the city is filled with our enemies." Bobby thought guiltily of Mary. "When you have something to tell me, call home and ask about my uncle. Erethia will tell you when and where to meet me." Erethia was Frank's wife.

  "Christ on a crutch," Bobby said, "I can't believe I'm doing this. I'm no secret agent."

  "You are now. You're our fucking last best hope." Frank looked him up and down. "And God help us."

  Chapter Thirty Three

  Bobby's lone 'clue': for reasons unknown, John Holtzman hired Helen Holtzman's former boyfriend to work on a sensitive government job. Helen's boss, the influential Senator Loughlin, had gotten John the job. So was hiring the old friend nothing more than a turnabout favor for Helen? Why were their names - 'Helen' and 'Brad Farrell' - just about the last words John had ever written? One clue, several questions.

  Marilyn reluctantly provided the younger Holtzmans' address; their house had belonged to Marilyn and John until the money for converting Omniac paid for the luxurious new house on the outskirts of Alexandria.

  The next morning, Bobby ordered up the limo and took a drive to Baileys Crossroads. Built in the sixties, the subdivision's houses were single story clapboard ranches with narrow, red brick planters on both sides of the solid panel front doors. Not fancy, Bobby thought, but clean and well kept. A chubby woman working in the front yard of the house across the street stopped her weeding and watched as the limo rolled slowly by. She was wearing purple shorts and a lime green blouse. A few doors down, another woman wheeling a double stroller stopped pushing and peered at the darkened glass of the big car. Her two children watched with her, their identical round heads turning in unison as the car went by. An ordinary house on an ordinary street. A street so ordinary and so far from downtown Washington that the limo drew plenty of unwelcome attention. Bobby sighed and asked for home.

  That afternoon he was back in Baileys Crossroads, grumpily driving a rented, dark grey Dodge. The streets and yards were empty, the hot afternoon quiet broken only by cruising police cars. Damn. He had forgotten how closely the suburbs were patrolled. A shopping center a mile away provided an anonymous parking spot. He sat in the car for fifteen minutes, then drove by the Holtzman castle. No sign of life, but the chubby woman was back in the yard. Now she wore a denim jumpsuit. She watched the Dodge go by. Bobby turned the corner and stopped so he could see the house. He was there for two minutes or slightly less when a small dog in a fenced side yard began to bark and throw itself against the wire fence.

  How do you do this surveillance shit, anyway? Bobby gave up.

  He stopped in Alexandria and nursed a tequila and grapefruit juice for an hour. Marilyn had given him a picture of Helen. He studied it. Blond, blue eyed, nice looking but not lean and fashionable. She was built sturdy, sort of like Alexa, only without the big tits. No, got to stop thinking those sexist thoughts. Both Alexa and Mary had snapped at him about his insensitive remarks. Ample bosom? Didn't seem like quite the right phrase. My god, I'm going mad. Think about something else.

  Bobby thought about Alexa. Now there was a scary woman. A sexy, scary woman. Maybe he needed a little help here. No, dammit, he could at least follow people around by himself.

  He drove to the U.S. Capitol, paid too much to park and wandered through the Capital grounds. Holtzman worked for Loughlin and Loughlin's office was in the Dirksen Senate Office Building. Nearby was the Senate parking garage. Maybe he should explore that? Lots of the parking places were reserved and marked.

  He wasted some time wandering around the garage, but the place was huge and few of the stalls were marked with names. In the end he was reduced to lurking in the hall outside Loughlin's office, pacing from one end to the other while doing his best to blend in with the secretaries and administrative assistants. Unfortunately, he was usually a head taller than anyone else in the crowd, so he slouched along, feeling as conspicuous as Christ on a crutch.

  After ten uncomfortable minutes, Bobby was ready to call it a day. On the eleventh minute, the door to Loughlin's office opened and Helen Holtzman
bustled through. Almost running, she bumped into Bobby, bounced off, muttered 'sorry' and raced away without taking her eyes from a paper she held in her hand.

  Bobby hurried after her. She walked swiftly down one hall, up another, and disappeared into an office. Within moments she came out and rushed back to Loughlin's office. Bobby hung around for an hour. In that time, Helen made four hurried trips to other parts of the building, looking each time like nothing more than a slightly frazzled bureaucrat.

  The fifth trip brought some variation. Helen left the building and went into the parking garage. Bobby followed, thankful for the number of people around. He tried to keep his head down, but after a few curious glances, he decided he drew less attention standing up straight. I probably look like an afflicted giraffe, he thought.

  In the parking garage, he risked being one of only three on the elevator, but Helen was so distracted she didn't notice him. He got off when she did and puzzled over how to follow her to her car. His problem was solved when her car turned out to be parked only a few feet away. It was a light blue Sunbird. Bobby noted the license number as Helen backed out of the slot, her tires squealing on the smooth concrete floor.

  Bobby ransomed the Dodge and drove around the block. After only twenty-five minutes, a spot opened up near the entrance to the parking structure. Bobby parked, fed the meter and took the elevator down to the floor where he had last seen Helen. The Sunbird was back; she must have come in while he was on the far side of the block.

  He had spotted a Taco John's while searching for his parking spot. He hurried over and ordered four tacos and an enchilada, then settled in the car. It was almost five thirty, so Helen would be out soon. Cars pulled steadily out of the garage for almost an hour, but none of them was a blue Sunbird. Maybe he'd missed it. He took the elevator back to her floor. It was still there. He returned to the Dodge, which was beginning to feel like a prison cell.

  At 8:15 the Sunbird squealed out of the garage. She was gone before he could get the Dodge into the street. Bobby beat his hands on the steering wheel and screamed in frustration. Then he went home, took a shower and went to bed.

  Starting at nine the next morning, he repeated the whole routine. The Sunbird was in its spot. He hung around the parking garage most of the day, breaking away only to load up on Taco John's specials and to find a place to pee. When the Sunbird repeated its rapid appearance and disappearance at eight thirty, he was ready, throwing the Dodge into traffic, disregarding the horns and curses of other drivers.

  Helen took the Canal Street on-ramp to Highway 395 and crossed into Virginia. Bobby tagged along. She stopped at a Safeway in Alexandria. Bobby waited at the edge of the parking lot. She drove to Baileys Crossroads and parked in front of her house, which looked empty. She went inside. Bobby drove around the block. The house was quiet. He circled the block again. The Sunbird sat in the street. Helen was in front, watering the planters. She had changed into shorts and a t-shirt. Bobby went home.

  The next day was much the same; Helen apparently spent at least twelve hours a day at the office, then went home and puttered in the yard until dark.

  Helen lived a life so narrow and ordinary that Bobby began to feel sorry for her. Marilyn confirmed that Helen lived for her work, and added that Alan spent even more time at Holtzman Electric.

  Why was Helen's name in the notebook? Bobby had plenty of time to think as he sat in the Dodge. Helen worked for Senator Dugan Loughlin, one of the leaders of the anti-Game movement. Loughlin wangled John Holtzman the Omniac conversion contract. Now, the United States was losing the Game in a manner that indicated tampering, although no one could prove it.

  Fearing he would go mad if he spent one more hour in its gray interior, Bobby took the Dodge back to the rental agency and traded it for a bright red Geo Metro.

  He continued his thinking in the Geo. Helen did nothing out of the ordinary. Maybe it wasn't Helen. Maybe it was some other staffer, maybe even Loughlin himself. Bobby shrank from following a real United States Senator - he probably had a bodyguard.

  Still, checking out the other members of Loughlin's staff was at least something to do. Once again, it was beginning to look as if he would have to confess failure to Frank. He couldn't do that without trying everything, no matter how unlikely.

  Bobby obtained a list of Senators and their major staff members from the District library. Most of the twenty people working for Loughlin were women; secretaries, receptionists, another female speech writer in addition to Helen. Men seemed to be in charge; the office manager, the Washington publicist and the chief of staff were all male.

  Might as well start at the top, with the chief of staff. A few minutes of searching through the computerized back issues of the Tribune turned up a bio.

  Terrell Dennerman, only thirty-one years old. Worked for Loughlin in the New York Senate, ran his successful campaign for the United States Senate, considered one of the Bright Young Men of the patriotic conservatives. Was now masterminding Loughlin's unannounced bid for the Presidency. The accompanying picture wasn't very clear, but Bobby noted the mustache, the wavy hair, the square face.

  "Damned if he doesn't look like Clark Gable," Bobby muttered.

  Bobby and his red Geo followed Terrell, a more active quarry than Helen. Terrell came and went constantly. Bobby's attempts to follow always ended in failure. Terrell's Cadillac would round a corner, then be inexplicably missing when Bobby got to the same corner. Terrell made a habit of abrupt, unsignalled turns. His short trips on the local freeways with last-second exits always ended in frustration for Bobby, who finally realized that Terrell was making a deliberate effort to avoid being followed. Did he know someone, namely Bobby Britton, was on his tail? Apparently not; he gave no indication he recognized Bobby in the halls of the Dirksen Building.

  Helen appeared to live a normal life. Terrell appeared to have something to hide. He was doing a good job of hiding it, so good that Bobby was stumped.

  Reluctantly, Bobby admitted to himself that he needed help.

  Chapter Thirty Four

  Terrell rapidly scanned Helen's latest speech. "Good, Helen," he said, "hit the free trade issue a little harder. This is an import oriented group the Senator is meeting."

  "You're right," Helen said submissively, "I'll throw in some remarks on how trade restrictions harm everyone." He tossed her the papers and swept grandly away. She had doubted Terrell for awhile, but meeting Howard and Gunnar and seeing how important Terrell was to them, and realizing how big and important the movement was had made her see again that Terrell knew what he was doing. She listened to Terrell, and rarely argued with him.

  She finished the speech, adding Terrell's changes. Should she have him check it again? She decided not, he'd already approved the rest of it, and the adjustments were minor. But he wanted to check the Senator's appearance schedule for the next two weeks so she'd better get that ready and in front of him.

  Helen's mind wandered as she worked on the schedule. She thought about Howard and Gunnar and the wonders of Enterprise Magnetics. Howard seemed to respect Terrell, but Gunnar pretty much ignored him. Of course, compared to a dangerous hunk like Gunnar, Terrell was a twit, constantly fondling his mustache and acting pompous. But Howard respects him, she reminded herself as she printed the schedule.

  She found Terrell in the large conference room, jotting notes on the back of an envelope.

  "I've decided to break it off with Jolene," he said abruptly, "she's not right for me. What do you think of this?" He read from the envelope: "This isn't working out, I can't take it anymore."

  "You're going to follow a script when you talk to her?" Helen asked.

  "Talk to her? I'm going to send her a fax," Terrell said.

  "A fax," Helen laughed, "get real, Terrell, you don't break up with someone by sending them a fax, for God's sake. If you're going to dump her, at least have the guts
to tell her to her face."

  "Tell her?" Terrell said doubtfully.

  "Yeah, tell her, face to face, you and her, no fax, no script, just lay it out."

  "Well, OK, I suppose so, just tell her. What the hell, right?" Terrell tossed the envelope on the table and stalked bravely into the hall.

  "That's right," Helen said to his back, "what the hell." She paused at the table. He is such an asshole, she thought, smart, yes, but an asshole. I don't know what Jolene sees in him, and now he's going to dump her. By fax, no less. She picked up the envelope with the 'script' on it. 'I can't take it anymore.' What about Jolene?

  The 'what' about Jolene was that while she was smart and funny, she wasn't beautiful. Attractive, yes, beautiful, no. And Terrell wanted a beautiful girlfriend, or so he had said during a party a few months back. Helen guessed that if he was ditching Jolene, he had met someone else. He'd probably leave a message on Jolene's answering machine, the shallow, cowardly jerk.

  Maybe Terrell wasn't so wonderful and all-knowing and adventurous. Helen realized she had clenched her fists and crumpled the envelope with Terrell's rejection message. Not at all sure why she was doing it, she dropped the envelope into her purse.

 

  Chapter Thirty Five

  Calling Erethia and asking after Frank's uncle, Bobby again felt an odd mix of absurdity and dangerous conspiracy. Within hours the uncle turned up, this time without the golf club.

  "Lunch at the Post Office," he said, smiling broadly, "11:30 tomorrow. Don't be late." He sauntered off.

  Bobby sent out for Mexican and slept badly. It must be the tension, he thought at two in the morning, I've had three burritos and a chimichanga before. Or maybe four beers was a mistake.

  At 11:30 Bobby was at the Old Post Office, wading through the tourists. Frank saw him first and waved his hand.

  As Bobby sat down, Frank gestured at the frozen yogurt sundae he carried. "What's that," Frank said, "I thought you always had tacos in here."

  "I dunno," Bobby answered, "for some reason I don't feel like Mexican today." His head swiveled as he spoke, looking for Frank's escort.

  "They're here," Frank said, "four of 'em. Sorry to be in a rush, but I'm on my way to lunch with the Speaker of the House. What have you got for me?"

  "Not much, Frank, basically...." Bobby told his story, describing Terrell Dennerman's maneuvers, and ending with "Maybe something's there, maybe not. It's all guesses."

  "Dennerman has a reputation as a schemer," Frank said, "and he's determined to make Loughlin President. Loughlin doesn't have the brains to make plans on his own, never mind carry them out. Are you going to keep chasing him?"

  "Christ on a crutch," Bobby cried, "I don't know how. I'm not a cop or a detective or an agent or whatever the hell. I need help, Frank, someone with experience in this shit."

  "Dammit, I just don't have anyone I can trust."

  "I have someone," Bobby said, "someone I know I can trust."

  "A cop or an agent?"

  "Close enough. An Army cop. A Captain named Alexa Allbright. She's had police training, even worked some kind of liaison gig with the District police." Bobby stopped, astounded by what he had just said. Team up with Alexa, the red-headed rib cracker?

  "You're sure she can be trusted?" Frank asked.

  "I know her...uh, quite well," Bobby answered.

  "Oh ho," Frank said, "how well is 'quite well'?"

  "Well enough to trust her. C'mon, Frank, Christ on a crutch, I'm in over my head on this. You know I'm nothing but a computer jock."

  "Ok," Frank sighed, "I'll check her out and get back to you." He stood up and smiled. "My uncle will get back to you."

  Bobby finished his yogurt and wondered if his aching head indicated a hangover. Had to be tension, he decided.

  Chapter Thirty Six

  Bobby dreamed of Omniac; he chased unseen figures through the blue and white maze of the computer room. Menacing faces hovered over the computer. He scrambled onto the cabinets, trying to reach the faces, but they turned on him, showing bloody teeth. He ran, his footsteps thudding on the tiles of the floor.

  The thudding of his dream blended with a thudding in his waking world. Someone was knocking on his door. He staggered to his feet, barely awake, stumbled to the door and peered through the peephole. It was Frank's uncle, his wrinkled face creased with a smile. Bobby scrambled into a robe and opened the door.

  "Yes?" he croaked.

  "Sheraton, suite eight twenty, two o'clock today," the old man said, "don't be late." He smiled again and turned away. He was dressed in his golf costume complete with putter.

  "How did you get up here?" Bobby asked. He fuzzily remembered that the man had never rung the buzzer.

  "Be at the Sheraton," the man said as he walked away.

  It was 6:30. Bobby moaned and fell back into bed. At five minutes to two he knocked on the door of suite eight twenty. Frank's uncle (what the hell was his name) hadn't mentioned the secret knock, but Bobby used it anyway.

  Frank opened the door. "We're alone," he said, "I've only got a few minutes. I used my contacts at the Pentagon to check your buddy and she came out clean. Except she's got her ass in some kind of trouble at OMCOM. Security fuck-up. What about that?"

  Bobby told him.

  "Ok," Frank said, "the DC police chief is a friend and a good guy. He'll work with us on this, but he's only been on the job a few months and he's still feeling his way."

  "DC police?"

  "Yeah, you're going to do some up-front work on a TV story covering cooperation between the military and the District police. You'll need a liaison. That's where Allbright comes in. She'll be assigned to the exchange program, as before, but her duty is to show you around."

  "So," Bobby said slowly, "I'm still a TV reporter for the military network, and Alexa is helping me with the story."

  "Right. She'll get an office and be reporting to some PR type in the department. The chief can fix it all up. The paperwork's being cut right now."

  "Wait," Bobby said, "I've got to talk to her about this. Christ on a crutch, Frank, this was just an idea."

  "It's a good idea. Talk to her any way you like, but it's a done deal." Frank looked at his watch. "Gotta go. Both of you will get new orders in a couple of days."

  "Jesus Christ on a fucking crutch," Bobby said, "I can't get out of this, can I?"

  "No," Frank answered, "I'm sorry, Bobby, but no, you can't get out of this." He pushed Bobby gently but firmly out the door.

  Got to talk to Alexa. Ask her...tell her, dammit! Bobby paced his apartment, reached for the phone, hesitated, paced again. Finally he willed the phone into his hand and punched Alexa's number. As he heard her voice, Bobby remembered: he had never called her after their evening together. While never sure of the social niceties, he suspected it was bad form to not call a woman after an intimate evening.

  "Hello," Alexa said, "hello?"

  How long had it been? Several days, anyway. Bobby felt sweat trickle down his back.

  "Hello," Alexa said again, with an edge to her voice.

  "Uh, Alexa, this's Bobby. How're you doing?"

  "Well, Hi, Bobby, I'm doing OK. And you?"

  She sounded distinctly cool, but it didn't matter. The orders were being cut. "Uh, Alexa, we need to talk. Can we meet somewhere? Soon?" Christ on a crutch, there was a clever line.

  "What about?" she asked.

  "Uh, uh, well, it's Army business in a way. It's important, Alexa, believe me."

  "Ok," she sighed, "how about Mr. Smith's in an hour."

  She hung up on his grateful thanks.

  Bobby arrived early enough to finish a double tequila and beer before Alexa settled into the booth across from him. Loosened by the alcohol, he plunged straight ahead.

  "I know it's been a while," he began, "I've been under some pressure...."

&nbs
p; "Oh, no problem," Alexa said brightly. He could tell she didn't mean it.

  "It is a problem," he answered earnestly, "and I'm sorry. I know being stressed isn't an excuse, but it is a reason. Hear me out, OK?"

  "OK. Go ahead."

  Bobby told his story, stopping just before the part that directly concerned Alexa. He was through his second tequila, while Alexa nursed a beer.

  "Bitchin'," Alexa said, "so are you still going to follow that Bennington guy?"

  "Dennerman," Bobby answered, silently blessing Alexa's skill as a straight man. "He's my only lead, and he must be up to something, or he wouldn't be working so hard to throw off any tails. I don't know how to stay with him by myself." Come on, Alexa, he begged silently, give me another opening.

  "Can't Frank Jervis get you some help?"

  Yes! "There aren't many people Frank is sure he can trust. He asked if I had any suggestions."

  "And you said...," comprehension was there, just beyond Alexa's reach.

  "I said I knew a cop I trusted, that would help and keep quiet."

  "You mean me?"

  "I'm sorry, Alexa," Bobby said miserably, "I was desperate and your name just sort of popped out before I thought."

  "Well," Alexa said, finishing her beer in one gulp, "it sounds like fun to me."

  "You'll do it?"

  "You brought me up to Frank Jervis. From what I've heard of him, my orders are already being cut. Still, there are some conditions."

  "Anything," Bobby said.

  "Get rid of that damn limousine. Everyone at OMCOM is talking about the reporter who showed up in a limousine. I don't know what the hell you and Jervis were thinking of."

  "You're right," Bobby said, "I'm driving a Geo now."

  "And," Alexa continued, "when the chips are down, you take my advice, no back talk, no hesitation."

  "Sure, sure," Bobby said. He would have agreed to donate one of his balls to the cause at this point.

  Chapter Thirty Seven

  Alexa got a badge and an office. Bobby got a press pass and a chair in Alexa's office. The ‘office’ was one corner of a large, stuffy room in the records building, an old storage facility on E Street, with a creaky elevator and defective air conditioning.

  "No point in hanging around here," Alexa said, "let's go meet this Dennerman fella."

  Bobby gave Alexa the tour, starting with Terrell's car, including a run through the halls of the Dirksen, and ending with a re-creation of Terrell's more famous evasive maneuvers.

  "Ok," Alexa said, "I'd better rent a car, too. Something inconspicuous."

  "They've got a grey Dodge that's as inconspicuous as they come," Bobby said.

  Alexa drove the Dodge and managed to get ahead of Terrell, or to be waiting around some of his favorite corners. When Alexa pointed it out, Bobby realized that Terrell followed predictable patterns, repeating many of his routes and escape maneuvers in sequence.

  So it was that on the second day, Bobby arrived outside Riordan's in Annapolis. Alexa was settled comfortably at a table on the sidewalk, watching the door of the tavern.

  "He's in there," she said, "he met some tall guy just outside the door and they went in together."

  Even in the middle of the afternoon the place was crowded, so Bobby felt safe checking out the inside. He found Terrell and his companion immediately, and hovered by the public phones, doing his best to look and feel inconspicuous. Jackpot. Within minutes, Bobby saw Terrell's companion slide a long, fat envelope under a newspaper lying on the table between them. A few moments later, Terrell casually picked up the paper and the envelope, and slipped the envelope into his jacket pocket. Who was that guy? He didn't look familiar at all.

  The companion left after one drink. Bobby and Alexa followed him, leaving Terrell for another day. The stranger's Chrysler led the parade back to Baltimore, making no attempt to be evasive. He parked beside a large downtown office building and went inside.

  Bobby checked the tenants' list. The building was full of union headquarters - aerospace workers, shipyard workers, defense workers, Teamsters.

  Combining their observations, Alexa wrote a complete description of the mysterious stranger. Bobby filed the notes about the trip in his computer and they went back to Terrell. In two weeks, Terrell visited nine different people. He saw only one person more than once, and that was a man he met four times. There were several tails that ended in failure; Terrell would make an unexpected turn and be gone.

  Bobby met with Frank and gave him what they had, which seemed to be mostly evidence that Terrell was an extremely social person. There were the envelopes; these changed hands on more than one occasion, with the envelope always going from the friend to Terrell.

  "Campaign contributions," Frank mused, "money coming in under the table, obviously. I've got some people I can talk to who might recognize these descriptions." He scanned the pages again. "Ha," he muttered, "Hm. This one fellow who keeps popping up; short, stocky, sandy hair, wears rimless glasses."

  "Doesn't stand out in a crowd," Bobby said, "they met in cheap restaurants, not the usual power-lunch palace."

  "People don't power-lunch anymore," Frank said, "now they interface." He tapped the description of the short, sandy haired man. "Rimless glasses are unusual," he said, "are you sure about that?"

  "Alexa got closest to him. That's what she said."

  "Does he have a bald spot? Does he wear a hat?"

  Bobby searched his memory. "I don't know about the bald spot, but, yeah, he does wear a hat, sort of a small western style hat."

  "Chuck Halloran," Frank snarled, "the slimy son of a bitch." He continued in response to Bobby's puzzled look, "the assistant director of the FBI, and in tight with a lot of big money."

  "But slimy," Bobby said.

  "He's on our side, he says," Frank said, " always sucking up to the Pres. I never trusted the bastard, myself. I suspected we had problems in the FBI." Frank smiled. "He's one complication we may be able to deal with. Mr. Halloran is having himself some trouble with the SEC, a little matter of insider stock trades. I have a feeling it might be more serious than originally thought."

  "So this is helpful?" Bobby asked hopefully.

  Frank stood up. "I gotta go," he said, "hell yes, this is helpful. But keeping us from losing the Game is what it will take to be a real hero."

  Chapter Thirty Eight

  Dugan Loughlin loved pottering in the garden most of all. He liked the applause when he finished a speech, and he liked sitting at the head of the table, and he liked having a drink and a cigar with the boys. But there's nothing like putting in a good straight row of beans.

  He stood up and admired his work, dusting his hands against his faded jeans. He could understand this; the small dry seeds and the damp earth, make a hole just so, set a couple of seeds in just so, tamp it down, and know the job was well done. Things were often so confusing in the Senate. Motions and points of order, and the talks with other Senators in the halls and at lunch. Fortunately, young Dennerman was usually there to remind him about names and to suggest things to say.

  Life had been easier in Albany, but he was glad that Dennerman had talked him into running for the Senate. And now Dennerman and others had him in the Presidential race, even though they hadn't yet officially declared. Chuck Halloran said there was plenty of money out there for someone who would fight the one-worlders and the peace-at-any-pricers.

  Yes, industrialists and Generals, union leaders and Admirals, America-Firsters and Japanese-Americans, all were signing on to help him, Dugan Loughlin, become President of the United States. That was nice.

  Loughlin noted with regret that it was almost dark. Time to watch a little TV and get to bed. This running for president took a lot of time; he could only spend an hour or so a day in the garden. Being President would be nice. Serving the Country, saving it from the spineless liberals. People would laug
h at his jokes. People always laughed at the President's jokes. It was almost time for the Mork and Mindy rerun. The Senator hurried to take his shower.

 

  Chapter Thirty Nine

  The glow brought on by Frank's praise lasted Bobby three days. He even accepted Alexa's continued coolness toward him. This is much better, he thought, I get all of the benefits of working with Alexa and none of the complications. She celebrated her temporary civilian life by exchanging her uniform for short, light dresses. He watched her long, pale legs flash as she paced the office and told himself it was for the best, really.

  They continued to follow Terrell. He saw some of the same people again, he saw some new people, he eluded them several times.

  "He's getting skittish," Alexa said. They relaxed in a downtown tavern after losing Terrell for the second time on the same day. She leafed idly through the Post as she talked. "Even if he hasn't spotted us, he feels he's being watched."

  "How can that be," Bobby scoffed, "if he hasn't spotted us, then how could he know he's being followed?"

  "He doesn't know," Alexa said, " he's just uneasy - he probably doesn't know why he feels anxious, but it's making him more cautious."

  "How do you know what he's feeling?"

  "Experience, son, long years of outwitting the perps. Damn! Look at this." She pointed to a short story low on the first page.

  Bobby leaned over her shoulder. He smelled something faint and flowery. The tough lady is wearing perfume! The scoop neck of her dress exposed the curve of her breasts. She was saying something. Oh, right, the newspaper article. With an effort, he focused on the page.

  "News about Chuck Halloran," she said.

  The headline was short, the article only slightly longer. FBI ASSISTANT DIRECTOR CHARGED, it said. The details were sketchy. but it appeared that Mr. Halloran had engaged in a form of insider trading, making money on the stock market by using knowledge gained from an FBI investigation.

  "That's Frank's work," Bobby said, "he's taking care of Halloran. Christ on a crutch, maybe he can turn this thing around. This is the last edition - for damn sure it'll make headlines in the morning."

  "You think it's Halloran that's losing the game for us?" Alexa asked.

  "Well, no," Bobby answered, "so this may make Frank's life a little easier, but it doesn't help us."

  "Hey, if Dennerman was getting careful before, he's going to be twice as careful now. Our following days may be over."

  "Well, shit," Bobby said, "you mean this may hurt us more than help us."

  "I mean we're going to have to get creative." Alexa ordered another beer.

  The rest of the afternoon and several more beers brought no insights, but Bobby was pleased to see that Alexa laughed a lot, and actually waved her hand goodbye when they parted.

  What to do with Dennerman? Alone and lonely in his apartment, Bobby tapped on the keys of his computer, entering the details of Terrell Dennerman's life and travels. He looked at the list of people Dennerman contacted: labor leaders, some military men, a lot of politicians, most of them with a stake in what was left of the defense industry. Both liberals and conservatives, Bobby noticed, and some of them national figures. With the failure of the Game as a peg, Dennerman and his cronies were pulling together a broad coalition behind Loughlin.

  Bobby turned off the computer and flopped on the bed. How the Game was being lost was the key, and he was no closer to solving that puzzle than when he started following Dennerman. And if Alexa was right, Terrell D. would now be even harder to track. Unless he panicked and ran, of course. But no reason for him to do that, Halloran's problems might make him nervous, but there was no reason for him to spook.

  Wait a minute! Bobby sat up. If Dennerman is already nervous, then maybe spooking is exactly what he needs. And who better to do the spooking than United States Army Major Robert Edward Lee Britton, all six five and one hundred eighty pounds of him? Ok, Bobby conceded, so R.E.L. Britton is a slightly skinny computer nerd, but that won't show in dim light. This could be fun.

 

  Chapter Forty

  Bobby decided to keep his grand plan from Alexa. She might have some convincing reason for not going through with it, and now that he had the idea, Bobby was anxious to try it out.

  He followed Dennerman on his own for two nights, looking for a good spot for a confrontation. During the day, he argued with Alexa about their next moves and followed the Halloran story in the papers and on TV. Halloran denied everything, but the evidence was damning and he was under heavy pressure to resign from the FBI.

  On the third night, Bobby waited in the dark outside Terrell's apartment.

  Parking his car in the street, Terrell trotted past the bushes and up the walk. A tall, dark figure stepped in front of him.

  "Terrell Dennerman?" the figure asked.

  "Yes?" Terrell said. Did he know this guy? The man was in military uniform, but his face was shadowed by his uniform cap. "What can I do for you?" Terrell began.

  A long arm snaked out and grabbed him by the throat, lifting him up on his toes. Gasping, he clawed at the arm.

  "The fun's over, Dennerman," the figure growled. "After Halloran, we're coming for you."

  "What? What?" Terrell forced the words past the strangling hand. The man slammed him against a tree.

  "We know you fixed the Game, Dennerman, and now it's your turn. You won't have Halloran to protect you. You're finished." The man seized Terrell's shoulders and threw him to the ground. Standing over his shaking form, the man said, "Years in jail, Dennerman, or death for treason."

  Stricken with fear, his stomach churning, Terrell gasped, "Who, who?"

  The man chuckled. "CIA, Dennerman, who the hell do you think? We'll be back, you piece of dog shit." He faded into the darkness. Terrell rolled onto his stomach and threw up.

  Chapter Forty One

  Helen was exhausted, and happier than ever before. Working on a speech herself, supervising another speechwriter and trying to plan the Senator's next three appearances, she didn't miss Terrell until late in the day.

  She asked Pat, the receptionist, where he might be found.

  "Oh, I'm sorry, Helen, Mr. Dennerman called in sick. I forgot to tell you." Pat was embarrassed, but there was no reason for her to keep Helen informed of Terrell's whereabouts.

  "No problem." Helen went back to her speech. She wanted to have it ready for inspection when Terrell came in; he could be a real jerk, but she had to respect his knowledge and his amazing friends.

  The next morning, Helen waited for Terrell, speech in hand, as he came through the door. She was startled by his appearance; his face was pale, with circles under his eyes. His mustache was uneven, as though his hand had slipped as he was trimming it.

  "Wow," Helen said, "are you Ok? Maybe you should take another day off...."

  "Can't talk now," Terrell muttered as he brushed past her. He went directly to Loughlin's office.

  Although she was intensely curious, Helen forced herself to finalize arrangements for the Senator's speech to the Sportswriters of America. Phone calls and a couple of letters took almost an hour, and Terrell was still with the Senator.

  The time of the Senator's speech had been changed slightly, and that was sufficient excuse. Helen knocked on the office door and opened it.

  "Senator," she said, "I thought you should know the speech to the Sportswriters...."

  "Come in, Helen." Senator Loughlin rose from his desk and motioned her inside. Terrell was standing across the room, looking sullen. Turning to him, the Senator said, "Let's continue our discussion later, Terrell, but for the life of me I can't understand what Chuck's troubles have to do with me." Terrell left the room without a word and without looking at Helen.

  "If Terrell's not feeling well," Helen ventured, "I can help out."

  "Sometimes I just don't understand that boy," the Senator
said fondly, "I know he's concerned for my welfare, but why I should drop the Presidential race just because Chuck Halloran is in trouble I simply can't imagine."

  "What?" Helen screamed. The Senator jumped in surprise. "Oh, I'm sorry, Senator, I was startled is all, I just, I, did you say Terrell wants to you to not, uh, not...."

  "Oh, don't be concerned, Helen, I'm sure you're right; he isn't feeling well." The Senator settled back behind his desk. "Now, you had something to tell me."

  Helen quickly rearranged Loughlin's schedule and stormed out of the office. She found Terrell sitting at his own desk, staring blankly at the phone.

  "What are you talking about," Helen shouted, "telling Loughlin he shouldn't run."

  "Close the door," Terrell said. Helen closed the door and waited.

  "The CIA visited me last night. They're on to us, they know we're fixing the Game. They're behind the charges against Halloran." His voice was flat, his eyes fixed on his desk.

  "The CIA can't operate inside the U. S.", Helen said.

  "Do you really think they let that silly law stop them?" Terrell raised his voice but kept his eyes on the desk.

  "So what? They can't prove anything. And Halloran will beat them. He hasn't done anything wrong. And anyway, once Loughlin is President, it won't matter." Helen found herself stamping her feet as she talked.

  "We need a stronger base," Terrell said stubbornly, "Loughlin can sit this one out, and we'll have four more years to build support."

  "You," Helen said, "have lost your fucking mind. We'll have four years to lose support. Do you think we can ride this anti-foreign movement for four more years? Do you think we'll have the Game to point to in four more years?"

  "If you listen to me," Terrell said, "you'll see I'm right." His voice was stronger and he looked at Helen for the first time. "More of our friends will be elected to Congress. We may be able to take control of the party."

  Helen looked at him closely. She suddenly remembered the fear in his eyes a few weeks back. "Did that spook scare you, Terrell?" she asked, "Is this a change in tactics or a yellow-bellied retreat?"

  Terrell flushed. "I know what I'm doing," he said, "and before long the Senator will see it my way."

  Helen felt a surge of despair as she realized that he was right; Loughlin was dependent on Terrell for guidance, and he always followed Terrell's advice.

  Outside the office, she leaned against the wall until the shaking brought on by her anger passed. They had worked so hard, done so much...images of John Holtzman's coffin and the dark bulk of the policeman in the bed at D.C. General rose in her mind. She pushed them resolutely away. I'll do anything to stop this, she thought furiously, anything.

 

  Chapter Forty Two

  "You," Alexa said, "are a damned fool." They were sharing an afternoon pitcher of beer. Any tavern was a lot cooler than Alexa's office, and Bobby had managed to convince Alexa that four was a reasonable quitting time if they reviewed the job for at least an hour. After fidgeting guiltily all day, Bobby finally confessed the previous night's adventure.

  "We aren't getting anywhere. You said yourself that he was going to be harder than ever to track." The feeling that Alexa was probably right made Bobby vehement in his own defense. "I don't see how it can do any harm."

  "Harm to you, you dope. This gang kills people. What if he had a gun? Or a bodyguard? Or an irritable friend?" She sipped her Bud Lite and glared at Bobby. "New rule," she snapped, "no more hot-dogging. Clear all bright ideas with me before acting. You understand, cobber?"

  "Now what the hell...." Bobby began, but Alexa interrupted.

  "You want my help, we do this my way, or I'll pull out, orders or no orders. And," Alexa drained her glass and stood up. "And," she continued, "I'll tell Frank Jervis what a damned fool you've been." She stalked into the muggy afternoon without looking back.

  Bobby finished the pitcher by himself, reflecting bitterly on his foolish decision to ask for a partner.

  Chapter Forty Three

  'Standing on the corner in Roanoke, Virginia.' That doesn't have much ring to it. Maybe 'it takes a worried man' or in this case, a woman. In the late June afternoon, it was hotter than blazes in Roanoke, and Helen had been running for thirty minutes. Moisture rolled down her back and soaked into the waistband of her shorts. Even her fanny pack was marked with sweat. The run had calmed her, but she was no closer to a solution. Senator Loughlin's speech that morning to the Virginia Medical Association had gone over beautifully. The campaign was in high gear now, with supporters signing on and money rolling in.

  So Terrell Dennerman, the great political gambler, loses his nerve. Helen stopped in the shade of a building and gnawed at her lip. She wasn't dressed for downtown Roanoke, but she ignored peoples' stares. She couldn't let Terrell pull the Senator out of the campaign now. She had argued with him for hours, and finally screamed at him in front of the staff on Wednesday. Now, two days later, Terrell was still trying to convince her. He pressed her to drive back to Washington with him instead of flying. He was proud of his new Cadillac and obviously convinced that a few hours of uninterrupted conversation would bring her around. She had gone running to escape from his condescension and certainty.

  What was she going to do about Terrell?

  "Helen, Helen Johns!" A chubby woman in a bright orange dress waved her purse and sprinted heavily across the street. "I knew it was you," she panted when she got close enough, "you don't look a bit different. How long's it been? Ten years? No! More like fifteen. Whoo!"

  Helen remembered a slender brunette in her senior class in Baker City. "Elma?", she said, "Hey, Elma! It is you!" Elma had packed on at least fifty pounds and dyed her hair red. Helen stepped back. "Lemme get a look at you." With her red hair, tent-sized orange dress and bright blue handbag, Elma was quite a sight. "You're, um, lookin' good, Elma."

  Elma twirled and wiggled her hips. Startled passersby ducked her swinging handbag. "Big change from that skinny wallflower, eh? Helen, what're you doing in Roanoke?"

  "Hey, I'm closer to home that you! I live in Washington! Last I heard you were married and living in Salem. This is a long ways from Oregon." Helen started to edge down the sidewalk. Elma had never been one of her favorite people, and given the chance she could talk the leg off a chair.

  "Oh, old Al, he was a guard at the state prison. He went and got himself stabbed during one of them riots." Elma looked sad for a brief second, then brightened. "But he left a big insurance policy, and I've been spendin' it." She brightened still more. "I'm on my way to Europe. Stopped here to visit a cousin. Come down town to buy a bus ticket to Washington. That's where you live, you say? " She spotted Helen's wedding ring. "Oh, I see you ain’t Johns, anymore...." Elma was off, chattering about former classmates and friends now settled in various small towns in Oregon.

  Helen tried to keep moving. "Well, nice seeing you, Elma."

  "I'm sure not looking forward to that bus ride, it's so hot and all," said Elma mournfully. "I've got a flight out of Dulles in the morning, non-stop to Amsterdam. I'm meeting my tour group there."

  The plan that had been cooking slowly in the back of Helen's mind was suddenly clear. So, maybe it's fate, maybe this is the time. "Elma," she said, "you could fly to Dulles from here."

  "Al didn't leave me so much, that I can pay those prices. You know what one of them little planes costs from here to Washington?" Elma dug in her purse as she talked, found a granola bar, and bit in to it, wrapping and all. She spit out the wrapping. "These are so tasty, hard to imagine they're good for me."

  "I've got a plane ticket you can have." Elma stopped chewing. Helen plunged on. "My uh, company bought me a ticket into Dulles, but I have another way to get back. It'll go to waste. You can fly in this afternoon and get a good night's sleep."

  "You serious, Helen? My god, you are! I reall
y can't afford a plane ticket." Elma finished chewing and took another bite.

  "Hey, no charge for an old Baker City Bulldog. All bought and paid for. Just...look, Elma, just don't tell anybody? I could get into trouble for giving this away." She took the ticket envelope out of her pack and held it out. "Not a word, Ok?"

  Elma wiped granola crumbs off her hand and took the ticket. "Gee, Helen, gee, thanks. Not a word, not even to Janie. That's my cousin, Janie...."

  "I gotta run, Elma. It was real nice seeing you like this, but I gotta run." Helen waved and sprinted across the street. She looked back once. Elma waved the ticket. "Thanks," she called. She said more, but Helen couldn't hear.

  The first step was taken. If anybody ever cared to check, they would find that her ticket to Dulles had been used. Elma was a talker, but she would be talking in Europe, and then in Oregon. Now for the next step. Rushing in and out of several second hand stores, Helen soon had everything she needed. Step number three, call Terrell. He wasn't in his room at the hotel, but she had him paged in the bar.

  "That offer still good, Terrell?"

  He was delighted. "Ah, Helen, in the mood for a drive after all?" His tone was already triumphant; he was sure that driving with him back to Washington meant she was willing to be convinced. "I've got to see the Senator and his dear wife off to Disney World, then I'm ready to go. Meet in the lobby?"

  She didn't want to be seen with Terrell. "No, I'm already checked out. Pick me up at the Country Fry, you know where that is? And don't tell the Senator, you hear? I don't need another lecture on 'what people will think'."

  Terrell chuckled. Helen hated that damn chuckle. She hated his pipe and she hated his fucking mustache. She gripped the phone so tightly her hand shook. Terrell was still talking.

  "You know, he's secretly a dirty old man." He was patronizing the Senator again. She hated that.

  "Alright, Terrell, just pick me up, Ok? In two hours? Yeah, five o'clock, straight up." She barely waited for his answer, before hanging up. Step number three, done.

  Step four took her back to the hotel to really check out. Showering and changing into a summer dress and heels didn't take long. She always traveled light, so her slightly used purchases and most of her clothes fit easily into a nylon travel bag. She dropped the rest in a trash can, then sat in small park near the hotel for awhile.

  Could this really work? She dug into her purse and pulled out the envelope, sealed in its plastic bag, after being gently but thoroughly rubbed to remove her fingerprints. Terrell's scrawled rejection note to Jolene ran raggedly across the back of the envelope. She read it again, through the clear plastic. Poor Jolene, what could she see in an asshole like Terrell?

  Step five was to get out of town with Terrell without being seen. He picked her up on time, and in fifteen minutes they were heading north on I-81. Step five successfully completed. Maybe step six was 'leave no fresh prints in the car'. She kept her hands in her lap. Terrell pushed the Cadillac hard, holding it at eighty most of the time. "Look at that, Helen, this is an American car, and look at that. The kilometer numbers on the speedometer are almost as big as the mile numbers. All metric in a few years. Another fine old American tradition gone."

  "So who the hell cares, Terrell? What does it matter how we measure, if there's nothing left to measure? The J's are going to buy us out, or keep playing and winning these damn games. We can't give up now, we've got to get the country back on track." Maybe, Helen thought, maybe I can convince him. It's so obvious! Why can't he see it? We can't give up, not now, not after...everything. The familiar images of John Holtzman and the unconscious policeman drifted into her mind. She pushed them resolutely back to wherever they came from.

  "Chuck Halloran resigned this morning, did you know that? So we've lost the FBI. The CIA is getting closer every day." The memory of his terrifying meeting with the tall, fierce CIA agent still turned his stomach, but he didn't mention that to Helen. Instead, Terrell pushed the Caddy up to ninety. "It's time to cut our losses, Helen. Back off, find another way."

  They argued all the way to Staunton. Helen could see that Terrell would not change, he was going to quit and take Senator Loughlin with him. "I don't know, Terrell, maybe so." She tried to keep her voice from shaking. "Take the Skyline Drive, Ok? I want to think some more."

  Terrell smiled and smoothed his mustache. He had been sure he could convince Helen, and he was right. A comfortable ride in a fast car and some solid male logic, that was the way to deal with a woman. He turned the car east onto I-64. They drove in silence until he took the Skyline Drive exit and curved north along the spine of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

  Helen sighed. "So what's the plan, Terrell? Do we really give the J's California? Does the Senator go back to New York? What? And slow down, dammit. I want to see the scenery, not be part of it."

  "Sure, Helen." He eased off a little, but still threw the car into the turns. He wanted Helen to see what a good driver he was. "The plan is very simply to lie low, wait this campaign out, then go for the next one. Resentment over the damn foreigners will be even greater in four years."

  Helen said nothing. That's not a plan, she thought, that's surrender, that's cutting and running, that's the damn white flag. She looked over at Terrell as he held his mouth in a grim line, square jaw firm, mustache bristling. Phony, she thought, traitor.

  The road snaked along the crest, hanging over the cliffs and ravines that break up the mountains. There were few cars or RVs on the road; with darkness coming to obscure the view, most tourists took to the faster freeway.

  When they came to Highway 211, Helen gestured to the right. "Go toward Sperryville. There's a place to stop in a mile or so." She sat up straight and looked down the road, over the smooth nose of the Cadillac. "There, the sign that says 'scenic overlook', pull off there. Alan and I used to come up here sometimes, before things got so, uh, busy."

  Terrell screeched the tires on the turn and Helen gritted her teeth. They rolled away from the highway, down a drive that wound through thick stands of trees. It was almost dark. The parking area was deserted. A low, wide, rock wall defined a small picnic ground. There were some wooden benches, a rock fireplace, and a sign that warned of danger beyond the wall. Helen got out. Her heart, beating fast and hard, felt strong.

  "Yeah, Terrell, there's always the next election." She walked away from the car, over to the wall. She looked at the view. The last of the day's light lit the tops of the smokey hills rolling away to the east. She couldn't see Sperryville, but she knew the town was only three or four miles away. The ravine on the other side of the wall was already in darkness, but she knew it was deep, with steep rocky sides.

  Terrell came up beside her. "I knew you would see reason, Helen. Knowing when to retreat is the mark of a good general." He struck a pose and looked sternly out across the shadowed valley.

  Helen stepped back two paces. She would have only one chance. She stepped back again. Terrell looked to the east, toward Washington. Helen raised her hands in front of her and ran toward him. She saw the wrinkles on his cotton jacket. She watched her hands sink into the wrinkles, watched the jacket move forward. Terrell's arms flew out, his head snapped back. After a long time his knees hit the rock wall. The cloth of his jacket puffed out between her fingers. Her breath roared in her ears.

  Terrell had admired the view and felt satisfied with himself and the way he was handling Helen. Then he was falling forward across the wall, looking into the empty darkness on the other side. He caught at the rough stones with his hands, and stopped himself from falling head first. Through the fog of shock and confusion, he heard someone scream.

  As Terrell sprawled across the stones, Helen screamed and put all the strength she had into a last push against his legs. They slid over the edge an inch at a time, his pants flapping in the breeze blowing up from the ravine.
It was taking so long! Then his legs were gone, but his hands and face were still there as he clung to the edge of the rocks. Now he was facing her. His legs and body hung in the air, but his hands gripped the edge of the wall. She had to do more. She took off one of her heels.

  His legs hanging in the air, his hands locked on the edge of the wall, Terrell looked uncomprehendingly into Helen's contorted face. She paused and bent down, then came toward him. He tried to reach for her, but instead felt a terrible pain in his left hand. Helen reached out again, and the pain was worse. He heard a noise but didn't understand it was the sound of one of his fingers breaking.

  Helen swung the shoe again and again, the metal cap of the heel throwing sparks when she hit the rock. Terrell wouldn't let go. The bones broke in his hands, but he wouldn't let go. She knelt on the wall and swore and hit him and hit him, and then he said "Oh", and was gone.

  Terrell never knew what happened. He never realized that Helen pushed him, or why his hands hurt. Turning in the air as he fell, he hit the ledge forty feet below head first, then bounced and rolled another two hundred feet down the slope.

  Afraid she might be sick, Helen sat with her head down for a few minutes. She had to get moving, get away from there. She pulled her purse and bag out of the car. The bag yielded a light backpack and man's jeans and shirt. She put them on, along with tennis shoes and a billed cap. All the clothes were used and worn. She stuffed the bag and purse and the rest of her clothes into the pack.

  She took the envelope out of the plastic bag. Carefully, carefully, leave no prints. She rubbed the envelope with her handkerchief, then put it on the passenger seat of the Cadillac. She couldn't see Terrell in the darkness, but he had to be dead.

  She checked herself in the side mirror of the car. A boy, late teens or early twenties, looked back. She fluffed out the shirt a little. It looked Ok.

  "For once, it pays to be flat," she muttered, and headed down the road to Sperryville and the Greyhound stop.

  Chapter Forty Four

  Helen rode the bus to Fairfax and caught an airport limousine to Dulles. From Sperryville to Fairfax she sat by herself toward the back of the nearly empty bus. Sometimes she hummed quietly. She liked Sousa marches. She beat time softly on the seat in front of her. She thought about the look on Terrell's face as he fell. She didn't like that thought, so she remembered Terrell's sneering, superior attitude, and the way he endlessly stroked his damned mustache. And, she reminded herself, he was a coward, a traitorous, yellow coward. She held those thoughts, and built on them.

  At Dulles, she changed back into her dress and heels, but one of the heels was broken. How could that be? Oh, yes...they don't make shoes like they used to. The only replacements she could find to buy were running shoes that didn't go with her dress, but she got them anyway.

  She moved from rest room to rest room at Dulles, leaving a piece of her disguise in each wastebasket. Her car was in the long-term lot. She was home in another hour, took a shower, slipped into bed next to Alan and was asleep in minutes.

  The next morning Terrell didn't show up at the office, but no one expected him because Senator Loughlin was at Disneyworld, and wouldn't be back until tomorrow. Terrell often came in late when the Senator wasn't in town. Helen looked around the office and liked what she saw. The place needed some changes, but no rush. She settled down at her word processor and wrote the best speech of her career. This would wow the Defense Worker's Union delegates.

  The staff began to mutter when Terrell wasn't in by noon. At 2:30 Miss Murphy, the assistant office manager, approached Helen. She was a thin, nervous woman who managed to be simultaneously charmed and intimidated by Terrell. "Did Mr. Dennerman say anything to you?" she asked.

  "About not coming in?" Helen leaned back in her chair and stretched. "No. He did say he was going to drive back along the Blue Ridge Parkway. Maybe he stopped for the night. Did you call his apartment?"

  Miss Murphy wrung her hands. "Oh, my, no. I don't want to bother him at home. I just wondered, he's got a meeting at three, something about redecorating the conference room."

  Helen sighed. "That Terrell! Ok, I'll call him, and if he doesn't show, I'll fill in at the meeting." She gave Miss Murphy a bright smile. Miss Murphy looked relieved and anxious. Helen saved her speech to the hard drive and turned the computer off. She would phone from her office. She kept the computer outside with the typists because she didn't like the damn thing very much.

  "Oh, Mrs Holtzman, could I, would you mind...." Miss Murphy, wringing her hands again. "Would you mind if I used your computer? Mine seems to be broken. I called the store, but they won't be here for another hour. I need to get the donor list updated, if you don't mind."

  "Sure, go ahead." Helen didn't look back as she went into her office and punched the autodialer. The phone rang three times, then her heart stopped as Terrell answered. She laughed at herself. His answering machine, of course. Still, she had to pause and steady her voice before she left a message. Her hands shook as she hung up the phone.

  The meeting went very well. She arranged for new furniture, in a Scandinavian Modern style she knew Terrell hated. She didn't like it all that much, but to choose something Terrell would never approve was wonderful, it was wonderful to know that he couldn't change a decision she made. She arrived back at the office in a very good mood.

  Miss Murphy met her at the door, furiously wringing her hands. "Oh, my," she stammered, "oh dear, oh dear. Mrs Holtzman, I'm so sorry."

  Helen's stomach churned and she felt herself go pale. Had they found Terrell so soon? She forced her voice to an even tone. "What seems to be the problem, Miss Murphy?" Damn! That sounded false. Just be cool, Helen, dammit.

  Miss Murphy pointed to Helen's computer. "I, I seem to have pressed the wrong button, oh, my, oh, my. I don't know how it happened."

  The computer hummed, sounding perfectly normal. But there was only one message on the screen: FORMATTING DRIVE C: PLEASE WAIT. The computer stopped. The message changed to say: FORMAT COMPLETE - ALL DATA ON DRIVE C: HAS BEEN DESTROYED. Helen read the message twice. She pressed a key. The screen was blank, the machine didn't respond. Her speech was gone. The best speech she had ever written. Five hours of work. Helen turned to Miss Murphy.

  "How did you do this?" she asked. She fought to keep her voice from shaking. She was afraid she was going to cry.

  Miss Murphy twisted her hands. "I, I don't know," She said miserably, "I can't remember."

  Helen looked at Miss Murphy's hands, then at her scrawny neck. She thought about putting her hands around that neck, squeezing, squeezing, watching Miss Murphy's eyes bulge, listening to her gasp her last breath.

  "Oh, my," Miss Murphy said, and stepped back several paces. "I said I was sorry."

  Helen realized she had raised her hands. She could feel the hatred and anger showing on her face. She had to calm down. She breathed deeply, then forced a smile. "Of course you did, Miss Murphy, I know you didn't do it on purpose. No big deal." She was starting to grit her teeth. This woman had sabotaged the Senator. Ok, Helen, deal with it later. Now, just relax, smile, get out of the office.

  Walking to the Aerospace Museum and back, Helen thought of five different ways to kill Miss Murphy.

  Chapter Forty Five

  The office that came with Alexa's appointment to the District police force was a large room, but most of the space was taken by a double row of filing cabinets ranged along either wall from the door to within a few feet of the battered metal desk. Behind the desk, the only window looked out on a dark and dirty air shaft. The single air vent emitted more noise than cool air, and the room was always warm, even at nine in the morning. An old phone and a shiny blue portable computer sat on the otherwise bare desk.

  Bobby felt like whining. "It's too hot in here, Alexa. This chair is uncomfortable. Can't we get a few mor
e filing cabinets?" He squirmed around in the cracked oak chair.

  "Don't fidget, Bobby, you'll wrinkle your suit. Do something fun with your computer." Alexa leaned back in her chair and put her feet on the desk. The chair was new and comfortable, she was wearing a summer dress instead of a uniform, and she was away from General Gotts. She felt surprisingly good, considering that her military career was currently in the toilet. Playing detective was fun, and she enjoyed Bobby's company, even if he did sometimes act like a bratty kid.

  "Ok, lady, you're right. But I didn't expect Dennerman to drop out of sight. He's the only live one we've got." He reached out and tapped the keys on the computer. It played a few bars of the week's number one country hit. Bobby started converting the tune to a reggae beat.

  The phone rang. Bobby leaped from his chair, but Alexa straight armed him with her left and grabbed the phone with her right. "Allbright," she snapped. "Yeah, yeah? What? Where? When? We'll be right down." She hung up the phone and looked at Bobby.

  He was still leaning across the desk. "What's happened, for God's sake?"

  Alexa leaned back in her chair and patted his hand. "You said that Dennerman was the only live one we had. Not any more. He's in the morgue in Richmond. Suicide."

  "Oh, no. Oh, shit, oh, oh, shit." Bobby paled and fell back in his chair, his hands to his face. "Christ on a crutch. I did it, Alexa, I pushed him and he broke. I've killed him."

  "No, its not your fault. You showed him the truth. Dennerman was in over his head, and he finally realized he had no place to go." Alexa came around her desk and touched his hair. He looked up at her. His eyes were wet. She pulled him to her and held him. "This is a rough game, Bobby."

  He leaned against her for a few seconds, then drew back and looked up at her again. "Ok, Alexa, maybe so," he sighed. "Anyway, let's go face what's happened."

  Alexa gave Bobby a few minutes to wash up and recover himself, then led him to her car. As they walked to the parking lot, Bobby hopefully brought up the limousine.

  "It'd be much more efficient. We could work on the way down and back."

  "Yeah, sure," Alexa snorted, "Us and the President and the Secretary of Defense. We all take advantage of every minute. I want to be inconspicuous. A limo with DC plates is not inconspicuous in Richmond."

  Alexa's car was actually a truck, an Astro sports van, with a turbocharged engine and racing tires. It was painted three shades of blue. Bobby patted the Astro's top. "You call this inconspicuous? Why don't we just parachute into the town square?"

  "You don't have to drive, so shut up and ride." Alexa started the engine and Bobby got in and rode. Alexa used everything the turbocharged V6 could produce. They made it to Richmond in two hours flat.

  Fear caused by Alexa's fast and aggressive driving distracted Bobby on the way down, but he tensed as they entered the city. Alexa checked in with the police on her car phone. A fat detective met them at the morgue.

  "Autopsy scheduled tomorrow. Cause of death obvious. Follow me." The detective was a man of few words, none of them with a Southern accent. He led them down a bleak stairway into the storage room. It was very cold, and smelled like meat that was starting to go bad. Bobby looked stricken. Alexa squeezed his hand. "Number seven," the detective said, and pulled the drawer open.

  Terrell lay on his back, his hands at his sides. His eyes were closed, his square, handsome face bruised and dirty. His clothes were torn, and he obviously had several broken bones, including a rib that protruded through his shirt. The rotting meat smell was stronger, and Terrell's skin had a distinct greenish tone.

  "Urg," Bobby said, and closed his eyes.

  Alexa looked at the body. "So what killed him?"

  "This." The fat detective grabbed Terrell's hair and lifted. The back of his head was smashed. White bone gleamed through the clotted blood. "He hit here first, part way down, then fell the rest of the way. Serious injuries. Not fatal. Except this one." He gave Terrell's head a shake.

  "Hey," Alexa protested, "stop that. They haven't done the autopsy yet."

  The detective grinned and lowered the head. "Afraid I'll break somethin'?"

  Bobby had his hand over his mouth, but he looked at the body. "Christ on a crutch. Hm. Oh, boy. Alexa, look at his hands." Alexa looked. Terrell's bloody hands were covered with small round bruises.

  "What're these?" She poked the detective's arm and pointed to the bruises. He peered at them.

  "Hell, I dunno." He straightened up, turned away. "He's a jumper. Jumpers get damaged." He chuckled. "It's a occupational hazard."

  Somehow, seeing Terrell lying there made Bobby feel better instead of worse. "Very funny," he said, "He's damaged for sure, but what makes him a jumper?"

  The detective pushed on the drawer. "Found a note. Seen enough?" As they both nodded, the drawer slid closed. The detective swung his bulk toward the door. "C'mon." He didn't look back.

  They followed him across town to a dingy precinct building and waited while he checked out an evidence envelope. They gathered around the table in an interview room. The detective wheezed slightly as he dumped out the envelope. Little plastic bags skidded onto the table. Terrell's life, neatly bagged.

  "There. The note." The detective poked at a bag containing a piece of white paper.

  Bobby picked it up and read through the clear plastic. "He says, 'This isn't working out, I can't take it anymore. This is very difficult, but believe me, it's for the best.' This note doesn't have any beginning or ending." Bobby handed the bag to Alexa.

  "It's on the back of an envelope." She turned the envelope over. "It's to Senator Loughlin, from the Wisconsin Flower Growers Association. The address is on a label. Looks like junk mail." She tossed the envelope back on the table. "Anything else?"

  Bobby stirred the plastic bags with a finger. "Looks like the usual. Keys, wallet, comb....hm, a little tin of mustache wax."

  The detective grunted as he heaved himself to his feet. "I ain't got all day. You two seen enough?" He didn't wait for an answer before pushing the bags back into the evidence envelope.

  Alexa stood up. "This man was under investigation by a Federal security agency. We'll want all of this, a copy of the autopsy, and...and have his car dusted for prints. Oh, and the envelope, too. Dust that envelope."

  "Prints! You're crazy, Red!" The detective rested his hands and his stomach on the table. "The guy's a jumper. Car's in the impound garage. Sheriff's deputy drove it here. No prints."

  Bobby stood up. He reached out and gently touched the detective's shoulder. "Look at me," Bobby said. The detective frowned and turned his head. Bobby towered over him. "Where you from?" Alexa was astonished to hear a smooth, syrupy Southern accent. "Where you from, Mr. Detective?" Bobby repeated.

  The detective's frown deepened into furrows across his chubby face. "New Jersey. What...."

  Bobby held up his hand. "Well, Mr. Detective, ahm from South Carolina. Down there, when fella law officers come to town, we help 'em out. We do what we can. And, Mr. Detective, in South Carolina, we...are...polite...to...the...ladies." Bobby sank his right forefinger into the detective's fat shoulder with each word.

  The detective indignantly turned to face him. "Hey, back off."

  "Shut up." Bobby snapped, dropping the accent. "You've got two choices here, asshole. You can go along and get along, or you can give us trouble. Go along, and you may end up with a commendation. Give us trouble, and I guarantee," Bobby poked the detective again, this time in the chest. "I guarantee, that you will find yourself back in New Jersey on some stinking traffic detail, if you're lucky."

  The detective's mouth twisted, then he thought. Bobby saw doubt in his eyes. "Ok," the detective said, "I'll see to it, dammit. Where d'ya want this stuff sent?"

  Alexa gave him her card. "And the prints?" She asked sweetly.


  The detective sighed. "Prints too. Inside and out. Send the information to the FBI?"

  "No," Bobby said, "just send them to us. Fax to this number." He took Alexa's card and jotted a number on the back. "Once the car has been checked, we'll send a tow truck for it." Bobby smiled. "Thanks very much. Appreciate the help. 'Bye now." The detective didn't smile back.

  They didn't talk and laugh on the way back to DC. Terrell was being held as a John Doe, but once the autopsy was complete his family would have to be notified and reporters would be all over.

  "One thing for sure, we have got to keep low on this," Bobby said, "if I end up on the news, Frank will have my balls for breakfast." He could feel his depression coming back. The sight of Terrell lying there, and the smell. His stomach churned. He thought of asking Alexa to pull over so he could barf his guts out. He held out for a few miles and his stomach calmed. He felt better. Within minutes, it started to churn again...good God, this was stupid! He reclined his seat and closed his eyes.

  Alexa left him alone for awhile, then touched his hand. "You okay?"

  "Yeah, better." He didn't open his eyes.

  "You turned that detective right around, Bobby."

  "He was being an asshole. I got tired of it."

  "So where did you get that 'Southron' talk? I never heard that before."

  "I keep in my dresser drawer with my socks."

  "Seriously, Bobby, it sounded downright genuine."

  Bobby squeezed Alexa's hand and opened his eyes. "It is genuine. I grew up with it. When I went to Stanford I got so much shit, I decided to change the way I talked. So I did. It was hard, but I did it."

  "Well, I like it." She looked at him from the corner of her eye. "You want to come over for dinner? We can relax and let this day be in the past."

  He grinned. "Why ah'd be honored, ma'yum." Elation washed away his gloom. Even if it was from pity, Alexa was ready to make up.

  Chapter Forty Six

  The Virginia medical examiner faxed the autopsy report to Bobby's computer just as Terrell made the afternoon news. The anchor looked somber as he described the tragedy, then cut to a reporter interviewing Senator Loughlin. The Senator was in fine form as he lamented the untimely demise.

  "That's Helen Holtzman," Bobby said, "there, the blond behind him. The one with the handkerchief."

  Alexa leaned close to the screen. They sat in her stuffy office, watching a tiny television set she had brought from home. "That's the daughter-in-law of your former relative? The electrician guy?" she asked. The broadcast on the TV shifted to a foreign capital. The announcer, now cheerful and upbeat, described an Eastern European summer festival.

  "It's his wife who's some kind of relative. I never did get it straight." Bobby spoke absently as he scrolled the autopsy report across the computer screen. "Alexa, look at this - the cop was right, hitting his head killed him. It says he hit head first, top and back of his head...hm." His voice trailed away.

  Alexa looked over his shoulder. The screen displayed a gruesome picture of Terrell's smashed skull, with colored arrows showing the presumed direction of the fatal impact. "Wow, what a way to go. At least it must have been quick." She looked away, but Bobby pulled at her arm.

  "Look at this, look at this," he was yelling excitedly. "Look at this." He was up and pacing the room, past the rows of filing cabinets and back, waving his arms. "This is very strange! Christ on a crutch!"

  "Look at what? Stop bouncing around, dammit!" Alexa grabbed him and pushed him against the desk. "Talk to me, and stop babbling 'look at this'."

  He pulled away. "Please, Alexa, you're wrinkling my tie. Now look, um, here." Still standing, Bobby tapped the computer keys and brought up a full length picture of Terrell from the side. Small arrows pointed to his damaged head. The picture rotated until Terrell's dead body hung head down on the screen. Bobby touched another key, and a line appeared next to the body, parallel with its back. He used the mouse to curve the end of the line until it made a little shelf, just touching the back of Terrell's head. "There," he said triumphantly, "see that?"

  "Ok, that's the cliff you just drew, right?"

  "That's right, that's right." Bobby started waving his arms again, but Alexa gently guided him to a chair and pushed him into it. "And it's behind him, he's upside down and the cliff is behind him."

  "So?"

  "So he's upside down and the cliff is behind him. The only way that could be is if he went off backwards." Bobby banged away on the keys and a tiny version of the body stood at the top of the cliff and soared off head first. "See, if he goes off frontwards, he either hits the front of his head, or he hits the bottom of the back of his head." He stood the body on the top of the cliff and watched it fly off backwards. "See? see?"

  "So?"

  "So? So jumpers don't go off backwards. The guy isn't going to do a back flip into the canyon." Bobby watched the tiny body fall from the top, bounce off the ledge, then flash back to the top and fall again.

  "You think he had help? Someone pushed him over backwards?" Alexa wondered if Bobby was looking too hard for a non-suicidal explanation, but then, maybe he had something. It was hard to imagine deliberately toppling backwards into the abyss. "Maybe he sort of turned around in the air."

  "Well..." Bobby saw there might be a point to that but was unwilling to surrender. "I don't think that could happen. Let's see what else they say." He erased the tiny falling figure and scanned the text of the autopsy. "Here's the right hand...abrasions on the palm...metacarpus, proximal phalanx...why don't they write in English?"

  "Let me see." Alexa pushed him aside. "Hm. Small bones in the hand and fingers are broken under the round marks. The bruises would be worse except he died right away. Or words to that effect."

  Bobby bounced around in his chair. "There, see, somebody broke his fingers."

  "Tortured him and then pushed him off? Why?" Alexa wanted to believe, if only to make Bobby feel less responsible for Terrell's death, but she couldn't quite see it.

  "Hell, I don't know, but something isn't right here. I don't think he would have hit his head like that, and I don't think that just falling would have hurt his hands like that." Bobby sat back and sighed. "Ok, lady, maybe I'm kidding myself." He tapped the computer's keys and watched the text scroll past. "Hey, they put the fingerprint report on the back of the autopsy. That cop dusted the car."

  "When you intimidate 'em, they stay intimidated." Alexa pushed past him again. "Let's see this. They went over it inside and out. They even ran all the fresh prints they found. All Dennerman's - and that damn deputy that drove the car...except for this one!" She pointed to a thumb print. "This was on the passenger mirror. Right thumb. Your buddy!"

  "My buddy?"

  "Helen Holtzman, the blond you pointed out on TV," Alexa said. "This is her thumbprint. A fresh, or 'relatively distinct' thumbprint. So maybe this sweet Helen was there. Maybe she tortured Dennerman by breaking his fingers, then threw him off the cliff. She doesn't look that tough."

  "She couldn't have done that," Bobby said firmly, "not a chance."

  Alexa now had complete control of the computer. "There's more," she said, "here's the results on the envelope. No prints."

  "That can't be," Bobby said, "lemme see." He reached past Alexa for the computer. She effortlessly pushed him away.

  "Just wait a sec'," she muttered, "no clear prints, everything smudged." She realized Bobby was standing by the desk, looking pouty. "All right, dammit, here." She pushed the computer across the desk.

  "Hey, it is my computer." Bobby peered at the screen. "If Dennerman wrote that note just before he took the dive, his prints would be all over."

  "So he didn't write the note?"

  "Or he wrote the note at some other time and place, and maybe for some other reason, then someone else placed it carefully on the seat,"
Bobby said. He was feeling more and more hopeful that Terrell had been helped over the cliff. Pushed instead of jumped didn't make him any less dead, but it helped Bobby feel a lot less responsible.

  "Any candidates?" Alexa asked.

  "I wonder where Helen Holtzman was three days ago," Bobby answered.

  "A minute ago, you said 'not a chance'," Alexa reminded him.

  "Call me flighty," Bobby answered.

  Chapter Forty Seven

  In two days they developed some good ideas on Helen's whereabouts. She was booked on a flight to DC from Roanoke. Alexa found one of the attendants in the employees' lounge at Dulles. The small blond looked closely at the photograph.

  "Gee, she kinda looks like me. It's not me, though," She laughed. "Golly, we get so many people through, I can't say for sure, but I don't remember. Darned if...9D, last Tuesday...gee, I remember a really loud, fat woman in a real bright dress, gee, she was on the aisle, I can't say for sure, but golly, I think she was in 9D. Or was that the next day? No, I remember, that was the flight some damn...darn...kid let his pet rat loose." Alexa thanked her for her time and raced back to the stuffy office.

  Failing to convince Alexa to rescind the limo ban, Bobby drove the Geo out Skyline Drive to look at the scene of the possible crime. By getting an early start and nerving himself to drive almost up to the speed limit he beat Alexa back to the office. When Alexa came in, he was playing with his computer. He had the tiny picture of Terrell's body on the screen, and Helen's thumbprint. Below that was...Alexa looked closer. "Is that a bus?"

  Bobby didn't look up. "Yeah. A Greyhound. A Greyhound that went through Sperryville, Virginia last Tuesday night. A Greyhound that picked up one passenger. A 'kid' was what the clerk at the store said. A short, teenage boy wearing a baseball cap with the bill in front. The clerk remembered how unusual that looked, most all kids wear the bill in back. He didn't get a good look at the face."

  "Well, you can add an airplane to that collage." Alexa sat down behind her desk. "We've got to get a fan for this place. I talked to one of the flight attendants. She didn't remember anyone like Helen on the plane that night. She maybe remembered a noisy fat woman who sat in Helen's seat."

  Bobby activated the drawing tool on the computer and added an airplane to the other objects on the screen. Then he drew another picture. "That's the passenger mirror on Dennerman's Cadillac. They trucked it up from Richmond today and put it in the impound yard. The mirror is tilted up and out, the way it would be if someone had looked at themselves in it." He threw in a picture of the envelope for completeness.

  "So you think this Helen did the deed? Snuffed Dennerman? Why? And how? He must have outweighed her by forty pounds." Alexa put her head on her desk. "Oh, God, being a detective is hard work. I am tired, tired, tired."

  "No, no, Triple A, don't quit now." Bobby patted her red curls. "Well, what the hell, go ahead and quit. I don't know what all this means. Except that maybe Helen Holtzman was there, when she was supposed to be on a plane, and she could have been the 'kid' on the Greyhound, keeping her face hidden with the cap." He looked blankly out the window. "And, her name was in the notebook." He went back to the computer.

  Alexa lifted her head. "What notebook? Are you drawing a picture of a notebook?"

  "No, this is the envelope. But I better add the notebook. The notebook on the boat. John Holtzman's boat. He was writing in it just before he was killed. He wrote Helen's name and then blacked it out. A friend with a graphics lab uncovered it."

  "You have a mysterious notebook, and you didn't tell me about it?" Alexa started to sound pissed.

  Bobby raised his hands defensively. "I forgot, I was thinking about Dennerman."

  "I want to see that notebook," Alexa snapped.

  "Ok, Ok," Bobby said, "You're right, it may be an important clue now that Holtzman keeps turning up around dead bodies." He finished his picture. "John Holtzman, Terrell Dennerman, who's next."

  The collage started to move - the little body fell endlessly from the cliff, the bus rolled around and around the border of the screen. The mirror tilted up, then down. Little reflections of light glinted from it as it moved. The notebook's pages turned and fluttered in a digital wind, and Helen's thumbprint appeared and disappeared randomly at different locations on the screen. Bobby couldn't decide what to do with the envelope, so it just sat there.

  Chapter Forty Eight

  Nursing a Bud Lite at Mr. Smith's, Alexa leafed through the notebook Bobby had sheepishly presented to her. "Who are these guys," she asked, "Brad Farrell and Harry Gonzales?"

  "Farrell's an old boyfriend of Helen's, from out in Oregon," Bobby answered, "John Holtzman hired him to work on Omniac."

  Alexa sighed and leaned back in the booth. "And you said Helen's boss, Senator Loughlin got Holtzman the job of converting Omniac. And you just forgot to mention this notebook, and," she held a copy of the printout Mary Grier had made uncovering Helen's name, "and this little bit of magic, you also just forgot to mention. Bobby, sometimes you piss me off."

  "Christ on a crutch, Alexa," Bobby said while trying to look repentant, "I was concentrating on Dennerman. I'm sorry, but does it matter?"

  "Do you know anything about this pair?" Alexa asked patiently.

  "Only what I told you."

  "Well," Alexa said, "finishing her beer and standing, "I have a friend in Army Intelligence who can do a little snooping in computer databases. Maybe he can find where these mysterious electricians are. I'm going home and not think about any of this. Or you." She tossed the notebook on the table and stalked out.

  Bobby cursed himself for asking for a partner.

 

  Chapter Forty Nine

  Losing one suspect gained them another. For four days, Bobby and Alexa followed Helen, taking turns; Bobby one day, Alexa the next. She went to work, she went home, she went shopping. One night she and her husband visited Marilyn Holtzman. Bobby tagged along. Alexa refused to allow the limo at all, so Bobby gave up luxury for good, and negotiated a month to month lease on the damn Geo.

  "This," Alexa said on the morning of the fourth day, "is not working. Holtzman leads the most ordinary, boring life I've seen since I left home. She doesn't do anything but work."

  "She visited her mother-in-law last night." Bobby worked on refining the animated clue-collage he had built on his computer. He hoped for inspiration, but nothing came.

  "Any other possibilities?" Alexa ruffled Bobby's hair. She couldn't stay angry with him for long.

  "Others of Loughlin's staff, Loughlin himself, Halloran, who might do something now that Frank got him canned, some of those union leaders and military men that Dennerman used to meet. Those two electricians from the notebook. Hell, there's dozens of possibilities. But Holtzman's the only probability." Bobby watched Terrell's body fall off the cliff and bounce to the top and fall again. He felt a twinge of guilt about Terrell; maybe he hadn't driven Terrell to suicide, but the scare had certainly changed his behavior, and now he was dead.

  "It worked before, sort of," he said suddenly, "maybe it will work again."

  "What worked?"

  "Scaring Dennerman. After I rousted him, things changed for sure."

  "Not necessarily for the better," Alexa said dryly.

  "Any other ideas?"

  "Well, no, but it's a pretty desperate thing to do."

  "We are desperate," Bobby said, "unless we want to spend the rest of our lives in this damned store room, we'd better make something happen. I'm going to bounce her as soon as I get the chance."

  "You want backup?"

  "Nah," Bobby said, "what can happen? I'll scare her, and see what she does."

  Helen worked late that night, then stopped at a supermarket outside Alexandria. It was nearly dark when she came out carrying a bag of groceries.

  Bobby waited by her car. "Helen Holtzman."
He growled, "You're in big trouble, lady."

  Helen's first reaction was sheer terror. She stood and looked up at the dark, towering figure. She couldn't move, couldn't speak. She clutched the grocery bag, heard eggs break inside. The thought of egg on her dress converted her fear to anger.

  "Who the hell are you?" Her voice squeaked. Damn!

  The figure shifted from foot to foot. "Never mind, Holtzman, I'm here to warn you." Bobby could see Helen's scowling face as she looked up at him. She had been frightened for a moment, but now she just looked pissed. He tried to sound harsh and threatening. "You were with Terrell Dennerman the night he died, weren't you? You killed him, didn't you?" She was shifting to the side and he had to turn to keep looking at her.

  Helen's heart stopped again. They knew! But she kept moving until the monster's face was in the light. He was tall, but his eyes were mild, even as he tried to look fierce. He was wearing an expensive linen suit. This must be Terrell's CIA agent! He didn't look so tough. Terrell really was a weenie.

  "Fuck off, Slim," she snarled.

  This isn't going well, Bobby thought. "We're on to you, Holtzman, jail is just a matter of time...ow!" Helen kicked him in the shins. It hurt. He bent over to touch his leg. "Ow, ow, dammit!"

  "I told you," Helen screamed, "fuck the hell off!" She kicked him again. He yelled again, bent double by pain. Still holding her groceries, she remembered the eggs. Reaching into the bag with one hand, Helen tore open the carton. Many of the eggs were broken and the carton was a slimy mess, but some of them were still whole. She grabbed one and smashed it on Bobby's head. He howled again, louder than when she kicked him. She gave him another egg in the face.

  "Stop, stop!" Bobby put his hands over his face and backed away. The pain in his shins was bad enough, but the raw egg running down his face shocked and disgusted him. Helen threw another egg. It splatted on his tie, his seventy dollar Armani. He turned away, and two more eggs smashed against his back. He ran.

  "Asshole!" Helen screamed. She stood with egg dripping from the shopping bag and watched the tall wimp run across the parking lot. She laughed. She felt wonderful, she felt powerful. A couple pushing a shopping cart stared at her. "What're you looking at?" She barked. They threw their groceries into their car and roared away. Helen laughed again. She would tell Alan she tripped and dropped the groceries.

 

  Chapter Fifty

  Bobby mourned his tie. "And my suit," he said to Alexa. They were in her office, starting another hot, stuffy day. "She kicked me, look at this." He pulled up his pants and displayed his bloody shins.

  "Yuk!" Alexa turned away. "Disgusting."

  "Hey, it hurt, but it doesn't look that bad." Bobby dabbed gingerly at a scab.

  "Not that. You. Chased off by a senatorial speech writer. Chased off? Beaten up!" Alexa smiled. "Egged! You're lucky she wasn't carrying feathers."

  "Hey, I have trouble getting tough with girls." Bobby dug the latest copy of GQ out of his briefcase and started leafing through it. "Now I have to get a new wardrobe."

  "Even a 'girl' that's figured in two deaths?" Alexa was still smiling, but her smile was grim.

  "She doesn't look it...well, maybe she does." Bobby touched his sore leg again, and remembered the defiance and contempt in her voice. "What am I going to do, Triple A? Frank Jervis says he can't do any more for now - firing Halloran caused so much flack, he has to lay low."

  "You mean we. What're we going to do?" Alexa fluffed her hair. "If you want to get Helen moving, maybe it's time she had a talk with a pro."

  "You? You want to take a shot at Helen?" Bobby creased a page in the magazine and carefully tore it out.

  "Yeah. A figurative shot, anyway. Or maybe a real shot, if that's what it takes." Alexa checked her hair in her compact mirror.

  Two nights later, Helen again worked late. She hummed to herself as she left the parking garage elevator and headed for her car. The day had gone well. Senator Loughlin asked her for advice several times an hour. He was beginning to depend on her.

  Her pleasant thoughts turned to pain and shock as she was grabbed by her hair and dragged into the stairwell. Her scream was cut off by a hand across her mouth. Helen's fright turned instantly to anger when her attacker faced her. This was no mugger.

  Another tall one. Not as tall as in Alexandria, but still tall. Helen couldn't see details in the dim light, but this one wore a ski mask and camouflage fatigues.

  "End of the line, Holtzman," the dark figure said in a cold, flat voice. A woman's voice! A woman! The tall woman pushed Helen against the wall and then stepped back.

  Helen smiled. "Another freak. A female freak. Now hear this, freak...."

  The woman slapped her twice, so hard her head banged the wall. Helen put her hands to her cheeks. She was hit hard in the stomach. Bending double, Helen gasped and gagged. The woman leaned down and took a handful of hair, twisted Helen's face up.

  "Now, listen to me, Holtzman," she hissed. "This isn't a game anymore. This isn't on the computer. This is for real." She snapped a switchblade open, held the tip of the blade against Helen's throat. "You've spent a lot of time around corpses lately, maybe it's time you joined them." She pressed the knife harder. A trickle of blood ran down Helen's neck.

  Helen made a croaking sound, tried again. "Please, please, my god." She couldn't move, was afraid to move.

  Alexa heard genuine terror in Helen's voice.

  "You don't sound so tough now, sweetie," Alexa snarled. She damn well had Helen's attention. Time to back off. Alexa pretended to slip, pulled the knife away, and pushed Helen across the stairwell.

  Helen ran screaming down the stairs. There was an attendant on the next level, if she could make it. She tripped and went down hard, but kept scrambling on hands and knees. She heard yelling and cursing behind her.

  Alexa stopped on the stairs, yelled again, then smiled. Helen seemed to be impressed by her little act.

 

  Chapter Fifty One

  Parking the Geo near the exit of the Senate garage, Bobby watched Alexa saunter into the darkness. He sweated for an hour in the evening heat, jammed into the tiny car.

  Then Alexa appeared, carrying her ski mask. She leaned in the driver's window. "Hi, big boy. Lookin' for some fun?" She grinned a huge grin and flicked a switchblade past his nose. "I can show you lots of fun."

  Bobby shrank back into the car. "Careful with that thing, you could hurt...Alexa, what did you do?"

  "Relax. She's Ok. I think. I sure as hell moved her off dead center, though. She was spinning in six directions when last seen." Alexa smiled again and laughed quietly. Then she frowned. "Listen, Bobby, that woman is tough. I went to plan B in about thirty seconds. You're damn lucky she didn't kill you the other night."

  "If she'd had more eggs, she might have," Bobby said, "hop in and we'll see if your acting talent pays off."

  "Give me one minute in that bar around the corner. I've got to pee so bad my back teeth are floating." Alexa tossed her mask into the Geo and trotted away.

  Seconds later, Bobby was astounded to see Helen's Sunbird careen onto the street. Alexa was nowhere in sight as Helen roared past. Christ on a crutch, he thought, I can't just watch her drive away. He let a couple on a motorcycle go by and pulled out after her. At the corner of Delaware and C, his heart leaped. Instead of turning on C, she kept straight on. She wasn't going home! A change, a new development! Bobby silently pledged Alexa his eternal gratitude.

  At the Union Station, Helen went west on Massachusetts Avenue. She was driving fast, speeding up abruptly, then braking too hard. Where the hell was she going? He concentrated on staying with her, but not too close. She turned. He slowed, dropped back, turned after her. He had an anxious moment until he saw her tail lights moving fast more than a block ahead. He picked up spee
d and swung the car to miss some garbage in the street. It was then he realized where they were. This was a rough neighborhood at night.

  Bobby's first feeling was panic and his first impulse was to slam on the brakes, turn around and get the hell out of there. He almost lost Helen, but her stop lights came on, and he concentrated on the triple glare, pushing the Geo up to fifty, swerving around the potholes. There were people on the sidewalks. Some of them yelled and shook their fists as he buzzed past.

  Just as he was afraid she was gone, he caught up. She was stopped, as though lost, or maybe confused. She turned and sped off again. Then she disappeared. One second she was there, two hundred feet in front of him, and then she was gone. He circled one block, turned the other way and circled another. Most blocks had at least one street light operating, and there were small groups of people standing under many of them: young, Hispanic looking men and women. They smoked cigarettes and watched him drive by. No one called out. They just watched him, from one street light to the next. He was starting to panic again. He didn't want to die in a Geo.

  No sign of Helen! He drove slowly by a tiny store, or what he thought was a store; all the signs were in Spanish. There was no one around, although the front door was open. The huge building across from the store was abandoned, its lower windows boarded. Not abandoned! There was a light inside a garage door that opened into the building. Could she have pulled in there? Bobby turned around at the end of the block and came back, trying not to be conspicuous. But what the hell, there wasn't another car or another person on the whole damn street. There were several double doors in the peeling stucco wall. He crept past the only set that was open. Yes, a light, and maybe the back of a car. Christ on a crutch! Why was she here?

  He stopped, then inched ahead. Now what? Drive in after her? No, no, that was crazy. Park on the street? Not if he ever expected to see the Geo again. DC Rent-a-Ride would be sorely pissed. He chuckled. He was going to die, out here in Adams-Morgan at night, and he was worrying about the damn rental car. He turned the corner, stopped the car and got out. Better not to think about it. The building loomed darkly above him. All the windows he could see were covered with plywood.

  At least he was dressed in dark clothes. After all, six five and 180 pounds wasn't so much to hide. Just ease around the corner. Grip the mini flash and wish to hell it was a gun. A really big gun, one of those new automatics with twenty round clips of explosive bullets...he passed some steps, then a set of double garage doors, then another set. Still no one around. Here were the open doors. Ok, Bobby, kiss your ass goodbye. He slipped from the gloom of the street into the darkness of the garage.

  Only it wasn't all that dark, and it wasn't a garage. It was a tunnel that led to a courtyard in the center of the building. The light was a single bare bulb over a door on one side of the courtyard. Several cars were nosed against a fence. Jackpot! Helen's car! There was some very expensive iron on both sides of Helen's car, big Lincolns. Each parking place had a name tag. Bobby moved carefully past the cars and peered at the dim print of the tag. Helen's spot belonged to T. Dennerman. What the hell! He didn't recognize the only other tag he could make out, but he memorized it. Maybe he could call his killer by name.

  The fence was light plywood, barely strong enough to hold up the name tags. But it seemed to run all the way across the courtyard, and there were no cracks or openings. Bobby stood on tiptoes, but it was too high. He resisted the impulse to grab the top of the fence and pull himself up. Maybe it wasn't wired, but he sure as hell wasn't going to experiment.

  Bobby moved back past Helen's car, and stopped, amazed. The driver's door was ajar. That meant the alarm system was off. That meant he could climb on this car without setting off a siren. He wondered briefly why she would have left the car unprotected in this part of town. But that was no more a mystery than why she was here in the first place.

  He clambered onto the hood, then to the roof, the thin metal bending under his weight. Now he could see right into the fenced area. Too dark, though. Should he try the light? Sure, that's as good a way as any of committing suicide. So turn it on. Wait, even without the light, there was something round, maybe a dish antenna, a big one if that's what it was. He climbed down and sat on the ground behind the car. He felt less conspicuous on the ground. If that was a microwave antenna behind the fence, it was big enough to transmit a lot of information.

  He pulled himself up to an uncomfortable crouch. Questions, questions, questions. Maybe the answers were inside. Maybe he should just call it a night. Hey, Bobby, when has being sensible ever appealed to you? There's a door, and several basement windows, with a little light showing through each of them. Exploring the windows would put off going through the door. He eased past the cars, then knelt and peered through the dirty glass of the nearest window. On the basement floor was a row of racks used for holding electrical equipment. The racks were filled with metal and plastic cabinets connected by tangles of wire. Red and green lights on the fronts of the cabinets flashed in regular patterns. Communications gear. So that was a microwave dish over there. This was some kind of communications installation. Sloppy wiring job, though.

  It was time to try the door.

  Chapter Fifty Two

  Bobby looked at the door. It stood at the top of four concrete steps, just the back door of an apartment. In the glare of the bare bulb, he could see that it needed paint. He wondered if the door would open.

  The door opened. Bobby stifled a gasp and shrank back against the fence, remembering just in time not to touch it. He was sure that the man and woman descending the steps could hear the pounding thud of his heart

  The woman came first. Helen, of course. She stopped at the foot of the steps and turned, waiting for her companion. He was older, middle fifties or more, stocky, with thinning hair that gleamed palely in the light.

  "My dear, remember you are always welcome here." He had a smooth, avuncular voice. "After dark just press the bell and Michelle or Jason will let you in. You were very fortunate that Jason was in the yard when you arrived."

  Bobby hadn't noticed the bell, but he could see it now. Great. Nothing to it. Just ring the bell, say 'hi' to Jason or Michelle. The smooth voice went on.

  "We will have Gunnar look into your...our... problem." He patted her arm. "Gunnar solves problems."

  Helen took his hand, shook it. "Thanks, Howard," she said. "I'm Ok." Maybe Alexa had jarred her loose, but now she didn't sound upset. Her voice was hard. "If you find these characters for me, I'll handle 'em." She pulled something out of her purse, flipped it from hand to hand. A gun. Christ on a crutch, now she has a gun!

  Howard chuckled. His chuckle was as smooth and oily as his voice. Howard, Bobby thought, yes, Howard. The name on the tag, Howard Green. Howard drove a very nice automobile. You're getting hysterical, Bobby. Helen went to her car and got in. She started the engine, backed out and was gone. Howard watched until she disappeared. His face was grim as he climbed the stairs and went through the door. It closed with a loud click. Bobby realized he had forgotten to breath.

  Locked door, Helen gone. Time for Bobby to go, too. Maybe Frank Jervis could find the answers. Bobby could sure as hell come up with questions. He slid between the fence and the remaining cars. Just a few more feet, into the tunnel, out to the street. He rounded the corner toward the Geo, realized he was still in a crouch, and straightened up. He felt better crouching, so he bent over again.

  Looking at the outside wall of the building, he saw basement windows identical to those in the courtyard. These were boarded over, but the job was poorly done. The plywood was warped and the nails holding it were small. Kneeling, Bobby peered through the gap between the plywood and the window frame. Dark, very dark. Throw a little light on the subject. He slid the mini flash through the opening and pressed the switch, on, then quickly o
ff. Metal studding and grey wallboard stood a few feet from the window. He was looking at the back of a new partition. There was no glass in the window. Bobby pulled on the plywood. It peeled silently away from the frame.

  He looked up and down the street. No one in sight, all quiet. He slid his legs through the opening, then paused. Was this stupid? Probably very stupid. He carefully lowered himself to the uneven concrete floor. Stupid or not, here he was.

  He turned the adjustable beam of the mini flash down to a tiny point. Over there, a new wall, about three feet from the old, running from floor to ceiling and to each side as far as he could see. Over here, dirt, leaves and spider webs. Whatever was on the other side of the wall, this side didn't get any attention at all. Bobby gently touched the wallboard. It was cool. Maybe the room defined by the partition was air conditioned.

  He moved to the right, but in about twenty feet came to a corner. The new wall turned also, but it was only a few inches from the dirty concrete of the foundation. No passage here. To the left, the wall went on and on. He touched it every few feet. Twenty or thirty feet from his entry window, the wall was warmer. Not air conditioned here, or not as well air conditioned. Why heavy air conditioning? A computer room? Only big computers needed lots of cooling. The farther he went, the more questions he found.

  Past the computer room, if that's what it was, the wall wasn't so well constructed. Light came through cracks between the pieces of wallboard. He felt his way along, stooping and craning, trying to see through one of the cracks, until he found an opening big enough to provide a view. It was almost six feet off the floor, as high as he could get his eye. A cool breeze blew against his face.

  On the other side, Bobby saw a row of small computers, each one with a keyboard and display screen. A man lounged in a swivel chair, his feet up on the counter that held the computers. He wore dirty white coveralls and was drinking from a can of beer. Most of the screens were dark. The only active screen that Bobby could see displayed a repeating pattern that looked like a communication test signal.

  The man drained the can and tossed it into a corner. He got up and went out of sight, but returned in a moment with another can of beer. He popped it, sighed and dropped into the chair.

  Bobby couldn't see much of the rest of the room. What was visible appeared to be a setup for repairing electrical equipment; there were oscilloscopes, pliers and wire cutters. The place was messy, cluttered with spools of wire and computer parts.

  The man in the chair looked up as another man came into view. The newcomer was remarkably blond, with a lean and athletic build. His expensive sports coat and slacks were out of place in the dirty, disorganized room.

  The man in the chair waved his beer can. "Heyya, Gunnar, how goes it, cobber?"

  "Any luck? Where's John?" Gunnar wasted no time on pleasantries.

  So this was Gunnar, Bobby thought. The problem solver. He had a cold, flat voice. He spoke without smiling. He looked very efficient.

  The seated man took another drink.

  "Put down the beer," Gunnar said. The man put it down. "Get John," Gunnar said.

  "Sure, sure, Gunnar." The former beer drinker hurried away. Gunnar crossed his arms and looked at the computers, his face as expressionless as their blank screens.

  A new player appeared. This must be John. He was short and very fat. He wore a baseball cap with the bill turned to the back above jeans and a dirty sweatshirt. He looked unhappy.

  Gunnar looked at him. "Got it fixed, John?"

  "No, we're still down." John had a deep voice.

  "Howard wants it fixed." Gunnar uncrossed his arms and took a step toward John.

  John moved back until Bobby couldn't see him. "I gotta have the part, Gunnar, I can't fix it without the damn channel connector. This wouldn't a' happened if we got Data General like I wanted."

  "Howard doesn't like excuses. A complete set of spares is on the way. They will be here in the morning. Then the computer must be repaired." Gunnar had a slight accent, Scandinavian, maybe. He turned abruptly and disappeared. John came into view briefly as he waddled after Gunnar. The man in the coveralls came back to his chair and beer.

  This is where I came in, Bobby thought. He moved on down the wall, but came to the end of the passage in only a few feet. End of the tour, back to the bus. Don't hurry, no noise. He was seized with a terrible fear that the window would be sealed when he got there, but all was exactly as he had left it.

  Outside, the street was still quiet and dark. Bobby looked at his watch. He had been in the basement less than twenty minutes. He leaned the plywood against the window and pressed the nails back in as best he could. Now the question was: how to get out of this neighborhood alive.

  He checked the Geo without much hope. It stood where he had left it. It was untouched. How could this be? Don't look a gift miracle in the halo, Bobby. He drove back to the bright lights. Below L Street he started to shake so badly that he had to pull over.

 
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