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Four Months Later

"THE COMMITTEE WILL come to order."

United States Senator Elizabeth Beechum, a Democrat from South
Carolina, tapped a wooden gavel and stared out over S-407, a
Capitol hearing room reserved for top secret briefings. The space
felt typically quiet this morning, barren of the reporters, pool
cameras, and curious tourists common to other congressional

"Good morning, gentlemen," she said, noting that of the twenty-odd
people in the room, she was once again the only woman.
Typical, she thought. She'd seen progress during her
twenty-three years in Washington, but Congress remained the world's
most powerful boys' club. The fact that a Republican Senate had
elected her to a third consecutive term as committee chair --- the
only such cross-party vote in anyone's memory --- had little to do
with gender. She was a consummate professional in a world that
spoke its own language, handed out secrets grudgingly, and demanded
uncompromising allegiance to rules. Even the Republicans knew they
needed her.

"Before we get started, I want to read into record that this is the
United States Senate Select Committee on Intelligence." The
four-term senator spoke loudly and with a refined Southern lilt.
"Today's session is a closed hearing on technology matters. All
minutes, conversations, and proceedings are classified top secret,
in their entirety."

Beechum read in the date, the time, and a list of the witnesses
seated in front of her. There were two representatives from CIA and
one each from the National Security Agency, the Defense
Intelligence Agency, the FBI, and the Department of Homeland
Security. She called out the names quickly, like a homeroom teacher
reciting the roll. This was rote process, an administrative speed
bump she'd bounced over a thousand times before.

"I want to thank you all for coming today," Beechum added, slightly
distracted. The committee's six other members settled into their
seats as she glanced down at the morning's Washington Post,
which lay discreetly propped against her knees.

proclaimed. Despite Democratic efforts to pick a presidential
nominee by the end of March, the race still looked too close to
call. Connecticut governor David Ray Venable held on to a
four-delegate lead, but party officials from California to New
Hampshire were vowing to vote their conscience and Washington was
awash in speculation. With a month to go before the Democratic
National Convention, Beechum knew that the slightest turn in
momentum --- just one decent news cycle --- could make her the
first woman ever to lead a major party's bid for the White

"Let me say that we are particularly honored to have a special
guest with us this morning," she said, trying to concentrate on the
matters at hand. "Mr. Jordan Mitchell."

She nodded toward an elegantly dressed executive perched at a
witness table directly across from her. Mitchell's perfectly
groomed shock of white hair, John Dean glasses, and bespoke suit
stood out in bold contrast to the lineup of military uniforms and
drab, government-grade polyester.

"Welcome, Mr. Mitchell," the senator said. "It's nice of you to
join us."

Jordan Mitchell needed no further introduction. As chief executive
officer and majority stockholder of Borders Atlantic, the world's
largest telecommunications company, he rivaled Bill Gates as the
best known of America's billionaires. His How to Succeed in
Business books often ranked among the year's bestsellers; his
high-profile acquisitions filled financial pages around the world.
Magazines often fawned over his triumphs. He'd been profiled by
60 Minutes. Twice.

"Good morning, Madam Chair," he said, smiling. "I want to tell you
what an honor it is to testify before your committee. I've long
admired your objectivity and foresight in safeguarding this great
nation. And I want to add that you look even more . . . engaging in
person than on TV."

Charmer, Beechum noted in the margins of her agenda.
Fortunately, he wasn't her type. Men like Jordan Mitchell
condescended to women, rebuffed oversight, and largely ignored any
authority greater than their own. He lived for himself in a secular
world of bottom lines, balance sheets, and cost-benefit analyses.
She'd seen enough of his kind during her two decades in Congress.
His money and power singled him out in the business world, but it
would serve him poorly in here.

"Thank you, I'm sure," Beechum replied, trying to sound flattered.
"This committee certainly appreciates your cooperation. I
understand you canceled a trip to Dubai so you could join

Mitchell nodded his head. He saw no need to elaborate.

"I want to assure you, as I said before," Beechum continued, "that
our discussions are classified in their entirety and will not leave
this room. We all understand the sensitivities of this issue and
want to make you feel comfortable being completely candid."

Mitchell smiled politely. He felt comfortable in Washington, but
only while clinging to two steadfast tenets: (1) never trust a
and (2) never say anything you don't want to hear
on CNN two hours later.
Jordan Mitchell had billions of dollars
resting on the new initiative they'd invited him in to discuss, and
there was no way he was going to tell Beechum or her cronies
anything that would place it in jeopardy.

"If I may . . . ," a voice interrupted.

Oh, hell, here it comes. Beechum winced. She turned toward
Marcellus Parsons, the senior Republican from Montana. The tall,
lanky cattleman adjusted his bolo tie, cleared his throat, and
fired up his Big Sky hubris.

"I want to tell you, sir," Parsons said, "what a distinct honor it
is to have a man of your singular accomplishment before this
committee. The new Secure Burst Transmission --- or SBT ---
phones that your company has developed will reestablish the United
States as the preeminent leader in the worldwide telecommunications
industry. We're honored by your presence."

Beechum tried not to choke on Parsons's kowtow. He was right, of
course, about the technology. That's why they were here: Mitchell's
company had developed a totally secure, low-cost encryption system
that would allow virtually any subscriber to communicate without
fear of interception. It worked as well on cell phones and
landlines as it did in cyberspace and would be a boon to
businesspeople, Internet marketers, and personal privacy

Unfortunately, terrorists, criminals, foreign governments ---
anyone capable of shelling out $59.99 a month --- would enjoy the
same protections. Unless Mitchell shared his secrets with U.S.
intelligence agencies, Borders Atlantic would set back signals
interception efforts by twenty-five years.

"Why don't we get started, then," Beechum suggested. "Mr. Mitchell,
I believe you understand our concerns about this new Secure Burst
Transmission technology. The United States government spends tens
of billions of dollars each year gathering information on offensive
foreign powers. As the rest of our witnesses will attest, signals
intelligence accounts for almost eighty percent of our overall
information-gathering capability. It's a vital part of our national

The committee's witnesses --- all government scientists and
intelligence program managers --- suddenly straightened to bent-leg
attention, hoping Beechum would call on them for support. Each of
them knew that these hearings carried real consequence. They all
wanted to contribute.

"I would like to point out," Parsons fumed, "that not all
statements by the chair represent the intentions or opinions of the
committee." He cleared his throat again and nodded directly at
Mitchell. "I, for one, hold dear the First, Fourth, and Fifth
Amendment protections guaranteed in our Constitution and want to
remind everyone of this country's proud traditions of innovation
and enterprise."

Beechum tossed down her pen and shook her head. She poorly
tolerated attempts to grandstand, especially when they implied any
lack of respect for the Constitution.

"Senator, this is not about the Bill of Rights . . . ," she
replied, but Parsons interrupted.

"Then what is it? How does the United States Senate drag in one of
this nation's most prominent businessmen and accuse him of ---

"I accused him of nothing, Senator," Beechum barked. "I simply ---

"Please, Madam Chair . . . Senator Parsons." Jordan Mitchell raised
his hands like a referee stepping in to break up a clinch. These
legislators hadn't even made opening statements yet, and they were
already starting to kidney punch and bite.

"I understand both sides of this issue," he said with the same
avuncular confidence he used to sell books and cell phones, "but I
think it is important to point out that these same objections have
been raised with each major communications advance since the
telegraph. Every time private industry comes up with something new,
the government cries out that it will stymie their efforts to
protect the greater good of the people. You cannot expect the
technology sector to maintain superiority over foreign competitors
then rein us in when our efforts exceed your ability to manage

"We are at war, Mr. Mitchell," Beechum chided. "With terrorism. I
can't show you the actual intelligence, but the FBI and CIA have
credible and specific evidence of plans to strike a major American
financial institution within the next few months. These SBT phones
you are looking to introduce would give terrorists free lines of
communication and make our job much more difficult. It could cost

Parsons bristled at her preaching. Like others on the House and
Senate intelligence committees, he had received classified
briefings about what was now known informally in Washington as
"Matrix 1016" --- an SCI, or Secure Compartmented Information,
report regarding efforts by a little-known Saudi fundamentalist
cell to attack or disrupt the Federal Reserve. Nothing in what
Parsons had read pointed to specific dates, times, or methods for
this long-lead plot, and nothing in that report gave Elizabeth
Beechum the right to give one of America's leading entrepreneurs a
civics lesson.

"This committee's primary concern is oversight, not regulation,"
Parsons argued. "One of our most important functions is to prevent
abuses of power, to make sure this government never oversteps its
authority. I see no correlation between any classified intelligence
reports and Mr. Mitchell's new phone system."

"Senators, if I may," Mitchell interjected. "I fully understand
that we are at war with terrorism and that we all have individual
responsibilities. The problem is that we can't stop technological
advancement in the name of security. Private industry would never
have developed the Internet, microwave-based communications,
satellites . . . hundreds of remarkable inventions, if scientists
were held to some government-administered litmus test."

"This is different," Beechum argued. She had worked her entire
career in the intelligence community and knew its back alleys and
mirrored hallways better than anyone else on the Hill. "Signals
intelligence is our most effective weapon against terrorism, and
you are rendering it obsolete."

"Please," Mitchell said incredulously. "Intelligence agencies have
always found ways to defeat sophisticated encryption. Look at the
FBI's Carnivore program and the NSA's Echelon system. Both were
created to eavesdrop on otherwise secure communications, and both
have been very effective. Yet, people have a reasonable expectation
of privacy on their phones and computers, and fortunately for the
consumer, my company has come up with a way to restore it. That's
not treason . . . that's good business."

"We're not trying to infringe on America's right to privacy,"
Beechum huffed. Two decades on the Hill had given her a rock-steady
sense of national security and a keen eye for bull. "We're
protecting our responsibility to investigate and gather

"I understand that," he said. "But you are an elected public
servant, and Borders Atlantic is a private business with
shareholders, a board of directors, market analysts, and lawyers
--- all of whom tell us that we have the legal and ethical right to
develop this technology." He paused for effect. "If you feel it
necessary to try to dissect our new SBT technology, jump right in
line with our competitors, but please don't make Borders Atlantic a
campaign slogan for this year's elections. Do not vilify us for
political gain."

Beechum rocked back in her chair, stunned at his strident
arrogance. She planned to challenge an increasingly vulnerable
president in the fall. Mitchell was taking one hell of a chance in
goading her.

"You don't really believe that, do you?" she asked. "You don't
really think that the right to make a dollar should override the
government's right to protect itself."

"I'm a businessman, Senator, not a spy." Mitchell looked Beechum
straight in the eye when he said it, and she felt his power. This
man had $47 billion in personal wealth and a huge multinational
company behind him. He bowed to no one.

"Mr. Mitchell has a valid point," Parsons interjected. "This new
encryption technology will mean thousands of new jobs, billions of
dollars in revenue, trade parity, market share . . ."

"And two new factories in your district!" The words jumped from
Beechum's mouth before she could gather them back.

Parsons stared at her, as did the other sixteen members of the
committee. Politicians often threw mud, but not over pork. Everyone
in politics knew that constituents voted their pocketbooks. There
wasn't an elected official alive who wouldn't have welcomed
factories like Mitchell's into their district.

"I would think," Parsons growled, "that the esteemed senator from
South Carolina might consider her advocacy and protection of the
tobacco industry before casting stones about factories in

What had started as a quiet hearing was fast degenerating into a

"Borders Atlantic is proud to bring nearly fifteen hundred new jobs
to an economically challenged region of the United States."
Mitchell nodded, ever the tactician. "We could have built
additional plants in Thailand or Mexico or even China, but we chose
to stay with the world's most productive workforce. In fact, we
pledge to keep all new high-paying technology jobs inside the
United States, where they belong."

Bravo, Beechum thought. He had prepared well.

"It's not the factories I object to, Mr. Mitchell; it's the
technology behind them. None of these jobs will matter much if the
Americans working there have to live in constant fear of

She stopped herself short of proselytizing. "Before we nominate Mr.
Mitchell for sainthood," Beechum said, "there are still some
questions the committee and I would like to ask."

"I have all morning, Senator," Mitchell answered. He nodded to
Parsons and the rest of the committee, professional yet almost
shamelessly nonchalant.

Beechum's legislative assistant, a Harvard man in a club tie and a
wrinkled Lands' End button-down, leaned toward her with a stack of
briefing papers, statistics, facts, and accusations. One of the
folders --- a top secret national security assessment --- offered
her all the ammunition necessary to knock Mitchell right onto the
seat of his hand-tailored pants, but there was no point in playing
her trump card yet. Without television cameras and politically
savvy reporters, these hearings amounted to nothing more than a
backroom pose-down.

Senator Beechum laid down her pen and took a drink of water. She
was a Democrat in a land ruled by Republicans, and now they were
declaring war on her authority. So what? she thought. This
bastard was good, but she was better.


Jeremy Waller pushed his way through a crowd of men, trying to find
a better view. Fifty HRT operators huddled near a kids' swing set
outside a split-level rambler in a Virginia subdivision called
Hampton Oaks. All HRT personnel were required to live near the
team's training compound on the Quantico Marine Corps Base,
facilitating quick response, and this was close enough to walk.
Jeremy had just moved his family into a similar house down the

"You got 'em, Big Man!" someone yelled.

The focus of everyone's attention seemed to be Albert Devroux, a
Charlie Team assaulter, better known among HRT operators as "Beef."
At six foot three, 268 pounds, he still looked more like the kid in
his Naval Academy football team photo than an FBI agent. His
flattop haircut glistened in the withering afternoon sun. Sweat
flowed in streams down the back of his pockmarked neck. Dirt and
grass stained the knees of his khaki pants. He'd tried this once

"What's the course, and what's the record?" one of his teammates

Beef stared back into the man's eyes, breathing heavily, trying to
match his intensity. It was a rhetorical question, of course ---
the kind of thing men say to each other when they don't want to
admit they're scared.

The "course" looked pretty straightforward. Beef stood behind a
starting gate fashioned from croquet wickets and a garden rake. A
well-worn path led across his back lawn, between the swing set and
the trampoline, to an old hula hoop and a white plastic patio
chair. Right in the middle of the seat rested a clear plastic cup
filled to the rim with ice-cold Michelob.

The rules were simple: each competitor would get two attempts to
run out to the hula hoop, complete a single push-up, then sit in
the chair and chug the beer. Each run would be timed. The fastest
time would win.

The problem --- and there was always a problem in HRT contests ---
amounted to the location of the hoop and the chair. Albert had just
recently installed an invisible dog fence around his yard, and the
hoop lay dead center atop the underground shock cord.

Everyone would still be eating burgers and corn if one of the wives
hadn't complained that electric shock training seemed like a cruel
way to treat the family pet. Albert pointed out that he had already
tried it on himself and found the shock only mildly uncomfortable.
That claim led to challenge. Challenge led to rules. Rules led to
competition, and within twenty minutes, every man at the party had
poured outside to test himself against the invisible fence.

Jeremy knew that participation in this contest put him in a tough
position. As a probationary member of HRT's New Operator Training
School (or NOTS), he still hadn't earned full membership in the
elite club. The veteran agents standing around him would expect
full effort, but they would not appreciate being upstaged by one of
the "fucking new guys." With graduation just three days away,
Jeremy had to find a way to do his best without antagonizing the
men who would control his fate for the next five or six

"Come on, baby, you can do it!"

Albert's wife, Priscilla, hollered down to him from the back deck.
Most HRT wives wouldn't have interfered at a moment like this, but
she stood above the fray like a battle warden, waving a barbecue
spatula with one hand and tending Beef Jr. with the other. She
couldn't have cared less about decorum; this was a matter of

Jeremy found a place at the edge of the crowd and shook his head.
Whatever the contest, HRT operators wielded their
survival-of-the-fittest mentality like a broadsword. Perhaps it
made sense on some level. Only one person comes in first at a
gunfight. Second place rarely matters.

"Are . . . you . . . ready?"

Beef rolled his head around on his broad shoulders, clapped his
hands together, and nodded. The smell of crab cakes and pork
barbecue floated out over the back lawn. Small packs of kids dashed
in and out of the crowd, oblivious to the war brewing around

"On your mark . . ."

Quinny, a navy grad himself, stood next to the starter's box with
one hand on Albert's shoulder and the other on a stopwatch.

"Get set . . ."

The crowd quieted. Priscilla Devroux lowered her spatula.


The place went nuts. Fifty men and assorted sons called out like
spectators at a rock fight. "Beef! Beef! Beef!" they yelled, waving
their fists in the air and laughing at his misery.

He moved slowly at first, measuring himself. The first eight or ten
steps were easy, but as he got closer, the collar started to growl
down low beneath his ears. After that, every step got harder. The
growl turned to shock. A steady current of pain shot through his
body, overriding natural electric impulses, turning muscles against

Beef tried to pick up speed. He knew that the big muscle groups
would fail first. The legs. The back. They would cramp up and make
it tough to continue, no matter how hard his mind pressed him

He leaned all 268 pounds of muscle and bone into the contest. This
was it, he told himself. Priscilla was watching. His fellow
assaulters were cheering. Hell, all of HRT was counting on him. If
Albert didn't make it into the chair, a NOThead might actually lay
claim to the Top Dog trophy. In the twenty-one-year history of HRT,
that had never happened.

Beef crossed the lawn, dived into the circle, struggled to his
knees, and managed to get both hands flat on the ground.

Just one push-up, he coached himself. Just one. The
beer drinking would be easy.

TWO HUNDRED THIRTY-FOUR miles south of Quantico, outside Raleigh,
North Carolina, seven corporate executives gathered in a
professional park for a little game of their own. The D'Artagnon
Center looked like a thousand other office parks, a half dozen
single-story pods with shingled roofs, big windows, and lots of
parking. Dentists and pediatricians liked them for their relaxed
atmosphere and easy access. In fact, suite 411 had been leased just
a week earlier to Dr. Hernandez and Associates, general
practitioners. The sign on the door still smelled of wet

Inside, six men and a woman sat quietly in a sparsely furnished
waiting room. Sunlight peeked in through cheap venetian blinds.
Crumpled magazines lay on simulated wood grain. Wal-Mart prints
hung in black lacquer frames on the walls.

"Cheap damned HMOs," one of the executives groused under his
breath. "I've seen better decorated whorehouses." A couple of
people nodded and smiled. No one else talked.

Shortly after they arrived, a door opened, and a homely nurse with
reading glasses and field-hockey ankles stood in the doorway. The
name tag on her uniform read "Debbie."

"Good afternoon," she said. "Dr. Hernandez will be right with you,
but in order to expedite things, we need you to strip to your

"Strip to our underwear!" one of them exclaimed. These were
powerful executives from one of the world's top corporations. Who
the hell was she to ask them to take off their clothes? Besides,
this group included a woman --- a very attractive woman.
Things like this didn't happen in corporate America. Not in an era
when a casual glance could end up in sexual harassment

"Please, do as I ask," Nurse Debbie said. "I'll be back shortly."
With that, she turned and left.

No one moved at first, but after a couple of tentative glances, a
doughy, bespectacled corporate security executive named Dieter
Planck self-consciously unfastened his Hermès tie, unbuttoned
his shirt, and slipped off his Ferragamo loafers. While five other
men and a woman sat in their chairs trying to decide if they really
wanted to relinquish their pinstripe armor, this man dropped his
pants and folded everything in a neat pile on the carpeted

He sat back down in his chair with rolls of perfectly hairless gut
hanging like milky bratwurst into his lap. Silver-rimmed glasses
shimmied down his sweaty nose.

After a few moments, the door opened, and Nurse Debbie

"The doctor will see . . ."

She stopped in her tracks, obviously perturbed that her patients
had failed to follow instructions. "Excuse me," she huffed, "but
the doctor has a very busy schedule today, and we won't get through
this unless you do as I ask."

Her tone left no room for misunderstanding. These junior scions of
American enterprise made ten times her salary, but the first step
toward this company's new executive vice presidency passed through
the door behind her. She held the key.

"I see you're ready, sir." She nodded toward the German. "This way,

With that, Dieter scooped up his neatly folded clothing and waddled
after her in bare feet. The door closed behind him with a firm

"Screw it," one of the men said after a moment. He shed his Hugo
Boss three-piece and sat down in a bright red thong. A human
resources consultant from Orlando stared a moment too long, then
grudgingly shed his togs, too. Within a few moments, all of them
had stripped. In a corporate world where the color of a designer
label could differentiate between strength and vulnerability, these
people had just rendered themselves impotent.

WHILE JEREMY WALLER and his mates swam outside in the testosterone
pool, Jeremy's wife, Caroline, sat in the house trying to stay cool
with the rest of the HRT wives. Patrick, their ten-month-old, had
missed his nap and wasn't happy. Maddy and Christopher were running
around with all the other kids. She had a presentation due at the
office on Monday and no time to take the afternoon off for
foolishness like this.

But today had been marked for HRT. No arguments. No excuses. The
team's initiation process included a formal graduation ceremony for
incoming NOTS graduates, but that was a private affair. Today was
for the families. All were expected to attend.

"What a beautiful little boy!" A refined-looking woman reached out
to wipe a dribble of formula off the baby's chin. "You must be
Caroline Waller. And this must be Patrick."

Patrick started to fuss again. Perfect timing, Caroline

"Louise Cannell, dear," she said, offering a Junior League smile.
"I just wanted to take this opportunity to welcome you

Caroline recognized the name. Her husband, Steve, was one of the
assault team leaders.

"Nice to meet you." Caroline smiled. It was the only thing she
could think of. How does one thank the wife of a man who sent
Jeremy home bleeding, bruised, and exhausted every night?

"You call me any time you need something, OK? We have to stick
together while these boys are out doing whatever it is that they
do." Louise offered a kind smile and disappeared among the
casserole warmers. She didn't strike Caroline as someone she'd
confide her deepest secrets to, but then again, any port in this
storm might be worth hanging on to.

This sudden change in lifestyle had come as a bit of a surprise to
the Waller clan. Their first four years of Bureau life had been
wonderful. Springfield, Missouri, was a vibrant, affordable city
that allowed them a nice standard of living on an entry salary of
$41,370. Northern Virginia, on the other hand, seemed like one
boundless subdivision with no sense of community. Housing was much
more expensive here, and she'd stayed home with the baby for a
year, creating a gap in her résumé that made job hunting
tougher than she'd hoped. Even with a master's degree in
psychology, she'd had to settle for a low-paying position on a
community services board.

Fortunately, Maddy and Chris liked their new school and had found
plenty of friends in the neighborhood. The other NOTS wives had
formed a close support network, sharing everything from babysitting
to an occasional girls' night out. Jeremy seemed genuinely happy in
this new job, despite the long hours and sometimes brutal work.
This was Jeremy's dream, but she'd get used to it, too.

"Mommy, Mommy, Daddy's up nextht!"

Maddy flashed by, covered in Fudgsicle. Her tongue poked through
the hole where two front teeth should have been, translating common
English into the second-grade lisp.

Patrick stared up at her from beneath his bottle, sensing that
quiet time had ended.

"Caroline!" someone yelled. Priscilla Devroux shuffled in with Beef
Jr. dangling from her mansard hip. "Your man's out there thinking
he's gonna put all these other boys down. Ain't you even going to

The thought hadn't occurred to her. But with all the other wives
looking on, Caroline didn't really have much choice. HRT wives
supported HRT husbands. She knew the rule like a marriage

"Go ahead on out, sweetie," Melissa Tovar said. She reached for
Patrick and nodded toward the back deck. "You go and cheer him

BY THE TIME Nurse Debbie returned to the waiting room an hour and
ten minutes later, the six remaining executives had begun to fume.
They sat in their underwear, with no laptops, PDAs, or cell phones
to occupy their time. The man in the red thong slumped in his chair
with his jacket pulled over his shoulders, withdrawn into
embarrassment. The lone woman sat quietly at the end of the line in
a frilly bra-and-panty set of Italian design, ignoring the

"OK, look," the nurse said, leaning through the half-open door. "I
hate to do this to you, but Dr. Hernandez just got called to an
emergency at the hospital. I'm afraid we're going to have to let
you go and reschedule for later in the week."

The groans and deep breaths told her everything she needed to know
about their feelings. These people wasted time on nothing,
particularly while in their underwear.

"If you could just check in with the receptionist on your way out,
she'll get you signed up." With that, Nurse Debbie turned and
disappeared someplace behind the door.

"You've got to be shitting me!" the man in the thong exclaimed. He
stood up, snatched his clothing off the floor, and hopped into his
pants. "We sit here all morning for some stupid physical and get
treated like a bunch of management trainees? I don't have time for
this crap."

"Who do they think they are?" another man asked no one in
particular. The others dressed quietly, as if this were just
another day at the office. When they were done, the door opened
again, and the nurse entered with her clipboard.

"I hate to inconvenience you," she said, "but we just located
another doctor to conduct your physicals. If you could just slip
out of your clothes, we'll try this again."

"I'm out of here," the man in the red thong announced. One of the
other executives followed him out the door. The other four quietly
stripped off their clothes again, just as directed.

"I thought I was done with this sort of thing when I processed out
of the Navy," one of the men said after a while. He didn't look
upset. He was simply trying to make conversation.

The Hispanic lawyer beside him offered a hand and a tentative
smile. "Joel Garcia. Office of General Council in New York," he
said. "You here for the Quantis gig?"

The navy man nodded. "Fred Hastings. Portland office."

"Mark Den Ouden," the next man said. "I run the Bangkok motherboard

The last candidate, a tall athletic-looking woman of Middle Eastern
extract, sat with her knees vised together, hands neatly folded in
her lap. Her evenly tanned, well-conditioned body almost glowed at
the margins of her expensive lingerie, making it hard for the
others not to stare.

The woman could have introduced herself as Sirad Malneaux, vice
president of the company's IT division in Atlanta. She might have
bragged about her meteoric rise up the corporate ladder or
mentioned that corporate in New York had called personally to
recruit her for this new position. But she didn't. The quiet,
beautiful woman at the end of the row stared straight ahead and
said nothing at all.

JEREMY WAITED UNTIL all the veteran operators had tried their luck
with the course before moving up to toe the line himself. Everyone
crowded around him as Quinny held his hand on Jeremy's shoulder and
set the stopwatch for official time. Fritz Lottspeich and the rest
of his NOTS class stood three feet off to the side offering various
thumbs-ups and winks of encouragement. Everyone knew that Jeremy
had the last and only chance of beating Beef's run. Though HRT's
big man hadn't actually downed the beer, he had been the first to
make it into the hula hoop and complete a push-up. Despite all the
bravado, it had been the best effort anyone could muster.

"Are you ready?" Quinny asked. Jeremy leaned forward onto his left
leg, held his hands out in front of him, and concentrated on the
chair across the lawn.

"On your mark . . . get set . . ."

"Hoo-ah!" Lottspeich yelled, drawing more than a few scowls. New
guys were supposed to keep their mouths shut.

"Go!" Quinny yelled.

Jeremy pushed off from the starting line and moved fast, jogging
toward the hoop, picking up speed like a long jumper searching for
stride. If the men yelled after him, he couldn't hear. The bright
afternoon light dimmed around him. Smells of barbecue disappeared.
Even Maddy's beautiful little voice faded into distraction.

Unlike most minds, which narrow at times like this to a single
focus, Jeremy's began to unfold with possibility. Instead of
fixating on a single approach to the problem, his consciousness
swelled with variability.

HRT evaluators had noticed it during selection. While most
candidates bulled their way through challenges, Jeremy relied on
creativity and enterprise. In one hostage scenario, he had avoided
violent confrontation by assuming the role of a drunken street
person and sneaking in the back door while role-playing HRT
evaluators waited for the typical frontal assault. In another he
won a twenty-mile overland race by stealing a bicycle from the FBI
Academy garage and peddling his way past the rest of the

What rules? he'd asked when other selectees complained about
cheating. He had been given an objective and Global Positioning
System coordinates for the finish line. No one said anything about
how he was supposed to get there.

HRT's front office agreed and watched him each day with greater
interest. Whether planning arrest scenarios, running shooting
drills in the Kill House, role-playing, or competing in physical
contests, Jeremy distinguished himself with ingenuity. He wasn't
always the fastest or the strongest, but he never failed to achieve
clarity of thought.

The industrial psychologists that HRT had contracted to evaluate
selection detailed this in their test results.
Extraordinary, their reports read. Remarkable. HRT's
selection coordinators agreed. Team records listed a couple other
candidates who came close to Jeremy in terms of IQ, but none of
them possessed his psychological profile. With regard to
originality, intuitive intelligence, and emotional maturity --- key
traits in an HRT operator --- this man stood out as a singularity.
He looked perfect.

Jeremy cared nothing about IQ scores or personality types as he
closed on the hoop, though. Caroline smiled down at him from the
deck. Maddy floated down the slide. The whole team stared on with
varying degrees of expectation, but he concentrated on the problem
at hand. The only things that stood between him and a cold mouthful
of beer were a couple hundred volts of DC current and a gut

Jeremy crossed the lawn and started his dive five feet from the
hoop. Both hands landed in the circle on the first bounce. He
struggled to his knees and propped himself in a forward lean, but
his muscles fought back in wrenching spasms. A thick, jagged pain
shot up into his skull, then down his spine. Strange sensations
stuck in his mind: the smell of marzipan, the taste of lime, a
hollow ringing in his ears.

Just one push-up, he thought. He bent his arms, reflex took
over, and by the time he pushed himself up and rocked back on his
knees, he knew he'd won. Even trembling now under a high-frequency
shiver, he started to smile. All he had to do was sit in the chair
and drink the beer.

Jeremy slowly climbed to his feet and stood in the circle. He
cupped the beer between his paralyzed hands, turned to sit, and
lifted his feet off the ground.

And then it was over. Suddenly the pain subsided. Shapes and noises
filtered back into his conscious mind. Parts of his body still
ached, but only out of recollection. Maddy waved at him from the
top of the slide.

Jeremy looked back at the crowd of HRT operators just a
stone's-throw away. His NOTS class stood there, hoping he had the
will to finish the job. Fritz Lottspeich, his closest friend among
them, nodded his head, urging him to chug the damned thing and get
it over with.

But it wasn't as simple as that. This was about legacy. Jeremy had
a chance to define himself among the operators. Maybe they'd never
figure out that once he lifted his feet off the grass and sat in
the plastic chair, all the voltage lost its ground. It was high
school physics --- the reason birds can roost on power lines. The
moment he raised his feet off the well-worn turf, that damned
collar became just another piece of leather. Maddy could have worn
it herself without bothering her pretty little neck.

The crowd stared at Jeremy as if he were an apparition sitting
there in the middle of the circle with his legs crossed beneath
him. Twenty seconds had passed, maybe more.

"Holy shit," Beef mumbled. "What's up with this guy?"

When Jeremy had recovered enough for the taste of marzipan to leave
his tongue, he raised the cup to the crowd. "To NOTS," he toasted.
Anything more would have been a taunt.

NURSE DEBBIE RETURNED to the waiting room after another hour and a

"You're not going to believe this," she said. "But the doctor we
found had a personal emergency and had to leave. I'm very sorry,
but we're going to have to reschedule after all."

Garcia laughed out loud. Hastings shook his head and immediately
reached for his pants. "What the hell is up with you people,
anyway?" he asked the nurse as she turned to leave.

"I'm just doing my job," Nurse Debbie snipped before storming

The Bangkok plant manager buttoned his shirt. "I don't give a damn
either way," he said. "As long as I'm on the company dime . .

The woman dressed as dutifully as she had disrobed. First the
skirt, then the white linen blouse and waistcoat. She buttoned the
garments quickly, precisely, turning away from the others to
prevent the process from becoming a strip show.

"Can you believe this?" Hastings asked her. He looked a bit put out
that she hadn't said a word all morning. "I have two reports
waiting on my desk to finish. If I had known that we . . ."

Suddenly the door opened again, and Nurse Debbie reappeared. She
stared at the floor and gripped the clipboard tightly against her
chest beneath crossed arms.

"Headquarters just called and said they are sending the program
director over to conduct your physicals." Her voice began to shake.
"They want you to undress again."

"Right." Hastings laughed. "Tell your program director to kiss my

Garcia finished tying his shoes. Den Ouden buckled his belt.

"Come on," the plant manager said, motioning to the woman. "You
gonna let these idiots jerk you around like this?"

Nurse Debbie watched as the three men marched out. Only the
close-lipped woman stayed behind. She slipped off her jacket and
started to undress again, just as directed.

"Actually, that won't be necessary, ma'am," the nurse said, once
the others had gone. "The doctor will see you now."

With that, she waited for Sirad to gather herself, then led her out
of the waiting room and down a hallway. Nurse Debbie walked
quickly, still holding the clipboard to her chest like a shield.
"Thank you for your cooperation," she said, stopping at a closed
door. "You've been very sweet to put up with all of that."

She knocked twice, then opened the door to reveal a stark white
room furnished with nothing but a glass-topped conference table and
six low-rent chairs. A handful of men sat quietly around the table,
jotting notes on legal pads.

"Congratulations, Ms. Malneaux," the man at the end of the table
said. "You've just passed the first hurdle in this application

Sirad shook her head in dismay, unable to say a thing. This was no
doctor's office. The men sitting in front of her were not giving
physicals; they were the same six colleagues who had waited outside
with her all afternoon. The man offering congratulations was

by by Christopher Whitcomb

  • Genres: Fiction, Thriller
  • hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
  • ISBN-10: 0316601012
  • ISBN-13: 9780316601016