A jaunty forty‑five, Chad Brinkerhoff was well‑pressed, well‑groomed, and well‑informed. His summer‑weight suit, like his tan skin, showed not a wrinkle or hint of wear. His hair was thick, sandy blond, and most importantly‑all his own. His eyes were a brilliant blue‑subtly enhanced by the miracle of tinted contact lenses.
He surveyed the wood‑paneled office around him and knew he had risen as far as he would rise in the NSA. He was on the ninth floor‑Mahogany Row. Office 9A197. The Directorial Suite.
It was a Saturday night, and Mahogany Row was all but deserted, its executives long gone‑off enjoying whatever pastimes influential men enjoyed in their leisure. Although Brinkerhoff had always dreamed of a “real” post with the agency, he had somehow ended up as a “personal aide"‑the official cul de sac of the political rat race. The fact that he worked side by side with the single most powerful man in American intelligence was little consolation. Brinkerhoff had graduated with honors from Andover and Williams, and yet here he was, middle‑aged, with no real power‑no real stake. He spent his days arranging someone else’s calendar.
* * *
There were definite benefits to being the director’s personal aide‑Brinkerhoff had a plush office in the directorial suite, full access to all the NSA departments, and a certain level of distinction that came from the company he kept. He ran errands for the highest echelons of power. Deep down Brinkerhoff knew he was born to be a PA‑smart enough to take notes, handsome enough to give press conferences, and lazy enough to be content with it.
The sticky‑sweet chime of his mantel clock accented the end of another day of his pathetic existence. Shit, he thought. Five o'clock on a Saturday. What the hell am I doing here?
“Chad?” A woman appeared in his doorway.
Brinkerhoff looked up. It was Midge Milken, Fontaine’s internal security analyst. She was sixty, slightly heavy, and, much to the puzzlement of Brinkerhoff, quite appealing. A consummate flirt and an ex‑wife three times over, Midge prowled the six‑room directorial suite with a saucy authority. She was sharp, intuitive, worked ungodly hours, and was rumored to know more about the NSA’s inner workings than God himself.
Damn, Brinkerhoff thought, eyeing her in her gray cashmere‑dress. Either I’m getting older, or she’s looking younger.
“Weekly reports.” She smiled, waving a fanfold of paper. “You need to check the figures.”
Brinkerhoff eyed her body. “Figures look good from here.”
“Really Chad,” she laughed. “I’m old enough to be your mother.”
Don’t remind me, he thought.
Midge strode in and sidled up to his desk. “I’m on my way out, but the director wants these compiled by the time he gets back from South America. That’s Monday, bright and early.” She dropped the printouts in front of him.
“What am I, an accountant?”
“No, hon, you’re a cruise director. Thought you knew that.”
“So what am I doing crunching numbers?”
She ruffled his hair. “You wanted more responsibility. Here it is.”
He looked up at her sadly. “Midge . . . I have no life.”
She tapped her finger on the paper. “This is your life, Chad Brinkerhoff.” She looked down at him and softened. “Anything I can get you before I go?”
He eyed her pleadingly and rolled his aching neck. “My shoulders are tight.”
Midge didn’t bite. “Take an aspirin.”
He pouted. “No back rub?”
She shook her head. “Cosmopolitan says two‑thirds of backrubs end in sex.”
Brinkerhoff looked indignant. “Ours never do!”
“Precisely.” She winked. “That’s the problem.”
“Night, Chad.” She headed for the door.
“You know I’d stay,” Midge said, pausing in the doorway, “but I do have some pride. I just can’t see playing second fiddle‑particularly to a teenager.”
“My wife’s not a teenager,” Brinkerhoff defended. “She just acts like one.”
Midge gave him a surprised look. “I wasn’t talking about your wife.” She battered her eyes innocently. “I was talking about Carmen.” She spoke the name with a thick Puerto Rican accent.
Brinkerhoff’s voice cracked slightly. “Who?”
“Carmen? In food services?”
Brinkerhoff felt himself flush. Carmen Huerta was a twenty‑seven‑year‑old pastry chef who worked in the NSA commissary. Brinkerhoff had enjoyed a number of presumably secret after‑hours flings with her in the stockroom.
She gave him a wicked wink. “Remember, Chad . . . Big Brother knows all.”
Big Brother? Brinkerhoff gulped in disbelief. Big Brother watches the STOCKROOMS too?
Big Brother, or “Brother” as Midge often called it, was a Centrex 333 that sat in a small closetlike space off the suite’s central room. Brother was Midge’s whole world. It received data from 148 closed circuit video cameras, 399 electronic doors, 377 phones taps, and 212 free‑standing bugs in the NSA complex.
The directors of the NSA had learned the hard way that 26,000 employees were not only a great asset but a great liability. Every major security breach in the NSA’s history had come from within. It was Midge’s job as internal security analyst, to watch everything that went on within the walls of the NSA . . . including, apparently, the commissary stockroom.
Brinkerhoff stood to defend himself, but Midge was already on her way out.
“Hands above the desk,” she called over her shoulder. “No funny stuff after I go. The walls have eyes.”
Brinkerhoff sat and listened to the sound of her heels fading down the corridor. At least he knew Midge would never tell. She was not without her weaknesses. Midge had indulged in a few indiscretions of her own‑mostly wandering back rubs with Brinkerhoff.
His thoughts turned back to Carmen. He pictured her lissome body, those dark thighs, that AM radio she played full blast‑hot San Juan salsa. He smiled. Maybe I’ll drop by for a snack when I’m done.
He opened the first printout.
His mood immediately lightened. Midge had given him a freebie; the Crypto report was always a piece of cake. Technically he was supposed to compile the whole thing, but the only figure the director ever asked for was the MCD‑the mean cost per decryption. The MCD represented the estimated amount it cost TRANSLTR to break a single code. As long as the figure was below $1,000 per code, Fontaine didn’t flinch. A grand a pop. Brinkerhoff chuckled. Our tax dollars at work.
As he began plowing through the document and checking the daily MCDs, images of Carmen Huerta smearing herself with honey and confectioner’s sugar began playing in his head. Thirty seconds later he was almost done. The Crypto data was perfect‑as always.
But just before moving on to the next report, something caught his eye. At the bottom of the sheet, the last MCD was off. The figure was so large that it had carried over into the next column and made a mess of the page. Brinkerhoff stared at the figure in shock. 999,999,999? He gasped. A billion dollars? The images of Carmen vanished. A billion‑dollar code?
Brinkerhoff sat there a minute, paralyzed. Then in a burst of panic, he raced out into the hallway. “Midge! Comeback!”