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Brinkerhoff paced Midge’s office. “Nobody bypasses Gauntlet. It’s impossible!”

“Wrong,” she fired back. “I just talked to Jabba. He said he installed a bypass switch last year.”

The PA looked doubtful. “I never heard that.”

“Nobody did. It was hush‑hush.”

“Midge,” Brinkerhoff argued, “Jabba’s compulsive about security! He would never put in a switch to bypass—”

“Strathmore made him do it,” she interrupted.

Brinkerhoff could almost hear her mind clicking.

“Remember last year,” she asked, “when Strathmore was working on that anti‑Semitic terrorist ring in California?”

Brinkerhoff nodded. It had been one of Strathmore’s major coups last year. Using TRANSLTR to decrypt an intercepted code, he had uncovered a plot to bomb a Hebrew school in Los Angeles. He decrypted the terrorist’s message only twelve minutes before the bomb went off, and using some fast phone work, he saved three hundred schoolchildren.

“Get this,” Midge said, lowering her voice unnecessarily. “Jabba said Strathmore intercepted that terrorist code six hours before that bomb went off.”

Brinkerhoff’s jaw dropped. “But . . . then why did he wait—”

“Because he couldn’t get TRANSLTR to decrypt the file. He tried, but Gauntlet kept rejecting it. It was encrypted with some new public key algorithm that the filters hadn’t seen yet. It took Jabba almost six hours to adjust them.”

Brinkerhoff looked stunned.

“Strathmore was furious. He made Jabba install a bypass switch in Gauntlet in case it ever happened again.”

“Jesus.” Brinkerhoff whistled. “I had no idea.” Then his eyes narrowed. “So what’s your point?”

“I think Strathmore used the switch today . . . to process a file that Gauntlet rejected.”

“So? That’s what the switch is for, right?”

Midge shook her head. “Not if the file in question is a virus.”

Brinkerhoff jumped. “A virus? Who said anything about a virus!”

“It’s the only explanation,” she said. “Jabba said a virus is the only thing that could keep TRANSLTR running this long, so—”

“Wait a minute!” Brinkerhoff flashed her the time‑out sign. “Strathmore said everything’s fine!”

“He’s lying.”

Brinkerhoff was lost. “You’re saying Strathmore intentionally let a virus into TRANSLTR?”

“No,” she snapped. “I don’t think he knew it was a virus. I think he was tricked.”

Brinkerhoff was speechless. Midge Milken was definitely losing it.

“It explains a lot,” she insisted. “It explains what he’s been doing in there all night.”

“Planting viruses in his own computer?”

“No,” she said, annoyed. “Trying to cover up his mistake! And now he can’t abort TRANSLTR and get aux power back because the virus has the processors locked down!”

Brinkerhoff rolled his eyes. Midge had gone nuts in the past, but never like this. He tried to calm her. “Jabba doesn’t seem to be too worried.”

“Jabba’s a fool,” she hissed.

Brinkerhoff looked surprised. Nobody had ever called Jabba a fool‑a pig maybe, but never a fool. “You’re trusting feminine intuition over Jabba’s advanced degrees in anti‑invasive programming?”

She eyed him harshly.

Brinkerhoff held up his hands in surrender. “Never mind. I take it back.” He didn’t need to be reminded of Midge’s uncanny ability to sense disaster. “Midge,” he begged. “I know you hate Strathmore, but—”

“This has nothing to do with Strathmore!” Midge was in overdrive. “The first thing we need to do is confirm Strathmore bypassed Gauntlet. Then we call the director.”

“Great.” Brinkerhoff moaned. “I’ll call Strathmore and ask him to send us a signed statement.”

“No,” she replied, ignoring his sarcasm. “Strathmore’s lied to us once already today.” She glanced up, her eyes probing his. “Do you have keys to Fontaine’s office?

“Of course. I’m his PA.”

“I need them.”

Brinkerhoff stared in disbelief. “Midge, there’s no way in hell I’m letting you into Fontaine’s office.”

“You have to!” she demanded. Midge turned and started typing on Big Brother’s keyboard. “I’m requesting a TRANSLTR queue list. If Strathmore manually bypassed Gauntlet, it’ll show up on the printout.”

“What does that have to do with Fontaine’s office?”

She spun and glared at him. “The queue list only prints to Fontaine’s printer. You know that!”

“That’s because it’s classified, Midge!”

“This is an emergency. I need to see that list.”

Brinkerhoff put his hands on her shoulders. “Midge, please settle down. You know I can’t—”

She huffed loudly and spun back to her keyboard. “I’m printing a queue list. I’m going to walk in, pick it up, and walk out. Now give me the key.”

“Midge . . .”

She finished typing and spun back to him. “Chad, the report prints in thirty seconds. Here’s the deal. You give me the key. If Strathmore bypassed, we call security. If I’m wrong, I leave, and you can go smear marmalade all over Carmen Huerta.” She gave him a malicious glare and held out her hands for the keys. “I’m waiting.”

Brinkerhoff groaned, regretting that he had called her back to check the Crypto report. He eyed her outstretched hand. “You’re talking about classified information inside the director’s private quarters. Do you have any idea what would happen if we got caught?”

“The director is in South America.”

“I’m sorry. I just can’t.” Brinkerhoff crossed his arms and walked out.

Midge stared after him, her gray eyes smoldering. “Oh, yes you can,” she whispered. Then she turned back to Big Brother and called up the video archives.

* * *

Midge’ll get over it, Brinkerhoff told himself as he settled in at his desk and started going over the rest of his reports. He couldn’t be expected to hand out the director’s keys whenever Midge got paranoid.

He had just begun checking the COMSEC breakdowns when his thoughts were interrupted by the sound of voices coming from the other room. He set down his work and walked to his doorway.

The main suite was dark‑all except a dim shaft of grayish light from Midge’s half‑open door. He listened. The voices continued. They sounded excited. “Midge?”

No response.

He strode through the darkness to her workspace. The voices were vaguely familiar. He pushed the door open. The room was empty. Midge’s chair was empty. The sound was coming from overhead. Brinkerhoff looked up at the video monitors and instantly felt ill. The same image was playing on each one of the twelve screens‑a kind of perversely choreographed ballet. Brinkerhoff steadied himself on the back of Midge’s chair and watched in horror.

“Chad?” The voice was behind him.

He spun and squinted into the darkness. Midge was standing kitty‑corner across the main suite’s reception area in front of the director’s double doors. Her palm was outstretched. “The key, Chad.”

Brinkerhoff flushed. He turned back to the monitors. He tried to block out the images overhead, but it was no use. He was everywhere, groaning with pleasure and eagerly fondling Carmen Huerta’s small, honey‑covered breasts.