"Elisabeth, can you come into my office at once, please?"
Elisabeth Manning looked up from her computer screen, surprised at the somber tone in Willard Aldredge's voice. He was usually a pretty unemotional sort of a boss, the kind of steady going and rather dull bureaucrat to be found in any government department in Washington. Then again, Elisabeth would have had to use much the same words to describe her own life; steady and dull. But something or someone had obviously got Willard fired up today. He was standing outside her cubicle with an expression on his face like an Enron accountant who'd suddenly figured out the real figures. Shocked and tense and very unhappy, that was how Willard looked.
"Sure. What's the problem?"
Willard didn't answer. He simply gave a shake of his head like a horse bothered by flies and stepped back to let Elisabeth walk in front of him. And it didn't need any female intuition to let her know that somewhere, somehow, the turds had really hit the turbine. So what could have happened to have caused major trouble for the Department of Transportation, and especially for that section of it responsible for drafting safety regulations?
There were three people waiting in Willard's office: two young men, and an even younger looking woman. Mid to early twenties, all neatly dressed in conservative business clothes, all staring at her with sharp, hard eyes. One of the guys spoke first; mid height, stocky, with hair as fair as Elisabeth's own, perhaps sharing some of her Scandinavian genes in his ancestry.
"Thank you, Mr Aldredge. Could leave Ms Manning with us for a while?"
"Sure, sure. Take as long as you like."
Elisabeth turned and gaped at the sight of her boss allowing himself to be thrown out of his own office by this upstart college boy. Willard might be an pretty easy going guy but he was always a stickler for the rules of the departmental game, and one of those rules was that nobody pulled any of his staff in for an investigation without Willard himself sitting in on it. Hell, that was her right as well, to expect her supervisor's support in a crisis.
"Willard, what's this all about?"
"Mr Heynig will explain things, Elisabeth. Bye."
The office door closed, Willard was on the other side of it, and she was alone with these three kooks. Oh God, had a 747 gone down, or what? The stocky one flashed a fancy looking ID card.
"Scott Heynig, Ms Manning. Investigating agent for the Department of Homeland Security."
Elisabeth felt as if she was going to faint. It was worse than an accident, it was a terrorism thing and somehow one of her safety regulations had failed to stop an attack.
"You don't look too good, Ms Manning. Don't worry, nothing's happened. Not yet, anyway. Here, sit down."
Oddly, the agent guided her towards the fancy leather desk behind the desk. It was certainly the best seat in the office: it should have been, it had taken a six months battle with the accounts office for Willard to get it.
"Sit here, Ms Manning. Or can I call you Elisabeth?"
"Yes, of course."
"A nice old fashioned name."
It was the other guy who'd spoken. In a kind of a sneering way. He was different again, tall and slim, olive colored skin, good looking in a Latino film star style. He was sitting down on the corner of the desk on her right and Scott Heynig was perching himself on the desk on her left hand side. Elisabeth felt hemmed in, as though she was under guard. It was an impression which strengthened considerably as the girl drew up a visitor's chair and sat down on the opposite side of the desk before opening up a notebook computer.
"I'm Catherine Haught. Also an investigator with Homeland Security."
Even under her present distracting circumstances, Elisabeth couldn't help but feel a twinge of pity for Catherine. Her suit was expertly tailored to do the best possible justice to her figure, but, as any passing star fleet engineer might have remarked, ye canna alter the laws of physics. And, in Catherine's case, the laws of physics had decreed that no amount of sharp tailoring could effectively enhance a dumpy body with a bust line which was far more bust than line. Worse yet, it was topped off by a face that could charitably be described as 'strong-looking'. Indeed she bore a passing resemblance to a young J. Edgar Hoover, which was perhaps a professional advantage but hardly a romantic one.
Elisabeth often felt vaguely guilty about inheriting a metabolism which maintained her figure without any real effort on her part, while so many women had to walk around looking like Catherine. She also wondered what sort of physical performance standards Home Security operatives had to meet on recruitment and how Catherine had ever managed to waddle through them. But what she really wanted to know was why two - three? - Homeland Security people wanted to talk to her.
The Latino guy spoke again: "Jarrel Rohr: investigation agent, Homeland Security."
OK, three of them then, but why? Why was an HS team breathing down her neck? OK then, two guys in an investigation team were breathing down her neck and also inspecting her own bustline as though it might explode. Elisabeth fought down a panicky urge to giggle: a 36C bra packed with plastic explosive could do some serious damage if it went off.
Scott glanced over to the girl: "Catherine, show Elisabeth the ECHELON intercepts."
Catherine turned the computer around on the desk so that Elisabeth could read the screen. Her stomach felt as if she'd swallowed a beaker of battery acid and with undeniable reason this time. The computer screen was showing extracts from the emails she'd been exchanging with a guy Elisabeth had been doing some very serious flirting with over the last couple of weeks. Flirting, fuck, the pair of them had been screwing each other's brains out - virtually speaking anyway.
"What the hell... ?"
Scott's authoritative voice rode straight over Elisabeth's outrage.
"Have you heard of ECHELON, Elisabeth? It's not exactly a secret, the European Parliament even had a debate about it a while ago, but it's not publicized much here in the States.
"ECHELON stations are only based on US soil or on the soil of our closest allies, the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. They intercept huge amounts of telephone, fax and email messages from all around the planet: some reports say maybe up to three billion messages every twenty four hours. The ECHELON computers scan each message for suspicious words or addresses. And it happens that the guy you've been writing to so freely is on our watch list of suspected terrorists. That's why ECHELON has been copying all the emails he sends and receives, and that's why we're here."
Elisabeth gaped at the agent in stunned disbelief: "But he's just a guy I met in a chat room. His name's Jesse Kansas, he lives in LA. He seems like any other guy. Why would I think he's got anything to do with any terrorists?"
"His offline name is Abbas Sarak, he was born in the Gaza strip, and two of his family have been suicide bombers. We think he has links with Hamas. But it's true he can pass as an ordinary American citizen. There's no reason why he shouldn't, he's been living in the States since he was five."
"But I didn't know anything about any of that! I was just chatting to some guy in LA!"
"Chatting?" The other guy, Jarrel, was grinning at her.
Elisabeth felt her cheeks flush as she realized they must all have read the emails she'd sent to Jesse, or whatever the hell is name really was. Oh, God!
Scott edged an inch or two closer to her along the edge of the desk: "Elisabeth, let me explain how the system works on something like this. A red light comes and a team like ours goes out to check on whether it's a genuine alarm or a false one. And if we decide it's a false alarm and sign off on that, then we get the blame if we've made a wrong call. If there's an incident down the track which leaves thousands of US citizens dead and it turns out it was because this investigating team made a mistake... well, our careers would be the least of our worries. We'd probably end up squatting inside cages in Cuba ourselves. You'd understand that."
Elisabeth nodded: her throat had suddenly tightened as if a noose was being put around it.
"OK, so what we do first off in a situation like this is a background check on the subject we're interested in. That's mainly pulling together our computer sources. So when I checked on you, Elisabeth, I found Ms Straight as an Arrow lady. Elisabeth Mary Manning, aged 32, has worked for the Department of Transportation for seven years, married to a nice guy called Peter for three years. Peter is a lobbyist for the chemical industry, doing very nicely, thank you, and you live with your nice guy as a nice couple in a nice twelve-story condominium with a nice view of the Potomac river. Nice seems to be the only four letter word I can find in your background, Elisabeth. Maybe it should even be stamped in big gold letters across the cover of your dossier."
He got up and walked over to the window, looking out across E Street towards St Dominic's Church: "What do you think, Jarrel? Do you think Ms Manning is nice?"
Jarrel had folded his arms and was grinning over them down at Elisabeth. "Sure, she's nice. Nice long blonde hair, nice face, nice figure, nice boobs. Yes, Elisabeth is certainly nice."
"Hey!" Elisabeth protested at the agent's comments on her breasts.
.... There is more of this story ...