droned on in the background. Jason rose and covered his wife with a blanket. Then he went down to Amy's room. It was almost mid night. As he peeked in the door he could hear her tossing in her sleep. He went to the edge of her bed and watched the tiny form as it moved restlessly around. She must be having a bad dream, something her father could well relate to. Jason gently rubbed his daughter's forehead and then picked her up and held her, slowly swaying from side to side in the quiet darkness. This normally chased away the nightmares; and in a few minutes Amy was back in a peaceful sleep. Jason covered her up and kissed her on the cheek. Then he went to the kitchen, scribbled a note to his wife, put it on the table next to the couch where Sidney continued to doze and headed to the garage, where he climbed into his old Cougar convertible.
As he backed out of the garage, he did not notice Sidney at the front window watching him, his note clutched in her hand. After his taillights disappeared down the street, Sidney turned from the window and read the note again. Her husband was heading back to the office to do some work. He would be home when he could. She looked at the clock on the fireplace mantel. It was nearly midnight.
She checked on Amy and then put a teakettle on the stove. She suddenly slumped against the kitchen counter as a deeply buried suspicion exploded to the surface. This wasn't the first 'time she had awoken to find her husband backing his car out of the garage, leaving a note behind telling her he had gone back to work.
She made her tea and then on impulse raced up the stairs to the bathroom. She looked at her face in the mirror. A little fuller than when they had first married. She abruptly stripped off her sleeping gown and underwear. She looked from the front, side and, finally, the back, holding up a hand mirror to check this most depressing angle. Pregnancy had done some damage; the stomach had pretty much recovered, but her bottom was definitely not as firm. Were her breasts sagging? The hips did seem slightly wider than before. Not so unusual after giving birth. With nervous fingers she pinched the millimeter of extra skin under her chin as acute depression sunk in.
Jason's body was as iron-hard as it had been when they first started dating. Her husband's amazing physique and classic good looks were only part of a very attractive package that included a remarkable intellect.
The package would be immensely attractive to every woman Sidney knew and certainly most of those she didn't. As she traced her jawline she gasped as she realized what she was doing. A highly intelligent, well-respected attorney, she was examining herself like a piece of meat, just as generations of men had routinely' done to womankind. She threw her gown back on. She was attractive. Jason loved her. He was going to work to catch up on things. He was building his career rapidly. Soon, both their dreams would be fulfilled.
His to run his own company; hers to be a full-time mother to Amy and the other children they expected to have. If that sounded like a 1950s sitcom, so be it, because that's exactly what the Archers wanted. And Jason, she firmly believed, was right this minute working furiously to get there.
At about the time Sidney wandered off to bed, Jason Archer stopped at a pay phone and dialed a number he had memorized long before. The call was answered immediately.
"I'm telling you this has to be over soon, or I may not make it."
"Bad dreams again?" The tone managed to sound sympathetic and patronizing at the same time.
"You're implying that they come and go. Actually they're always with me," Jason curtly replied.
"It won't be long now." The voice was now reassuring.
"You're sure they're not on to me? I get these funny feelings, like everyone's watching me."
"It's normal, Jason. Happens all the time. If you were in trouble, we'd know it, believe me. We've been through this before."
"I have believed you. I just hope that belief is not misplaced."
Jason's voice grew more tense. "I'm not a pro at this. Dammit, it's getting to me."
"We understand that. Don't go crazy on us now. As I said, it's almost over. A few more items and then you officially retire."
"Look, I don't understand why we can't go with what I've already gotten."
"Jason, it's not your job to think about those things. We need to dig a little deeper and you're just going to have to accept that. Keep your head up. We're not exactly babes in the woods on things like this; we've got it all planned out. You just hold up your end and we're fine. Everybody will be fine."
"Well, I'm going to finish up tonight, that's for damn sure. Do we use the same drop routine?"
"No. This time it'll be a personal exchange."
Jason's tone registered surprise. "Why?"
"We're nearing the end and any mistakes could jeopardize the entire operation. While we have no reason to believe they're on to you, we can't be absolutely sure we're not being watched. Remember, we're all taking chances here. Drops are usually safe, but there's always a margin of error built in. A face-to-face out of the area with fresh people eliminates that margin, simple as that. It keeps you safer too. And your family."
"My family? What the hell do they have to do with this?"
"Don't be stupid, Jason. These are high stakes. The risks were explained to you from the start. It's a violent world. Understand?"
"Everything will be fine. You just have to follow the instructions to the letter. To the letter." The last three words were said with particular force. "You haven't told anyone, have you? Particularly not your wife."
"No. Who the hell would I tell? Who would believe me?"
"You'd be surprised. Just remember: Anyone you tell is in danger, just as you are."
"Tell me something I don't know," Jason snapped back. "So what are the details?"
"Not now. Soon. The usual channels. Hang in there, Jason. We're almost through the tunnel."
"Yeah, well, let's hope the damn thing doesn't collapse on me before then."
The response drew a small chuckle and then the line went dead.
Jason slipped his thumb out of the fingerprint scanner, spoke his name into the small speaker mounted on the wall and patiently waited as the computer matched his thumb and voice prints to the ones residing in its massive files. He smiled and nodded at the uniformed security guard sitting at a large console in the middle of the eighth-floor reception area. Jason was conscious of the name TRITON G/OBAL spelled out in foot-long silver letters behind the guard's broad back.
"Too bad they don't give you the authority to just let me in, Charlie.
You know, one human being to another."
Charlie was a large black man in his early sixties, with a bald head and a quick wit.
"Hell, Jason, for all I know you could be Saddam Hussein in disguise.
These days you can't trust outward appearances. Nice sweater, by the way, Saddam." Charlie chuckled. "Besides, how could this big, sophisticated company possibly trust the judgment of a little old security guard like me when they got all these gadgets to tell them who's who? Computers are king, Jason. The sad truth is human beings don't measure up anymore."
"Don't sound so depressed, Charlie. Technology has its good points. Hey, I tell you what, why don't we switch jobs for a while?
Then you can see the good stuff." Jason grinned.
"Sure thing, Jason. I'll go play with all those million-dollar toys and you can go sniffing around the rest room every thirty minutes looking for bad guys. I won't even charge you for use of the uniform.
Of course, if we switch jobs we also switch paychecks. I wouldn't want you to miss out on a windfall like seven bucks an hour. It's only fair."
"You're too damn smart for your own good, Charlie."
Charlie laughed and went back to studying the numerous TV monitors mounted into the console.
As the massive door opened on whisper-quiet hinges, the smile on Jason's face abruptly disappeared. He moved through the opening.
Striding down the hallway, he pulled something from his coat pocket. It was the size and shape of a typical credit card and was also made of plastic.
Jason stopped in front of a doorway. The card slid neatly into the slot in the metal box bolted to the door. The microchip buried within the card silently communicated with its counterpart attached to the portal. Jason's index finger pecked four times at the adjacent numeric pad. There was an audible click. He gripped the doorknob, turned it and the three-inch-thick door swung back into the darkened space.
As the lights came on, Jason was illuminated briefly in the doorway.
He quickly closed the door; the twin dead bolts slid back into place. As he looked around the neatly arranged office, his hands were shaking and his heart was beating so hard he was absolutely certain it could be heard throughout the entire building. This was not the first time. It was far from the first time. He allowed himself a brief smile as he focused on the fact that this would be the last time. Regardless of what happened, this was it. Everyone had a limit, and tonight he had reached his.
He moved to the desk, sat down and turned on the computer. Attached to the monitor was a small microphone mounted on a long flexible metal neck that one could speak into for voice commands.
Jason impatiently pushed it out of the way so he would have a clear view of the computer screen. His back ramrod straight, eyes glued to the screen, hands poised to strike, he was now clearly in his element.
Like a pianist's in full swing, his fingers flashed across the keyboard. He peered at the screen, which fed instructions back to him, instructions so familiar as to be rote. Jason hit four digits on the numeric pad attached to the base of the computer's microprocessor unit, then he leaned forward and fixed his gaze at a spot in the upper right-hand corner of the monitor. Jason knew that a video camera had just that instant electronically interrogated his right iris, transmitting a host of unique discriminators contained within his eye to a central database, which, in turn, compared the image of his iris to the thirty thousand residing in that computerized file. The entire process had taken barely four seconds. As accustomed as he was to the ever-expanding muscle of technology, even Jason Archer had to shake his head occasionally over what was really out there.
Iris scanners were also used to closely monitor worker productivity.
Jason grimaced. Truth be known, Orwell had actually underestimated.
He refocused on the machine in front of him. For the next twenty minutes Jason worked away at the keyboard, pausing only when more data flashed across the screen in answer to his queries. The system was fast, yet it had a difficult time keeping up with the fluid swiftness of Jason's commands. Suddenly his head jerked around as a noise from the hallway filtered into the office. The damn dream again. Probably just Charlie making rounds. He looked at the screen. He wasn't getting much of anything. A waste of time. He wrote down a list of file names on a piece of paper, shut the computer down, rose and went to the door. Pausing, he leaned his ear against the wood. Satisfied, he slid the dead bolts back and opened the door, turning off the light as he closed the door behind him. A moment later the dead bolts automatically moved back into locked positions.
He moved quickly down the hallway, finally stopping at the far end of the corridor in a little-used section of the office space. This door had an ordinary lock that Jason opened using a special tool. He locked the door behind him. He did not turn on the overhead light.
Instead, he produced a small flashlight from his coat pocket and turned it on. The computer. console was in the far corner of the room next to a low filing cabinet piled three feet high with cardboard packing boxes.
Jason pulled the computer workstation away from the wall, exposing cables that dangled down from the back of the computer. He knelt down and gripped the cables while at the same time inching aside a filing cabinet adjacent to the worktable, revealing an outlet on the wall with several data ports. Jason attached a cable line from the computer into a port, making sure it was tight. Then he sat down in front of the computer and turned it on. As the computer came to life, Jason perched his flashlight on a box top so that the light shone directly on the keyboard. There was no numeric keypad on which to input a security pass code. Nor did Jason have to stare at the upper right-hand corner of the computer screen waiting to be positively identified. In fact, as far as Triton's computer network was concerned, this workstation didn't even exist.
He slipped the piece of paper from his pocket and laid it in the flashlight's beam atop the keyboard. Suddenly he was conscious of movement outside the door. Holding his breath, he buried the flashlight into his armpit with his hand before hitting the off button. He dimmed the monitor until the images on the screen receded into blackness. Minutes went by as Jason sat in the darkness. A drop of sweat formed on his forehead and then lazily made its way down his nose before settling on the top of his lip. He was too afraid to wipe it away.
After five minutes of silence he turned the flashlight and computer monitor back on and resumed his work. He grinned once as a particularly stubborn firewall--an internal security system designed to prevent unauthorized access to computerized databasescol-lapsed under his persistent nudgings. Working quickly now, he made his way to the end of the files listed on the paper. Then he reached inside his coat and withdrew a three-and-a-half-inch micro floppy disk and placed it in the computer's disk drive. A couple of minutes later, Jason withdrew the disk, turned off the computer and left. He walked quietly back through the maze of security, said good-bye to Charlie and moved out into the night.
The moonlight drifted through the window, giving shape to certain objects in the darkened interior of the large room. On a long, solid pine bureau a number' of framed photos stood in three tiers. In one photo, set in the back row, Sidney Archer, dressed in a dark blue business suit, leaned against a gleaming silver Jaguar sedan. Next to her Jason Archer wore a smile along with his suspenders and dress shirt as he looked lovingly into Sidney's eyes. Another photo showed the same couple, dressed casually, standing in front of the Eiffel Tower, their fingers pointing up, mouths opened in spontaneous laughter.
In the middle row of photos, Sidney, some years older, her face bloated, hair wet and clinging to the sides of her head, reclined in a hospital bed. A tiny bundle, eyes scrunched shut, was clutched in her arms. The picture next to that showed Jason, bleary-eyed and unshaven, wearing only a T-shirt and Looney Tunes boxer shorts, lying on the floor. The little one, the eyes now wide open and the brightest of blues, formed a small and contented hump on her father's chest.
The center photo in the front row had clearly been taken at Halloween.
The little bundle was now two years old and dressed as a princess replete with tiara and slippers. Mother and father hovered proudly behind, eyes staring into the camera, their hands cradling the little girl's back and shoulders.
Jason and Sidney lay in the four-poster bed. Jason tossed and turned. It had been a week since the last late-night visit to his office.
Now the payoff finally was here, making it impossible to sleep.
Next to the bedroom door a fully packed, large and particularly ugly canvas bag with blue crisscross stripes and the initials jw^ sat next to a black metal case. The clock on the nightstand limped to two a.M. Sidney's long, slender arm reached out from under the covers and glided around Jason's head, slowly pushing his hair around.
Sidney propped herself up on one elbow and continued to play with her husband's hair as she moved closer to him, finally matching his contours with her own. The flimsy nightgown clung to her.
"Are you asleep?" she murmured. In the background the muted creaks and groans of the aged house were the only sounds to break the silence.
Jason rolled over to look at his wife. "Not really."
"I could tell--you've been moving around a lot. Sometimes you do it in your sleep. You and Amy."
"I hope I haven't been talking in my sleep. Don't want to give any secrets away." He smiled weakly.
Her hand dropped to his face, which she gently stroked. "Everyone needs to keep some secrets, I guess, although I thought we agreed not to have any." She gave a little laugh, but it was hollow.
Jason's mouth parted for a moment as if he were going to speak, but he quickly closed it, stretched his arms and looked at the clock. He groaned when he saw the time. "Jesus, I might as well get up now.
The cab will be here at five-thirty."
Sidney glanced over at the bags by the doorway and frowned.
"This trip really came out of the blue, Jason."
Jason didn't look at her. Instead he wiped his eyes and yawned. "I know. I didn't even find out about it until late yesterday afternoon.
When the boss says go, I go."
Sidney sighed. "I knew the day would come when we'd both be out of town at the same time."
Jason's voice was anxious as he looked at her. "But you worked it out with the day-care center?"
"I had to arrange for someone to stay past the regular Closing, but that's okay. You won't be longer than three days, though, right?"
"Three tops, Sid. I promise." He rubbed vigorously at his scalp.
"You couldn't get out of the New York trip?"
Sidney shook her head. "Lawyers don't get excused from business trips. It's not in the Tyler, Stone manual of being a productive attorney."