Are We Poor? (1-6-17)
Sure, my father had a regular job like every other father in the neighborhood. You know, the daytime kind where he wore a white shirt and tie? But in the late afternoon, as soon as he got home from that job, and after a quick-gulp supper, he’d throw on different clothes and rush off to his second job.
For a while, I thought other fathers probably weren’t smart enough to get second jobs. They would’ve if they could’ve, right?
Dad had many second jobs over the years, but this particular year—must have been 1956, when I was five years old—he moonlighted driving a city bus every night from 6:00 pm, ‘til long after my bedtime. And all day Saturday, too.
That was the year I learned from Miss Yeterian, my Sunday School teacher, that Sunday was my father’s day of rest. Heck, I already knew that. He hardly ever got out of his pajamas. Perhaps I hadn’t gotten the full meaning of what Miss Yeterian was telling me.
One Sunday morning, when my mother wasn’t riding careful herd over me, I snuck into the living room where my father slept in his favorite chair, his stocking feet raised on the once-plush hassock. I knelt in my Hopalong Cassidy pjs and tickled his feet with a toothpick I’d stolen from the kitchen. Well, he jumped and sputtered awake.
When his eyes finally focused on me, I said, “Dad, are we poor?”
He scratched his chest, grumpily looking about the room for someone in charge to whom he could complain. Frustrated, he finally said to me, “What do you want?”
“Are we poor?” I repeated, not without some frustration of my own.
He gazed around the room again, probably praying for a miracle of divine intervention, but got none.
He squinted and muttered something under his breath. Finally, he said, “Which one are you again?”
“Larry,” I said, “the youngest.”
“Ah,” he said, “no wonder you don’t look familiar yet. Be a good boy… you are a boy right?”
I nodded. “Uh-huh.”
“Swell, then be a good boy and go tell your mother you need a haircut … or an enema.”
He closed his eyes.
“Haircuts cost money,” I said, trying to sound just like my mother.
His eyes popped open again, researching the room. Slowly, he focused back on me, his head tilted to one side.
“You again, huh?” he said, scratching the stubble on his chin. “Where’s your mother?”
“Yeah, likely story,” he said. “So what’s your problem, anyway?”
“Are we poor?”
He blew a bunch of air out, turning his cheeks into balloons. “Well, I sure am sleep deprived, but I don’t think that answer’s going to satisfy you, will it?”
I had no idea what he was talking about, but I shook my head because I think that’s what he expected.
“Hmm. Are we poor, huh? That’s what you want to know? That’s what you woke me out of a sound sleep for?”
“And God bless you for it, you little … Let me put it to you this way … Larry, was it?”
“Larry, the youngest,” I said, nodding again. Nodding was one of my best things.
“Well, let me put it this way, Larry-the-Youngest, are you hungry?”
“I like cherry pie,” I volunteered.
He bowed his head and chuckled. “Welcome to the human race, boy. But what I’m asking is, have you ever been so hungry you wanted to eat your … you have a Teddy Bear, son?”
“Well, have you ever been hungry enough to eat Teddy?”
I shook my head, even though I had nibbled Teddy’s ears on occasion. But never because I was hungry. I just liked to.
“Okay,” he said, “so how poor can we be? Now go tell your mother you want a shot and a beer and leave your old man in peace.”
“You work all the time.”
He stared at me for a long moment.
“So good of you to notice. Your brothers and sisters eat all the time, too. See how it works?”
I shook my head, wondering if maybe he was saying I was supposed to eat more. I supposed I could try.
He ran his tongue between his teeth and lips, made a sour face.
“You sure your mine?” he asked. “You look like an O’Malley to me. You’re not a wandering O’Malley, or a lost Satalino, are you?”
I shook my head. After nodding, shaking was my best thing.
“My luck,” he said. “I always get the weird ones. Now, where’d you say your mother’s at?”
I pointed vaguely behind me.
He nodded—guess that’s where I learned it. “She’s hiding from you, isn’t she? Clever woman. You think you can find her?”
I smiled and nodded—showing off. Mom is everywhere. How hard is it to find everywhere?
“Atta boy,” he said. “Go find her, tell her you interrupted my nap, and if I ever see either of you again I won’t be responsible for my actions. You got all that, Louis?”
“Larry,” I said, “the youngest.”
He massaged his temple.
“And, Lord willing, the last. Now, can you go find your mother and ask her to put you on a slow boat to China? One way?”
I didn’t say anything, just stared at him.
“You still want to know if we’re poor, don’t you?”
“No,” he said.
“Good,” I said, wondering why adults always made everything so hard.
reprinted from Page & Spine, July 12, 2013
The Santa-Man (1-13-17)
The elevator car came to a jaw-jarring, knee-buckling stop somewhere between the seventeenth and sixteenth floors. When the emergency lighting flicked on, the two passengers, crumpled in opposite corners, rose to the soundtrack of their stereophonic cussing.
“Hey,” scolded Santa Claus, “watch your language, kid.”
The kid, aged somewhere between past-cute and impending-puberty, brushed off his pants and settled back down into his corner. “Right. You should talk, Santa,” he sneered. “You ho-ho-ho Mrs. Claus with that mouth?”
“Touché,” sighed Santa, checking his bones for breaks. “I apologize for my profanity.” Satisfied his skeletal Tinker Toys were intact, he regarded the boy again. “And I am duly impressed with the richness of your . . . expletive voice. Very colorful. You must serve your detention periods with merchant marines.”
“Hey, who said anything about detention?”
The man indicated his red suit. “Do the words ‘he knows if you’ve been bad or good’ mean anything to you?”
“Nice try, old man, but you’re as phony as a two-dollar bill. What’s with the cheesy get-up, anyway?”
Santa pulled the fake beard off his face and scratched under his chin. “Alas, you’re right about the get-up, young man. Cheesy in the extreme. But there’s nothing phony about two-dollar bills. In fact, I keep one in my wallet for luck. You want to see it?”
The boy rolled his eyes with pre-teen precision. “I’ll pass, perv. How ‘bout you stay in your corner, and I’ll stay in mine. I know all about old guys who like to play dress-up.”
“Yes, I’ll bet you do. And, though you’re wrong about me, I commend you on your caution. So, do you reside in this building?”
The boy waggled a finger in the air. “Uh-uh. None of your NTN.”
“Excuse me? NTN?”
“Need To Know, gramps.”
This time, Santa rolled his eyes. “Ah, quite. ISHK.”
The youngster squinted. “Huh?”
“I Should Have Known. ‘Know’ and ‘known’ each begin with a K, incidentally. Where do you go to school, anyway?”
“Uh-uh. You’re a perv, so I ain’t telling you anything. As soon we get out of this shoe-box-on-a-string I’m going to report you to Julio.”
“The doorman. He’s friends with every cop in the precinct, too.”
“How jolly for him. And what is it you’re going to report me for?”
“Askin’ too many perv questions.”
“Oh my. Perv questions?”
“Where do I live; where do I go to school; do I want to look in your flippin’ wallet. Typical perv stuff. I’m no victim, pal!”
The phone rang … loudly, startling both passengers.
The boy jumped up, answered.
“That you, Julio?” He listened and nodded. “Yeah, it’s me in the barrel again—and don’t say you’re gonna start charging me rent. That one’s getting old. . . . Yeah, I’m all right. . . . Huh?” The boy looked into the other corner. “Just me and an old perv in a Santa suit.”
“I’m not a pervert,” mumbled the Santa-man.
The boy resumed speaking into the phone. “Don’t worry, Julio, I already set him straight. . . Yeah, and let my mother know, will you?. . . Okay, I’ll tell him.” The boy hung up and sat down.
“Julio says he’s gonna have a talk with you when we get out of here.”
Santa-man raised his eyebrows. “I’m not surprised—given your rousing endorsement of my character. But I assure you, my ‘perv’ inquiries were all quite innocent.”
“Tell it to the judge, Santa Paws.”
Santa chuckled. “Indeed I will, if it comes to that. But since neither of us is going anywhere at the moment, perhaps I can explain? You know, take the tension out of the air?”
The boy shrugged.
“Very well. I asked if you lived in this building because you seemed to take this unfortunate situation in stride—like you’ve been through it before. I thought you might be able to provide information as to the frequency and duration of these . . . elevator hiccups. Nothing perverted about that, right? Understanding context is an important element in successful social intercourse.” Santa-man held up his hands. “And before you start waving the pervert flag again, go home and look up social intercourse.”
The boy appeared unconvinced, but let down his guard some. “It happens all the freakin’ time. My mom raises hell, but the Building Council says they’re doing the best they can. Mom’s got stuck twice, and this is my fourth time gettin’ trapped like a fly in amber.”
Santa grinned. “So you do attend school after all! Fly in amber? Fifth grade? Sixth?”
The boy shook his head. “NTN, gramps.”
“Of course—Need To No. So how long can I expect to be trapped in this amber?”
“I know what ‘duration’ means, smart guy.”
“Hard to say.”
“Meaning . . .?”
“Meaning we probably won’t have to go all Donner Party on each other, but Rudolph’ll might start to worry about you before it’s all over.”
Santa grinned. “All Donner Party? You are an interesting lad.” He stretched his legs out in front of him, and crossed his Santa boots. “Heck of a way to spend Christmas Eve. Oh, when I asked you what school you attend, there was nothing ‘perv’ about that, either. Just professional curiosity. You see, I’m a--”
“You’re a teacher.”
“That easy to spot, huh? What gave me away?”
“You talk all dorky.”
Santa-man scratched behind his ear. “Dorky?”
The boy made a face. “You’re all alas this, and I assure you that, and indeed whatever. And your jaw never moves when you talk. You look like a horse with a bit in its mouth.”
The man rubbed his jaw. “And from those flattering clues you’ve deduced my profession? How clever.”
“How clever do I have to be? You talk just like one of those black and white movies Mom likes.”
“I think you’re damned clever—the way you make associations. You have an active mind.”
The boy extended his arms in front of him. “Hello! That’s what you eggheads in your smelly tweed jackets and pilly sweater vests never get—even if I couldn’t read McDonalds, I’d sure as hell know what the Golden Arches stand for. That doesn’t make me clever.”
The man thought for a moment. “It makes you . . . aware?”
The man in the Santa suit squirmed a bit. “But I hope you’re not saying you don’t need to read, because if you are, I’m afraid we eggheads will never get it.”
The youngster waved his hand dismissively. “See? That’s what I mean. I’m being metaphorical, but you underestimate me because you teach kids, and all kids are stereotypes. You expect me to be illiterate and literal, therefore, I must be. You all talk down to me. Even my mother.”
“You’re mother’s a teacher, isn’t she?”
“My, how clever of you.”
Santa-man started to speak, then stopped. After a time, he said, “Julio give you an ETR?”
The boy thought for a moment, then smiled. “Nah. He’s got to call the Sup. If the Sup can’t fix it, he calls in the Techs. But if the Techs can’t fix it, they--”
“Call in Mr. Otis himself?”
The boy smiled wider. “Right on,” he said. “You know who they call if Mr. Otis can’t fix it?”
“Next of kin?”
At first, the boy appeared disappointed that he was denied the punch-line, then he nodded--if grudgingly.
“So, what’s with the outfit?”
The man looked at his jacket and pinched a bit of fabric. “I have an ex-wife and two children residing in this building—I recently moved here from Iowa so I could be closer to them. The outfit was an impulse that didn’t go over so well. I’m afraid I frightened both the little ones to tears, and my ex-wife threatened me with another divorce. Old habits, you know?”
The boy indicated he knew. “Sure. My dad lives in Connecticut.”
“Will you see him tomorrow?” the man asked, looking as if he wished he hadn’t.
The boy bowed his head. “All depends, I guess,” he whispered.
Santa-man laughed. “On whether he knows how to fix elevators, right?”
“How did you know what I was going to say?” The boy slapped both hands on the elevator floor.
Santa-man peered up at the ceiling. “Oh, some clever guy recently reminded me to keep an open mind—and an unlocked jaw.”
The phone rang again . . . loudly.
The boy jumped up to answer.
“Julio,” he shouted into the mouthpiece, “what’s our ETR?” The boy winked at the man in the Santa suit. “Estimated Time of Rescue, numbnuts. . . . So the Techs are here? . . . You called my mom, right?” The boy glanced at Santa-man again. “He’s all right. Dorky as hell, for sure, but he’s all right. . . . Yeah, see you back on the planet.”
The boy hung up and seated himself.
“ETR?” said the man.
“According to Julio, a couple of hours, tops.”
The man smiled nervously. “So it could be sooner?”
The boy cocked his head. “I wouldn’t count on it, Santa. Techs are union, see? And they’re gettin’ triple-time for Christmas Eve. They sure as hell don’t care how bad we have to pee.”
“Not as bad as you. Best if we keep talking.”
“How do you know how badly I need to urinate?”
“All old guys always need to go. Don’t you watch television?”
“Evidently not as cannily as you do. So, where does your mother teach?”
The boy gestured vaguely with his chin. “Some tight-assed school a few blocks from here called Barristers.”
The Santa-man might have smiled briefly. “Really? You matriculate there, as well?”
This time the boy squirmed. “For now. I’m on probation for being disruptive. They’ll probably kick me out before next semester and Mom’s P-O’d royally.”
“Hmm, I’ve heard good things about Barristers. I would think they’d covet a young man of your intellect and . . . awareness.”
“Tell that to my mom.”
“I may. I’ll be engaged at Barristers myself come the new term.”
The boy went pale and shook his head. “Oh, no. This can’t be good. What are you going to teach?”
The man looked up at the ceiling. “Actually, I won’t be in the classrooms much--”
The boy jumped to his feet. “Oh, double-no! You going to be a mucky-muck dean, or something?”
The Santa-man rearranged the collar of his jacket. “His Muckiest, actually.”
“Holy shi . . . itake mushrooms on noodles. My mom’s going to kill me!”
The elevator lurched for a second, then began a slow, controlled descent.
The man reached into his back pocket and fished out his wallet. He pulled out a card. “Ask your mother to give me a call between the holidays. Tell her you’re guaranteed enrollment for next term, but probation stands until I can review your file and find a way for you and Barristers to settle whatever differences exist.”
The boy looked at the card, then put it in his back pocket. He gestured toward the wallet. “Mr. Salas, do you really have a two-dollar bill in there?”
New Year’s Revolution—Pt. 1 (1-20-17)
Ollie and I have our own New Year's Day traditions. But January 1st, 2017 didn't turn out exactly traditional.
Sure, we slept in. No, we luxuriated in sleeping in. Read into to that whatever you please. When we'd finished luxuriating, we agreed a nap would be in order. Ah, the simple pleasures of the impulsively idle!
Presently, we lumbered out of bed. Robed and slippered, we shuffled off--Ollie to the wet bar, I to the wet kitchen. You see, Bloody Marys and Eggs Benedict comprise the perfect feast after a long morning of luxuriating, and after many years of practice, we each had the drill down pat.
As I removed the appropriate ingredients from the fridge--U.S. grade-A eggs, Canadian bacon, English muffins, Israeli lemons, Hungarian paprika, and Russian caviar--I wondered if breakfast might be not be the secret to world harmony. I made a mental note to get Ollie's opinion on the subject.
Meanwhile, I heard the reassuring clink of ice on glass, and soon, the cha-cha-cha of the cocktail shaker. I wondered if that was where the inspiration for the dance had emanated. Seemed perfectly reasonable to me. Oh, whatever 2017 had in store for us, I felt confident we'd be getting off on the right foot.
Just as I put the poaching water on to boil, Ollie entered the kitchen with two tall glasses of scarlet ambrosia.
"Ketel One vodka?" I asked.
He nodded. "Netherland's finest."
I grinned. "Another country heard from."
"Oh, just a theory about world peace I'm working on. I'll tell you about it later."
We clinked glasses. Ollie said, "Any theory involving world peace ought to involve vodka, too. I can't wait to hear what you're cooking up."
"Later," I said. "I have more important cooking to do right now."
As I puttered, and buttered, and whisked, and poached, I realized the most romantic room in any house ought to be the kitchen. No offense to the bedroom intended. But what happens in the bedroom stays in the bedroom. What happens in the kitchen is more open, and defines a marriage in so many other spicy ways.
Ollie set plates and silverware on the kitchen bar. The dining room was for company. Ollie and I preferred to dine in the elegance of the kitchen bar. Even rich folk are folk--until they convince themselves they're something else.
I jiggled the ice cubes in my glass. "You don't expect me to fly on one wing, do you?"
Ollie kissed my cheek. "I expect you can fly any time you set your mind to it." He took my glass. "But it so happens, I'm running on empty, too. Prepare for take-off, Nikki. I'll be back in a flash."
The eggs had poached perfectly. The Hollandaise didn't break. 2017 had dealt me nothing but aces, so far.
The second Bloody Mary tasted even better than the first. Ollie and I ate and drank like fully sated, satisfied, surrenderers to love. And we were.
Later, we shared the couch in a loving couple's fine disarray. I, absorbing the New York Times Arts Section, Ollie grunting and groaning over a particularly heinous crossword puzzle. I supposed the world kept turning on its axis, but I had no interest in anything that might adversely affect that cozy moment in which I lived. Then reality intervened.
"Maybe we should talk," said Ollie.
Maybe we should talk? I suppose there are scarier phrases. Hell, scarier words, even. Like cancer. Like divorce. Like audit. My crystalline New Year's Day immediately shattered into shards of dread. "About what?" My voice held steady, but my heart raced.
"Now don't go imagining the worst."
I'm not sure if I'm even capable of imagining the worst. Just when I imagine the worst, I imagine something even worse. "Tell me."
"I've been offered a job."
Now you're probably thinking that compared to cancer, divorce, or an audit, a job can't be all that bad, right? Don't be so sure. Ollie doesn't send resumes to Walmart or the Welcome Wagon.
"What kind of job," I asked, squeezing my eyes tight.
"Well, Donald Trump called the other day . . ."
I've heard it said, 'The world has a sense of humor.'
Why do I always feel like the butt of its jokes?--Nikki
New Year’s Daymare (1-27-17)
I had dreaded the moment.
Nikki and I had been enjoying the perfect New Year's Day morning/afternoon. We shared the sofa as relaxed as a pair of cats who'd just run off an invigorating dose of catnip. I swear Nikki purred on my lap. I hated to spoil the moment, but I couldn't think of a better time to broach the subject.
I rubbed smooth circles on her back. "Maybe we should talk," I said.
Well, you'd've thought I'd lit a cherry bomb under her butt. The woman jumped to attention like a Four-Star had barged into the room. One thing about Nikki, she can go from 0 to 60 faster than a hopped-up, hemi'd Maserati. She slung questions at me quicker than a Sunday quiz show host . . . and each one sounded like an accusation.
"Whoa, whoa," I said, trying get hold of her robe reins. But she high-tailed away, kicking, to the other side of the room like she'd been wolf-warned.
"What foul news are you springing on me now?" she asked. See what I mean about questions sounding like accusations?
"Calm down," I intoned as reassuringly as I could. But judging by the way she snorted, I decided I'd have made a lousy horse whisperer. "I've been offered a job, is all. I thought we should discuss it."
"Job?" she sneered, as if it were a dirty word.
To be fair, my employment history included a few, well, controversial episodes regarding, well, individuals of less-than-sparkling character. So, I tried to be reassuring. "Donald Trump called the other day."
My effort to be reassuring had exactly the opposite effect. Nikki's eyes nearly popped out of their sockets as she tried to embed herself into the far wall.
"Trump?" she asked, in approximately the same tone I'd have expected her to utter, "There are worms in my Moo Shu!"
I held up my hands in the international symbol of 'Don't Shoot!'. "Nikki, Sweetie, nothing's been finalized. The man just wants to talk to me about a possible position within his proposed Security Assessment Phalanx."
She shivered. "So he wants you to be a SAP? And you're considering it?"
"SAP? What? No! I agree, Phalanx has unfortunate connotations. But, semantics aside, the man is about to become President of The United States. If he wants to offer me a job, the least I can do is listen to him."
Nikki appeared to calm down some. "So you can say no?"
"Of course, I can say--"
"Shouldn't I at least hear him out first?"
She slinked against the wall to the bar, grabbed the bottle of Ketel One and hugged it to her chest. "Fine. Hear him out, then say no."
"I can't do it that way. What if he wants me to do something worthwhile?"
"Goodwill wants you to do something worthwhile. The Salvation Army wants you to do something worthwhile. When was the last time anything called a 'Phalanx' ever did anything worthwhile?"
I kept my voice as steady as I could. "You're talking semantics, Babe. Okay, what if he changes the name to Security Assessment Panel. Huh?"
"That would still make you a SAP. And panels are for game shows. Which are you, Arlene Francis or Charles Nelson Reilly?"
I almost laughed. The woman has a knack for that. "Nikki, I haven't accepted the position yet. We were having a beautiful New Year's Day. I thought this would be a good time to discuss this rationally."
"And that's exactly what we're doing."
"Then why are you huddled all the way across the room hugging a bottle of vodka?"
"You be rational in your way, I'll be rational in mine."
"Darling, come back here. Tell me what it is you're so afraid of."
She took a step toward me, then retreated. "If you must know, I'm afraid what you do. And I'm afraid of the future. Mostly, I'm afraid you'll be someplace else when the future comes."
Fear is neither rational nor irrational. Fear is simply real. -- L. Oliver Bright
copyright 2017 by Lee Allen Hill
Please be advised: comedy must contain a grain of truth or it isn't funny. Pokes at public figures are intended as all in good fun. - N.K. Wagner, pub.
Nikki's Blues (2/3/17)
I'll be the first to admit the prospect of Ollie going to work for Donald Trump didn't set my loins aquiver with delight. And what the hell is a Security Assessment Phalanx, anyway? It sounded downright medieval to me. But I didn't make a fuss. No, I hid my trepidation behind a tolerant smile.
"Well, that sounds wonderful, darling. Working for a man like Donald Trump. Doing his . . . Phalaxing."
Ollie gave me a quick peck. "I knew you'd be happy for me."
In a pig's eye, you SAP. "So, you've decided to accept the position already?"
"Certainly not, dear. I have the know the details before I can even think of committing."
"Oh, yes, I see. Like exactly what 'phalanxing' entails, right?"
"Well, I'm pretty sure I have a good idea what Security Assessment entails."
"Yeah? What about Phalanx?"
"Oh, don't get hung up on that word, Nikki. It's just another way of saying Committee, or Corps, or Team, you know."
"A group of monkeys is called a troop. Did you know that?"
"What are you saying, Nikki?"
"Nothing. Nothing at all."
What had started off as a sweet, lazy New Year's Day had soured into something sinister. Ollie read my displeasure clearer than a large-print edition of Mein Kampf, but he knew better than to bring up the subject again. As a result, my husband and I spent the first few days of 2017 locked in a chilly marital tango danced on a floor of eggshells. Civility had replaced romance. Small talk usurped conversation. Emptiness stood in for the usual fullness of marriage. SAP was never mentioned, but it echoed constantly off every wall in the apartment. The effect was worse than having the theme song to Gilligan's Island endless-looping around my frontal lobe.
One day, at breakfast, Ollie screwed up his courage and said, "The Trump people called yesterday."
"Great," I said. "So how are The Trump People? You make them sound like a tribe of aborigines. Or an alien race. Which is it?"
Ollie nibbled a corner of his toast. "Go on, Nikki, get it all out. You've been stewing for days."
And I thought you hadn't noticed. "I'm done. What did they want?"
"I have a meeting with The Donald himself tomorrow morning."
"Really, the Mugwump himself. Better wear clean underwear."
"Nikki, if you don't want me to go, just say so."
I put down my fork. "Oh no you don't, buster. I refuse to be the kind of wife who tells you what to do."
"No, of course not. You'll just make your preference clear, then make my life miserable if I don't do what you want. Very magnanimous of you."
I got up, placed my dishes in the sink, then left the room. When I was safely out of sight, I let the first teardrop fall.
There was no air left in the apartment, so I decided to go out to get some. I dressed in a pair of old jeans and a heavy sweater topped by one of Ollie's humungous hoodies. Bag lady chic. The perfect outfit for the lousiest occasion. I figured I'd go to the park and stake out my very own bench. I had no plans to come back to the apartment anytime soon.
I didn't pass Ollie on my way out, and made no effort to tell him I was leaving, where I was going, or when I'd be back. The big jerk!
The best thing about winter in New York City is that it doesn't smell anything like summer in New York City. Sure, winter still smells like bus fumes, but summer smells like bus fumes filtered through a compost heap. Despite the quality, I still needed the air. And I needed time to think.
Marriage must be easy. Mickey Rooney did it eight times. -- Nikki
Nikki Comes Clean (2/10/17)
Normally, Nikki is as easy to rattle as a mountain of granite. But nothing about early 2017 has registered as normal. New President Donald Trump hit the ground running . . . amok, by some accounts. While not a particular fan of The Donald, I refused to adopt the Chicken Little viewpoint--the sky was not falling . . . at least, not yet.
So, why was Nikki reacting so irrationally? I've worked for government agencies before. For Republican administrations as well as Democratic. My skill set isn't politically motivated or prejudiced. So, what, exactly, is Nikki's problem?
"So, Nikki, what's your problem, exactly?"
She folded her hands in her lap, and avoided eye contact. "You're not Tom Cruise, you know?"
You could have given me ten thousands tries, and I wouldn't have guessed Nikki's response. I said, 'Of course not. I'm much taller."
She frowned. "You know what I mean."
Actually, I didn't. All I could do was shrug.
"Mission Impossible," she said.
That cleared up exactly nothing. "Honestly, I'm more of a Jason Bourne kind of guy," I said for the sake of saying something.
"Well, you're no Matt Damon, either."
Now that hurt. Next she'd be telling me I'm no Ben Affleck. Some insults must not be tolerated. "What are you trying to tell me, Nikki?"
"I know when your birthday is." She wasn't exactly obfuscating, but she was beating around the bush like a kitten jazzed on fresh catnip.
"Okay, I'm a Taurus. What's your point?"
She took a deep breath. "All I'm saying is, you're not a young bull anymore."
I blinked several times. "You're telling me I'm getting old? Is that what you're telling me? Hell, I've got cranky joints that email me that very same message a hundred times a day. What's your sudden concern?"
Nikki shook her head. "Nothing sudden about it. I think it's time you retired."
Retired? If I was a racehorse, I'd be put out to stud. Not unpleasant duty. But I didn't think that was what Nikki had in mind. Not that I didn't fantasize for a moment. "Retire? Did Methuselah retire? Did Grandpa Walton retire? Did Betty Crocker retire? You think I'm a relic?"
"Betty Crocker never carried a Glock."
"Based on her cake mixes, maybe she should have."
"Be serious, Ollie. You're getting old. And the . . . stuff you do is best left to younger men."
I wiped a hand over my face. "You don't even know what I do."
"I know it's dangerous."
"Fighting fires is dangerous. Should all those guys retire, too?"
"The old ones, yeah."
"Really? So who will be left to teach the young ones?"
Nikki wiped a tear from the corner of her eye. "Anyone but you."
"I'm not that old yet, Nikki. Besides, age can be beneficial in my line of work."
"Oh, come right out and say it. You're a spy. And an old spy, to boot."
That took me aback. "'Spy' is not a very specific term, Dear. I prefer to think of myself as an 'asset'."
She waved her hand in dismissal. "An asset is something listed on a ledger. You're just an old spy. And old spies need to retire before it's too late. Look at Sean Connery."
"Sean Connery is an actor."
"My point exactly. If Sean Connery is too old to be a pretend spy, you're too old to be a real one."
While I couldn't say much for her logic, I recognized a certain degree of sense in what she was saying."
If the Earth revolved on pure logic, we'd all be dizzy. -- L. Oliver Bright
Duties and Swimsuit Models (2/17/17)
If you want to boil it all down, life is little more than a cascading series of duties. Things one must do--for ourselves, for our families, for our communities, and for people we will gladly never meet. These duties are not always pleasant. They can be onerous, even. Like telling a loved one he's getting old, for example. Not fun. Not sexy. Potentially dangerous. But, as I saw it, totally necessary.
"Please don't be angry with me, Ollie. It's just that I'm uncomfortable with President Trump. His international policies already seem reactionary to me. Inflammatory, even. I don't want you getting mixed up in that."
Ollie nodded thoughtfully. The man could add two and two. "You mean, at my advanced age, right?"
I'd obviously struck a nerve. "All I'm saying is, you don't need to work. What's the point? We have plenty of money."
"And I'm worried. I'm worried about Donald Trump's penchant for going off half-cocked."
"And I love you. I don't want you to get caught in any of his half-cockamamie crossfire."
Ollie rose from the couch. Began pacing. "I'm not sure how to react, Nikki. On the one hand, your concern is touching. On the other hand, I don't feel like the Grandpa Walton you're making me out to be."
The man might be able to read my mind, but he never got the visuals right. "Grandpa Walton? I never called you Grandpa Walton."
He nodded. "You didn't have to. You want me to retire. What would you have me do next? Join a shuffleboard league? Feed pigeons? Take up whittling?"
Perhaps I'd forgotten. Arguing with L. Oliver Bright is a lot like arguing with tomorrow's newspaper. It's fresh. And in the end, it always knows a little more than I do--and doesn't hesitate to prove it.
I chose my words with great care. "I'm only suggesting you consider taking a . . . sort of sabbatical from certain strategic skullduggery." Even I couldn't have parsed that pretzel with a pry bar.
"Strategic skullduggery? Is that what you said? When did I marry Miss Marple?"
I closed my eyes, spoke very slowly. "Ollie, you know full well what I mean."
"You're saying you're rather fond of my skull . . . duggery not included?"
When I opened my eyes, he was smiling. Patronizingly. I sniffed. "Amazing what a tolerant person can get used to, isn't it?" I asked with all the haut I could generate.
He stopped pacing, and sat down again. "This doesn't have anything to do with your feelings about Donald Trump, does it?"
"His skull doesn't rest on the pillow next to mine."
"But if I'm to take up shuffleboard, I'll need trousers that reach to my armpits."
"Perhaps we can find you a more exciting hobby."
"I've always wanted to photograph swimsuit models."
"Sure. Right after I claw your eyes out."
There is a raw art to marital negotiating. Raw swimsuit models need not apply. -- Nikki
The Breakfast Jam (2/24/17)
For the third time in as many weeks, my appointment with President Trump and his 'people' had been postponed. If I didn't know better, I might suspect procuring the services of one L. Oliver Bright may not be all that high on the C-I-C's Wish List. Now, that would hurt my feelings.
After all, that new dame from Britain got her appointment. The Israeli guy who's name sounds like a sneeze got his. And what about the Japanese fellow who got to have a fancy-schmancy dinner with the Prez at the big glitzy castle in Florida? No, I'm not talking Disneyworld. But I can understand how you might make that mistake. There's the Mickey Mouse Club, then there's the mickey-mouse club. Big difference. I know, sour grapes, right? Listen, it's clear I'm not the most important person on his agenda, but after three postponed meetings, c'mon! I was feeling like Rudolph--shunned from all the reindeer games. It hurts, okay?
Nikki and I were sharing breakfast in the kitchen again. I can't say our breakfasts have been all that fun lately, but at least they have been cordial. For the most part.
"What's wrong with you?" she asked.
I sipped some coffee. "I think you're reading your script wrong. Isn't this the part where you're supposed to point out everything that's wrong with me? Complete with soundtrack and a PowerPoint presentation?"
Nikki raised her eyebrows. "Oh, poor baby. Does wifey pick on you?"
"As a matter of fact."
"Well, I suppose you'll have to give her a good talking to. Why don't you start by telling her why your face is longer than Mister Ed's this morning?"
I reached for the jam, began spreading it on my wheat toast. "Oh, I'm just not sure I want to take this Trump job."
"They postponed the meeting again, didn't they?"
I spread apricot jam all over my thumb. "What makes you say that?"
She waited for me to put the thumb in my mouth to suck off the jam, but I wouldn't give her the satisfaction. I smeared it on my napkin instead.
"Ollie, you may be a gifted spy. You may be a brilliant deep-cover asset. But, Darling, you can't encrypt your face. I'm your wife. I can read you like a banner headline."
"Oh, really, Great Swami? What am I thinking right now?"
"You're wishing you'd licked the jam off your thumb." The woman is a witch. "But more than that, your pride and ego are hurt. You don't like being courted, then shunted aside. You want the Trump people to take their job and . . . take a flying leap . . . to where the sun don't shine."
My jaw just about landed in my lap. "Did you just read my mind and censor it, too?"
"Oh, I just modified your sentiment in order to make it more civilly acceptable."
"Do you do that often? Read my mind and censor it?"
She stood and began clearing the dishes. "Don't you worry about me, Pet, the caverns of your mind hold no secrets anymore. What have you decided to do about the job?"
I was still digesting the 'caverns of your mind hold no secrets' revelation. Now I knew how the Germans felt when the realized Enigma had been compromised. Helpless. "You tell me, Smarty Pants. What do the caverns of my mind tell you?"
"Right now, they're telling me 'No Trespassing'.
It is not proven that women can read men's minds. Scientists are still searching for a male who has one.
-- L. Oliver Bright
What’s Not To Like? 4/7/17
I built, and run, a multi-billion dollar international media company. I serve on the boards of half a dozen philanthropic trusts. I have three different recipes for Shepherd's Pie--two for lamb, one for beef. So why can't I find a personal assistant who isn't loopy, loony, or from out in left field?
Is it me?
Crystal is smart, competent, energetic, and ambitious. Why don't I like her?
"Ollie, the girl is smart, competent, energetic, and ambitious. Why don't I like her?"
Ollie sliced radishes for our dinner salad. I, for one, don't care for radishes. But every man I've ever known does. By the same token, I like Three Bean Salad, but all my men have turned up their noses at it. Are salads sexual? Are some foods inherently masculine, while other are feminine? We all know about quiche, of course, but does it go deeper than that? I like Pringles, while Ollie prefers regular potato chips. Am I supposed to read something into that? We both prefer Thin Mints over Samoas. At least we'll always have that.
"You don't like her because she's smart, competent, energetic, and ambitious."
I picked up a slice of radish and put it in my mouth. Nope. Still don't care for radishes. "But I'm her employer. Those are precisely the attributes I should covet in every employee."
Ollie kissed my cheek, then scraped the radishes from the cutting board into the salad bowl. "Then it must be something else you don't like. How's her hygiene?"
"She doesn't reek, if that's what you mean."
Ollie began peeling an onion. Another masculine vegetable. I believed I was onto something gender foods. "Well, then it must be something else."
"How insightful. Easy on the onions, please."
He showed me the onion. "Vidalia. Mild, and sweet as an aunt's kiss. What's a salad without onions?"
"Lettuce?" I suggested, hopefully.
"Precisely. Maybe you have trouble with Crystal because she's too much like you?"
I stepped back. "What a terrible thing to say. Crystal and I are not at all alike."
He laid his knife on the cutting board. "Really? What makes you so different?"
That question hardly deserved an answer. "Well, for one thing, I have a sense of humor."
Ollie went back to slicing onions--actually, shaving more than slicing. "There you have it."
"There I have what? What do I have?"
"The answer to your question, Darling."
I had trouble keeping up. "Did I ask a question?"
Again, Ollie put his knife aside. "In a roundabout way. You asked why you don't like Crystal. And we've finally come around to the answer."
"Really? And you know what this alleged answer is?"
"We both do, Nikki."
"You said it yourself. Crystal doesn't have a sense of humor."
Maybe he was onto something. But I wasn't fully convinced. "Lots of people don't have senses of humor."
"Vladimir Putin and Commander Data."
I nodded. "Good examples, but I'm talking about regular people, not cyborgs."
"How about the French? They can't get enough of Jerry Lewis."
I slapped his butt. "Be serious, will you? Humor is no laughing matter."
"Okay, what makes you think Crystal has no sense of humor? Have you had her tested?"
"How would one go about testing for a sense of humor?"
"Put a whoopee cushion on her chair?"
"Ollie! Stop that."
"Okay, tell her a joke. If she laughs, she has a sense of humor. If she doesn't laugh, you probably told the joke wrong."
"Hey, I'm a good joke-teller."
"Okay, then, tell me a joke right now."
For the life of me, I couldn't think of one. Maybe Crystal and I are alike, after all.
If you insist on making sense of a sense of humor
you probably don't have one. -- L. Oliver Bright
The Middle of the Night 4/14/17
I spent most of a fitful night wondering if Ollie might be onto something. Could it be that my aversion to Crystal had more to do with our similarities than our differences? Could it be that Crystal represented some few facets of my own reflection? Facets which I'd previously blithely ignored? Worse, could she be an exact replica? I would not have been the first poor, delusional soul who'd failed to believe what the mirror clearly reflected, would I? We all have heard the allegory concerning the Emperor and his new clothes, right? Was I just a delusional ditz, too? Was Crystal's arrival just Cosmic Irony's way of saying, "Wake up, Sleeping Beauty! This is what you really look like."
I gave Ollie a swift kick in the shin. "Wake up, Sleeping Beauty!"
"Hey!" Ollie shouted, "What's the big idea?" He turned over onto his back. "That hurt, you know? Plus, you interrupted a very important dream. Now, I'll never know if Rita Hayworth's carpet matches her . . . aura."
"Serves you right, for keeping me up all night." Okay, I was being unfair. Ollie hadn't kept me awake. But his comments had. The way I saw it, when a man says something, that man is bound to live with the consequences.
Ollie glanced at the bedside clock. It read 3:23 AM. "Oh, my apologies. I'd been under the impression this was the middle of the night, therefore, Quiet Time. But look here, I was seven whole minutes off."
I knew he was suckering me, still I got sucked. "Since when has 3:30 AM been designated the Official Middle of the Night?"
He rubbed sleep from his eyes. "Since the very dawn of time, Woman! 12:00 AM, Official Midnight. 12:00 PM, Official Noon. 3:30 AM, Official Middle of the Night."
"Really? Because I would have thought the Official Middle of the Night would be earlier . . . 2:30, maybe?" I thought about it some more. "I suppose it all depends on what time one goes to bed, and what time one arises."
Ollie, shocked, sat up. "What? Have I married an anarchist? An antichrist? Am I wed to a blasphemer? The Middle of the Night is sacrosanct, Woman. 3:30 AM is the one and true Official Middle of the Night, and I'll not brook any of your hair-brained, willy-nilly, heretical, alter-interpretations."
Kick a real man awake in the middle of the night, and you'll find out what kind of man he really is. Special. And L. Oliver Bright is the best kind of special--loveable, and crazy. I kick him, he tickles me.
"So, Ollie," I said, "if 3:30 AM is the Middle of the Night, what time is the Middle of the Day?"
The look on his face warmed my heart--and told me I'd finally asked the question he'd been driving me toward all along. And for any of you 'Thin Man' fans out there, he out William Powelled William Powell with his droll reply. "Middle of the Day? Why, Happy Hour, of course. Now, Darling, can I go back to sleep?"
I felt just like Myrna Loy when I kissed his cheek. "Sure, go back to sleep. I don't know why, but I think I can sleep now, too."
I lied. I knew I could get to sleep, finally, and I knew precisely why. In his crazy way, Ollie showed me Middle of the Night was not the time to worry--even if you get kicked awake. He wasn't worried about me, so why should I be?
Alarm clocks don't care about Middle of the Night crises. Set them for 6:30 AM, off they go. Had I not been schooled to the contrary, on that particular morning, I'd have thought 6:30 AM was the Official Middle of the Night. No matter. Poofy-faced and sticky-eyed, I had further proof my husband loved me. Nothing else mattered.
Then the phone rang.
The dark of night is fluid. Who among us hasn't been blinded by the sun? -- L. Oliver Bright
Running a vast international business, as I do, I should be used to phone calls at odd hours. Today's global commerce spans all time zones. As a result, we're expected to keep the 'open for business' sign lit twenty-four/seven.
But that's what I pay other folks the big bucks for. I certainly don't pay them to disturb me at home over trivial matters. So, when the phone on my bedside table chirps at 6:30 AM, I can be pretty sure the call is of the type that caused many a tycoon to jump out a window.
Ollie looked at the phone. "Could be a wrong number, I suppose."
"Hmmm," I said, "could be the Nobel Committee. I've left standing orders not to keep the Nobels waiting."
He grinned, clasped his hands to his chest. "My, I'm so excited." The phone continued to chirp. "Aren't you going to answer it?"
"I can't remember if I speak Swedish."
"It's probably just a wrong number, anyway."
"Spoil sport." I picked up the phone. Optimistically, I answered, "Ja?" Listened for a moment. I whispered to Ollie, "It's just Crystal."
He whispered back, "Any chance she's on the Nobel Committee?"
I stuck my tongue out at him, then spoke to the phone. "Any chance this is some kind of a prank? Suppose not. Okay, don't do anything. I'll be there as quick as I can." I disconnected.
Ollie sat next to me on the bed. "What's Crystal doing at the office at 6:30 AM?"
"Staging a palace coup, no doubt."
"I see. So this was a courtesy call? 'Don't bother coming in this morning, you've been overthrown' Report to the Bastille forthwith?"
"Worse. Page & Spine has been hacked."
"Oh my God, Nikki. Does that mean Wikileaks is now in possession of The Twelve Secretmost Secrets to a more Radiant You?"
"This isn't funny, Mr L. Oliver Bright. Somewhere in that database there may be information revealing what your initial 'L' actually stands for."
"You mean it doesn't stand for Lovable? I was sure it stood for Lovable."
"Well, get you're lovable keister dressed, will you. I may decide to dispatch you to assassinate Julian Assange."
Page & Spine International Headquarters and Gift Shop, One Office Throughout the World, never sleeps. But at 7: 21 on a Tuesday morning, it does a pretty good impression.
As Ollie and I crossed the lobby toward the express top-floor elevator, I asked, "Where is everybody?"
"Still pressing their snooze buttons, I supposed. They haven't been alerted that the sky is falling yet."
I pressed the button, and the elevator door opened immediately. I pressed the button again, anyway. City people feel cheated if they don't get to beat up a button at every opportunity. Inside the car, I pressed the only button once. Ollie caught my hand before I could press it again.
"Before you go pressing the launch codes, Ms President, don't you think we should assess the situation?"
I leaned against the back wall of the elevator as it rocketed up the shaft as if it were a missile silo. "I wish I did have launch codes. Do you have any idea how significant a cyber-security breach can be for a media corporation of this size?"
"Run-of-the-mill secrets, or real dirty laundry?"
"All companies have secrets, which, when revealed under certain light, could be construed as dirty laundry. We're a media company, for heaven's sake. We have confidential sources who expect and deserve our protection."
"So, you're afraid someone's going to leak on your leakers?"
The elevator began to slow. "You can really get under my skin sometimes, Ollie."
"Every chance I get."
"That's not what I meant."
"Sure it is."
The elevator door opened. Crystal stood there with a smarmy smirk on her face and two steaming cups of coffee in her hands. I hadn't told her Ollie was coming. Sometimes efficiency can be as annoying as hell.
Secrets multiply exponentially. The more you keep,
the more you must create in order to keep them protected.-Nikki
Project Obadiah 4/28/17
The information age is a tricky devil. The more information you accrue, the more people want to steal it. Worse, it's exceedingly difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff--information-wise. Data that appears mundane today, might be worth millions tomorrow. And, when you run a multinational media corporation, the control, responsible management, and protection of sensitive data is of paramount importance. Accordlingly, the word 'hacked' sounds a lot like 'prison break' to me.
I sat in my office chair and directed my query to Crystal. "What, and who?"
She sat, stared me down. "Don't know. Don't know."
I tried to soften my tone, but it didn't sound any different. "But you're sure we were hacked?"
"Where's Ed?" Ed O'Reilly ran Page & Spine's massive IT Department.
"On his way in from Long Island. He's as surprised as anyone."
I nodded. "So, what do we know, and how do we know it?"
Crystal sipped from her coffee cup, then consulted her notes. "An IT geek named Stuart Weeks was running a routine overnight diagnostic when he spotted a glitch."
"A worm. Somebody burrowed into the system through our office supplies procurement protocol."
Ollie spoke for the first time. "They want to know how many paper clips we use?"
Crystal turned to him. "A common ploy. Not all access points are protected the same. Office supplies is a low priority. Just the kind of soft spot a hacker might try to exploit."
Made sense to me. "Okay. That's how they hacked in. But paper clips and Post-it notes don't concern me. Surely we have adequate firewalls protecting our more sensitive data?"
Ollie and Crystal exchanged glances.
"Cat and mouse," said Ollie.
"Explain," I said.
"It's the classic game," said Ollie. "Every time we build a new wall, the hackers devise a new way to defeat it. Cat and mouse."
I didn't like the sound of that. "So, in this particular case, who's winning?"
"We don't know how far the worm has burrowed yet," said Crystal. "But while we wait for Mr O'Reilly to get here, I've got the IT geeks scrambling. Building new walls, shutting down critical systems. The worm is in, Nikki. For now, all we can do is try to contain it."
Not exactly the words I was hoping to hear.
"Any idea what they're after?"
Crystal shrugged. "The usual, I guess. Financials, personnel records. This isn't exactly the Pentagon, you know. I figure this is a just a high tech version of a mugging."
"Obadiah. Is it being protected?"
She looked at Ollie, then back at me. "I don't know. What's Project Obadiah?"
"What's the name of the IT geek who first spotted the worm?"
"Uh, Samuels, I think. Tim Samuels."
"Get him up here, pronto."
She pulled out her cell phone.
"Nope," I said. "Go down there and usher him up yourself."
"Project Obadiah? I've never heard of it."
I stared ice pellets into her. "Let's hope you never do. Go get Mr Samuels."
When she had gone, I spoke to Ollie.
"You think Obadiah is the target, or is this just a random phishing expedition?"
"Either way, it isn't good. But if it's Obadiah they're after, they must have some inside help."
"How well is it hidden?"
"Yesterday, I would have said utterly undetectable. Today, I've got my concerns. Even phishers could drop a hook and get lucky."
"We can't let Obadiah come to the surface."
"Agreed. What do you know about this Tim Samuels?"
"You mean besides his name?"
Ollie rose. "Okay, you do what you can on this end. I'll reach out to a few friends. If there's any Obadiah chatter out there, we'll want to know about it."
I felt a chill run down my spine. "Maybe we should take a match to Obadiah. Get rid of it once and for all."
"Without Obadiah, we have no leverage. Let's not do anything rash. Control what you can from here. Meanwhile, I'll give the bushes a good beating."
Secrets are easily whispered. Harder to keep. --L Oliver Bright
Sometimes I think the field of Information Technology is a runaway train. Other times, I'm certain it's even more destructively dangerous than that.
Thanks to the tentacles of IT, the world, and everything in it, is becoming increasingly transparent . . . which means there's nowhere for any of us to hide. Worse, nowhere to stash our volatile secrets.
Most examples of this new transparency are relatively inconsequential. Some are even beneficial. The billion-eyed cell-phone-camera brigade misses nothing. From celebrities (and princes) acting badly, to cops (and airline employees) acting brutally, someone is catching it all on an I-Phone. And there are other eyes, too.
You can't sneak into a convenience store for a pack of guilty-pleasure Slim-Jims without being detected. You can't roll through a suburban stop sign without being ticketed. You can't pick your nose in an otherwise empty elevator without being exposed on YouTube. Hell, high flying satellites can follow you and zero in on your front door--in high res. And the fines for elevator nose-picking are stiff!
We all know the classic line from Orwell's 1984--Big Brother is Watching. Well, I have met Big Brother, and he is we.
And then there are all the chilling reports that we're being spied upon by our own in-home electronic devices. Now, if that doesn't give a shivery new meaning to, "Hey, Honey, what's on TV?"
See what I mean by transparency?
But my present crisis centered on a much more malicious facet of this transparency threat. Cyber hacking has now become a means to tremendous wealth--and, more ominously, unregulated power. In some cases, world power. Detonated cyber-secret bombs are potentially every bit as explosive as nuclear weapons. If cyber information is the new gold, cyber-secrets are the new enriched uranium.
We at Page & Spine had a few cyber secrets of our own. At least, I hoped they were still our own.
I sat in my office with Tim Samuels, the IT geek who'd been working the night shift when he detected the worm burrowing into the P&S data bases. While I waited for his boss, my VP of IT, to arrive from the suburbs, Samuels occupied the hot seat.
The young fellow, nervous as a hen in a fox house, looked fresh out of geek school and probably didn't need to shave more than twice a week . . . but he looked me straight in the eye. With his right eye, at any rate. The left eye, well, my mother would have described it as 'lazy'.
I brimmed with pertinent, time-sensitive questions, but I decided to not to bombard the boy. "So, Tim, how long have you been with Page & Spine?" I'd just gone over his personnel file. I knew what size athletic supporter he didn't wear. Geeks tend to be non-athletic.
"Just under five months, ma'am."
Four months and twenty-seven days, to be exact. "How do you like it?"
Tim Samuels pushed his glasses back up his nose. "With all due respect, ma'am, I should be back at my terminal fighting this thing. You can make me feel comfortable later."
Score one for the kid! "Of course, you're right, Tim. But in the meantime, is there anything you can tell me?"
That one set me back a bit. "I beg your pardon?"
"ISIS backwards. SISI. It's pronounced sissy."
My scalp tingled. "You mean we're being hacked by ISIS?"
The young man squirmed impatiently. "Not necessarily. SISI is a freelancer. He picked that name just to create confusion . . . and, perhaps as a reference to all the bullying taunts he's endured over the years. Still, that doesn't mean ISIS isn't the organization paying him hack us. Do we have files ISIS might want?"
I ignored the question. "How sure are you that this worm originates with SISI?"
Again, he squirmed. "We're wasting time. I need to get back to my terminal. It's the only way to fight back."
How could I disagree? "Go," I said, "fight."
When Tim rushed out, Crystal walked in. "What can I do, Nikki?"
I was brusk. "Has Ollie checked in?"
"Track him down ASAP. And where the hell is Ed O'Reilly?"
She spoke carefully. "There's been an accident on the Expressway. Mr O'Reilly must be stuck on the other side of it." She slowly backed out of the office, saying, "I'll find Mr Bright for you."
Crises are day-specific.
On Monday, you can't find your damned car keys.
On Tuesday, you've misplaced the nuclear codes.
-- L. Oliver Bright
Coincidence and Collision 5/12/17
Running an international media corporation surely has its perks. But, at the moment, I couldn't think of a blessed one. Fact is, I was scared. The consequences of a cyber attack on a company like Page & Spine are impossible to calculate. We are a business founded on information. Information is the new A-bomb. If the explosion doesn't get you, the fallout will. And then there was Obadiah. On the one hand, Obadiah was my Get Out of Jail Free Card. On the other hand, it was a sizzling fuse. Was Obadiah the true target of this cyber attack? Or was the hacking merely a run-of-the-mill phishing expedition? Until that question was answered definitively, I had to assume the worst.
"Crystal, where the hell is Ed O'Reilly?"
"The expressway is still snaggle-toothed east of the accident. But I haven't been able to reach him by cell either. You don't suppose . . . "
The idea had occurred to me. "You think Ed might have been involved in the traffic accident?"
She spoke softly. "It would account for why I can't reach him."
I didn't like the implications. "Could be he just forgot his cell. IT managers aren't perfect."
"Right. Do you want me to try Ollie again?"
"No need. Ollie'll check in as soon as he knows something."
Crystal leaned forward. "Nikki, what's Obadiah?"
I don't like to lie, but I have nothing against obfuscation. "A biblical name."
Funny how paranoia works. You find yourself violated by some unknown entity. Suddenly everyone is a suspect. I hire a new personal assistant, next thing I know, my databases are hacked. Coincidence? Maybe. Maybe not. Or, am I just being paranoid?
Crystal nodded. "I understand 'need to know'. I grew up an Army brat. Colonel-Daddy didn't tell anybody anything. If he knew it was raining, he'd still make me go outside to find out for myself. Being left in the dark comes second nature to me."
Suddenly I felt bad. "I'm sorry to be so secretive, Crystal, but Obadiah represents some very sensitive information. Volatile, even. The less you know, the safer you'll be."
"That's what Colonel-Daddy used to say. But how can I help if I don't know the threat?"
She made a good point. But until I could be certain Obadiah was the true target, I wasn't about to shine any unnecessary light on it. "For now, Crystal, it'd be best if you never heard the name Obadiah. It may play no part in this case. You on board?"
"Of course. But coincidences make me uncomfortable."
I couldn't have said it better myself.
My cell phone jingled. Ollie. Crystal made to get up, I gestured her to stay. A sop to my earlier distrust.
"What's up, pussy cat? . . . I see . . . Is he certain? . . . Yes, I understand . . . When will you know? . . . Not until then? . . . Well if that's what it takes . . . Ed? No, not yet. Seems there's a big snafu on the Expressway, and we can't reach him by cell . . . Okay, keep me posted."
During my conversation with Ollie, an assistant had come into the office and handed Crystal a note. The look on her face told me it was not good news.
"Ollie didn't have much to report," I said. I gestured toward the note in Crystal's hand. "Care to share?"
"It's about Ed O'Reilly. That snafu on the Expressway? Seems Ed got caught right in the middle of it. He's on a Medevac helicopter headed for Saint Vincent's Hospital. The only reason we know, one of the responding officers has a sister in our IT department. He called her, she spread the news."
My heart went out to Ed O'Reilly and his family. But my brain churned. The same morning my data bases get super-hacked, my IT director gets jammed up on the Expressway? Coincidence is never that convenient.
What separates good news from bad news is usually point of view. -- L. Oliver Bright
What’s Obadiah? 5/26/17
This was shaping up to be the kind of morning I'd rather sleep through--with or without company. I sent an aide out to Saint Vincent's to keep an eye on Ed O'Reilly's condition. Try as I might, I couldn't separate the data breach from Ed's accident. Sure, accidents happen, but stars never align so neatly.
Ollie's news hadn't been encouraging, either. His independent cyber-geek detected no widespread web attack. That meant Page & Spine must have been specifically targeted. As much as I hated to admit it, somebody was rummaging through my cyber underwear drawer with a specific purpose in mind. Minor corporate embarrassments I could tolerate. But I needed to protect Obadiah. Some secrets just can't be pinned to the clothesline.
"Crystal, get Tim Samuels up here right now."
My assistant raised her eyebrows. "He won't like it, Nikki. He's in full battle mode. You know how computer geeks are with their cyber games. I think he's having the time of his life."
"Good for him. But this is no game. With Ed O'Rielly out of commission, I need to get this Samuels kid up to speed on a few things."
Crystal hesitated. "He isn't exactly a ranking member in our IT community."
She was right. But Samuels was the one who initially spotted the problem, and he seemed to take it as a personal affront. Seniority may look good when charting a chain of command, but give me a talented guy or gal with a real chip on his or her shoulder, and I'll take my chances. The hack occurred on Tim Samuels's watch, and he'd handled himself like a cur dog so far. If I had any hope of saving Obadiah, a cur dog was exactly what I needed. I figured I could smooth protocol-ruffled feathers later. I shot Crystal the evil eye.
She turned and scurried away. What good is a personal assistant if you can't make her scurry once in a while?
I wanted to call Ollie, but I knew he was doing all he could. He'd call me when he had something to say. Instead, I dialed a number I wished I'd forgotten.
"Nikki?" he said. "Has Hell really frozen over?"
"Obadiah may be compromised."
"That's it, Nikki? Right to the point? No romance? No foreplay?"
"I'm not in the mood, Dmitri. Page & Spine has been hacked. Tell me you had nothing to do with it."
"Hacked? I had nothing to do with it. I trust you have adequate security protocols? If Obadiah leaks, there won't be an igloo in the Arctic or a hut in Angola where either one of us will be safe."
"We're not the only ones in jeopardy, Dmitri."
"But, from my point of view, no one else matters."
I pinched the bridge of my nose. "Same old Dmitri."
"You expect a leopard to change his spots?"
"Call me a cockeyed optimist."
"Has Obadiah been breached yet?"
"I don't think so. Not yet, anyway. But it may just be a matter of time."
"So what are you waiting for? Blow it up!"
"Obadiah? You know I can't do that. Without Obadiah we have no leverage."
"But with Obadiah exposed, out in the open, our leverage is meaningless. I'm telling you, destroy Obadiah before it destroys us all. We'll find new leverage."
"But what if we can't?"
"Then we all take gay, lavish holidays and wait to feel the angry end of a Berretta pressed against the back of our ear."
"I'm not ready to give up yet, Dmitri. Get up here. We've got work to do."
Tim Samuels stood in my doorway. I believe his toe was tapping impatiently. "You're not making my job any easier, Ma'am."
I closed my phone. "Screw your stupid job, Geek-Boy. Sit down and listen up. The sky is falling."
Real emergencies are rare enough.
People who can effectively deal with them
are all born during a blue moon. -- L. Oliver Bright
Elevator Understandings 6/2/17
Riding down in the elevator with young Tim Samuels, I couldn't help wishing Ollie was with us. He's far better under pressure than I am. More technology-savvy, too. And he had at least as instrumental a part to play in the run-out of the initial Obadiah Project ... and he stayed close to it right up until we shut it down. In fact, he even stayed on to architect the security protocols that had safely protected the Obadiah files for these several years. Our big mistake came in not instituting measures to update the protective software. But there had been not a whisper about the Big O events in nearly seven years. As a result, I guess we all got lazy, complacent.
"Ma'am," said Tim.
I tried to smile at him. "Call me Nikki. Ma'am is something that comes in little packets at Denny's. One spreads it on her toast."
He blushed. "Nikki, do you have any idea who might be interested in this Obadiah? You know, people or organizations who could have a vested interest in using these files? Or maybe, holding them for ransom? There's lots of that going around these days. I mean, whoever is behind this raid is more than super motivated. This is no random phishing expedition. No bait and hook here. We've been harpooned. Any hints you can slip me about who might be behind this might help us ferret out the worm's kill-switch?"
I pushed the emergency stop button on the elevator.
"Interest in Obadiah--if it surfaced--would be widespread. Globally widespread. But it's a small community of people who are even aware of its existence ... and I'd just as soon keep it that way."
"Small community. Great. That should help us. Can you tell me more about this 'small community'? I don't need names, just some general information."
He didn't hesitate. "Foreign, or domestic?"
I grinned. "What? Are we ordering beer now?"
Tim looked perplex. "Huh?" Then dawn. "Oh, no. If I knew where--the region--this raid originated from, it might save me a considerable amount of forensics time."
I chewed on my thumbnail for a bit. "Most likely, foreign."
"Ha! I knew it!"
I canted my head, concerned. "Tim, what do you know?"
He waved his hands in dismissal. "No, no. I don't know anything, really, but I've been getting a whiff of Eastern European all morning. Sound right?"
"What, you can actually smell this worm?"
He tried not to grin. "No, not the worm, per se, but cyber-raiders from different parts of the world have specific ... senses/scents when it comes to manipulating computer languages and systems. All my colleagues seem convinced this raid originated domestically."
"But you aren't?"
"Oh, whoever is behind this raid is trying to 'look' domestic, but that's just a red herring. Yessir. I smelled Russian Dressing right from the start. A commie Russian red herring."
This was the second time young Samuels had stepped out of his demur computer-engineering character. Very revealing . . . and nearly as troubling.
"Tim, you are aware the Berlin Wall came down some time ago, right?"
He shook his head, as he might at a child who had asked a silly question. "World domination isn't about territory anymore, ma'a . . . Nikki. It's about the Cyberspace Race. And Vladimir Putin is leading the charge. The more things change, the more they stay the same."
While I didn't fully agree or disagree with the young man's assessment of current global dynamics, his blend of cyber-savvy and throwback McCarthyism didn't sit particularly well with me. I wondered if I'd made the right decision when I put him in charge of this defensive stand.
I released the elevator brake. "Let's say we get to work, huh?"
"You lead the charge."
Oh, damn. Where's Ollie when I need him.
If everyone had only one face,
the Lone Ranger would rule the world.
- L. Oliver Bright
Mischief, Or War? 6/9/17
As you might guess, the IT department of a global media company is a sprawling affair. In fact, it occupied the entire seventh floor, and a sizable portion of the eighth. As CEO, I'd always taken inordinate pride in Page & Spine's ability to harness and exploit the latest technological advances and techniques in information processing. But, as just plain Nikki, I've always been overwhelmed--even a little intimidated--by this science I understood about as well as I understood alchemy.
Stepping off the elevator at the seventh floor, my senses threatened to become overloaded. The frantic activity. The palpable energy. The buzz of hushed voices. The clicks and clacks, bells and beeps. I couldn't help but think of a functioning hive.
From the left, Jack Quincy, Ed O'Reilly's number two man, approached.
"Nikki," he said, "good to see you. Any news about Ed?" He shot young Samuels an odd look.
I shook my head. "You'll be the first to know. Is Tom LaBelle around? I need to speak with you both."
"Sure, Nikki. Why don't you wait in my office while I corral Tom." He looked at Samuels. "We can use your help in Section Six, Tim."
I said, "Tim's with me for the time-being, Jack."
Questions crossed his face, but he knew better than to ask any. "I see. Let me go get Tom."
Jack Quincy's office was everything you'd expect from a lifelong computer nerd. Neat. Spare. Almost antiseptic. Keyboards and screens dominated the room. I was willing to bet it would take a bloodhound to locate a single scrap of paper or pen in this office. Just an observation . . . no judgment attached.
Tim cleared his throat, then said, "Uh, Nikki, maybe I should go back to my place in Sector Six. Quincy and LaBelle are both qualified men."
"Not for this crisis, they're not. You're just worried about stepping on their toes. We don't have time to worry about the corporate niceties right now. Besides, I'm the one doing the toe stomping, not you."
"Sure, but what if they don't see it that way?"
"I'll prescribe them new glasses."
Tim appeared less than convinced. I knew I was putting him in a tough spot, but I was in a tougher spot. What good is being the boss if you can't prioritize spots according to your own agenda, huh?
Here I was, in danger of losing Obadiah, fretting over whose spot was the biggest. What was this, prom night?
Jack came into his office, Tom LaBelle trailed right behind. Tom and I exchanged greetings, then I closed the office door.
"We've got a situation, gentlemen."
"Nothing we can't handle," Jack assured me.
"I hope you're right. But I have serious concerns."
Tom spoke up. "Since when do you get ruffled over a routine phishing expedition, Nikki?"
"Are you sure it's routine? Young Samuels doesn't think so."
Tim lowered his head.
"Is that so, Timmy?" asked Jack. "And what do you think it is?"
Tim looked up. I saw defiance in his eyes. "Like I told you when you got in this morning. We've been hit with a world-class cyber-probe--probably attached to a new-generation worm."
Tom spoke again. "Nikki, we, Jack and I, think our young friend is a bit excitable. Probably overzealous in his diagnoses. But we're taking all appropriate measures to neutralize this wee invader. This isn't our first rodeo, you know."
"Describe to me these 'appropriate measures'."
Jack and Tom exchanged dumbfounded looks.
"Well," said Jack, "you know, the usual. Introducing new antivirus software. A few new firewalls--around our most sensitive data. That sort of thing."
"Jack," I said, "do you recognize the name Obadiah?"
Again, Tom and Jack exchanged looks. "Obadiah?" said Tom.
"It's from the Bible," said Jack.
"That's what I thought. From this moment, I'm declaring Marshall Law. Mr Samuels is in charge of hunting down this worm and protecting all our data from this cyber raid. You two will offer him all the help he needs in terms of resources and manpower. Other than that, you will stay the hell out of his way. Is that clear?"
Tom regained his composure first. "Whatever you say, Nikki. But Samuels is still wet behind the ears. Besides, I just got back from a three-day seminar on Cyber Mischief. I'm the guru on the subject around here."
"Cyber Mischief?" I asked.
"Oh, that's my own term. I like to keep things in perspective."
"Really? And what did the leader of the seminar call it?"
His face reddened. "Cyber War."
"Big difference between mischief and war, wouldn't you say, Guru?"
Tom seemed to shrink into himself. "I suppose that depends on how you look at it."
"Do you agree, Tim?"
"Not hardly, ma'am . . . Nikki."
I opened the door. "You have your marching orders, Mr Samuels. Keep me posted."
Anyone can play at being a hard ass.
But really being one requires extraordinary focus ...
and a crocodile skin. -- L. Oliver Bright
Strategy Session 6/16/17
As much as I wanted to hover around the IT department during this time of crisis, I knew I'd just be in the way. On top of that, I'd be undermining young Samuel's new authority. So, I went back to my office. And it was a good thing I did.
Ollie and Dmitri had staked out opposite corners of my office and engaged in a rousing game of You Can't Ignore Me, Because I Ignored You First. Clearly, Ollie had arrived first, because he occupied the corner with the wet bar. Dmitri, a latecomer, had to settle for the corner with the stunning view of seventeen or eighteen states.
I walked into the middle of the room. "Gentlemen," I said, "is this cessation in hostilities officially binding, or merely temporarily convenient?"
"What hostilities?" asked Ollie.
"I was merely enjoying the view, Nikki," said Dmitri.
"Yeah, sure." I turned to Ollie. "Where's Crystal?"
"I haven't seen her," he said.
"Great. Not only can any stranger from the street just wander into my databases, my office is open to the public, as well. Whatever happened to trusted gatekeepers? Do you suppose Saint Peter ever sneaks off for a cold one, leaves the Pearly Gates unguarded? Heaven's version of the honor system?"
"I am sorry, Nikki," said Dmitri. "I suppose I should have waited in the outer office, but I didn't think you'd mind."
"Yeah, well, I mind," said Ollie.
"What you mind, Oliver, is of no interest to me."
I sat behind my desk. "Simmer down, boys, recess is over. Come over here and sit. We have a lot to discuss. But before you come over Ollie, could you pour us each a splash of vodka?"
"It's not even ten a.m., Nikki."
"The world as we know it might just blow up in our faces today. This is no time to stand on ceremony . . . or abstinence."
I filled the men in on my decision to put our Obadiah defenses in the hands of young Samuels.
"Good idea," said Ollie. "These young kids were weaned on cyber-milk. What the rest of us have to be taught, these younger people intuit. It's almost like they're USB-plugged in from birth."
"Oliver is correct. While we . . . mature people . . . labor along step by step, they leap, dive, and swoop over paths of logic invisible to us."
Okay, the guys agreed with me. But that wouldn't buy lunch.
"Dmitri," I said, "Samuels--leaping and swooping unseen paths of logic--believes this attack is originating from somewhere in Eastern Europe."
"I would not be surprised," he said.
"And why is that, Comrade," asked Ollie sharply.
"The Slavs, Letts, even the Turks, and other ethnic groups have stolen a march on your Western youth. While your kids squander their cyber skills on elaborate fantasy games, the Easterners have turned their skills to for- profit endeavors."
"They've become proficient cyber-thieves, is that it, Dmitri?"
"I would expect you to see it that way, Oliver. Actually, they've become Cyber Capitalists."
Ollie snorted. "Cyber Opportunists and Cyber Extortionists, more like."
Dmitri smiled. "You say potato, I say vodka."
"Listen," I said, "we all have good reasons to want Obadiah secure, unthreatened--"
Dmitri interrupted. "The best way to keep it secure, my friends, is to blow it up. That which no longer exists cannot be used against us."
"True," I said, "but we lose Obadiah's leverage. That leaves us vulnerable in many other ways."
"Nikki makes a good point," said Ollie.
Dmitri shrugged in that uniquely Russian way. "I said we should blow it up, I didn't say we should issue a press release."
I wondered if Dmitri might be making a valid point. "You're saying if we blow up Obadiah we no longer have to protect it . . ."
Ollie took up where I left off. "But if certain parties are unaware of Obadiah's demise, our leverage remains intact."
"Precisely. We eliminate our exposure, but maintain our upper hand."
"But our 'upper hand' is really a straw dog," I said.
"And straw dogs have a habit of bursting into flames." Ollie had finished my thought.
Strategy is just a highfaluting word for educated gamble. -- L. Oliver Bright
Exploding, er, Exploring Options 6/23/17
Dmitri's idea for discreetly blowing up Obadiah appealed to me. Hiding and protecting such sensitive information is an onerous task. Not to mention, a dangerous one. Until now, Obadiah's security had never been seriously threatened. But while we'd grown more comfortable, even more complacent, the file's explosive potential hasn't waned in the slightest. In fact, in view of the current fervor over Russia's possible interference in our latest Presidential election, the Obadiah revelations could be more relevant than ever.
"If we blow up Obadiah," said Ollie, "we're not entirely off the hook. In fact, we might be even worse off."
"I don't get it," I said.
Ollie sipped from his glass. "Instead of protecting Obadiah outright, we'll be compelled to protect the secret that we blew up Obadiah. I'm not sure it will be any easier to protect a secret than a file. If word reaches certain parties that Obadiah now longer exists, the threat of exposure is gone . . . along with all our leverage."
Again, Dmitri shrugged. "We compiled 'leverage' once, we can do it again."
I spoke up. "We pulled the rabbit out of a hat once. I don't expect our not-so-friendly friends are going to fall for the same trick twice."
"Besides," added Ollie, "even if we were able to pull off another sleight-of-hand, we'll be faced with exactly the same problem we're facing now--protecting whatever new information we uncover. I say, securing a tangible Obadiah in the hand, is better than anticipating a hypothetical Obadiah in the bush."
I held up my empty glass. Ollie brought the vodka bottle and topped us all off.
"So," I said, "did we just take the scenic route to deciding that Obadiah is the Alamo, and we're duty-bound to defending it to the last man . . . or woman."
Dmitri nodded. "Though you could have come up with a cheerier analogy, dear Nikki."
"World War II Leningrad?" suggested Ollie.
"Save the sackcloth," I said. "Maybe we have one more trick up our sleeves."
Ollie exchanged a look with Dmitri. "We're listening," they said in unison. Those two in agreement? Surely the world as we knew it has come to a stupendous end.
"Actually, friends, I'm thinking about a Twenty-First Century cyber-version of the old shell game."
Ollie grinned. "You mean that old 'the-hand-is-quicker-than-the-eye' scam? You hide the pea, shuffle the shells, then dare the rube to find it?"
"That's pretty much the gist."
Dmitri looked troubled. "And Obadiah is the pea, I suppose."
"You suppose correctly."
"And the shells?" asked Ollie.
"Think of shell corporations."
Again, Ollie grinned. "You're going to 'wash' Obadiah, like dirty drug money?"
"Something like that. And who's making inappropriate analogies, now? Where's the best place to hide a pea?"
The two men shrugged.
"In a can full of peas. And that's exactly what I plan on opening."
Ollie looked at me with clear admiration. "You really think it could work? You know, that big can you're opening could be full of worms, too."
"I thought of that. Let's get young Mr Samuels up here. I'm betting the pea is faster than the worm."
Even the highest technologies are man-made.
If you can trick a man, you can trick his technology.
- L. Oliver Bright
Analogy Menagerie 6/30/17
When I was a little girl, at some nearly-forgotten family reunion, some distant uncle sat me on his lap and tried to entertain me with the story of a 'glorious' fox hunt. To hear him tell it, a cavalry of horsemen and a kennel of slavering hounds performed some magnificent feat by chasing one scared, lonely fox up a tree. Try as I might, I could not find the glory in that story . . . only the shame. Faced with such overwhelming odds, even the sly fox couldn't hope to escape. Unless . . .
"Nikki, are you okay?" Ollie studied me like a rogue specimen.
"I'm fine, Ollie. Just gathering a bit of wool . . . or fox fur, to be more precise."
Clearly, Ollie was still concerned. "I thought you were going to get Samuels up here. You know, to explain your 'shell game' plan?"
"Yes, I remember, Ollie. I was just trying to figure out how many foxes it might take to flummox the hounds." His look of deepening concern nearly melted my heart. "Really, Dear, I know it seems I'm mixing my metaphors, but it all comes down to the same thing. If our foes play the shell game, we need to hide the pea. If they hunt the fox, we need to hide the fox. Really, Ollie, I'm making sense."
"Of course you are, Darling. Let's get Samuels up here before you dream up some other quaint analogy."
I didn't appreciate Ollie's tone, and Dmitri's gaze was none too reassuring, either. By instinct, I was about to call out to Crystal to do my bidding, but Crystal was still MIA. This irked me. But I had no time for petty irks at that moment. I punched in the number for Ed O'Reilly's office. Jack Quincy answered.
"Jack, Nikki. I need you to tell Samuels to get up here right away."
"You mean the Hot Shot Kid? I don't know. He doesn't like to be disturbed."
"And I don't like financing jackasses, Jack. Get him up here now." I slammed the receiver.
"Care to give us a preview, Nikki," asked Dmitri.
"How much do you know about outwitting cyber-worms?"
"Those are not the kind you use as fish bait, right?"
"That much, huh? And how much do you know about fox hunting?"
"Are you purposely trying to make me look stupid?"
"Perhaps we'd better wait for the expert." I held my glass up again. "Hit me, Ollie."
We didn't have to wait long.
As soon as Samuels entered the office, Ollie asked him, "Okay, Tim, how many foxes does it take to catch a fish?"
"Ignore my husband, Tim, he drinks. What's the latest?"
"Well, I know this is a SISI production. His encryption codes may as well be fingerprints. But we're not having any luck finding a kill-switch."
"Are you saying it's just a matter of time until the worm finds Obadiah?"
He squirmed. "That's a plausible scenario."
Ollie spoke up. "No. That's an unacceptable scenario."
Before Tim could respond, I asked, "Tim, what would happen if we make a hundred, maybe two hundred copies of Obadiah?"
Samuels looked worried. "We'd have up to two-hundred-percent more problems."
"I don't think so. See, once the copies are made, we're going to shoot them off--as close to simultaneously as possible--to our offices and affiliates all over the world."
"Ah, I think I understand. You want to confuse the worm . . . or, the hounds. But with all those copies hanging around, aren't you afraid of leaks?"
"Actually, I'm still thinking of this as a shell game . . ." I looked at Ollie . . . "with a fox hunt component. As for the copies, can you arrange for all those copies to self-implode the very moment they reach their cyber destinations?"
"I get it! The copies act as decoys, leaving a scent trail that branches off in two hundred different directions. Even SISI can't be equipped to handle all those variables. And even if he does manage to track a few, when he turns over the shell, the pea will be gone. We'll send him on a merry goose chase."
Ollie rolled his eyes. "Great," he sighed, "another animal analogy." He pointed at me. "You started this. How in the world did we get from peas to fish to foxes to wild geese?"
"Ideas evolve," I said, "but you Neanderthals wouldn't know about that."
Dmitri sported a look of vindication. "So we're going to blow up Obadiah after all. Smart move."
"All but the original, Dmitri. And I have special plans for that."
People are always searching for new ideas.
I've had better luck with new takes on old ones.
- L. Oliver Bright
Another Trick, Or Two 7/7/17
I left Dmitri and Ollie to bicker back in my office while I accompanied young Samuels to the IT department.
Once in the elevator, Tim said, "You know, once we start the copying process, there's no turning back? The worm will spot our activity and rush to investigate."
"Will you be able to hold it back long enough to complete the copying and the launch?"
"No sweat. But I'm thinking we might add another layer of security to the decoys. Encryption. I've developed a doozy of a code based on War and Peace and the ersatz poetry of Rod McKuen. If it isn't unbreakable, it'll sure as hell a tedious task." He wiped the involuntary smile off his face. "Another layer of irritant, just in case SISI manages to track down one of the decoys before we can blow it up."
It was my turn to smile. "Tolstoy and Rod McKuen? You are sadistic beyond your years, young man. But I have another idea I wanted to discuss with you in private." I pressed the elevator's stop button.
His eyes shot upwards. "You have security concerns with . . ."
"No. Not with my husband, nor my rather enigmatic friend Dmitri."
"Have you discussed this new wrinkle with anyone else?"
I liked this young fellow's analytical mind. His ability to make logical jumps.
"Not intentionally," I said.
He thought for a scant second. "You think your office is bugged?"
"I'm almost certain. I recently hired a new personal assistant. She's been conspicuously inattentive this morning. I think she has me under surveillance--possibly aiding and abetting your SISI."
Samuels turned pale. "That could give SISI an enormous advantage. Bugs, cameras, even transmission devices could be sewn into your clothes. Implanted onto your contact lenses, or even embedded into your dental fillings."
I grinned. "I don't wear contacts, but everything else you suggest is possible. That's why we're speaking here in this elevator car, stopped equidistant between the fifteenth and sixteenth floors. This is my version of The Cone of Silence."
"The Code of Silence?"
"Not Code, Cone. Maxwell Smart? Agents 99 and 86? Never mind. There is nowhere on the face of this planet that's more immune from eavesdropping than where we dangle at this very moment. Not the White House. Not the Pentagon. Not Hugh Hefner's bedroom. Do you have a cell phone in your pocket?"
"Go ahead. Call Dominos. Call 911. Call the Kremlin. You can't. You are in my Cone of Silence. And the same goes for any devices that might have be placed on you without your knowledge. We are completely, totally alone. This conversation may as well be transpiring on Mars."
Tim Samuels shivered. "Why does that make me feel creepy?"
"Because you're human. Humans don't like being isolated. But don't worry, I'll make this short. We will not make two hundred copies of Obadiah. We'll make it appear that's what we're doing, but we'll really be duplicating the Owner's Manual for a 2002 Volkswagen Passat. "
"I like it. But where am I supposed to get my hands on an Owner's Manual for a 2002 Volkswagen Passat?"
I reached into my briefcase. "Will this do?"
He examined the booklet. "Fine. But why a 2002 Passat? Why not a '99 Honda Civic?"
"Call it an ironic indulgence. The people behind this attack would understand."
Tim seemed to understand my desire to make a gesture. "I could arrange for one of these copies to fall into enemy hands--if you're looking to make a point."
"Not necessary, Mr Samuels. But I wonder, do you know a good taxidermist?"
He regarded me oddly. "I don't know any taxidermists."
"No, I guess you wouldn't." I re-pressed the Emergency Stop button. We resumed our downward journey. "Let's go copy and launch."
Information is the mine. Eavesdropping the pickaxe.
Technology is a recent afterthought. --L. Oliver Bright
Anachronisms and Aftershave 7/14/17
The first thing I did when I emerged from the elevator was make my way to Ed O'Reilly's office. Fortunately, it was empty. Otherwise, I would have been forced to kick the occupants out. My building. My company. My rules.
I settled into O'Reilly's chair and called the Chief of Operations for our Security Detail. I called on our hardwired phone system. Sure, everyone has a cell phone, but within the building, I prefer my employees use the old fashioned means of communicating--including face-to-face--whenever possible. Text messaging gives me hives. Hey, every international mega-corporation needs an anachronism, or two.
"We've got a rogue, Mack," I told him.
"No doubt related to all that unusual activity up on the IT floor?"
Mack McFerner might look like a glorified rent-a-cop, but he has the nose of a bloodhound. Personality-wise, he reminded me of the character actor William Frawley, who played 'Fred Mertz' on I Love Lucy. Though, I'm sure, he saw himself more in the Sergeant Friday role.
"Yet to be determined," I said, "but I'd like her found and escorted to me . . . forthwith, as they say."
"You don't even have to tell me who it is. It's your new Personal Assistant, Crystal Waters, right?"
"That's Crystal Waiders, Chief."
"I'll bet you a Chinese take-out lunch for all my men . . . and women . . . her real name is closer to Muddy Waters than Crystal Waiders."
"No bet, Mack. Listen, I want you to disable all her key cards and access codes."
"Already done. You know, I can talk on the phone and chew gum at the same time. They ought to put me in the circus. Is there anything else you want?"
"Yeah, put your best people on all the exits. Don't let her get out of the building."
"Sure, like I hadn't thought of that already. Now hang up so I can get some work done around here."
"Mack, don't hurt her. I'm only operating on a hunch here."
"Damn!" he said. "Here I am with a new rubber hose and no one to use it on."
I grinned as I hung up. Like I said, every international mega-corporation needs a good anachronism or two.
I won't bore you with the technical aspects involved in the implementation of my little anti-worm counter-intelligence project. Fact is, it nearly bored me to tears. Oh, I followed Samuels around for a while as he barked orders to 'his' staff. I gazed bleary-eyed over his shoulder as he keyed in long blocks of alphanumeric gobbledygook. But, I was about as helpful, and as comprehending, as an itchy dog watching its master fill in a crossword puzzle. I didn't wag my tail, mind you. But I did nod off a time or two.
Finally, Samuels shook me awake.
"All the decoys are addressed and ready for launching, Nikki."
That sounded like good news to me. "Programmed to implode upon reaching their designated destinations?"
"Just as we dicussed."
I played with another idea. "What are the chances SISI may be able to intercept one or two along the way?"
Samuels shook his head. "Next to nil. As soon as we let fly, I'm going to trip all the malware sensors he's installed. That'll rattle his bell tower. In effect, his entire system is going to get a massive case of the DTs."
"Will we be able to turn the tables on him? You know, give us a chance to trace him back to his lair?"
He gave me an approving, if grudging, nod. "I had the same idea. I've taken steps to target his counter transmissions. I offer no guarantees. It'll all depend on how badly the launch hurts him . . . and how close he is to us geographically."
"I have a hunch he's very close. What if he is?"
"We'll be able to sniff him out by his aftershave."
It's much easier to make an enemy than eat crow with a broken jaw. -- L. Oliver Bright
Finding Crystal 7/21/17
We still didn't know how effective our decoy plan had been when I received a call from Chief Max McFerner.
"Hey, Max. You find Crystal?"
"Did I find her? Who do you think you're dealing with, Sister? A Keystone Kop?"
"Let me rephrase, Chief. Where did you find her?"
"One those secured nerd rooms on the third floor where devil-spawned machines plot the overthrow of their human creators."
I ignored his penchant for absurd hyperbole. "The third floor? That area is highly restricted."
"You don't say? So, how'd I ever end up here? You know, Boss, you ever suspect you've got ants in your sugar bowl? First place you ought to look is the sugar bowl, right?"
"Cut the corn pone, Chief. How did you determine the third floor is the P&S sugar bowl?"
"Simple deductive reasoning, Watson. See, despite bein' left out of the loop, I know some kind of big snafu is goin' on up on seventeen--the IT floor. Meanwhile, you call me from seventeen and put an ABP out on little miss Crystal Waiders. Wasn't much of a leap for a seasoned investigator. IT operates on the seventeenth and eighteenth floors, but the brains that run the whole operation are housed on three--where they beep, buzz, whirr, and spin mostly autonomously. If I was a bogey trying to mess with your IT? I'd steer clear of seventeen and make a beeline for three."
"And that's where you found Crystal. Congratulations, Chief. Was she alone?"
"As a bucktoothed boy at a barn dance. But she was carrying a bunch of electronic gizmos, doo-dads, thingamabobs, and whozits I couldn't figure out with a hammer and a crystal ball."
"Where is she right now?"
"Secure in one of our little lock boxes on eight."
"Any chance she managed to conceal a communications device anywhere on her person?"
"Not unless she's Houdini. But just to be safe, Officer Truewell is keepin' her company--cheek to jowl, if you know what I mean."
"Crystal's trickier than she looks, Max. How about Truewell?"
"Her name says it all."
Good enough for me. "What about the equipment Crystal was using?"
"Right where we found it. I expect your nerd squad might find it revealing--vis-a-vis the culprit's intentions."
"Great job, Chief. I want you to stay right where you are until I can get a couple of IT specialists down there."
"Why am I not surprised? What about little Miss Crystal Ball?"
"I'm on my way down to eight right now. You might want to give Officer Truewell a heads up?"
"Oh, yes. I do believe that would be advisable. Truewell doesn't like surprises. You'll find she and Crystal in Interview Room 5."
"Max, should I be afraid of this Truewell?"
"Not unless you smell like meat."
I heard him cackle as he hung up.
The eighth floor of Page & Spine International Headquarters and Gift Shop, resembled most of the other floors--except for the southwest corner. This was the closed off area from which the in-house Security Detail operated.
I stood before a set of unmarked, but clearly fortified doors. On principle, I hated the necessity for these doors, and what lurked behind. But my principles, and reality often conflict these day.
I scanned my ID card and punched the appropriate daily security code. A mechanized voice responded: Bright, Nikki. Please name your favorite book.
I bristled, looked around, hoping to be alone.
Correct. The name of your first pet?
I gritted my teeth. "Chummy."
Your identity has been verified. Come on in and set a spell.
As the doors slid open, I made a mental note to let Chief McFerner know what I thought about his add-ons to company security protocol.
When preparing to meet an adversary, keep the sun at your back
and a dirk at the ready. -- L. Oliver Bright
Plan B 7/28/17
Things seemed quiet at the Page & Spine In-House Security Unit . . . and got quieter as soon as my presence was detected. People often remark that it's lonely at the top. Well, I'm here to tell you it can get mighty quiet, too. Nobody speaks freely when the boss is in the room.
One uniformed officer rose from his desk, stood at attention, saluted, said, "Yes, Ma'am, how may I help you today?"
I smiled and returned his smart salute with a dainty finger wave. "At ease, Sergeant Friday, just point me to Interview Room 5, please."
He hesitated. "Begging your pardon, Ma'am, but is Officer Truewell expecting you?"
Now I really wanted to meet this Truewell dame. "What, hasn't she had her lunch yet?" The officer clearly didn't know how to take my remark. "Yes, Officer," I said, "Truewell is expecting me. I had Chief Ferner call ahead."
He looked very relieved. He pointed. "Just follow that hall. I-5 is on the right."
Sure, I had a serious million questions for Crystal Waiders, but at that moment, I was champing at the bit to get a look at this scourge known as Officer Truewell. I knocked on the interview room door, and identified myself.
From behind the door, a muffled voice asked, "How do I know you are who you say you are? What's today's security color?"
Security color? What kind of madhouse was Chief Ferner running down here? I said, "Colonel Mustard with the lead pipe in the ballroom. Now, let me in."
The door opened and I was suddenly face to face with the dread Officer Truewell. To describe her as diminutive would be to exaggerate her size. Five-feet-nothing tall--standing on a Sunday New York Times. Strawberry blonde. Freckle-faced. Weight? About a gallon of milk. I guessed her first name to be Gidget, or Pun'kin.
"Officer Truewell?" I asked.
She shrugged. "Not what you expected, huh?"
I didn't respond to her question, but asked one of my own. "There is no Security Color of the day, is there?"
She rocked on her tiny feet. "No, Ma'am. Just making a commentary on some of our unit's more arcane paramilitary protocols."
"I see. Do you comment on protocols often?"
She shook her head 'no', but said, "Yeah, I can be a burr under Ferner's saddle sometimes, but when you're built like a bonzai, you can't stand mute among the big, dumb oaks. And, by the way, Mrs Bright, your Colonel Mustard answer? First class. You even got a color in there. Mustard's a color, isn't it?"
"It is, indeed. I wonder, Officer Truewell, if I might have a few moments alone with Ms Waiders?"
She winked at me, then thumbed over her shoulder toward the 'prisoner'. "Gonna work her over some?"
I winked back. "That would be immoral, unethical, and constitutionally illegal." I paused. "But, we'll see how it goes."
Officer Truewell departed, and I closed the door behind her. Now, it was just me and Crystal.
Throughout my conversation with the diminutive Truewell, I had observed my former Personal Assistant's demeanor. Crystal had remained calm and disinterested. Almost serenely detached. I had no doubt she knew how much trouble she was in, but she didn't let it show. Clearly, she was a pro.
I faced her. "Who do you work for, Crystal?"
She shrugged. "A guy."
I nodded. "Yeah, I know that guy. He works for another guy, right? Who works for another guy."
"It's the way of the world," she said. 'Everybody has to work for somebody."
"You know more than you're saying."
"Of course, I do. So, how much is it worth to you, Nikki?"
Every criminal has a foolproof plan. Plan B is a trade. -- L. Oliver Bright