It was about eight o’clock this morning and I was experiencing my usual ambivalence during what some might consider a peculiar exercise, with one foot on the pinnacle of my power and the other in the nadir of depravity. I was alone in my office snooping through the White House email. It is something I do sporadically throughout each day and, I might add, is not historically unprecedented in this job. I had begun my idle browsing habit quite casually while looking to retrieve a memo I’d lost to a slip of a finger on the keyboard. Once inside “purgatory,” which is what we call the directory that holds all email output for three days before dumping it presumably into oblivion, I succumbed to the temptation of a slugline that boldly asked, “nooner?” Calling up the file I learned a new word for vagina and the day’s trysting place for Tonga Cooke and someone named Julayne in the data processing pool.
I didn’t know who the sender and recipient were until I called the message up on my screen. All I could learn from the slugline was that the memo had originated in Tech Support. Once on my screen I had the complete message including both its addresses. Tonga, who heads the White House Technical Support Team, had assured me that besides himself only me, Adele Schwammel and the President could call up anything from purgatory. This is probably why Tonga had slugged his note to Julayne as he did, trusting that neither the President nor me, his friend, would have the time or inclination to do what I had just done. Schwammel, on the other hand, gave off that she was not computer friendly, and she never answered email sent to her. The President’s political rabbi, Schwammel preferred to conduct her business in person or on the telephone.
Yet, it was stumbling upon a juicy note from Schwammel to an officer manager in Treasury shortly after experiencing the sophomoric thrill of discovering Tonga’s note to Julayne that addicted me to daily fishing in purgatory. That Schwammel’s email-documented pursuit of the office manager constituted the most titillating intelligence I’d found in my two years in the White House did not dampen my enthusiasm for these secret little expeditions. For Schwammel, the President’s closest political aide - by title, Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy - was clearly someone to keep an eye on.
What the fuck? I take an almost perverse pleasure in writing the exact words born in my fore brain when I stumbled upon the ambiguous message. I was alone in the office and not in any circumstance inclined to auto confabulation. I denied it voice. But the bafflement was real. It pushed and burgeoned, taunting me with squirming alternations of drollery and menace. I shoved back from the desk and stood up. I would pace if I had to, which is how I usually deal with cerebral stress when alone. But for now I didn’t wish to break eye contact with the screen on my computer monitor where the smattering of words glowed with perplexing ambiguity. They were either innocent - foolish beyond belief yet quite innocent - or they carried unthinkable implications. At the moment, I was drawn to the latter interpretation and I felt a chill at the back of my neck. As I pondered, the chill extended down over my shoulders making me hunch them and hug myself.
THIS IS A TEST. You with us or what? Out.com’s off unless you stay. THIS IS A TEST.
Test, my ass, was my first unspoken reaction...I’d almost passed it by because it was slugged test, but it was for that same reason I tapped it up. I had never seen such a slug in purgatory. It piqued my administrative curiosity that somebody was conducting a test without my knowledge. Whatever it was I hadn’t been consulted, nor had it included my computer terminal among its recipients.
Out of the loop. Even on something so trivial as a software test, if that’s what it was, it annoyed me to be excluded. But what I found on my screen when I tapped up the test, instead of the expected quick brown fox or all good men, started a whole new set of bells ringing. Making it worse, this particular message didn’t have any coding that said who sent it or who received it.
It was this absence of addresses that initially set the hook in my worry lobe. Something wasn’t right. Technical glitch probably. But how could such a thing happen? This is the White House. If something like this could happen as a glitch then it could be done deliberately and in any event a communications system for the most powerful governmental staff in the world shouldn’t have the kind of glitches that erase such important references. A flash of annoyance imprinted these thoughts as a priority to bring up with Tonga.
Then I turned to the note’s text. Implications bombarded me. Is it a joke or a game? Just nonsense? But why this particular nonsense? The harmonics are all wrong, like joking about a bomb at the airport. This is not likely something Tonga did, but then who else could it be? Unless it is a joke. Tonga pulling my leg? Maybe one of Tonga’s people? Being devilish? Yeah, of course. That’s the ticket.
Yet, even as I felt a slight release of tension at this idea I knew I couldn’t leave it at that. It wasn’t enough to be just pretty sure. If only because even a strained interpretation of the message leaving a sinister tickle demands my exploration of its inferences. My responsibility and loyalty to the President demand nothing less. The risk of making a fool of myself is in comparison insignificant.
Whatever else I did I knew I had to get the damned thing off my screen, copy it so some other file for safekeeping, then abort purgatory and get on with the day’s affairs. I planned to come back to it in the afternoon and decide then what course to take.
I approached the keyboard with the caution of a sapper moving in on an undetonated bomb. It occurred to me that what I saw on the screen might be the product of so me eccentricity of my particular machine. What if the message wouldn’t copy or vanished somewhere in cyber limbo beyond retrieval by the cleverest technician? Should I leave it alone and call Tonga to come up and see it the way it is? I’d started to reach for the phone when a strip message flashed across the top of my screen: SAVE SAVE SAVE SAVE SYSTEM GOING DOWN IMMINENT SAVE SAVE SAVE SAVE. Well, that settled it. A crash would lock whatever was on the screen, but if it wasn’t saved it would vanish in the reboot after the system came back up. My fingers flew to the keyboard and tapped out a few deft strokes transferring the file to my personal directory. When it had copied I picked up the phone and called Tonga.
“Can’t come now, Chief. Got a problem down here. Save whatever you’re working on. We’re going down any second now.”
“Thanks for the heads up, buddy,” I said, annoyed that he hadn’t called me first.
“Sorry, Chief,” he said in my office moments later. “I guess we were trying to call each other at the same time. I got a busy signal. Your phone must be more important than mine.” I stared at him, but his grin never wavered. He then explained that the problem had to do with some upgrades he was applying to the network file server.
“Software’s still getting acquainted.”
“That might explain the weird thing I found in purgatory. What I was calling you about.”
“Very strange message, and no addresses.”
“No addresses? That is weird. Either end?
“When was this, Al?”
“Just before I called you. Just before the system crashed.” As Tonga watched I logged back into the system and tapped up the purgatory directory. I scrolled down screen by screen, squinting for better focus on the glowing list of file slugs. It took a couple of minutes to scan to the end of the directory - 418 entries. Test wasn’t among them. My metabolism quickened unpleasantly. I scrolled backward up to the beginning, still not spotting the phantom slug.
“Musta got lost when we crashed,” I muttered, doubting if Tonga heard me.
But he said, “Shouldn’t have. It wasn’t that big a deal. Like turning off your machine with something on your screen without logging out. All you lose is what you haven’t saved. You don’t lose anything out of a directory.”
“Tonga, it was in there and now it’s not.” I kept my voice even, but my irritation continued to build.
“Chief, you mind if I ask you what it was?”
“It just said this is a test. Then there was the usual nutty message that comes with a test, and then this is a test. That’s all.”
“Chief, I may be out of line to ask you this, but just what in hell is so important about a test?”
“It’s not that so much, Tonga. It’s just that if we’re losing anything from the files, even only a test, something’s wrong. And that kind of thing shouldn’t be happening here.”
Tonga was sitting on the edge of a window well behind my desk, which put him, a shorter man than I, at a level that gave him a sight plane about a foot below mine. It also put him just out of easy reach so that he had to lean out into a crouch to touch me on the arm, which he did, and said, “Chief, it’s a purge directory with an automatic dump time. You don’t know how long that note was in there. Maybe its time came up just as the system went down.”
I rocked back in my swivel chair and swung around toward Tonga so I could study his face. Thin and nose-prominent with droopy-lidded eyes set a little too close together and lips shaped with a hint of upturn at each end, Tonga’s face in repose conveyed an impish irreverence. That he was really quite serious at heart could be seen by anyone who spent more than five minutes in his presence. Yet, even I could be unsettled by this curious mask of features when it seemed to become a litmus for self appraisal at a time of uncertainty for its beholder. Right now I didn’t know what to think. As my friend’s visage mildly mocked, I agonized an instant and decided to take a terrible leap of faith.
“I made a copy,” I said. I tapped the strange message onto my screen. Tonga stood and squinted at it. I kept my eyes on his face. It betrayed nothing.
“Weird,” he said.
“What do you think?”
“I’m not sure, Al. The addresses should have copied along with the message, but you say there weren’t any addresses in the purgatory version?”
“It was exactly like this,” I said, nodding at my screen. “And the slugline was blank except for the word test. Damn, Tonga, I was hoping you’d be laughing by now, telling me this is a joke or something.”
Tonga shrugged and lowered himself back to his perch on the window well edge. When he spoke his voice was thoughtful. “Believe me, I wish that were true,” he said. “But this upgrade has nothing to do with the email system. I couldn’t do what’s on that screen if I wanted to.”
“Some kind of electronic glitch?”
“I suppose anything’s possible.”
“Any way of finding out who sent the message?”
He took a little time before answering. “If that’s all we have, probly not. But if somebody’s fooling around they’ll eventually leave a track. I’m gonna run a special virus screen soon as I get back in case there’s something lurking on somebody’s hard drive.”
“Lemme know what you find,” I said, speaking in a descending scale to signal conclusion. Then to avoid sounding like a prick I changed the subject. “So, Tonga, what’s this I hear about you getting married?”
Tonga knew this was just exit small talk but he played along, rolling his eyes as he stood and saying with exaggeration. “Who told you that?”
I smiled. “Well, is it true?”
Already halfway across the room Tonga waved me off but turned back grinning when he reached the door. “You better check your sources, Al. Somebody’s been feeding you some kind of bull.” Then he stepped into the hall and closed the door behind him.
I slumped in my chair. In five minutes I would be in the Oval Office going over the day’s agenda. It promised to be a light day, with the only potential for serious irritation being the persistence of Sen. Bartholomew Gladstone, R-Maryland, to gain an audience with the President. The President detests the Senate Finance Committee chairman. She once called him, to his face, “Bart Bullshit.” I’ll admit to taking a secret delight in foiling the senator’s designs on White House access at every possible turn.
“Not today, Bart, the President’s in too good a mood,” I said into the phone this morning.
“You know, Al, what you need is to get laid. Loosen up that tight ass of yours. Hell, I can find you a willing pageboy or two if you like. Just ask Uncle Bart,” Gladstone said, his voice resonant with baritone conceit.
“That’s all right, Senator, you keep them. You’re loose enough for the both of us.”
“Mee-yoww. Boy, I like you. You ought to drop by the office some time. I’m not such a bad fellow, you know.”
“You’re as bad as they come, Bart. Thank God I’m a Democrat.”
“God didn’t have a damned thing to do with that, boy,” Gladstone shot back. “Now come on, just between us girlies. When am I gonna get five minutes with her highness? Just five, that’s all I need.”
“We’re having a fundraiser next week. Ten thousand a plate.”
“Oh, you’re cruel, Al. And you force me to question your patriotism. Whatever happened to the concept of good relations with Congress?”
I’d had enough of the bloviating buffoon. “The President supports your opponent, Senator. When she gets elected, then we’ll have good relations. Good day.” I hung up on the fatuous asshole before he could start singing his favorite song whenever he’s around me: Primrose Lane, of course.
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