Gary Nesbitt’s smile said it all, although his blue eyes, hidden behind his sunglasses, were all but invisible. His sandy blond hair streamed along behind him as he cruised down Devonshire in his red Mustang convertible, his speed a little above the limit, but he was far from the fastest driver out today. An early morning shower had swept away the smog, and the gentle breeze wafting over the Santa Monica Mountains was keeping the San Fernando Valley clear, at least so far. Under a deep blue, cloudless sky, the tawny mountains, which surrounded the valley on three sides, were clearly visible for a change. Gary sighed. Up ahead he spotted the entrance to the run-down office park, which marked the end of this extraordinary Monday commute and the start of his business week at Security-Check, Inc., the company that he and John Mason owned. September 13 was about to get under way.
Gary glanced in his rearview mirror, whipped into the right lane, and flicked on his turn signals. He downshifted to third gear and finally to second, kicking the V8’s muted rumble up to a healthy reverberating roar. He cranked the wheel over, zipped through the drive, and maneuvered the nimble car around all the speed bumps he could and endured the jounces from the ones he couldn’t. Reaching the last office block, he pulled in beside John’s gray Toyota Camry, set the emergency brake, and turned off the ignition. He sat motionless for a few moments, savoring the unusually clean air. Then, unable to delay any longer, he put up the top, grabbed his briefcase, and stepped out. He stretched his long legs and twisted his slim torso, trying to relieve the stiffness. He had skipped his morning workout, and it felt like it. He thumbed the car remote. The door locks thumped, and a short whistle announced the arming of the alarm system.
Gary walked across the parking lot and along the sidewalk. He paused at the door to admire the sign, which proclaimed SECURITYCHECK, INC. in flowing, futuristic white letters on a blue background. He and John had considered moving to new quarters after the company’s involvement in what the media had dubbed “the Crown Jewels Heist.” Almost a year and a half ago, they had audited the Tower of London’s security systems for MI5 only to become embroiled in a caper involving the theft of the queen consort’s crown. Although that operation had been the most profitable to date, the two men had decided their improved circumstances did not warrant a change of venue. In this, Gary mused, they had been wise, since their subsequent projects, while keeping them busy, had not covered expenses, and the drain on the company bank account was beginning to get critical.
Gary finally opened the door and walked inside. He removed his sunglasses, stuffed them in his shirt pocket, and started across the compact reception area. “Morning, Rose,” he said as he neared her desk. “How was your weekend?”
Rose Gibson looked up from her computer monitor.With her short, stocky figure, she made a formidable impression on visitors.
At forty-five, she was the oldest employee by over ten years but didn’t look it because she used her cosmetics to best advantage. She smiled at Gary, but the way she grabbed a file folder let him know that escaping to his office was out of the question.
“Okay, I guess,” she said. “I spent most of my Saturday here, trying to catch up on all our accounting entries.” She nodded toward the monitor and frowned. “The new HR programs keep saying the employee records are out of balance, but I can’t figure out how to fix them. Listen, the old system worked just fine. I don’t see why we had to change.”
Gary laughed nervously, since he was well aware of her dissatisfaction.
“The short answer is: The new system is better, plus it makes our California and federal reporting easier.”
“Gary. What about all these problems?” She absentmindedly smoothed her bright red hair.
“Call the customer support number.”
Her brown eyes flashed. “They always talk in gobbledygook. Makes me feel like a complete idiot.”
The front door opened, but Gary didn’t dare look around. He shrugged. “Well, why not have Ann call them? They sure can’t snow her.”
“What exactly are you volunteering me for?” a voice behind him asked.
Gary turned and saw it was Ann O’Brien, SecurityCheck’s resident hacker. Moderately tall with a willowy figure, she constrasted sharply with Rose. Ann smiled, and her blue eyes twinkled. She tucked an errant strand of long brunette hair behind her ear.
“The accounting and HR system is giving Rose fits,” Gary explained. “Looks like a job for Cyberwoman, that is, if you can work it into your busy schedule.”
Ann laughed. “I think I can manage.” She turned to Rose. “Let me grab some coffee, and I’ll be right back.”
Rose smiled in obvious relief. “Thanks, I appreciate it.”
Ann hurried down the corridor to her office and disappeared inside.
“May I go now?” Gary asked.
Rose swatted at him with the file folder, but he dodged. “Yes, but don’t disappear on me. I need you to sign some proposals so I can put them in the mail.”
Gary’s grin faded on the short walk back to his office. He knew the proposals she was referring to, but even if they all went through, it wouldn’t do much more than put a dent in the company’s overhead.
What SecurityCheck really needed was a big, juicy contract.
He tried to ignore the shabbiness all around him, but somehow it seemed to echo the company’s less than robust finances. Gary’s eyes took in the dingy beige walls, the water-stained ceiling tiles, and the well-worn and faded carpet that had once been dark blue.
The only semi-recent renovation was the white vinyl tile floor in the back workshop, now a little more than two years old. Gary consoled himself with the knowledge that the company payroll came before routine maintenance. But still, he was concerned about the impression it could make on potential clients.
A smiling black face with close-cropped black hair and lively brown eyes popped out of the workshop’s doorway. “Brother Gary,” John Mason said, making a show of looking at his watch. “Nice of you to drop in. I hope our work schedule isn’t a burden on you.”
Besides being the co-owners, John and his wife, Sarah, attended the same church as Gary.
His friend’s cheerfulness lifted Gary’s spirits. “Good morning to you, Brother John. In early to play with your gadgets?”
“Just doing my job.”
A wry smile came to Gary’s face. “Meaning I’m not.” He held up his hand to stop John’s reply. “If you’re not too busy, we need to talk.”
John’s expression became serious. “Sure.Want some coffee?”
“Yeah. I’ll grab my mug.”
Gary entered his office and placed his briefcase on the corner of his desk. Then he looked all around but didn’t see his mug. He frowned then hurried to the break room across from the workshop.
John was holding the coffeepot.
“Where’s your mug?” he asked.
Gary walked to the dishwasher, opened the door, and pulled out the upper rack. “Aha,” he said, grabbing a blue mug that displayed the company name in white lettering. “The sanitation police made a raid over the weekend.”
When they returned to Gary’s office, John picked a chair at the round conference table and settled his large, athletic frame into it. Gary sat next to him, leaned back in his chair, and took a long sip of coffee. It was hot and had plenty of authority. “That ought to keep the eyes open,” he said.
“Yes, indeed.” John’s expression became serious. “So what’s the problem, as if I didn’t know?”
“Yeah, it’s kinda obvious, isn’t it?” Gary paused. “I’ve been going over the books, and it isn’t a pretty picture.”
“How bad is it?”
Gary shrugged. “We’re not covering overhead, so our cash reserve is leaking out slowly but surely.”
“What can we do about it?”
“Beat the bushes for new business, and we have to be more careful in our bidding. We’ve been way too optimistic, so most of these dinky little jobs end up being leeches.” He paused and absentmindedly played with his coffee mug. “You know, it would help a lot if we could land a big project. That’s what we really need.”
“What’s the bottom line?”
“We lost over ten thousand last year, despite the Tower of London job, and year-to-date, we’re minus six thou’ or so. The home team’s not looking too good.”
“How long can this go on?”
Gary took a long sip of coffee as he thought that over then set the mug down deliberately. “A little more than a year, assuming we pay more attention to our expenses, which is one of the reasons I wanted to have this talk. You and Dan need to cut back on equipment purchases. Next to payroll, that’s our heaviest expense.”
John frowned. “But we have to have security equipment to do our work. I mean, it’s our stock-in-trade.”
“Take it easy. Just try to be more frugal; that’s all I ask. I’ll be talking to Dan about it, too.”
“He won’t like it, either.”
“I know. Since we’re talking about it, what are we looking at in hardware purchases?”
“Oh, couple a hundred dollars or so. We’re almost done with the Cal State Northridge project, and I have most of what I need for the rest of our jobs.”
“That’s good news, I guess.” Gary settled back in his chair and stared off into space as he thought of the proposals he would sign today. They would go out in the afternoon mail and probably all be rejected, and if one did come through, it would probably turn out unprofitable.
Gary heard a sound in the corridor and looked around. Ann was standing at the door.
“Excuse me,” she said, holding up a sheet of paper. “I jotted down Rose’s questions. Some of the problems I can fix, but I’ll have to call tech support for the rest. Rose said you have our customer number.”
“Oh, yeah,” Gary said. “Come on in and sit down while I look for it.” He got up, walked around his desk, and opened a file drawer in the credenza. He thumbed through the folders until he found the right one. He pulled it out and returned to the table. “Here,” he said as he sat down. “Give it to Rose when you’re done. It needs to be in with her vendor files.”
“Will do.” She started to get up.
Gary hesitated then said, “Don’t go. There’s something you need to know. John and I were discussing current business, or rather the lack thereof.” He paused. “We haven’t exactly been swimming in profit since our one and only international project. And that job, and the survival of SecurityCheck to this point, is thanks to you.”
She blushed. “I’m glad it worked out, but I’m sorry about all we had to go through. Look, I don’t mean to be nosy, but I know you guys are having a hard time. I’m praying for the business.”
“Thanks,” John said. “Please keep it up.”
Ann pushed back from the table and picked up the folder. “I will. Now for my tête-à-tête with tech support.”
Gary grinned. “Be nice.”
“Oh, I will, as long as they give me what I want.” She hurried out.
The sound of the front door opening drifted in. A few moments later, a tall man with a medium build and slicked-down brown hair walked past, obviously in no hurry.
“Dan!” Gary called out.
Dan Thompson appeared in the doorway. His brown eyes seemed to hide behind the thick lenses of his heavy glasses. He pushed them up on the bridge of his nose, but they immediately slid back down. “Yes?” he said.
“Got a few minutes?” Gary asked.
“Sure.” He came over to the table and sat down.
“John and I were going over current projects.What’s the status on your Cal State Northridge work?”
“I have all the data I need. Their communications network is about average for a state institution; moderately secure, however they do have a few glaring holes. A serious hacker could do some real damage. I’m working on my recommendations now.”
“Good. Any more expenses?”
He shook his head. “Not for them and not much overall.Why?”
“We’re trying to watch expenses. Our work for the past year or so hasn’t been profitable.”
“I figured as much. I only buy what’s necessary, you know.”
Gary noted the hint of defensiveness. “I know, and John and I appreciate all your good work. SecurityCheck couldn’t survive without you.”
Dan nodded, and a tentative smile appeared. “Thanks. It’s nice to be appreciated. Anything else?”
“No, that’s it.”
Dan pushed back from the table, got up, and walked out.
“What do you have on tap for today?” Gary asked John.
He shrugged. “Nothing much. I’ll probably spend the day checking things. You know, replace batteries, empty out the bit buckets, stuff like that.”
“Sounds exciting. Call me if you need any help.”
John laughed as he got up. “You’ll be the first to know.”
As he had promised, Gary signed the three proposals around eleven while Rose waited impatiently to scoop them up. After that came a quiet lunch with John and Ann at a Pizza Inn on Reseda Boulevard.
He had invited Dan, but the communications expert had begged off, saying he had to double-check a microwave link at the college. Rose, as usual, assumed command of Security-Check until their return.
When they returned around one o’clock, Gary led the way through the front door. He walked up to Rose’s desk and handed her a paper bag while John and Ann continued to the back.
“Any calls?” Gary asked.
“Only telepests.” She reached into the sack and pulled out a square plastic container and a large paper cup with a lid on it.
“Chicken salad and Diet Coke, right?”
She looked down and smiled. “Right. Thanks, Gary.”
“You’re welcome. If you need me, I’ll be in my office.”
“I know how to find you,” she replied without looking up. She opened the salad container, applied a liberal amount of honey mustard dressing, and mixed it with the plastic fork.
Gary hurried off to his office. Rose was quite adept at finding people. She had been with SecurityCheck for over three years now, at first part-time as their bookkeeper then coming on full-time after the Tower of London job.
Gary sat in his executive swivel chair and turned away from his desk to face his computer monitor and keyboard, which sat on the top of his credenza. He activated his Outlook program and saw he had no e-mails, not even spam, thanks to Ann’s spambot, which lurked on the network server. Gary smiled in spite of his business worries. The spambot and a few dozen other security applications provided extra income for the company; not enough to staunch the red ink, but every little bit helped.
Gary jumped at a sudden electronic warble. He turned around and looked at his speakerphone as if he couldn’t believe he was actually getting a call. He knew from the flashing light that Rose had taken it because it wasn’t his direct line. He hesitated then reached over and picked up the handset.
“Yes, Rose?” he said.
“You have a call from a Thomas Brooks; says he’s with the department of the army in Washington,D.C., and you’d know what it was about. Says it’s very urgent.”
Gary took a deep breath. “Thanks, Rose. Put him on.”
The line clicked. “Hello, Thomas, this is Gary. How are you?”
“Busy as a bureaucrat with a fresh roll of red tape. How are things in sunny California?”
“Oh, same as always, I guess. Hollywood keeps churning out dreams while the rest of us are stuck with reality.”
Thomas laughed. “Washington is guilty of that sometimes; dealing in dreams, that is. By the way, that was some caper you guys pulled off in England.”
Gary’s mind flitted over what had been almost unbearable at the time. “It was the worst experience I have ever had.”
“But it worked out all right. I’m really impressed.”
“Thanks, but it was God’s answer to our prayers that brought us through it.Without that, we’d be in some prison in England or worse.”
The line remained silent for a moment. “Well, whatever floats your boat, as the saying goes.” Again he paused. “Are you guys real busy right now?”
Gary felt a sudden jolt of anticipation. “Talk to me,” he said.
“Remember the Fort Knox security audit that GAO yanked out from under us and gave to the army?”
“How could I forget?”
“Right. Well, the army flunked—big-time—big fat zero. So GAO says to get someone else to do it, like right now. You guys interested?”
Gary sent up an arrow prayer. “I’ll have to check with John—John Mason—but I’m sure the answer will be ‘yes.’ ” He grabbed a pad and started making notes. “Listen, we’ll get our heads together, and I’ll e-mail you a proposal sometime tomorrow.”
“Would it be any different from what we discussed last year?”
“Uh, no, I’m sure it would be essentially the same.”
“Good. Now I have to move fast on this. I’m meeting with my boss tomorrow morning, so can you e-mail me the proposal today?”
Gary hesitated only a moment because he was positive John would agree. “Sure, I’ll do it right after we hang up.”
“Great, and I’ll e-mail you the contract. The only changes will be adjustments for inflation. Are we agreed?”
“Sure, and thank you for remembering us.”
“No, I thank you. Hey, I felt real bad about what happened. I always believed that SecurityCheck should have done the audit, and what you guys did in England proved it, as far as I’m concerned. I’ll give you a call tomorrow to confirm everything, and we can work out the schedule then.”
“Okay. I’ll look forward to your call, Thomas.”
Gary slowly replaced the telephone handset. Then he picked it up again and punched in John’s extension. John answered on the second ring.
Gary smiled. “Brother John. Get yourself in here. We have some serious things to discuss.”