Chapter Nineteen

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When Paul's face lifts to mine, it has a new tint. The shade is in that same family of dough, but darker. Golden-gray. His eyes aren't poised outward, on alert for fault or impertinence from me; they're focused in.

It is a look of resignation. "No. Blackquest 40 can't be an exercise."

And his palms find his thighs, and he's pushing up to his feet, following me out of his office's second door to the hallway not visible to Elite's posse. Relief floods my brain and battered muscles.

Yes—he IS a sentient being capable of logic!

We rush down the hall, passing a utility closet and printer bank and the kitchenette. I plant my lead foot at the kitchenette ... but decide no, that half-wall won't fly. Paul crashes into me from behind. We pick ourselves up and clamber on.

I just need someplace that's safe for five minutes so I can give Paul my info and theories. Now that he has bought into the premise, there's hope. Probably I'll be locked up by the time Susan arrives (when is that Davos flight getting in?), but he can be whispering in her ear, making sure Kotanchek and Davis don't pull the wool over her eyes.

The hallway ends at an elevator bank. Three-quarters of the way there is a small conference room whose door is papered-over. The paper was for last Friday's staffing discussion—brown, torn off a roll and masking-taped up to guard against busybodies like Jared who try to know everybody's review grade.

I bolt inside, waving Paul in too, slamming the door after us.

"Port 9009," I say, gripping his shoulder. "That's were you start."

I explain about Elite's data blockade and how to circumvent it. He can send and receive regular HTTP data using port 9009. Just tweak the connection strings for whatever web browser, then bang!, you're online. Start with Bulgaria. The name was "Mikhail Stepanoff." Find his records, figure out what devilry he's done, then look for a link to Jim Davis.

Paul smears a hand across his mouth. "I disagree."

"Oh come on, we don't have time to—"

"Carter is the key. This whole operation is right out of Carter's playbook."

"Playbook?" My eyes keep stealing to the brown paper, which won't fool anyone for long. "Blackquest 40 seems like once-in-a-generation lunacy to me; who's got something like this in a playbook?"

"The ambition of it," Paul says. "The scale. Carter always has a hustle working, each bigger than the last."

"Look, I don't like CK Slick. I'd love to strike a match off that lacquered hairdo and watch him Nae Nae—but I have to say, even he seems a little skittish about where Jim Davis has taken this. I think Davis is our Bad Guy Number 1-A."

I plant my index finger on the circular table, which houses a desktop computer and standard UFO-looking conference phone. Aeron chairs are spread about the room.

"Davis is intense," Paul says, "but intense in the service of results. He came to me when you were missing, you know."

"What, to harass you?"

"No. For my help. He knew we were on track to miss the checkpoint, and he was desperate. It's my sense that he's under tremendous pressure himself."

Ooh, the poor baby. Maybe he needs a second stressball for his offhand. "What kind of help?"

"He asked my opinion on how to bring you on board. How to motivate you."

"Yeah? Did you suggest fewer assaults?"

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