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Phoenix Rising

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phoenix

Opening Gambit:  Endgame

 

Rudyard Kipling called it the “Great Game”.  Nowadays, we call it “intelligence” . . . and a lotta days, I think Kipling had the better notion.  It can be fun, in a funny way . . . but it’s amazing how often I end up doing things that look pretty dumb.

Like that old standby:  jumping out of a perfectly good airplane.

Or my current exercise:  dangling in mid-air above a steep ravine in the Krusné Hory mountains in northwestern Czechoslovakia, with a river in spate a long way down and a perfectly good bridge on top of me.

 

It had taken over five months for the DXS to work through the negotiations for the prisoner exchange that would bring three of their operatives home from the wrong side of the Iron Curtain.

It took about fifteen seconds for the whole operation to go wrong.

And they’d been expecting it . . . which was why MacGyver was here, slung into climbing harness, trying not to think about the misty drop below his dangling feet as he waited under the footbridge that the two sides had agreed would serve as a safe location for the swap.  Mac had been out there since two o’clock in the morning, rigging transit lines that now ran from one end to the other, so he could manoeuver along the bridge at need.  After all, if the expected betrayal did occur, who could say where on the entire length of the bridge any of the players would be at just that moment?  The plan was simple enough, on the face of it:  the prisoners to be exchanged would start at opposite ends at the same time and cross from one side to the other.  Both sides would get what they wanted – what they had agreed they wanted.

It could have been that simple, if there had been only two sides.

So we’ve got an extra side too . . . the underside.  Once Mac had finished rigging his lines, it had been safer for him to stay in place rather than risk being spotted leaving or returning.  But it hadn’t made for an easy night, trying to nap in his climbing rig while he waited for dawn and the scheduled exchange.

I mostly find the sound of running water pretty soothing . . . but not fifty feet straight down.  Three days of heavy rains in the mountains had flooded the river and threatened to delay the operation, but the clouds had finally slunk away the previous evening, and the early May morning promised to be as bright and warm as a day could be.

MacGyver watched through one of the DXS’ mini-periscopes as the prisoners started their crossing, the three DXS operatives being liberated from the eastern side and the two exchanged detainees from the west side.  One of the westbound prisoners, a woman, was plainly limping, assisted by another, a stoutly built man with several days’ growth of beard; the third seemed dazed by the fresh air and the bright morning light that flashed off his thick glasses, as if he’d been held in darkness for a long time.

The DXS had started with an unusually valuable prize in hand to offer for a trade, putting their negotiator in a position of unusual strength when the talks began.  A tough and seasoned diplomat with a long history in intelligence, he’d chosen to apply the extra leverage and demand the release of an additional US citizen.  In turn, he gave up the control over the exchange location.  A long and complicated series of negotiations had led to this asymmetrical situation, with Mac trying to keep an eye on all five at once as they approached the centre of the bridge and passed each other.  The woman glared furiously at the eastbound prisoners, and the man assisting her seemed all but ready to spit in their faces; but the two groups passed each other without exchanging any remarks.  For a moment, MacGyver was able to breathe deeply and wonder if the extra layers of elaborate safeguards had been a waste of time.

And then the shooting began.

Dang it!  I hate being right!

The DXS strategic analyst had predicted a sniper, and had sniffed at MacGyver’s expectation of automatic weapons fire – but it was Mac who’d had the final say in the preparations, and it was Mac who was there on the site, feeling his adrenaline flare at the all-too-familiar unmistakable rattle of an AK-47.  He’d just leapfrogged his station to keep up with the westbound DXS agents and run the mini-periscope up again to look back along the bridge.  He saw only too clearly as the two eastbound detainees went down, huddling protectively in on themselves.  The wooden boards of the bridge deck offered no hope of cover, but they’d both been supplied with bulletproof vests under their clothing, and Mac could only hope it would be enough.

He could also see the westbound group, who hadn’t had anyone to demand body armour for them.  They hit the deck also when the gunfire started – Mac wasn’t at all surprised to see Bill Foy covering Emily Breckenridge with his own body as he hauled her down, and then turning to bark instructions over his shoulder to the third member of their group, who was slower to respond, looking around frantically in his confusion.

MacGyver was already moving, hitting the release catch to pay out enough slack on his line as he grabbed for the edge of the bridge and vaulted over the rail, landing in a crouch beside Bill and Emily.  He tossed them two of the other lines he had prepared, gasping, “Swing over – climbing harness ready for you under the bridge!  Go go go!!

That was enough for the two seasoned agents:  Bill Foy had had solid enough training, and Emily was an expert mountaineer who freeclimbed the Alps for fun and was probably going to tease MacGyver mercilessly about his own nerves once they were all safe at home again.  Mac ran back in a crouch towards the eastern side and grabbed hold of the third man, who had turned to look back frantically at the far end of the bridge where the two released Soviet detainees lay.  He cried out in alarm and struggled in Mac’s grip.

Mac gave him just enough of a shake to get the man’s attention focused on him.  “Jason Blake?”

Behind the thick glasses, grey eyes widened in surprise.  “Who – where’d you come from – ?”

“Name’s MacGyver.  Your sister Karen sent me.  Hold on!”  Mac wrapped his arms around Jason Blake’s emaciated frame and dived over the bridge rails as the lethal firing path of the AK-47 on the far bank passed by and above them.  He heard Jason let out a high-pitched scream as they went over the edge, and some part of Mac’s own brain that wasn’t allowed to drive just now echoed the scream inwardly.  The shriek turned into a squashed splutter as the climbing rig caught them in mid-drop and their fall turned into a swinging arc.

Mac shifted his grip.  “Jason, listen to me.  You’re all right but you gotta listen.  Wrap your arms and legs around me and hold on – I’ve gotta get us back up underneath the bridge before they figure out where we’ve gone and start shooting again.”

With Jason clinging like a panicked limpet, MacGyver pulled them both up on the lines until they were back under the slender protection of the bridge.  The young man resembled his older sister:  fair-haired, fine-boned, young and nervous, with eyes that would have seemed too large for his face even if eight months of imprisonment hadn’t left him so gaunt that he seemed to weigh nothing.  Getting him into his climbing harness felt like stuffing a small child into a playsuit, except that Jason was doing his awkward best to help.

Bill and Emily were long gone.  In addition to the harnesses rigged and waiting on the main anchor line, Mac had set up a parallel looped line that ran clothesline-fashion through a pulley fixed to the support pylon on the western bank.  All the agents had to do was belay onto one line and pull on the other, and they could make the transit to the end of the bridge as fast as they could haul on the rope.  Mac had been using the same system to shift himself quickly back and forth along the underside of the bridge.

He saw now that the two seasoned operatives were already at the western bank, casting off from their harnesses to make the dangerously vulnerable leap across the exposed gap between the pylons and the safety of the steep slope beyond.  MacGyver watched Bill haul Emily under the cover of the thick underbrush and begin the scramble up to where they would be met and welcomed by the main force of waiting DXS agents.  Two chickens safely in the basket, and the third at least temporarily out of the frying pan:  that still left two lives in the balance.

The gunfire had stopped.  An eerie silence fell over the ravine, and the rushing river below them could be heard clearly again.  The morning seemed to be holding its breath, waiting to see who had survived the sudden plunge into violence.  Once Mac was sure Jason wouldn’t fall if left alone briefly, he pulled out his mini-periscope and extended it again, trying to get a clear look at the eastern end of the bridge where the other two prisoners had fallen.

MacGyver often felt a strange reluctance whenever the DXS insisted on issuing him specialized equipment.  It never really worked out any better than his own improvised solutions, and the fancy gear always seemed more likely to get shot up, banged up, or broken.  The moment he raised the periscope head clear of the surface of the bridge, the machine gun clattered again and the line of bullets found the protruding end and shattered it.  Mac only just managed not to drop the thing from the force of the smash.

“Aw, dang it!” he said, out loud this time.

The radio bud in his ear buzzed and crackled.  “You still with us, Mac?”

“Givin’ up on radio silence, Pac-Man?”

“Well, they know we’re here.  They know you’re there.  Seems pretty pointless.”

Mac grinned.  Ed Packwood was the DXS coordinator for the operation, and just having him around meant better odds of getting home intact.  “I’d say it’s an idea whose time has come . . . and gone.”  He stuffed the broken periscope into a pocket.  “I’ve got our third man safe, but I didn’t see what happened to the other two.”

He didn’t like the long hesitation that followed before Packwood answered.  “I think Alexi Chernov made it.  We saw him crawl to the far side and make it into the trees.”

MacGyver glanced up to see Jason following Mac’s half of the conversation.  “Jason, did you see what happened to the two guys we were exchanging?  Did they both go down?”

Jason swallowed with visible difficulty.  “Uh . . . one of them got all the way across – the dark-haired guy with the scowl.  The other one, the man with the catfish moustache . . . he . . . the gunfire kept coming back to him.  I didn’t see any blood at first – ”

“We gave ‘em both bulletproof vests.”

Jason swallowed again.  “The guy with the gun must have figured that out . . . the last pass they – they must have targeted his head.  It wasn’t . . . no one could have survived that.”  Jason looked very sick.

Mac found himself swallowing hard as well.  “Didja hear that, Pac-Man?”

“Yeah.  I heard.”

“Quayle’s dead.”

Packwood didn’t reply.  There wasn’t anything to say.

And they’re probably listening in on us.  So no tellin’ them the combination to my locker.”

“Aw, Mac, there’s nothing in there anyway except dirty socks and a pile of old National Geographics.”

“Hey, those are vintage magazines.”  MacGyver looked along the length of the bridge and back towards the eastern bank, narrowing his eyes against the slanting morning sunlight.  He slid his pack off his back and hung it from the main anchor line where he could reach it easily, then dug into a pocket for an extra carabiner and clipped it to the same line towards the western bank of the river.

When I was a kid, Halloween could get pretty competitive – my buddies and me were always trying to come up with some scary gimmick that would top anything anyone else tried.  And, of course, whatever we did one year, we had to top it ourselves the next.

“Pac-Man.”

“Yo.”

“Was it my imagination, or did that last burst of gunfire come from a different angle?”

“Were you the teacher’s pet in geometry class as well as physics?”

Mac pulled out the broken periscope again, extended it to its maximum length, and rigged it with a triangle of cord to hang horizontally under the carabiner, looking a bit like a coat hanger.  “C’mon, Pac-Man.  The first shots came from the slope way above the level of the bridge, and almost straight up from it – just a bit on the downstream side.  Those didn’t.”

“’Fraid you’re right, Mac . . . I think he’s working his way upstream, and down the ravine wall.”

MacGyver wriggled out of his jacket, rolled it into a compact bundle and stuffed it into the pack, then shrugged out of his own Kevlar vest.  He should have felt uncomfortably exposed, but instead his muscles sang their relief at being finally free of the restricting weight and rigid bulk.  He breathed deeply, tasting the sweet misty air that rose from the rushing river far below.  The adrenaline racing through him brought the entire world into sharp, beautiful, exquisite focus.

“You’re being flanked.  He wants you.”

“Hey, it’s always nice to be wanted.”  Mac hung the Kevlar vest on the crosspiece of the periscope, studied the effect for a moment, and then shrugged out of his shirt and draped it over the vest.  Much better . . . although the bare skin between his shoulderblades prickled with a suddenly heightened sense of vulnerability.

There was the year we had the scarecrow that suddenly came to life in the front yard . . .

“He’s good.  Our own sniper hasn’t been able to get a single clear shot at him.”

“You mean every minute I’m out here, I’m putting one of our Eastern friends in danger of gettin’ shot?”

“Friends?  He’s trying to kill you, Mac.”

“Well, yeah, but I’m sure it’s nothin’ personal.”

. . . and the next year, I had the best idea of all:  I made the scarecrow fly.

“I thought you said getting shot was always personal.”

“Did I?  I guess it is.”  Mac pulled the tight knit cap off his head and secured it to the top of his ‘scarecrow’.  His hair promptly fell into his eyes – he’d had no chance for a haircut since he’d left LA weeks before, hell-bent on somehow catching up with Pete Thornton in the vast reaches of Soviet Russia in time to be of some help on Pete’s latest mission.  They’d been on their way home at last and had only made it as far as Athens when the word reached them that the long-delayed prisoner exchange was finally going to happen.

All it took was a well-oiled pulley, the right application of gravity and physics, and a whole lotta clothesline.

He pushed his hair back again. “Any word from the other side?  Are they still holding radio silence?”

It was a moment before Packwood answered.  “No . . . but they might as well, for all the good it’s doing us.”

“Thought you had a translator on your team.”  Mac caught hold of one side of the looped line and pulled it to within Jason’s reach.  “Hold on to this, will ya?  Don’t let go.”  He grasped the other side of the parallel line, pulled out his Swiss Army knife and cut through it.  “Good.  Now pay me out some of the slack . . . easy.  Keep hold of the line, we’re gonna need it.”  He made his end of the rope fast to the scarecrow.

“Of course I have a translator!”  Packwood snapped.  “And whatever they’re speaking, it isn’t Russian, German, or Czech.  It also isn’t French, Spanish, Italian, Danish, Greek, or Turkish, and I’m pretty sure it isn’t Choctaw either.  Got any other ideas, genius?”

“Yeah.  I might.  Can you patch their transmissions through to us?”  Mac looked at Jason.  “Karen told me you’re a linguist.”  Jason’s file had said a good deal more:  his station chief had been furious when his best translator had been risked, and lost, in a poorly handled field operation.  Jason hadn’t even been fully certified for field work; but the ops coordinator had not survived to face a reprimand.

Jason only shrugged and nodded.

“Careful now – I need you to keep hold of that rope for me a bit longer.”  MacGyver passed his radio over to Jason, noting how the young man’s attention became focused the moment he was able to hear the voices from the eastern side.  Mac glanced upstream – no further sign yet of the enemy gunman – and fished in his jeans pocket for another carabiner.  “Can you follow what they’re saying?”

Jason nodded.  “Sure, no problem.  They’re speaking Hungarian.”

“Hungarian operatives?  What the heck are they doin’ here?”

Jason made an impatient gesture.  “They aren’t Hungarian, they’re just speaking it – they probably think no one on our side can understand them – no, wait, one of them is Hungarian.  Budapest native.  Professional class.  Maybe it was his idea.  The others are Czech and Russian, and their CO is Russian, probably from Leningrad originally.  He’s totally pissed off and he’s got the most awful accent you wouldn’t believe.”

“I might.  What’re they saying?”

“They’re looking after the survivor – Chernov?  He’s injured, but not badly.”  Jason winced.  “He’s Ukrainian.  With a bad temper and a really expressive vocabulary.”

“Anything about the gunman?”

Jason frowned.  “This doesn’t make any sense.  It sounds like they don’t know who he is.  They’re arguing over whether to go after him.”  He looked at MacGyver in confusion.  “I thought he was on their side.”

Mac had found a good spot on the underside of the bridge and was securing the second carabiner – Packwood had ragged him unmercifully about his insistence on adding duct tape to his regular field kit, and now he’d get to rag him back.  “More than two sides to this operation – and please don’t ask me how many there really are.  It makes my head ache.”

“Listen, um . . . what did you say your name was again?”

“MacGyver.  Just call me Mac.  Lemme have that line now – thanks.”  Mac threaded the line through the carabiner, coiled up enough of the remaining length for what he needed, cut the excess off and stuffed it into the pack.

“Okay, Mac . . . um, don’t think I’m not grateful and all that, but what the hell are you doing?”

“Keepin’ a promise.”  Mac gave his scarecrow a final examination and added a few extra strips of duct tape to make sure it would hold together.  “I promised your sister I’d get you out.”

“But why are we still out here?  Why didn’t we just follow Bill and Emily?”

MacGyver pointed towards the western end of the bridge, where the slanting morning sun was dappling the bushes and trees around the pylons.  It all looked deceptively peaceful.  “I figure that even when the shooting first started, there was an exposed gap between where the cover of the bridge ends and where the bushes and trees get thick enough to hide under.  Bill and Emily got across while the gunman was finishing off Quayle and tryin’ for us.  Since then, he’s been workin’ his way around . . . by now, a good part of the final stretch of the transit is gonna be open to fire, and the longer we wait, the more he can see.”

Jason turned even whiter under his prison pallor.  “You mean – you mean we’re cut off.  There’s nowhere to go but back there . . . ” he glanced over his shoulder at the eastern bank.  “No way.  I can’t go back.  Please . . . ”

“Relax.  We’re not gettin’ out that way.”

“Then where can we go?”

MacGyver looked pointedly downwards, towards the river foaming far below them.  “How well can you swim?”

Jason followed his gaze and gulped.  “Are you crazy?”

Mac grinned and shrugged.  “Hey, I asked you my question first.”

“Um . . . okay, I guess . . . but I’m not all that strong any more . . . and really, it’s not like I ever was . . .”

“Good enough.  I’m giving you the pack; it’s got some bouyancy, and this pocket here has a self-inflating survival cushion built into it.  Let’s get your glasses stowed in there, too – you don’t wanna risk losing or breaking them.  Good.  Just remember to keep your head up, and pull this tab once you’re in the river.”

Getting Jason ready to shed his climbing harness was even more like dealing with a small child – and not a well-coordinated one.  “Okay.  Now take your shoes off, stuff your socks into them, loop the laces through your belt and tie them together.”  As he spoke, Mac was doing the same with his own sneakers.  And Packwood just didn’t understand why I wouldn’t wear combat boots on this jaunt.  I bet he doesn’t remember how heavy those things get when they’re soggy.

He retrieved the radio from Jason.  “Any fresh news, Pac-Man?”

“Well, the Red Sox still can’t play worth a damn, and we still haven’t spotted your sniper.  Bill is sitting on Emily’s good leg so she won’t try to go after the guy herself, and she’s taught me eight new swear words in three different languages, but she won’t tell me what they mean.”

“So nothing’s changed.”

“Nope.”

“Then I guess we’re done here.  See ya on the flip side.”

“Good luck, Mac.  And you better make it.  I don’t want to have to explain to Pete that I lost you.”

MacGyver sealed the radio into a waterproof pouch, shoved it into his backpack and sealed the pack in turn.  He strapped it to Jason’s chest, hoping that position would work better as a makeshift PFD, and attached a fifteen-foot length of the excess line to the pack, leaving the end trailing loose.  “You ready?”

“Hell, no!”  Jason gulped.  “But I guess it beats getting shot.”

“That’s the spirit.  Let’s go!”

My Mom was awful mad about her clothesline, but even she thought the flying scarecrow was pretty slick.

As the two men dropped towards the river, Mac held onto the line he’d threaded through the carabiner, which ran out to the pulley at the western pylon and back again to his scarecrow.  As the slack was taken up, it yanked the vaguely man-shaped bundle along the transit line towards the western end of the bridge.  When the machine-gun fire opened up again, Mac’s skin cringed of its own accord; the next second and a half of falling seemed frozen in amber, time crawling slowly as he watched to see if the gunman would target the real fugitives or the decoy.

When the scarecrow began to jerk and sway under the impact of the bullets, Mac let go of his end of the line and time speeded up again with an almost audible whoosh.  The decoy had appeared in the sniper’s field of fire, just where he’d expected to see someone making a break for the homeward bank; who would be crazy enough to drop into a flooded river instead?  Especially when the river flowed south and east, back towards the heart of Czechoslovakia and Soviet territory.

Mac’s feet hit the water cleanly and he went deep into the cold, clear river, feeling the current pushing at him, its eager force carrying him away from the bridge and out of gunshot range even as he headed upwards again.  His head broke the surface and he shook his hair out of his eyes, almost laughing with exhilaration.  Barefoot and shirtless, free of the menace of the sniper and the no-win game of lethal five-handed chess at the bridge, he felt light as a feather.  Waves of adrenaline were still racing through him and the icy water had no power to drag him down.

He could see Jason bobbing along up ahead, the rope trailing visibly behind him in the water like a fishing line behind a solidly hooked trout, giving Mac an easy means to catch up with him.  Like a simple sea anchor, the trailing line also provided some stability in the foaming current.  It was eight miles downriver to the nearest town – Soviet controlled – but only two miles to the fallback point Mac had scoped out on the western side, where they would be able to double back and meet up with Packwood waiting with dry clothes and a vehicle.

MacGyver let out an exultant whoop and started to swim after his fish.

*

The dizzy feeling of giddy exaltation had ebbed by the time they reached their landing spot, but the sense of freedom and delight remained.  Jason was shivering with the cold, but he’d found MacGyver’s enthusiasm contagious, and couldn’t keep from grinning even though his teeth were chattering.

“Oh my god.  We made it.  We really made it.”

Mac relieved him of the pack and fished out his jacket, glad to see the waterproofing had held.  “Here, I think you need this more than I do.  Get that wet shirt off and put your shoes back on.  We’ve got about half an hour’s hiking to get across the watershed to our pick-up point.  Think you can make it?”

“I feel like I ought to be able to fly.”  Jason took a few staggering steps; Mac caught him as he tripped.

“Easy.  There’s survival rations in the pack – that oughta help.  It doesn’t look like the prison food agreed with you.”

“There wasn’t a whole lot of it to agree with.  Oh my god, chocolate.  I don’t even remember what it tastes like.”

“C’mon, then – we’ll take it easy.  Walking should warm you up.”

“What about you?  Aren’t you cold?”

“Not yet, but we better go – the hike will help.” 

The May sun was bright and the air felt balmy now that they were out of the river; and even at the gentle pace MacGyver set, muscles that had stiffened in the cold water soon began to loosen up.  The real chill was deep inside, where the sunlight couldn’t reach.

Quayle should have resisted being traded back.  He knew he’d be a target the moment he set foot across the Iron Curtain, but he’d been too arrogantly confident of his own value and importance.  Mac’s mission hadn’t even included keeping Quayle alive; the man had been a sacrificial pawn from the start.

And when all the shooting was done, as far as the DXS were concerned, the exchange had been a complete triumph by official standards – or would be, once MacGyver and Jason reached their goal.  All three DXS detainees had been retrieved without further injury.  Most important, the sacrifice play with Quayle had bought success for the real goal of the prisoner swap:  Alexi Chernov was back on the eastern side of the Iron Curtain, his credentials intact, ready to resume his work as a Western double agent, work that had been interrupted when an overly zealous Belgian customs agent had collared him six months before.  The successful operation might even help offset the official annoyance at Mac and Pete’s recent unsanctioned activities in the USSR.

MacGyver looked up at the lovely clear mountain sky, wishing the bright sunlight could burn away the returning headache of trying to keep track of the moves in the complex game.  The Great Game . . . the plunge into the river had felt profoundly cleansing, but his skin began to crawl again when he thought of Quayle lying back on the bridge with his skull blown open, shot by his own associates after one too many double-crosses.  The man had been scum, but his death had been a bloodlessly calculated strategy play.  Was that really any better?

Jason had been silent for some time, but he was keeping up well enough.  They crested the ridge they’d been climbing and he stopped to catch his breath.  “I haven’t thanked you yet.  You saved my life.”

Mac started, glad to be distracted from his thoughts.  “Hey, no problem.  Like I told you, I promised Karen I’d get you out.”

“Karen.  I can’t believe I’m really going to see her again.  How is she?  She must have had a horrible time after I was captured – she’s always looked after me.”

“Don’t worry.  She’s fine.”

She’s not fine.  But it can wait till you’re safe home before you have to face any of that.

She’d’ve faced criminal charges for working with Quayle if Pete hadn’t’a stuck his neck out for her – my request – my “bonus” for taking Quayle down.  Instead, she was canned.  Pete couldn’t stand in the way of that.  I couldn’t ask him to, and I didn’t.

She’s eating her heart out because all she ever wanted was to be an intelligence operative . . . to fight the bad guys, free the oppressed, all of that . . . and she ended up compromised and disgraced.  She about climbed the walls waiting while they negotiated your return, but she’ll be kicking the walls anyway from now on.

Some big brass sent you behind the Iron Curtain without a good enough exit mapped out, and before it was over Pete and Karen and I spent a sunny afternoon playing lethal Sardines with a nutcase who thought he could play every side against the middle.  And now he’s been shot by one of his own sides to keep him away from another.

Your sister had the courage to help us all get out alive, but they booted her anyway.  Now she’s just another secretary in some downtown office.

The Great Game didn’t seem as much fun as it used to be.

 

phoenic small

 

One: Castle Queenside

 

The car that met Pete Thornton at the Oakland Airport was bland and nondescript – on the outside. Inside, the upholstery was unobtrusively luxurious, the appointments were world-class, the legroom was generous, and the ride had the weightlessly smooth quality he’d have expected from a limousine.

Within the first five minutes, he had also recognized the professional expertise of the driver. But despite all Pete’s best efforts at easy informality and confidential charm, when the 25-minute drive to the Presidio area ended, he still didn’t know anything more about the driver than when they had started. He knew the man’s professed opinions of various sports teams, the price of gasoline, the Bay Area Rapid Transit System, and the weather, but he suspected that all of it could easily have been invented for his own benefit. Most of all, he didn’t know where the man had learned his unacknowledged tradecraft.

When the car drew up in front of the restaurant, Pete had to admit defeat and bail out. “Gregory, am I correct that if I offer you a tip, you’ll turn it down?”

“There’s no need for any of that, sir. It’s been a pleasure.”

“I’ll just bet. Okay, I’ll offer you a tip anyway: if your current employer is ever enough of a damned fool to let you go, come to me and you’ll have another job on the spot. Not that I think you’ll ever need it.”

“Thank you, sir. I appreciate the compliment. Have a good evening.”

“I’ll do my best.” Pete waggled his hand as the car pulled away, then squared his shoulders before he ascended the steps. Even a friendly dinner with Ruth Collins called for a certain degree of fortitude.

The restaurant was unquestionably Ruth’s kind of establishment: so exclusive and elite that it didn’t bother with any external street signage, and probably wasn’t even open to anyone without a personal invitation or a pedigree, preferably both. Pete hadn’t been there before, but it was never a challenge to find Ruth in any restaurant: he simply headed for the most likely location of the best possible private table, wherever the view would be best and the diners could be well attended in splendid isolation. In the corner of his eye, he caught the sudden movement of the maître d’ headed in his direction. Pete smiled privately when the man checked himself a moment later and he was allowed to proceed unhindered. Ruth Collins’ guest had been recognized.

The view of the ocean and the Golden Gate was truly magnificent; the furniture was Chippendale and the linen was immaculate. Ruth herself looked mysteriously in tune with her opulent setting, despite her casual dress, the setting sun over the Pacific gilding her silver hair. She rose as Pete approached and held out a gnarled hand to him. He pressed it gently but warmly, feeling, as always, a ridiculous impulse to bow. Instead, he held her chair for her before he seated himself.

“Pete Thornton. It’s been far too long . . . thank you for fitting me in on such short notice. Any problems with your flight?”

“Are you kidding? If there had been, you’d have been informed while I was still in transit, and you’d probably have overhauled and reorganized Oakland Airport’s Air Traffic Control Center by now.” Pete settled himself in his chair. “I suppose you’ve taken the liberty of ordering?”

Ruth smiled slyly, the wry gleam in her eyes making her seem suddenly much younger. “Believe it or not, I have bowed my head to the immutable fact that you are a man who prefers to make his own decisions. So no, I haven’t ordered for you.” She gestured towards her wine glass. “I did take the liberty of ordering the wine, however . . . knowing your absence of expertise in that particular field.”

“I hope I know when to leave a key decision in the hands of an eminently qualified expert.”

“Now that opens an interesting line of thought.” Ruth’s pleasant expression set Pete’s hackles on edge; he could almost hear the snick of a rapier drawn to begin a formal challenge. “Can any of us be experts in our own futures? Can we claim to know what will be best for ourselves down the road – months or years from now?”

Pete reached for the wine bottle. “You’ve spent months trying to convince me that you’ve got a better idea for my own future than I do myself.”

“And how you’ve resented the arrogance of that, even when you couldn’t help being intrigued.” Ruth pushed her half-empty glass towards him. “But that’s not why I asked you to come have dinner tonight.”

Pete raised an eyebrow as he poured. “You mean this isn’t about the job offer?”

“Actually, Pete, I’ve changed our minds.”

He opened his mouth to reply and then shut it again, considering first. “Have you.”

“Oh, don’t look so crestfallen, Pete.” Ruth held her glass up to the light from the window, admiring the ruby sparks kindled by the sunset. “I still want you. We still want you.”

“Should I worry about how easily you swap those pronouns around?”

“Not if you’re half the man I take you for.” Pete wasn’t certain what the signal had been; the waiter seemed to materialize from the woodwork. Once their orders had been taken, he faded away as effortlessly as he had come.

Ruth leaned forward, clearly ready to come to the point. “I’ve grown greedy and grasping in my old age, Pete.” Pete snorted. “Now, no flattery! I don’t just want you. I want that protégé of yours as well.”

“MacGyver?”

“You’re wasting him, Pete!” A fine-boned hand slapped on the table, sunset fire blazing in an antique ring. “Just how much have you been giving him to do, playing spy games? Ferrying bits of microfilm back and forth across assorted borders? A handful of rescue operations and the odd dabble into security? Hardly seems like enough for that set of talents. Do you really think you’ve got his full attention?” Ruth looked at Pete searchingly. “Wasn’t it just last winter that some old chum of his waved a scientific expedition in his direction? – poorly thought out, badly equipped and pathetically unsupported, but it was science. And just like that your man was haring off to the Amazon for weeks at a time . . . and damned near didn’t come back, from what I’ve heard.”

Pete had managed, so far, to keep his face straight, but his eyes had narrowed. “Your sources always were impeccable.”

“And wouldn’t you dearly love to be able to identify them? Don’t waste your time trying.”

“I wouldn’t dream of it. I’ve got my hands full enough chasing the bad guys without trying to beat my best teacher at her favorite game.”

This time Ruth snorted. “I thought I told you no flattery. And don’t even get me started on how badly the DXS are wasting you.”

Pete set his wineglass down; his face had hardened, crumbling the mask from inside. “And you’ve got something better to offer? ‘The Phoenix Foundation for Research’ – okay, maybe it’s going to be science that saves us in the long run. I’ll admit you’ve done some pretty remarkable things. But Ruth, I’m not young enough to wait that long. Intelligence is what I know, and I’m damned good at it.”

The old woman started to reply, but Pete cut her off with an impatient gesture. “If you’re about to point out that you’re older than I am, don’t bother. You know damned well just how much I’ve lost already – or sacrificed – to be in a position to make a difference to the future. Do you really expect me to give all that up and settle down at a civilian think-tank? I’m sorry, Ruth. I’m just not patient enough.”

Dinner arrived and Pete welcomed the interruption. He dug into his entrée, determined to fortify himself against the expected lecture. He chewed resolutely for several minutes before the protracted silence across the table broke his resolve, and he looked up to meet Ruth’s sardonic gaze.

“Pete.” She set down her wine glass. “After all these years, you have finally managed to disappoint me. No, I don’t mean with your refusal – it’s the very least I’d have expected. But did you really think I’d sideline you – commit you to babysitting scientists after the kind of work you’ve done? Admittedly, they do take a great deal of babysitting, but there are others better suited to that particular task.”

Ruth speared a cucumber slice and held it up as if considering its fate. “You must have looked through the files I showed you last time on our operational side. I know I wasn’t able to leave them with you, and that’s half the real reason I asked you here tonight. As far as public knowledge goes, we’ve merely begun to branch out into a new field as security consultants – and not before time: technology is going to transform that industry before it knows what’s hit it. But trust me, that’s not even the tip of the iceberg. It’s the rime of frost on the tip.”

She looked at Pete again and her eyes were diamond-hard. “Pete, we need you. Far more than the DXS does now or ever will again.” She reached into her purse, drew out a square envelope and offered it to Pete. As he took it, he realized from the hard outlines inside that it held a computer disk. “This should bring you up to speed.”

“What if the rest of your board objects?”

Ruth raised an eyebrow. “Are you planning on telling them?”

“What’s the password?”

Pete saw her nod with satisfaction. “I remember a younger man who resisted making assumptions – he hadn’t learned to trust his instincts, let alone act on them. Good riddance to him, I say. I’m sure his older self will remember the name of my favorite waiter in Toulon.”

Pete tucked the computer disk into his pocket. “You’re taking quite a risk.”

“A calculated one.”

“I haven’t forgotten how much you liked taking risks – except with your people’s lives.”

Ruth laughed, a deep throaty cackle. “Another thing we had in common! Ah, Pete, if only I’d been twenty years younger when we met. Except you were married then . . . we both were . . . oh, look, they’re bringing dessert already. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed; I certainly won’t be.”

Dessert was a fantasy confection of chocolate and cream, accompanied by a vintage brandy. Ruth’s lifelong pursuit of fine restaurants had always been driven by her sweet tooth. But she hardly took a mouthful before returning to her subject.

“You’ll recall, back when you were still considering our job offer, we also discussed the possibility of mounting some joint operations?”

Pete started to laugh, and Ruth broke off to glower at him. He ignored the steely look. “Who are you, and what have you done with the real Ruth Collins? Since when did you ignore chocolate in favor of shop talk?”

Ruth laughed in turn, picked up her brandy snifter, and held it out in a toast. “Touché, my friend! I promise, I’m nearly finished. But hear me out. Call it an old woman’s obsession if you like.”

“Not a chance.”

“Very well. In that case, you can sit there and suffer the consequences of your own gallantry. I’m telling you that you’re wrong – you’re wrong about your own career, and you’re wrong about MacGyver. It’s high time you both gave up the intelligence game: the world’s changing anyway, and the DXS are going to start falling behind the curve soon, along with the CIA and Interpol and MI-5. You need to get ahead of that curve. It’s where you belong. You need to come work for me, for Phoenix, where you’ll be able to go on making the world a better place to live, not moving pawns around on a board that will soon begin to become irrelevant.

“Pete, if you were a betting man I’d make this a bet. But you’re not – at least, I’ve never seen you bet anything except your own life, and only when the stakes were high enough and there was nothing else to hand. So I’ll make this a challenge instead.”

She leant across the table. “I told you I wanted both of you. Lend me MacGyver for one mission. I need him anyway: that’s the other half of the reason for your invitation. Not but what I welcome the company.”

Pete nodded cautiously. “It will depend on the mission. You know he’s essentially free-lance – it’ll be his own choice, and I won’t try to convince him.”

“Understood. I won’t even offer him a job. But by the time he’s done, he’ll know he wants to come work for us – full-time, not just as an odd-jobs man – and he’ll tell you to come too.” Ruth looked Pete full in the eyes.

“If he does, you say yes. That’s the challenge. Will you take it?”

Pete sat back in his chair, trying not to smirk. “You’re on, Ruth. But I don’t think you’re going to find Mac all that easy to manipulate.”

Ruth dug into her dessert with a satisfied smile. “That’s just the point, Pete. I won’t have to.”

*

Now, I can remember exactly when and how I first heard of the Phoenix Foundation for Research; but most folks don’t, and they don’t realize how long it’s been around. It was founded not long after World War II, right around the time the Cold War was starting to heat up, but it kept a real low profile until maybe ten or fifteen years ago. Up till then, you mostly saw the words “sponsored by the Phoenix Foundation” in a tiny line of fine print at the bottom of grant proposals, or scholarship awards, or patent applications, or formal papers reporting the results of groundbreaking scientific studies.

The ground being broken started getting bigger and muddier and more noticeable, and in the course of a few years the fine print got bigger too. Then it turned into paragraphs in the news. And then it was headlines.

The main building for the Phoenix Foundation in downtown Los Angeles housed both offices and laboratory facilities – administration and research in the same place. Where other skyscrapers seemed to hunch their shoulders aggressively in the cramped, competitive airspace of the LA skyline, the Phoenix building reached up mirror-bright towards the sky. It seemed astonishing to MacGyver that, in all the years since he’d first moved to LA, he’d never been there.

The security guard at the entrance to the visitors’ section of the parking garage had a frank, open face and a friendly smile; MacGyver also noticed that his eyes were alert and that the glance he gave Mac’s visitor’s pass, although quick, wasn’t cursory. He’d held it at just the right angle for the watermark to show up plainly – the watermark that Mac hadn’t yet figured out how to duplicate accurately.

I think it musta been after the first Earth Day in 1970 that folks first really sat up and took notice. While other groups were predicting the end of life on Earth and arguing over what was gonna kill us first, or spinning thin theories out of pseudoscience and self-interest, the Phoenix Foundation was there with solid studies and plans for research, hard data and workable ideas. They were also there when the big corporations tried to sweep everything under the table, and they were tough to ignore and impossible to discredit. They’d started as a civilian alternative to government-backed research, and when Vietnam was grinding to its miserable end and a lotta folks wouldn’t trust the government if it said the sun would rise in the east, they trusted Phoenix.

The main lobby was elegant but functional, sheathed in warm brown marble the color of well-seasoned oak. Mac’s appointment was for the early afternoon, and a returning lunchtime crowd streamed past him, laughing and joking. He noticed a tendency towards casual dress, a surprisingly wide range of ages and ethnicities – the same crowd at the DXS building would be dominated by white males in suits and ties between the ages of 25 and 40 – and a high percentage of women. Several were pretty enough to catch his attention, and they smiled back easily when they saw him looking; one statuesque brunette looked him over deliberately and winked.

The Foundation had deep pockets, unimpeachable credentials, and a reputation so spotless it could’ve been used for a soap commercial. I figured they must have been the most respected scientific institution in the country.

What I couldn’t begin to figure out was why the heck they would want me for a job.

When Ed Gantner, my old buddy at the State Department, called me up and said they wanted a chat with me, I thought he was pulling my leg. Heck, if I’d been fifteen years younger and stupider, I’d’ve wanted to sneak into their tall shiny office building just to see what they were cooking up. As it was, I had an official appointment and a guest pass that was going into my keepsake drawer . . . if I could only manage not to have to give it back at the end of my visit.

By the time MacGyver had been smoothly and politely passed through the outer perimeter, he still hadn’t spotted any substantial holes in the building’s unostentatiously tight security – for all his brash imaginings, he wouldn’t really have wanted to try to break in himself. He wasn’t quite sure he could pull it off. And just how long had it been since the last time he’d thought that about any place?

The guard at the lobby desk had escorted him into a comfortably furnished waiting room, lined with enough books on one wall to make any length of wait seem trivial; but Mac’s attention was caught by the rest of the room. A massive relief map of the planet, festooned with markers, showed locations of past and present expeditions. The remaining walls were covered with a gallery of beautifully framed photos showing Phoenix employees at work on a variety of projects, in settings ranging from ordinary labs to dense jungle to mountain peaks and polar icecaps. Glass display cases held more memorabilia from the organization’s history – scientific curiosities, historical artifacts from archeological digs, and design schematics and prototypes of various inventions, some of them now household items.

One prominent case held an even greater surprise: under a large placard bearing the words “Lessons Learned the Hard Way” was a rogue’s gallery of spectacular mishaps, failed experiments, and scientists – some of them quite famous – caught in moments of ignominy. Mac grinned when he recognized one of his own mentors ruefully posing with an engineering mockup and what had to be the prototype model, twisted and melted beyond recognition.

He was still grinning when the door opened to reveal, not the expected bureaucrat or flunky in a suit and tie, but a thin young man several inches shorter than Mac, with light brown hair and intelligent brown eyes behind slightly askew glasses with large lenses. He was wearing a tie under his lab coat, but he didn’t look or talk anything like a flunky.

“Hey there – are you MacGyver? I’m Willis. Sorry you’ve had to wait so long. Ruth’s in a meeting that’s running late, so she asked me to show you around in the meanwhile. Hope you haven’t been bored.”

“Not a chance. Pleased to meet you, um, Willis . . .” The young man’s badge simply read ‘Willis’ and ‘Research’; Mac let the name drag out, hoping for some context. He waggled his fingers in the air in inquiry.

The immediate response was an unaccountable flush and a sidelong glance. “Um, just Willis – it’s my last name. I hate my first name. Please don’t ask.”

Mac held up both hands. “Hey, no problem, I totally get it.” Their eyes met, and after a moment their grins mirrored each other in perfect mutual understanding.

*

By the time MacGyver had seen the chemistry and engineering labs, he’d completely forgiven Willis for the tie and was trying not to let his envy show too much.

“This is the main electronics lab. We’re getting pretty cramped for space, as you can see – they’re talking about setting up another facility that’ll be all lab space, but for now we’re having to outsource some of the new projects and contracts to assorted partners.”

Mac had dug his hands into his pockets; it was all he could do not to start picking up the equipment and examining it in more detail. Okay, fiddling with it. “You don’t like that much, do you?”

“Hell, no. I’d way rather keep it in-house.”

“Better job security?”

Willis looked startled and almost confused. “Oh. Well, sure, I suppose. But that’s not the real point. It’s just that – well, our kind of work really needs top-notch facilities with state-of-the-art equipment and trained specialists, and whether you like it or not, that’s mostly found in the corporate labs. And here, of course. But like I said, we’re kind of busting at the seams.”

Mac started to pick up an especially intriguing prototype, remembered in time, and stuffed his hands back into his jacket pockets, feeling like a kid in a candy store with his mother’s eagle eye on him.

Willis hadn’t noticed. “The more we can keep in-house, the less chance there is for any conflict of interests, if you know what I mean. Oh, damn it!” He fumbled at his glasses as they slid away from his face; one of the earpieces clattered to the floor, and he groped for it myopically.

MacGyver retrieved the errant earpiece. “Got a screw loose?”

“That’s what my brother always insists, but not on my glasses.” Willis peered at the frames. “Oh, hell. I knew it wasn’t going to hold much longer – I should’ve gotten new glasses months ago, but I never seem to have time. God, I hate having to tape my glasses. If we can put a man on the moon, why can’t we get an all-night optometrist?”

“Here, lemme take a look.” Mac studied the broken pieces. “They work you that hard around here?”

“No, I just keep forgetting to stop. Last week my manager called me a ‘mad scientist’ – said she ought to have me escorted off the premises and not allowed back till I got some sleep. Of course, it was two o’clock in the morning . . . I think I scared her a bit when she walked in on me. But I was getting such good results on the computer projections, I just couldn’t bear to give it up and go home.” Willis was digging through his pockets. “Here. I keep tape handy . . . oh, damn it, the roll’s empty.”

“Never mind,” Mac said. “Didn’t I see a first aid kit over there?”

Willis brightened. “Of course! There’d be tape in there.”

“I was hopin’ for something a bit better than tape,” Mac murmured. He’d already noticed that first aid kits and fire extinguishers were prominently located in every lab they’d seen so far; once open, the kit proved to be well-stocked.

Mac fitted the broken earpiece together and held it out to Willis. “Here, willya hold that in place for me? Thanks.” He took the band-aid he’d extracted from the first-aid kit, opened the scissors on his Swiss Army Knife and cut one of the ends free of the central bandage pad. “So do you have to come in that late to get computer time?”

“Are you kidding? If we were that short of resources, we’d enlarge the mainframe again.” Willis watched with fascination as Mac peeled back the tab on the section of band-aid and wrapped the adhesive strip tightly around the broken earpiece. “Wow. Cool. I never would’ve thought of that.”

“It’s less bulky than ordinary tape, just as strong and a lot more flexible. But you really do need to get them fixed, okay?”

“Yeah, you bet.” Willis replaced his glasses and beamed at Mac. “C’mon, let me show you the main computer room. It wasn’t really supposed to be on the tour, but . . . would you like to see it?”

“You bet. Lead the way.”

*

In the end, it wasn’t a flunky but a brisk assistant who corralled the two men from the fascinating depths of the computer lab and marched them up to the operations center. “Honestly, Willis, you’ve got a watch – can’t you remember to look at it? Ruth’s been waiting for half an hour!”

“Hey, it’s not really his fault – ” MacGyver tried to intervene.

He was no match for the high-heeled human bulldozer who’d been sent for them. “Those who don’t read clocks are no better off than those who can’t.” She threw open the door and chivvied them through like truant schoolboys.

Mac’s eyes darted around the operations center as they passed through; it wasn’t at all what he would have expected. They’d had to pass yet another security cordon to enter, which had required both a cardkey and a voice-recognition protocol. The large, well-lit room hummed with activity; there were computer terminals on nearly every desk and an intensity to the murmuring voices that sent ripples up his back.

The room was dominated by another wall-sized map of the globe, this one in ochre and white, backlit and apparently equipped with some kind of sophisticated computer-generated display controls. The locations flagged on this map were very different from the map in the public waiting room below: Mac picked out numerous political hot spots as well as centers of environmental and scientific activity. And the markers all looked like current items; this was a working operational map, not a brag display. Just what kind of operations was Phoenix running?

The office of the Ops Director was at the far end of the computer bay; glass walls and a glass door delineated rather than separated the inner sanctum from the working operations center. As they were ushered in, a familiar figure turned to face them from one of the windows.

“Well, it’s about time.”

MacGyver beamed. “Pete! What’re you doin’ here?”

“Waiting for you, of course. I hear you were led down the garden path.”

On the far side of the Director’s wide antique desk sat a silver-haired woman whose ramrod posture belied her small stature. Her suit was expensive and impeccably tailored, and her eyes were bright and shrewd as she studied MacGyver. “So it would seem. Jocelyn?”

The human bulldozer snorted. “It’s a good thing computers don’t use machine oil. They’d both be covered in it.”

“Dear me. Willis, the last time we found you head-down in the mainframe, you came out swearing that the entire thing would be completely obsolete in ten years’ time. Do please tell me you’re feeling less apocalyptical today.”

“But it will, Ruth. Trust me,” Willis said earnestly. “We’re just going to have to be ready when the time comes.”

Ruth sighed and waved a hand. “Off with you, Willis. Come back in half an hour’s time and tell me how much it will cost. Or perhaps you’d better wait till after dinner; I’ll probably need a stiff drink.”

As Jocelyn and Willis left, Ruth studied MacGyver thoughtfully. “I’m very pleased to meet you at last, young man – I’ve heard a great deal about you.”

“Anything good?”

“I did ask you here, didn’t I? The word is you’re resourceful and enterprising. You’re known for improvising your way out of tight corners, which means that you don’t require detailed and precise instructions, particularly when a situation makes that impossible.” Ruth’s smile became briefly enigmatic. “You’ve a fine sense for the peculiar smell of rats, and, as we used to say, you know how many beans make five. More to the point, you’re highly regarded as a security expert . . . and you have a solid scientific background.”

“Um . . . “ Mac looked sheepish. “I’m not sure why you included that . . . it’s been a long time since college . . . ”

“Not so long that you can’t appreciate the Foundation’s essential purpose.” Ruth stood up and leaned across the desk, her hand outstretched. “But I’m getting ahead of myself; we haven’t even been properly introduced. I’m Ruth Collins, Director of Operations pro tem for the Phoenix Foundation.”

“Ruth Collins?” MacGyver‘s face lit up. “The Ruth Collins? Ruth Somerset Collins?”

Ruth looked at Pete and arched an elegant eyebrow.

Pete shrugged. “No, I haven’t told him anything about you. But he reads a lot . . . including random samplings of files from the archives.”

Mac gave Pete an aggrieved look. “You mean you know Ruth Collins, and you never told me about it?”

“Good lord, young man,” Ruth broke in. “By the time my files were declassified, I’d have sworn nobody was left alive who would give a damn about the Résistance. It’s becoming far more politically convenient to focus on Vichy.”

Mac looked from Pete to Ruth. “An old farmer in Alsace saved my neck last year when I was being chased by some Stasi agents. He said that for the sake of ‘Madame Root’, he was glad to help an American espion, even though my French was bad and my shoes were ugly.”

“Ah, let me guess . . . would that have been Gaston Boucher by any chance? Don’t take it personally; not even my French was up to his standards. But you must have gotten along well with him. He used to have a fine knack for blowing things up, especially Nazi-controlled railway lines.” She settled back into her chair and eyed MacGyver speculatively. “And if I recall correctly, he has a granddaughter of a fine and tender age.”

Mac looked flustered and started to stammer out a reply, but Ruth cut him off with an emphatic gesture. “Time enough for war stories another day. For today, the Phoenix Foundation is hoping your unusual talents might help us resolve some concerns about one of our projects. I asked Pete to be here because the DXS have agreed to offer their support with additional information, if they have anything to offer – Pete and I have been discussing the possibility of cooperative work when the situation merits, and I think this one does.”

MacGyver settled into one of the chairs in front of Ruth’s desk. “Sounds good to me. What’s up?”

“We’ve quite outgrown our current staffing and facilities, and until the problem can be addressed permanently, we’ve had to subcontract some of the work on select projects to corporate partners.”

“Yeah, Willis mentioned something about that.” Mac unconsciously picked up a paperweight from Ruth’s desk, a small jade carving of a bird rising in flight, its wings entwined in carved flames, and started to trace the fine lines with his fingertips. “He also mentioned conflicts of interest.”

“Yes, that’s always a concern. But in this case, the worry goes deeper.” She handed Mac a thick buff folder. “Have you ever heard of a company called Brookhearst Chemical?”

*

After MacGyver had left, Ruth flipped an intercom switch on her desk. “The coast’s clear, Willis. Come back in now.” She looked at him expectantly as he entered. “Well?”

“What do you mean?” Willis glanced uncertainly at Pete.

Ruth gestured imperiously. “I mean, what did you think? Is he all he’s cracked up to be? His old teachers couldn’t say enough about him – when they weren’t grumbling over his unforgivable treason in not following in their holy footsteps into theoretic physics, or mechanical engineering, or electronics, or biochemistry.”

“Oh, that.” He looked at her in surprise. “You mean there was any question about it? He’s brilliant. Absolutely amazing . . . the most complete natural synthesist I’ve ever met. Do you remember when I was telling you about the problem we were having with the modem signals?”

“I remember you trying to explain it to me.” Ruth’s expression became long-suffering. “I told you to use shorter words, and you said you couldn’t get them below one syllable.”

Willis looked long-suffering in turn. “I was trying to tell you about the problem we were having with the mainframe not sustaining recognition of modem signals from car phones over variable distances.”

“Gesundheit.”

“It’s a minor problem right now, but it’s going to become a bigger issue every year,” Willis continued in exasperation. “Excuse me, it was going to become a bigger issue.”

“I beg your pardon?”

The young man shrugged. “Problem solved. I could kick myself for not spotting the solution myself, but . . . never mind. Do me a favor and hire him fast? I’m going to need his name on the patent application.”

“Willis, I assure you that I’ll do my damnedest.” She turned to Pete, who had remained silent and impassive, although his mouth occasionally twitched with amusement or pride. “Are you certain you wouldn’t entertain a small side bet, Pete? Let’s say – a round of golf at any set of links in the country you care to name, against dinner at any restaurant I might choose?”

“Ruth, that’s crass,” Pete retorted, but his eyes had grown distant. “Any golf course?” He knew that with her social connections, she could pull it off.

“No holes barred – if you’ll forgive the expression.”

Pete snorted, then shook his head decisively. “Nope. Not a chance.”

“Oh, Pete, don’t be such a stick-in-the-mud. It’s not as if a side bet would harm anyone.”

He shook his head again. “That’s not the point. I just realized that if I take your bet at all, I’d be betting against MacGyver – and I’m not enough of a fool to do that.”

 

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