Vitamins, Supplements, Sport Nutrition

87

The fourth floor of NASA headquarters was less impressive than the lobby‑long sterile corridors with office doors equally spaced along the walls. The corridor was deserted. Laminated signs pointed in all directions.

LANDSAT 7

TERRA

ACRIMSAT

JASON 1

AQUA

PODS

Gabrielle followed the signs for PODS. Winding her way down a series of long corridors and intersections, she came to a set of heavy steel doors. The stencil read:

Polar Orbiting Density Scanner (PODS)

Section Manager, Chris Harper

The doors were locked, secured both by key card and a PIN pad access. Gabrielle put her ear to the cold metal door. For a moment, she thought she heard talking. Arguing. Maybe not. She wondered if she should just bang on the door until someone inside let her in. Unfortunately, her plan for dealing with Chris Harper required a bit more subtlety than banging on doors. She looked around for another entrance but saw none. A custodial alcove stood adjacent to the door, and Gabrielle stepped in, searching the dimly lit niche for a janitor’s key ring or key card. Nothing. Just brooms and mops.

Returning to the door, she put her ear to the metal again. This time she definitely heard voices. Getting louder. And footsteps. The latch engaged from inside.

Gabrielle had no time to hide as the metal door burst open. She jumped to the side, plastering herself against the wall behind the door as a group of people hurried through, talking loudly. They sounded angry.

“What the hell is Harper’s problem? I thought he’d be on cloud nine!”

“On a night like tonight,” another said as the group passed by, “he wants to be alone? He should be celebrating!”

As the group moved away from Gabrielle, the heavy door started swinging closed on pneumatic hinges, revealing her location. She remained rigid as the men continued down the hall. Waiting as long as she possibly could, until the door was only inches from closing, Gabrielle lunged forward and caught the door handle with just inches to spare. She stood motionless as the men turned the corner down the hall, too engaged in their conversation to look back.

Heart pounding, Gabrielle pulled open the door and stepped into the dimly lit area beyond. She quietly closed the door.

The space was a wide open work area that reminded her of a college physics laboratory: computers, work islands, electronic gear. As her eyes became accustomed to the darkness, Gabrielle could see blueprints and sheets of calculations scattered around. The entire area was dark except for an office on the far side of the lab, where a light shone under the door. Gabrielle walked over quietly. The door was closed, but through the window she could see a man sitting at a computer. She recognized the man from the NASA press conference. The nameplate on the door read:

Chris Harper

Section Manager, PODS

Having come this far, Gabrielle suddenly felt apprehensive, wondering if she could actually pull this off. She reminded herself how certain Sexton was that Chris Harper had lied. I would bet my campaign on it, Sexton had said. Apparently there were others who felt the same, others who were waiting for Gabrielle to uncover the truth so they could close in on NASA, attempting to gain even a tiny foothold after tonight’s devastating developments. After the way Tench and the Herney administration had played Gabrielle this afternoon, she was eager to help.

Gabrielle raised her hand to knock on the door but paused, Yolanda’s voice running through her mind. If Chris Harper lied to the world about PODS, what makes you think he’ll tell YOU the truth?

Fear, Gabrielle told herself, having almost fallen victim to it herself today. She had a plan. It involved a tactic she’d seen the senator use on occasion to scare information out of political opponents. Gabrielle had absorbed a lot under Sexton’s tutelage, and not all of it attractive or ethical. But tonight she needed every advantage. If she could persuade Chris Harper to admit he had lied‑for whatever reason‑Gabrielle would open a small door of opportunity for the senator’s campaign. Beyond that, Sexton was a man who, if given an inch to maneuver, could wriggle his way out of almost any jam.

Gabrielle’s plan for dealing with Harper was something Sexton called “overshooting"‑an interrogation technique invented by the early Roman authorities to coax confessions from criminals they suspected were lying. The method was deceptively simple:

Assert the information you want confessed.

Then allege something far worse.

The object was to give the opponent a chance to choose the lesser of two evils‑in this case, the truth.

The trick was exuding confidence, something Gabrielle was not feeling at the moment. Taking a deep breath, Gabrielle ran through the script in her mind, and then knocked firmly on the office door.

“I told you I’m busy!” Harper called out, his English accent familiar.

She knocked again. Louder.

“I told you I’m not interested in coming down!”

This time she banged on the door with her fist.

Chris Harper came over and yanked open the door. “Bloody hell, do you‑” He stopped short, clearly surprised to see Gabrielle.

“Dr. Harper,” she said, infusing her voice with intensity.

“How did you get up here?”

Gabrielle’s face was stern. “Do you know who I am?”

“Of course. Your boss has been slamming my project for months. How did you get in?”

“Senator Sexton sent me.”

Harper’s eyes scanned the lab behind Gabrielle. “Where is your staff escort?”

“That’s not your concern. The senator has influential connections.”

“In this building?” Harper looked dubious.

“You’ve been dishonest, Dr. Harper. And I’m afraid the senator has called a special senatorial justice board to look into your lies.”

A pall crossed Harper’s face. “What are you talking about?”

“Smart people like yourself don’t have the luxury of playing stupid, Dr. Harper. You’re in trouble, and the senator sent me up here to offer you a deal. The senator’s campaign took a huge hit tonight. He’s got nothing left to lose, and he’s ready to take you down with him if he needs to.”

“What the devil are you talking about?”

Gabrielle took a deep breath and made her play. “You lied in your press conference about the PODS anomaly‑detection software. We know that. A lot of people know that. That’s not the issue.” Before Harper could open his mouth to argue, Gabrielle steamed onward. “The senator could blow the whistle on your lies right now, but he’s not interested. He’s interested in the bigger story. I think you know what I’m talking about.”

“No, I‑”

“Here’s the senator’s offer. He’ll keep his mouth shut about your software lies if you give him the name of the top NASA executive with whom you’re embezzling funds.”

Chris Harper’s eyes seemed to cross for a moment. “What? I’m not embezzling!”

“I suggest you watch what you say, sir. The senatorial committee has been collecting documentation for months now. Did you really think you two would slip by undetected? Doctoring PODS paperwork and redirecting allocated NASA funds to private accounts? Lying and embezzling can put you in jail, Dr. Harper.”

“I did no such thing!”

“You’re saying you didn’t lie about PODS?”

“No, I’m saying I bloody well didn’t embezzle money!”

“So, you’re saying you did lie about PODS.”

Harper stared, clearly at a loss for words.

“Forget about the lying,” Gabrielle said, waving it off. “Senator Sexton is not interested in the issue of your lying in a press conference. We’re used to that. You guys found a meteorite, nobody cares how you did it. The issue for him is the embezzlement. He needs to take down someone high in NASA. Just tell him who you’re working with, and he’ll steer the investigation clear of you entirely. You can make it easy and tell us who the other person is, or the senator will make it ugly and start talking about anomaly‑detection software and phony work‑arounds.”

“You’re bluffing. There are no embezzled funds.”

“You’re an awful liar, Dr. Harper. I’ve seen the documentation. Your name is on all the incriminating paperwork. Over and over.”

“I swear I know nothing about any embezzlement!”

Gabrielle let out a disappointed sigh. “Put yourself in my position, Dr. Harper. I can only draw two conclusions here. Either you’re lying to me, the same way you lied in that press conference. Or you’re telling the truth, and someone powerful in the agency is setting you up as a fall guy for his own misdealings.”

The proposition seemed to give Harper pause.

Gabrielle checked her watch. “The senator’s deal is on the table for an hour. You can save yourself by giving him the name of the NASA exec with whom you’re embezzling taxpayers’ money. He doesn’t care about you. He wants the big fish. Obviously the individual in question has some power here at NASA; he or she has managed to keep his or her identity off the paper trail, allowing you to be the fall guy.”

Harper shook his head. “You’re lying.”

“Would you like to tell that to a court?”

“Sure. I’ll deny the whole thing.”

“Under oath?” Gabrielle grunted in disgust. “Suppose you’ll also deny you lied about fixing the PODS software?” Gabrielle’s heart was pounding as she stared straight into the man’s eyes. “Think carefully about your options here, Dr. Harper. American prisons can be most unpleasant.”

Harper glared back, and Gabrielle willed him to fold. For a moment she thought she saw a glimmer of surrender, but when Harper spoke, his voice was like steel.

“Ms. Ashe,” he declared, anger simmering in his eyes, “you are clutching at thin air. You and I both know there is no embezzlement going on at NASA. The only liar in this room is you.”

Gabrielle felt her muscles go rigid. The man’s gaze was angry and sharp. She wanted to turn and run. You tried to bluff a rocket scientist. What the hell did you expect? She forced herself to hold her head high. “All I know,” she said, feigning utter confidence and indifference to his position, “is the incriminating documents I’ve seen‑conclusive evidence that you and another are embezzling NASA funds. The senator simply asked me to come here tonight and offer you the option of giving up your partner instead of facing the inquiry alone. I will tell the senator you prefer to take your chances with a judge. You can tell the court what you told me‑you’re not embezzling funds and you didn’t lie about the PODS software.” She gave a grim smile. “But after that lame press conference you gave two weeks ago, somehow I doubt it.” Gabrielle spun on her heel and strode across the darkened PODS laboratory. She wondered if maybe she’d be seeing the inside of a prison instead of Harper.

Gabrielle held her head high as she walked off, waiting for Harper to call her back. Silence. She pushed her way through the metal doors and strode out into the hallway, hoping the elevators up here were not key‑card operated like the lobby. She’d lost. Despite her best efforts, Harper wasn’t biting. Maybe he was telling the truth in his PODS press conference, Gabrielle thought.

A crash resounded down the hall as the metal doors behind her burst open. “Ms. Ashe,” Harper’s voice called out. “I swear I know nothing about any embezzlement. I’m an honest man!”

Gabrielle felt her heart skip a beat. She forced herself to keep walking. She gave a casual shrug and called out over her shoulder. “And yet you lied in your press conference.”

Silence. Gabrielle kept moving down the hallway.

“Hold on!” Harper yelled. He came jogging up beside her, his face pale. “This embezzlement thing,” he said, lowering his voice. “I think I know who set me up.”

Gabrielle stopped dead in her tracks, wondering if she had heard him correctly. She turned as slowly and casually as she could. “You expect me to believe someone is setting you up?”

Harper sighed. “I swear I know nothing about embezzlement. But if there’s evidence against me . . .”

“Mounds of it.”

Harper sighed. “Then it’s all been planted. To discredit me if need be. And there’s only one person who would have done that.”

“Who?”

Harper looked her in the eye. “Lawrence Ekstrom hates me.”

Gabrielle was stunned. “The administrator of NASA?”

Harper gave a grim nod. “He’s the one who forced me to lie in that press conference.”