The Director of Intelligent Activities, IQ-2, glared at the telegram that had just arrived over the super-scrambler from [quoteright'/>Mensa headquarters. Under the red stamps that proclaimed it MOST SECRET were two short but chilling sentences:
Egg Salad blown. Celery arrested.
So the other side had uncovered Egg Salad! Two years of the finest undercover work, building up a network of high-intelligence agents, lay in ruins. And Celery, whose energy and brilliance had made it possible, was even now sweating under the none-too-subtle interrogation procedures of the dreaded Office of Stupidity. IQ-2 shuddered as he visualized Celery's reactions when the television sitcoms began to take effect. He reached for the intercom button beside his desk.
"Miss Margopenny, would you see if you can reach 0098? Try all the RG hospitality suites until you contact him. Then get him here."
Half a world away, 0098 was folding his lean, six-foot-two-inch frame into an armchair near the bar. His bronzed face bore the scars of his profession. It did not, however, betray his status — one of the top two percent, licensed to argue any subject to the death. Languidly, he picked up a bottle and poured it for the blonde across the table.
"Chateau Asilomar '65 — an early year, but I think you'll enjoy its uncomplicated structure," he smiled. His companion nodded, her golden hair cascading over her bare shoulders. He could tell from the way she crossed and uncrossed her legs that she would soon grow tired of the RG chit-chat and suggest more secluded surroundings.
Suddenly he felt a tingling at his wrist. He glanced imperceptibly at the tiny glowing jewel on his watch, now pulsing rapidly. Damn! Work had a way of intruding at the most unfortunate moments. He excused himself and found a telephone. Margopenny was sympathetic but adamant. Blonde or no blonde, there was a helicopter waiting for him just beyond the hot tub area. Was there a note of triumph in her voice? No time to analyze that now. He blew a kiss toward the table he had just left and sprinted out the back door.
"The problem," explained IQ-2, "is that we're missing an essential document. It's the bylaws of our second-largest network. Celery was supposed to deliver it to National. But now that he's taken..." IQ-2 paused to let 0098 appreciate the gravity of the situation. Then he continued. "His last contact was with their Locsec. Here's our file on her." He handed 0098 a manila folder marked MENSA EYES ONLY.
Once outside IQ-2's office, 0098 opened the file. It contained only a photo and a coded biographical entry:
Beaucoup, Brayni — F 08.12.65 P A 0 B 030 N97 Q26
The photo was full-length. It showed a slim but voluptuous body, dark hair halfway down her back, large melting eyes. A quick look in the newsletter files told him that she was hosting a gathering that evening. It was as good a starting place as any.
But first, he had to check in with the laboratory. The chief always showed him around personally. "Please pay attention, 0098," warned the white-coated scientist, in his usual flat tone. "Each of these jacket buttons has a trivia question micro-engraved on the back. They're very difficult, so use them only as a last resort. Now look carefully at this ball-point pen; it contains a 5-megabyte computer with fully integrated software and a powerful radio modem. You'll find that handy in a pinch. Finally, take this picklock tie pin. It will open anything up to a twelve-tumbler Chubb." 0098 scooped up his equipment and leaped into the customized Astron-Lamborgo sports phaeton that he used for serious undercover jobs. Its tires screamed as he executed a slide-turn and sped away.
The gathering that evening featured a talk on "Irregularities in the Fibonacci Series," with an open forum afterwards. In the living room, the speaker was writing numbers on a blackboard while twenty Mensans interrupted him with questions. 0098 scanned the room for the face in the photo, then quickly searched the house. A back bedroom door was bolted, but yielded easily to the picklock tie pin. On the bed, draped in a tiny towel and holding a bottle of massage oil, was Brayni Beaucoup.
She was even more enticing in the flesh than he had imagined. But she wasn't moving and he could see why. In the middle of her forehead was a neatly drilled bullet hole — a 9.5 mm Wembley-Boretta, by the shape of it. "Sorry we had to meet this way," he offered as he closed her eyes. He turned to go; but at that instant he sensed a sudden movement behind him, near the door. Whirling, 0098 dropped to the floor as a shot whistled over his head. A figure slipped out the door, locking it behind him. Within seconds, 0098 followed it into the hallway. But the figure was gone — or perhaps it had mingled in the gathering, now intently discussing prime number algorithms.
0098 returned and spent several minutes examining the room. At last he found what he was looking for. Something was written on the floor in massage oil. "Gruyère" it said. That was all.
But that was enough. Brayni had used the last of her strength to warn him about Gruyère, their operative in Zurich. Was it possible that one of their own had turned moldy? As he sped through the night toward the Swiss frontier, 0098 considered the alternatives. He plotted them nine different ways on the ball pen computer. But the same answer always came up. Gruyère!
They met at a "safe" Mensa gathering in a Basel suburb. The Swiss agent — soft-spoken and urbane, but always with an edge of steel in his voice — stood in the shadows. After the usual exchange of sign and countersign, they got down to business. "We're having a little problem with our Egg Salad," 0098 began quietly; then, suddenly, "What do you know about Celery?" He could feel Gruyère tensing.
"It's low in calories," parried the other. A cool mind, thought 0098 as he ripped off a jacket button and examined its back.
"Just how many calories?" Although the answer was in front of him, 0098 didn't need to read it. Agents were expected to know such things. Without trying to reply, however, Gruyère stepped back and reached inside his coat. The Wembley-Boretta gleamed evilly in the lamplight. But 0098 was quicker yet. A sharp karate chop, and the gun spun across the floor. Gruyère leaped for the window. With a crash of glass, he plummeted to the street. A luxurious, low-slung black limousine pulled away from the curb, opening its door for him as it gathered speed.
Through the streets and up into the mountains, the Astron-Lamborgo had to strain to keep up with the supercharged Zilch limousine. 0098 realized now that they were headed for the heavily guarded headquarters of LOQU, the almost legendary terrorist group. He flipped open the arming panel on his rocket launchers. If his number was up, he would take some of them with him.
A steel door slid quietly open in the mountainside and the Zilch glided in. 0098 followed, rockets blazing. A series of titanic explosions shook the ground. Flames spurted from the complicated control panels, as technicians in orange jumpsuits fled for cover. Leaping from his car, 0098 vaulted onto a steel catwalk and raced into the master control room, just as its concrete protective slab rolled shut.
"So you figured it out!" Enthroned at the massive computer console was IQ-2, his voice deep with menace. His hands stroked the levers.
"I knew you had to be behind this, IQ-2." 0098 forced a casual tone, playing for time. "Someone had to tell Gruyère about Brayni's interest profile, so he would know to look for her in the back bedroom. That information was in the file you gave me — Q26, the Mensa code for massage. Only someone with the key to the Mensa Directory could have masterminded her murder. Egg Salad was merely a cover."
"You're smart, 0098," countered IQ-2, "Maybe too smart. It's a pity you won't be around to watch me and LOQU control the world." His hand slithered across the console and pushed a red button. From a door in the ceiling, a laser ray unit descended, pointing its fatal antenna at 0098. But suddenly it swung a half-circle and fired its blast at IQ-2. With a strangled cry, the Director slumped over, his brain microwaved to medium rare. Outside, new explosions rocked the mountain redoubt.
"Yes, I'm smart," said 0098 softly. "Smart enough to program my ball pen computer while you were talking. It sent a modem message to your mainframe, scrambling the database. You were a master schemer, IQ-2, but a lousy hacker." Quickly searching drawers in the control console, 0098 found the missing bylaws. He knew that once the Mensa network was reorganized its members could easily neutralize the remaining LOQU agents. His work was done.
Later that night, 0098 was back at the RG hospitality suite, seated at the same table. The same blonde walked by, did a double-take, and sat down beside him. "You stood me up yesterday," she said reproachfully, her fingers playing in her golden curls.
"Just a little official business," 0098 replied smoothly. "Let's take up where we left off. Let me see... Ah yes, I remember!" And he reached across the table for another glass of Chateau Asilomar '65.
George Towner was born in Reno and grew up near Berkeley. As a teenager he began making gangster movies using an old 8mm camera, one of which featured a car being pushed over a cliff off State Highway 1. He has started and sold two successful technology firms, and currently works for Apple Computer, where he is the most senior in age. He lives with his wife in Sunnyvale. They have two daughters and a son.