It wasn’t the mean-spirited nature of the emails that flummoxed Sharon. It was the sheer number of them.
“They’re all the same,” she told Gwen McKelvey over the phone Thursday. “You’re a manipulative bitch and stay away from him, whoever he is. But there’s thousands and thousands of them.”
“Are they all from the same address?” Mackie asked.
“No. Different ones it looks like.”
Sharon could hear her pounding keys in the background. She had given Mackie access to her account and it sounded like Mackie had just pulled it up.
“Wow. Sure looks like a Trojan from here,” Mackie said.
“Oh dear. Can you fix my computer?” Sharon bit her lip.
“It’s not your computer,” Mackie said. “It’s all the other computers that the Trojan got installed on. You’re just the target. Or one of them. Tell you what. I’ll get the email company to get this all cleared out and your account reset.”
“Oh. Okay. Thanks.”
Except that after Friday’s meeting, Mackie followed Sharon to her office and shut the door.
“What’s up?” Sharon asked.
“That email attack,” Mackie said. “It looks like you were the sole target.”
“What about all those other computers?” Sharon asked.
Mackie sighed. “Their owners probably don’t even know they have a Trojan on their drives. It’s a particularly nasty bit of malware and in this case, set up to just send email to that one address of yours. I was able to contact a couple of the senders and found the code for the Trojan. The scary thing is, all it does is send out occasional single messages to one address – yours. The heuristic-based anti-malware software isn’t going to pick it up because it’s not an unusual behavior on the drive. But you get enough computers doing it at the same time, then you get bombarded.”
“Who would want to do that?” Sharon shivered a little.
“That’s the hard part.” Mackie leaned over and gently grasped Sharon’s hand. “It wasn’t necessarily an attack against you. There’s nothing in the message or in the code to suggest a specific attack. Someone could have just picked up the address from one of your surfing sessions and decided to play with it. That person probably doesn’t even know who you are.”
Sharon sighed again. “So now what do I do?”
“We get you another email address. Although, just in case, I would make sure it’s not based on your name.”
Sharon made a face. “Sure. Why not? Oh, great. All my contacts are in that account. Can I transfer them over?”
“I put everything into a .csv file. You should be able to upload it onto almost anybody’s email. But I would stick with a webmail account. And remember to back up your contacts and saved emails on a regular basis.”
Mackie dropped a thumb drive onto Sharon’s desk and left the office.
“Damned nuisance,” Sharon grumbled and went back to work.
As that afternoon turned into evening, Sharon realized with a start that she had a date. Avoiding Gus Guerrero’s office, she hurried out of the White House and onto the Metro, getting off at Foggy Bottom and the Georgetown district.
The bar was nothing exceptional – the normal wood and brass kind of place attached to a restaurant best known for attracting the right people. The bar was crowded with all kinds of folk, especially Congressional staffers and lobbyists. The music wasn’t pounding too loudly and Sharon could see through the dim light a series of semi-circular booths lining the back wall. Max hadn’t arrived. Sharon decided to stand in the restaurant’s waiting area. Max showed up almost exactly 15 minutes late. Sharon made a point of walking over to him and kissing him on the cheek.
“Wow,” said Max with an evil grin. “Are we trying to tell the boyfriend something?”
“More like the people who insist he is my boyfriend,” Sharon said amiably.
“Got it,” said Max.“You want to eat here or just have drinks and eat somewhere else?” He bent closer, putting his mouth to her ear. “Frankly, I’d recommend eating someplace else. The food here isn’t bad, but I checked with our restaurant critic and she suggested a couple other spots that are a lot better.”
“It depends on the profile,” sighed Sharon. “We are here to be seen.”
“Tell you what,” Max said. “Why don’t we have drinks here and we’ll go someplace else for dinner? That’ll get you seen more places.”
He gently took her elbow and steered her into the bar. Smiling, he grabbed a table and made a point of pulling out a chair for Sharon and seating her. Sharon barely had time to look at the cocktail menu before Max had summoned a waiter.
“What can I get for you tonight?” the waiter asked, an average size young man with a bad case of acne and white shirt and a striped tie he could have gotten from a congressional intern.
Sharon squinted at the menu while Max ordered a premium scotch with water on the side.
“I’ll have a glass of the house chardonnay,” Sharon said when the waiter turned to her.
As the waiter left, Max grinned and leaned forward over the table.
“I wouldn’t pick you as a wine by the glass kind of girl,” he said.
Sharon shrugged. “A place like this, they’re going through it fast enough and it’s a drinkable label. So, tell me about growing up in Germany.”
Max launched into a monolog about his childhood in German schools and coming back to the United States for college, then deciding to become a journalist. He asked Sharon briefly whether she’d spent any time in Germany, but then interrupted her answer to talk about an amusing incident from a high school trip to Italy.
And the evening went on from there, with Max making all the choices about where to go and what to do next, although Sharon had to concede, he did have a nose for a good restaurant. Max did listen occasionally, but just as often interrupted whatever Sharon was saying. Still, he kept any lewd innuendos to a minimum and didn’t protest too much when Sharon left him cooling his heels at a rather trendy nightclub not far from the university.
The next day, Saturday, much of the White House office staff, including the Advisory Board, gathered at the White House to play softball – yet another attempt at team building by Marian Jefferson. Mark got to play, but couldn’t pitch because he wanted to throw overhand to practice for baseball opening day when he’d be expected to throw out the first pitch.
Sharon found herself mostly playing the outfield, which bored her silly, although she did manage one good catch when Jean Bouyer lobbed one into right field. More annoying, Gus was waiting for her after the game. He pulled her aside and checked that no one else was in earshot.
“How’d your date go last night?” Gus asked, anxiously.
“Oh, for crying out loud,” Sharon grumbled. “Augie, I’m a grown woman. I can handle Max Epstein.”
“No kidding,” Gus replied. “But I’m not sure he can handle you.”
Gus fidgeted with his mitt. “Max has got issues.”
“I noticed. But they’re not that big a deal.” Sharon looked at Gus more carefully. “Everyone thinks you’re worried about me getting my heart broken.”
Gus shrugged and looked out over the South lawn. The snow was long gone, but in spite of constant manicuring by the garden staff, there was the odd muddy spot here and there. The evergreens were dark against the budding dogwoods and other deciduous trees dotting the border of the huge expanse of grass.
“Yes and no,” Gus said finally. “It’s happened before, though.” He winced and led Sharon back toward the West Wing. “The problem with Max is he doesn’t know when to quit.”
“He didn’t push anything with me,” Sharon said. “He was a little controlling, but otherwise, he was pretty nice. And when he did that interview, he’d obviously done his homework.”
“He’s a great reporter.” Gus nodded, his big square head bobbing. “That’s not the problem. He’s just not good dating.”
“No kidding.” Sharon started to head off to her office, but Gus stopped her again.
“Okay, I’m not worried about you getting your heart broken.” Gus paused. “But maybe you should be worried about breaking his heart.”
Sharon turned to Gus. “What?”
Gus sighed loudly. “It’s Max. Like you said, he’s pretty nice but controlling. The problem is, he thinks he’s really hot.”
“And how many men don’t?” Sharon laughed. “Come on, Augie. You think I couldn’t figure that one out?”
“No, no, no, no.” Gus winced again. “Wheaties, you only think you’ve got Max figured out. He comes off pretty badly when he’s dating, but that’s not who he is.”
Sharon frowned. “What do you mean?”
“I’m not sure.” Gus shrugged. “It’s not like I’ve dated the guy. For one thing, Max is straight and I was already with Emilio when Max and I met. But I’ve heard from both sides. Some of Max’s girlfriends came to me when they were going out. And then Max started crying on my shoulder.” Gus sighed again, even more deeply than before. “Max isn’t that bad a guy. He’s just really, really lousy at dating. I think it’s that he was raised by his dad. He was in the Air Force, you know.”
“Yeah. I remember Max saying something about that.” Sharon looked Gus over. “So, what’s the big deal about me dating him?”
“I don’t want either of you getting hurt,” Gus said, finally. “I know. You can take care of yourself. But I don’t want you hurting Max, either. He’s a decent guy. He deserves somebody really nice who knows how to handle him. The last thing he needs is you making mincemeat out of him.”
Sharon smiled. “I don’t want to do that, either, Augie.” She suddenly frowned. “He hasn’t said anything, has he? I mean, he’s not falling for me? I left him cooling his heels last night and he seemed okay with that.”
“I don’t know.” Gus thought it over, then checked his mobile phone. “He hasn’t called me, but that doesn’t mean he would. On the other hand, he did call when you asked him out last Wednesday. I don’t know.”
Sharon sighed. “Is he going to get terribly upset if I make it clear I’d rather just be friends?”
“I don’t know. If he has any women friends, I’ve never seen them. But we’re only work buddies, at the club and all.”
“Well, you’re close enough to care about him.” Sharon smiled. “Look, it wasn’t the best date I’ve been on, but he’s not terrible. How about if we both wait and see what happens?”
Gus brightened. “Sure. We can do that.”
“Good.” Sharon grinned. “I’d like to think I’ve finally outgrown high school.”
Gus laughed. “I’d like to think we all have. Now, if only high school would stop following us around.”
Sharon laughed also and the two went back to their respective offices.
In California, Cameron Dykstra was trying to hold onto her temper with both hands.
“Toby, you can wait until after you finish college,” she said through gritted teeth. “Hollywood will still be there.”
Cameron was a tall woman, almost as tall as her ex-husband, Michael Wheatly. She had the same blond hair as him, with deep blue eyes and a willowy build, although the hips were getting somewhat padded as the years wore on.
“Like I don’t know that!” Toby hollered back. “It’s not about waiting. It’s about me being bored out of my skull for the next six years just because you want me to be normal.”
“I never said I wanted you to be normal,” Cameron growled back as she watched her elder daughter pace the living room. “I want you to have a normal life. You need to be grounded before you try to work in that industry.”
“But I am grounded, Mom. I’m not going to do drugs or get pregnant or drink and drive. I know better.” Toby stopped pacing just long enough to face her mother down.
“And I know how easy it is to get caught in that nonsense. I’ve seen it happen too many times.”
“Dad didn’t do it and you can’t say he didn’t have the chance.”
Cameron bit back her rage. “You leave your father out of this.”
“Why? Are you still angry at him? Is that why you’re forcing me to be some normal person? Just so you can prove I’m not him?”
“Tabitha Marie, I said to leave your father out of this.” Cameron felt the tears rushing to her eyes but decided she wasn’t going to give in. “He agreed that the best thing for you girls was to give you as normal a life as possible. That is why you live with me. And that is why you are not going to the High School for Performing Arts.”
“I have an audition, Mom!” Toby shrieked. “Do you know how hard those are to get?”
“An audition you applied for without my permission.” Cameron felt her voice rising and tried to calm it, but it was too late. “Or your father’s, I might add. Weren’t you grounded long enough when you called that agent?”
“She called me.”
“And I told you not to call her back. Period. End of sentence. Frankly, I have had it with your end runs and your constant attempts to defy me. You are going to your room and you are going to stay there for the rest of the weekend. Do you understand?”
Toby glared at her and stomped off. Cameron went back to the kitchen, sniffling.
In her room, Toby slammed the door shut, then pulled out her cell phone and dialed.
“Daddy?” she asked when Michael answered.
“Hey, Tobester, what’s up?”
“I want to live with you!” Toby sobbed. “Mom hates me. I just want to act and she won’t let me do anything. I even got an audition for the High School for the Performing Arts in New York and she’s all mad just because I sent the application in.”
Michael took a deep breath. “You must be feeling really angry.”
He glanced over at Inez, who lifted an eyebrow. He shrugged.
The odds were fairly good that Toby was not telling him the whole story. But at the same time, Michael had been feeling increasingly uncomfortable with Cameron’s philosophies of late. The situation was going to take some delicate maneuvering.
Toby complained on. Michael smiled weakly at Inez. She’d gone to considerable trouble to make a special dinner for the two of them. Inez’ family was, in fact, Puerto Rican, but Inez had crossed cultures to make Michael’s favorite Mexican dishes – cheese enchiladas with lightly pickled cabbage, chiles rellenos and rice. The table had been set with candles and the two were finishing the last of a gewurztraminer they’d picked up on a special trip a couple years before to California. Which meant that Inez had something up her sleeve.
Inez waved at him that he should let Toby talk and began clearing the table. Finally, Michael was able to get a word in edgewise.
“Honey, I get that you’re upset, but why did you apply in the first place?” Michael asked.
“Ms. Collins said I should,” Toby replied.
Toby harrumphed. “My drama teacher. She knows you live in New York. I thought if I got an audition Mom might get it into her head that I’m, like, not normal.”
“Did you tell your mom about Ms. Collins.”
“She didn’t even give me a chance! Dad, can’t you do anything? I can’t take any more.”
Michael sighed. “Toby, I know this is a difficult situation, and I will talk to your mother and get her side of the story. She is your mother. We both owe her that much respect.”
“And you’re my dad. You get some say in what happens to me.”
“Yes, I do. But you know I’m not going to let you play us against each other. And keep in mind, Inez has to be part of the decision, too. It’s all about making the best possible choice for all of us, including you.”
“All right,” Toby grumbled.
“Honey, I just don’t want to make any promises I can’t keep. Hang tight and I love you. Okay?”
“Okay. I love you, too.”
Michael hung up, feeling the depths of Toby’s despair.
“How is she?” Inez asked softly, sitting down in her seat next to the table.
Michael shook his head. “Some of it’s typical adolescent, the world’s coming to an end angst. But some of it, I hate to say it, but she’s got a legitimate gripe.”
“Cameron. You know how she’s bent on the girls having a normal life, but Toby wants to act.”
“Oh lord,” Inez sighed. “Did she get another agent?”
“No. She applied to the High School for the Performing Arts behind her mom’s back.”
Inez chuckled. “She used your address?”
“Oh yeah. And blamed it on her teacher’s suggestion. Even odds, it was the teacher.” Michael fidgeted with his wine glass. “Either way, Toby got an audition and Cameron blew a gasket.” Michael shook his head. “Problem is, I’m really beginning to think Cameron’s pushing this normal thing too hard, especially with Toby.”
“She doesn’t want Toby to get into all the drugs and drinking and sex.”
“Like she can’t at school?” Michael got up and started pacing in the open space between the dining room and the living room. “Toby wants to come live with us.”
“Oh.” Inez blinked and swallowed, then held her breath. “What do you want?”
“Inez, I’m not going to tell her to come on out without talking it over with you.” Michael’s pacing picked up and his arms flew as he gestured. “This is a big decision and it’s not like you’re not involved. I mean, what kind of a jerk would I be if I didn’t consult you first?”
“A jerk who loves his daughter?”
Michael sank onto the living room couch. “God, I’d love to have her. I’ve hated not being around and missing out all the time.”
“I know.” Inez sighed.
“But what about you? What do you want?” Michael was back on his feet.
“I want her.” Inez studied her fingernails. She looked up. “Seriously, Michael, you know I love your girls. I just…”
“Just what?” Michael noted the candle on the table that was still burning. “You had something you wanted to discuss with me tonight, didn’t you?”
“Yeah. I just don’t think this is the best time.”
“Oh, great.” Michael turned on her. “What? And what does this have to do with Toby?”
“Everything and nothing.” Inez looked out the front windows, her eyes filling with tears. “I want a baby.”
“You’ve been saying for years you don’t want kids. That’s why we’re not married.”
“I know.” Inez sniffed. “And I didn’t. Only now, Julie Alvarez. She’s my age and she can’t get pregnant. And I wasn’t able to before when I was trying and I was nine years younger than I am now. And I see my sister and my friends and they have babies and they’re so happy and…”
Michael flopped onto the couch. “Well, this is a hell of a time to drop this on me!”
“Drop this on you!” Inez bounced to her feet. “Excuse me. You’re the one who wanted me to tell you. And it’s not about you, anyway. It’s about me and what I need and want. I mean, you’re part of it.”
“And that’s exactly my problem. I’m the sperm donor. Do I get a say beyond that? Do you even care whether or not I want to be a daddy again?”
“Of course, I care. But you need to hear me, too. You need to pay attention to where I’m at instead of only worrying about how it affects you. It affects both of us and I’m the part that you always forget.”
Michael started pacing again. “I don’t always forget you.”
“You forget often enough.”
“It’s not like you let me.”
Inez groaned. “Well, somebody has to keep your ego in check. Sheez, Michael. Sometimes I think you believe all the hype.”
“That was low.” Still, Michael looked away guiltily.
“But not wrong.”
He looked at Inez, who held her ground next to the table, her eyes daring him to try to contradict her. He took a deep breath.
“I want to be crystal clear here – I’m not saying no,” he said slowly. “And I want to get married. But I’m not wild about starting over again with a kid. Even if Toby doesn’t come to live with us. Inez, we’re having enough trouble adjusting. And if Toby comes, I don’t even want to think about how much crazier that’s going to make things.”
“I’m not saying it will be easy. And I’m not saying we have to.” Inez came over and slid her arms around Michael’s waist. “But I’ve got something really good here and it just seems right. I can’t help thinking how special it would be to have your child. The two of us, working together to help a new little one grow up.”
“And what if we split up?” Michael asked softly.
“Ah.” Inez nodded.
“I don’t want to raise another kid on weekends again.” Michael pulled out of her arms.
“I know.” Inez sighed. “Miguel, I can promise all you like. But we both know things happen.” She smiled softly. “Why don’t we use Toby as a test run? I mean, she’s at that tough time in her life. If we can make that work, won’t it be easier to decide about a baby?”
Michael nodded. “If we can get Cam to let Toby come.” He sighed. “We can’t let Toby pull this end run nonsense off.”
“You’re right. But she knows she’s never gotten away with it before. It could be she really is crying for help, here. So give yourself a day. Then talk to Cam and see what the two of you can work out. It’s like you told Toby – what’s best for all of you.”
“No.” Michael reached out and pulled Inez close to him. “It’s what’s best for all of us.”
Michael spent the better part of that evening pacing the apartment. The next morning, he went out for an extended walk, then paced the apartment some more. Finally, around lunchtime, he did an extended consultation with Inez, then picked up his cell phone.
Cameron, in Pasadena, was quietly making breakfast. The tension in the house was all but suffocating. Jodi was hiding in her room and Toby was still confined to hers. Cameron was less than enthused to see her ex-husband’s number on the caller ID but picked up her cell phone anyway.
“Cameron, I think you need to know that Toby called me yesterday.”
She sighed. Michael was using his reasonable tone, which meant she probably wasn’t going to like what he had to say. It also meant he probably had good reason to use it.
“Somehow, I’m not surprised,” Cameron said. “Complaining about me?”
“Yeah. And I just listened and validated her feelings.” Michael paused. “And while I do not approve her going behind your back on the school application, Cameron, I have to say I really think it’s time to re-visit the whole normal life thing.”
“Oh, for crying out loud, Michael! I thought you supported me on that.”
“I do and I have. And you’ve done a terrific job with the girls. It’s just that they’re kind of getting past the white picket fence routine.”
“What would you know about it?” Cameron felt her voice rising. “You’re not here.”
“Because you asked me not to come around that often.” Michael’s voice got tight. “You didn’t even want me living in the same state. I moved to New York because you didn’t want me around any more often than the court said. And the only reason I agreed is that I didn’t want the girls caught in the middle of an ugly situation.”
Cameron swallowed as she got her grip again. “Point taken. But Michael, they’re in the dangerous years, the easiest time to turn their heads. Their judgment just isn’t there yet.”
“No, not entirely,” Michael conceded. “But, Cameron, their judgment is better than you think. And when you consider I know where the pitfalls are. I know how to warn Toby off them. Cam, she’s going to act whether you want her to or not. Wouldn’t it be better if she did it while under my wing instead of flying off on her own because you won’t let her?”
“I think I know what’s best for my daughter.”
“Our daughter, Cameron. She’s my kid, too. And I have supported you, a few times against my better judgment. But I’ve done it because I trusted you. And now it’s time you trust me.”
“What do you want?” Cameron growled.
“I want Toby to come live with me in New York so she can go to the High School for Performing Arts, assuming she gets in, some other acceptable school if she doesn’t. In any case, I will supervise any acting she does.”
“I want her to have a normal life.”
“It will be the kind of life that she finds normal, with other kids like her.”
Cameron bit her lip. “I’ll think about it.”
“Do that.” Michael debated briefly making his threat but decided it would be better to wait before threatening the lawyers.
As Cameron swiped off her phone, she noticed that Jodi had slipped into the kitchen.
“Talking to Dad?” Jodi asked.
“Jodi, this is between your father and me.”
Jodi shrugged as she went to the pantry and pulled out a box of cereal. “I overheard Toby talking to Grandpa Dykstra. She said she wants to live with Dad.”
“She called Grandpa?” Cameron shook her head, trying to clear the fury she felt. “What else did she do? Release it to the press?”
“Don’t think so.” Jodi got a bowl out of the cupboard and milk from the fridge. She looked at her mom. “But she might if she thought of it.”
Cameron sank into a chair.
“Mom, maybe she should go live with Dad.” Jodi shrank back a little as Cameron glared at her. “I know you want us to have a normal life. But, Mom, we’re not normal and it has nothing to do with Dad. It’s just us.”
“I don’t want her to get caught in all the partying and drugs and sex and…”
“What? Like she can’t get caught in that here at school?” Jodi filled her bowl. “Dude. It’s almost more weird that she isn’t sleeping around or drinking or smoking pot or doing pills or—”
“Enough. I don’t need a litany.”
“I’m not kidding, Mom. You talk about consequences all the time and most of the girls in my class – not a clue what those are. They get in trouble, their folks buy them out of it. Oh no, they didn’t do anything. Until one of them overdoses, then all the parents are, like, we’ve got to crack down on this kind of behavior.” Jodi rolled her eyes. “Except that it’s never their kid. It’s always someone else’s. It’s not like you or Dad. You guys never let us get away with anything.”
“I’m the one who doesn’t let you get away with anything,” Cameron grumbled.
“Dad doesn’t either. Trust me. He thought I got snarky with Inez once, made me scrub the toilets and the floors in his apartment. Twice in one day.” Jodi rolled her eyes again and started eating. “Toby thinks he’s so nice? You may as well let her go. She’ll find out the hard way.”
Cameron sighed, then went back to her bedroom before calling Michael.
“How do we do this, Michael? I don’t want Toby rewarded for going behind my back.”
“I don’t either. How about this? She said her teacher wanted her to apply to the school. Why don’t you talk to Ms. Collins and find out what really happened? If Toby was on the level, then we let her audition and go from there. If she wasn’t, she spends her first month here grounded and goes to another school. Fair enough?”
“That makes sense.” Cameron paused. “How often do I get to see her?”
“As often as you want. I’ll take care of the travel arrangements. It’ll be fine, Cameron. You’ve done a good job with her. She’s grounded and solid. And neither of us are going to let her get away with any nonsense. Those aren’t the kids who get in trouble. Okay?”
“Okay.” Cameron’s reply was dull and lifeless. But Michael was right.