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That’s It. We’re Toast. Finito. Game Over. Unless…

21 Nov

by Roger White


I knew it. I just knew it. We’re doomed. No, I’m not referring to the results of some recent political goings-on you may have heard about (electoral college be forever damned). Although if you want to infer that’s what I’m talking about, go right ahead. I didn’t imply; you inferred. Your bad. No, what I’m yammering about is the impending end of all life on this planet. Some would say that the events of this second Tuesday of November have pretty much opened the gates for such an apocalyptic consequence, but far be it from me to lay blame for the extinction of mankind on the Great Orange Combover. If that’s what it sounds like I’m saying, again, you’re making assumptions.


Sigh. Let’s start again. So I read in one of those scientific, researchy-type magazines recently that, according to a prediction by no less than the renowned theoretical physicist, astronomer, and all-around alien-like brainiac Stephen Hawking, we oxygen-breathers don’t have long before it’s lights-out on this big, blue marble. Yeah, bummer, dude.


o-godAccording to Dr. H, unless we can figure out a way to colonize other planets and soon, we’re cosmic toast. Yep, unless we can, say, gentrify the Tharsis Upland Region of Mars (by developing high-rise biodome condos and thereby scooting all the tiny, little ethnic Martian micro-organisms off to the lower-rent Hellas Impact Basin—ain’t that the human way?), then our galactic gooses—sorry, geeses—are cooked. It may be nukes; could be climate catastrophe; maybe an asteroid; might even be a violent overthrow by nasty self-aware robots who finally get fed up with having to scrub our sewage-treatment plants, but one way or another, if you pay heed to the Hawkman, the species Humanus Textus While Drivus is a goner. The rolling Hawking-genius-bot gives us 1,000 years, tops.


Now, I know that 1,000 years seems like a long time. And, well, it is. But I got lots to do, and I’m just not sure if a millennium is enough time for me to check off every item on my bucket list. So just in case I don’t make it to Thanksgiving of 3016, I’ll need some of you to finish out my to-do things.


i-r-writerHigh on my list is (4) become a published novelist. I had this one scratched out several times, thanks to a string of smarmy suck-up literary agents who were so convinced I was on the fast track to the bestseller list that I had a Central Park brownstone all picked out and even had a pen-name to go by in case I got too famous for my own good. One guy even hooked me up with an LA screenwriter who was also quite confident I was the second coming of J.D. Salinger. Nothing ever came of any of it. Four novels, gathering dust in the closet, and a pile of rejection letters from every publishing house from Nantucket to New Zealand stacked high enough to be a fire hazard. Oh, my pen name. Was going to be D.J. Slingerland. I dunno, just sounded good. So there it is. I have four perfectly good mediocre novels waiting for some intrepid soul to champion. One is horror genre; the other three are historical fiction, science fiction, and a heartwarming coming-of-age memoir. You could even mash them all together, if you like. Call it a very long heartwarming historical sci-fi coming-of-age horror memoir. Or something.


wtf-circleThe other top-three items on my finish-by-3016 list? They are, in order: (3) learn how to navigate a traffic circle without having to contact my insurance guy; (2) finish the chicken fried steak at Hill Country Cupboard in one sitting (damn near impossible; it feeds a platoon); and (1) talk to someone live and in person who has actually been hospitalized for having an erection that lasts for more than four hours. I mean, is that even a thing? I can’t even.


Hey, look! I made it through this whole mess without uttering the word “Trump” once. Aw, dammit.


Roger White is a freelance writer/would-be novelist living in Austin, Texas, with his lovely wife, two precocious daughters, an obese but mannered dachshund, and a cat with Epstein-Barr Syndrome. For further adventures, visit Or not.




The Oklo Device Now Available on Amazon

18 Sep

Here’s the premise, gang:

Evelyn Gilmore, a headstrong black anthropologist, is onto what she hopes is the discovery of a lifetime when she begins an excavation in the northern Brazilian town of Salvador. But what she anticipates as the uncovering of relics from a 19th-century slave revolt becomes the deconstruction of everything we know about human history—as Oklo_Cover_hi-resshe finds in a 900-foot-deep cavern modern technology from a time before man ever walked the earth.

And this much is fact:

In the spring of 1972, nuclear scientists at a uranium enrichment plant in southeastern France made a startling discovery. While studying samples from the Oklo uranium mine in the central African country of Gabon, the French researchers found that the quantity of the isotope U235 was considerably depleted from uranium mined at Oklo. Uranium can be depleted in this way by only two means—through either an atomic explosion or a nuclear reactor. It was clear from their evidence that these uranium samples had undergone a nuclear reaction hundreds of millions of years ago. After considerable consternation and debate, researchers theorized that this must have been a very unique but natural process. Although the Oklo site is the only known location on Earth where such a reaction has occurred, this sole explanation for a prehistoric nuclear event has been accepted as fact to this day.

And here it is on Amazon:

Fantastic cover art was done by Austin artist Steve Willgren.


Best to you,

Roger Oldspouse Crichton Rowling King Hemingway

Just What IS The Oklo Device?

13 Sep

Dear This Old Spouse Followers, Friends, and Faithful,


Join me on an adventure, if you would. Do you want to read something truly terrifying? I’m serious here—for once. I have a startling, unsettling story for you.


It’s called The Oklo Device.


The earth’s mysteries have always intrigued me. Despite all of our scientific and technological advances, there are still phenomena on this planet that remain unknown. Unexplainable. This one, in particular—the mystery of the Oklo mines—has fascinated and vexed me for so long that I finally sat down and wrote a book about it.


Oklo_Cover_hi-resThis much is fact—you can look it up. In the spring of 1972, nuclear scientists at a uranium enrichment plant in southeastern France made a shocking discovery. While studying samples from a uranium mine at a place called Oklo in the central African country of Gabon, French researchers found that the atomic energy was all but depleted from uranium mined at Oklo. Uranium can be altered in this way by only two means—through either an atomic explosion or in a nuclear reactor. These samples, mind you, were proven to be hundreds of millions of years old. It was clear from their evidence that these ancient uranium samples had undergone some type of nuclear reaction eons before man ever walked the earth. After considerable consternation and debate, researchers theorized that this must have been an absolutely unique but natural process. Although the Oklo site is the only known location on Earth where such a reaction has occurred, this sole explanation for a prehistoric nuclear event has been accepted as fact for more than 40 years. What is baffling to me is how this potentially shattering discovery has received such little notice in the media.


There have been alternative theories, but no one has seriously challenged this fantastic truth—until now. Go here, if you would:


At the bottom of this web site’s page, you’ll see a link labeled “View” under a headline that says available reading formats. Click on it, and you’ll have access to this astonishing chronicle.


If you remain intrigued after the first 50 pages, e-mail me at, and I’ll give you the rest of the story. Tell me what you think of it—what you think is true. Please share this story if it took hold of you. There is more out there than most of us know.


Follow Your Dreams? Well, OK, But Have a Backup Plan

23 Jan

by Roger White

Author’s note: For you dedicated, sort of dedicated, and even not-so-dedicated followers of TOS, I feel I must warn you in advance. This particular installment lacks any juvenile silliness, nonsensical babble, slice-of-life inanity, random wordplay, serpentine stream of consciousness, thinly veiled parody, and/or incomprehensible doublespeak. I’m actually taking a stab at being serious this time. This likely won’t last long, as most of my prescriptions seem to have run out.

As I watch my daughters grow into young womanhood—Lindsey now a thoughtful, creative high school sophomore so marvelously free-spirited yet touchingly conscientious in every facet, and Jamie, our firebrand eighth-grader so fiercely strong-willed and stubborn but so tender-hearted and self-conscious—I struggle to keep them optimistic and open to the great vista of opportunities and adventures that is theirs in their youth while ensuring that they truly understand the many gambles attendant with life’s every turn.

How do you convey to your children that life is to be thoroughly enjoyed yet doggedly pursued with utmost seriousness, that the world around them is not a vile place to be feared but that wariness and caution are also fundamental?

How do you keep those most precious to you warm-hearted and open to the world when, while you’re teaching your oldest how to drive a car, a man pulls up next to her and flips her the finger because she’s driving too slow for his taste? What course do you take when your youngest tells you that some anonymous degenerate claiming to be an online friend wrote such depraved and loathsome things on her web page that the words don’t even bear repeating?

Beyond these random acts of unkindness, how do you also instill in your children the passion to “follow your dreams”—a catchphrase heard so often in movies, media, books, commercials, speeches, campaign promises, and valedictory addresses today that it has become hackneyed and meaningless—when the cold reality is that the vast majority of us grinding out our day-to-day existences have come nowhere near the lofty dreams of our youth?

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying that anyone should settle for something less than what one earnestly wants to do with one’s career and life. I’m merely advocating, in this reality-TV culture that falsely suggests that everyone can be a star, for a healthy dose of practicality. I fear that many kids growing up today, buffeted from all sides by messages insinuating that instant fame or fortune will be theirs for the taking when some magic day arrives, will be in for a terribly rude awakening when it comes time to settle into that desk job in the corporate cubicle farm.

A glimpse at one episode of “American Idol” confirms this unsettling notion. When the judges break the bitter truth to so many young would-be superstars who can’t carry a tune in a large fruit bowl, the contestants’ reaction of utter disbelief and heartbreak may make for a sort of Schadenfreudean entertainment for the masses, but it also exposes symptoms of delusional expectations held by today’s youth. Yeah, you’re going to win the 750-million-to-1-shot lottery with one ticket. Right.

Ah, hell, I guess it’s not just today’s youth. I’ll fess up. When I was 11, and I caught my first touchdown pass of the season for the Burleson Boys Club Panthers, I was immediately convinced I would be an NFL wide receiver. That touchdown was the only pass I ever caught that season—and for the rest of my football career (which lasted until eighth grade when I broke my collarbone). A high schooler who weighs all of 130 pounds sopping wet stands little chance at football glory outside of his back yard.

When I was 14, I was going to be a drummer in a rock band that would be discovered by a West Coast record label and shoot straight to international stardom. Talent seemed to be the snag here (see “American Idol” above). When I was 19, I was going to own my own legion of vending machines, which held the promise of easy riches and an unending supply of M&Ms, but no one seemed to want to lend a teenage entrepreneur the mere six figures for start-up.

And when I was 30-something and finished my first attempt at the Mediocre American Novel, I was sure I was destined to be the next John Irving. Alas, that dream is still on the runway, desperately awaiting clearance in the thickening fog. So I soldier on, in the cube farm, telling myself that John Irving just might not have it as good as I think he does.

And I also tell my girls, yes, follow your dreams—but have a solid backup plan. If you truly want to be the next Lady Gaga, give it a shot. But stay on course for your MBA, as well. Please.


Roger White is a freelance writer living in Austin, Texas, with his lovely wife, two precocious daughters, a very fat dachshund, and a self-absorbed cat. For further adventures, visit

Follow the Tunisian Parakeet

16 Jan

by Hashiell Dammett 


In 1539, the Knights Templar of Tunisia paid tribute to Charles VI of Portugal by sending him a Copper Parakeet encrusted from beak to claw with the rarest of jewels; but pirates seized the galley carrying this priceless token, and the fate of the Tunisian Parakeet has remained a mystery to this day.

OK, Spade. You know what to do now. It’s all up to you. Mrs. Wonderly claimed not to know Mr. Cairo, but you know better, don’t you? Hurry before it’s too late.

You take all your men, go around the cliff to see Maria. She’ll give you a bag. (DON’T OPEN THE BAG, SPADE!) Carry it as if you couldn’t care less, but don’t let it out of your sight. Maria will give you the sign when it’s time to rendezvous with Count Umlauf atop the cliff face. It’s a narrow passage–one man a time, and slowly!

When Count Umlauf allows you to light his cigarette, make sure he sees you with the bag. Don’t dally there; you needn’t give Umlauf more than this. He should head to the old church when he knows you and the bag are secure. When you see the Count go inside the old church, tell one of your men to give Maria the green-light signal. Then, leave two men atop the cliff as a scout and a decoy. Take the rest of the men and proceed to Café Carismo’s, where a man in an off-yellow pantsuit will hand you a key in exchange for the bag you got from Maria.

Take the key, swallow it. Then have dinner with your men on the back patio. Some of the men will want to dance to the salsa playing downstairs, and that’s OK; just remember to warn them about the beggars in the kitchen. About an hour or so after you’ve digested the key, you’ll feel the need to go. When you do, take the back stairs down the employees’ hallway to the men’s john. You’ll see it on the left near the portrait of Emperor Hirohito.

Once you’ve excreted the key, you’ll notice that your body fluids have engaged a biochemical reaction on the key’s surface. Keep watching the key!! And don’t make any noise!! They’ll be looking for you by now.

When you see the three-digit code appear on the key, wipe off the key, pocket the key and return to your table nonchalantly. FOR GOD’S SAKE, MAN, WHATEVER YOU DO, REMEMBER THE THREE-DIGIT CODE!!  Even I don’t know what it is.

Now. By now your men will be wondering what the hell’s going on. Tell them the invasion is off, and that Plan DV 1 is now in effect. They’ll begin smelling the odor on your person because of the key and become suspicious, but this is all right. Your men were expendable, remember? Tell them to take Arturo and proceed across the harbor to the warehouse near the docks. I know, I know that you trained them all, Spade. I know you became like family. But we had a job to do, remember? Snap out of it, man. Just know that they died believing in the cause.

When you see the three-masted schooner set off a flare at the deep quays of the harbor, you’ll know that they’re all dead. Only after that will it be safe to use the code. By the time you pull up to Sardi’s, Samantha should be waiting for you. You remember her, don’t you? Settle, settle down, boy. You’re a married man now. Those days are gone. We were lions, weren’t we? Funny the CIA never knew, but they’re idiots anyway, aren’t they?

This is no time for sentimentality, Spade. You know what’s at stake by now. Samantha will take you up to the bar, and that’s where you’ll find Angela and the Chinese twins. God, I hate dealing with those fools, but this was the ONLY way. Believe me. You’ll have to small-talk and schmooze for half the goddamn night, but keep your cool. When the night’s winding down and the twins have gone back to the casino as they always do, that will be the golden moment, Spade old bean, old horse pill.

Angela will ask you if you remember Morocco. You may or may not remember, but just play along. God, Morocco. Remember Panzi and Vic and that weird sidewalk artist or whatever she was? You were a wild man, Spade. I didn’t know you could do that with your genitals. Christ, man. Ah, hell, all water under the bridge, right? Anyway, when Angela mentions Morocco, this will be your cue to give her the three-digit code.

Just remember, Spade, she’s vulnerable. I don’t think you really loved her then, but, God, Angie thinks the world of you, so if you’re gonna be a player with her, then for God’s sake, be sweet. Anyway, when you give her the code, she’ll tell you what night Mr. Cairo plays poker. That’s when we will find the Tunisian Parakeet. Keep your wits about you, Spade. That, and your .44, are all you have now. I would say good luck and Godspeed, but I know you don’t believe in that stuff.

Go on. Get outta here. If everything hasn’t gone completely to hell, we should see each other again in Caracas, come spring. You do need a shave. Keep your powder dry, old friend.

Roger White is a freelance writer living in Austin, Texas, with his lovely wife, two precocious daughters, a very fat dachshund, and a self-absorbed cat. For further adventures, visit

Lenticular Haiku, by Sir Archie Ferndoodle

9 Jan

by Roger White

Fellow time/space voyagers and other occasional devotees of “This Old Blouse,” I am more tickled than a duffel bag full of marsupials to announce the return of my dear friend, front porch sartorial mentor, and fellow breakfast-nook philologist, Sir Archie Ferndoodle (applause, applause, applause).

Yes, the former poet laureate of the Greater Southwestern Scribes Society, which meets every third Thursday in the back of Sue’s Salon in Cement, Texas, has been gently coaxed out of quasi-retirement to once again bless us with phrasings, words, syllables, parts of syllables, and renderings of nocturnal animal sounds from the Ulan Bator region as only Sir Archie can. (And remember, if you mention this column at Sue’s Salon, you get 10 percent off a five-ounce jar of Sue’s Coconut Heel Scrub with the purchase of at least $20, not including her patented Tomato-Lye Jamboree Hair Tonic.)     

As I’m sure you remember, the esteemed Fernie holds an associate’s degree in postmodern comparative limerick studies from the University of Southern Panama’s Correspondence College and has been featured five times in the American Anthology of Poetry. Just a few of his classics include “Oh, Staff Sergeant, My Staff Sergeant!,” “Why Is the Man Always from Nantucket?,” “The Squirrels Stopped Talking to Me Today,” and his latest, “A Stitch, a Horse, and a Can of Pearl,” which was the inside-cover poem in the most recent edition of the Cement Area Greensheet.

The more astute of you may have seen Fernie’s hand in the Christmas edition of “This Old Mouse.” Raise your hand if you had the notion that Sir Archie was the ghostpen behind“The Nitrous Before Christmas.” Well, you’re dead wrong; I wrote that while flying low in my dentist’s office, but I did have ol’ Fernie in mind. In fact, he may have actually inhabited my body during that whole experience, but we digress again.

So anyway, without further magoo, I give you Sir Archie Ferndoodle, who has just returned from a five-month sojourn at the Tao Sendaha Haiku Sweat Lodge, just north of Pittsburgh.


Lenticular Haiku

by Archie Ferndoodle


Hand old, withered

Extended to young happy boy who

Smiles and

Coughs up a small border town near



Deposit slip with no meaning flutters

In brown surge of empty day. I find Julia at

Home making love to the Buick


Better judgment whispered

Toyota, Toyota.

Toyota. Smash hindsight with

Bitter hammer of stoli rocks. Ah.


Three grateful invertebrates argue

On who passed

Wind while each ascends

The assistant professor’s





Trees and earth know much more

Than they sing

To man accused of listening of listening

Of listening to Alex

Trebek and his minions. Only refuse

And then hear again, the daily

Double. Oh! Bodies of

Water for Four



Heat. No heat. Heat. No heat.

Damn toaster. Fling the

Shiny monster down the hillock to

CRASH waves of filament element

Parchment and wire. No heat toast is mere

bread and


Dear Julia. I’m trading it



Roger White is a freelance writer living in Austin, Texas, with his lovely wife, two precocious daughters, a very fat dachshund, and a self-absorbed cat. For further adventures, visit

Book Excerpt: The Controller

4 Jan

The Controller

by Roger White

cover design by Steve Willgren


The Controller

 ©Copyright 2007-10 by Roger White. Registered with WGA West.

All rights reserved.


“Technology is dominated by two types of people: those who understand what they do not manage, and those who manage what they do not understand.”

—Archibald Putt


Chapter One

            Ira Singer and his wife, Maxine, sat across from each other, the miniature oak-finished table top holding their cards and their drinks. Ira sipped at his whiskey and Coke. He smiled as he watched the v-shaped wrinkle play across Max’s forehead. Gin rummy was serious business to his wife, always had been. She studied her hand intently. It was not lost on Ira how very beautiful she still was, in her early 80s, how her apple-shaped face and ice blue eyes still took him back to their school days, how lucky he was she weathered his tribulations and mistakes through the years. She was more than a good wife. She was his companion.

            The cabin of the Gulfstream G200 was whisper quiet as the sleek jet cruised the skies above North Carolina. The Singers and three other retired couples from Lake City, Florida, chartered the jet as part of an early autumn package tour to the Poconos. The aircraft’s accommodations were first-rate: ample leather seats, plush carpeting, galley with a chef and fully stocked bar. A large-cabin midrange corporate jet, the slender G200 was a beauty, capable of speeds of nearly mach 1 and cruising altitudes up to 45,000 feet.

            The charter pilot, 42-year-old Leonard Dickey, wasn’t pushing her, however. He’d flown low and slow over the countryside to give his passengers an impressive view of the verdant hills and emerald lakes of far western Carolina. Although he was flying VFR —Visual Flight Rules — which gave him relative free rein of the milky blue skies, he was careful to avoid the restricted airspace above Fort Bragg.

            Thick fog immediately settled around Dickey’s craft as it approached the southern Appalachians. Dickey instructed his copilot to radio Atlanta ARTCC for a popup IFR flight plan. They would need to rely on their instruments, and radar guidance, to navigate the white blindness of the shrouded mountains.

            “Atlanta Center, this Gulfstream six echo niner, requesting IFR one-two miles west of Albemarle.”

            “Damn,” the copilot whispered as he unkeyed his mike. “Look at this.”

            Digital readout on both of the jet’s fuel gauges had gone black.

            “Gulfstream six echo niner, this is Atlanta Center, I have you . . .”

            “Gotta be a fuse, or a short,” Dickey said, cutting off the Atlanta Center controller’s reply.

            The copilot tapped one gauge, then the other.

            “What was our last fuel reading?” Dickey asked. He scanned his bank of gauges above him, looking for anomalies.

            “At least three thousand kg. That’s about half. Cross-bleeds off, I’m sure.”

            “Toggle it. Then check the fuses.” Dickey eyed the malfunctioning gauges. “Gotta be a short.”

            Dickey and his copilot focused on the problem almost a full minute before acknowledging Atlanta Center.

            “Gulfstream six echo niner, this is Atlanta Center, do you read?”

            “That’s a roger, center,” Dickey replied. “Six echo niner, with you, level at, uh, forty-nine hundred.” He unkeyed his mike. “We drifted a little low there.”

            “Gulfstream, say again altitude,” the controller instantly responded. “I show you at fourteen thousand nine.”

            “That’s a negative, center, I’m —”

            Before the controller could issue his urgent command, Dickey knew. He was too low.

            “Oh, shit.”

            As he pulled hard on the yoke, in a fraction of a second, a massive face of white-gray stone filled the cockpit windshield.

            Maxine Singer, with her back to the cockpit, pitched forward with the jet’s violent attempt to climb. She spilled over the small oak table onto her husband’s chest. Ira caught her, and the couple crashed to the floor. Throughout the cabin, cocktails and bodies, playing cards and magazines tumbled toward the rear of the plane.

            “Max.” Ira squeezed her, holding onto her as tight as he could.

            The very floor beneath them ripped away in a cacophony of furious sound. Maxine felt Ira’s arms slip from her. The cabin around them spun and tossed, an angry washing machine choked with shards of metal and fire.

            The jet’s tail clipped the mountainous terrain, sending the craft and its contents somersaulting through the Carolina pines. The Gulfstream burst into flames as it disintegrated. Everyone on board, including the flight crew, attendant, and chef, was killed instantly — except Maxine Singer. She was thrown through a narrow gash in the cabin wall, her legs severed neatly above the knees. She landed in a deep bed of pine needles twenty feet from the main debris field. Her eyes blinded by jet fuel, she crawled three hundred yards across the mountain. She died as she reached the stone outcropping known as the Devil’s Courthouse.

# #

As Maxine Singer breathed her last on a rugged Carolina mountaintop, J.N. Teague peered out the vertical blinds at the rain falling urgently on Sycamore Canyon Road, one thousand nine hundred miles to the west, in Sedona, Arizona.

“Does it always come down like this?” To the southwest, he watched a small single-engine plane flying low on takeoff from Sedona Airport.

The woman’s apartment was ’90s contemporary. A glass block demi-wall cordoned the kitchen from the living room. Everything was negative-edge Scandinavian teak: table, chairs, hutch, even the salt and pepper shakers.

“No. It seldom rains here at all, actually. This is monsoon season.” The woman, late twenties, was an effortless beauty. Her hair was long and straight, a sumptuous raven accent to her cream coffee skin. In jeans and a low-cut chemise top, which fell open with her movements to reveal full breasts, the woman inspired a reaction in Teague he had not experienced in recent memory: nervous fear.

“You’re joking. Arizona has a monsoon season?” Teague accepted a rounded Riedel glass of Cornas Syrah the woman offered. He followed her to the living room sofa, seating himself at a careful distance, still gauging, interpreting.

The woman smiled at him, curious at this gorgeous man’s quaint uncertainty, and she scooted close. “So you played in college. Let me guess.” She looked him over appreciatively. “Linebacker.”

Teague laughed. “How did you know that?”

“My brother played at Arizona State. Always told me linebackers were the finest specimens on the field. So, naturally, I figured.”

“Naturally.” Teague laughed with her. “So what brought you to Sedona? I’ve been here three days, and I have to say you’re the first black person I’ve seen since airport security.”

“I lived in Tempe for a while when my brother played. I came down here for vacations and fell in love with it.” The woman put her glass on the coffee table and ran a slender finger up and down Teague’s forearm. “There are more of us here than you think. We’re in the nooks and crannies.”

Teague took a sip of wine. “I don’t know. I was in an old man’s souvenir shop today. He kept looking at me like I was Louis Farrakhan.”

“Well,” the woman said, “those types are everywhere, aren’t they?” She stood up and tugged on Teague’s hand. She towed him playfully to the bedroom.

“I am sorry,” Teague whispered as she kissed him. “But what is your name again?”

“Michelle.” The woman laughed, bending to pull off her socks. “And you’re M.J.”

“J.N.,” he corrected.

“J.N. Thank goodness. I figured M.J. was a sure lie. Are you really FBI?”

“I showed you the ID.”

“Could be fake.”

“I leave it up to you.”

The woman breezily shed her jeans and top. Clothed only in bikini panties, she lay back on the bed, voluptuous and smooth and willing. Her light brown skin shone in the low lamplight like flawless silk.

Teague stood staring, summoning, trying to imagine. Trying to relax. A nip of panic crept in, and he knew it was futile. The separation was six months old, as of yesterday. Hell, Melanie was even dating someone. Still he couldn’t allow it. This wasn’t part of the picture. J.N. Teague was a man of strict goals, of desires and aims that were measured only in the context of how they worked to achieve the ultimate outcome. It had always been so. It was how he lived his life. It was how he played linebacker at Illinois and made All Big Ten his junior and senior years. It was how he beat the odds at the Academy, one of only two blacks in his graduating class to earn FBI credentials. It was how he pursued Melanie, the mother of his son, the woman he’d convinced to share his life six years ago. The separation, however, presented Teague with an aching conundrum. Living the life of an agent’s spouse was too much for her to bear, a realization brought home when Teague narrowly survived a bullet in the neck. She needed time to determine whether she could live without him. In the meantime, the options Teague mulled over were maddening. Wait for her to come around? Forgo the Bureau and fight for Melanie? But then who would he be? Who was he if he were not Chicago’s best on the street? Teague hated wasted effort. His coach at Illinois always appreciated that aspect of his best athlete. Teague was always the most efficient player on the field, instinctively on top of the ball, at the crux of every play.

This rain-soaked evening in Sedona, Arizona, Teague discovered that his mind’s calculating efficiency knew no down time. This was wasted effort, illegitimate expense.

“What’s the matter?” the woman asked. She ran her hands lightly across her lovely breasts. “Don’t you like what you see?”

“God, I am sorry,” Teague said. “You are beautiful.”

He wheeled around and quickly left. He jogged through the pouring rain to his rented car.

# #

            Amid the subdued urgency of dozens of low-voiced commands in the broad, cavern-like room that was O’Hare TRACON Sector Four, Deborah Vaughn twirled the thin pencil in her right hand, keeping one eye on her bay full of flight plan strips and the other on her primary and the low emerald glow of the Aircraft Situation Display screen to her left. ASD monitors were the latest in air traffic control hardware, lightning fast and more proactive than anything before them. They were being tested in pilot facilities nationwide, including O’Hare, Denver ARTCC, Atlanta ARTCC, Seattle, and a select number of general aviation fields. The promise the ASDs held for controllers was no less than liberating; they would act as a third pair of eyes, another calculating mind. But there were the rumors. Rumors of glitches.

            Vaughn knew about the Gulfstream G200 crash in Carolina just days before. Everyone in the ATC community knew about it. “Controlled descent into terrain” was the official terminology from the FAA’s initial investigation, which meant simply that the pilot flew the plane right into the ground. Transcripts from the cockpit voice recorder, however, indicated an unbelievable discrepancy between the controller and pilot. Just seconds before impact, the controller identified the Gulfstream jet as being almost fifteen thousand feet in the air. The pilot responded that he was at only 4,900 feet — thirty feet below the elevation of the mountain he slammed into.

            The Atlanta Center controller’s ASD screen had been cited, and reportedly fixed, for two previous incidents of indicating erroneous altitudes and airspeeds.

            As Vaughn’s partner for the shift, one Kyle Lomas, worked the primary controller position, Vaughn consciously fought to keep her fidgets to a minimum; she was never completely comfortable sitting in the assistant’s chair. Although the rules of air traffic control required specific degrees of minimum separation among aircraft, just how that separation was achieved and maintained was left largely to individual controllers’ discretion. A two-man team of controllers worked a screen like a quarterback and his backup — one calling the plays and directing traffic, the other keeping things tidy, suggesting moves when needed. Vaughn liked calling the plays.

            “Southwest two-eleven, climb and maintain . . .” Lomas paused uneasily, unkeying his mike, glancing over at Vaughn and the bay of flight plan strips.

            “Sixteen thousand,” Vaughn snapped, tapping the strip labeled SW211 with her pencil. “Midway perimeter, remember? Always one-six before the fix.”

            “Right. One-six before the fix.” Lomas smiled and winced, lightly smacking his forehead. Young and green, only two months out of the academy, Lomas was in his first week in the primary chair. He was scared to death, and it showed.

            “Come on, Kyle. You have a pilot waiting for commands.” Vaughn nodded toward the screen.

            Lomas keyed his mike. “Southwest two-eleven, climb and maintain one-six thousand. Report crossing the Midway tracon,” Lomas instructed.

            “Vortac,” Vaughn corrected, trying not to smile.

            Lomas keyed his mike. “I mean vortac, Southwest two-eleven, crossing the Midway vortac.”

            “One-six thousand, report on the vortac, two-eleven, roger,” a chuckling voice crackled through their headsets.

            Vaughn took the position of controller quite literally; she enjoyed being in control. An eight-and-a-half-year veteran of the boards, Vaughn was a natural for the venerable old Chicago facility. O’Hare, once the busiest tower on the planet (and still the world’s second-busiest), directed more traffic per controller than any facility anywhere. It wasn’t even close. A total of approximately 90 controllers at O’Hare TRACON commanded the more than 6,400 square miles of airspace in and around O’Hare International Airport, directing 1.3 million aircraft operations annually, responsible for 86 million passenger lives on an average year. O’Hare controllers had to be keen, unflinching, fast — and fearless. And Deborah Vaughn was every one of those, and more. She was what other ATCs deemed the quick among the quick. Her instincts were flawless, her decision-making pragmatic and by the book. She was an ice cube with fiery red hair, slender face and legs, and large, penetrating brown eyes.

            “Northstar five echo papa, climb to one-six, your discretion. Altimeter two-niner-niner-two,” Lomas instructed.

            “Five echo papa, roger.”

            “Don’t forget about your Southwest,” Vaughn said. “He needs to hook up with J-121 in a few. What do you do?”

            “Vector him there about, what, five miles out?”

            “Only if there are no inbounds. If you have an inbound coming from Sector Six, you’ll cross him right in front of him.” Vaughn paused, seeing if the light came on for Lomas. “Do you have any inbounds coming from that sector?”

            “Yes. United coming in from Canada.”

            “Right,” Vaughn coached. “So?”

            Lomas thought a moment. “I have to vector the Southwest hard left after the vortac.”

            “There you go.”

            When Vaughn was promoted to sector chief the previous fall, a few jokes were murmured among the men about the dubious ways the redhead must have earned her stripes. Nobody took the jokes seriously, of course — no one who watched Vaughn work. And certainly no one in Sector Four had a quibble with her; you didn’t mess with Deborah Vaughn. Behind her wide smile and flashing eyes, she was uniquely intimidating.

            College educated, with a pair of degrees — psychology and English literature — from Northwestern, Vaughn was in the minority of active controllers. Most of her peers on the boards came straight from either the military or the Academy at Oklahoma City. Vaughn didn’t bring up her university past much, especially now that she was a sector chief. She could always pick up a tangible sense of unease in other controllers, especially the men, when they learned of her background. And in that regard, she was in the minority, as well. Males outnumbered females in the ATC society better than three to one. Vaughn accepted her minority status in stride; in fact, she reasoned, she’d been a minority of some kind or another practically her whole life. She’d been the only white kid in her elementary school class the two years her father served as trauma surgeon at Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Barbados. Her senior year in high school, she was the only female student to win scholarship honors in the UC-Davis National Calculus Competition. And, much to the dismay of her excruciatingly professional parents, she was the only Vaughn in a meticulously detailed family tree to engage in civil service.

            Vaughn briefly pictured her father in her mind’s eye, a still photo of the young, commanding ER surgeon she knew as a child. He was sick now, soon to undergo coronary bypass surgery.

            “Miss Vaughn?” Lomas broke into her thoughts.

            “Vaughn,” she corrected. “It’s Vaughn, Lomas. I don’t call you Mr. Lomas.”

            “Sorry. My Southwest is spotty. Part of the ID tag winked out for a second.”

            “Call him for voice verification,” Vaughn instructed.

            Lomas keyed in. “Southwest two-eleven, O’Hare, please state position and heading.”

            “Two-eleven. We’re reading twenty-four miles before the vortac, square on heading oh-one-oh.”

            “Thanks, two-eleven.” Lomas breathed audibly. “Will advise when we can vector you to J-121.”

            “Two-eleven, roger.”

            “I’ve seen those spotty tags before,” Vaughn said, eyeing the radar display control dial at the bottom right of the screen. She dialed it down to its lowest level then back to high intensity. The radar screen before them dipped into darkness, then swelled to a bright green glow. “I don’t know what’s causing them.”

            Vaughn’s and Lomas’s headsets crackled. “O’Hare, this is Atlantic Air six-twenty with you at fourteen, climbing pilot’s discretion to nineteen on J-4.”

            “Atlantic six-twenty, roger,” Lomas responded. “Altimeter two-niner-niner-two.”

            A brief snap of static indicated Atlantic Air six-twenty’s acknowledgment.

            Immediately, another voice broke in. “O’Hare, PSA Jumbo four-ninety-four, vectored from the tower on radial one-two-five, with you at eleven and climbing.”

            Lomas took a sharp breath. Traffic was building. “PSA Jumbo four-ninety-four, O’Hare, that’s a roger.”

            Just as Lomas unkeyed, Vaughn reminded, “Altimeter.”

            “Altimeter two-niner-niner-two, PSA.”

            “PSA, roger.”

            As both Vaughn and Lomas watched, the tiny green blip that was Southwest Flight 211 suddenly disappeared.


            “My God, did you see that?” Lomas whispered.

            Vaughn was already in action. “Southwest two-eleven, O’Hare, verify pos, altitude, and heading, please.”

            “Southwest two-eleven, we read nineteen miles before the vortac on J-1, climbing from thirteen.”

            “That’s a roger, two-eleven,” Vaughn began, “maintain voice—”

            Before she could finish the command, Southwest 211’s marker popped back into view, separated neatly from the two dozen other blips crawling at myriad angles and speeds across Lomas’s and Vaughn’s screen.

            “What the hell?” Vaughn fumed. “I’m calling the fac chief on this. This is ridiculous.” Vaughn keyed her mike. “Two-eleven, had a couple of spotty readings on you. I may be calling for pos periodically. Will advise on vectors.”

            “Two-eleven, roger.”

            “Vaughn.” Lomas subconsciously bit his lower lip. “I have a full grid. And with the Southwest winking out, I’m not sure if . . . you may have to take primary.”

            Vaughn smiled at the nervous young controller. “You’re doing fine, Lomas. I’m here if you get in a jam. Just keep working it. Calm down.”

            Watching a rivulet of perspiration trickle down the right side of Lomas’ face, Vaughn remembered her first year out of the academy. She could never keep her legs still then, but she wasn’t a sweater. But this job produced them. Every sector had at least one heavy sweater. Each controller’s physiology had its own unique reaction to the palpable stress of ATC: some fidgeted, some paced, some rocked, some cursed, some clenched, and some sweated like government mules. Vaughn squinted at the memory of one of the heaviest sweaters she’d ever seen, a classmate of hers at the academy. He was the only one in her class to graduate with a higher overall grade average than hers, and he had been recruited to O’Hare the same as Vaughn. She couldn’t recall his name. Acuff. Agnew. Austin. Something like that.

            She did remember, however, what an odd bird he was. Rambling on about improving protocols, ranting to no one in particular about reducing separation minimums. And, she remembered — he’d asked her out once. His shirt sopping, standing so close to her that she couldn’t get any air, he interrupted her in mid-vector to ask her if she wanted to have dinner with him some time. She didn’t remember exactly what she said, but it wasn’t yes. Within the month, he’d been fired by her old chief, old man Payton, for insubordination.

            Vaughn allowed a whisper of a laugh. The only male of her species who didn’t feel threatened by her was a borderline genius headcase with overactive apocrine glands.

            “Oh, Jesus.” Lomas jerked, hitting his knee on the control panel. “Oh, Jesus.”

            “What is it? Lomas?”

            “Southwest two-eleven, turn right, uh, heading zero six five immediately,” Lomas spat. “Southwest two-eleven, immediately.”

            Vaughn scanned the screen and picked up Southwest two-eleven’s marker, a good fifteen miles west and turned an astounding forty-five degrees from its location only seconds before.

            “God.” Lomas rocked in his chair. “Deborah, the United is right there! They’re on top of each other. My God.”

            Lomas keyed his mike again. “United one five four —”

            Vaughn grabbed Lomas’ hand, squeezing hard. She keyed in. “Southwest two-eleven, O’Hare. Belay those instructions, repeat, disregard ATC command to turn. State your heading and position immediately, sir.”

            “Southwest two-eleven, we’re flying heading oh one oh. Transponder has us square on J-1, six miles before the vortac. Do we have a problem?”

            Vaughn let herself slowly breathe out. “Have a bad reading on you again, two-eleven. Radar has you off course and off radial. Maintain voice verification, if you would.”

            “Southwest two-eleven, that’s a roger.”

            Less than two seconds after the Southwest pilot responded, his aircraft ID marker winked, disappeared, and blinked back into place, clear and on course on J-1.

             “Christ, how does that keep happening?”

            “O’Hare, this is United one-five-four, with you at fourteen,” the United pilot broke in. “We clear for inbound?”

            Vaughn, still catching herself in huffs, looked over at the saucer-eyed Lomas. “Well? You’re the primary.”

            “Roger, United. Maintain heading,” Lomas managed. He unkeyed, shaking visibly. “How did you know?”

            “Think about it, Kyle. There is no way a 737 is going to turn forty-five degrees on a nickel and scream fifteen miles off course in a split second. No way. If he’d have turned on your command, you would have had him crossing the J-6 inbounds. It was a bad readout.”

            “Bad readout.”

            His senses coming back, Lomas looked at Vaughn with an increasingly squeamish expression, then he slowly lowered his head to look down at his crotch.

            “Lomas? You okay?”

            “Jesus. I have to go change.”