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What she could do? What was he talking about? When he’d opened the file, she was certain he was going to start listing her crimes, but now she was confused. Maybe he had other intentions. Whatever he wanted, he was certainly smug about it. His condescending inflection affected her like a dentist’s drill hitting a nerve. 

He went back to her file folder. "I noticed you’ve been a student at Boston College for a long time now. Adding up your credits, it looks like you’re about to graduate. However, it’s taken you five full years. Why do you think that is?"

She couldn’t resist. If he thought to embarrass her, he was mistaken. She took a step toward him, batted her eyelashes, and said, "I’m not real bright."

Several agents laughed. Phillips didn’t react. "Are you ready for your tour?" He walked across the room and paused in the doorway. "Just don’t touch anything," he said before disappearing behind the tinted glass.

She looked at the wall of agents behind her. She had had enough of Phillips’s patronizing attitude and wanted to get out of there, but it was apparent she wasn’t being given a choice in the matter, so she reluctantly followed.

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They proceeded down a hallway where the walls were clear glass. There was so much activity she didn’t know where to look first. They passed a huge room filled with computers and techs, all men dressed in suits and ties, with their jackets off. Allison stopped to watch. They were typing furiously and watching their screens. Against the far wall facing her was a giant world map. Dots of light appeared with lines curving from relay station to relay station, bouncing off satellites around the globe. It was obvious to Allison that they were trying to pinpoint the exact location where a cyber attack originated, but the person or persons at the source had put up barricades. She stopped to watch. The screen was filling up with more dots, indicating the techs weren’t getting anywhere.

When Phillips noticed Allison wasn’t behind him, he came back for her. "What are you doing?"

She didn’t answer for a couple of minutes. As she watched the lights jump across the screen, she began to recognize the pattern. It was one she had seen before. "Is this a training session?"

"No, of course not. This isn’t a training facility. These are all professionals."

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"Then why is it taking them so long to . . ." She paused. Trying to be more diplomatic, she revised her question so that it wouldn’t sound antagonistic. "How long do you think it will take before one of them pinpoints the location?"

"It could take a day or two, sometimes longer, and sometimes the location disappears before we can locate the point of origin." He stared at her while she continued to study the map, then offered a challenge. "You think you can do better?"

There it was again, that smart-ass attitude in his tone and expression. She decided she wouldn’t let him irritate her, until he said, "I didn’t think so."

Oh, it was so on. She brushed past him, opened the door, and walked into the room. The air smelled clean but with a hint of aftershave. Every male in the room looked up at her and froze. She smiled, hoping to put them at ease as she walked over to a tech in the back row and said, "Would you mind if I have a try?"

All heads turned in the direction of Phillips, who was still outside the glass. He nodded.

Another tech nearly knocked his chair over when he stood. "Here," he said, "you can use the station next to Stan." He rushed to the back row, inserted his card into a slot, then pulled out the chair. "Here you go. All set."

He introduced himself. Then eleven others followed suit. They wanted to know why she was there. She didn’t take time to explain. She sat, adjusted the chair, stared at the screen for several seconds, and started typing. Her mind was so focused on the task at hand that she was no longer aware of her surroundings.

Phillips stayed outside, feeling annoyed. He had a lot of work to get done, and this exercise with Allison seemed a waste of time to him, but orders were orders, and he would, of course, acquiesce. His instructions were to show her the unit before the evaluation; however, her sudden focus on this cyber problem might just produce the results he expected. If that happened, he could bid Ms. Trent good-bye sooner rather than later.

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"Sir, how long do you think it will take before she gives up?" one of the agents asked.

Phillips didn’t answer him.

Another agent said, "She doesn’t need to know her way around a computer. Not with looks like that."

"Do you realize how sexist you sound, Pierce?" the first agent chided.

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