Norman Borden waved Giselle into his office and motioned for her to close the door.
“I need you to run a report for me,” he said, handing her a sickly yellow sticky note with the woman’s name on it. Lulu Carmenucci.
“Lulu is short for Lucille?” she asked. The SIGNAC system could usually figure it out, but sometimes you had to help it a little.
“Yah. I don’t know her birth date, but she’s probably around 23.” He winked.
She let out a tiny breath of relief that she hadn’t realized she was holding. At least this one was out of high school. Probably.
“Category?” she asked.
He thought for a moment. “International drug dealing.”
“When do you need it? I can’t do it before Thursday.”
“Aw, come on, Gigi. I’m taking her to dinner tomorrow night. I need it before that. Help me out, here.”
She sighed. “How far back you want to go?”
“I don’t know. Three years.”
“Three years! Why don’t you just go back to when she was in kindergarten, Norm? You know how long that thing is going to be? If I start printing it right now it won’t be done by tomorrow afternoon.”
“OK, OK,” he laughed. “What do you suggest?”
“Last time I gave you four months and I didn’t hear you complaining about it.”
“Fine, give me four months, then.”
She rolled her eyes and said, “All right, but you owe me. I’ve got work to do. In case you didn’t know.”
He chuckled. “Yeah. I owe you. What do you want?”
She considered. “How about some Devils tickets for me and my kids?” That would take care of Sean’s birthday celebration she’d been worrying about paying for.
“Sure. I got some, anyway, I wasn’t going to use. Vendor gave them to me.”
“And one for my boyfriend?”
“Dennis? That loser? I don’t think so. He’s no good for you, you know.”
“Dennis? No! He’s been history for three months. You think I don’t know trouble when I see it? No, this is Junior. He’s real classy!”
“Classy, huh? Well, OK. This once. Because he’s classy.” He opened a desk drawer and rummaged in a small envelope, bringing out four tickets which he fanned for her to see. “Just get me the report by tomorrow afternoon, right?”
She always wondered what that horny old goat wanted with those reports. There was never anything very interesting in them about the girls. Mostly they bought a lot of shoes and bags and tweeted to twits like themselves. And there was one who had racked up a $1,500 texting bill in one month. None of them had a rap sheet to speak of, except for the one who had been arrested for drugs, which was funny, considering he’d told Giselle to use category “Arms Trade” for her. The only thing she could come up with was maybe he was using the information to figure out what kind of toys the girls liked. Either that or he got excited thinking about them shopping for clothes. Elton was like that. He used to like to go on shopping trips with Giselle and wait outside the changing room and call in to tell her what to put on next, which was fine until the day he asked go along for shopping with Serena and her friends. She’d have done herself a favor if she’d run a report on Elton before she got involved with him, but she never used SIGNAC for herself. She thought it would spoil the romance. Which might have been good in this case. But Norm didn’t seem like an Elton kind of pervert, so maybe he just wanted to check that the girls were clean. She couldn’t figure out what they saw in him, either. He was fat and ugly and usually old enough to be their father. He was charming, all right, and he bought expensive bracelets and dinners, but Giselle would never have dated him. And she’d wring Serena’s neck if she ever started anything with a man like that.
At her desk, she checked her list of problem tickets. Of the six systems she supported, she got the fewest calls about SIGNAC, maybe two or three per day, but they were always the dumbest questions and always from the same couple of people who clearly didn’t belong at NSA and who shouldn’t be allowed to touch a Significant Information Gathering, Network Analysis, and Compilation system. She almost never had to talk to the programmers to get their problems fixed. As she scanned today’s list, she spotted one from Jocelyn. She picked up the phone and dialed.
“Hello, Jocelyn? This is Giselle Jones, from General Informatics. I’m calling about your ticket number 13829751. You called us about a SIGNAC problem you’re having?” She listened as the woman described her situation, starting with turning on her computer first thing in the morning and then listing every program and menu option she’d chosen since. Giselle examined her nails and noticed with irritation a chip that would be expensive to fix. Finally Jocelyn got to the part about SIGNAC.
“You see, I put in the name and I tried to generate the report, but I’m getting this error message. It says, wait let me see,” she paused for long enough that Giselle thought the call had dropped. “It says, ‘Select a target’ but when I type in his name it comes up with nothing. Maybe I’m spelling it wrong. I don’t understand these foreign names. Why can’t they do like us? How many ways do you spell Mary or Bob? Of course, a lot of people get my name wrong. They sometimes write J-O-S-L-I-N.” She guffawed. “But these foreigners—they’re all like that. You can never find them in the system.”
Giselle had explained this to her at least seven times in the past. She took a deep breath. “You have to bring up the target identification screen. There’s a special function there with different spellings of foreign names, by language, ethnicity, or geographical region.”
“Ooohhh,” Jocelyn said slowly. “So what should I do?”
“How about if I log in to the system, and we’ll look for the target together? Then I can run the report for you, and you just have to download it.”
“That would be wonderful!” Jocelyn said.
She logged in to SIGNAC with her support ID. Jocelyn told her the name of the target. With a few additional details the woman provided, she was able to narrow the selection to an individual within about five minutes. They went on to the next step. “What category?’” Giselle asked.
“Category?” said Jocelyn.
“The reason for the report. What you’re investigating him for. So they know that you’re not just snooping on your neighbor or something like that. The system needs to know you’re running it for one of the real reasons.”
“Ooohhh,” said Jocelyn. “What are the choices, again?”
“Is this a terrorism case?”
“OK. We’ll pick Terrorism.”
Slowly she obtained the remaining parameters from Jocelyn and finally managed to generate the report.
“OK, I’m going to email you the link you can download the report from,” she said.
“Oh, you’re a lifesaver, Giselle! What would I do without you?”
Whenever she talked to Jocelyn, Giselle wondered the same thing, but she only said, “Anything else I can help you with today, Jocelyn?”
“No, dear. Thank you. You have a wonderful day, now!”
After they hung up, since she was already logged in, she ran the report on Lulu, downloaded it, and printed it out, all 76 pages of it. But she wouldn’t give it to Norm until tomorrow afternoon. She liked to see him sweat a little.
In the month that followed, she generated another 43 SIGNAC reports for Jocelyn and a handful of other so-called analysts, by the time Norm called her back into his office.
As she entered, he put the phone down abruptly and walked around the desk to close the door behind her. She was surprised because he never shut the door except when he wanted a SIGNAC report, and he never asked for them more than twice a year because he thought it was lowdown mean to dump a girl in under four months.
He sat down at his desk and fidgeted with a pen, and then the #1 Boss figurine she had given him a few years ago for Christmas. He reached into his jacket pocket, patted something and then picked up the pen again.
“You see, Giselle, the thing is…” He paused. “There’s been an audit on external contractors’ use of NSA systems. Your ID came up in the logs. Use of SIGNAC. On subjects not under investigation by NSA.”
She stared at him blankly. “You generated reports that NSA didn’t ask you to,” he said.
“Yeah. Because you asked me to.”
“You generated reports that NSA didn’t ask you to,” he repeated. “That’s against company policy. You’ll have to be terminated.”
“Terminated? Because I did what you asked me to?”
“Look, Giselle, it’s company policy. You generated the reports. You were caught. Don’t you see? My hands are tied.”
“You could fight for me. You could tell them it was for you.”
“It’s not that simple, darling. There’s a lot of money riding on General Informatics’ reputation at NSA. Couple of billion dollars. If they find one of our people misusing a system, like you did, we’ve got to be seen as decisive. Surgically removing the problem.” He reached into his jacket again and brought out a thick envelope. “Here’s a little something to tide you over,” he said, handing it to her. “I’ll be in touch. Don’t call me.” He opened the door and stood waiting for her to leave. A security guard waiting outside his office took her gently by the arm and led her back to her desk.
Though her eyes were blurred with tears, she sat down at her computer and from habit tried to look at her email. She banged her fists on the keyboard when it wouldn’t let her in after she typed her password. The guard said “Your account is locked.” She stared at him, not understanding. He pointed at a cardboard box next to her chair, saying, “You can pack up your personal stuff, and then I’ll walk you to your car. Take as much time as you want.”
Outside her cubicle, friends stopped by and talked to her, but she couldn’t follow what they were saying, so she sat with her back to them and looked at the years of accumulated knick knacks, notes, awards, photos of the kids from kindergarten to high school, broken pens. She opened drawers and closed them and re-opened them, riffling through the contents, unable to think about what she should take and what she should leave, until her eye was caught by a sickly yellow sticky note with a handwritten name. Lulu Carmenucci. She stared at it for a moment, and then put it in her pocket. Then rapidly she picked through the heap of scraps of paper in the drawer. She ended with a small rainbow of sticky notes of various sizes, no longer sticky, each written in the same hand, with a different woman’s name on it.
“I’m ready now,” she told the guard.
Cohen is a senior IT business analyst and CISSP who worked for several years at a Federal IT contractor (albeit not in the service of the NSA, and without a secret clearance). To the best of her knowledge, there is no such system as SIGNAC, though recent events suggest there are some that are pretty close. Cohen receives “loving and thoughtful” feedback from her writing group and from the Sharpening the Quill Writer’s Workshop run by L