This was the farthest Elana had ever been on the Los Alamos National Lab campus. She unzipped the soft-top window of her 2005 lime-green Jeep Wrangler at the gate and handed her badge to the guard. He inspected it and handed it back with a smile. “Have a nice day!”
Another day, another interview, she thought. She passed several technical area intersections with buildings that resembled prisons fenced in with barbed-wire coils before she turned at the TA17 sign. Ponderosa pines straddled the straight road for the ten-minute drive to a group of one-story concrete buildings marked TA17, at the end of the mesa. She parked in front of building TA17-1, the Weapon Experiments Control Center, refreshed her red lipstick, straightened the barrette holding her strawberry-blonde mane and checked for smudges in her tortoise-shell glasses in the visor mirror. Good to go. She clipped her badge to her blazer, and with her portfolio case in hand, she headed to the entrance. Signs on the door read ‘Q’, which meant ‘Q-level cleared only, no electronic devices’. She inserted her badge into a console, entered a code into the keypad and the door clicked for entry.
At the reception, Elana greeted a young Hispanic woman. “Hi, I’m Elana Ryan, special investigator with the Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency.” She flashed her credentials. “I have an appointment with Wayne Fordham.”
“Have a seat. He’ll be right with you.”
Being so official was second nature to Elana after working for the feds for over a year, something she’d never imagined she would do. After traveling the country in her RV, making a living from her book and related sales over the Internet, she welcomed the regularity. She had fallen for the wild, dramatic sweeping skylines of New Mexico, but lots of open space meant it was sparsely populated. The national lab was one of the few significant employers in the area. With a clearance backlog, there was a demand for investigators, and with her communications background, it made sense.
In many ways, the job stood for everything Elana Ryan did not. She told herself that it wasn’t all about weapons. There was important science happening here, great minds working for the future of humanity. After living an unconventional lifestyle, being in the secret city where the atomic bomb had been invented, working for the government at thirty-five was a turn of events she couldn’t have predicted. It’s just another adventure, she told herself.
Wayne Fordham, white-haired with a dry-cleaned dress shirt tucked into plain-front slacks, greeted Elana and ushered her into one of the larger offices she’d been to at the lab that had a view, as was expected for a division leader. Wayne moved a few piles of papers from a round table and gestured for her to sit.
As she’d done for hundreds of such interviews, Elana presented her credentials, checked his ID and opened her portfolio to take notes. She made small talk before running through a standard introduction, such as how being untruthful about any issue more often had a greater negative influence on the outcome of their case than any underlying issue, that Title 18 US code 1001 stated that hiding a material fact was a felony and could lead to fines, imprisonment and so on, ending with him swearing under penalty of perjury under the laws of the United States to tell the truth to the best of his knowledge and belief.
He appeared to be relaxed, this being his fifth clearance re-investigation. He would have done these interviews every five years, so it was obviously familiar.
“Your full name is Wayne Fordham—no middle name—and you have not used any other names?” She looked up from the papers to check his expression through her glasses.
She went through his security questionnaire and took notes of changes or items that needed clarification, glancing up at him periodically.
To lighten the serious tone, she asked about his being from New Jersey and commented on his lack of a ‘Joyzee’ accent. He chuckled but didn’t give an explanation, so she offered, “I’m originally from the only New England state that has no accent but is surrounded by states with strong accents.” She often made people guess which state it was, but she wasn’t in the mood at the moment, so she just told him she was from Connecticut.
Fordham had a pleasant demeanor and conversed with an ease not typical among the socially challenged scientific community, which was likely why he was in management, but he was also a respected scientist, as the awards on the wall and the work history on his form suggested.
There were no red flags on Fordham’s case, so Elana expected to be done before the usual hour. She wrote down the references he gave her to interview and was about to wrap up the counterintelligence questions when there was a knock on the door.
“Excuse me,” Wayne said politely as he got up and opened it.
It was his receptionist. “I’m sorry to interrupt. Dr. Graeme is insisting he speak with you right now. It’s urgent. He’s on the line.”
“Patch him through.” A hint of irritation marked his brow as he shut the door, raised his index finger to Elana and picked up the phone on his desk. “What’s so important, Cam? I’m in a meeting.” He turned to look out at the Jemez Mountains. “Yes.” He turned back to look at Elana. “That’s right. How did you know that?”
Elana organized her papers. In her peripheral vision, she caught Wayne squinting at her as he fiddled with items on his desk. “He says what?” He turned his back to Elana again and exhaled. “Really? Okay. Okay… I’ll get back to you.” He hung up the phone, his forehead furrowed.
He sat across from Elana. “Sorry about that. Where were we? Connecticut, the Northeast. Winters are bitter there, eh?” He feigned nonchalance.
“Yeah. I like the dry climate here.”
“What about Christmas? The traditions—you know, with the farolitos and all—it’s different.”
His question seemed contrived, but she played along. “I don’t put much stock in the holiday anymore.”
“No? Why not?”
His whole attitude had shifted. He was pushing for something and it made her uneasy. She was supposed to be pushing him, not the other way around. Oddly compelled, she revealed, “I was born on Christmas Eve, so it has had a lot of loaded meaning for me, but I left that behind long ago.” Why did I share that personal information?
“So your birthday is Christmas Eve,” he said with a conclusive satisfaction that was a bit creepy and differed from his earlier apathy.
Wayne’s desk phone rang, and he sprang to answer it. “Yes. Okay. Give me about ten minutes.” He hung up and sat back down at the table.
“That was my colleague. He can do my reference interview. You can do it here when we’re finished.”
When they’d concluded the interview, Wayne invited Dr. Cameron Graeme in, introduced him to Elana and left them alone. So this is the Dr. Graeme with the urgent matter. He sat down at the table with Elana. He was at least a decade younger than Wayne, closer to her age. His full head of hair was still more pepper than salt and he was more casually dressed in blue jeans and a pale green button-down shirt that wasn’t perfectly pressed. He’s cute, in a dorky-scientist kind of way, she thought as he peered at her from behind round, metal-framed glasses. She was flustered. Is it his stare or that odd phone call?
She showed him her credentials and asked if he was aware of the Privacy Act of 1974, as was required of her job. He said “Yes,” and she indicated that on her pad. He confirmed the spelling of his name and she asked his title.
She scribbled ‘Sr. Sci.’, and began asking the forty questions that she had almost entirely memorized, starting with, “What has been the frequency and nature of your contact with Wayne?”
“We met five years ago working on a project at the Remote Sensing Lab, and about three months ago I came to work with him in this division. We’ve had daily work contact.”
As she jotted down his answer, she noticed him scanning her intently, like he was taking a grid sample of every inch. Another weird scientist thing? “Is Wayne married?” Cameron folded his hands together. No wedding ring, she observed.
“Yes, to Marge. They have three grown kids, but I can’t recall their names.” He rattled off answers to her list of questions, clearly having done these interviews before. Every position, from janitors on up, needed a clearance to work there. She also noticed he had a remnant accent—not Irish, maybe Scottish.
The fifteen-minute interview felt like an eternity. Something hung in the air between them that slowed time. She tried to ignore it and was relieved when she got to the final questions. “Is there any reason to question Wayne’s loyalty to the United States?”
“No.” He caressed his chin with his entwined fingers.
“Is there anything in his background that would make him susceptible to coercion or blackmail?”
“Not that I know of,” he answered abruptly. Did he even give a thought to the answers? Is he thinking of something entirely different? Finally, the last question. “Do you recommend Wayne continue to have a position impacting national security and hold a clearance?”
“Absolutely.” He leaned back in his chair, his clasped hands now in his lap.
She slipped her notes into her portfolio. “Well, that’s all we need. Thank you for your time.” She was about to get up, but he didn’t move, so she paused.
His gaze penetrated her. “Do you like your job?”
“Sure. I meet interesting people and work from home. It could pay better, but I’ve got no complaints overall.” She zipped her portfolio to hint again that she was ready to go.
He leaned forward. “What other kind of work background do you have?
It’s my job to give the third degree. What’s up? She stood. He did the same but didn’t move toward the door. He was a couple of inches taller than her five foot nine, even with her two-inch heels on. He raised his eyebrows in anticipation of an answer.
“Perfect. We need someone like you in our division. Can you come tomorrow for an interview?” She was surprised at this curt and assumptive invite. She had applied for jobs at the lab, which she’d thought had to be done via proper channels, and had never gotten called for an interview.
“What’s the job?”
“Communications Specialist.” Did he just come up with that in the moment? Employment directly with the lab paid better than her Department of Defense position, so she was intrigued. Weapons division—not her first choice, but somehow she couldn’t refuse. “Okay, why not?”
“Tell Denise at the front desk to give you an appointment in the morning. Email me your resume tonight.” He handed her his business card.
“Sure.” He couldn’t wait until tomorrow for that?