February 10, 2029, Rome, Italy
The rooms in the Hotel des Bergues, Geneva, are the finest Janet has ever seen. Her suite has a spacious living room, separate entertaining area, two luxury bathrooms, and a real wood-burning fireplace. The generous amount of windows on the east side of the building offer a breathtaking view of the snow-peaked Jura Mountain range. The streams at the base carry the melting snow in the spring run all the way to the Rhine River.
Janet is dressed in light silver for her night out. Her sparkling dress and matching shoes are showing the other side of her personality—the one that likes to dance. She chose a dress that would fit the feel of a Welcoming Reception. She was torn between dressing conservatively (in case the financial types disapprove of sparkly dresses) and not caring if they approve or not, because she’s off the clock. The sparkly dress won. A form-fitting top accentuates her small waist and a flowing skirt hits just above the knees when she twirls—if she gets asked to twirl. Her hair is down for the evening and lightly brushing her large sparkly earrings with every turn of her head. She smiles at her reflection with approval.
While checking the last detail of her look, she hears a knock at the door. It’s exactly 6:15 p.m., and her time-conscious assistant has arrived to escort her down the stairs. She opens the door and is blown-away by Benjamin’s sleek look in his fine black tuxedo, complete with satin lapel buttons on his right side and a silver bow tie.
He leans on the threshold, pulls a pen from his pocket, and pretends to smoke. “I must say, I thought there was no way anyone was going to look better than me tonight, and then I see this sparkly, silver vision before me. You must now be my date, or I will be forced to have you fed to the wildlife of the mountains.”
Janet giggles. “Bond. James Bond, I presume?”
“Nah, you’re not his type.”
“What does that mean?”
“Bond likes international girls.”
“I hope you’re going somewhere with this.”
Benjamin picks up both of Janet’s hands and kisses them. “You, my dear, lack the killer instinct necessary to be a Bond girl. And before you think that means you just have a good personality, let me add you’re a rare beauty as well.”
“Aw. I’ll take it.” Janet picks up her purse and room key. Once in the hallway, Benjamin mentions the car is waiting. “Are we going in the Batmobile?”
“Close. You’re being transported in a black Hummer Limo. This is what you types who require bullet-free windows are given.”
“I see. No glasses tonight?”
“No, those are just for show. I have 20/20 vision. When you’re as buttoned-up as I am, you need something to help you keep it real.”
“And you keep it real by wearing fake eyewear?”
“Fake only on purpose. Those beauties are very real Cartier frames, baby.”
Janet laughs. “Are we paying you too much, or did you inherit your endless cash reserves?”
“That question, my dear, will have to wait until another conversation.” She smiles as he offers her his arm.
When the limo pulls into line at the United Nations European Headquarters in Geneva, Janet feels a little weak in the knees. The entire entry drive is lined with candles and white ribbons. “How does one balance this world of wealth with the world of poverty? After spending time in nations where clean water is a luxury, it seems I can no longer find joy in these events that are full of self-indulgence. What’s wrong with me, Benny?”
“Nothing’s wrong with you, Janet. I would guess most of the people attending this Economic Summit are either unaware of how bad the disparity is, or they’re from the poorer nations and just trying to fit in. Some want to experience everything before being forced to return to their reality. Janet, look at me. You cannot know anything beyond your own experience. You grew up beautiful, healthy, free, and privileged. You can’t change your birthright.
“For that matter, not one of us knows if we played a role in our status on this planet. We tend to see our place in society as a given instead of a chosen. You cannot rule out that in another dimension and time, you chose to be right here, right now. I know you’re trying to understand the politics of the world and trying to find solutions for the people who have so little. No one can ask anything more from you. Please, try to relax into your role tonight. If you don’t, the others will fear you and you will be ostracized. There’s no place here for deep questions and self-reflection. Choose to be a grateful observer.”
“Alright, I will do my best.”
“Good for you!”
The valet clerk opens the limo door and offers his hand. “Welcome, Ambassador Jagger and Mr. Hume. Jillian will walk you in and answer any questions.”
“Hello, Jillian. Thank you for getting us inside and making us comfortable.”
“It’s my absolute delight. I must warn you I can’t rescue you from the fans and aggressive journalists along the red carpet. I can just suggest you smile, wave, move quickly, and back away from answering political questions.”
As she looks at the sea of black suits and ball gowns—many of them holding black microphones—Janet would prefer to hide behind Benjamin and dig her face into the back of his arm, but she knows it would only draw more attention. A few steps later, she pulls out in front of Benjamin and smiles and waves as she moves elusively between the red-carpet groupies.
“Welcome to the Palais des Nations, Ambassador Madam Jagger and Master Hume.” A perky, young, blonde receives the hand-off from Jillian effortlessly. “Hello, my name is Britta. I am assigned to you tonight as your interpreter. There are typically nine languages spoken at this event, and I’m here to help in any way I can.”
“Nine languages? And you know all nine?” Benjamin quizzes Britta. “Wow, I only know two—unless you count the dialect of the Amazon Mountain People I lived with for nine months in 2027. They had their own language and were darn proud of it.” An awkward silence follows Benjamin’s comment. Janet raises her eyebrow to him. “I’ll take that as a no. I speak two. Madam Ambassador, how about you?”
“I speak almost two. I took French in high school and college. That’s good enough, right? I mean, how many people in America can speak more than two languages?”
Benjamin blurts out his first thought. “Well, First Lady Melania spoke five.”
“I should have seen that one coming. Britta, I apologize for my assistant. He is caught up in a bit of forbidden love. My goodness girl, what motivated you to learn nine languages?”
“Job security. A multilingual certificate is the new college degree in Europe.”
“I can believe that.”
“Let me show you to your table.”
“Thank you! This place is beautiful!”
“It was remodeled between 2017 and 2023. All the U.N. buildings and campuses of the world have been updated in the last two decades. It’s a sign of the times, and in your case, also job security.”
Janet laughs. The ballroom is alive with big band music. Britta didn’t have far to escort her guests. Their seats are near the back. “I’m sorry about the seating. I was told you were last-minute registrations and that…” Britta trails off.
“That we’re not important to this event? Don’t worry. Both things are true. We registered Thursday and are only here as observers.”
“Ok then, no problem. Whew!” Britta dismisses herself by handing Benjamin a pager. “If you need an interpreter, page me. I’ll be in the back with the other interpreters. One more thing: As you can see, I am wearing a nametag that tells people that I am your assistant for the evening. Sometimes, people approach assistants to make introductions. It’s a way of getting introduced to the real stars of the evening. Is there anyone you would want me to discreetly distract for you this evening?”
“Stars? Ha! Britta, no one recognizes either of us. Trust me. I’ve never needed a disguise to walk the streets of America.”
“Well, things are different here. Switzerland is the real financial capital of the world. You might think you represent people and principles, but as far as these people see it, you represent the allocation of wealth.”
“Are you sure you don’t have a degree in finance?”
Britta smiles at Benjamin’s question. “Yes, I’m sure. So, there’s no one for me to shoo away this evening?”
Janet looks to Benjamin and shrugs. He shakes his head at her. “I can’t think of anyone we should mark for shooing, but we appreciate the extra-mile service.”
“No problem.” Britta turns and heads towards the back of the ballroom.
“Janet, what’s with this young generation and their ‘no problem’ response to ‘Thank you?”
“I know. It’s very hard to interpret. I think it’s the way Primaries say, ‘You are welcome.’”
“Well, I don’t like it. I just got used to Chick-fil-a’s ‘My pleasure’ last year. I’m not ready for a new one already. My immediate thought when I hear it is, ‘Oh, yes there was a problem, but I’m overlooking it because I’m a nice guy.’ It’s like you thank them for playing a role in something and they decide to take credit for solving the entire thing. And somehow, they take the power at the same time. I can’t decide if it’s genius or vindictive.”
“Vindictive?” Janet laughs. “I doubt there’s any malice involved. They’re ages 12-32. That’s much too early in life for most of them to be angry. Your head must hurt from all the thinking you do on the social graces.”
“Not just on the social graces, but on the decline of the social graces.” Benjamin winks.
As Janet places her small handbag on her seat, a waitress fills the water glasses. “I think the two of you look ripe for a dance. You should be out there. You’d be the most attractive couple to watch.”
Janet smiles at Benjamin.
When she walks away, Benjamin discusses yet another social faux pas. “Again, with the coupling? What is up with the world’s urgency to get people paired up? It seems every girl to whom I say hello feels the need to inform me she’s in a relationship. It’s like ‘relax, I just asked if that seat was taken.’”
People often try to pair Janet and Benjamin together. So much so, that their banter includes pretending they’re a couple when they’re off the clock. Truthfully, she’s considered him in a romantic way. For seven of the eight years she has known Benjamin, he was very happily married to an amazing woman. Lindsey was full of charm and kindness. Everyone loved her, and she was Janet’s best friend.
Life took a cruel turn on their family at the finish line of the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, DC a year earlier. Benjamin was waiting for his wife at the finish line, with James on his shoulders holding a bouquet of flowers. They were there to celebrate the fulfillment of her life-long dream of running a marathon. Just as she came into view, she stopped running and collapsed. She was screaming in pain as she held her head. Minutes later, she died of a brain aneurysm—just fifty feet short of the finish line, and in full site of her son.
It took Benjamin three months to return to work. It took him six months to find his laugh again, and nine months until he was whole again. Now, Janet makes it a point to invite Benjamin and James to her holiday events. In some ways, she is fulfilling one of the expected social graces Benjamin is always ranting about. In return, she gets loyalty, friendship, and lots of laughter.
“Well, my lady, fancy a swing around the floor with James Bond?”
“I thought I wasn’t his type.”
“I was lying. You’re stunning! You’re everyone’s type.”
“Well that just makes me sound easy.”
“My apologies to the beautiful lady wearing the ‘conservative’ sparkles. I assure you it was not my intent to imply you’re easy. In fact, you are the most difficult woman I have ever known. Luckily for you, James Bond enjoys the occasional challenging woman.” He offers her his hand and she laughs and accepts. They hit the dance floor.
After three dances of swing and laughter, the band begins a slow song. Benjamin offers her his arms. As they sashay around the edge, he is quick to return the mood to business. “JJ, how are we playing this tonight? Are we joined at the hip, or are we circulating to double the amount of trouble we get in to?”
“Normally, I would say let’s circulate and cover twice the territory, but the President sent us here with an objective of collecting some credible information. We should probably stick together to have a witness to conversations.”
As they wrap up their slow song, the host for the event gathers the attention of the room by tapping on his water glass with a silver fork. “Ladies and gentlemen, please make your way to your seats. We will begin our program in fifteen minutes.”
As Benjamin and Janet walk to the back, they see Britta signaling them to come to her. She asks them to follow her to the hallway. She is obviously shaken.
“Britta, are you ok?”
She ignores Janet’s question, and pulls a large envelope from inside her coat. “A woman followed me into the Ladies Room and asked me to give this to you. She said it was completely urgent!”
“Okay, just urgent. She was out of place at a formal in a hoodie and sneakers. It was really weird.”
Janet examines the envelope. There is no writing on it, but it is sealed several times with thick tape. “Britta, this building has an anthrax detector, right?”
“Yes, in the mailroom.”
“Can you get us in?”
“No problem.” The three take the elevator down two levels to the basement. Only the emergency lighting is on and Janet feels an uneasy nervousness taking over. She’s relieved when the rest of the lights come on in response to sensors as they move quickly through the Processing Center. They arrive to a room that is equipped with a robotic bomb defuser. Britta explains the layout. “Robby—that’s what we call the arm—can open packages and absorb the detonation of small amounts of explosives. Next to the defuser is the conveyor belt that can x-ray and sample swipe suspicious packages for anthrax and other things.
“All incoming packages and large envelopes addressed to the United Nations go through this conveyor belt.” Britta places the envelope on the belt, closes the door and directs the three of them to where they can watch it through the glass windows. Britta turns on the scanner. “The entire process will take about five minutes for dusting and fingerprint extraction.”
A green light is flashing as the package is dropped into a holding box at the end of the belt. Britta picks up the package and hands it to Janet. “Sorry, no fingerprints. There’s a silver lining, there’s also no anthrax.”
Janet asks for a private room for her and her assistant to evaluate the contents. Britta finds them an unlocked office. “Thank you, Britta—for everything. Can you please keep this envelope diversion under wraps?”
“Great. And, before you go, can you give us a description of the girl who handed this to you?”
“Sure. She was about 5’10’ and slim. She had long, ashy blonde hair she let hang out of the hoodie. She had delicate features and pretty, blue eyes. I can’t really describe her body. She was really covered up with wide-legged Palazzo pants that covered her shoes and the light blue hoodie—but it was totally designer stuff. She kept her head down a lot, but she wasn’t completely unfortunate.”
“Yeah, you know—she was pretty and stylish, even if she was weird.”
Janet rolls her eyes to Benjamin who looks down at the package to keep from smiling.
“Hey, I have an idea. I can go to security and make you a sizzle reel of her time here if you like. The security cams are all over this place. They’re even in the bathrooms—though no one is supposed to know it.”
“Really? That would be amazing! Yes, please.” Britta hurried out the room to see security about the tape. Benjamin watches as Janet cuts through the tape and pulls out some documents. The first is a stack of three to four pages held together by a paperclip. The other is a single piece of paper with two hand-written sentences:
1. Project 66 is a weapons system capable of killing half of the people on Earth in less than ten minutes.
2. The parent company of Project 66 is Sun Economics.
“Dear Lord.” Benjamin picks up the note and reads it a second time while Janet pulls the paperclip off the joined pages and spreads them out on the table.
“Oh no, this can’t be! Do you see what this is, Benjamin? It’s a copy of a petition being passed among the Ambassadors—most of which have signed off on it. The petition is asking the U.N. Member Nations to withdraw all trade agreements with the United States and to stand united against their “aggressive trade tactics.” They are asking for universal sanctions. We must get this to the President as soon as possible. This was printed with a word document containing yesterday’s date, so it might be leaked to the Press tonight.”
“I’m with you. What’s the plan, boss?”
“The President is in flight. I’ll put a call into his Chief of Staff. Until we get a call back, I think we should go back into the meeting and act as if nothing has happened.”