Three years have passed since Japanese planes struck Pearl Harbor. Nondescript government officials–some in starched uniforms, some in three-piece suits which are another kind of uniform, and one, a secretary, in rayon stockings–gather in a Washington conference room. The room, like the officials, is nondescript, except for the dark walnut table and its centerpiece; a red telephone. The officials have narrowed their selections to two alternate courses of action, and these they circulate in folders and discuss.
Meanwhile, two men wait at their desks.
The Colonel is a pilot, prone to quick movement and dry speech; he drums his fingers and watches the clock. To him, the clock is ticking louder than the whirring jet engines and incessant barking from the flight hangar to which his office is adjacent. They escorted Little Man onto his plane this morning, and since then the guard dog has barked. The Colonel drums his fingers more quickly, waiting. They have installed a new telephone in his office; it is red.
The Science Espionage Operative does not drum his fingers; it is an annoying habit. He grinds his teeth instead. His desk is two hundred miles from the Colonels and his office is larger because it is communal. The team has shared it, and the lab, since project “Who, Me?” began. The lab is stocked with vials, all foul smelling, horribly, awfully foul-smelling, and also precious. The team is uncharacteristically quiet, anxiety is in the air, another smell. The Operative admires his secret love, a dark-haired French woman, who chats with other lab techs. None of them look at the tank frothing with SAC-23, a compound they have dubbed ‘US Government Standard Bathroom Malodor.’ The last two years have been dedicated to its creation, but now that it is ready no one looks. Similarly, they do not look at the Operatives desk, upon which sits a newly installed red telephone.
It has been two or three hours, and most of the officials are in accord. Not all of them, but it is enough. The secretary types the final memo, one official signs while another reaches across the dark walnut table, to the red telephone, and makes the call.
Excerpt (Accompanied by Dana Boule’s Sad French Accordion)
The Operative speculates how many projects were funded, and how many men are waiting now, like him, by their phones. His team has met their objective, exceeded it even. The compound, lining the walls in clear plastic capsules, is ready for Chinese Resistance distribution. The capsules are small, pressure-sensitive and inconspicuous. Range is ten feet, no backfire. Activation silent. ‘US Government Standard Bathroom Malodor’ is rainproof, soap-proof, solvent proof. And revolting, like a very loose bowel movement. It hits first with a sweet note, encourages a deeper inhale, then spikes of sulfur, of onions. The nasal memory is gag-inducing. To discourage this train of thought, he studies the French woman, sees that she is preoccupied, smiles wanly at her.
The Operative is a man of science, not psychology, and does not see why the phone must be red. (As if he might otherwise lose it on his desk, beneath notebooks and papers!) He suspects the French woman knows why; she is the insight on the team. She is the one to postulate that their compound, SAC-23, will be more effective on the Japanese than the Germans. “Zee German,” she says, “I mean zee German soldier, he will make light of zuch things. You see, zee German uses civility to mask beastliness. But zee Japanese, he is humiliated by zuch zings. Zee Japanese uses civility to mask shame.” She speaks with unquestioned authority, the team’s’ lone European. The Operative imagines her beside him in an outdoor cafe with a cigarette and a coffee. “Zey are ashamed of everything,” she sighs.