The Switch – Excerpt

The security line snaked on forever, coiling around and through the rat maze of stanchions and retractable nylon strapping.

Michael Tanner was in a hurry, but LAX wasn’t cooperating. Usually he went TSA pre-check, as well as Global Entry, and every other way you could speed up the security line hassles at the airport; but for some reason his boarding pass had printed out with the words “precheck” ominously missing.

Maybe it was random. Maybe it was just a personnel shortage. They never explained why. His flight was about to board, but he was near the end of a crawling line of harassed travelers trundling rollaboard cases and shouldering backpacks.

“Shoes off, belts off, jackets off, laptops out of your bags,” one of the TSA agents, a large black woman, was chanting from the front. “No liquids. Shoes off, belts off . . .”

Tanner traveled constantly for business, and he was good at it. He glided through the lines, a travel ninja.. But this time? Shoes off! Belt off! He realized he was out of practice. How long had it been since he’d gone through the whole indignity? He yanked his belt off, slid off his loafers, put them in the gray plastic bin and shoved it along the roller conveyor, padding along in stocking feet. He took his laptop out of his shoulder bag, put it in a gray bin of its own, watched it disappear into the maw of the X-ray machine. His jacket, too, he remembered. Pulled it off and shoved it into another gray bin. Tried not to slow down the line.

He glanced at his watch. His flight to Boston was boarding, had to be. If he re-shoed and re-belted and grabbed his stuff quickly, and raced to the departure gate, he’d make it onto the plane before they closed the doors.

He patted down his pockets, found a few stray coins, took them out and put them into a plastic bowl and onto the conveyor belt, to the apparent annoyance of the middle-aged, well-dressed woman just behind him.

Tanner passed through the metal detector without a hitch, and he was on his way.

Until one of the X-ray attendants on the other side of the conveyor belt picked up his shoulder bag and said, “Is this yours, sir?”

“Yeah,” Tanner said. “That’s mine. Is there a problem?”

“Can you pick up your things and meet me over there?”

Shit. Something in his shoulder bag must have looked funky in the X-ray machine. He couldn’t afford this two or three minutes of scrutiny. But there was no questioning authority. He grabbed his stuff — belt, laptop, shoes, shoulder bag — and met the TSA guy at the metal table. The man pulled out a wand of some kind and ran it around the edges of Tanner’s bag. The wand was connected to a machine that was labeled Smiths Detection. It was obviously designed to check for traces of explosives. He waited patiently for another minute, suppressing the urge to make a crack, until the guy finally said, “You’re all set,” and handed the bag back.

Tanner unzipped the bag, slipped his Macbook Air into it, zipped it back up, slotted his belt into his pant loops, while stepping into his shoes, resisting the urge to glance at his watch again.

He arrived at the gate to find no one waiting there, just a couple of airline personnel, a man and a woman, the man behind the counter and the woman next to it. “Flight three sixty-nine?” the woman said.

“That’s right.”

“All right, sir, you’re the last to arrive.” She said it disapprovingly, like she’d caught him smoking in the lavatory.

Finally he took his seat on the plane, sat back, exhaled.

He’d made it; he’d be fine; he’d get to Boston around nine-thirty in the evening, and the next day he’d be back at work.

Tanner was operating on a few hours of sleep. He was exhausted, so tired that he didn’t need to take an Ambien.

He arrived at his South End house raw-eyed and headachy and punchy.

The house, five floors including the basement, seemed echoey with Sarah gone. He switched on some lights in the kitchen and, standing at the island, opened his laptop. He’d made some notes on it he wanted to e-mail himself. The computer was off, which surprised him, because he rarely powered the thing down. Had he shut it off in the cab on the way to LAX? Maybe. Maybe he’d spaced out. It was no big deal. He pressed the power button, and a minute later an unfamiliar screen came up: a globe and the name “S. Robbins” and a blank for the password.

He stared at the screen for another minute or so until the realization sank in: this wasn’t his laptop. In the rush to grab his possessions in the security line, he’d taken someone else’s identical MacBook Air. Belonging to one S. Robbins.

While S. Robbins probably had his.

The perfect glitch to cap off a frustrating day.

There was a faint perfume smell to the laptop, a good and familiar white floral scent, a woman’s perfume he’d smelled before. S. Robbins was probably female.

Something tickled at the back of his mind, and he picked up the MacBook Air. He’d remembered right: on the bottom of the laptop was a tiny pink square, a Post-it note.

He peeled it off the metal case and saw a jumble of letters and numbers.


He wondered . . .

He opened the laptop again and entered the characters in the password space, and sure enough, the screen opened up with the default Apple background photo of a mountain peak.

“Got it,” he said aloud. He found the Documents icon and double-clicked it, and a column of folders came up. They had names like:

Book project
Chicago house
D.C. Condo
Donor Thank-yous
Briefing memos
Press releases

He opened the “Book Project” folder and then opened the first document he came to, labeled “Proposal 3.4.” It began:

HONOR BOUND: Life in the Public Eye
By Senator Susan J. Robbins
After twenty-four years in the United States Senate, I’ve learned a few hard lessons. The food in the cafeteria in the basement of the Hart Senate Office Building is—

He looked up. Senator Susan J. Robbins. “S. Robbins” was Senator Susan Robbins. He’d heard of her. A longtime U.S. senator from Illinois. He had a computer belonging to a U.S. senator. Huh.

The baby had just fallen asleep on his mother’s nipple.

Will Abbott lifted little Travis slowly from Jen’s breast, and carried him carefully, gingerly, across the darkened room toward the crib as if he were transporting a hand grenade with the pin out. It could go off at any second.

Because Little Travis, six weeks old, hardly ever seemed to sleep. A few hours here and there, never more than that. And when he didn’t sleep, his parents didn’t sleep.

Travis had just had his last feeding for the day, or at least until he woke up at two in the morning desperately hungry again. Right now he was the angel baby, flying through the clouds, making tiny fussing sounds in his sleep. At two in the morning, or maybe three, he would awake, ravenous and loud and beyond comforting.

Jen always got up and fed him, since the baby wanted her, not him. And because Will had to go to work in the morning. Will could roll over and put a pillow over his head and fall back asleep while Jen nursed him. It was colossally unfair. Will, who worked on Capitol Hill as chief of staff to a senator, had by far the easier job. But it was also the job that paid the rent on their Stanton Park apartment.

Will was always tired, always sleep-deprived, since the baby was born. He’d taken a month-long paternity leave—most chiefs didn’t get that— during which he tried to take the baby as much as possible so Jen could catch up on sleep. But Travis always wanted his mother. Will tried putting the baby in his car seat and driving around, but that didn’t quiet him down.

Jen’s mom thought that Travis might have colic, but their pediatrician said colic was just an old-fashioned term for an inconsolable baby without any other obvious problem. It was probably abdominal pain, but he wasn’t sure. He might just be a fussy baby. He was hungry a lot, but he wouldn’t take a bottle, so they couldn’t augment his feeding.

The room was filled with the whooshing of the white-noise generator in the corner near the baby’s crib. The white-noise machine was Jen’s idea. She thought it would mask traffic noise from the street.

Anything to keep the baby asleep a little longer.

Will walked back to the bed, avoiding the floorboard that always squeaked. When he reached the bed, his BlackBerry rang. His work phone. He kept it beside the bed, in its charger, because it rarely rang past nine at night. And if it did, it was the boss, which meant it was important.

As soon as the ringtone sounded — he’d forgotten to put it on vibrate mode — Travis awoke and started to squall. From the number readout he saw it was the senator. It had to be something urgent. Otherwise, she’d just text.

“Hi, Susan,” he said.

“Will, listen, I screwed up.”

An ominous start. The boss was never self-critical, never self-blaming. She had a big ego and a maddeningly serene confidence.

“Okay,” he said, switching into I-can-handle-anything, Mister-Fix-it mode.

“I grabbed the wrong laptop.”

“I don’t—”

“At the airport. I grabbed someone else’s laptop. In the security line. And someone got mine.”

“Okay. You flew American, right? I’ll call their lost-and-found at National. Whoever took it probably brought it back—”

“This was in L.A.”

The baby was wailing now, so Will went out into the hall, one hand over his free ear.

“No problem, I’ll call—”

“Did I wake you? You’re not thinking clearly. The security line at LAX, Will. That means it could be anyone, on any flight, who took my laptop. Any of a thousand people. And—” she sighed heavily — “And you know damn well we can’t call law enforcement.”

For a moment he didn’t know what she was talking about, and then it came to him. “Oh.”

Icy tendrils gripped the pit of his stomach. “Oh, my God. It’s—it’s password-protected, right? I mean, no one can get onto your laptop without your password. Right?”

There was a long silence. Over the phone, Will could hear the distant clamor of airport announcements on speakers. He was about to repeat the question when she said dully, “Yes, it’s password-protected.”

“Great. We don’t have to worry about it, then.” The icy tendrils began to melt away. In the background he heard loud babble, people talking loudly, close to her.

“No,” she said. “We have to assume the worst. We have to worry about everything as long as that computer is out there.”

‘Well, maybe whoever took it realized it wasn’t hers and brought it to the lost-and-found at LAX.”

“Yeah,” she said, sounding unconvinced. “How early can you get in tomorrow morning?”

“How early do you need me?” Little Travis let loose with an ear-shattering, gut-churning yowl. Will glanced at his watch. Ten minutes after ten. Putting the baby down might take another half an hour, and he knew it would be his job, not Jen’s. If he was lucky, he’d get three and a half hours of sleep before the inevitable two a.m. awakening, and then another two or three fitful hours. Five or six broken hours of sleep, he calculated, before what was probably going to be a long and arduous day.

“I don’t think you realize how sensitive this is.” In a quieter voice, she went on, “If anyone finds out — it could be a felony. Not ‘it could be,’ it is a felony.”

Will felt queasy. “But you’d never get prosecuted.”

“Don’t be so sure. The atmosphere today, it’s a career-ender for sure. There must be some way to hack into it, to find out who owns it, right?”

“Don’t worry about it,” he said. “It’s handled.”