"How will I be able to recognize you?" says the voice on the phone from Classified Associates. "Will you wear a badge on your lapel? Maybe a flower over your left ear?"
At the appointed hour, a man steps furtively into the Hot Shoppes restaurant on Wisconsin Avenue in Bethesda. He carries a trench coat, a briefcase and a threadbare hat, and wears imitation tortoise-shell sunglasses. He is a tall, hefty man in a sweat-stained shirt, a silver-haired man with -- as anyone can see once he takes off the shades -- searching blue eyes.
"I am sorrry," he says. "Meeester Ackerman -- he has been deeetained elsewhere. My name is Alfredo Bechara from Colombia" -- he proffers a soiled business card -- "but that is only my secret cover. In theees beeesness, I must change my identity every 30 minutes."
The reporter has come expecting to meet with Army Maj. William Ackerman, 37, a defense analyst for the Army's Concepts Analysis Agency and, during his off-hours, a partner in Classified Associates, a Gaithersburg firm. The company's sole product -- shredded secret documents -- went on sale the other day at the Pentagon Book Store for $3.95 a box.
But where is Major Ackerman? In his place has come this character, grinning an odd, unsettling grin.
"Are we bugged?" the man asks anxiously as he slips into a booth by the window and plops his briefcase on the table. "You are sure we are not bugged? Then you are wired, jes? You are not wired?"
He snaps the briefcase open to reveal a transparent plastic container. It is packed with tantalizing shreds of typescript.
"SECRET," warns the label under the logo of Classified Associates, a fierce-looking eagle inside a circle of stars and stripes.
"These documents contained SECRET information regarding areas of vital national security . . . This box has been sealed to prevent reassembly of its contents! To do so could present a security threat to the United States of America!"
The label bears the scrawl of a "verifying official" and a purplish ink stamp: Nov. 10 1983.
"Ah, jes, 10 November," the man says, breathing rapidly. "That was 'Thermonuclear War.' "
He grins goofily and holds up a second box. "Theees one is 30 November. That was 'Invasion of Canada.' Theees is very secret stuff. You are sure we are not bugged?"
A 1969 graduate of West Point, Maj. William Ackerman has worked for the Concepts Analysis Agency since 1982. His boss, Army Col. William Owen, chief of the Requirements Directorate ("We do studies on requirements for future wars"), says the work is "highly classified" and produces lots of "classified trash."
The trash is routinely fed through a shredder, and, says the colonel, "I don't think a million monkeys could put it back together again." The General Services Administration burns much of it, he says, though various CAA employes have found that it makes for wonderful garden mulch.
The colonel says the CAA has no part in Ackerman's business enterprise. "Bill came to me some months ago with this cute little idea of his, and told me that he and a couple of other guys had been giving it a lot of thought. I gave him some counsel on things to do and not to do. They ran it by the legal people, the security people and even the people who take away the trash. They came back with a good review. So everything has been on the up-and-up."
Joan Ackerman, the major's wife of 12 years -- they live with 7-year-old William Jr. in Rockville -- says her husband "has always been the sort of person who would get these crazy ideas and just go off into the wild blue yonder. I think that underneath it all is a burning desire to make money."
The man in the restaurant checks his watch and gasps. "We have been here now for 30 minutes. I must change my identity."
He proffers a fresh business card and announces, "Now I am Fens Trute from Vest Chermany."
He caresses his container from Classified Associates.
"Right now," he says, "ve got a couple thousand boxes. But ve have only ze boxes in ze Pentagon. Ve sell secrets only at ze Pentagon, just like everyone else. But if zis don't go, zen maybe ve sell to ze Russian Embassy. Ve hope zey vould place vith us a big order . . . Are you sure ve are not bugged?"
Slowly he pulls out his handkerchief and, with great ceremony, unfolds it. In the middle is a squashed cricket.
"You see?" the man says triumphantly. "Ve are bugged! Ve are bugged!"