While nowhere near as taut and nervy as Black's earlier books (like The Punctual Rape, 1972), this is a lively retread of a reliable Hitchcockian scenario: Innocent Bystander gets whiff of Big Secret, is chased and persecuted and deflected by Powers That Be, but becomes more and more intent on learning that Big Secret. Here the innocent bystander is White House lackey John Thorne, who receives an attachÃ‰ case from old family friend Major Burckhardt--and then the Major is dead, a supposed suicide. There's nothing in the case, but the Major's widow is sure that the Major was murdered and gives Thorne two clues (""Escalante""/""Asterisk Project"") to the Big Secret that the Major wanted to pass on. Thorne follows up on these clues, pokes around, and--wham-bam!: his apartment is burgled, the White House tries to transfer him to Paris, Mrs. Burckhardt is found dead, Thorne's girlfriend is threatened into deserting him, and he's being followed by various CIA types. So Thorne fakes his own death by taking a dip in the polluted Potomac, and finally hoofs it to Arizona, where he storms past the army guards who are watching over the Secret. As usual in such tales, the Secret can't quite live up to all that foreshadowing brouhaha (and the one here is a near-duplication of the one in Signals, p. 1081). And, also as usual, you'll be wondering what keeps Thorne plowing on so mulishly. But Black, a brisk manipulator of spare prose, never lets the momentum lapse, shrewdly alternating Thorne's odyssey with the parallel story of a disgruntled, pathetic ex-CIA man who knows the Secret and is trying to defect with it to Moscow. You won't believe a word, but you'll keep reading.