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Chapter 16

“A ring?” Susan looked doubtful. “Tankado’s missing a ring?”

“Yes. We’re lucky David caught it. It was a real heads-up play.”

“But you’re after a pass-key, not jewelry.”

“I know,” Strathmore said, “but I think they might be one and the same.”

Susan looked lost.

“It’s a long story.”

She motioned to the tracer on her screen. “I’m not going anywhere.”

Strathmore sighed heavily and began pacing. “Apparently, there were witnesses to Tankado’s death. According to the officer at the morgue, a Canadian tourist called the Guardia this morning in a panic-he said a Japanese man was having a heart attack in the park. When the officer arrived, he found Tankado dead and the Canadian there with him, so he radioed the paramedics. While the paramedics took Tankado’s body to the morgue, the officer tried to get the Canadian to tell him what happened. All the old guy did was babble about some ring Tankado had given away right before he died.”

Susan eyed him skeptically. “Tankado gave away a ring?”

“Yeah. Apparently he forced it in this old guy’s face-like he was begging him to take it. Sounds like the old guy got a close look at it.” Strathmore stopped pacing and turned. “He said the ring was engraved-with some sort of lettering.”

“Lettering?”

“Yes, and according to him, it wasn’t English.” Strathmore raised his eyebrows expectantly.

“Japanese?”

Strathmore shook his head. “My first thought too. But get this-the Canadian complained that the letters didn’t spell anything. Japanese characters could never be confused with our Roman lettering. He said the engraving looked like a cat had gotten loose on a typewriter.”

Susan laughed. “Commander, you don’t really think-”

Strathmore cut her off. “Susan, it’s crystal clear. Tankado engraved the Digital Fortress pass-key on his ring. Gold is durable. Whether he’s sleeping, showering, eating-the pass-key would always be with him, ready at a moment’s notice for instant publication.”

Susan looked dubious. “On his finger? In the open like that?”

“Why not? Spain isn’t exactly the encryption capital of the world. Nobody would have any idea what the letters meant. Besides, if the key is a standard sixty-four-bit-even in broad daylight, nobody could possibly read and memorize all sixty-four characters.”

Susan looked perplexed. “And Tankado gave this ring to a total stranger moments before he died? Why?”

Strathmore’s gaze narrowed. “Why do you think?”

It took Susan only a moment before it clicked. Her eyes widened.

Strathmore nodded. “Tankado was trying to get rid of it. He thought we’d killed him. He felt himself dying and logically assumed we were responsible. The timing was too coincidental. He figured we’d gotten to him, poison or something, a slow-acting cardiac arrestor. He knew the only way we’d dare kill him is if we’d found North Dakota.”

Susan felt a chill. “Of course,” she whispered. “Tankado thought that we neutralized his insurance policy so we could remove him too.”

It was all coming clear to Susan. The timing of the heart attack was so fortunate for the NSA that Tankado had assumed the NSA was responsible. His final instinct was revenge. Ensei gave away his ring as a last-ditch effort to publish the pass-key. Now, incredibly, some unsuspecting Canadian tourist held the key to the most powerful encryption algorithm in history.

Susan sucked in a deep breath and asked the inevitable question. “So where is the Canadian now?”

Strathmore frowned. “That’s the problem.”

“The officer doesn’t know where he is?”

“No. The Canadian’s story was so absurd that the officer figured he was either in shock or senile. So he put the old guy on the back of his motorcycle to take him back to his hotel. But the Canadian didn’t know enough to hang on; he fell off before they’d gone three feet-cracked his head and broke his wrist.”

“What!” Susan choked.

“The officer wanted to take him to a hospital, but the Canadian was furious-said he’d walk back to Canada before he’d get on the motorcycle again. So all the officer could do was walk him to a small public clinic near the park. He left him there to get checked out.”

Susan frowned. “I assume there’s no need to ask where David is headed.”

Chapter 17

David Becker stepped out onto the scorching tile concourse of Plaza de Espana. Before him, El Ayunta miento-the ancient city council building-rose from the trees on a three-acre bed of blue and white azulejo tiles. Its Arabic spires and carved facade gave the impression it had been intended more as a palace than a public office. Despite its history of military coups, fires, and public hangings, most tourists visited because the local brochures plugged it as the English military headquarters in the film Lawrence of Arabia. It had been far cheaper for Columbia Pictures to film in Spain than in Egypt, and the Moorish influence on Seville’s architecture was enough to convince moviegoers they were looking at Cairo.

Becker reset his Seiko for local time: 9:10 p.m.-still afternoon by local standards; a proper Spaniard never ate dinner before sunset, and the lazy Andalusian sun seldom surrendered the skies before ten.

Even in the early-evening heat, Becker found himself walking across the park at a brisk clip. Strathmore’s tone had sounded a lot more urgent this time than it had that morning. His new orders left no room for misinterpretation: Find the Canadian, get the ring. Do whatever is necessary, just get that ring.

Becker wondered what could possibly be so important about a ring with lettering all over it. Strathmore hadn’t offered, and Becker hadn’t asked. NSA, he thought. Never Say Anything.

On the other side of Avenida Isabela Catolica, the clinic was clearly visible-the universal symbol of a red cross in a white circle painted on the roof. The Guardia officer had dropped the Canadian off hours ago. Broken wrist, bumped head-no doubt the patient had been treated and discharged by now. Becker just hoped the clinic had discharge information-a local hotel or phone number where the man could be reached. With a little luck, Becker figured he could find the Canadian, get the ring, and be on his way home without any more complications.

Strathmore had told Becker, “Use the ten thousand cash to buy the ring if you have to. I’ll reimburse you.”

“That’s not necessary,” Becker had replied. He’d intended to return the money anyway. He hadn’t gone to Spain for money, he’d gone for Susan. Commander Trevor Strathmore was Susan’s mentor and guardian. Susan owed him a lot; a one-day errand was the least Becker could do.

Unfortunately, things this morning hadn’t gone quite as Becker had planned. He’d hoped to call Susan from the plane and explain everything. He considered having the pilot radio Strathmore so he could pass along a message but was hesitant to involve the deputy director in his romantic problems.

Three times Becker had tried to call Susan himself-first from a defunct cellular on board the jet, next from a pay phone at the airport, then again from the morgue. Susan was not in. David wondered where she could be. He’d gotten her answering machine but had not left a message; what he wanted to say was not a message for an answering machine.

As he approached the road, he spotted a phone booth near the park entrance. He jogged over, snatched up the receiver, and used his phone card to place the call. There was a long pause as the number connected. Finally it began to ring.

Come on. Be there.

After five rings the call connected.

“Hi. This is Susan Fletcher. Sorry I’m not in right now, but if you leave your name…”

Becker listened to the message. Where is she? By now Susan would be panicked. He wondered if maybe she’d gone to Stone Manor without him. There was a beep.

“Hi. It’s David.” He paused, unsure what to say. One of the things he hated about answering machines was that if you stopped to think, they cut you off. “Sorry I didn’t call,” he blurted just in time. He wondered if he should tell her what was going on. He thought better of it. “Call Commander Strathmore. He’ll explain everything.” Becker’s heart was pounding. This is absurd, he thought. “I love you,” he added quickly and hung up.

Becker waited for some traffic to pass on Avenida Borbolla. He thought about how Susan undoubtedly would have assumed the worst; it was unlike him not to call when he’d promised to.

Becker stepped out onto the four-lane boulevard. “In and out,” he whispered to himself. “In and out.” He was too preoccupied to see the man in wire-rim glasses watching from across the street.

Chapter 18

Standing before the huge plate-glass window in his Tokyo skyrise, Numataka took a long pull on his cigar and smiled to himself. He could scarcely believe his good fortune. He had spoken to the American again, and if all was going according to the timetable, Ensei Tankado had been eliminated by now, and his copy of the pass-key had been confiscated.

It was ironic, Numataka thought, that he himself would end up with Ensei Tankado’s pass-key. Tokugen Numataka had met Tankado once many years ago. The young programmer had come to Numatech Corp. fresh out of college, searching for a job. Numataka had denied him. There was no question that Tankado was brilliant, but at the time there were other considerations. Although Japan was changing, Numataka had been trained in the old school; he lived by the code of menboko-honor and face. Imperfection was not to be tolerated. If he hired a cripple, he would bring shame on his company. He had disposed of Tankado’s resume without a glance.

Numataka checked his watch again. The American, North Dakota, should have called by now. Numataka felt a tinge of nervousness. He hoped nothing was wrong.

If the pass-keys were as good as promised, they would unlock the most sought-after product of the computer age-a totally invulnerable digital encryption algorithm. Numataka could embed the algorithm in tamper-proof, spray-sealed VSLI chips and mass market them to world computer manufacturers, governments, industries, and perhaps, even the darker markets… the black market of world terrorists.

Numataka smiled. It appeared, as usual, that he had found favor with the shichigosan-the seven deities of good luck. Numatech Corp. was about to control the only copy of Digital Fortress that would ever exist. Twenty million dollars was a lot of money-but considering the product, it was the steal of the century.

Chapter 19

“What if someone else is looking for the ring?” Susan asked, suddenly nervous. “Could David be in danger?”

Strathmore shook his head. “Nobody else knows the ring exists. That’s why I sent David. I wanted to keep it that way. Curious spooks don’t usually tail Spanish teachers.”

“He’s a professor,” Susan corrected, immediately regretting the clarification. Every now and again Susan got the feeling David wasn’t good enough for the commander, that he thought somehow she could do better than a schoolteacher.

“Commander,” she said, moving on, “if you briefed David by car phone this morning, someone could have intercepted the-”

“One-in-a-million shot,” Strathmore interrupted, his tone reassuring. “Any eavesdropper had to be in the immediate vicinity and know exactly what to listen for.” He put his hand on her shoulder. “I would never have sent David if I thought it was dangerous.” He smiled. “Trust me. Any sign of trouble, and I’ll send in the pros.”

Strathmore’s words were punctuated by the sudden sound of someone pounding on the Node 3 glass. Susan and Strathmore turned.

Sys-Sec Phil Chartrukian had his face pressed against the pane and was pounding fiercely, straining to see through. Whatever he was excitedly mouthing was not audible through the soundproofed glass. He looked like he’d seen a ghost.

“What the hell is Chartrukian doing here?” Strathmore growled. “He’s not on duty today.”

“Looks like trouble,” Susan said. “He probably saw the Run-Monitor.”

“Goddamn it!” the commander hissed. “I specifically called the scheduled Sys-Sec last night and told him not to come in!”

Susan was not surprised. Canceling a Sys-Sec duty was irregular, but Strathmore undoubtedly had wanted privacy in the dome. The last thing he needed was some paranoid Sys-Sec blowing the lid off Digital Fortress.

“We better abort TRANSLTR,” Susan said. “We can reset the Run-Monitor and tell Phil he was seeing things.”

Strathmore appeared to consider it, then shook his head. “Not yet. TRANSLTR is fifteen hours into this attack. I want to run it a full twenty-four-just to be sure.”

This made sense to Susan. Digital Fortress was the first ever use of a rotating cleartext function. Maybe Tankado had overlooked something; maybe TRANSLTR would break it after twenty-four hours. Somehow Susan doubted it.

“TRANSLTR keeps running,” Strathmore resolved. “I need to know for sure this algorithm is untouchable.”

Chartrukian continued pounding on the pane.

“Here goes nothing.” Strathmore groaned. “Back me up.”

The commander took a deep breath and then strode to the sliding glass doors. The pressure plate on the floor activated, and the doors hissed open.

Chartrukian practically fell into the room. “Commander, sir. I… I’m sorry to bother you, but the Run-Monitor… I ran a virus probe and-”

“Phil, Phil, Phil,” the commander gushed pleasantly as he put a reassuring hand on Chartrukian’s shoulder. “Slow down. What seems to be the problem?”

From the easygoing tone in Strathmore’s voice, nobody would ever have guessed his world was falling in around him. He stepped aside and ushered Chartrukian into the sacred walls of Node 3. The Sys-Sec stepped over the threshold hesitantly, like a well-trained dog that knew better.

From the puzzled look on Chartrukian’s face, it was obvious he’d never seen the inside of this place. Whatever had been the source of his panic was momentarily forgotten. He surveyed the plush interior, the line of private terminals, the couches, the bookshelves, the soft lighting. When his gaze fell on the reigning queen of Crypto, Susan Fletcher, he quickly looked away. Susan intimidated the hell out of him. Her mind worked on a different plane. She was unsettlingly beautiful, and his words always seemed to get jumbled around her. Susan’s unassuming air made it even worse.

“What seems to be the problem, Phil?” Strathmore said, opening the refrigerator. “Drink?”

“No, ah-no, thank you, sir.” He seemed tongue-tied, not sure he was truly welcome. “Sir… I think there’s a problem with TRANSLTR.”

Strathmore closed the refrigerator and looked at Chartrukian casually. “You mean the Run-Monitor?”

Chartrukian looked shocked. “You mean you’ve seen it?”

“Sure. It’s running at about sixteen hours, if I’m not mistaken.”

Chartrukian seemed puzzled. “Yes, sir, sixteen hours. But that’s not all, sir. I ran a virus probe, and it’s turning up some pretty strange stuff.”

“Really?” Strathmore seemed unconcerned. “What kind of stuff?”

Susan watched, impressed with the commander’s performance.

Chartrukian stumbled on. “TRANSLTR’s processing something very advanced. The filters have never seen anything like it. I’m afraid TRANSLTR may have some sort of virus.”

“A virus?” Strathmore chuckled with just a hint of condescension. “Phil, I appreciate your concern, I really do. But Ms. Fletcher and I are running a new diagnostic, some very advanced stuff. I would have alerted you to it, but I wasn’t aware you were on duty today.”

The Sys-Sec did his best to cover gracefully. “I switched with the new guy. I took his weekend shift.”

Strathmore’s eyes narrowed. “That’s odd. I spoke to him last night. I told him not to come in. He said nothing about switching shifts.”

Chartrukian felt a knot rise in his throat. There was a tense silence.

“Well.” Strathmore finally sighed. “Sounds like an unfortunate mix-up.” He put a hand on the Sys-Sec’s shoulder and led him toward the door. “The good news is you don’t have to stay. Ms. Fletcher and I will be here all day. We’ll hold the fort. You just enjoy your weekend.”

Chartrukian was hesitant. “Commander, I really think we should check the-”

“Phil,” Strathmore repeated a little more sternly, “TRANSLTR is fine. If your probe saw something strange, it’s because we put it there. Now if you don’t mind…” Strathmore trailed off, and the Sys-Sec understood. His time was up.

“A diagnostic, my ass!” Chartrukian muttered as he fumed back into the Sys-Sec lab. “What kind of looping function keeps three million processors busy for sixteen hours?”

Chartrukian wondered if he should call the Sys-Sec supervisor. Goddamn cryptographers, he thought. They just don’t understand security!

The oath Chartrukian had taken when he joined Sys-Sec began running through his head. He had sworn to use his expertise, training, and instinct to protect the NSA’s multibillion-dollar investment.

“Instinct,” he said defiantly. It doesn’t take a psychic to know this isn’t any goddamn diagnostic!

Defiantly, Chartrukian strode over to the terminal and fired up TRANSLTR’s complete array of system assessment software.

“Your baby’s in trouble, Commander,” he grumbled. “You don’t trust instinct? I’ll get you proof!”

Chapter 20

La Clinica de Salud Publica was actually a converted elementary school and didn’t much resemble a hospital at all. It was a long, one-story brick building with huge windows and a rusted swing set out back. Becker headed up the crumbling steps.

Inside, it was dark and noisy. The waiting room was a line of folding metal chairs that ran the entire length of a long narrow corridor. A cardboard sign on a sawhorse read oficina with an arrow pointing down the hall.

Becker walked the dimly lit corridor. It was like some sort of eerie set conjured up for a Hollywood horror flick. The air smelled of urine. The lights at the far end were blown out, and the last forty or fifty feet revealed nothing but muted silhouettes. A bleeding woman… a young couple crying… a little girl praying… Becker reached the end of the darkened hall. The door to his left was slightly ajar, and he pushed it open. It was entirely empty except for an old, withered woman naked on a cot struggling with her bedpan.

Lovely. Becker groaned. He closed the door. Where the hell is the office?

Around a small dog-leg in the hall, Becker heard voices. He followed the sound and arrived at a translucent glass door that sounded as if a brawl were going on behind it. Reluctantly, Becker pushed the door open. The office. Mayhem. Just as he’d feared.

The line was about ten people deep, everyone pushing and shouting. Spain was not known for its efficiency, and Becker knew he could be there all night waiting for discharge info on the Canadian. There was only one secretary behind the desk, and she was fending off disgruntled patients. Becker stood in the doorway a moment and pondered his options. There was a better way.

“Con permiso!” an orderly shouted. A fast-rolling gurney sailed by.

Becker spun out of the way and called after the orderly. “?Donde esta el telefono?”

Without breaking stride, the man pointed to a set of double doors and disappeared around the corner. Becker walked over to the doors and pushed his way through.

The room before him was enormous-an old gymnasium. The floor was a pale green and seemed to swim in and out of focus under the hum of the fluorescent lights. On the wall, a basketball hoop hung limply from its backboard. Scattered across the floor were a few dozen patients on low cots. In the far corner, just beneath a burned-out scoreboard, was an old pay phone. Becker hoped it worked.

As he strode across the floor, he fumbled in his pocket for a coin. He found 75 pesetas in cinco-duros coins, change from the taxi-just enough for two local calls. He smiled politely to an exiting nurse and made his way to the phone. Scooping up the receiver, Becker dialed Directory Assistance. Thirty seconds later he had the number for the clinic’s main office.

Regardless of the country, it seemed there was one universal truth when it came to offices: Nobody could stand the sound of an unanswered phone. It didn’t matter how many customers were waiting to be helped, the secretary would always drop what she was doing to pick up the phone.

Becker punched the six-digit exchange. In a moment he’d have the clinic’s office. There would undoubtedly be only one Canadian admitted today with a broken wrist and a concussion; his file would be easy to find. Becker knew the office would be hesitant to give out the man’s name and discharge address to a total stranger, but he had a plan.

The phone began to ring. Becker guessed five rings was all it would take. It took nineteen.

“Clinica de Salud Publica,” barked the frantic secretary.

Becker spoke in Spanish with a thick Franco-American accent. “This is David Becker. I’m with the Canadian Embassy. One of our citizens was treated by you today. I’d like his information such that the embassy can arrange to pay his fees.”

“Fine,” the woman said. “I’ll send it to the embassy on Monday.”

“Actually,” Becker pressed, “it’s important I get it immediately.”

“Impossible,” the woman snapped. “We’re very busy.”

Becker sounded as official as possible. “It is an urgent matter. The man had a broken wrist and a head injury. He was treated sometime this morning. His file should be right on top.”

Becker thickened the accent in his Spanish-just clear enough to convey his needs, just confusing enough to be exasperating. People had a way of bending the rules when they were exasperated.

Instead of bending the rules, however, the woman cursed self-important North Americans and slammed down the phone.

Becker frowned and hung up. Strikeout. The thought of waiting hours in line didn’t thrill him; the clock was ticking-the old Canadian could be anywhere by now. Maybe he had decided to go back to Canada. Maybe he would sell the ring. Becker didn’t have hours to wait in line. With renewed determination, Becker snatched up the receiver and redialed. He pressed the phone to his ear and leaned back against the wall. It began to ring. Becker gazed out into the room. One ring… two rings… three –  A sudden surge of adrenaline coursed through his body.

Becker wheeled and slammed the receiver back down into its cradle. Then he turned and stared back into the room in stunned silence. There on a cot, directly in front of him, propped up on a pile of old pillows, lay an elderly man with a clean white cast on his right wrist.

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