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Chapter 21

The American on Tokugen Numataka’s private line sounded anxious.

“Mr. Numataka-I only have a moment.”

“Fine. I trust you have both pass-keys.”

“There will be a small delay,” the American answered.

“Unacceptable,” Numataka hissed. “You said I would have them by the end of today!”

“There is one loose end.”

“Is Tankado dead?”

“Yes,” the voice said. “My man killed Mr. Tankado, but he failed to get the pass-key. Tankado gave it away before he died. To a tourist.”

“Outrageous!” Numataka bellowed. “Then how can you promise me exclusive-”

“Relax,” the American soothed. “You will have exclusive rights. That is my guarantee. As soon as the missing pass-key is found, Digital Fortress will be yours.”

“But the pass-key could be copied!”

“Anyone who has seen the key will be eliminated.”

There was a long silence. Finally Numataka spoke. “Where is the key now?”

“All you need to know is that it will be found.”

“How can you be so certain?”

“Because I am not the only one looking for it. American Intelligence has caught wind of the missing key. For obvious reasons they would like to prevent the release of Digital Fortress. They have sent a man to locate the key. His name is David Becker.”

“How do you know this?”

“That is irrelevant.”

Numataka paused. “And if Mr. Becker locates the key?”

“My man will take it from him.”

“And after that?”

“You needn’t be concerned,” the American said coldly. “When Mr. Becker finds the key, he will be properly rewarded.”

The American on Tokugen Numataka’s private line sounded anxious.

“Mr. Numataka-I only have a moment.”

“Fine. I trust you have both pass-keys.”

“There will be a small delay,” the American answered.

“Unacceptable,” Numataka hissed. “You said I would have them by the end of today!”

“There is one loose end.”

“Is Tankado dead?”

“Yes,” the voice said. “My man killed Mr. Tankado, but he failed to get the pass-key. Tankado gave it away before he died. To a tourist.”

“Outrageous!” Numataka bellowed. “Then how can you promise me exclusive-”

“Relax,” the American soothed. “You will have exclusive rights. That is my guarantee. As soon as the missing pass-key is found, Digital Fortress will be yours.”

“But the pass-key could be copied!”

“Anyone who has seen the key will be eliminated.”

There was a long silence. Finally Numataka spoke. “Where is the key now?”

“All you need to know is that it will be found.”

“How can you be so certain?”

“Because I am not the only one looking for it. American Intelligence has caught wind of the missing key. For obvious reasons they would like to prevent the release of Digital Fortress. They have sent a man to locate the key. His name is David Becker.”

“How do you know this?”

“That is irrelevant.”

Numataka paused. “And if Mr. Becker locates the key?”

“My man will take it from him.”

“And after that?”

“You needn’t be concerned,” the American said coldly. “When Mr. Becker finds the key, he will be properly rewarded.”

Chapter 22

David Becker strode over and stared down at the old man asleep on the cot. The man’s right wrist was wrapped in a cast. He was between sixty and seventy years old. His snow-white hair was parted neatly to the side, and in the center of his forehead was a deep purple welt that spread down into his right eye.

A little bump? he thought, recalling the lieutenant’s words. Becker checked the man’s fingers. There was no gold ring anywhere. Becker reached down and touched the man’s arm. “Sir?” He shook him lightly. “Excuse me… sir?”

The man didn’t move.

Becker tried again, a little louder. “Sir?”

The man stirred. “Qu’est-ce… quelle heure est-” He slowly opened his eyes and focused on Becker. He scowled at having been disturbed. “Qu’est-ce-que vous voulez?”

Yes, Becker thought, a French Canadian! Becker smiled down at him. “Do you have a moment?”

Although Becker’s French was perfect, he spoke in what he hoped would be the man’s weaker language, English. Convincing a total stranger to hand over a gold ring might be a little tricky; Becker figured he could use any edge he could get.

There was a long silence as the man got his bearings. He surveyed his surroundings and lifted a long finger to smooth his limp white mustache. Finally he spoke. “What do you want?” His English carried a thin, nasal accent.

“Sir,” Becker said, over pronouncing his words as if speaking to a deaf person, “I need to ask you a few questions.”

The man glared up at him with a strange look on his face. “Do you have some sort of problem?”

Becker frowned; the man’s English was impeccable. He immediately lost the condescending tone. “I’m sorry to bother you, sir, but were you by any chance at the Plaza de Espana today?”

The old man’s eyes narrowed. “Are you from the City Council?”

“No, actually I’m-”

“Bureau of Tourism?”

“No, I’m-”

“Look, I know why you’re here!” The old man struggled to sit up. “I’m not going to be intimidated! If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times-Pierre Cloucharde writes the world the way he lives the world. Some of your corporate guidebooks might sweep this under the table for a free night on the town, but the Montreal Times is not for hire! I refuse!”

“I’m sorry, sir. I don’t think you under-”

“Merde alors! I understand perfectly!” He wagged a bony finger at Becker, and his voice echoed through the gymnasium. “You’re not the first! They tried the same thing at the Moulin Rouge, Brown’s Palace, and the Golfigno in Lagos! But what went to press? The truth! The worst Wellington I’ve ever eaten! The filthiest tub I’ve ever seen! And the rockiest beach I’ve ever walked! My readers expect no less!”

Patients on nearby cots began sitting up to see what was going on. Becker looked around nervously for a nurse. The last thing he needed was to get kicked out.

Cloucharde was raging. “That miserable excuse for a police officer works for your city! He made me get on his motorcycle! Look at me!” He tried to lift his wrist. “Now who’s going to write my column?”

“Sir, I-”

“I’ve never been so uncomfortable in my forty-three years of travel! Look at this place! You know, my column is syndicated in over-”

“Sir!” Becker held up both hands urgently signaling truce. “I’m not interested in your column; I’m from the Canadian Consulate. I’m here to make sure you’re okay!”

Suddenly there was a dead quiet in the gymnasium. The old man looked up from his bed and eyed the intruder suspiciously.

Becker ventured on in almost a whisper. “I’m here to see if there’s anything I can do to help.” Like bring you a couple of Valium.

After a long pause, the Canadian spoke. “The consulate?” His tone softened considerably.

Becker nodded.

“So, you’re not here about my column?”

“No, sir.”

It was as if a giant bubble had burst for Pierre Cloucharde. He settled slowly back down onto his mound of pillows. He looked heartbroken. “I thought you were from the city… trying to get me to…” He faded off and then looked up. “If it’s not about my column, then why are you here?”

It was a good question, Becker thought, picturing the Smoky Mountains. “Just an informal diplomatic courtesy,” he lied.

The man looked surprised. “A diplomatic courtesy?”

“Yes, sir. As I’m sure a man of your stature is well aware, the Canadian government works hard to protect its countrymen from the indignities suffered in these, er-shall we say-less refined countries.”

Cloucharde’s thin lips parted in a knowing smile. “But of course… how pleasant.”

“You are a Canadian citizen, aren’t you?”

“Yes, of course. How silly of me. Please forgive me. Someone in my position is often approached with… well… you understand.”

“Yes, Mr. Cloucharde, I certainly do. The price one pays for celebrity.”

“Indeed.” Cloucharde let out a tragic sigh. He was an unwilling martyr tolerating the masses. “Can you believe this hideous place?” He rolled his eyes at the bizarre surroundings. “It’s a mockery. And they’ve decided to keep me overnight.”

Becker looked around. “I know. It’s terrible. I’m sorry it took me so long to get here.”

Cloucharde looked confused. “I wasn’t even aware you were coming.”

Becker changed the subject. “Looks like a nasty bump on your head. Does it hurt?”

“No, not really. I took a spill this morning-the price one pays for being a good Samaritan. The wrist is the thing that’s hurting me. Stupid Guardia. I mean, really! Putting a man of my age on a motorcycle. It’s reprehensible.”

“Is there anything I can get for you?”

Cloucharde thought a moment, enjoying the attention. “Well, actually…” He stretched his neck and tilted his head left and right. “I could use another pillow if it’s not too much trouble.”

“Not at all.” Becker grabbed a pillow off a nearby cot and helped Cloucharde get comfortable.

The old man sighed contentedly. “Much better… thank you.”

“Pas du tout,” Becker replied.

“Ah!” The man smiled warmly. “So you do speak the language of the civilized world.”

“That’s about the extent of it,” Becker said sheepishly.

“Not a problem,” Cloucharde declared proudly. “My column is syndicated in the U.S.; my English is first rate.”

“So I’ve heard.” Becker smiled. He sat down on the edge of Cloucharde’s cot. “Now, if you don’t mind my asking, Mr. Cloucharde, why would a man such as yourself come to a place like this? There are far better hospitals in Seville.”

Cloucharde looked angry. “That police officer… he bucked me off his motorcycle and then left me bleeding in the street like a stuck pig. I had to walk over here.”

“He didn’t offer to take you to a better facility?”

“On that godawful bike of his? No thanks!”

“What exactly happened this morning?”

“I told it all to the lieutenant.”

“I’ve spoken to the officer and-”

“I hope you reprimanded him!” Cloucharde interrupted.

Becker nodded. “In the severest terms. My office will be following up.”

“I should hope so.”

“Monsieur Cloucharde.” Becker smiled, pulling a pen out of his jacket pocket. “I’d like to make a formal complaint to the city. Would you help? A man of your reputation would be a valuable witness.”

Cloucharde looked buoyed by the prospect of being quoted. He sat up. “Why, yes… of course. It would be my pleasure.”

Becker took out a small note pad and looked up. “Okay, let’s start with this morning. Tell me about the accident.”

The old man sighed. “It was sad really. The poor Asian fellow just collapsed. I tried to help him-but it was no use.”

“You gave him CPR?”

Cloucharde looked ashamed. “I’m afraid I don’t know how. I called an ambulance.”

Becker remembered the bluish bruises on Tankado’s chest. “Did the paramedics administer CPR?”

“Heavens, no!” Cloucharde laughed. “No reason to whip a dead horse-the fellow was long gone by the time the ambulance got there. They checked his pulse and carted him off, leaving me with that horrific policeman.”

That’s strange, Becker thought, wondering where the bruise had come from. He pushed it from his mind and got to the matter at hand. “What about the ring?” he said as nonchalantly as possible.

Cloucharde looked surprised. “The lieutenant told you about the ring?”

“Yes, he did.”

Cloucharde seemed amazed. “Really? I didn’t think he believed my story. He was so rude-as if he thought I were lying. But my story was accurate, of course. I pride myself on accuracy.”

“Where is the ring?” Becker pressed.

Cloucharde didn’t seem to hear. He was glassy-eyed, staring into space. “Strange piece really, all those letters-looked like no language I’d ever seen.”

“Japanese, maybe?” Becker offered.

“Definitely not.”

“So you got a good look at it?”

“Heavens, yes! When I knelt down to help, the man kept pushing his fingers in my face. He wanted to give me the ring. It was most bizarre, horrible really-his hands were quite dreadful.”

“And that’s when you took the ring?”

Cloucharde went wide-eyed. “That’s what the officer told you! That I took the ring?”

Becker shifted uneasily.

Cloucharde exploded. “I knew he wasn’t listening! That’s how rumors get started! I told him the Jap fellow gave away the ring-but not to me! There’s no way I would take anything from a dying man! My heavens! The thought of it!”

Becker sensed trouble. “So you don’t have the ring?”

“Heavens, no!”

A dull ache crept through the pit of his stomach. “Then who has it?”

Cloucharde glared at Becker indignantly. “The German! The German has it!”

Becker felt like the floor had been pulled out from under him. “German? What German?”

“The German in the park! I told the officer about him! I refused the ring but the fascist swine accepted it!”

Becker set down his pen and paper. The charade was over. This was trouble. “So a German has the ring?”

“Indeed.”

“Where did he go?”

“No idea. I ran to call the police. When I got back, he was gone.”

“Do you know who he was?”

“Some tourist.”

“Are you sure?”

“My life is tourists,” Cloucharde snapped. “I know one when I see one. He and his lady friend were out strolling the park.”

Becker was more and more confused every moment. “Lady friend? There was somebody with the German?”

Cloucharde nodded. “An escort. Gorgeous redhead. Mon Dieu! Beautiful.”

“An escort?” Becker was stunned. “As in… a prostitute?”

Cloucharde grimaced. “Yes, if you must use the vulgar term.”

“But… the officer said nothing about-”

“Of course not! I never mentioned the escort.” Cloucharde dismissed Becker with a patronizing wave of his good hand. “They aren’t criminals-it’s absurd that they’re harassed like common thieves.”

Becker was still in a mild state of shock. “Was there anyone else there?”

“No, just the three of us. It was hot.”

“And you’re positive the woman was a prostitute?”

“Absolutely. No woman that beautiful would be with a manlike that unless she were well paid! Mon Dieu! He was fat, fat, fat! A loudmouthed, overweight, obnoxious German!” Cloucharde winced momentarily as he shifted his weight, but he ignored the pain and plowed on. “This man was a beast-three hundred pounds at least. He locked onto that poor dear like she was about to run away-not that I’d blame her. I mean really! Hands all over her. Bragged that he had her all weekend for three hundred dollars! He’s the one who should have dropped dead, not that poor Asian fellow.” Cloucharde came up for air, and Becker jumped in.

“Did you get his name?”

Cloucharde thought for a moment and then shook his head. “No idea.” He winced in pain again and settled slowly back into his pillows.

Becker sighed. The ring had just evaporated before his eyes. Commander Strathmore was not going to be happy.

Cloucharde dabbed at his forehead. His burst of enthusiasm had taken its toll. He suddenly looked ill.

Becker tried another approach. “Mr. Cloucharde, I’d like to get a statement from the German and his escort as well. Do you have any idea where they’re staying?”

Cloucharde closed his eyes, his strength fading. His breathing grew shallow.

“Anything at all?” Becker pressed. “The escort’s name?

There was a long silence.

Cloucharde rubbed his right temple. He was suddenly looking pale. “Well… ah… no. I don’t believe…” His voice was shaky.

Becker leaned toward him. “Are you all right?”

Cloucharde nodded lightly. “Yes, fine… just a little… the excitement maybe…” He trailed off.

“Think, Mr. Cloucharde.” Becker urged quietly. “It’s important.”

Cloucharde winced. “I don’t know… the woman… the man kept calling her…” He closed his eyes and groaned.

“What was her name?”

“I really don’t recall…” Cloucharde was fading fast.

“Think.” Becker prodded. “It’s important that the consular file be as complete as possible. I’ll need to support your story with statements from the other witnesses. Any information you can give me to help locate them…”

But Cloucharde was not listening. He was dabbing his forehead with the sheet. “I’m sorry… perhaps tomorrow…” He looked nauseated.

“Mr. Cloucharde, it’s important you remember this now.” Becker suddenly realized he was speaking too loudly. People on nearby cots were still sitting up watching what was going on. On the far side of the room a nurse appeared through the double doors and strode briskly toward them.

“Anything at all,” Becker pressed urgently.

“The German called the woman-”

Becker lightly shook Cloucharde, trying to bring him back.

Cloucharde’s eyes flickered momentarily. “Her name…”

Stay with me, old fella…

“Dew…” Cloucharde’s eyes closed again. The nurse was closing in. She looked furious.

“Dew?” Becker shook Cloucharde’s arm.

The old man groaned. “He called her…” Cloucharde was mumbling now, barely audible.

The nurse was less than ten feet away yelling at Becker in angry Spanish. Becker heard nothing. His eyes were fixed on the old man’s lips. He shook Cloucharde one last time as the nurse bore down on him.

The nurse grabbed David Becker’s shoulder. She pulled him to his feet just as Cloucharde’s lips parted. The single word leaving the old man’s mouth was not actually spoken. It was softly sighed-like a distant sensual remembrance. “Dewdrop…”

The scolding grasp yanked Becker away.

Dewdrop? Becker wondered. What the hell kind of name is Dewdrop? He spun away from the nurse and turned one last time to Cloucharde. “Dewdrop? Are you sure?”

But Pierre Cloucharde was fast asleep.

Chapter 23

Susan sat alone in the plush surroundings of Node 3. She nursed a lemon mist herb tea and awaited the return of her tracer.

As senior cryptographer, Susan enjoyed the terminal with the best view. It was on the back side of the ring of computers and faced the Crypto floor. From this spot, Susan could oversee all of Node 3. She could also see, on the other side of the one-way glass, TRANSLTR standing dead-center of the Crypto floor.

Susan checked the clock. She had been waiting almost an hour. American Remailers Anonymous was apparently taking their time forwarding North Dakota’s mail. She sighed heavily. Despite her efforts to forget her morning conversation with David, the words played over and over in her head. She knew she’d been hard on him. She prayed he was okay in Spain.

Her thoughts were jarred by the loud hiss of the glass doors. She looked up and groaned. Cryptographer Greg Hale stood in the opening.

Greg Hale was tall and muscular with thick blond hair and a deep cleft chin. He was loud, thick-fleshed, and perpetually overdressed. His fellow cryptographers had nicknamed him “Halite”-after the mineral. Hale had always assumed it referred to some rare gem-paralleling his unrivaled intellect and rock-hard physique. Had his ego permitted him to consult an encyclopedia, he would have discovered it was nothing more than the salty residue left behind when oceans dried up.

Like all NSA cryptographers, Hale made a solid salary. However, he had a hard time keeping that fact to himself. He drove a white Lotus with a moon roof and a deafening subwoofer system. He was a gadget junkie, and his car was his showpiece; he’d installed a global positioning computer system, voice-activated door locks, a five-point radar jammer, and a cellular fax/phone so he’d never be out of touch with his message services. His vanity plate read megabyte and was framed in violet neon.

Greg Hale had been rescued from a childhood of petty crime by the U.S. Marine Corps. It was there that he’d learned about computers. He was one of the best programmers the Marines had ever seen, well on his way to a distinguished military career. But two days before the completion of his third tour of duty, his future suddenly changed. Hale accidentally killed a fellow Marine in a drunken brawl. The Korean art of self-defense, Tae kwon do, proved more deadly than defensive. He was promptly relieved of his duty.

After serving a brief prison term, Halite began looking for work in the private sector as a programmer. He was always up front about the incident in the marines, and he courted prospective employers by offering a month’s work without pay to prove his worth. He had no shortage of takers, and once they found out what he could do with a computer, they never wanted to let him go.

As his computer expertise grew, Hale began making Internet connections all over the world. He was one of the new breed of cyberfreaks with E-mail friends in every nation, moving in and out of seedy electronic bulletin boards and European chat groups. He’d been fired by two different employers for using their business accounts to upload pornographic photos to some of his friends.

“What are you doing here?” Hale demanded, stopping in the doorway and staring at Susan. He’d obviously expected to have Node 3 to himself today.

Susan forced herself to stay cool. “It’s Saturday, Greg. I could ask you the same question.” But Susan knew what Hale was doing there. He was the consummate computer addict. Despite the Saturday rule, he often slipped into Crypto on weekends to use the NSA’s unrivalled computing power to run new programs he was working on.

“Just wanted to re-tweak a few lines and check my E-mail,” Hale said. He eyed her curiously. “What was it you said you’re doing here?”

“I didn’t,” Susan replied.

Hale arched a surprised eyebrow. “No reason to be coy. We have no secrets here in Node 3, remember? All for one and one for all.”

Susan sipped her lemon mist and ignored him. Hale shrugged and strode toward the Node 3 pantry. The pantry was always his first stop. As Hale crossed the room, he sighed heavily and made a point of ogling Susan’s legs stretched out beneath her terminal. Susan, without looking up, retracted her legs and kept working. Hale smirked.

Susan had gotten used to Hale hitting on her. His favorite line was something about interfacing to check the compatibility of their hardware. It turned Susan’s stomach. She was too proud to complain to Strathmore about Hale; it was far easier just to ignore him.

Hale approached the Node 3 pantry and pulled open the lattice doors like a bull. He slid a Tupperware container of tofu out of the fridge and popped a few pieces of the gelatinous white substance in his mouth. Then he leaned on the stove and smoothed his gray Bellvienne slacks and well-starched shirt. “You gonna be here long?”

“All night,” Susan said flatly.

“Hmm…” Halite cooed with his mouth full. “A cozy Saturday in the Playpen, just the two of us.”

“Just the three of us,” Susan interjected. “Commander Strathmore’s upstairs. You might want to disappear before he sees you.”

Hale shrugged. “He doesn’t seem to mind you here. He must really enjoy your company.”

Susan forced herself to keep silent.

Hale chuckled to himself and put away his tofu. Then he grabbed a quart of virgin olive oil and took a few swigs. He was a health fiend and claimed olive oil cleaned out his lower intestine. When he wasn’t pushing carrot juice on the rest of the staff, he was preaching the virtues of high colonics.

Hale replaced the olive oil and went to down his computer directly opposite Susan. Even across the wide ring of terminals, Susan could smell his cologne. She crinkled her nose.

“Nice cologne, Greg. Use the entire bottle?

Hale flicked on his terminal. “Only for you, dear.”

As he sat there waiting for his terminal to warm up, Susan had a sudden unsettling thought. What if Hale accessed TRANSLTR’s Run-Monitor? There was no logical reason why he would, but nonetheless Susan knew he would never fall for some half-baked story about a diagnostic that stumped TRANSLTR for sixteen hours. Hale would demand to know the truth. The truth was something Susan had no intention of telling him. She did not trust Greg Hale. He was not NSA material. Susan had been against hiring him in the first place, but the NSA had had no choice. Hale had been the product of damage control.

The Skipjack fiasco.

Four years ago, in an effort to create a single, public-key encryption standard, Congress charged the nation’s best mathematicians, those at the NSA, to write a new super algorithm. The plan was for Congress to pass legislation that made the new algorithm the nation’s standard, thus alleviating the incompatibilities now suffered by corporations that used different algorithms.

Of course, asking the NSA to lend a hand in improving public-key encryption was somewhat akin to asking a condemned man to build his own coffin. TRANSLTR had not yet been conceived, and an encryption standard would only help to proliferate the use of code-writing and make the NSA’s already difficult job that much harder.

The EFF understood this conflict of interest and lobbied vehemently that the NSA might create an algorithm of poor quality-something it could break. To appease these fears, Congress announced that when the NSA’s algorithm was finished, the formula would be published for examination by the world’s mathematicians to ensure its quality.

Reluctantly, the NSA’s Crypto team, led by Commander Strathmore, created an algorithm they christened Skipjack. Skipjack was presented to Congress for their approval. Mathematicians from all over the world tested Skipjack and were unanimously impressed. They reported that it was a strong, untainted algorithm and would make a superb encryption standard. But three days before Congress was to vote their certain approval of Skipjack, a young programmer from Bell Laboratories, Greg Hale, shocked the world by announcing he’d found a back door hidden in the algorithm.

The back door consisted of a few lines of cunning programming that Commander Strathmore had inserted into the algorithm. It had been added in so shrewd a way that nobody, except Greg Hale, had seen it. Strathmore’s covert addition, in effect, meant that any code written by Skipjack could be decrypted via a secret password known only to the NSA. Strathmore had come within inches of turning the nation’s proposed encryption standard into the biggest intelligence coup the NSA had ever seen; the NSA would have held the master key to every code written in America.

The computer-savvy public was outraged. The EFF descended on the scandal like vultures, ripping Congress to shreds for their naivete and proclaiming the NSA the biggest threat to the free world since Hitler. The encryption standard was dead.

It had come as little surprise when the NSA hired Greg Hale two days later. Strathmore felt it was better to have him on the inside working for the NSA than on the outside working against it.

Strathmore faced the Skipjack scandal head-on. He defended his actions vehemently to Congress. He argued that the public’s craving for privacy would come back to haunt them. He insisted the public needed someone to watch over them; the public needed the NSA to break codes in order to keep the peace. Groups like the EFF felt differently. And they’d been fighting him ever since.

Chapter 24

David Becker stood in a phone booth across the street from La Clinica de Salud Publica; he’d just been ejected for harassing patient number 104, Monsieur Cloucharde.

Things were suddenly more complicated than he’d anticipated. His little favor to Strathmore-picking up some personal belongings-had turned into a scavenger hunt for some bizarre ring.

He’d just called Strathmore and told him about the German tourist. The news had not been received well. After demanding the specifics, Strathmore had fallen silent for a long time. “David,” he had finally said very gravely, “finding that ring is a matter of national security. I’m leaving it in your hands. Don’t fail me.” The phone had gone dead.

David stood in the phone booth and sighed. He picked up the tattered Guia Telefonica and began scanning the yellow pages. “Here goes nothing,” he muttered to himself.

There were only three listings for Escort Services in the directory, and he didn’t have much to go on. All he knew was that the German’s date had red hair, which conveniently was rare in Spain. The delirious Cloucharde had recalled the escort’s name as Dewdrop. Becker cringed-Dewdrop? It sounded more like a cow than a beautiful girl. Not a good Catholic name at all; Cloucharde must have been mistaken.

Becker dialed the first number.

“Servicio Social de Sevilla,” a pleasant female voice answered.

Becker affected his Spanish with a thick German accent. “Hola,?hablas Aleman?”

“No. But I speak English” came the reply.

Becker continued in broken English. “Thank you. I wondering if you to help me?”

“How can we be of service?” The woman spoke slowly in an effort to aid her potential client. “Perhaps you would like an escort?”

“Yes, please. Today my brother, Klaus, he has girl, very beautiful. Red hair. I want same. For tomorrow, please.”

“Your brother Klaus comes here?” The voice was suddenly effervescent, like they were old friends.

“Yes. He very fat. You remember him, no?”

“He was here today, you say?”

Becker could hear her checking the books. There would be no Klaus listed, but Becker figured clients seldom used their real names.

“Hmm, I’m sorry,” she apologized. “I don’t see him here. What was the girl’s name your brother was with?”

“Had red hair,” Becker said, avoiding the question.

“Red hair?” she repeated. There was a pause. “This is Servicio Social de Sevilla. Are you sure your brother comes here?”

“Sure, yes.”

“Senor, we have no redheads. We have only pure Andalusian beauties.”

“Red hair,” Becker repeated, feeling stupid.

“I’m sorry, we have no redheads at all, but if you-”

“Name is Dewdrop,” Becker blurted, feeling even stupider.

The ridiculous name apparently meant nothing to the woman. She apologized, suggested Becker was confusing her with another agency, and politely hung up.

Strike one.

Becker frowned and dialed the next number. It connected immediately.

“Buenas noches, Mujeres Espana. May I help you?”

Becker launched into his same spiel, a German tourist who was willing to pay top dollar for the red-haired girl who was out with his brother today.

This time the response was in polite German, but again no redheads. “Keine Rotkopfe, I’m sorry.” The woman hung up.

Strike two.

Becker looked down at the phone book. There was only one number left. The end of the rope already.

He dialed.

“Escortes Belen,” a man answered in a very slick tone.

Again Becker told his story.

“Si, si, senor. My name is Senor Roldan. I would be pleased to help. We have two redheads. Lovely girls.”

Becker’s heart leapt. “Very beautiful?” he repeated in his German accent. “Red hair?”

“Yes, what is your brother’s name? I will tell you who was his escort today. And we can send her to you tomorrow.”

“Klaus Schmidt.” Becker blurted a name recalled from an old textbook.

A long pause. “Well, sir… I don’t see a Klaus Schmidt on our registry, but perhaps your brother chose to be discreet-perhaps a wife at home?” He laughed inappropriately.

“Yes, Klaus married. But he very fat. His wife no lie with him.” Becker rolled his eyes at himself reflected in the booth. If Susan could hear me now, he thought. “I fat and lonely too. I want lie with her. Pay lots of money.”

Becker was giving an impressive performance, but he’d gone too far. Prostitution was illegal in Spain, and Senor Roldan was a careful man. He’d been burned before by Guardia officials posing as eager tourists. I want lie with her. Roldan knew it was a setup. If he said yes, he would be heavily fined and, as always, forced to provide one of his most talented escorts to the police commissioner free of charge for an entire weekend.

When Roldan spoke, his voice not quite as friendly. “Sir, this is Escortes Belen. May I ask who’s calling?”

“Aah… Sigmund Schmidt,” Becker invented weakly.

“Where did you get our number?”

“La Guia Telefonica-yellow pages.”

“Yes, sir, that’s because we are an escort service.”

“Yes. I want escort.” Becker sensed something was wrong.

“Sir, Escortes Belen is a service providing escorts to businessmen for luncheons and dinners. This is why we are listed in the phone book. What we do is legal. What you are looking for is a prostitute.” The word slid off his tongue like a vile disease.

“But my brother…”

“Sir, if your brother spent the day kissing a girl in the park, she was not one of ours. We have strict regulations about client-escort contact.”

“But…”

“You have us confused with someone else. We only have two redheads, Inmaculada and Rocio, and neither would allow a man to sleep with them for money. That is called prostitution, and it is illegal in Spain. Good night, sir.”

“But-”

CLICK.

Becker swore under his breath and dropped the phone back into its cradle. Strike three. He was certain Cloucharde had said the German had hired the girl for the entire weekend.

Becker stepped out of the phone booth at the intersection of Calle Salado and Avenida Asuncion. Despite the traffic, the sweet scent of Seville oranges hung all around him. It was twilight-the most romantic hour. He thought of Susan. Strathmore’s words invaded his mind: Find the ring. Becker flopped miserably on a bench and pondered his next move.

Chapter 25

Inside the Clinica de Salud Publica, visiting hours were over. The gymnasium lights had been turned out. Pierre Cloucharde was fast asleep. He did not see the figure hunched over him. The needle of a stolen syringe glinted in the dark. Then it disappeared into the IV tube just above Cloucharde’s wrist. The hypodermic contained 30 cc of cleaning fluid stolen from a janitor’s cart. With great force, a strong thumb rammed the plunger down and forced the bluish liquid into the old man’s veins.

Cloucharde was awake only for a few seconds. He might have screamed in pain had a strong hand not been clamped across his mouth. He lay trapped on his cot, pinned beneath a seemingly immovable weight. He could feel the pocket of fire searing its way up his arm. There was an excruciating pain traveling through his armpit, his chest, and then, like a million shattering pieces of glass, it hit his brain. Cloucharde saw a brilliant flash of light… and then nothing.

The visitor released his grip and peered through the darkness at the name on the medical chart. Then he slipped silently out.

On the street, the man in wire-rim glasses reached to a tiny device attached to his belt. The rectangular pack was about the size of a credit card. It was a prototype of the new Monocle computer. Developed by the U.S. Navy to help technicians record battery voltages in cramped quarters on submarines, the miniature computer packed a cellular modem and the newest advances in micro technology. Its visual monitor was a transparent liquid crystal display, mounted in the left lens of a pair of eyeglasses. The Monocle reflected a whole new age in personal computing; the user could now look through his data and still interact with the world around him.

The Monocle’s real coup, though, was not its miniature display but rather its data entry system. A user entered information via tiny contacts fixed to his fingertips; touching the contacts together in sequence mimicked a shorthand similar to court stenography. The computer would then translate the shorthand into English.

The killer pressed a tiny switch, and his glasses flickered to life. His hands inconspicuously at his sides, he began touching different fingertips together in rapid succession. A message appeared before his eyes.

SUBJECT: P. CLOUCHARDE-TERMINATED

He smiled. Transmitting notification of kills was part of his assignment. But including victim’s names… that, to the man in the wire-rim glasses, was elegance. His fingers flashed again, and his cellular modem activated.

MESSAGE SENT

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