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Chapter 26

Sitting on the bench across from the public clinic, Becker wondered what he was supposed to do now. His calls to the escort agencies had turned up nothing. The commander, uneasy about communication over unsecured public phones, had asked David not to call again until he had the ring. Becker considered going to the local police for help-maybe they had a record of a red-headed hooker-but Strathmore had given strict orders about that too. You are invisible. No one is to know this ring exists.

Becker wondered if he was supposed to wander the drugged-out district of Triana in search of this mystery woman. Or maybe he was supposed to check all the restaurants for an obese German. Everything seemed like a waste of time.

Strathmore’s words kept coming back: It’s a matter of national security… you must find that ring.

A voice in the back of Becker’s head told him he’d missed something-something crucial-but for the life of him, he couldn’t think what it would be. I’m a teacher, not a damned secret agent! He was beginning to wonder why Strathmore hadn’t sent a professional.

Becker stood up and walked aimlessly down Calle Delicias pondering his options. The cobblestone sidewalk blurred beneath his gaze. Night was falling fast.

Dewdrop.

There was something about that absurd name that nagged at the back of his mind. Dewdrop. The slick voice of Senor Roldan at Escortes Belen was on endless loop in his head. “We only have two redheads… Two redheads, Inmaculada and Rocio… Rocio… Rocio…”

Becker stopped short. He suddenly knew. And I call myself a language specialist? He couldn’t believe he’d missed it.

Rocio was one of the most popular girl’s names in Spain. It carried all the right implications for a young Catholic girl-purity, virginity, natural beauty. The connotations of purity all stemmed from the name’s literal meaning-Drop of Dew!

The old Canadian’s voice rang in Becker’s ears. Dewdrop. Rocio had translated her name to the only language she and her client had in common-English. Excited, Becker hurried off to find a phone.

Across the street, a man in wire-rim glasses followed just out of sight.

Chapter 27

On the Crypto floor, the shadows were growing long and faint. Overhead, the automatic lighting gradually increased to compensate. Susan was still at her terminal silently awaiting news from her tracer. It was taking longer than expected.

Her mind had been wandering-missing David and willing Greg Hale to go home. Although Hale hadn’t budged, thankfully he’d been silent, engrossed in whatever he was doing at his terminal. Susan couldn’t care less what Hale was doing, as long as he didn’t access the Run-Monitor. He obviously hadn’t-sixteen hours would have brought an audible yelp of disbelief.

Susan was sipping her third cup of tea when it finally happened-her terminal beeped once. Her pulse quickened. A flashing envelope icon appeared on her monitor announcing the arrival of E-mail. Susan shot a quick glance toward Hale. He was absorbed in his work. She held her breath and double-clicked the envelope.

“North Dakota,” she whispered to herself. “Let’s see who you are.”

When the E-mail opened, it was a single line. Susan read it. And then she read it again.

DINNER AT ALFREDO’S? 8 PM?

Across the room, Hale muffled a chuckle. Susan checked the message header.

FROM: GHALE@crypto.nsa.gov Susan felt a surge of anger but fought it off. She deleted the message. “Very mature, Greg.”

“They make a great carpaccio.” Hale smiled. “What do you say? Afterward we could-”

“Forget it.”

“Snob.” Hale sighed and turned back to his terminal. That was strike eighty-nine with Susan Fletcher. The brilliant female cryptographer was a constant frustration to him. Hale had often fantasized about having sex with her-pinning her against TRANSLTR’s curved hull and taking her right there against the warm black tile. But Susan would have nothing to do with him. In Hale’s mind, what made things worse was that she was in love with some university teacher who slaved for hours on end for peanuts. It would be a pity for Susan to dilute her superior gene pool procreating with some geek-particularly when she could have Greg. We’d have perfect children, he thought.

“What are you working on?” Hale asked, trying a different approach.

Susan said nothing.

“Some team player you are. Sure I can’t have a peek?” Hale stood and started moving around the circle of terminals toward her.

Susan sensed that Hale’s curiosity had the potential to cause some serious problems today. She made a snap decision. “It’s a diagnostic,” she offered, falling back on the commander’s lie.

Hale stopped in his tracks. “Diagnostic?” He sounded doubtful. “You’re spending Saturday running a diagnostic instead of playing with the prof?”

“His name is David.”

“Whatever.”

Susan glared at him. “Haven’t you got anything better to do?”

“Are you trying to get rid of me?” Hale pouted.

“Actually, yes.”

“Gee, Sue, I’m hurt.”

Susan Fletcher’s eyes narrowed. She hated being called Sue. She had nothing against the nickname, but Hale was the only one who’d ever used it.

“Why don’t I help you?” Hale offered. He was suddenly circling toward her again. “I’m great with diagnostics. Besides, I’m dying to see what diagnostic could make the mighty Susan Fletcher come to work on a Saturday.”

Susan felt a surge of adrenaline. She glanced down at the tracer on her screen. She knew she couldn’t let Hale see it-he’d have too many questions. “I’ve got it covered, Greg,” she said.

But Hale kept coming. As he circled toward her terminal, Susan knew she had to act fast. Hale was only a few yards away when she made her move. She stood to meet his towering frame, blocking his way. His cologne was overpowering.

She looked him straight in the eye. “I said no.”

Hale cocked his head, apparently intrigued by her odd display of secrecy. He playfully stepped closer. Greg Hale was not ready for what happened next.

With unwavering cool, Susan pressed a single index finger against his rock-hard chest, stopping his forward motion.

Hale halted and stepped back in shock. Apparently Susan Fletcher was serious; she had never touched him before, ever. It wasn’t quite what Hale had had in mind for their first contact, but it was a start. He gave her a long puzzled look and slowly returned to his terminal. As he sat back down, one thing became perfectly clear: The lovely Susan Fletcher was working on something important, and it sure as hell wasn’t any diagnostic.

Chapter 28

Senor Roldan was sitting behind his desk at Escortes Belen congratulating himself for deftly sidestepping the Guardia’s newest pathetic attempt to trap him. Having an officer fake a German accent and request a girl for the night-it was entrapment; what would they think of next?

The phone on his desk buzzed loudly. Senor Roldan scooped up the receiver with a confident flair. “Buenas noches, Escortes Belen.”

“Buenas noches,” a man’s voice said in lightning-fast Spanish. He sounded nasal, like he had a slight cold. “Is this a hotel?”

“No, sir. What number are you dialing?” Senor Roldan was not going to fall for any more tricks this evening.

“34-62-10,” the voice said.

Roldan frowned. The voice sounded vaguely familiar. He tried to place the accent-Burgos, maybe? “You’ve dialed the correct number,” Roldan offered cautiously, “but this is an escort service.”

There was a pause on the line. “Oh… I see. I’m sorry. Somebody wrote down this number; I thought it was a hotel. I’m visiting here, from Burgos. My apologies for disturbing you. Good nigh-”

“Espere! Wait!” Senor Roldan couldn’t help himself; he was a salesman at heart. Was this a referral? A new client from up north? He wasn’t going to let a little paranoia blow a potential sale.

“My friend,” Roldan gushed into the phone. “I thought I recognized a bit of a Burgos accent on you. I myself am from Valencia. What brings you to Seville?”

“I sell jewelry. Majorica pearls.”

“Majoricas, reeaally! You must travel quite a bit.”

The voice coughed sickly. “Well, yes, I do.”

“In Seville on business?” Roldan pressed. There was no way in hell this guy was Guardia; he was a customer with a capital C. “Let me guess-a friend gave you our number? He told you to give us a call. Am I right?”

The voice was obviously embarrassed. “Well, no, actually, it’s nothing like that.”

“Don’t be shy, senor. We are an escort service, nothing to be ashamed of. Lovely girls, dinner dates, that is all. Who gave you our number? Perhaps he is a regular. I can give you a special rate.”

The voice became flustered. “Ah… nobody actually gave me this number. I found it with a passport. I’m trying to find the owner.”

Roldan’s heart sank. This man was not a customer after all. “You found the number, you say?”

“Yes, I found a man’s passport in the park today. Your number was on a scrap of paper inside. I thought perhaps it was the man’s hotel; I was hoping to return his passport to him. My mistake. I’ll just drop it off at a police station on my way out of-”

“Perdon,” Roldan interrupted nervously. “Might I suggest a better idea?” Roldan prided himself on discretion, and visits to the Guardia had a way of making his customers ex-customers. “Consider this,” he offered. “Because the man with the passport had our number, he is most likely a client here. Perhaps I could save you a trip to the police.”

The voice hesitated. “I don’t know. I should probably just-”

“Do not be too hasty, my friend. I’m ashamed to admit that the police here in Seville are not always as efficient as the police up north. It could be days before this man’s passport is returned to him. If you tell me his name, I could see that he gets his passport immediately.”

“Yes, well… I suppose there’s no harm…” Some paper rustled, and the voice returned. “It’s a German name. I can’t quite pronounce it… Gusta… Gustafson?”

Roldan didn’t recognize the name, but he had clients from all over the world. They never left their real names. “What does he look like-in his photo? Perhaps I will recognize him.”

“Well…” the voice said. “His face is very, very fat.”

Roldan immediately knew. He remembered the obese face well. It was the man with Rocio. It was odd, he thought, to have two calls about the German in one night.

“Mr. Gustafson?” Roldan forced a chuckle. “Of course! I know him well. If you bring me his passport, I’ll see he gets it.”

“I’m downtown without a car,” the voice interrupted. “Maybe you could come to me?”

“Actually,” Roldan hedged, “I can’t leave the phone. But it’s really not that far if you-”

“I’m sorry, it’s late to be out wandering about. There’s a Guardia precinct nearby. I’ll drop it there, and when you see Mr. Gustafson, you can tell him where it is.”

“No, wait!” Roldan cried. “The police really needn’t be involved. You said you’re downtown, right? Do you know the Alfonso XIII Hotel? It’s one of the city’s finest.”

“Yes,” the voice said. “I know the Alfonso XIII. It’s nearby.”

“Wonderful! Mr. Gustafson is a guest there tonight. He’s probably there now.”

The voice hesitated. “I see. Well, then… I suppose it would be no trouble.”

“Superb! He’s having dinner with one of our escorts in the hotel restaurant.” Roldan knew they were probably in bed by now, but he needed to be careful not to offend the caller’s refined sensibilities. “Just leave the passport with the concierge, his name is Manuel. Tell him I sent you. Ask him to give it to Rocio. Rocio is Mr. Gustafson’s date for the evening. She will see that the passport is returned. You might slip your name and address inside-perhaps Mr. Gustafson will send you a little thank you.”

“A fine idea. The Alfonso XIII. Very well, I’ll take it over right now. Thank you for your help.”

David Becker hung up the phone. “Alfonso XIII.” He chuckled. “Just have to know how to ask.”

Moments later a silent figure followed Becker up Calle Deliciasinto the softly settling Andalusian night.

Chapter 29

Still unnerved from her encounter with Hale, Susan gazed out through the one-way glass of Node 3. The Crypto floor was empty. Hale was silent again, engrossed. She wished he would leave.

She wondered if she should call Strathmore; the commander could simply kick Hale out-after all, it was Saturday. Susan knew, however, that if Hale got kicked out, he would immediately become suspicious. Once dismissed, he probably would start calling other cryptographers asking what they thought was going on. Susan decided it was better just to let Hale be. He would leave on his own soon enough.

An unbreakable algorithm. She sighed, her thoughts returning to Digital Fortress. It amazed her that an algorithm like that could really be created-then again, the proof was right there in front of her; TRANSLTR appeared useless against it.

Susan thought of Strathmore, nobly bearing the weight of this ordeal on his shoulders, doing what was necessary, staying cool in the face of disaster.

Susan sometimes saw David in Strathmore. They had many of the same qualities-tenacity, dedication, intelligence. Sometimes Susan thought Strathmore would be lost without her; the purity of her love for cryptography seemed to be an emotional lifeline to Strathmore, lifting him from the sea of churning politics and reminding him of his early days as a code-breaker.

Susan relied on Strathmore too; he was her shelter in a world of power-hungry men, nurturing her career, protecting her, and, as he often joked, making all her dreams come true. There was some truth to that, she thought. As unintentional as it may have been, the commander was the one who’d made the call that brought David Becker to the NSA that fateful afternoon. Her mind reeled back to him, and her eyes fell instinctively to the pull-slide beside her keyboard. There was a small fax taped there.

The fax had been there for seven months. It was the only code Susan Fletcher had yet to break. It was from David. She read it for the five-hundredth time.

PLEASE ACCEPT THIS HUMBLE FAX

MY LOVE FOR YOU IS WITHOUT WAX.

He’d sent it to her after a minor tiff. She’d begged him for months to tell her what it meant, but he had refused. Without wax. It was David’s revenge. Susan had taught David a lot about code-breaking, and to keep him on his toes, she had taken to encoding all of her messages to him with some simple encryption scheme. Shopping lists, love notes-they were all encrypted. It was a game, and David had become quite a good cryptographer. Then he’d decided to return the favor. He’d started signing all his letters “Without wax, David.” Susan had over two dozen notes from David. They were all signed the same way. Without wax.

Susan begged to know the hidden meaning, but David wasn’t talking. Whenever she asked, he simply smiled and said, “You’re the code-breaker.”

The NSA’s head cryptographer had tried everything-substitutions, cipher boxes, even anagrams. She’d run the letters “without wax” through her computer and asked for rearrangements of the letters into new phrases. All she’d gotten back was: taxi hut wow. It appeared Ensei Tankado was not the only one who could write unbreakable codes.

Her thoughts were interrupted by the sound of the pneumatic doors hissing open. Strathmore strode in.

“Susan, any word yet?” Strathmore saw Greg Hale and stopped short. “Well, good evening, Mr. Hale.” He frowned, his eyes narrowing. “On a Saturday, no less. To what do we owe the honor?”

Hale smiled innocently. “Just making sure I pull my weight.”

“I see.” Strathmore grunted, apparently weighing his options. After a moment, it seemed he too decided not to rock Hale’s boat. He turned coolly to Susan. “Ms. Fletcher, could I speak to you for a moment? Outside?”

Susan hesitated. “Ah… yes, sir.” She shot an uneasy glance at her monitor and then across the room at Greg Hale. “Just a minute.”

With a few quick keystrokes, she pulled up a program called ScreenLock. It was a privacy utility. Every terminal in Node 3 was equipped with it. Because the terminals stayed on around the clock, ScreenLock enabled cryptographers to leave their stations and know that nobody would tamper with their files. Susan entered her five-character privacy code, and her screen went black. It would remain that way until she returned and typed the proper sequence.

Then she slipped on her shoes and followed the commander out.

“What the hell is he doing here?” Strathmore demanded as soon as he and Susan were outside Node 3.

“His usual,” Susan replied. “Nothing.”

Strathmore looked concerned. “Has he said anything about TRANSLTR?”

“No. But if he accesses the Run-Monitor and sees it registering seventeen hours, he’ll have something to say all right.”

Strathmore considered it. “There’s no reason he’d access it.”

Susan eyed the commander. “You want to send him home?”

“No. We’ll let him be.” Strathmore glanced over at the Sys-Sec office. “Has Chartrukian left yet?”

“I don’t know. I haven’t seen him.”

“Jesus.” Strathmore groaned. “This is a circus.” He ran a hand across the beard stubble that had darkened his face over the past thirty-six hours. “Any word yet on the tracer? I feel like I’m sitting on my hands up there.”

“Not yet. Any word from David?”

Strathmore shook his head. “I asked him not to call me until he has the ring.”

Susan looked surprised. “Why not? What if he needs help?”

Strathmore shrugged. “I can’t help him from here-he’s on his own. Besides, I’d rather not talk on unsecured lines just in case someone’s listening.”

Susan’s eyes widened in concern. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

Strathmore immediately looked apologetic. He gave her a reassuring smile. “David’s fine. I’m just being careful.”

Thirty feet away from their conversation, hidden behind the one-way glass of Node 3, Greg Hale stood at Susan’s terminal. Her screen was black. Hale glanced out at the commander and Susan. Then he reached for his wallet. He extracted a small index card and read it.

Double-checking that Strathmore and Susan were still talking, Hale carefully typed five keystrokes on Susan’s keyboard. A second later her monitor sprang to life.

“Bingo.” He chuckled.

Stealing the Node 3 privacy codes had been simple. In Node 3, every terminal had an identical detachable keyboard. Hale had simply taken his keyboard home one night and installed a chip that kept a record of every keystroke made on it. Then he had come in early, swapped his modified keyboard for someone else’s, and waited. At the end of the day, he switched back and viewed the data recorded by the chip. Even though there were millions of keystrokes to sort through, finding the access code was simple; the first thing a cryptographer did every morning was type the privacy code that unlocked his terminal. This, of course, made Hale’s job effortless-the privacy code always appeared as the first five characters on the list.

It was ironic, Hale thought as he gazed at Susan’s monitor. He’d stolen the privacy codes just for kicks. He was happy now he’d done it; the program on Susan’s screen looked significant.

Hale puzzled over it for a moment. It was written in LIMBO-not one of his specialties. Just by looking at it, though, Hale could tell one thing for certain-this was not a diagnostic. He could make sense of only two words. But they were enough.

TRACER SEARCHING…

“Tracer?” he said aloud. “Searching for what?” Hale felt suddenly uneasy. He sat a moment studying Susan’s screen. Then he made his decision.

Hale understood enough about the LIMBO programming language to know that it borrowed heavily from two other languages-C and Pascal-both of which he knew cold. Glancing up to check that Strathmore and Susan were still talking outside, Hale improvised. He entered a few modified Pascal commands and hit return. The tracer’s status window responded exactly as he had hoped.

TRACER ABORT?

He quickly typed: YES

ARE YOU SURE?

Again he typed: YES

After a moment the computer beeped.

TRACER ABORTED

Hale smiled. The terminal had just sent a message telling Susan’s tracer to self-destruct prematurely. Whatever she was looking for would have to wait.

Mindful to leave no evidence, Hale expertly navigated his way into her system activity log and deleted all the commands he’d just typed. Then he reentered Susan’s privacy code.

The monitor went black.

When Susan Fletcher returned to Node 3, Greg Hale was seated quietly at his terminal.

Chapter 30

Alfonso XIII was a small four-star hotel set back from the Puerta de Jerez and surrounded by a thick wrought-iron fence and lilacs. David made his way up the marble stairs. As he reached for the door, it magically opened, and a bellhop ushered him inside.

“Baggage, senor? May I help you?”

“No, thanks. I need to see the concierge.”

The bellhop looked hurt, as if something in their two-second encounter had not been satisfactory. “Por aqui, senor.” He led Becker into the lobby, pointed to the concierge, and hurried off.

The lobby was exquisite, small and elegantly appointed. Spain’s Golden Age had long since passed, but for a while in the mid-1600s, this small nation had ruled the world. The room was a proud reminder of that era-suits of armor, military etchings, and a display case of gold ingots from the New World.

Hovering behind the counter marked conserje was a trim, well-groomed man smiling so eagerly that it appeared he’d waited his entire life to be of assistance. “En que puedo servirle, senor? How may I serve you?” He spoke with an affected lisp and ran his eyes up and down Becker’s body.

Becker responded in Spanish. “I need to speak to Manuel.”

The man’s well-tanned face smiled even wider. “Si, si, senor. I am Manuel. What is it you desire?”

“Senor Roldan at Escortes Belen told me you would-”

The concierge silenced Becker with a wave and glanced nervously around the lobby. “Why don’t you step over here?” He led Becker to the end of the counter. “Now,” he continued, practically in a whisper. “How may I help you?”

Becker began again, lowering his voice. “I need to speak to one of his escorts whom I believe is dining here. Her name is Rocio.”

The concierge let out his breath as though overwhelmed. “Aaah, Rocio-a beautiful creature.”

“I need to see her immediately.”

“But, senor, she is with a client.”

Becker nodded apologetically. “It’s important.” A matter of national security.

The concierge shook his head. “Impossible. Perhaps if you left a-”

“It will only take a moment. Is she in the dining room?”

The concierge shook his head. “Our dining room closed half an hour ago. I’m afraid Rocio and her guest have retired for the evening. If you’d like to leave me a message, I can give it to her in the morning.” He motioned to the bank of numbered message boxes behind him.

“If I could just call her room and-”

“I’m sorry,” the concierge said, his politeness evaporating. “The Alfonso XIII has strict policies regarding client privacy.”

Becker had no intention of waiting ten hours for a fat man and a prostitute to wander down for breakfast.

“I understand,” Becker said. “Sorry to bother you.” He turned and walked back into the lobby. He strode directly to a cherry roll-top desk that had caught his eye on his way in. It held a generous supply of Alfonso XIII postcards and stationery as well as pens and envelopes. Becker sealed a blank piece of paper in an envelope and wrote one word on the envelope.

ROCIO.

Then he went back to the concierge.

“I’m sorry to trouble you again,” Becker said approaching sheepishly. “I’m being a bit of a fool, I know. I was hoping to tell Rocio personally how much I enjoyed our time together the other day. But I’m leaving town tonight. Perhaps I’ll just leave her a note after all.” Becker laid the envelope on the counter.

The concierge looked down at the envelope and clucked sadly to himself. Another lovesick heterosexual, he thought. What a waste. He looked up and smiled. “But of course, Mr….?”

“Buisan,” Becker said. “Miguel Buisan.”

“Of course. I’ll be sure Rocio gets this in the morning.”

“Thank you.” Becker smiled and turned to go.

The concierge, after discreetly checking out Becker’s backside, scooped up the envelope off the counter and turned to the bank of numbered slots on the wall behind him. Just as the man slipped the envelope into one of the slots, Becker spun with one final inquiry.

“Where might I call a taxi?”

The concierge turned from the wall of cubbyholes and answered. But Becker did not hear his response. The timing had been perfect. The concierge’s hand was just emerging from a box marked Suite 301.

Becker thanked the concierge and slowly wandered off looking for the elevator.

In and out, he repeated to himself.

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