In a linen closet on the third floor of the Alfonso XIII, a maid lay unconscious on the floor. The man with wire-rim glasses was replacing a hotel master key in her pocket. He had not sensed her scream when he struck her, but he had no way of knowing for sure-he had been deaf since he was twelve.
He reached to the battery pack on his belt with a certain kind of reverence; a gift from a client, the machine had given him new life. He could now receive his contracts anywhere in the world. All communications arrived instantaneously and untraceably.
He was eager as he touched the switch. His glasses flickered to life. Once again his fingers carved into the empty air and began clicking together. As always, he had recorded the names of his victims-a simple matter of searching a wallet or purse. The contacts on his fingers connected, and the letters appeared in the lens of his glasses like ghosts in the air.
SUBJECT: ROCIO EVA GRANADA-TERMINATED
SUBJECT: HANS HUBER-TERMINATED
Three stories below David Becker paid his tab and wandered across the lobby, his half-finished drink in hand. He headed toward the hotel’s open terrace for some fresh air. In and out, he mused. Things hadn’t panned out quite as he expected. He had a decision to make. Should he just give up and go back to the airport? A matter of national security. He swore under his breath. So why the hell had they sent a schoolteacher?
Becker moved out of sight of the bartender and dumped the remaining drink in a potted jasmine. The vodka had made him light-headed. Cheapest drunk in history, Susan often called him. After refilling the heavy crystal glass from a water fountain, Becker took a long swallow.
He stretched a few times trying to shake off the light haze that had settled over him. Then he set down his glass and walked across the lobby.
As he passed the elevator, the doors slid opened. There was a man inside. All Becker saw were thick wire-rim glasses. The man raised a handkerchief to blow his nose. Becker smiled politely and moved on… out into the stifling Sevillian night.
Inside Node 3, Susan caught herself pacing frantically. She wished she’d exposed Hale when she’d had the chance.
Hale sat at his terminal. “Stress is a killer, Sue. Something you want to get off your chest?”
Susan forced herself to sit. She had thought Strathmore would be off the phone by now and return to speak to her, but he was nowhere to be seen. Susan tried to keep calm. She gazed at her computer screen. The tracer was still running-for the second time. It was immaterial now. Susan knew whose address it would return: GHALE@crypto.nsa.gov.
Susan gazed up toward Strathmore’s workstation and knew she couldn’t wait any longer. It was time to interrupt the commander’s phone call. She stood and headed for the door.
Hale seemed suddenly uneasy, apparently noticing Susan’s odd behavior. He strode quickly across the room and beat her to the door. He folded his arms and blocked her exit.
“Tell me what’s going on,” he demanded. “There’s something going on here today. What is it?”
“Let me out,” Susan said as evenly as possible, feeling a sudden twinge of danger.
“Come on,” Hale pressed. “Strathmore practically fired Chartrukian for doing his job. What’s going on inside TRANSLTR? We don’t have any diagnostics that run eighteen hours. That’s bullshit, and you know it. Tell me what’s going on.”
Susan’s eyes narrowed. You know damn well what’s going on! “Back off, Greg,” she demanded. “I need to use the bathroom.”
Hale smirked. He waited a long moment and then stepped aside. “Sorry Sue. Just flirting.”
Susan pushed by him and left Node 3. As she passed the glass wall, she sensed Hale’s eyes boring into her from the other side.
Reluctantly, she circled toward the bathrooms. She would have to make a detour before visiting the Commander. Greg Hale could suspect nothing.
A jaunty forty-five, Chad Brinkerhoff was well-pressed, well-groomed, and well-informed. His summer-weight suit, like his tan skin, showed not a wrinkle or hint of wear. His hair was thick, sandy blond, and most importantly-all his own. His eyes were a brilliant blue-subtly enhanced by the miracle of tinted contact lenses.
He surveyed the wood-paneled office around him and knew he had risen as far as he would rise in the NSA. He was on the ninth floor-Mahogany Row. Office 9A197. The Directorial Suite.
It was a Saturday night, and Mahogany Row was all but deserted, its executives long gone-off enjoying whatever pastimes influential men enjoyed in their leisure. Although Brinkerhoff had always dreamed of a “real” post with the agency, he had somehow ended up as a “personal aide”-the official cul de sac of the political rat race. The fact that he worked side by side with the single most powerful man in American intelligence was little consolation. Brinkerhoff had graduated with honors from Andover and Williams, and yet here he was, middle-aged, with no real power-no real stake. He spent his days arranging someone else’s calendar.
There were definite benefits to being the director’s personal aide-Brinkerhoff had a plush office in the directorial suite, full access to all the NSA departments, and a certain level of distinction that came from the company he kept. He ran errands for the highest echelons of power. Deep down Brinkerhoff knew he was born to be a PA-smart enough to take notes, handsome enough to give press conferences, and lazy enough to be content with it.
The sticky-sweet chime of his mantel clock accented the end of another day of his pathetic existence. Shit, he thought. Five o’clock on a Saturday. What the hell am I doing here?
“Chad?” A woman appeared in his doorway.
Brinkerhoff looked up. It was Midge Milken, Fontaine’s internal security analyst. She was sixty, slightly heavy, and, much to the puzzlement of Brinkerhoff, quite appealing. A consummate flirt and an ex-wife three times over, Midge prowled the six-room directorial suite with a saucy authority. She was sharp, intuitive, worked ungodly hours, and was rumored to know more about the NSA’s inner workings than God himself.
Damn, Brinkerhoff thought, eyeing her in her gray cashmere-dress. Either I’m getting older, or she’s looking younger.
“Weekly reports.” She smiled, waving a fanfold of paper. “You need to check the figures.”
Brinkerhoff eyed her body. “Figures look good from here.”
“Really Chad,” she laughed. “I’m old enough to be your mother.”
Don’t remind me, he thought.
Midge strode in and sidled up to his desk. “I’m on my way out, but the director wants these compiled by the time he gets back from South America. That’s Monday, bright and early.” She dropped the printouts in front of him.
“What am I, an accountant?”
“No, hon, you’re a cruise director. Thought you knew that.”
“So what am I doing crunching numbers?”
She ruffled his hair. “You wanted more responsibility. Here it is.”
He looked up at her sadly. “Midge… I have no life.”
She tapped her finger on the paper. “This is your life, Chad Brinkerhoff.” She looked down at him and softened. “Anything I can get you before I go?”
He eyed her pleadingly and rolled his aching neck. “My shoulders are tight.”
Midge didn’t bite. “Take an aspirin.”
He pouted. “No back rub?”
She shook her head. “Cosmopolitan says two-thirds of backrubs end in sex.”
Brinkerhoff looked indignant. “Ours never do!”
“Precisely.” She winked. “That’s the problem.”
“Night, Chad.” She headed for the door.
“You know I’d stay,” Midge said, pausing in the doorway, “but I do have some pride. I just can’t see playing second fiddle-particularly to a teenager.”
“My wife’s not a teenager,” Brinkerhoff defended. “She just acts like one.”
Midge gave him a surprised look. “I wasn’t talking about your wife.” She battered her eyes innocently. “I was talking about Carmen.” She spoke the name with a thick Puerto Rican accent.
Brinkerhoff’s voice cracked slightly. “Who?”
“Carmen? In food services?”
Brinkerhoff felt himself flush. Carmen Huerta was a twenty-seven-year-old pastry chef who worked in the NSA commissary. Brinkerhoff had enjoyed a number of presumably secret after-hours flings with her in the stockroom.
She gave him a wicked wink. “Remember, Chad… Big Brother knows all.”
Big Brother? Brinkerhoff gulped in disbelief. Big Brother watches the STOCKROOMS too?
Big Brother, or “Brother” as Midge often called it, was a Centrex 333 that sat in a small closetlike space off the suite’s central room. Brother was Midge’s whole world. It received data from 148 closed circuit video cameras, 399 electronic doors, 377 phones taps, and 212 free-standing bugs in the NSA complex.
The directors of the NSA had learned the hard way that 26,000 employees were not only a great asset but a great liability. Every major security breach in the NSA’s history had come from within. It was Midge’s job as internal security analyst, to watch everything that went on within the walls of the NSA… including, apparently, the commissary stockroom.
Brinkerhoff stood to defend himself, but Midge was already on her way out.
“Hands above the desk,” she called over her shoulder. “No funny stuff after I go. The walls have eyes.”
Brinkerhoff sat and listened to the sound of her heels fading down the corridor. At least he knew Midge would never tell. She was not without her weaknesses. Midge had indulged in a few indiscretions of her own-mostly wandering back rubs with Brinkerhoff.
His thoughts turned back to Carmen. He pictured her lissome body, those dark thighs, that AM radio she played full blast-hot San Juan salsa. He smiled. Maybe I’ll drop by for a snack when I’m done.
He opened the first printout.
His mood immediately lightened. Midge had given him a freebie; the Crypto report was always a piece of cake. Technically he was supposed to compile the whole thing, but the only figure the director ever asked for was the MCD-the mean cost per decryption. The MCD represented the estimated amount it cost TRANSLTR to break a single code. As long as the figure was below $1,000 per code, Fontaine didn’t flinch. A grand a pop. Brinkerhoff chuckled. Our tax dollars at work.
As he began plowing through the document and checking the daily MCDs, images of Carmen Huerta smearing herself with honey and confectioner’s sugar began playing in his head. Thirty seconds later he was almost done. The Crypto data was perfect-as always.
But just before moving on to the next report, something caught his eye. At the bottom of the sheet, the last MCD was off. The figure was so large that it had carried over into the next column and made a mess of the page. Brinkerhoff stared at the figure in shock. 999,999,999? He gasped. A billion dollars? The images of Carmen vanished. A billion-dollar code?
Brinkerhoff sat there a minute, paralyzed. Then in a burst of panic, he raced out into the hallway. “Midge! Comeback!”
Phil Chartrukian stood fuming in the Sys-Sec lab. Strathmore’s words echoed in his head: Leave now! That’s an order! He kicked the trash can and swore in the empty lab.
“Diagnostic, my ass! Since when does the deputy director bypass Gauntlet’s filters!?”
The Sys-Secs were well paid to protect the computer systems at the NSA, and Chartrukian had learned that there were only two job requirements: be utterly brilliant and exhaustively paranoid.
Hell, he cursed, this isn’t paranoia! The fucking Run-Monitor’s reading eighteen hours!
It was a virus. Chartrukian could feel it. There was little doubt in his mind what was going on: Strathmore had made a mistake by bypassing Gauntlet’s filters, and now he was trying to cover it up with some half-baked story about a diagnostic.
Chartrukian wouldn’t have been quite so edgy had TRANSLTR been the only concern. But it wasn’t. Despite its appearance, the great decoding beast was by no means an island. Although the cryptographers believed Gauntlet was constructed for the sole purpose of protecting their code-breaking masterpiece, the Sys-Secs understood the truth. The Gauntlet filters served a much higher god. The NSA’s main databank.
The history behind the databank’s construction had always fascinated Chartrukian. Despite the efforts of the Department of Defense to keep the Internet to themselves in the late 1970s, it was too useful a tool not to attract the public-sector. Eventually universities pried their way on. Shortly after that came the commercial servers. The floodgates opened, and the public poured in. By the early 90’s, the government’s once-secure “Internet” was a congested wasteland of public E-mail and cyberporn.
Following a number of unpublicized, yet highly damaging computer infiltrations at the Office of Naval Intelligence, it became increasingly clear that government secrets were no longer safe on computers connected to the burgeoning Internet. The President, in conjunction with the Department of Defense, passed a classified decree that would fund a new, totally secure government network to replace the tainted Internet and function as a link between U.S. intelligence agencies. To prevent further computer pilfering of government secrets, all sensitive data was relocated to one, highly secure location-the newly constructed NSA databank-the Fort Knox of U.S. intelligence data.
Literally millions of the country’s most classified photos, tapes, documents, and videos were digitized and transferred to the immense storage facility and then the hard copies were destroyed. The databank was protected by a triple-layer power relay and a tiered digital backup system. It was also 214 feet underground to shield it from magnetic fields and possible explosions. Activities within the control room were designated Top Secret Umbra… the country’s highest level of security.
The secrets of the country had never been safer. This impregnable databank now housed blueprints for advanced weaponry, witness protection lists, aliases of field agents, detailed analyses and proposals for covert operations. The list was endless. There would be no more black-bag jobs damaging U.S. intelligence.
Of course, the officers of the NSA realized that stored data had value only if it was accessible. The real coup of the databank was not getting the classified data off the streets, it was making it accessible only to the correct people. All stored information had a security rating and, depending on the level of secrecy, was accessible to government officials on a compartmentalized basis. A submarine commander could dial in and check the NSA’s most recent satellite photos of Russian ports, but he would not have access to the plans for an anti-drug mission in South America. CIA analysts could access histories of known assassins but could not access launch codes reserved for the President.
Sys-Secs, of course, had no clearance for the information in the databank, but they were responsible for its safety. Like all large databanks-from insurance companies to universities-the NSA facility was constantly under attack by computer hackers trying to sneak a peek at the secrets waiting inside. But the NSA security programmers were the best in the world. No one had ever come close to infiltrating the NSA databank-and the NSA had no reason to think anybody ever would.
Inside the Sys-Sec lab, Chartrukian broke into a sweat trying to decide whether to leave. Trouble in TRANSLTR meant trouble in the databank too. Strathmore’s lack of concern was bewildering.
Everyone knew that TRANSLTR and the NSA main databank were inextricably linked. Each new code, once broken, was fired from Crypto through 450 yards of fiber-optic cable to the NSA databank for safe keeping. The sacred storage facility had limited points of entry-and TRANSLTR was one of them. Gauntlet was supposed to be the impregnable threshold guardian. And Strathmore had bypassed it.
Chartrukian could hear his own heart pounding. TRANSLTR’s been stuck eighteen hours! The thought of a computer virus entering TRANSLTR and then running wild in the basement of the NSA proved too much. “I’ve got to report this,” he blurted aloud.
In a situation like this, Chartrukian knew there was only one person to call: the NSA’s senior Sys-Sec officer, the short-fused, 400-pound computer guru who had built Gauntlet. His nickname was Jabba. He was a demigod at the NSA-roaming the halls, putting out virtual fires, and cursing the feeblemindedness of the inept and the ignorant. Chartrukian knew that as soon as Jabba heard Strathmore had bypassed Gauntlet’s filters, all hell would break loose. Too bad, he thought, I’ve got a job to do. He grabbed the phone and dialed Jabba’s twenty-four-hour cellular.
David Becker wandered aimlessly down Avenida del Cid and tried to collect his thoughts. Muted shadows played on the cobblestones beneath his feet. The vodka was still with him. Nothing about his life seemed in focus at the moment. His mind drifted back to Susan, wondering if she’d gotten his phone message yet.
Up ahead, a Seville Transit Bus screeched to a halt in front of a bus stop. Becker looked up. The bus’s doors cranked open, but no one disembarked. The diesel engine roared back to life, but just as the bus was pulling out, three teenagers appeared out of a bar up the street and ran after it, yelling and waving. The engines wound down again, and the kids hurried to catch up.
Thirty yards behind them, Becker stared in utter incredulity. His vision was suddenly focused, but he knew what he was seeing was impossible. It was a one-in-a-million chance.
But as the bus doors opened, the kids crowded around to board. Becker saw it again. This time he was certain. Clearly illuminated in the haze of the corner streetlight, he’d seen her.
The passengers climbed on, and the bus’s engines revved up again. Becker suddenly found himself at a full sprint, the bizarre image fixed in his mind-black lipstick, wild eye shadow, and that hair… spiked straight up in three distinctive spires. Red, white, and blue.
As the bus started to move, Becker dashed up the street into awake of carbon monoxide.
“Espera!” he called, running behind the bus.
Becker’s cordovan loafers skimmed the pavement. His usual squash agility was not with him, though; he felt off balance. His brain was having trouble keeping track of his feet. He cursed the bartender and his jet lag.
The bus was one of Seville’s older diesels, and fortunately for Becker, first gear was a long, arduous climb. Becker felt the gap closing. He knew he had to reach the bus before it downshifted.
The twin tailpipes choked out a cloud of thick smoke as the driver prepared to drop the bus into second gear. Becker strained for more speed. As he surged even with the rear bumper, Becker moved right, racing up beside the bus. He could see the rear doors-and as on all Seville buses, it was propped wide open: cheap air-conditioning.
Becker fixed his sights on the opening and ignored the burning sensation in his legs. The tires were beside him, shoulder high, humming at a higher and higher pitch every second. He surged toward the door, missing the handle and almost losing his balance. He pushed harder. Underneath the bus, the clutch clicked as the driver prepared to change gears.
He’s shifting! I won’t make it!
But as the engine cogs disengaged to align the larger gears, the bus let up ever so slightly. Becker lunged. The engine reengaged just as his fingertips curled around the door handle. Becker’s shoulder almost ripped from its socket as the engine dug in, catapulting him up onto the landing.
David Becker lay collapsed just inside the vehicle’s doorway. The pavement raced by only inches away. He was now sober. His legs and shoulder ached. Wavering, he stood, steadied himself, and climbed into the darkened bus. In the crowd of silhouettes, only a few seats away, were the three distinctive spikes of hair.
Red, white, and blue! I made it!
Becker’s mind filled with images of the ring, the waiting Learjet 60, and at the end of it all, Susan.
As Becker came even with the girl’s seat wondering what to say to her, the bus passed beneath a streetlight. The punk’s face was momentarily illuminated.
Becker stared in horror. The makeup on her face was smeared across a thick stubble. She was not a girl at all, but a young man. He wore a silver stud in his upper lip, a black leather jacket, and no shirt.
“What the fuck do you want?” the hoarse voice asked. His accent was New York.
With the disorientated nausea of a slow-motion free fall, Becker gazed at the busload of passengers staring back at him. They were all punks. At least half of them had red, white, and blue hair.
“Sientate!” the driver yelled.
Becker was too dazed to hear.
“Sientate!” The driver screamed. “Sit down!”
Becker turned vaguely to the angry face in the rearview mirror. But he had waited too long.
Annoyed, the driver slammed down hard on the brakes. Becker felt his weight shift. He reached for a seat back but missed. For an instant, David Becker was airborne. Then he landed hard on the gritty floor.
On Avenida del Cid, a figure stepped from the shadows. He adjusted his wire-rim glasses and peered after the departing bus. David Becker had escaped, but it would not be for long. Of all the buses in Seville, Mr. Becker had just boarded the infamous number 27.
Bus 27 had only one destination.