Midge Milken stood fuming at the water cooler near the entrance to the conference room. What the hell is Fontaine doing? She crumpled her paper cup and threw it forcefully into the trash can. There’s something happening in Crypto! I can feel it! Midge knew there was only one way to prove herself right. She’d go check out Crypto herself-track down Jabba if need be. She spun on her heel and headed for the door.
Brinkerhoff appeared out of nowhere, blocking her way. “Where are you headed?”
“Home!” Midge lied.
Brinkerhoff refused to let her pass.
Midge glared. “Fontaine told you not to let me out, didn’t he?”
Brinkerhoff looked away.
“Chad, I’m telling you, there’s something happening in Crypto-something big. I don’t know why Fontaine’s playing dumb, but TRANSLTR’s in trouble. Something is not right down there tonight!”
“Midge,” he soothed, walking past her toward the curtained conference room windows, “let’s let the director handle it.”
Midge’s gaze sharpened. “Do you have any idea what happens to TRANSLTR if the cooling system fails?”
Brinkerhoff shrugged and approached the window. “Power’s probably back on-line by now anyway.” He pulled apart the curtains and looked.
“Still dark?” Midge asked.
But Brinkerhoff did not reply. He was spellbound. The scene below in the Crypto dome was unimaginable. The entire glass cupola was filled with spinning lights, flashing strobes, and swirling steam. Brinkerhoff stood transfixed, teetering light-headed against the glass. Then, in a frenzy of panic, he raced out. “Director! Director!”
The blood of Christ… the cup of salvation…
People gathered around the slumped body in the pew. Overhead, the frankincense swung its peaceful arcs. Hulohot wheeled wildly in the center aisle and scanned the church. He’s got to be here! He spun back toward the altar.
Thirty rows ahead, holy communion was proceeding uninterrupted. Padre Gustaphes Herrera, the head chalice bearer, glanced curiously at the quiet commotion in one of the center pews; he was not concerned. Sometimes some of the older folks were overcome by the holy spirit and passed out. A little air usually did the trick.
Meanwhile, Hulohot was searching frantically. Becker was nowhere in sight. A hundred or so people were kneeling at the long altar receiving communion. Hulohot wondered if Becker was one of them. He scanned their backs. He was prepared to shoot from fifty yards away and make a dash for it.
El cuerpo de Jesus, el pan del cielo.
The young priest serving Becker communion gave him a disapproving stare. He could understand the stranger’s eagerness to receive communion, but it was no excuse to cut inline.
Becker bowed his head and chewed the wafer as best he could. He sensed something was happening behind him, some sort of disturbance. He thought of the man from whom he’d bought the jacket and hoped he had listened to his warning and not taken Becker’s in exchange. He started to turn and look, but he feared the wire-rim glasses would be staring back. He crouched in hopes his black jacket was covering the back of his khaki pants. It was not.
The chalice was coming quickly from his right. People were already swallowing their wine, crossing themselves, and standing to leave. Slow down! Becker was in no hurry to leave the altar. But with two thousand people waiting for communion and only eight priests serving, it was considered bad form to linger over a sip of wine.
The chalice was just to the right of Becker when Hulohot spotted the mismatched khaki pants. “Estas ya muerto,” he hissed softly. “You’re already dead.” Hulohot moved up the center aisle. The time for subtlety had passed. Two shots in the back, and he would grab the ring and run. The biggest taxi stand in Seville was half a block away on Mateus Gago. He reached for his weapon.
Adios, Senor Becker…
La sangre de Cristo, la copa de la salvacion.
The thick scent of red wine filled Becker’s nostrils as Padre Herrera lowered the hand-polished, silver chalice. Little early for drinking, Becker thought as he leaned forward. But as the silver goblet dropped past eye level, there was a blur of movement. A figure, coming fast, his shape warped in the reflection of the cup.
Becker saw a flash of metal, a weapon being drawn. Instantly, unconsciously, like a runner from a starting block at the sound of a gun, Becker was vaulting forward. The priest fell back in horror as the chalice sailed through the air, and red wine rained down on white marble. Priests and altar boys went scattering as Becker dove over the communion rail. A silencer coughed out a single shot. Becker landed hard, and the shot exploded in the marble floor beside him. An instant later he was tumbling down three granite stairs into the valle, a narrow passageway through which the clergy entered, allowing them to rise onto the altar as if by divine grace.
At the bottom of the steps, he stumbled and dove. Becker felt himself sliding out of control across the slick polished stone. A dagger of pain shot though his gut as he landed on his side. A moment later he was stumbling through a curtained entryway and down a set of wooden stairs.
Pain. Becker was running, through a dressing room. It was dark. There were screams from the altar. Loud footsteps in pursuit. Becker burst through a set of double doors and stumbled into some sort of study. It was dark, furnished with rich Orientals and polished mahogany. On the far wall was a life-size crucifix. Becker staggered to a stop. Dead end. He was at the tip of the cross. He could hear Hulohot closing fast. Becker stared at the crucifix and cursed his bad luck.
“Goddamn it!” he screamed.
There was the sudden sound of breaking glass to Becker’s left. He wheeled. A man in red robes gasped and turned to eye Becker in horror. Like a cat caught with a canary, the holy man wiped his mouth and tried to hide the broken bottle of holy communion wine at his feet.
“Salida!” Becker demanded. “Salida!” Let me out!
Cardinal Guerra reacted on instinct. A demon had entered his sacred chambers screaming for deliverance from the house of God. Guerra would grant him that wish-immediately. The demon had entered at a most inopportune moment.
Pale, the cardinal pointed to a curtain on the wall to his left. Hidden behind the curtain was a door. He’d installed it three years ago. It led directly to the courtyard outside. The cardinal had grown tired of exiting the church through the front door like a common sinner.
Susan was wet and shivering, huddled on the Node 3 couch. Strathmore draped his suit coat over her shoulders. Hale’s body lay a few yards away. The sirens blared. Like ice thawing on a frozen pond, TRANSLTR’s hull let out a sharp crack.
“I’m going down to kill power,” Strathmore said, laying a reassuring hand on her shoulder. “I’ll be right back.”
Susan stared absently after the commander as he dashed across the Crypto floor. He was no longer the catatonic man she’d seen ten minutes before. Commander Trevor Strathmore was back-logical, controlled, doing whatever was necessary to get the job done.
The final words of Hale’s suicide note ran through her mind like a train out of control: Above all, I’m truly sorry about David Becker. Forgive me, I was blinded by ambition.
Susan Fletcher’s nightmare had just been confirmed. David was in danger… or worse. Maybe it was already too late. I’m truly sorry about David Becker.
She stared at the note. Hale hadn’t even signed it-he’d just typed his name at the bottom: Greg Hale. He’d poured out his guts, pressed print, and then shot himself-just like that. Hale had sworn he’d never go back to prison; he’d kept his vow-he’d chosen death instead.
“David…” She sobbed. David!
At that moment, ten feet below the Crypto floor, Commander Strathmore stepped off the ladder onto the first landing. It had been a day of fiascoes. What had started out as a patriotic mission had swerved wildly out of control. The commander had been forced to make impossible decisions, commit horrific acts-acts he’d never imagined himself capable of.
It was a solution! It was the only damn solution!
There was duty to think of: country and honor. Strathmore knew there was still time. He could shut down TRANSLTR. He could use the ring to save the country’s most valuable databank. Yes, he thought, there was still time.
Strathmore looked out over the disaster around him. The overhead sprinklers were on. TRANSLTR was groaning. The sirens blared. The spinning lights looked like helicopters closing in through dense fog. With every step, all he could see was Greg Hale-the young cryptographer gazing up, his eyes pleading, and then, the shot. Hale’s death was for country… for honor. The NSA could not afford another scandal. Strathmore needed a scapegoat. Besides, Greg Hale was a disaster waiting to happen.
Strathmore’s thoughts were jarred free by the sound of his cellular. It was barely audible over the sirens and hissing fumes. He snatched it off his belt without breaking stride.
“Where’s my pass-key?” a familiar voice demanded.
“Who is this?” Strathmore yelled over the din.
“It’s Numataka!” the angry voice bellowed back. “You promised me a pass-key!”
Strathmore kept moving.
“I want Digital Fortress!” Numataka hissed.
“There is no Digital Fortress!” Strathmore shot back.
“There is no unbreakable algorithm!”
“Of course there is! I’ve seen it on the Internet! My people have been trying to unlock it for days!”
“It’s an encrypted virus, you fool-and you’re damn lucky you can’t open it!”
“The deal is off!” Strathmore yelled. “I’m not North Dakota. There is no North Dakota! Forget I ever mentioned it!” He clamped the cellular shut, turned off the ringer, and rammed it back on his belt. There would be no more interruptions.
Twelve thousand miles away, Tokugen Numataka stood stunned at his plate-glass window. His Umami cigar hung limply in his mouth. The deal of his lifetime had just disintegrated before his eyes.
Strathmore kept descending. The deal is off. Numatech Corp. would never get the unbreakable algorithm… and the NSA would never get its back door.
Strathmore’s dream had been a long time in the planning-he’d chosen Numatech carefully. Numatech was wealthy, a likely winner of the pass-key auction. No one would think twice if it ended up with the key. Conveniently there was no company less likely to be suspected of consorting with the U.S. government. Tokugen Numataka was old-world Japan-death before dishonor. He hated Americans. He hated their food, he hated their customs, and most of all, he hated their grip on the world’s software market.
Strathmore’s vision had been bold-a world encryption standard with a back door for the NSA. He’d longed to share his dream with Susan, to carry it out with her by his side, but he knew he could not. Even though Ensei Tankado’s death would save thousands of lives in the future, Susan would never have agreed; she was a pacifist. I’m a pacifist too, thought Strathmore, I just don’t have the luxury of acting like one.
There had never been any doubt in the commander’s mind who would kill Tankado. Tankado was in Spain-and Spain meant Hulohot. The forty-two-year-old Portuguese mercenary was one of the commander’s favorite pros. He’d been working for the NSA for years. Born and raised in Lisbon, Hulohot had done work for the NSA all over Europe. Never once had his kills been traced back to Fort Meade. The only catch was that Hulohot was deaf; telephone communication was impossible. Recently Strathmore had arranged for Hulohot to receive the NSA’s newest toy, the Monocle computer. Strathmore bought himself a SkyPager and programmed it to the same frequency. From that moment on, his communication with Hulohot was not only instantaneous but also entirely untraceable.
The first message Strathmore had sent Hulohot left little room for misunderstanding. They had already discussed it. Kill Ensei Tankado. Obtain pass-key.
Strathmore never asked how Hulohot worked his magic, but somehow he had done it again. Ensei Tankado was dead, and the authorities were convinced it was a heart attack. A textbook kill-except for one thing. Hulohot had misjudged the location. Apparently Tankado dying in a public place was a necessary part of the illusion. But unexpectedly, the public had appeared too soon. Hulohot was forced into hiding before he could search the body for the pass-key. When the dust settled, Tankado’s body was in the hands of Seville’s coroner.
Strathmore was furious. Hulohot had blown a mission for the first time ever-and he’d picked an inauspicious time to do it. Getting Tankado’s pass-key was critical, but Strathmore knew that sending a deaf assassin into the Seville morgue was a suicide mission. He had pondered his other options. A second scheme began to materialize. Strathmore suddenly saw a chance to win on two fronts-a chance to realize two dreams instead of just one. At six-thirty that morning, he had called David Becker.
Fontaine burst into the conference room at a full sprint. Brinkerhoff and Midge were close at his heels.
“Look!” Midge choked, motioning frantically to the window.
Fontaine looked out the window at the strobes in the Crypto dome. His eyes went wide. This was definitely not part of the plan.
Brinkerhoff sputtered. “It’s a goddamn disco down there!”
Fontaine stared out, trying to make sense of it. In the few years TRANSLTR had been operational, it had never done this. It’s overheating, he thought. He wondered why the hell Strathmore hadn’t shut it down. It took Fontaine only an instant to make up his mind.
He snatched an interoffice phone off the conference table and punched the extension for Crypto. The receiver began beeping as if the extension were out of order.
Fontaine slammed down the receiver. “Damn it!” He immediately picked up again and dialed Strathmore’s private cellular line. This time the line began to ring.
Six rings went by.
Brinkerhoff and Midge watched as Fontaine paced the length of his phone cable like a tiger on a chain. After a full minute, Fontaine was crimson with rage.
He slammed down the receiver again. “Unbelievable!” he bellowed. “Crypto’s about to blow, and Strathmore won’t answer his goddamn phone!”
Hulohot burst out of Cardinal Guerra’s chambers into the blinding morning sun. He shielded his eyes and cursed. He was standing outside the cathedral in a small patio, bordered by a high stone wall, the west face of the Giralda tower, and two wrought-iron fences. The gate was open. Outside the gate was the square. It was empty. The walls of Santa Cruz were in the distance. There was no way Becker could have made it so far so quickly. Hulohot turned and scanned the patio. He’s in here. He must be!
The patio, Jardin de los Naranjos, was famous in Seville for its twenty blossoming orange trees. The trees were renowned in Seville as the birthplace of English marmalade. An eighteenth-century English trader had purchased three dozen bushels of oranges from the Seville church and taken them back to London only to find the fruit inedibly bitter. He tried to make jam from the rinds and ended up having to add pounds of sugar just to make it palatable. Orange marmalade had been born.
Hulohot moved forward through the grove, gun leveled. The trees were old, and the foliage had moved high on their trunks. Their lowest branches were unreachable, and the thin bases provided no cover. Hulohot quickly saw the patio was empty. He looked straight up. The Giralda.
The entrance to the Giralda’s spiral staircase was cordoned off by a rope and small wooden sign. The rope hung motionless. Hulohot’s eyes climbed the 419-foot tower and immediately knew it was a ridiculous thought. There was no way Becker would have been that stupid. The single staircase wound straight up to a square stone cubicle. There were narrow slits in the wall for viewing, but there was no way out.
David Becker climbed the last of the steep stairs and staggered breathless into a tiny stone cubicle. There were high walls all around him and narrow slits in the perimeter. No exit.
Fate had done Becker no favors this morning. As he’d dashed from the cathedral into the open courtyard, his jacket had caught on the door. The fabric had stopped him mid stride and swung him hard left before tearing. Becker was suddenly stumbling off balance into the blinding sun. When he’d looked up, he was heading straight for a staircase. He’d jumped over the rope and dashed up. By the time he realized where it led, it was too late.
Now he stood in the confined cell and caught his breath. His side burned. Narrow slats of morning sun streamed through the openings in the wall. He looked out. The man in the wire-rim glasses was far below, his back to Becker, staring out at the plaza. Becker shifted his body in front of the crack for a better view. Cross the plaza, he willed him.
The shadow of the Giralda lay across the square like a giant felled sequoia. Hulohot stared the length of it. At the far end, three slits of light cut through the tower’s viewing apertures and fell in crisp rectangles on the cobblestone below. One of those rectangles had just been blotted out by the shadow of a man. Without so much as a glance toward the top of the tower, Hulohot spun and dashed toward the Giralda stairs.
Fontaine pounded his fist into his hand. He paced the conference room and stared out at the spinning Crypto lights. “Abort! Goddamn it! Abort!”
Midge appeared in the doorway waving a fresh readout. “Director! Strathmore can’t abort!”
“What!” Brinkerhoff and Fontaine gasped in unison.
“He tried, sir!” Midge held up the report. “Four times already! TRANSLTR’s locked in some sort of endless loop.”
Fontaine spun and stared back out the window. “Jesus Christ!”
The conference room phone rang sharply. The director threw up his arms. “It’s got to be Strathmore! About goddamn time!”
Brinkerhoff scooped up the phone. “Director’s office.”
Fontaine held out his hand for the receiver.
Brinkerhoff looked uneasy and turned to Midge. “It’s Jabba. He wants you.”
The director swung his gaze over to Midge, who was already crossing the room. She activated the speaker phone. “Go ahead, Jabba.”
Jabba’s metallic voice boomed into the room. “Midge, I’m in the main databank. We’re showing some strange stuff down here. I was wondering if-”
“Dammit, Jabba!” Midge came unglued. “That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you!”
“It could be nothing,” Jabba hedged, “but-”
“Stop saying that! It’s not nothing! Whatever’s going on down there, take it seriously, very seriously. My data isn’t fried-never has been, never will.” She started to hang up and then added, “Oh, and Jabba? Just so there aren’t any surprises… Strathmore bypassed Gauntlet.”