“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.
He quickly typed: YES
ARE YOU SURE?
Again he typed: YES
After a moment the computer beeped.
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.
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.
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.
Susan returned to Node 3. Her conversation with Strathmore had made her increasingly anxious about David’s safety. Her imagination was running wild.
“So,” Hale spouted from his terminal. “What did Strathmore want? A romantic evening alone with his head cryptographer?”
Susan ignored the comment and settled in at her terminal. She typed her privacy code and the screen came to life. The tracer program came into view; it still had not returned any information on North Dakota.
Damn, Susan thought. What’s taking so long?
“You seem uptight,” Hale said innocently. “Having trouble with your diagnostic?”
“Nothing serious,” she replied. But Susan wasn’t so sure. The tracer was overdue. She wondered if maybe she’d made a mistake while writing it. She began scanning the long lines of LIMBO programming on her screen, searching for anything that could be holding things up.
Hale observed her smugly. “Hey, I meant to ask you,” he ventured. “What do you make of that unbreakable algorithm Ensei Tankado said he was writing?”
Susan’s stomach did a flip. She looked up. “Unbreakable algorithm?” She caught herself. “Oh, yeah . . . I think I read something about that.”
“Pretty incredible claim.”
“Yeah,” Susan replied, wondering why Hale had suddenly brought it up. “I don’t buy it, though. Everyone knows an unbreakable algorithm is a mathematical impossibility.”
Hale smiled. “Oh, yeah . . . the Bergofsky Principle.”
“And common sense,” she snapped.
“Who knows . . .” Hale sighed dramatically. “There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Shakespeare,” Hale offered. “Hamlet.”
“Read a lot while you were in jail?”
Hale chuckled. “Seriously, Susan, did you ever think that maybe it is possible, that maybe Tankado really did write an unbreakable algorithm?”
This conversation was making Susan uneasy. “Well, we couldn’t do it.”
“Maybe Tankado’s better than we are.”
“Maybe.” Susan shrugged, feigning disinterest.
“We corresponded for a while,” Hale offered casually. “Tankado and me. Did you know that?”
Susan looked up, attempting to hide her shock. “Really?”
“Yeah. After I uncovered the Skipjack algorithm, he wrote me‑said we were brothers in the global fight for digital privacy.”
Susan could barely contain her disbelief. Hale knows Tankado personally! She did her best to look uninterested.
Hale went on. “He congratulated me for proving that Skipjack had a back door‑called it a coup for privacy rights of civilians all over the world. You gotta admit, Susan, the backdoor in Skipjack was an underhanded play. Reading the world’s E‑mail? If you ask me, Strathmore deserved to get caught.”
“Greg,” Susan snapped, fighting her anger, “that back door was so the NSA could decode E‑mail that threatened this nation’s security.”
“Oh, really?” Hale sighed innocently. “And snooping the average citizen was just a lucky by‑product?”
“We don’t snoop average citizens, and you know it. The FBI can tap telephones, but that doesn’t mean they listen to every call that’s ever made.”
“If they had the manpower, they would.”
Susan ignored the remark. “Governments should have the right to gather information that threatens the common good.”
“Jesus Christ"‑Hale sighed‑"you sound like you’ve been brainwashed by Strathmore. You know damn well the FBI can’t listen in whenever they want‑they’ve got to get a warrant. A spiked encryption standard would mean the NSA could listen in to anyone, anytime, anywhere.”
“You’re right‑as we should be able to!” Susan’s voice was suddenly harsh. “If you hadn’t uncovered the back door in Skipjack, we’d have access to every code we need to break, instead of just what TRANSLTR can handle.”
“If I hadn’t found the back door,” Hale argued, “someone else would have. I saved your asses by uncovering it when I did. Can you imagine the fallout if Skipjack had been in circulation when the news broke?”
“Either way,” Susan shot back, “now we’ve got a paranoid EFF who think we put back doors in all our algorithms.”
Hale asked smugly, “Well, don’t we?”
Susan eyed him coldly.
“Hey,” he said, backing off, “the point is moot now anyway. You built TRANSLTR. You’ve got your instant information source. You can read what you want, when you want‑no questions asked. You win.”
“Don’t you mean we win? Last I heard, you worked for the NSA.”
“Not for long,” Hale chirped.
“Don’t make promises.”
“I’m serious. Someday I’m getting out of here.”
“I’ll be crushed.”
In that moment, Susan found herself wanting to curse Hale for everything that wasn’t going right. She wanted to curse him for Digital Fortress, for her troubles with David, for the fact that she wasn’t in the Smokys‑but none of it was his fault. Hale’s only fault was that he was obnoxious. Susan needed to be the bigger person. It was her responsibility as head cryptographer to keep the peace, to educate. Hale was young and naive.
Susan looked over at him. It was frustrating, she thought, that Hale had the talent to be an asset in Crypto, but he still hadn’t grasped the importance of what the NSA did.
“Greg,” Susan said, her voice quiet and controlled, “I’m under a lot of pressure today. I just get upset when you talk about the NSA like we’re some kind of high‑tech peeping Tom. This organization was founded for one purpose‑to protect the security of this nation. That may involve shaking a few trees and looking for the bad apples from time to time. I think most citizens would gladly sacrifice some privacy to know that the bad guys can’t maneuver unchecked.”
Hale said nothing.
“Sooner or later,” Susan argued, “the people of this nation need to put their trust somewhere. There’s a lot of good out there‑but there’s also a lot of bad mixed in. Someone has to have access to all of it and separate the right from wrong. That’s our job. That’s our duty. Whether we like it or not, there is a frail gate separating democracy from anarchy. The NSA guards that gate.”
Hale nodded thoughtfully. “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?”
Susan looked puzzled.
“It’s Latin,” Hale said. “From Satires of Juvenal. It means 'Who will guard the guards?'”
“I don’t get it,” Susan said. “'Who will guard the guards?'”
“Yeah. If we’re the guards of society, then who will watch us and make sure that we’re not dangerous?”
Susan nodded, unsure how to respond.
Hale smiled. “It’s how Tankado signed all his letters to me. It was his favorite saying.”
David Becker stood in the hallway outside suite 301. He knew that somewhere behind the ornately carved door was the ring. A matter of national security.
Becker could hear movement inside the room. Faint talking. He knocked. A deep German accent called out.
Becker remained silent.
The door opened a crack, and a rotund Germanic face gazed down at him.
Becker smiled politely. He did not know the man’s name. “Deutscher, ja?” he asked. “German, right?”
The man nodded, uncertain.
Becker continued in perfect German. “May I speak to you a moment?”
The man looked uneasy. “Was willst du? What do you want?”
Becker realized he should have rehearsed this before brazenly knocking on a stranger’s door. He searched for the right words. “You have something I need.”
These were apparently not the right words. The German’s eyes narrowed.
“Ein ring,” Becker said. “Du hast einen Ring. You have a ring.”
“Go away,” the German growled. He started to close the door. Without thinking, Becker slid his foot into the crack and jammed the door open. He immediately regretted the action.
The German’s eyes went wide. “Was tust du?” he demanded. “What are you doing?”
Becker knew he was in over his head. He glanced nervously up and down the hall. He’d already been thrown out of the clinic; he had no intention of going two for two.
“Nimm deinen Fu? weg!” the German bellowed. “Remove your foot!”
Becker scanned the man’s pudgy fingers for a ring. Nothing. I’m so close, he thought. “Ein Ring!” Becker repeated as the door slammed shut.
* * *
David Becker stood a long moment in the well‑furnished hallway. A replica of a Salvador Dali hung nearby. “Fitting.” Becker groaned. Surrealism. I’m trapped in an absurd dream. He’d woken up that morning in his own bed but had somehow ended up in Spain breaking into a stranger’s hotel room on a quest for some magical ring.
Strathmore’s stern voice pulled him back to reality: You must find that ring.
Becker took a deep breath and blocked out the words. He wanted to go home. He looked back to the door marked 301. His ticket home was just on the other side‑a gold ring. All he had to do was get it.
He exhaled purposefully. Then he strode back to suite 301 and knocked loudly on the door. It was time to play hardball.
* * *
The German yanked open the door and was about to protest, but Becker cut him off. He flashed his Maryland squash club ID and barked, “Polizei!” Then Becker pushed his way into the room and threw on the lights.
Wheeling, the German squinted in shock. “Was machst—”
“Silence!” Becker switched to English. “Do you have a prostitute in this room?” Becker peered around the room. It was as plush as any hotel room he’d ever seen. Roses, champagne, a huge canopy bed. Rocio was nowhere to be seen. The bathroom door was closed.
“Prostituiert?” The German glanced uneasily at the closed bathroom door. He was larger than Becker had imagined. His hairy chest began right under his triple chin and sloped outward to his colossal gut. The drawstring of his white terry‑cloth Alfonso XIII bathrobe barely reached around his waist.
Becker stared up at the giant with his most intimidating look. “What is your name?”
A look of panic rippled across the German’s corpulent face. “Was willst du? What do you want?”
“I am with the tourist relations branch of the Spanish Guardia here in Seville. Do you have a prostitute in this room?”
The German glanced nervously at the bathroom door. He hesitated. “Ja,” he finally admitted.
“Do you know this is illegal in Spain?”
“Nein,” the German lied. “I did not know. I’ll send her home right now.”
“I’m afraid it’s too late for that,” Becker said with authority. He strolled casually into the room. “I have a proposition for you.”
“Ein Vorschlag?” The German gasped. “A proposition?”
“Yes. I can take you to headquarters right now . . .” Becker paused dramatically and cracked his knuckles.
“Or what?” the German asked, his eyes widening in fear.
“Or we make a deal.”
“What kind of deal?” The German had heard stories about the corruption in the Spanish Guardia Civil.
“You have something I want,” Becker said.
“Yes, of course!” the German effused, forcing a smile. He went immediately to the wallet on his dresser. “How much?”
Becker let his jaw drop in mock indignation. “Are you trying to bribe an officer of the law?” he bellowed.
“No! Of course not! I just thought . . .” The obese man quickly set down his wallet. “I . . . I . . .” He was totally flustered. He collapsed on the corner of the bed and wrung his hands. The bed groaned under his weight. “I’m sorry.”
Becker pulled a rose from the vase in the center of the room and casually smelled it before letting it fall to the floor. He spun suddenly. “What can you tell me about the murder?”
The German went white. “Mord? Murder?”
“Yes. The Asian man this morning? In the park? It was an assassination‑Ermordung.” Becker loved the German word for assassination. Ermordung. It was so chilling.
“Ermordung? He . . . he was . . . ?”
“But . . . but that’s impossible,” the German choked. “I was there. He had a heart attack. I saw it. No blood. No bullets.”
Becker shook his head condescendingly. “Things are not always as they seem.”
The German went whiter still.
Becker gave an inward smile. The lie had served its purpose. The poor German was sweating profusely.
“Wh‑wh‑at do you want?” he stammered. “I know nothing.”
Becker began pacing. “The murdered man was wearing a gold ring. I need it.”
“I‑I don’t have it.”
Becker sighed patronizingly and motioned to the bathroom door. “And Rocio? Dewdrop?”
The man went from white to purple. “You know Dewdrop?” He wiped the sweat from his fleshy forehead and drenched his terry‑cloth sleeve. He was about to speak when the bathroom door swung open.
Both men looked up.
Rocio Eva Granada stood in the doorway. A vision. Long flowing red hair, perfect Iberian skin, deep‑brown eyes, a high smooth forehead. She wore a white terry‑cloth robe that matched the German’s. The tie was drawn snugly over her wide hips, and the neck fell loosely open to reveal her tanned cleavage. She stepped into the bedroom, the picture of confidence.
“May I help you?” she asked in throaty English.
Becker gazed across the room at the stunning woman before him and did not blink. “I need the ring,” he said coldly.
“Who are you?” she demanded.
Becker switched to Spanish with a dead‑on Andalusian accent. “Guardia Civil.”
She laughed. “Impossible,” she replied in Spanish.
Becker felt a knot rise in his throat. Rocio was clearly a little tougher than her client. “Impossible?” he repeated, keeping his cool. “Shall I take you downtown to prove it?”
Rocio smirked. “I will not embarrass you by accepting your offer. Now, who are you?”
Becker stuck to his story. “I am with the Seville Guardia.”
Rocio stepped menacingly toward him. “I know every police officer on the force. They are my best clients.”
Becker felt her stare cutting right through him. He regrouped. “I am with a special tourist task force. Give me the ring, or I’ll have to take you down to the precinct and—”
“And what?” she demanded, raising her eyebrows in mock anticipation.
Becker fell silent. He was in over his head. The plan was backfiring. Why isn’t she buying this?
Rocio came closer. “I don’t know who you are or what you want, but if you don’t get out of this suite right now, I will call hotel security, and the real Guardia will arrest you for impersonating a police officer.”
Becker knew that Strathmore could have him out of jail in five minutes, but it had been made very clear to him that this matter was supposed to be handled discreetly. Getting arrested was not part of the plan.
Rocio had stopped a few feet in front of Becker and was glaring at him.
“Okay.” Becker sighed, accentuating the defeat in his voice. He let his Spanish accent slip. “I am not with the Seville police. A U.S. government organization sent me to locate the ring. That’s all I can reveal. I’ve been authorized to pay you for it.”
There was a long silence.
Rocio let his statement hang in the air a moment before parting her lips in a sly smile. “Now that wasn’t so hard, was it?” She sat down on a chair and crossed her legs. “How much can you pay?”
Becker muffled his sigh of relief. He wasted no time getting down to business. “I can pay you 750,000 pesetas. Five thousand American dollars.” It was half what he had on him but probably ten times what the ring was actually worth.
Rocio raised her eyebrows. “That’s a lot of money.”
“Yes it is. Do we have a deal?”
Rocio shook her head. “I wish I could say yes.”
“A million pesetas?” Becker blurted. “It’s all I have.”
“My, my.” She smiled. “You Americans don’t bargain very well. You wouldn’t last a day in our markets.”
“Cash, right now,” Becker said, reaching for the envelope in his jacket. I just want to go home.
Rocio shook her head. “I can’t.”
Becker bristled angrily. “Why not?”
“I no longer have the ring,” she said apologetically. “I’ve already sold it.”
Tokugen Numataka stared out his window and paced like a caged animal. He had not yet heard from his contact, North Dakota. Damn Americans! No sense of punctuality!
He would have called North Dakota himself, but he didn’t have a phone number for him. Numataka hated doing business this way‑with someone else in control.
The thought had crossed Numataka’s mind from the beginning that the calls from North Dakota could be a hoax‑a Japanese competitor playing him for the fool. Now the old doubts were coming back. Numataka decided he needed more information.
He burst from his office and took a left down Numatech’s main hallway. His employees bowed reverently as he stormed past. Numataka knew better than to believe they actually loved him‑bowing was a courtesy Japanese employees offered even the most ruthless of bosses.
Numataka went directly to the company’s main switchboard. All calls were handled by a single operator on a Corenco 2000, twelve‑line switchboard terminal. The woman was busy but stood and bowed as Numataka entered.
“Sit down,” he snapped.
“I received a call at four forty‑five on my personal line today. Can you tell me where it came from?” Numataka kicked himself for not having done this earlier.
The operator swallowed nervously. “We don’t have caller identification on this machine, sir. But I can contact the phone company. I’m sure they can help.”
Numataka had no doubt the phone company could help. In this digital age, privacy had become a thing of the past; there was a record of everything. Phone companies could tell you exactly who had called you and how long you’d spoken.
“Do it,” he commanded. “Let me know what you find out.”
Susan sat alone in Node 3, waiting for her tracer. Hale had decided to step outside and get some air‑a decision for which she was grateful. Oddly, however, the solitude in Node 3 provided little asylum. Susan found herself struggling with the new connection between Tankado and Hale.
“Who will guard the guards?” she said to herself. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes. The words kept circling in her head. Susan forced them from her mind.
Her thoughts turned to David, hoping he was all right. She still found it hard to believe he was in Spain. The sooner they found the pass‑keys and ended this, the better.
Susan had lost track of how long she’d been sitting there waiting for her tracer. Two hours? Three? She gazed out at the deserted Crypto floor and wished her terminal would beep. There was only silence. The late‑summer sun had set. Overhead, the automatic fluorescents had kicked on. Susan sensed time was running out.
She looked down at her tracer and frowned. “Come on,” she grumbled. “You’ve had plenty of time.” She palmed her mouse and clicked her way into her tracer’s status window. “How long have you been running, anyway?”
Susan opened the tracer’s status window‑a digital clock much like the one on TRANSLTR; it displayed the hours and minutes her tracer had been running. Susan gazed at the monitor expecting to see a readout of hours and minutes. But she saw something else entirely. What she saw stopped the blood in her veins.
“Tracer aborted!” she choked aloud. “Why?”
In a sudden panic, Susan scrolled wildly through the data, searching the programming for any commands that might have told the tracer to abort. But her search went in vain. It appeared her tracer had stopped all by itself. Susan knew this could mean only one thing‑her tracer had developed a bug.
Susan considered “bugs” the most maddening asset of computer programming. Because computers followed a scrupulously precise order of operations, the most minuscule programming errors often had crippling effects. Simple syntactical errors‑such as a programmer mistakenly inserting a comma instead of a period‑could bring entire systems to their knees. Susan had always thought the term “bug” had an amusing origin:
It came from the world’s first computer‑the Mark 1‑a room‑size maze of electromechanical circuits built in 1944 in a lab at Harvard University. The computer developed a glitch one day, and no one was able to locate the cause. After hours of searching, a lab assistant finally spotted the problem. It seemed a moth had landed on one of the computer’s circuit boards and shorted it out. From that moment on, computer glitches were referred to as bugs.
“I don’t have time for this,” Susan cursed.
Finding a bug in a program was a process that could take days. Thousands of lines of programming needed to be searched to find a tiny error‑it was like inspecting an encyclopedia for a single typo.
Susan knew she had only one choice‑to send her tracer again. She also knew the tracer was almost guaranteed to hit the same bug and abort all over again. Debugging the tracer would take time, time she and the commander didn’t have.
But as Susan stared at her tracer, wondering what error she’d made, she realized something didn’t make sense. She had used this exact same tracer last month with no problems at all. Why would it develop a glitch all of a sudden?
As she puzzled, a comment Strathmore made earlier echoed in her mind. Susan, I tried to send the tracer myself, but the data it returned was nonsensical.
Susan heard the words again. The data it returned . . .
She cocked her head. Was it possible? The data it returned?
If Strathmore had received data back from the tracer, then it obviously was working. His data was nonsensical, Susan assumed, because he had entered the wrong search strings‑but nonetheless, the tracer was working.
Susan immediately realized that there was one other possible explanation for why her tracer aborted. Internal programming flaws were not the only reasons programs glitched; sometimes there were external forces‑power surges, dust particles on circuit boards, faulty cabling. Because the hardware in Node 3 was so well tuned, she hadn’t even considered it.
Susan stood and strode quickly across Node 3 to a large bookshelf of technical manuals. She grabbed a spiral binder marked SYS‑OP and thumbed through. She found what she was looking for, carried the manual back to her terminal, and typed a few commands. Then she waited while the computer raced through a list of commands executed in the past three hours. She hoped the search would turn up some sort of external interrupt‑an abort command generated by a faulty power supply or defective chip.
Moments later Susan’s terminal beeped. Her pulse quickened. She held her breath and studied the screen.
ERROR CODE 22
Susan felt a surge of hope. It was good news. The fact that the inquiry had found an error code meant her tracer was fine. The trace had apparently aborted due to an external anomaly that was unlikely to repeat itself.
Error code 22. Susan racked her memory trying to remember what code 22 stood for. Hardware failures were so rare in Node 3 that she couldn’t remember the numerical codings.
Susan flipped through the SYS‑OP manual, scanning the list of error codes.