When she reached number 22, she stopped and stared a long moment. Baffled, she double‑checked her monitor.
ERROR CODE 22
Susan frowned and returned to the SYS‑OP manual. What she saw made no sense. The explanation simply read:
Becker stared in shock at Rocio. “You sold the ring?”
The woman nodded, her silky red hair falling around her shoulders.
Becker willed it not to be true. “Pero . . . but . . .”
She shrugged and said in Spanish, “A girl near the park.”
Becker felt his legs go weak. This can’t be!
Rocio smiled coyly and motioned to the German. “El queria que lo guardara. He wanted to keep it, but I told him no. I’ve got Gitana blood in me, Gypsy blood; we Gitanas, in addition to having red hair, are very superstitious. A ring offered by a dying man is not a good sign.”
“Did you know the girl?” Becker interrogated.
Rocio arched her eyebrows. “Vaya. You really want this ring, don’t you?”
Becker nodded sternly. “Who did you sell it to?”
The enormous German sat bewildered on the bed. His romantic evening was being ruined, and he apparently had no idea why. “Was passiert?” he asked nervously. “What’s happening?”
Becker ignored him.
“I didn’t actually sell it,” Rocio said. “I tried to, but she was just a kid and had no money. I ended up giving it to her. Had I known about your generous offer, I would have saved it for you.”
“Why did you leave the park?” Becker demanded. “Somebody had died. Why didn’t you wait for the police? And give them the ring?”
“I solicit many things, Mr. Becker, but trouble is not one of them. Besides, that old man seemed to have things under control.”
“Yes, he called the ambulance. We decided to leave. I saw no reason to involve my date or myself with the police.”
Becker nodded absently. He was still trying to accept this cruel twist of fate. She gave the damn thing away!
“I tried to help the dying man,” Rocio explained. “But he didn’t seem to want it. He started with the ring‑kept pushing it in our faces. He had these three crippled fingers sticking up. He kept pushing his hand at us‑like we were supposed to take the ring. I didn’t want to, but my friend here finally did. Then the guy died.”
“And you tried CPR?” Becker guessed.
“No. We didn’t touch him. My friend got scared. He’s big, but he’s a wimp.” She smiled seductively at Becker. “Don’t worry‑he can’t speak a word of Spanish.”
Becker frowned. He was wondering again about the bruises on Tankado’s chest. “Did the paramedics give CPR?”
“I have no idea. As I told you, we left before they arrived.”
“You mean after you stole the ring.” Becker scowled.
Rocio glared at him. “We did not steal the ring. The man was dying. His intentions were clear. We gave him his last wish.”
Becker softened. Rocio was right; he probably would have done the same damn thing. “But then you gave the ring to some girl?”
“I told you. The ring made me nervous. The girl had lots of jewelry on. I thought she might like it.”
“And she didn’t think it was strange? That you’d just give her a ring?”
“No. I told her I found it in the park. I thought she might offer to pay me for it, but she didn’t. I didn’t care. I just wanted to get rid of it.”
“When did you give it to her?”
Rocio shrugged. “This afternoon. About an hour after I got it.”
Becker checked his watch: 11:48 p.m. The trail was eight hours old. What the hell am I doing here? I’m supposed to be in the Smokys. He sighed and asked the only question he could think of. “What did the girl look like?”
“Era un punki,” Rocio replied.
Becker looked up, puzzled. “Un punki?”
“Yes, a punk,” she said in rough English, and then immediately switched back to Spanish. “Mucha joyeria. Lots of jewelry. A weird pendant in one ear. A skull, I think.”
“There are punk rockers in Seville?”
Rocio smiled. “Todo bajo el sol. Everything under the sun.” It was the motto of Seville’s Tourism Bureau.
“Did she give you her name?”
“Did she say where she was going?”
“No. Her Spanish was poor.”
“She wasn’t Spanish?” Becker asked.
“No. She was English, I think. She had wild hair‑red, white, and blue.”
Becker winced at the bizarre image. “Maybe she was American,” he offered.
“I don’t think so,” Rocio said. “She was wearing a T‑shirt that looked like the British flag.”
Becker nodded dumbly. “Okay. Red, white, and blue hair, a British flag T‑shirt, a skull pendant in her ear. What else?”
“Nothing. Just your average punk.”
Average punk? Becker was from a world of collegiate sweatshirts and conservative haircuts‑he couldn’t even picture what the woman was talking about. “Can you think of anything else at all?” he pressed.
Rocio thought a moment. “No. That’s it.”
Just then the bed creaked loudly. Rocio’s client shifted his weight uncomfortably. Becker turned to him and spoke influent German. “Noch et was? Anything else? Anything to help me find the punk rocker with the ring?”
There was a long silence. It was as if the giant man had something he wanted to say, but he wasn’t sure how to say it. His lower lip quivered momentarily, there was a pause, and then he spoke. The four words that came out were definitely English, but they were barely intelligible beneath his thick German accent. “Fock off und die.”
Becker gaped in shock. “I beg your pardon?
“Fock off und die,” the man repeated, patting his left palm against his fleshy right forearm‑a crude approximation of the Italian gesture for “fuck you.”
Becker was too drained to be offended. Fuck off and die? What happened to Das Wimp? He turned back to Rocio and spoke in Spanish. “Sounds like I’ve overstayed my welcome.”
“Don’t worry about him.” She laughed. “He’s just a little frustrated. He’ll get what’s coming to him.” She tossed her hair and winked.
“Is there anything else?” Becker asked. “Anything you can tell me that might help?”
Rocio shook her head. “That’s all. But you’ll never find her. Seville is a big city‑it can be very deceptive.”
“I’ll do the best I can.” It’s a matter of national security . . .
“If you have no luck,” Rocio said, eyeing the bulging envelope in Becker’s pocket, “please stop back. My friend will be sleeping, no doubt. Knock quietly. I’ll find us an extra room. You’ll see a side of Spain you’ll never forget.” She pouted lusciously.
Becker forced a polite smile. “I should be going.” He apologized to the German for interrupting his evening.
The giant smiled timidly. “Keine Ursache.”
Becker headed out the door. No problem? Whatever happened to “Fuck off and die"?
“Manual abort?” Susan stared at her screen, mystified.
She knew she hadn’t typed any manual abort command‑at least not intentionally. She wondered if maybe she’d hit the wrong sequence of keys by mistake.
“Impossible,” she muttered. According to the headers, the abort command had been sent less than twenty minutes ago. Susan knew the only thing she’d typed in the last twenty minutes washer privacy code when she’d stepped out to talk to the commander. It was absurd to think the privacy code could have been misinterpreted as an abort command.
Knowing it was a waste of time, Susan pulled up her ScreenLock log and double‑checked that her privacy code had been entered properly. Sure enough, it had.
“Then where,” she demanded angrily, “where did it get a manual abort?”
Susan scowled and closed the ScreenLock window. Unexpectedly, however, in the split second as the window blipped away, something caught her eye. She reopened the window and studied the data. It made no sense. There was a proper “locking” entry when she’d left Node 3, but the timing of the subsequent “unlock” entry seemed strange. The two entries were less than one minute apart. Susan was certain she’d been outside with the commander for more than one minute.
Susan scrolled down the page. What she saw left her aghast. Registering three minutes later, a second set of lock‑unlock entries appeared. According to the log, someone had unlocked her terminal while she was gone.
“Not possible!” she choked. The only candidate was Greg Hale, and Susan was quite certain she’d never given Hale her privacy code. Following good cryptographic procedure, Susan had chosen her code at random and never written it down; Hale’s guessing the correct five‑character alphanumeric was out of the question‑it was thirty‑six to the fifth power, over sixty million possibilities.
But the ScreenLock entries were as clear as day. Susan stared at them in wonder. Hale had somehow been on her terminal while she was gone. He had sent her tracer a manual abort command.
The questions of how quickly gave way to questions of why? Hale had no motive to break into her terminal. He didn’t even know Susan was running a tracer. Even if he did know, Susan thought, why would he object to her tracking some guy named North Dakota?
The unanswered questions seemed to be multiplying in her head. “First things first,” she said aloud. She would deal with Hale in a moment. Focusing on the matter at hand, Susan reloaded her tracer and hit the enter key. Her terminal beeped once.
Susan knew the tracer would take hours to return. She cursed Hale, wondering how in the world he’d gotten her privacy code, wondering what interest he had in her tracer.
Susan stood up and strode immediately for Hale’s terminal. The screen was black, but she could tell it was not locked‑the monitor was glowing faintly around the edges. Cryptographers seldom locked their terminals except when they left Node 3 for the night. Instead, they simply dimmed the brightness on their monitors‑a universal, honor‑code indication that no one should disturb the terminal.
Susan reached for Hale’s terminal. “Screw the honor code,” she said. “What the hell are you up to?”
Throwing a quick glance out at the deserted Crypto floor, Susan turned up Hale’s brightness controls. The monitor came into focus, but the screen was entirely empty. Susan frowned at the blank screen. Uncertain how to proceed, she called up a search engine and typed:
SEARCH FOR: “TRACER”
It was a long shot, but if there were any references to Susan’s tracer in Hale’s computer, this search would find them. It might shed some light on why Hale had manually aborted her program. Seconds later the screen refreshed.
NO MATCHES FOUND
Susan sat a moment, unsure what she was even looking for. She tried again.
SEARCH FOR: “SCREENLOCK”
The monitor refreshed and provided a handful of innocuous references‑no hint that Hale had any copies of Susan’s privacy code on his computer.
Susan sighed loudly. So what programs has he been using today? She went to Hale’s “recent applications” menu to find the last program he had used. It was his E‑mail server. Susan searched his hard drive and eventually found his E‑mail folder hidden discreetly inside some other directories. She opened the folder, and additional folders appeared; it seemed Hale had numerous E‑mail identities and accounts. One of them, Susan noticed with little surprise, was an anonymous account. She opened the folder, clicked one of the old, inbound messages, and read it.
She instantly stopped breathing. The message read: