The emptiness in David Becker’s mind was absolute.I am dead.And yet there was a sound.
A distant voice…
There was a dizzying burning beneath his arm. His blood was filled with fire. My body is not my own. And yet there was a voice, calling to him. It was thin, distant. But it was part of him. There were other voices too-unfamiliar, unimportant. Calling out. He fought to block them out. There was only one voice that mattered. It faded in and out.
“David… I’m sorry…”
There was a mottled light. Faint at first, a single slit of grayness. Growing. Becker tried to move. Pain. He tried to speak. Silence. The voice kept calling.
Someone was near him, lifting him. Becker moved toward the voice. Or was he being moved? It was calling. He gazed absently at the illuminated image. He could see her on a small screen. It was a woman, staring up at him from another world. Is she watching me die?
The voice was familiar. She was an angel. She had come for him. The angel spoke. “David, I love you.”
Suddenly he knew.
Susan reached out toward the screen, crying, laughing, lost in a torrent of emotions. She wiped fiercely at her tears. “David, I-I thought…”
Field Agent Smith eased David Becker into the seat facing the monitor. “He’s a little woozy, ma’am. Give him a second.”
“B-but,” Susan was stammering, “I saw a transmission. It said…”
Smith nodded. “We saw it too. Hulohot counted his chickens a little early.”
“But the blood…”
“Flesh wound,” Smith replied. “We slapped a gauze on it.”
Susan couldn’t speak.
Agent Coliander piped in from off camera. “We hit him with the new J23-long-acting stun gun. Probably hurt like hell, but we got him off the street.”
“Don’t worry, ma’am,” Smith assured. “He’ll be fine.”
David Becker stared at the TV monitor in front of him. He was disoriented, light-headed. The image on the screen was of a room-a room filled with chaos. Susan was there. She was standing on an open patch of floor, gazing up at him.
She was crying and laughing. “David. Thank God! I thought I had lost you!”
He rubbed his temple. He moved in front of the screen and pulled the gooseneck microphone toward his mouth. “Susan?”
Susan gazed up in wonder. David’s rugged features now filled the entire wall before her. His voice boomed.
“Susan, I need to ask you something.” The resonance and volume of Becker’s voice seemed to momentarily suspend the action in the databank. Everyone stopped midstride and turned.
“Susan Fletcher,” the voice resonated, “will you marry me?”
A hush spread across the room. A clipboard clattered to the floor along with a mug of pencils. No one bent to pick them up. There was only the faint hum of the terminal fans and the sound of David Becker’s steady breathing in his microphone.
“D-David…” Susan stammered, unaware that thirty-seven people stood riveted behind her. “You already asked me, remember? Five months ago. I said yes.”
“I know.” He smiled. “But this time”-he extended his left hand into the camera and displayed a golden band on his fourth finger-“this time I have a ring.”
“Read it, Mr. Becker!” Fontaine ordered.
Jabba sat sweating, hands poised over his keyboard. “Yes,” he said, “read the blessed inscription!”
Susan Fletcher stood with them, weak-kneed and aglow. Everyone in the room had stopped what they were doing and stared up at the enormous projection of David Becker. The professor twisted the ring in his fingers and studied the engraving.
“And read carefully!” Jabba commanded. “One typo, and we’re screwed!”
Fontaine gave Jabba a harsh look. If there was one thing the director of the NSA knew about, it was pressure situations; creating additional tension was never wise. “Relax, Mr. Becker. If we make a mistake, we’ll reenter the code till we get it right.”
“Bad advice, Mr. Becker,” Jabba snapped. “Get it right the first time. Kill-codes usually have a penalty clause-to prevent trial-and-error guessing. Make an incorrect entry, and the cycle will probably accelerate. Make two incorrect entries, and it will lock us out permanently. Game over.”
The director frowned and turned back to the screen. “Mr. Becker? My mistake. Read carefully-read extremely carefully.”
Becker nodded and studied the ring for a moment. Then he calmly began reciting the inscription. “Q… U… I… S… space… C…”
Jabba and Susan interrupted in unison. “Space?” Jabba stopped typing. “There’s a space?”
Becker shrugged, checking the ring. “Yeah. There’s a bunch of them.”
“Am I missing something?” Fontaine demanded. “What are we waiting for?”
“Sir,” Susan said, apparently puzzled. “It’s… it’s just…”
“I agree,” Jabba said. “It’s strange. Passwords never have spaces.”
Brinkerhoff swallowed hard. “So, what are you saying?”
“He’s saying,” Susan interjected, “that this may not be a kill-code.”
Brinkerhoff cried out, “Of course it’s the kill-code! What else could it be? Why else would Tankado give it away? Who the hell inscribes a bunch of random letters on a ring?”
Fontaine silenced Brinkerhoff with a sharp glare.
“Ah… folks?” Becker interjected, appearing hesitant to get involved. “You keep mentioning random letters. I think I should let you know… the letters on this ring aren’t random.”
Everyone on the podium blurted in unison. “What!”
Becker looked uneasy. “Sorry, but there are definitely words here. I’ll admit they’re inscribed pretty close together; at first glance it appears random, but if you look closely you’ll see the inscription is actually… well… it’s Latin.”
Jabba gaped. “You’re shitting me!”
Becker shook his head. “No. It reads, ‘Quis custodiet ipsos custodes.’ It translates roughly to-“
“Who will guard the guards!” Susan interrupted, finishing David’s sentence.
Becker did a double-take. “Susan, I didn’t know you could-“
“It’s from Satires of Juvenal,” she exclaimed. “Who will guard the guards? Who will guard the NSA while we guard the world? It was Tankado’s favorite saying!”
“So,” Midge demanded, “is it the pass-key, or not?”
“It must be the pass-key,” Brinkerhoff declared.
Fontaine stood silent, apparently processing the information.
“I don’t know if it’s the key,” Jabba said. “It seems unlikely to me that Tankado would use a nonrandom construction.”
“Just omit the spaces,” Brinkerhoff cried, “and type the damn code!”
Fontaine turned to Susan. “What’s your take, Ms. Fletcher?”
She thought a moment. She couldn’t quite put her finger on it, but something didn’t feel right. Susan knew Tankado well enough to know he thrived on simplicity. His proofs and programming were always crystalline and absolute. The fact that the spaces needed to be removed seemed odd. It was a minor detail, but it was a flaw, definitely not clean-not what Susan would have expected as Ensei Tankado’s crowning blow.
“It doesn’t feel right,” Susan finally said. “I don’t think it’s the key.”
Fontaine sucked in a long breath, his dark eyes probing hers. “Ms. Fletcher, in your mind, if this is not the key, why would Ensei Tankado have given it away? If he knew we’d murdered him-don’t you assume he’d want to punish us by making the ring disappear?”
A new voice interrupted the dialogue. “Ah… Director?”
All eyes turned to the screen. It was Agent Coliander in Seville. He was leaning over Becker’s shoulder and speaking into the mic. “For whatever it’s worth, I’m not so sure Mr. Tankado knew he was being murdered.”
“I beg your pardon?” Fontaine demanded.
“Hulohot was a pro, sir. We saw the kill-only fifty meters away. All evidence suggests Tankado was unaware.”
“Evidence?” Brinkerhoff demanded. “What evidence? Tankado gave away this ring. That’s proof enough!”
“Agent Smith,” Fontaine interrupted. “What makes you think Ensei Tankado was unaware he was being killed?”
Smith cleared his throat. “Hulohot killed him with an NTB-a noninvasive trauma bullet. It’s a rubber pod that strikes the chest and spreads out. Silent. Very clean. Mr. Tankado would only have felt a sharp thump before going into cardiac arrest.”
“A trauma bullet,” Becker mused to himself. “That explains the bruising.”
“It’s doubtful,” Smith added, “that Tankado associated the sensation with a gunman.”
“And yet he gave away his ring,” Fontaine stated.
“True, sir. But he never looked for his assailant. A victim always looks for his assailant when he’s been shot. It’s instinct.”
Fontaine puzzled. “And you’re saying Tankado didn’t look for Hulohot?”
“No, sir. We have it on film if you’d like-“
“X-eleven filter’s going!” a technician yelled. “The worm’s halfway there!”
“Forget the film,” Brinkerhoff declared. “Type in the damn kill-code and finish this!”
Jabba sighed, suddenly the cool one. “Director, if we enter the wrong code…”
“Yes,” Susan interrupted, “if Tankado didn’t suspect we killed him, we’ve got some questions to answer.”
“What’s our time frame, Jabba?” Fontaine demanded.
Jabba looked up at the VR. “About twenty minutes. I suggest we use the time wisely.”
Fontaine was silent a long moment. Then sighed heavily. “All right. Run the film.”
“Transmitting video in ten seconds,” Agent Smith’s voice crackled. “We’re dropping every other frame as well as audio-we’ll run as close to real time as possible.”
Everyone on the podium stood silent, watching, waiting. Jabba typed a few keys and rearranged the video wall. Tankado’s message appeared on the far left:
ONLY THE TRUTH WILL SAVE YOU NOW
On the right of the wall was the static interior shot of the van with Becker and the two agents huddled around the camera. In the center, a fuzzy frame appeared. It dissolved into static and then into a black and white image of a park.
“Transmitting,” Agent Smith announced.
The shot looked like an old movie. It was stilted and jerky-a by-product of frame-dropping, a process that halved the amount of information sent and enabled faster transmission.
The shot panned out across an enormous concourse enclosed on one end by a semicircular facade-the Seville Ayuntamiento. There were trees in the foreground. The park was empty.
“X-eleven’s are down!” a technician called out. “This bad boy’s hungry!”
Smith began to narrate. His commentary had the detachment of a seasoned agent. “This is shot from the van,” he said, “about fifty meters from the kill zone. Tankado is approaching from the right. Hulohot’s in the trees to the left.”
“We’ve got a time crunch here,” Fontaine pressed. “Let’s get to the meat of it.”
Agent Coliander touched a few buttons, and the frame speed increased.
Everyone on the podium watched in anticipation as their former associate, Ensei Tankado, came into the frame. The accelerated video made the whole image seem comic. Tankado shuffled jerkily out onto the concourse, apparently taking in the scenery. He shielded his eyes and gazed up at the spires of the huge facade.
“This is it,” Smith warned. “Hulohot’s a pro. He took his first open shot.”
Smith was right. There was a flash of light from behind the trees on the left of the screen. An instant later Tankado clutched his chest. He staggered momentarily. The camera zoomed in on him, unstable-in and out of focus.
As the footage rolled in high speed, Smith coldly continued his narration. “As you can see, Tankado is instantly in cardiac arrest.”
Susan felt ill watching the images. Tankado clutched at his chest with crippled hands, a confused look of terror on his face.
“You’ll notice,” Smith added, “his eyes are focused downward, at himself. Not once does he look around.”
“And that’s important?” Jabba half stated, half inquired.
“Very,” Smith said. “If Tankado suspected foul play of any kind, he would instinctively search the area. But as you can see, he does not.”
On the screen, Tankado dropped to his knees, still clutching his chest. He never once looked up. Ensei Tankado was a man alone, dying a private, natural death.
“It’s odd,” Smith said, puzzled. “Trauma pods usually won’t kill this quickly. Sometimes, if the target’s big enough, they don’t kill at all.”
“Bad heart,” Fontaine said flatly.
Smith arched his eyebrows, impressed. “Fine choice of weapon, then.”
Susan watched as Tankado toppled from his knees to his side and finally onto his back. He lay, staring upward, grabbing at his chest. Suddenly the camera wheeled away from him back toward the grove of trees. A man appeared. He was wearing wire-rim glasses and carrying an oversize briefcase. As he approached the concourse and the writhing Tankado, his fingers began tapping in a strange silent dance on a mechanism attached to his hand.
“He’s working his Monocle,” Smith announced. “Sending a message that Tankado is terminated.” Smith turned to Becker and chuckled. “Looks like Hulohot had a bad habit of transmitting kills before his victim actually expired.”
Coliander sped the film up some more, and the camera followed Hulohot as he began moving toward his victim. Suddenly an elderly man rushed out of a nearby courtyard, ran over to Tankado, and knelt beside him. Hulohot slowed his approach. A moment later two more people appeared from the courtyard-an obese man and a red-haired woman. They also came to Tankado’s side.
“Unfortunate choice of kill zone,” Smith said. “Hulohot thought he had the victim isolated.”
On the screen, Hulohot watched for a moment and then shrank back into the trees, apparently to wait.
“Here comes the handoff,” Smith prompted. “We didn’t notice it the first time around.”
Susan gazed up at the sickening image on the screen. Tankado was gasping for breath, apparently trying communicate something to the Samaritans kneeling beside him. Then, in desperation, he thrust his left hand above him, almost hitting the old man in the face. He held the crippled appendage outward before the old man’s eyes. The camera tightened on Tankado’s three deformed fingers, and on one of them, clearly glistening in the Spanish sun, was the golden ring. Tankado thrust it out again. The old man recoiled. Tankado turned to the woman. He held his three deformed fingers directly in front of her face, as if begging her to understand. The ring glinted in the sun. The woman looked away. Tankado, now choking, unable to make a sound, turned to the obese man and tried one last time.
The elderly man suddenly stood and dashed off, presumably to get help. Tankado seemed to be weakening, but he was still holding the ring in the fat man’s face. The fat man reached out and held the dying man’s wrist, supporting it. Tankado seemed to gaze upward at his own fingers, at his own ring, and then to the man’s eyes. As a final plea before death, Ensei Tankado gave the man an almost imperceptible nod, as if to say yes.
Then Tankado fell limp.
“Jesus.” Jabba moaned.
Suddenly the camera swept to where Hulohot had been hiding. The assassin was gone. A police motorcycle appeared, tearing up Avenida Firelli. The camera wheeled back to where Tankado was lying. The woman kneeling beside him apparently heard the police sirens; she glanced around nervously and then began pulling at her obese companion, begging him to leave. The two hurried off.
The camera tightened on Tankado, his hands folded on his lifeless chest. The ring on his finger was gone.