Spain. I sent David to Spain. The commander’s words stung.
“David’s in Spain?” Susan was incredulous. “You sent him to Spain?” Her tone turned angry. “Why?”
Strathmore looked dumbfounded. He was apparently not accustomed to being yelled at, even by his head cryptographer. He gave Susan a confused look. She was flexed like a mother tiger defending her cub.
“Susan,” he said. “You spoke to him, didn’t you? David did explain?”
She was too shocked to speak. Spain? That’s why David postponed our Stone Manor trip?
“I sent a car for him this morning. He said he was going to call you before he left. I’m sorry. I thought—”
“Why would you send David to Spain?”
Strathmore paused and gave her an obvious look. “To get the other pass‑key.”
“What other pass‑key?”
Susan was lost. “What are you talking about?”
Strathmore sighed. “Tankado surely would have had a copy of the pass‑key on him when he died. I sure as hell didn’t want it floating around the Seville morgue.”
“So you sent David Becker?” Susan was beyond shock. Nothing was making sense. “David doesn’t even work for you!”
Strathmore looked startled. No one ever spoke to the deputy director of the NSA that way. “Susan,” he said, keeping his cool, “that’s the point. I needed—”
The tiger lashed out. “You’ve got twenty thousand employees at your command! What gives you the right to send my fiance?”
“I needed a civilian courier, someone totally removed from government. If I went through regular channels and someone caught wind—”
“And David Becker is the only civilian you know?”
“No! David Becker is not the only civilian I know! But at six this morning, things were happening quickly! David speaks the language, he’s smart, I trust him, and I thought I’d do him a favor!”
“A favor?” Susan sputtered. “Sending him to Spain is a favor?”
“Yes! I’m paying him ten thousand for one day’s work. He’ll pick up Tankado’s belongings, and he’ll fly home. That’s a favor!”
Susan fell silent. She understood. It was all about money.
Her thoughts wheeled back five months to the night the president of Georgetown University had offered David a promotion to the language department chair. The president had warned him that his teaching hours would be cut back and that there would be increased paperwork, but there was also a substantial raise in salary. Susan had wanted to cry out David, don’t do it! You’ll be miserable. We have plenty of money‑who cares which one of us earns it? But it was not her place. In the end, she stood by his decision to accept. As they fell asleep that night, Susan tried to be happy for him, but something inside kept telling her it would be a disaster. She’d been right‑but she’d never counted on being so right.
“You paid him ten thousand dollars?” she demanded. “That’s a dirty trick!”
Strathmore was fuming now. “Trick? It wasn’t any goddamn trick! I didn’t even tell him about the money. I asked him as a personal favor. He agreed to go.”
“Of course he agreed! You’re my boss! You’re the deputy director of the NSA! He couldn’t say no!”
“You’re right,” Strathmore snapped. “Which is why I called him. I didn’t have the luxury of—”
“Does the director know you sent a civilian?”
“Susan,” Strathmore said, his patience obviously wearing thin, “the director is not involved. He knows nothing about this.”
Susan stared at Strathmore in disbelief. It was as if she no longer knew the man she was talking to. He had sent her fiance‑a teacher‑on an NSA mission and then failed to notify the director about the biggest crisis in the history of the organization.
“Leland Fontaine hasn’t been notified?”
Strathmore had reached the end of his rope. He exploded. “Susan, now listen here! I called you in here because I need an ally, not an inquiry! I’ve had one hell of morning. I downloaded Tankado’s file last night and sat here by the output printer for hours praying TRANSLTR could break it. At dawn I swallowed my pride and dialed the director‑and let me tell you, that was a conversation I was really looking forward to. Good morning, sir. I’m sorry to wake you. Why am I calling? I just found out TRANSLTR is obsolete. It’s because of an algorithm my entire top‑dollar Crypto team couldn’t come close to writing!” Strathmore slammed his fist on the desk.
Susan stood frozen. She didn’t make a sound. In ten years, she had seen Strathmore lose his cool only a handful of times, and never once with her.
Ten seconds later neither one of them had spoken. Finally Strathmore sat back down, and Susan could hear his breathing slowing to normal. When he finally spoke, his voice was eerily calm and controlled.
“Unfortunately,” Strathmore said quietly, “it turns out the director is in South America meeting with the President of Colombia. Because there’s absolutely nothing he could do from down there, I had two options‑request he cut his meeting short and return, or handle this myself.” There was along silence. Strathmore finally looked up, and his tired eyes met Susan’s. His expression softened immediately. “Susan, I’m sorry. I’m exhausted. This is a nightmare come true. I know you’re upset about David. I didn’t mean for you to find out this way. I thought you knew.”
Susan felt a wave of guilt. “I overreacted. I’m sorry. David is a good choice.”
Strathmore nodded absently. “He’ll be back tonight.”
Susan thought about everything the commander was going through‑the pressure of overseeing TRANSLTR, the endless hours and meetings. It was rumored his wife of thirty years was leaving him. Then on top of it, there was Digital Fortress‑the biggest intelligence threat in the history of the NSA, and the poor guy was flying solo. No wonder he looked about to crack.
“Considering the circumstances,” Susan said, “I think you should probably call the director.”
Strathmore shook his head, a bead of sweat dripping on his desk. “I’m not about to compromise the director’s safety or risk a leak by contacting him about a major crisis he can do nothing about.”
Susan knew he was right. Even in moments like these, Strathmore was clear‑headed. “Have you considered calling the President?”
Strathmore nodded. “Yes. I’ve decided against it.”
Susan had figured as much. Senior NSA officials had the right to handle verifiable intelligence emergencies without executive knowledge. The NSA was the only U.S. intelligence organization that enjoyed total immunity from federal accountability of any sort. Strathmore often availed himself of this right; he preferred to work his magic in isolation.
“Commander,” she argued, “this is too big to be handled alone. You’ve got to let somebody else in on it.”
“Susan, the existence of Digital Fortress has major implications for the future of this organization. I have no intention of informing the President behind the director’s back. We have a crisis, and I’m handling it.” He eyed her thoughtfully. “I am the deputy director of operations.” A weary smile crept across his face. “And besides, I’m not alone. I’ve got Susan Fletcher on my team.”
In that instant, Susan realized what she respected so much about Trevor Strathmore. For ten years, through thick and thin, he had always led the way for her. Steadfast. Unwavering. It was his dedication that amazed her‑his unshakable allegiance to his principles, his country, and his ideals. Come what may, Commander Trevor Strathmore was a guiding light in a world of impossible decisions.
“You are on my team, aren’t you?” he asked.
Susan smiled. “Yes, sir, I am. One hundred percent.”
“Good. Now can we get back to work?”