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“Absolutely not!” The man with the buzz cut yelled into the camera. “We have orders! We report to Director Leland Fontaine and Leland Fontaine only!”

Fontaine looked mildly amused. “You don’t know who I am, do you?”

“Doesn’t matter, does it?” the blond fired hotly.

“Let me explain,” Fontaine interjected. “Let me explain something right now.”

Seconds later, the two men were red‑faced, spilling their guts to the director of the National Security Agency. “D‑director,” the blond stammered, “I’m Agent Coliander. This is Agent Smith.”

“Fine,” Fontaine said. “Just brief us.”

* * *

At the back of the room, Susan Fletcher sat and fought the suffocating loneliness that pressed down around her. Eyes closed, and ears ringing, she wept. Her body had gone numb. The mayhem in the control room faded to a dull murmur.

The gathering on the podium listened, restless, as Agent Smith began his briefing.

“On your orders, Director,” Smith began, “we’ve been here in Seville for two days, trailing Mr. Ensei Tankado.”

“Tell me about the kill,” Fontaine said impatiently.

Smith nodded. “We observed from inside the van at about fifty meters. The kill was smooth. Hulohot was obviously a pro. But afterward his directive went awry. Company arrived. Hulohot never got the item.”

Fontaine nodded. The agents had contacted him in South America with news that something had gone wrong, so Fontaine had cut his trip short.

Coliander took over. “We stayed with Hulohot as you ordered. But he never made a move for the morgue. Instead, he picked up the trail of some other guy. Looked private. Coat and tie.”

“Private?” Fontaine mused. It sounded like a Strathmore play‑wisely keeping the NSA out of it.

“FTP filters failing!” a technician called out.

“We need the item,” Fontaine pressed. “Where is Hulohot now?”

Smith looked over his shoulder. “Well . . . he’s with us, sir.”

Fontaine exhaled. “Where?” It was the best new she’d heard all day.

Smith reached toward the lens to make an adjustment. The camera swept across the inside of the van to reveal two limp bodies propped against the back wall. Both were motionless. One was a large man with twisted wire‑rim glasses. The other was young with a shock of dark hair and a bloody shirt.

“Hulohot’s the one on the left,” Smith offered.

“Hulohot’s dead?” the director demanded.

“Yes, sir.”

Fontaine knew there would be time for explanations later. He glanced up at the thinning shields. “Agent Smith,” he said slowly and clearly. “The item. I need it.”

Smith looked sheepish. “Sir, we still have no idea what the item is. We’re on a need‑to‑know.”