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“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.”