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Director Leland Fontaine was a mountain of a man, sixty‑three years old, with a close‑cropped military haircut and a rigid demeanor. His jet‑black eyes were like coal when he was irritated, which was almost always. He’d risen through the ranks of the NSA through hard work, good planning, and the well‑earned respect of his predecessors. He was the first African American director of the National Security Agency, but nobody ever mentioned the distinction; Fontaine’s politics were decidedly color‑blind, and his staff wisely followed suit.

Fontaine had kept Midge and Brinkerhoff standing as he went through the silent ritual of making himself a mug of Guatemalan java. Then he’d settled at his desk, left them standing, and questioned them like schoolchildren in the principal’s office.

Midge did the talking‑explaining the unusual series of events that led them to violate the sanctity of Fontaine’s office.

“A virus?” the director asked coldly. “You two think we’ve got a virus?”

Brinkerhoff winced.

“Yes, sir,” Midge snapped.

“Because Strathmore bypassed Gauntlet?” Fontaine eyed the printout in front of him.

“Yes,” she said. “And there’s a file that hasn’t broken in over twenty hours!”

Fontaine frowned. “Or so your data says.”

Midge was about to protest, but she held her tongue. Instead she went for the throat. “There’s a blackout in Crypto.”

Fontaine looked up, apparently surprised.

Midge confirmed with a curt nod. “All power’s down. Jabba thought maybe—”

“You called Jabba?”

“Yes, sir, I—”

“Jabba?” Fontaine stood up, furious. “Why the hell didn’t you call Strathmore?”

“We did!” Midge defended. “He said everything was fine.”

Fontaine stood, his chest heaving. “Then we have no reason to doubt him.” There was closure in his voice. He took a sip of coffee. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I have work to do.”

Midge’s jaw dropped. “I beg your pardon?”

Brinkerhoff was already headed for the door, but Midge was cemented in place.

“I said good night, Ms. Milken,” Fontaine repeated. “You are excused.”

“But‑but sir,” she stammered, “I . . . I have to protest. I think—”

“You protest?” the director demanded. He set down his coffee. “I protest! I protest to your presence in my office. I protest to your insinuations that the deputy director of this agency is lying. I protest—”

“We have a virus, sir! My instincts tell me—”

“Well, your instincts are wrong, Ms. Milken! For once, they’re wrong!”

Midge stood fast. “But, sir! Commander Strathmore bypassed Gauntlet!”

Fontaine strode toward her, barely controlling his anger. “That is his prerogative! I pay you to watch analysts and service employees‑not spy on the deputy director! If it weren’t for him we’d still be breaking codes with pencil and paper! Now leave me!” He turned to Brinkerhoff, who stood in the doorway colorless and trembling. “Both of you.”

“With all due respect, sir,” Midge said. “I’d like to recommend we send a Sys‑Sec team to Crypto just to ensure—”

“We will do no such thing!”

After a tense beat, Midge nodded. “Very well. Goodnight.” She turned and left. As she passed, Brinkerhoff could see in her eyes that she had no intention of letting this rest‑not until her intuition was satisfied.

Brinkerhoff gazed across the room at his boss, massive and seething behind his desk. This was not the director he knew. The director he knew was a stickler for detail, for neatly tied packages. He always encouraged his staff to examine and clarify any inconsistencies in daily procedure, no matter how minute. And yet here he was, asking them to turn their backs on a very bizarre series of coincidences.

The director was obviously hiding something, but Brinkerhoff was paid to assist, not to question. Fontaine had proven over and over that he had everyone’s best interests at heart; if assisting him now meant turning a blind eye, then so be it. Unfortunately, Midge was paid to question, and Brinkerhoff feared she was headed for Crypto to do just that.

Time to get out the resumes, Brinkerhoff thought as he turned to the door.

“Chad!” Fontaine barked, from behind him. Fontaine had seen the look in Midge’s eyes when she left. “Don’t let her out of this suite.”

Brinkerhoff nodded and hustled after Midge.

* * *

Fontaine sighed and put his head in his hands. His sable eyes were heavy. It had been a long, unexpected trip home. The past month had been one of great anticipation for Leland Fontaine. There were things happening right now at the NSA that would change history, and ironically, Director Fontaine had found out about them only by chance.

Three months ago, Fontaine had gotten news that Commander Strathmore’s wife was leaving him. He’d also heard reports that Strathmore was working absurd hours and seemed about to crack under the pressure. Despite differences of opinion with Strathmore on many issues, Fontaine had always held his deputy director in the highest esteem; Strathmore was a brilliant man, maybe the best the NSA had. At the same time, ever since the Skipjack fiasco, Strathmore had been under tremendous stress. It made Fontaine uneasy; the commander held a lot of keys around the NSA‑and Fontaine had an agency to protect.

Fontaine needed someone to keep tabs on the wavering Strathmore and make sure he was 100 percent‑but it was not that simple. Strathmore was a proud and powerful man; Fontaine needed a way to check up on the commander without undermining his confidence or authority.

Fontaine decided, out of respect for Strathmore, to do the job himself. He had an invisible tap installed on Commander Strathmore’s Crypto account‑his E‑mail, his interoffice correspondence, his brainstorms, all of it. If Strathmore was going to crack, the director would see warning signs in his work. But instead of signs of a breakdown, Fontaine uncovered the ground work for one of the most incredible intelligence schemes he’d ever encountered. It was no wonder Strathmore was busting his ass; if he could pull this plan off, it would make up for the Skipjack fiasco a hundred times over.

Fontaine had concluded Strathmore was fine, working at 110 percent‑as sly, smart, and patriotic as ever. The best thing the director could do would be to stand clear and watch the commander work his magic. Strathmore had devised a plan . . . a plan Fontaine had no intention of interrupting.