A nerdy, conspiracy-addled romp through the intelligence agencies of East and West. Code-breaking is the thinking man's rush--at least, that's what Harrison (Thunder of Erebus, 1991, etc.) would have his readers believe. And cryptographer Faisal Shaikh, a Briton of Pakistani extraction, is the slickest cipher-junkie in England's Government Communications Headquarters, a secluded compound dedicated to monitoring and deciphering the endless buzz of clandestine messages emanating from the world's espionage organizations, military machines, and political offices. Elegant, smooth, and fearsomely cerebral, Shaikh leads a monastic, albeit well-appointed, existence, comfortably chipping away at any government's attempt to keep a secret--until an uncrackable ``Black Cipher'' comes under his scrutiny. With assistance from various spook buddies, Shaikh unknots the code and traces the series of transmissions from its source inside the former Soviet Union, through Tehran and the IRA, right back to England. After a Saudi prince is murdered as part one of the Black Cipher plot, Shaikh's corrupt superiors run him off the trail and out of a job, but the intrepid code wizard assembles his own freelance team to stay on the chase. While he saves England, Shaikh also manages to make a killing in the stock market, clean house at a gaming club, and get engaged. The codemaster's appetite for justice is as substantial as his deciphering talent, but even his formidable intellect and network of secret-agent-man connections can't prevent him from becoming a fugitive by the novel's end, racing against the clock to thwart a coup at No. 10 Downing Street. Shaikh is an alluring character (sequel alert), but not nearly alluring enough to keep the air in this one. Littered with postCold War paranoia, tipsy with Tory sympathies, and stuffed with enough acronyms to keep Alexander Haig happy forever. Even a late-plot zinger can't dispel the feeling that we've seen it all before.