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Chapter 50

Only yards from TRANSLTR’s hull, Phil Chartrukian stood over a patch of white lettering on the Crypto floor.

CRYPTO SUBLEVELS

AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY

He knew he was definitely not authorized personnel. He shot a quick glance up at Strathmore’s office. The curtains were still pulled. Chartrukian had seen Susan Fletcher go into the bathrooms, so he knew she wasn’t a problem. The only other question was Hale. He glanced toward Node 3, wondering if the cryptographer were watching.

“Fuck it,” he grumbled.

Below his feet the outline of a recessed trapdoor was barely visible in the floor. Chartrukian palmed the key he’d just taken from the Sys-Sec lab.

He knelt down, inserted the key in the floor, and turned. The bolt beneath clicked. Then he unscrewed the large external butterfly latch and freed the door. Checking once again over his shoulder, he squatted down and pulled. The panel was small, only three feet by three feet, but it was heavy. When it finally opened, the Sys-Sec stumbled back.

A blast of hot air hit him in the face. It carried with it the sharp bite of freon gas. Billows of steam swirled out of the opening, illuminated by the red utility lighting below. The distant hum of the generators became a rumble. Chartrukian stood up and peered into the opening. It looked more like the gateway to hell than a service entrance for a computer. A narrow ladder led to a platform under the floor. Beyond that, there were stairs, but all he could see was swirling red mist.

Greg Hale stood behind the one-way glass of Node 3. He watched as Phil Chartrukian eased himself down the ladder toward the sublevels. From where Hale was standing, the Sys-Sec’s head appeared to have been severed from his body and left out on the Crypto floor. Then, slowly, it sank into the swirling mist.

“Gutsy move,” Hale muttered. He knew where Chartrukian was headed. An emergency manual abort of TRANSLTR was a logical action if he thought the computer had a virus. Unfortunately, it was also a sure way to have Crypto crawling with Sys-Secs in about ten minutes. Emergency actions raised alert flags at the main switchboard. A Sys-Sec investigation of Crypto was something Hale could not afford. Hale left Node 3 and headed for the trapdoor. Chartrukian had to be stopped.

Chapter 51

Jabba resembled a giant tadpole. Like the cinematic creature for whom he was nicknamed, the man was a hairless spheroid. As resident guardian angel of all NSA computer systems, Jabba marched from department to department, tweaking, soldering, and reaffirming his credo that prevention was the best medicine. No NSA computer had ever been infected under Jabba’s reign; he intended to keep it that way.

Jabba’s home base was a raised workstation overlooking the NSA’s underground, ultra-secret databank. It was there that a virus would do the most damage and there that he spent the majority of his time. At the moment, however, Jabba was taking a break and enjoying pepperoni calzones in the NSA’s all-night commissary. He was about to dig into his third when his cellular phone rang.

“Go,” he said, coughing as he swallowed a mouthful.

“Jabba,” a woman’s voice cooed. “It’s Midge.”

“Data Queen!” the huge man gushed. He’d always had a soft spot for Midge Milken. She was sharp, and she was also the only woman Jabba had ever met who flirted with him. “How the hell are you?”

“No complaints.”

Jabba wiped his mouth. “You on site?”

“Yup.”

“Care to join me for a calzone?”

“Love to Jabba, but I’m watching these hips.”

“Really?” He snickered. “Mind if I join you?”

“You’re bad.”

“You have no idea….”

“Glad I caught you in,” she said. “I need some advice.”

He took a long swallow of Dr Pepper. “Shoot.”

“It might be nothing,” Midge said, “but my Crypto stats turned up something odd. I was hoping you could shed some light.”

“What ya got?” He took another sip.

“I’ve got a report saying TRANSLTR’s been running the same file for eighteen hours and hasn’t cracked it.”

Jabba sprayed Dr Pepper all over his calzone. “You what?”

“Any ideas?”

He dabbed at his calzone with a napkin. “What report is this?”

“Production report. Basic cost analysis stuff.” Midge quickly explained what she and Brinkerhoff had found.

“Have you called Strathmore?”

“Yes. He said everything’s fine in Crypto. Said TRANSLTR’s running full speed ahead. Said our data’s wrong.”

Jabba furrowed his bulbous forehead. “So what’s the problem? Your report glitched.” Midge did not respond. Jabba caught her drift. He frowned. “You don’t think your report glitched?”

“Correct.”

“So you think Strathmore’s lying?”

“It’s not that,” Midge said diplomatically, knowing she was on fragile ground. “It’s just that my stats have never been wrong in the past. I thought I’d get a second opinion.”

“Well,” Jabba said, “I hate to be the one to break it to you, but your data’s fried.”

“You think so?”

“I’d bet my job on it.” Jabba took a big bite of soggy calzone and spoke with his mouth full. “Longest a file has ever lasted inside TRANSLTR is three hours. That includes diagnostics, boundary probes, everything. Only thing that could lock it down for eighteen hours would have to be viral. Nothing else could do it.”

“Viral?”

“Yeah, some kind of redundant cycle. Something that got into the processors, created a loop, and basically gummed up the works.”

“Well,” she ventured, “Strathmore’s been in Crypto for about thirty-six hours straight. Any chance he’s fighting a virus?”

Jabba laughed. “Strathmore’s been in there for thirty-six hours? Poor bastard. His wife probably said he can’t come home. I hear she’s bagging his ass.”

Midge thought a moment. She’d heard that too. She wondered if maybe she was being paranoid.

“Midge.” Jabba wheezed and took another long drink. “If Strathmore’s toy had a virus, he would have called me. Strathmore’s sharp, but he doesn’t know shit about viruses. TRANSLTR’s all he’s got. First sign of trouble, he would have pressed the panic button-and around here, that means me.” Jabba sucked in a long strand of mozzarella. “Besides, there’s no way in hell TRANSLTR has a virus. Gauntlet’s the best set of package filters I’ve ever written. Nothing gets through.”

After a long silence, Midge sighed. “Any other thoughts?”

“Yup. Your data’s fried.”

“You already said that.”

“Exactly.”

She frowned. “You haven’t caught wind of anything? Anything at all?”

Jabba laughed harshly. “Midge… listen up. Skipjack sucked. Strathmore blew it. But move on-it’s over.” There was a long silence on the line, and Jabba realized he’d gone too far. “Sorry, Midge. I know you took heat over that whole mess. Strathmore was wrong. I know how you feel about him.”

“This has nothing to do with Skipjack,” she said firmly.

Yeah, sure, Jabba thought. “Listen, Midge, I don’t have feelings for Strathmore one way or another. I mean, the guy’s a cryptographer. They’re basically all self-centered assholes. They need their data yesterday. Every damn file is the one that could save the world.”

“So what are you saying?”

Jabba sighed. “I’m saying Strathmore’s a psycho like the rest of them. But I’m also saying he loves TRANSLTR more than his own goddamn wife. If there were a problem, he would have called me.”

Midge was quiet a long time. Finally she let out a reluctant sigh. “So you’re saying my data’s fried?”

Jabba chuckled. “Is there an echo in here?”

She laughed.

“Look, Midge. Drop me a work order. I’ll be up on Monday to double-check your machine. In the meantime, get the hell out of here. It’s Saturday night. Go get yourself laid or something.”

She sighed. “I’m trying, Jabba. Believe me, I’m trying.”

Chapter 52

Club Embrujo-“Warlock” in English-was situated in the suburbs at the end of the number 27 bus line. Looking more like a fortification than a dance club, it was surrounded on all sides by high stucco walls into which were embedded shards of shattered beer bottles-a crude security system preventing anyone from entering illegally without leaving behind a good portion of flesh.

During the ride, Becker had resolved himself to the fact that he’d failed. It was time to call Strathmore with the bad news-the search was hopeless. He had done the best he could; now it was time to go home.

But now, gazing out at the mob of patrons pushing their way through the club’s entrance, Becker was not so sure his conscience would allow him to give up the search. He was staring at the biggest crowd of punks he’d ever seen; there were coiffures of red, white, and blue everywhere.

Becker sighed, weighing his options. He scanned the crowd and shrugged. Where else would she be on a Saturday night? Cursing his good fortune, Becker climbed off the bus.

The access to Club Embrujo was a narrow stone corridor. As Becker entered he immediately felt himself caught up in the inward surge of eager patrons.

“Outta my way, faggot!” A human pincushion pawed past him, giving Becker an elbow in the side.

“Nice tie.” Someone gave Becker’s necktie a hard yank.

“Wanna fuck?” A teenage girl stared up at him looking like something out of Dawn of the Dead.

The darkness of the corridor spilled out into a huge cement chamber that reeked of alcohol and body odor. The scene was surreal-a deep mountain grotto in which hundreds of bodies moved as one. They surged up and down, hands pressed firmly to their sides, heads bobbing like lifeless bulbs on top of rigid spines. Crazed souls took running dives off a stage and landed on a sea of human limbs. Bodies were passed back and forth like human beach balls. Overhead, the pulsating strobes gave the whole thing the look of an old, silent movie.

On the far wall, speakers the size of minivans shook so deeply that not even the most dedicated dancers could get closer than thirty feet from the pounding woofers.

Becker plugged his ears and searched the crowd. Everywhere he looked was another red, white, and blue head. The bodies were packed so closely together that he couldn’t see what they were wearing. He saw no hint of a British flag anywhere. It was obvious he’d never be able to enter the crowd without getting trampled. Someone nearby started vomiting.

Lovely. Becker groaned. He moved off down a spray-painted hallway.

The hall turned into a narrow mirrored tunnel, which opened to an outdoor patio scattered with tables and chairs. The patio was crowded with punk rockers, but to Becker it was like the gateway to Shangri-La-the summer sky opened up above him and the music faded away.

Ignoring the curious stares, Becker walked out into the crowd. He loosened his tie and collapsed into a chair at the nearest unoccupied table. It seemed like a lifetime since Strathmore’s early-morning call.

After clearing the empty beer bottles from his table, Becker laid his head in his hands. Just for a few minutes, he thought.

Five miles away, the man in wire-rim glasses sat in the back of a Fiat taxi as it raced headlong down a country road.

“Embrujo,” he grunted, reminding the driver of their destination.

The driver nodded, eyeing his curious new fare in the rearview mirror. “Embrujo,” he grumbled to himself. “Weirder crowd every night.”

Chapter 53

Tokugen Numataka lay naked on the massage table in his penthouse office. His personal masseuse worked out the kinks in his neck. She ground her palms into the fleshy pockets surrounding his shoulder blades, slowly working her way down to the towel covering his backside. Her hands slipped lower… beneath his towel. Numataka barely noticed. His mind was elsewhere. He had been waiting for his private line to ring. It had not.

There was a knock at the door.

“Enter,” Numataka grunted.

The masseuse quickly pulled her hands from beneath the towel.

The switchboard operator entered and bowed. “Honored chairman?”

“Speak.”

The operator bowed a second time. “I spoke to the phone exchange. The call originated from country code 1-the United States.”

Numataka nodded. This was good news. The call came from the States. He smiled. It was genuine.

“Where in the U.S.?” he demanded.

“They’re working on it, sir.”

“Very well. Tell me when you have more.”

The operator bowed again and left.

Numataka felt his muscles relax. Country code 1. Good news indeed.

Chapter 54

Susan Fletcher paced impatiently in the Crypto bathroom and counted slowly to fifty. Her head was throbbing. Just a little longer, she told herself. Hale is North Dakota!

Susan wondered what Hale’s plans were. Would he announce the pass-key? Would he be greedy and try to sell the algorithm? Susan couldn’t bear to wait any longer. It was time. She had to get to Strathmore.

Cautiously she cracked the door and peered out at the reflective wall on the far side of Crypto. There was no way to know if Hale was still watching. She’d have to move quickly to Strathmore’s office. Not too quickly, of course-she could not let Hale suspect she was on to him. She reached for the door and was about to pull it open when she heard something. Voices. Men’s voices.

The voices were coming through the ventilation shaft near the floor. She released the door and moved toward the vent. The words were muffled by the dull hum of the generators below. The conversation sounded like it was coming up from the sublevel catwalks. One voice was shrill, angry. It sounded like Phil Chartrukian.

“You don’t believe me?”

The sound of more arguing rose.

“We have a virus!”

Then the sound of harsh yelling.

“We need to call Jabba!”

Then there were sounds of a struggle.

“Let me go!”

The noise that followed was barely human. It was a long wailing cry of horror, like a tortured animal about to die. Susan froze beside the vent. The noise ended as abruptly as it had begun. Then there was a silence.

An instant later, as if choreographed for some cheap horror matinee, the lights in the bathroom slowly dimmed. Then they flickered and went out. Susan Fletcher found herself standing in total blackness.

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