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Chapter 63

Becker’s newly purchased Vespa motorcycle struggled up the entry road to Aeropuerto de Sevilla. His knuckles had been white the whole way. His watch read just after 2:00 a.m. local time.

As he approached the main terminal, he rode up on the sidewalk and jumped off the bike while it was still moving. It clattered to the pavement and sputtered to a stop. Becker dashed on rubbery legs through the revolving door. Never again, he swore to himself.

The terminal was sterile and starkly lit. Except for a janitor buffing the floor, the place was deserted. Across the concourse, a ticket agent was closing down the Iberia Airlines counter. Becker took it as a bad sign.

He ran over. “El vuelo a los Estados Unidos?”

The attractive Andalusian woman behind the counter looked up and smiled apologetically. “Acaba de salir. You just missed it.” Her words hung in the air for a long moment.

I missed it. Becker’s shoulders slumped. “Was there standby room on the flight?”

“Plenty,” the woman smiled. “Almost empty. But tomorrow’s eight a.m. also has-”

“I need to know if a friend of mine made that flight. She was flying standby.”

The woman frowned. “I’m sorry, sir. There were several standby passengers tonight, but our privacy clause states-”

“It’s very important,” Becker urged. “I just need to know if she made the flight. That’s all.”

The woman gave a sympathetic nod. “Lovers’ quarrel?”

Becker thought a moment. Then he gave her a sheepish grin. “It’s that obvious?”

She gave him a wink. “What’s her name?”

“Megan,” he replied sadly.

The agent smiled. “Does your lady friend have a last name?”

Becker exhaled slowly. Yes, but I don’t know it!” Actually, it’s kind of a complicated situation. You said the plane was almost empty. Maybe you could-”

“Without a last name I really can’t…”

“Actually,” Becker interrupted, having another idea. “Have you been on all night?”

The woman nodded. “Seven to seven.”

“Then maybe you saw her. She’s a young girl. Maybe fifteen or sixteen? Her hair was-” Before the words left his mouth, Becker realized his mistake.

The agent’s eyes narrowed. “Your lover is fifteen years old?”

“No!” Becker gasped. “I mean…” Shit. “If you could just help me, it’s very important.”

“I’m sorry,” the woman said coldly.

“It’s not the way it sounds. If you could just-”

“Good night, sir.” The woman yanked the metal grate down over the counter and disappeared into a back room.

Becker groaned and stared skyward. Smooth, David. Very smooth. He scanned the open concourse. Nothing. She must have sold the ring and made the flight. He headed for the custodian. “Has visto a una nina?” he called over the sound of the tile buffer. “Have you seen a girl?”

The old man reached down and killed the machine. “Eh?”

“Una nina?” Becker repeated. “Pelo rojo, azul, y blanco. Red white and blue hair.”

The custodian laughed. “Que fea. Sounds ugly.” He shook his head and went back to work.

David Becker stood in the middle of the deserted airport concourse and wondered what to do next. The evening had been a comedy of errors. Strathmore’s words pounded in his head: Don’t call until you have the ring. A profound exhaustion settled over him. If Megan sold the ring and made the flight, there was no telling who had the ring now.

Becker closed his eyes and tried to focus. What’s my next move? He decided to consider it in a moment. First, he needed to make a long-overdue trip to a rest room.

Chapter 64

Susan stood alone in the dimly lit silence of Node 3. The task at hand was simple: Access Hale’s terminal, locate his key, and then delete all of his communication with Tankado. There could be no hint of Digital Fortress anywhere.

Susan’s initial fears of saving the key and unlocking Digital Fortress were nagging at her again. She felt uneasy tempting fate; they’d been lucky so far. North Dakota had miraculously appeared right under their noses and been trapped. The only remaining question was David; he had to find the other pass-key. Susan hoped he was making progress.

As she made her way deeper into Node 3, Susan tried to clear her mind. It was odd that she felt uneasy in such a familiar space. Everything in Node 3 seemed foreign in the dark. But there was something else. Susan felt a momentary hesitation and glanced back at the inoperable doors. There was no escape. Twenty minutes, she thought.

As she turned toward Hale’s terminal, she noticed a strange, musky odor-it was definitely not a Node 3 smell. She wondered if maybe the deionizer was malfunctioning. The smell was vaguely familiar, and with it came an unsettling chill. She pictured Hale locked below in his enormous steaming cell. Did he set something on fire? She looked up at the vents and sniffed. But the odor seemed to be coming from nearby.

Susan glanced toward the latticed doors of the kitchenette. And in an instant she recognized the smell. It was cologne… and sweat.

She recoiled instinctively, not prepared for what she saw. From behind the lattice slats of the kitchenette, two eyes stared out at her. It only took an instant for the horrifying truth to hit her. Greg Hale was not locked on the sublevels-he was in Node 3! He’d slipped upstairs before Strathmore closed the trapdoor. He’d been strong enough to open the doors all by himself.

Susan had once heard that raw terror was paralyzing-she now knew that was a myth. In the same instant her brain grasped what was happening, she was in motion-stumbling backward through the dark with a single thought in mind: escape.

The crash behind her was instantaneous. Hale had been sitting silently on the stove and extended his legs like two battering rams. The doors exploded off their hinges. Hale launched himself into the room and thundered after her with powerful strides.

Susan knocked over a lamp behind her, attempting to trip Hale as he moved toward her. She sensed him vault it effortlessly. Hale was gaining quickly.

When his right arm circled her waist from behind, it felt like she’d hit a steel bar. She gasped in pain as the wind went out of her. His biceps flexed against her rib cage.

Susan resisted and began twisting wildly. Somehow her elbow struck cartilage. Hale released his grip, his hands clutching his nose. He fell to his knees, hands cupped over his face.

“Son of a-” He screamed in pain.

Susan dashed onto the door’s pressure plates saying a fruitless prayer that Strathmore would in that instant restore power and the doors would spring open. Instead, she found herself pounding against the glass.

Hale lumbered toward her, his nose covered with blood. In an instant, his hands were around her again-one of them clamped firmly on her left breast and the other on her midsection. He yanked her away from the door.

She screamed, her hand outstretched in futile attempt to stop him.

He pulled her backward, his belt buckle digging into her spine. Susan couldn’t believe his strength. He dragged her back across the carpet, and her shoes came off. In one fluid motion, Hale lifted her and dumped her on the floor next to his terminal.

Susan was suddenly on her back, her skirt bunched high on her hips. The top button of her blouse had released, and her chest was heaving in the bluish light. She stared up in terror as Hale straddled her, pinning her down. She couldn’t decipher the look in his eyes. It looked like fear. Or was it anger? His eyes bore into her body. She felt a new wave of panic.

Hale sat firmly on her midsection, staring down at her with an icy glare. Everything Susan had ever learned about self-defense was suddenly racing through her mind. She tried to fight, but her body did not respond. She was numb. She closed her eyes.

Oh, please, God. No!

Chapter 65

Brinkerhoff paced Midge’s office. “Nobody bypasses Gauntlet. It’s impossible!”

“Wrong,” she fired back. “I just talked to Jabba. He said he installed a bypass switch last year.”

The PA looked doubtful. “I never heard that.”

“Nobody did. It was hush-hush.”

“Midge,” Brinkerhoff argued, “Jabba’s compulsive about security! He would never put in a switch to bypass-”

“Strathmore made him do it,” she interrupted.

Brinkerhoff could almost hear her mind clicking.

“Remember last year,” she asked, “when Strathmore was working on that anti-Semitic terrorist ring in California?”

Brinkerhoff nodded. It had been one of Strathmore’s major coups last year. Using TRANSLTR to decrypt an intercepted code, he had uncovered a plot to bomb a Hebrew school in Los Angeles. He decrypted the terrorist’s message only twelve minutes before the bomb went off, and using some fast phone work, he saved three hundred schoolchildren.

“Get this,” Midge said, lowering her voice unnecessarily. “Jabba said Strathmore intercepted that terrorist code six hours before that bomb went off.”

Brinkerhoff’s jaw dropped. “But… then why did he wait-”

“Because he couldn’t get TRANSLTR to decrypt the file. He tried, but Gauntlet kept rejecting it. It was encrypted with some new public key algorithm that the filters hadn’t seen yet. It took Jabba almost six hours to adjust them.”

Brinkerhoff looked stunned.

“Strathmore was furious. He made Jabba install a bypass switch in Gauntlet in case it ever happened again.”

“Jesus.” Brinkerhoff whistled. “I had no idea.” Then his eyes narrowed. “So what’s your point?”

“I think Strathmore used the switch today… to process a file that Gauntlet rejected.”

“So? That’s what the switch is for, right?”

Midge shook her head. “Not if the file in question is a virus.”

Brinkerhoff jumped. “A virus? Who said anything about a virus!”

“It’s the only explanation,” she said. “Jabba said a virus is the only thing that could keep TRANSLTR running this long, so-”

“Wait a minute!” Brinkerhoff flashed her the time-out sign. “Strathmore said everything’s fine!”

“He’s lying.”

Brinkerhoff was lost. “You’re saying Strathmore intentionally let a virus into TRANSLTR?”

“No,” she snapped. “I don’t think he knew it was a virus. I think he was tricked.”

Brinkerhoff was speechless. Midge Milken was definitely losing it.

“It explains a lot,” she insisted. “It explains what he’s been doing in there all night.”

“Planting viruses in his own computer?”

“No,” she said, annoyed. “Trying to cover up his mistake! And now he can’t abort TRANSLTR and get aux power back because the virus has the processors locked down!”

Brinkerhoff rolled his eyes. Midge had gone nuts in the past, but never like this. He tried to calm her. “Jabba doesn’t seem to be too worried.”

“Jabba’s a fool,” she hissed.

Brinkerhoff looked surprised. Nobody had ever called Jabba a fool-a pig maybe, but never a fool. “You’re trusting feminine intuition over Jabba’s advanced degrees in anti-invasive programming?”

She eyed him harshly.

Brinkerhoff held up his hands in surrender. “Never mind. I take it back.” He didn’t need to be reminded of Midge’s uncanny ability to sense disaster. “Midge,” he begged. “I know you hate Strathmore, but-”

“This has nothing to do with Strathmore!” Midge was in overdrive. “The first thing we need to do is confirm Strathmore bypassed Gauntlet. Then we call the director.”

“Great.” Brinkerhoff moaned. “I’ll call Strathmore and ask him to send us a signed statement.”

“No,” she replied, ignoring his sarcasm. “Strathmore’s lied to us once already today.” She glanced up, her eyes probing his. “Do you have keys to Fontaine’s office?

“Of course. I’m his PA.”

“I need them.”

Brinkerhoff stared in disbelief. “Midge, there’s no way in hell I’m letting you into Fontaine’s office.”

“You have to!” she demanded. Midge turned and started typing on Big Brother’s keyboard. “I’m requesting a TRANSLTR queue list. If Strathmore manually bypassed Gauntlet, it’ll show up on the printout.”

“What does that have to do with Fontaine’s office?”

She spun and glared at him. “The queue list only prints to Fontaine’s printer. You know that!”

“That’s because it’s classified, Midge!”

“This is an emergency. I need to see that list.”

Brinkerhoff put his hands on her shoulders. “Midge, please settle down. You know I can’t-”

She huffed loudly and spun back to her keyboard. “I’m printing a queue list. I’m going to walk in, pick it up, and walk out. Now give me the key.”

“Midge…”

She finished typing and spun back to him. “Chad, the report prints in thirty seconds. Here’s the deal. You give me the key. If Strathmore bypassed, we call security. If I’m wrong, I leave, and you can go smear marmalade all over Carmen Huerta.” She gave him a malicious glare and held out her hands for the keys. “I’m waiting.”

Brinkerhoff groaned, regretting that he had called her back to check the Crypto report. He eyed her outstretched hand. “You’re talking about classified information inside the director’s private quarters. Do you have any idea what would happen if we got caught?”

“The director is in South America.”

“I’m sorry. I just can’t.” Brinkerhoff crossed his arms and walked out.

Midge stared after him, her gray eyes smoldering. “Oh, yes you can,” she whispered. Then she turned back to Big Brother and called up the video archives.

Midge’ll get over it, Brinkerhoff told himself as he settled in at his desk and started going over the rest of his reports. He couldn’t be expected to hand out the director’s keys whenever Midge got paranoid.

He had just begun checking the COMSEC breakdowns when his thoughts were interrupted by the sound of voices coming from the other room. He set down his work and walked to his doorway.

The main suite was dark-all except a dim shaft of grayish light from Midge’s half-open door. He listened. The voices continued. They sounded excited. “Midge?”

No response.

He strode through the darkness to her workspace. The voices were vaguely familiar. He pushed the door open. The room was empty. Midge’s chair was empty. The sound was coming from overhead. Brinkerhoff looked up at the video monitors and instantly felt ill. The same image was playing on each one of the twelve screens-a kind of perversely choreographed ballet. Brinkerhoff steadied himself on the back of Midge’s chair and watched in horror.

“Chad?” The voice was behind him.

He spun and squinted into the darkness. Midge was standing kitty-corner across the main suite’s reception area in front of the director’s double doors. Her palm was outstretched. “The key, Chad.”

Brinkerhoff flushed. He turned back to the monitors. He tried to block out the images overhead, but it was no use. He was everywhere, groaning with pleasure and eagerly fondling Carmen Huerta’s small, honey-covered breasts.

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