Becker crossed the concourse toward the rest room doors only to find the door marked CABALLEROS blocked by an orange pylon and a cleaning cart filled with detergent and mops. He eyed the other door. DAMAS. He strode over and rapped loudly.
“Hola?” he called, pushing the ladies’ room door open an inch. “Con permiso?”
He went in.
The rest room was typical, Spanish institutional-perfectly square, white tile, one incandescent bulb overhead. As usual, there was one stall and one urinal. Whether the urinals were ever used in the women’s bathrooms was immaterial-adding them saved the contractors the expense of having to build the extra stall.
Becker peered into the rest room in disgust. It was filthy. The sink was clogged with murky brown water. Dirty paper towels were strewn everywhere. The floor was soaked. The old electric hand blower on the wall was smeared with greenish fingerprints.
Becker stepped in front of the mirror and sighed. The eyes that usually stared back with fierce clarity were not so clear tonight. How long have I been running around over here? he wondered. The math escaped him. Out of professorial habit, he shimmied his necktie’s Windsor knot up on his collar. Then he turned to the urinal behind him.
As he stood there, he found himself wondering if Susan was home yet. Where could she have gone? To Stone Manor without me?
“Hey!” a female voice behind him said angrily.
Becker jumped. “I-I’m…” he stammered, hurrying to zip up. “I’m sorry… I…”
Becker turned to face the girl who had just entered. She was a young sophisticate, right off the pages of Seventeen Magazine. She wore conservative plaid pants and a white sleeveless blouse. In her hand was a red L. L. Bean duffel. Her blond hair was perfectly blow-dried.
“I’m sorry.” Becker fumbled, buckling his belt. “The men’s room was… anyway… I’m leaving.”
Becker did a double-take. The profanity seemed inappropriate coming from her lips-like sewage flowing from a polished decanter. But as Becker studied her, he saw that she was not as polished as he’d first thought. Her eyes were puffy and bloodshot, and her left forearm was swollen. Underneath the reddish irritation on her arm, the flesh was blue.
Jesus, Becker thought. Intravenous drugs. Who would have guessed?
“Get out!” she yelled. “Just get out!”
Becker momentarily forgot all about the ring, the NSA, all of it. His heart went out to the young girl. Her parents had probably sent her over here with some prep school study program and a VISA card-and she’d ended up all alone in a bathroom in the middle of the night doing drugs.
“Are you okay?” he asked, backing toward the door.
“I’m fine.” Her voice was haughty. “You can leave now!”
Becker turned to go. He shot her forearm a last sad glance. There’s nothing you can do, David. Leave it alone.
“Now!” she hollered.
Becker nodded. As he left he gave her a sad smile. “Be careful.”
“Susan?” Hale panted, his face in hers.
He was sitting, one leg on either side of her, his full weight on her midsection. His tailbone ground painfully into her pubis through the thin fabric of her skirt. His nose was dripping blood all over her. She tasted vomit in the back of her throat. His hands were at her chest.
She felt nothing. Is he touching me? It took a moment for Susan to realize Hale was buttoning her top button and covering her up.
“Susan.” Hale gasped, breathless. “You’ve got to get me out of here.”
Susan was in a daze. Nothing made sense.
“Susan, you’ve got to help me! Strathmore killed Chartrukian! I saw it!”
It took a moment for the words to register. Strathmore killed Chartrukian? Hale obviously had no idea Susan had seen him downstairs.
“Strathmore knows I saw him!” Hale spat. “He’ll kill me too!”
Had Susan not been breathless with fear, she would have laughed in his face. She recognized the divide-and-conquer mentality of an ex-Marine. Invent lies-pit your enemies against each other.
“It’s true!” he yelled. “We’ve got to call for help! I think we’re both in danger!”
She did not believe a word he said.
Hale’s muscular legs were cramping, and he rolled up on his haunches to shift his weight slightly. He opened his mouth to speak, but he never got the chance.
As Hale’s body rose, Susan felt the circulation surge back into her legs. Before she knew what had happened, a reflex instinct jerked her left leg back hard into Hale’s crotch. She felt her kneecap crush the soft sac of tissue between his legs.
Hale whimpered in agony and instantly went limp. He rolled onto his side, clutching himself. Susan twisted out from under his deadweight. She staggered toward the door, knowing she’d never be strong enough to get out.
Making a split-second decision, Susan positioned herself behind the long maple meeting table and dug her feet into the carpet. Mercifully the table had casters. She strode with all her might toward the arched glass wall, pushing the table before her. The casters were good, and the table rolled well. Halfway across Node 3, she was at a full sprint.
Five feet from the glass wall, Susan heaved and let go. She leapt to one side and covered her eyes. After a sickening crack, the wall exploded in a shower of glass. The sounds of Crypto rushed into Node 3 for the first time since its construction.
Susan looked up. Through the jagged hole, she could see the table. It was still rolling. It spun wide circles out across the Crypto floor and eventually disappeared into the darkness.
Susan rammed her mangled Ferragamo’s back on her feet, shot a last glance at the still-writhing Greg Hale, and dashed across the sea of broken glass out onto the Crypto floor.
“Now wasn’t that easy?” Midge said with a sneer as Brinkerhoff handed over the key to Fontaine’s office.
Brinkerhoff looked beaten.
“I’ll erase it before I go,” Midge promised. “Unless you and your wife want it for your private collection.”
“Just get the damned printout,” he snapped. “And then get out!”
“Si, senor,” Midge cackled in a thick Puerto Rican accent. She winked and headed across the suite to Fontaine’s double doors.
Leland Fontaine’s private office looked nothing like the rest of the directorial suite. There were no paintings, no overstuffed chairs, no ficus plants, no antique clocks. His space was streamlined for efficiency. His glass-topped desk and black leather chair sat directly in front of his enormous picture window. Three file cabinets stood in the corner next to a small table with a French press coffeepot. The moon had risen high over Fort Meade, and the soft light filtering through the window accentuated the starkness of the director’s furnishings.
What the hell am I doing? Brinkerhoff wondered.
Midge strode to the printer and scooped up the queue list. She squinted in the darkness. “I can’t read the data,” she complained. “Turn on the lights.”
“You’re reading it outside. Now come on.”
But Midge was apparently having too much fun. She toyed with Brinkerhoff, walking to the window and angling the readout for a better view.
She kept reading.
Brinkerhoff shifted anxiously in the doorway. “Midge… come on. These are the director’s private quarters.”
“It’s here somewhere,” she muttered, studying the printout. “Strathmore bypassed Gauntlet, I know it.” She moved closer to the window.
Brinkerhoff began to sweat. Midge kept reading.
After a few moments, she gasped. “I knew it! Strathmore did it! He really did! The idiot!” She held up the paper and shook it. “He bypassed Gauntlet! Have a look!”
Brinkerhoff stared dumbfounded a moment and then raced across the director’s office. He crowded in next to Midge in front of the window. She pointed to the end of the readout.
Brinkerhoff read in disbelief. “What the…?”
The printout contained a list of the last thirty-six files that had entered TRANSLTR. After each file was a four-digit Gauntlet clearance code. However, the last file on the sheet had no clearance code-it simply read: manual bypass.
Jesus, Brinkerhoff thought. Midge strikes again.
“The idiot!” Midge sputtered, seething. “Look at this! Gauntlet rejected the file twice! Mutation strings! And he still bypassed! What the hell was he thinking?”
Brinkerhoff felt weak-kneed. He wondered why Midge was always right. Neither of them noticed the reflection that had appeared in the window beside them. A massive figure was standing in Fontaine’s open doorway.
“Jeez,” Brinkerhoff choked. “You think we have a virus?”
Midge sighed. “Nothing else it could be.”
“Could be none of your damn business!” the deep voice boomed from behind them.
Midge knocked her head against the window. Brinkerhoff tipped over the director’s chair and wheeled toward the voice. He immediately knew the silhouette.
“Director!” Brinkerhoff gasped. He strode over and extended his hand. “Welcome home, sir.”
The huge man ignored it.
“I-I thought,” Brinkerhoff stammered, retracting his hand, “I thought you were in South America.”
Leland Fontaine glared down at his aide with eyes like bullets. “Yes… and now I’m back.”
Becker had been walking across the concourse toward a bank of pay phones. He stopped and turned. Coming up behind him was the girl he’d just surprised in the bathroom. She waved for him to wait. “Mister, wait!”
Now what? Becker groaned. She wants to press invasion-of-privacy charges?
The girl dragged her duffel toward him. When she arrived, she was now wearing a huge smile. “Sorry to yell at you back there. You just kind of startled me.”
“No problem,” Becker assured, somewhat puzzled. “I was in the wrong place.”
“This will sound crazy,” she said, batting her bloodshot eyes. “But you wouldn’t happen to have some money you can lend me, would you?”
Becker stared at her in disbelief. “Money for what?” he demanded. I’m not funding your drug habit if that’s what you’re asking.
“I’m trying to get back home,” the blonde said. “Can you help?”
“Miss your flight?”
She nodded. “Lost my ticket. They wouldn’t let me get on. Airlines can be such assholes. I don’t have the cash to buy another.”
“Where are your parents?” Becker asked.
“Can you reach them?”
“Nope. Already tried. I think they’re weekending on somebody’s yacht.”
Becker scanned the girl’s expensive clothing. “You don’t have a credit card?”
“Yeah, but my dad canceled it. He thinks I’m on drugs.”
“Are you on drugs?” Becker asked, deadpan, eyeing her swollen forearm.
The girl glared, indignant. “Of course not!” She gave Becker an innocent huff, and he suddenly got the feeling he was being played.
“Come on,” she said. “You look like a rich guy. Can’t you spot me some cash to get home? I could send it to you later.”
Becker figured any cash he gave this girl would end up in the hands of some drug dealer in Triana. “First of all,” he said, “I’m not a rich guy-I’m a teacher. But I’ll tell you what I’ll do…” I’ll call your bluff, that’s what I’ll do. “Why don’t I charge the ticket for you?”
The blonde stared at him in utter shock. “You’d do that?” she stammered, eyes wide with hope. “You’d buy me a ticket home? Oh, God, thank you!”
Becker was speechless. He had apparently misjudged the moment.
The girl threw her arms around him. “It’s been a shitty summer,” she choked, almost bursting into tears. “Oh, thank you! I’ve got to get out of here!”
Becker returned her embrace halfheartedly. The girl let go of him, and he eyed her forearm again.
She followed his gaze to the bluish rash. “Gross, huh?”
Becker nodded. “I thought you said you weren’t on drugs.”
The girl laughed. “It’s Magic Marker! I took off half my skin trying to scrub it off. The ink smeared.”
Becker looked closer. In the fluorescent light, he could see, blurred beneath the reddish swelling on her arm, the faint outline of writing-words scrawled on flesh.
“But… but your eyes,” Becker said, feeling dumb. “They’re all red.”
She laughed. “I was crying. I told you, I missed my flight.”
Becker looked back at the words on her arm.
She frowned, embarrassed. “Oops, you can still kind of read it, can’t you?”
Becker leaned closer. He could read it all right. The message was crystal clear. As he read the four faint words, the last twelve hours flashed before his eyes.
David Becker found himself back in the Alfonso XIII hotel room. The obese German was touching his own forearm and speaking broken English: Fock off und die.
“You okay?” the girl asked, eyeing the dazed Becker.
Becker did not look up from her arm. He was dizzy. The four words smeared across the girl’s flesh carried a very simple message: FUCK OFF AND DIE.
The blonde looked down at it, embarrassed. “This friend of mine wrote it… pretty stupid, huh?”
Becker couldn’t speak. Fock off und die. He couldn’t believe it. The German hadn’t been insulting him, he’d been trying to help. Becker lifted his gaze to the girl’s face. In the fluorescent light of the concourse, he could see faint traces of red and blue in the girl’s blond hair.
“Y-you…” Becker stammered, staring at her unpierced ears. “You wouldn’t happen to wear earrings, would you?”
The girl eyed him strangely. She fished a tiny object from her pocket and held it out. Becker gazed at the skull pendant dangling in her hand.
“A clip-on?” he stammered.
“Hell, yes,” the girl replied. “I’m scared shitless of needles.”
David Becker stood in the deserted concourse and felt his legs go weak. He eyed the girl before him and knew his search was over. She had washed her hair and changed clothes-maybe in hopes of having better luck selling the ring-but she’d never boarded for New York.
Becker fought to keep his cool. His wild journey was about to end. He scanned her fingers. They were bare. He gazed down at her duffel. It’s in there, he thought. It’s got to be!
He smiled, barely containing his excitement. “This is going to sound crazy,” he said, “but I think you’ve got something I need.”
“Oh?” Megan seemed suddenly uncertain.
Becker reached for his wallet. “Of course I’d be happy to pay you.” He looked down and started sorting through the cash in his billfold.
As Megan watched him count out his money, she drew a startled gasp, apparently misunderstanding his intentions. She shot a frightened glance toward the revolving door… measuring the distance. It was fifty yards.
“I can give you enough to buy your ticket home if-”
“Don’t say it,” Megan blurted, offering a forced smile. “I think I know exactly what you need.” She bent down and started rifling through her duffel.
Becker felt a surge of hope. She’s got it! he told himself. She’s got the ring! He didn’t know how the hell she knew what it was he wanted, but he was too tired to care. Every muscle in his body relaxed. He pictured himself handing the ring to the beaming deputy director of the NSA. Then he and Susan would lie in the big canopy bed at Stone Manor and make up for lost time.
The girl finally found what she was looking for-her PepperGuard-the environmentally safe alternative to mace, made from a potent blend of cayenne and chili peppers. In one swift motion, she swung around and fired a direct stream into Becker’s eyes. She grabbed her duffel and dashed for the door. When she looked back, David Becker was on the floor, holding his face, writhing in agony.