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Chapter 76

Outside the Seville airport terminal, a taxi sat idle, the meter running. The passenger in the wire-rim glasses gazed through the plate-glass windows of the well-lit terminal. He knew he’d arrived in time.

He could see a blond girl. She was helping David Becker to a chair. Becker was apparently in pain. He does not yet know pain, the passenger thought. The girl pulled a small object from her pocket and held it out. Becker held it up and studied it in the light. Then he slipped it on his finger. He pulled a stack of bills from his pocket and paid the girl. They talked a few minutes longer, and then the girl hugged him. She waved, shouldered her duffel, and headed off across the concourse.

At last, the man in the taxi thought. At last.

Chapter 77

Strathmore stepped out of his office onto the landing with his gun leveled. Susan trailed close behind, wondering if Hale was still in Node 3.

The light from Strathmore’s monitor behind them threw eerie shadows of their bodies out across the grated platform. Susan inched closer to the commander.

As they moved away from the door, the light faded, and they were plunged into darkness. The only light on the Crypto floor came from the stars above and the faint haze from behind the shattered Node 3 window.

Strathmore inched forward, looking for the place where the narrow staircase began. Switching the Berretta to his left hand, he groped for the banister with his right. He figured he was probably just as bad a shot with his left, and he needed his right for support. Falling down this particular set of stairs could cripple someone for life, and Strathmore’s dreams for his retirement did not involve a wheelchair.

Susan, blinded by the blackness of the Crypto dome, descended with a hand on Strathmore’s shoulder. Even at the distance of two feet, she could not see the commander’s outline. As she stepped onto each metal tread, she shuffled her toes forward looking for the edge.

Susan began having second thoughts about risking a visit to Node 3 to get Hale’s pass-key. The commander insisted Hale wouldn’t have the guts to touch them, but Susan wasn’t so sure. Hale was desperate. He had two options: Escape Crypto or go to jail.

A voice kept telling Susan they should wait for David’s call and use his pass-key, but she knew there was no guarantee he would even find it. She wondered what was taking David so long. Susan swallowed her apprehension and kept going.

Strathmore descended silently. There was no need to alert Hale they were coming. As they neared the bottom, Strathmore slowed, feeling for the final step. When he found it, the heel of his loafer clicked on hard black tile. Susan felt his shoulder tense. They’d entered the danger zone. Hale could be anywhere.

In the distance, now hidden behind TRANSLTR, was their destination-Node 3. Susan prayed Hale was still there, lying on the floor, whimpering in pain like the dog he was.

Strathmore let go of the railing and switched the gun back to his right hand. Without a word, he moved out into the darkness. Susan held tight to his shoulder. If she lost him, the only way she’d find him again was to speak. Hale might hear them. As they moved away from the safety of the stairs, Susan recalled late-night games of tag as a kid-she’d left home base, she was in the open. She was vulnerable.

TRANSLTR was the only island in the vast black sea. Every few steps Strathmore stopped, gun poised, and listened. The only sound was the faint hum from below. Susan wanted to pull him back, back to safety, back to home base. There seemed to be faces in the dark all around her.

Halfway to TRANSLTR, the silence of Crypto was broken. Somewhere in the darkness, seemingly right on top of them, a high-pitched beeping pierced the night. Strathmore spun, and Susan lost him. Fearful, Susan shot her arm out, groping for him. But the commander was gone. The space where his shoulder had been was now just empty air. She staggered forward into the emptiness.

The beeping noise continued. It was nearby. Susan wheeled in the darkness. There was a rustle of clothing, and suddenly the beeping stopped. Susan froze. An instant later, as if from one of her worst childhood nightmares, a vision appeared. A face materialized directly in front of her. It was ghostly and green. It was the face of a demon, sharp shadows jutting upward across deformed features. She jumped back. She turned to run, but it grabbed her arm.

“Don’t move!” it commanded.

For an instant, she thought she saw Hale in those two burning eyes. But the voice was not Hale’s. And the touch was too soft. It was Strathmore. He was lit from beneath by a glowing object that he’d just pulled from his pocket. Her body sagged with relief. She felt herself start breathing again. The object in Strathmore’s hand had some sort of electronic LED that was giving off a greenish glow.

“Damn,” Strathmore cursed under his breath. “My new pager.” He stared in disgust at the SkyPager in his palm. He’d forgotten to engage the silent-ring feature. Ironically, he’d gone to a local electronics store to buy the device. He’d paid cash to keep it anonymous; nobody knew better than Strathmore how closely the NSA watched their own-and the digital messages sent and received from this pager were something Strathmore definitely needed to keep private.

Susan looked around uneasily. If Hale hadn’t known they were coming, he knew now.

Strathmore pressed a few buttons and read the incoming message. He groaned quietly. It was more bad news from Spain-not from David Becker, but from the other party Strathmore had sent to Seville.

Three thousand miles away, a mobile surveillance van sped along the darkened Seville streets. It had been commissioned by the NSA under “Umbra” secrecy from a military base in Rota. The two men inside were tense. It was not the first time they’d received emergency orders from Fort Meade, but the orders didn’t usually come from so high up.

The agent at the wheel called over his shoulder. “Any sign of our man?”

The eyes of his partner never left the feed from the wide-angle video monitor on the roof. “No. Keep driving.”

Chapter 78

Underneath the twisting mass of cables, Jabba was sweating. He was still on his back with a penlight clenched in his teeth. He’d gotten used to working late on weekends; the less hectic NSA hours were often the only times he could perform hardware maintenance. As he maneuvered the red-hot soldering iron through the maze of wires above him, he moved with exceptional care; singeing any of the dangling sheathes would be disaster.

Just another few inches, he thought. The job was taking far longer than he’d imagined.

Just as he brought the tip of the iron against the final thread of raw solder, his cellular phone rang sharply. Jabba startled, his arm twitched, and a large glob of sizzling, liquefied lead fell on his arm.

“Shit!” He dropped the iron and practically swallowed his penlight. “Shit! Shit! Shit!”

He scrubbed furiously at the drop of cooling solder. It rolled off, leaving an impressive welt. The chip he was trying to solder in place fell out and hit him in the head.

“Goddamn it!”

Jabba’s phone summoned him again. He ignored it.

“Midge,” he cursed under his breath. Damn you! Crypto’s fine! The phone rang on. Jabba went back to work reseating the new chip. A minute later the chip was in place, but his phone was still ringing. For Christ’s sake, Midge! Give it up!

The phone rang another fifteen seconds and finally stopped. Jabba breathed a sigh of relief.

Sixty seconds later the intercom overhead crackled. “Would the chief Sys-Sec please contact the main switchboard for a message.”

Jabba rolled his eyes in disbelief. She just doesn’t give up, does she? He ignored the page.

Chapter 79

Strathmore replaced his Skypager in his pocket and peered through the darkness toward Node 3.

He reached for Susan’s hand. “Come on.”

But their fingers never touched.

There was a long guttural cry from out of the darkness. A thundering figure loomed-a Mack truck bearing down with no headlights. An instant later, there was a collision and Strathmore was skidding across the floor.

It was Hale. The pager had given them away.

Susan heard the Berretta fall. For a moment she was planted in place, unsure where to run, what to do. Her instincts told her to escape, but she didn’t have the elevator code. Her heart told her to help Strathmore, but how? As she spun in desperation, she expected to hear the sounds of a life-and-death struggle on the floor, but there was nothing. Everything was suddenly silent-as if Hale had hit the commander and then disappeared back into the night.

Susan waited, straining her eyes into the darkness, hoping Strathmore wasn’t hurt. After what seemed like an eternity, she whispered, “Commander?”

Even as she said it, she realized her mistake. An instant later Hale’s odor welled up behind her. She turned too late. Without warning, she was twisting, gasping for air. She found herself crushed in a familiar headlock, her face against Hale’s chest.

“My balls are killing me.” Hale panted in her ear.

Susan’s knees buckled. The stars in the dome began to spin above her.

Chapter 80

Hale clamped down on Susan’s neck and yelled into the darkness. “Commander, I’ve got your sweetheart. I want out!”

His demands were met with silence.

Hale’s grip tightened. “I’ll break her neck!”

A gun cocked directly behind them. Strathmore’s voice was calm and even. “Let her go.”

Susan winced in pain. “Commander!”

Hale spun Susan’s body toward the sound. “You shoot and you’ll hit your precious Susan. You ready to take that chance?”

Strathmore’s voice moved closer. “Let her go.”

“No way. You’ll kill me.”

“I’m not going to kill anyone.”

“Oh, yeah? Tell that to Chartrukian!”

Strathmore moved closer. “Chartrukian’s dead.”

“No shit. You killed him. I saw it!”

“Give it up, Greg,” Strathmore said calmly.

Hale clutched at Susan and whispered in her ear, “Strathmore pushed Chartrukian-I swear it!”

“She’s not going to fall for your divide-and-conquer technique,” Strathmore said, moving closer. “Let her go.”

Hale hissed into the darkness, “Chartrukian was just a kid, for Christ’s sake! Why’d you do it? To protect your little secret?”

Strathmore stayed cool. “And what little secret is that?”

“You know damn-fucking-well what secret that is! Digital Fortress!”

“My, my,” Strathmore muttered condescendingly, his voice like an iceberg. “So you do know about Digital Fortress. I was starting to think you’d deny that too.”

“Fuck you.”

“A witty defense.”

“You’re a fool,” Hale spat. “For your information, TRANSLTR is overheating.”

“Really?” Strathmore chuckled. “Let me guess-I should open the doors and call in the Sys-Secs?”

“Exactly,” Hale fired back. “You’d be an idiot not to.”

This time Strathmore laughed out loud. “That’s your big play? TRANSLTR’s overheating, so open the doors and let us out?”

“It’s true, dammit! I’ve been down to the sublevels! The aux power isn’t pulling enough freon!”

“Thanks for the tip,” Strathmore said. “But TRANSLTR’s got automatic shutdown; if it’s overheating, Digital Fortress will quit all by itself.”

Hale sneered. “You’re insane. What the fuck do I care if TRANSLTR blows? The damn machine should be outlawed anyway.”

Strathmore sighed. “Child psychology only works on children, Greg. Let her go.”

“So you can shoot me?”

“I won’t shoot you. I just want the pass-key.”

“What pass-key?”

Strathmore sighed again. “The one Tankado sent you.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Liar!” Susan managed. “I saw Tankado’s mail in your account!”

Hale went rigid. He spun Susan around. “You went in my account?”

“And you aborted my tracer,” she snapped.

Hale felt his blood pressure skyrocket. He thought he’d covered his tracks; he had no idea Susan knew what he’d done. It was no wonder she wasn’t buying a word he said. Hale felt the walls start to close in. He knew he could never talk his way out of that one-not in time. He whispered to her in desperation, “Susan… Strathmore killed Chartrukian!”

“Let her go,” the commander said evenly. “She doesn’t believe you.”

“Why should she?” Hale fired back. “You lying bastard! You’ve got her brainwashed! You only tell her what suits your needs! Does she know what you really plan to do with Digital Fortress?”

“And what’s that?” Strathmore taunted.

Hale knew what he was about to say would either be his ticket to freedom or his death warrant. He took a deep breath and went for broke. “You plan to write a back door in Digital Fortress.”

The words met with a bewildered silence from the darkness. Hale knew he had hit a bull’s-eye.

Apparently Strathmore’s unflappable cool was being put to the test. “Who told you that?” he demanded, his voice rough around the edges.

“I read it,” Hale said smugly, trying to capitalize on the change of momentum. “In one of your brainstorms.”

“Impossible. I never print my brainstorms.”

“I know. I read it directly off your account.”

Strathmore seemed doubtful. “You got into my office?”

“No. I snooped you from Node 3.” Hale forced a self-assured chuckle. He knew he’d need all the negotiating skills he’d learned in the marines to get out of Crypto alive.

Strathmore edged closer, the Berretta leveled in the darkness. “How do you know about my back door?”

“I told you, I snooped your account.”

“Impossible.”

Hale forced a cocky sneer. “One of the problems of hiring the best, Commander-sometimes they’re better than you.”

“Young man,” Strathmore seethed, “I don’t know where you get your information, but you’re in way over your head. You will let Ms. Fletcher go right now or I’ll call in Security and have you thrown in jail for life.”

“You won’t do it,” Hale stated matter-of-factly. “Calling Security ruins your plans. I’ll tell them everything.” Hale paused. “But let me out clean, and I’ll never say a word about Digital Fortress.”

“No deal,” Strathmore fired back. “I want the pass-key.”

“I don’t have any fucking pass-key!”

“Enough lies!” Strathmore bellowed. “Where is it?”

Hale clamped down on Susan’s neck. “Let me out, or she dies!”

Trevor Strathmore had done enough high-stakes bargaining in his life to know that Hale was in a very dangerous state of mind. The young cryptographer had painted himself into a corner, and a cornered opponent was always the most dangerous kind-desperate and unpredictable. Strathmore knew his next move was a critical one. Susan’s life depended on it-and so did the future of Digital Fortress.

Strathmore knew the first thing he had to do was release the tension of the situation. After a long moment, he sighed reluctantly. “Okay, Greg. You win. What do you want me to do?”

Silence. Hale seemed momentarily unsure how to handle the commander’s cooperative tone. He let up a bit on Susan’s neck.

“W-well…” he stammered, his voice wavering suddenly. “First thing you do is give me your gun. You’re both coming with me.”

“Hostages?” Strathmore laughed coldly. “Greg, you’ll have to do better than that. There are about a dozen armed guards between here and the parking lot.”

“I’m not a fool,” Hale snapped. “I’m taking your elevator. Susan comes with me! You stay!”

“I hate to tell you this,” Strathmore replied, “but there’s no power to the elevator.”

“Bullshit!” Hale snapped. “The lift runs on power from the main building! I’ve seen the schematics!”

“We tried it already,” Susan choked, trying to help. “It’s dead.”

“You’re both so full of shit, it’s incredible.” Hale tightened his grip. “If the elevator’s dead, I’ll abort TRANSLTR and restore power.”

“The elevator takes a password,” Susan managed feistily.

“Big deal.” Hale laughed. “I’m sure the commander will share. Won’t you, Commander?”

“No chance,” Strathmore hissed.

Hale boiled over. “Now you listen to me, old man-here’s the deal! You let Susan and me out through your elevator, we drive a few hours, and then I let her go.”

Strathmore felt the stakes rising. He’d gotten Susan into this, and he needed to get her out. His voice stayed steady as a rock. “What about my plans for Digital Fortress?”

Hale laughed. “You can write your back door-I won’t say a word.” Then his voice turned ominous. “But the day I think you’re tracking me, I go to the press with the whole story. I tell them Digital Fortress is tainted, and I sink this whole fucking organization!”

Strathmore considered Hale’s offer. It was clean and simple. Susan lived, and Digital Fortress got its back door. As long as Strathmore didn’t chase Hale, the back door stayed a secret. Strathmore knew Hale couldn’t keep his mouth shut for long. But still… the knowledge of Digital Fortress was Hale’s only insurance-maybe he’d be smart. Whatever happened, Strathmore knew Hale could be removed later if necessary.

“Make up your mind, old man!” Hale taunted. “Are we leaving or not?” Hale’s arms tightened around Susan like a vice.

Strathmore knew that if he picked up the phone right now and called Security, Susan would live. He’d bet his life on it. He could see the scenario clearly. The call would take Hale completely by surprise. He would panic, and in the end, faced with a small army, Hale would be unable to act. After a brief standoff, he would give in. But if I call Security, Strathmore thought, my plan is ruined.

Hale clamped down again. Susan cried out in pain.

“What’s it gonna be?” Hale yelled. “Do I kill her?”

Strathmore considered his options. If he let Hale take Susan out of Crypto, there were no guarantees. Hale might drive for a while, park in the woods. He’d have a gun…. Strathmore’s stomach turned. There was no telling what would happen before Hale set Susan free… if he set her free. I’ve got to call Security, Strathmore decided. What else can I do? He pictured Hale in court, spilling his guts about Digital Fortress. My plan will be ruined. There must be some other way.

“Decide!” Hale yelled, dragging Susan toward the staircase.

Strathmore wasn’t listening. If saving Susan meant his plans were ruined, then so be it-nothing was worth losing her. Susan Fletcher was a price Trevor Strathmore refused to pay.

Hale had Susan’s arm twisted behind her back and her neck bent to one side. “This is your last chance, old man! Give me the gun!”

Strathmore’s mind continued to race, searching for another option. There are always other options! Finally he spoke-quietly, almost sadly. “No, Greg, I’m sorry. I just can’t let you go.”

Hale choked in apparent shock. “What!”

“I’m calling Security.”

Susan gasped. “Commander! No!”

Hale tightened his grip. “You call Security, and she dies!”

Strathmore pulled the cellular off his belt and flicked it on. “Greg, you’re bluffing.”

“You’ll never do it!” Hale yelled. “I’ll talk! I’ll ruin your plan! You’re only hours away from your dream! Controlling all the data in the world! No more TRANSLTR. No more limits-just free information. It’s a chance of a lifetime! You won’t let it slip by!”

Strathmore voice was like steel. “Watch me.”

“But-but what about Susan?” Hale stammered. “You make that call, and she dies!”

Strathmore held firm. “That’s a chance I’m ready to take.”

“Bullshit! You’ve got a bigger hard-on for her than you do for Digital Fortress! I know you! You won’t risk it!”

Susan began to make an angry rebuttal, but Strathmore beat her to it. “Young man! You don’t know me! I take risks for a living. If you’re looking to play hardball, let’s play!” He started punching keys on his phone. “You misjudged me, son! Nobody threatens the lives of my employees and walks out!” He raised the phone and barked into the receiver, “Switchboard! Get me Security!”

Hale began to torque Susan’s neck. “I-I’ll kill her. I swear it!”

“You’ll do no such thing!” Strathmore proclaimed. “Killing Susan will just make things wor-” He broke off and rammed the phone against his mouth. “Security! This is Commander Trevor Strathmore. We’ve got a hostage situation in Crypto! Get some men in here! Yes, now, goddamn it! We also have a generator failure. I want power routed from all available external sources. I want all systems on-line in five minutes! Greg Hale killed one of my junior Sys-Secs. He’s holding my senior cryptographer hostage. You’re cleared to use tear gas on all of us if necessary! If Mr. Hale doesn’t cooperate, have snipers shoot him dead. I’ll take full responsibility. Do it now!”

Hale stood motionless-apparently limp in disbelief. His grip on Susan eased.

Strathmore snapped his phone shut and shoved it back onto his belt. “Your move, Greg.”

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