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Chapter 81

Becker stood bleary-eyed beside the telephone booth on the terminal concourse. Despite his burning face and a vague nausea, his spirits were soaring. It was over. Truly over. He was on his way home. The ring on his finger was the grail he’d been seeking. He held his hand up in the light and squinted at the gold band. He couldn’t focus well enough to read, but the inscription didn’t appear to be in English. The first symbol was either a Q, an O, or a zero, his eyes hurt too much to tell. Becker studied the first few characters. They made no sense. This was a matter of national security?

Becker stepped into the phone booth and dialed Strathmore. Before he had finished the international prefix, he got a recording. “Todos los circuitos estan ocupados,” the voice said. “Please hang up and try your call later.” Becker frowned and hung up. He’d forgotten: Getting an international connection from Spain was like roulette, all a matter of timing and luck. He’d have to try again in a few minutes.

Becker fought to ignore the waning sting of the pepper in his eyes. Megan had told him rubbing his eyes would only make them worse; he couldn’t imagine. Impatient, he tried the phone again. Still no circuits. Becker couldn’t wait any longer-his eyes were on fire; he had to flush them with water. Strathmore would have to wait a minute or two. Half blind, Becker made his way toward the bathrooms.

The blurry image of the cleaning cart was still in front of the men’s room, so Becker turned again toward the door marked damas. He thought he heard sounds inside. He knocked. “Hola?”

Silence.

Probably Megan, he thought. She had five hours to kill before her flight and had said she was going to scrub her arm till it was clean.

“Megan?” he called. He knocked again. There was no reply. Becker pushed the door open. “Hello?” He went in. The bathroom appeared empty. He shrugged and walked to the sink.

The sink was still filthy, but the water was cold. Becker felt his pores tighten as he splashed the water in his eyes. The pain began to ease, and the fog gradually lifted. Becker eyed himself in the mirror. He looked like he’d been crying for days.

He dried his face on the sleeve of his jacket, and then it suddenly occurred to him. In all the excitement, he’d forgotten where he was. He was at the airport! Somewhere out thereon the tarmac, in one of the Seville airport’s three private hangars, there was a Learjet 60 waiting to take him home. The pilot had stated very clearly, I have orders to stay here until you return.

It was hard to believe, Becker thought, that after all this, he had ended up right back where he’d started. What am I waiting for? he laughed. I’m sure the pilot can radio a message to Strathmore!

Chuckling to himself, Becker glanced in the mirror and straightened his tie. He was about to go when the reflection of something behind him caught his eye. He turned. It appeared to be one end of Megan’s duffel, protruding from under a partially open stall door.

“Megan?” he called. There was no reply. “Megan?”

Becker walked over. He rapped loudly on the side of the stall. No answer. He gently pushed the door. It swung open.

Becker fought back a cry of horror. Megan was on the toilet, her eyes rolled skyward. Dead center of her forehead, a bullet hole oozed bloody liquid down her face.

“Oh, Jesus!” Becker cried in shock.

“Esta muerta,” a barely human voice croaked behind him. “She’s dead.”

It was like a dream. Becker turned.

“Senor Becker?” the eerie voice asked.

Dazed, Becker studied the man stepping into the rest room. He looked oddly familiar.

“Soy Hulohot,” the killer said. “I am Hulohot.” The misshapen words seemed to emerge from the depths of his stomach. Hulohot held out his hand. “El anillo. The ring.”

Becker stared blankly.

The man reached in his pocket and produced a gun. He raised the weapon and trained it on Becker’s head. “El anillo.”

In an instant of clarity, Becker felt a sensation he had never known. As if cued by some subconscious survival instinct, every muscle in his body tensed simultaneously. He flew through the air as the shot spat out. Becker crashed down on top of Megan. A bullet exploded against the wall behind him.

“Mierda!” Hulohot seethed. Somehow, at the last possible instant, David Becker had dived out of the way. The assassin advanced.

Becker pulled himself off the lifeless teenager. There were approaching footsteps. Breathing. The cock of a weapon.

“Adios,” the man whispered as he lunged like a panther, swinging his weapon into the stall.

The gun went off. There was a flash of red. But it was no tblood. It was something else. An object had materialized as if out of nowhere, sailing out of the stall and hitting the killer in the chest, causing his gun to fire a split second early. It was Megan’s duffel.

Becker exploded from the stall. He buried his shoulder in the man’s chest and drove him back into the sink. There was a bone-crushing crash. A mirror shattered. The gun fell free. The two men collapsed to the floor. Becker tore himself away and dashed for the exit. Hulohot scrambled for his weapon, spun, and fired. The bullet ripped into the slamming bathroom door.

The empty expanse of the airport concourse loomed before Becker like an uncrossable desert. His legs surged beneath him faster than he’d ever known they could move.

As he skidded into the revolving door, a shot rang out behind him. The glass panel in front of him exploded in a shower of glass. Becker pushed his shoulder into the frame and the door rotated forward. A moment later he stumbled onto the pavement outside.

A taxi stood waiting.

“Dejame entrar!” Becker screamed, pounding on the locked door. “Let me in!” The driver refused; his fare with the wire-rim glasses had asked him to wait. Becker turned and saw Hulohot streaking across he concourse, gun in hand. Becker eyed his little Vespa on the sidewalk. I’m dead.

Hulohot blasted through the revolving doors just in time to see Becker trying in vain to kick start his Vespa. Hulohot smiled and raised his weapon.

The choke! Becker fumbled with the levers under the gas tank. He jumped on the starter again. It coughed and died.

“El anillo. The ring.” The voice was close.

Becker looked up. He saw the barrel of a gun. The chamber was rotating. He rammed his foot on the starter once again.

Hulohot’s shot just missed Becker’s head as the little bike sprang to life and lurched forward. Becker hung on for his life as the motorcycle bounced down a grassy embankment and wobbled around the corner of the building onto the runway.

Enraged, Hulohot raced toward his waiting taxi. Seconds later, the driver lay stunned on the curb watching his taxi peel out in a cloud of dust.

Chapter 82

As the implications of the Commander’s phone call to Security began to settle on the dazed Greg Hale, he found himself weakened by a wave of panic. Security is coming! Susan began to slip away. Hale recovered, clutching at her midsection, pulling her back.

“Let me go!” she cried, her voice echoing though the dome.

Hale’s mind was in overdrive. The commander’s call had taken him totally by surprise. Strathmore phoned Security! He’s sacrificing his plans for Digital Fortress!

Not in a million years had Hale imagined the commander would let Digital Fortress slip by. This back door was the chance of a lifetime.

As the panic rushed in, Hale’s mind seemed to play tricks on him. He saw the barrel of Strathmore’s Berretta everywhere he looked. He began to spin, holding Susan close, trying to deny the commander a shot. Driven by fear, Hale dragged Susan blindly toward the stairs. In five minutes the lights would come on, the doors would open, and a SWAT team would pour in.

“You’re hurting me!” Susan choked. She gasped for breath as she stumbled through Hale’s desperate pirouettes.

Hale considered letting her go and making a mad dash for Strathmore’s elevator, but it was suicide. He had no password. Besides, once outside the NSA without a hostage, Hale knew he was as good as dead. Not even his Lotus could outrun a fleet of NSA helicopters. Susan is the only thing that will keep Strathmore from blowing me off the road!

“Susan,” Hale blurted, dragging her toward the stairs. “Come with me! I swear I won’t hurt you!”

As Susan fought him, Hale realized he had new problems. Even if he somehow managed to get Strathmore’s elevator open and take Susan with him, she would undoubtedly fight him all the way out of the building. Hale knew full well that Strathmore’s elevator made only one stop: “the Underground Highway,” a restricted labyrinth of underground access tunnels through which NSA powerbrokers moved in secrecy. Hale had no intention of ending up lost in the basement corridors of the NSA with a struggling hostage. It was a death trap. Even if he got out, he realized, he had no gun. How would he get Susan across the parking lot? How would he drive?

It was the voice of one of Hale’s marine, military-strategy professors that gave him his answer:

Force a hand, the voice warned, and it will fight you. But convince a mind to think as you want it to think, and you have an ally.

“Susan,” Hale heard himself saying, “Strathmore’s a killer! You’re in danger here!”

Susan didn’t seem to hear. Hale knew it was an absurd angle anyway; Strathmore would never hurt Susan, and she knew it.

Hale strained his eyes into the darkness, wondering where the commander was hidden. Strathmore had fallen silent suddenly, which made Hale even more panicky. He sensed his time was up. Security would arrive at any moment.

With a surge of strength, Hale wrapped his arms around Susan’s waist and pulled her hard up the stairs. She hooked her heels on the first step and pulled back. It was no use, Hale overpowered her.

Carefully, Hale backed up the stairs with Susan in tow. Pushing her up might have been easier, but the landing at the top was illuminated from Strathmore’s computer monitors. If Susan went first, Strathmore would have a clear shot at Hale’s back. Pulling Susan behind him, Hale had a human shield between himself and the Crypto floor.

About a third of the way up, Hale sensed movement at the bottom of the stairs. Strathmore’s making his move! “Don’t try it, Commander,” he hissed. “You’ll only get her killed.”

Hale waited. But there was only silence. He listened closely. Nothing. The bottom of the stairs was still. Was he imagining things? It didn’t matter. Strathmore would never risk a shot with Susan in the way.

But as Hale backed up the stairs dragging Susan behind him, something unexpected happened. There was a faint thud on the landing behind him. Hale stopped, adrenaline surging. Had Strathmore slipped upstairs? Instinct told him Strathmore was at the bottom of the stairs. But then, suddenly, it happened again-louder this time. A distinct step on the upper landing!

In terror, Hale realized his mistake. Strathmore’s on the landing behind me! He has a clear shot of my back! In desperation, he spun Susan back to his uphill side and started retreating backwards down the steps.

As he reached the bottom step, he stared wildly up at the landing and yelled, “Back off, Commander! Back off, or I’ll break her-”

The butt of a Berretta came slicing through the air at the foot of the stairs and crashed down into Hale’s skull.

As Susan tore free of the slumping Hale, she wheeled in confusion. Strathmore grabbed her and reeled her in, cradling her shaking body. “Shhh,” he soothed. “It’s me. You’re okay.”

Susan was trembling. “Com… mander.” She gasped, disoriented. “I thought… I thought you were upstairs… I heard…”

“Easy now,” he whispered. “You heard me toss my loafers up onto the landing.”

Susan found herself laughing and crying at the same time. The commander had just saved her life. Standing there in the darkness, Susan felt an overwhelming sense of relief. It was not, however, without guilt; Security was coming. She had foolishly let Hale grab her, and he had used her against Strathmore. Susan knew the commander had paid a huge price to save her. “I’m sorry,” she said.

“What for?”

“Your plans for Digital Fortress… they’re ruined.”

Strathmore shook his head. “Not at all.”

“But… but what about Security? They’ll be here any minute. We won’t have time to-”

“Security’s not coming, Susan. We’ve got all the time in the world.”

Susan was lost. Not coming? “But you phoned…”

Strathmore chuckled. “Oldest trick in the book. I faked the call.”

Chapter 83

Becker’s Vespa was no doubt the smallest vehicle ever to tear down the Seville runway. Its top speed, a whining 50 mph, sounded more like a chainsaw than a motorcycle and was unfortunately well below the necessary power to become airborne.

In his side mirror, Becker saw the taxi swing out onto the darkened runway about four hundred yards back. It immediately started gaining. Becker faced front. In the distance, the contour of the airplane hangars stood framed against the night sky about a half mile out. Becker wondered if the taxi would overtake him in that distance. He knew Susan could do the math in two seconds and calculate his odds. Becker suddenly felt fear like he had never known.

He lowered his head and twisted the throttle as far as it would go. The Vespa was definitely topped out. Becker guessed the taxi behind him was doing almost ninety, twice his speed. He set his sights on the three structures looming in the distance. The middle one. That’s where the Learjet is. A shot rang out.

The bullet buried itself in the runway yards behind him. Becker looked back. The assassin was hanging out the window taking aim. Becker swerved and his side mirror exploded in a shower of glass. He could feel the impact of the bullet all the way up the handlebars. He lay his body flat on the bike. God help me, I’m not going to make it!

The tarmac in front of Becker’s Vespa was growing brighter now. The taxi was closing, the headlights throwing ghostly shadows down the runway. A shot fired. The bullet ricocheted off the hull of the bike.

Becker struggled to keep from going into a swerve. I’ve got to make the hangar! He wondered if the Learjet pilot could see them coming. Does he have a weapon? Will he open the cabin doors in time? But as Becker approached the lit expanse of the open hangars, he realized the question was moot. The Learjet was nowhere to be seen. He squinted through blurred vision and prayed he was hallucinating. He was not. The hangar was bare. Oh my God! Where’s the plane!

As the two vehicles rocketed into the empty hangar, Becker desperately searched for an escape. There was none. The building’s rear wall, an expansive sheet of corrugated metal, had no doors or windows. The taxi roared up beside him, and Becker looked left to see Hulohot raising his gun.

Reflex took over. Becker slammed down on his brakes. He barely slowed. The hangar floor was slick with oil. The Vespa went into a headlong skid.

Beside him there was a deafening squeal as the taxi’s brakes locked and the balding tires hydroplaned on the slippery surface. The car spun around in a cloud of smoke and burning rubber only inches to the left of Becker’s skidding Vespa.

Now side by side, the two vehicles skimmed out of control on a collision course with the rear of the hangar. Becker desperately pumped his brakes, but there was no traction; it was like driving on ice. In front of him, the metal wall loomed. It was coming fast. As the taxi spiraled wildly beside him, Becker faced the wall and braced for the impact.

There was an earsplitting crash of steel and corrugated metal. But there was no pain. Becker found himself suddenly in the open air, still on his Vespa, bouncing across a grassy field. It was as if the hangar’s back wall had vanished before him. The taxi was still beside him, careening across the field. An enormous sheet of corrugated metal from the hangar’s back wall billowed off the taxi’s hood and sailed over Becker’s head.

Heart racing, Becker gunned the Vespa and took off into the night.

Chapter 84

Jabba let out a contented sigh as he finished the last of his solder points. He switched off the iron, put down his penlight, and lay a moment in the darkness of the mainframe computer. He was beat. His neck hurt. Internal work was always cramped, especially for a man of his size.

And they just keep building them smaller, he mused.

As he closed his eyes for a well-deserved moment of relaxation, someone outside began pulling on his boots.

“Jabba! Get out here!” a woman’s voice yelled.

Midge found me. He groaned.

“Jabba! Get out here!”

Reluctantly he slithered out. “For the love of God, Midge! I told you-” But it was not Midge. Jabba looked up, surprised. “Soshi?”

Soshi Kuta was a ninety-pound live wire. She was Jabba’s righthand assistant, a razor-sharp Sys-Sec techie from MIT. She often worked late with Jabba and was the one member of his staff who seemed unintimidated by him. She glared at him and demanded, “Why the hell didn’t you answer your phone? Or my page?”

“Your page,” Jabba repeated. “I thought it was-”

“Never mind. There’s something strange going on in the main databank.”

Jabba checked his watch. “Strange?” Now he was growing concerned. “Can you be any more specific?”

Two minutes later Jabba was dashing down the hall toward the databank.

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