The headlight of Becker’s Vespa threw stark shadows on the walls of the narrow passageways. He struggled with the gear shift and roared between the whitewashed buildings, giving the inhabitants of Santa Cruz an early wake-up call this Sunday morning.
It had been less than thirty minutes since Becker’s escape from the airport. He’d been on the run ever since, his mind grappling with endless questions: Who’s trying to kill me? What’s so special about this ring? Where is the NSA jet? He thought of Megan dead in the stall, and the nausea crept back.
Becker had hoped to cut directly across the barrio and exit on the other side, but Santa Cruz was a bewildering labyrinth of alleyways. It was peppered with false starts and dead ends. Becker quickly became disoriented. He looked up for the tower of the Giralda to get his bearings, but the surrounding walls were so high he could see nothing except a thin slit of breaking dawn above him.
Becker wondered where the man in wire-rim glasses was; he knew better than to think the assailant had given up. The killer probably was after him on foot. Becker struggled to maneuver his Vespa around tight corners. The sputtering of the engine echoed up and down the alleys. Becker knew he was an easy target in the silence of Santa Cruz. At this point, all he had in his favor was speed. Got to get to the other side!
After a long series of turns and straightaways, Becker skidded into a three-way intersection marked Esquina de los Reyes. He knew he was in trouble-he had been there already. As he stood straddling the idling bike, trying to decide which way to turn, the engine sputtered to a stop. The gas gauge read vacio. As if on cue, a shadow appeared down an alley on his left.
The human mind is the fastest computer in existence. In the next fraction of a second, Becker’s mind registered the shape of the man’s glasses, searched his memory for a match, found one, registered danger, and requested a decision. He got one. He dropped the useless bike and took off at a full sprint.
Unfortunately for Becker, Hulohot was now on solid ground rather than in a lurching taxi. He calmly raised his weapon and fired.
The bullet caught Becker in the side just as he stumbled around the corner out of range. He took five or six strides before the sensation began to register. At first it felt like a muscle pull, just above the hip. Then it turned to a warm tingling. When Becker saw the blood, he knew. There was no pain, no pain anywhere, just a headlong race through the winding maze of Santa Cruz.
Hulohot dashed after his quarry. He had been tempted to hit Becker in the head, but he was a professional; he played the odds. Becker was a moving target, and aiming at his midsection provided the greatest margin of error both vertically and horizontally. The odds had paid off. Becker had shifted at the last instant, and rather than missing his head, Hulohot had caught a piece of his side. Although he knew the bullet had barely grazed Becker and would do no lasting damage, the shot had served its purpose. Contact had been made. The prey had been touched by death. It was a whole new game.
Becker raced forward blindly. Turning. Winding. Staying out of the straightaways. The footsteps behind him seemed relentless. Becker’s mind was blank. Blank to everything-where he was, who was chasing him-all that was left was instinct, self preservation, no pain, only fear, and raw energy.
A shot exploded against the azulejo tile behind him. Shards of glass sprayed across the back of his neck. He stumbled left, into another alley. He heard himself call for help, but except for the sound of footsteps and strained breathing, the morning air remained deathly still.
Becker’s side was burning now. He feared he was leaving a crimson trail on the whitewashed walks. He searched everywhere for an open door, an open gate, any escape from the suffocating canyons. Nothing. The walkway narrowed.
“Socorro!” Becker’s voice was barely audible. “Help!”
The walls grew closer on each side. The walkway curved. Becker searched for an intersection, a tributary, any way out. The passageway narrowed. Locked doors. Narrowing. Locked gates. The footsteps were closing. He was in a straightaway, and suddenly the alley began to slope upward. Steeper. Becker felt his legs straining. He was slowing.
And then he was there.
Like a freeway that had run out of funding, the alley just stopped. There was a high wall, a wooden bench, and nothing else. No escape. Becker looked up three stories to the top of the building and then spun and started back down the long alley, but he had only taken a few steps before he stopped short.
At the foot of the inclined straightaway, a figure appeared. The man moved toward Becker with a measured determination. In his hand, a gun glinted in the early morning sun.
Becker felt a sudden lucidity as he backed up toward the wall. The pain in his side suddenly registered. He touched the spot and looked down. There was blood smeared across his fingers and across Ensei Tankado’s golden ring. He felt dizzy. He stared at the engraved band, puzzled. He’d forgotten he was wearing it. He’d forgotten why he had come to Seville. He looked up at the figure approaching. He looked down at the ring. Was this why Megan had died? Was this why he would die?
The shadow advanced up the inclined passageway. Becker saw walls on all sides-a dead end behind him. A few gated entryways between them, but it was too late to call for help.
Becker pressed his back against the dead end. Suddenly he could feel every piece of grit beneath the soles of his shoes, every bump in the stucco wall behind him. His mind was reeling backward, his childhood, his parents… Susan.
Oh, God… Susan.
For the first time since he was a kid, Becker prayed. He did not pray for deliverance from death; he did not believe in miracles. Instead he prayed that the woman he left behind would find strength, that she would know without a doubt that she had been loved. He closed his eyes. The memories came like a torrent. They were not memories of department meetings, university business, and the things that made up 90 percent of his life; they were memories of her. Simple memories: teaching her to use chopsticks, sailing on Cape Cod. I love you, he thought. Know that… forever.
It was as if every defense, every facade, every insecure exaggeration of his life had been stripped away. He was standing naked-flesh and bones before God. I am a man, he thought. And in a moment of irony he thought, A man without wax. He stood, eyes closed, as the man in wire-rim glasses drew nearer. Somewhere nearby, a bell began to toll. Becker waited in darkness, for the sound that would end his life.
The morning sun was just breaking over the Seville rooftops and shining down into the canyons below. The bells atop the Giralda cried out for sunrise mass. This was the moment inhabitants had all been waiting for. Everywhere in the ancient barrio, gates opened and families poured into the alleyways. Like lifeblood through the veins of old Santa Cruz, they coursed toward the heart of their pueblo, toward the core of their history, toward their God, their shrine, their cathedral.
Somewhere in Becker’s mind, a bell was tolling. Am I dead? Almost reluctantly, he opened his eyes and squinted into the first rays of sunlight. He knew exactly where he was. He leveled his gaze and searched the alley for his assailant. But the man in wire-rims was not there. Instead, there were others. Spanish families, in their finest clothes, stepping from their gated portals into the alleyways, talking, laughing.
At the bottom of the alley, hidden from Becker’s view, Hulohot cursed in frustration. At first there had been only a single couple separating him from his quarry. Hulohot had been certain they would leave. But the sound of the bells kept reverberating down the alley, drawing others from their homes. A second couple, with children. They greeted each another. Talking, laughing, kissing three times on the cheek. Another group appeared, and Hulohot could no longer see his prey. Now, in a boiling rage, he raced into the quickly growing crowd. He had to get to David Becker!
The killer fought his way toward the end of the alley. He found himself momentarily lost in a sea of bodies-coats and ties, black dresses, lace mantles over hunched women. They all seemed oblivious to Hulohot’s presence; they strolled casually, all in black, shuffling, moving as one, blocking his way. Hulohot dug his way through the crowd and dashed up the alley into the dead end, his weapon raised. Then he let out a muted, inhuman scream. David Becker was gone.
Becker stumbled and sidestepped his way through the crowd. Follow the crowd, he thought. They know the way out. He cut right at the intersection and the alley widened. Everywhere gates were opening and people were pouring out. The pealing of the bells grew louder.
Becker’s side was still burning, but he sensed the bleeding had stopped. He raced on. Somewhere behind him, closing fast, was a man with a gun.
Becker ducked in and out of the groups of churchgoers and tried to keep his head down. It was not much farther. He could sense it. The crowd had thickened. The alley had widened. They were no longer in a little tributary, this was the main river. As he rounded a bend, Becker suddenly saw it, rising before them-the cathedral and Giralda tower.
The bells were deafening, the reverberations trapped in the high-walled plaza. The crowds converged, everyone in black, pushing across the square toward the gaping doors of the Seville Cathedral. Becker tried to break away toward Mateus Gago, but he was trapped. He was shoulder to shoulder, heel to toe with the shoving throngs. The Spaniards had always had a different idea of closeness than the rest of the world. Becker was wedged between two heavyset women, both with their eyes closed, letting the crowd carry them. They mumbled prayers to themselves and clutched rosary beads in their fingers.
As the crowd closed on the enormous stone structure, Becker tried to cut left again, but the current was stronger now. The anticipation, the pushing and shoving, the blind, mumbled prayers. He turned into the crowd, trying to fight backward against the eager throngs. It was impossible, like swimming upstream in a mile-deep river. He turned. The cathedral doors loomed before him-like the opening to some dark carnival ride he wished he hadn’t taken. David Becker suddenly realized he was going to church.
The Crypto sirens were blaring. Strathmore had no idea how long Susan had been gone. He sat alone in the shadows, the drone of TRANSLTR calling to him. You’re a survivor… you’re a survivor….
Yes, he thought. I’m a survivor-but survival is nothing without honor. I’d rather die than live in the shadow of disgrace.
And disgrace was what was waiting for him. He had kept information from the director. He had sent a virus into the nation’s most secure computer. There was no doubt he would be hung out to dry. His intentions had been patriotic, but nothing had gone as he’d planned. There had been death and treachery. There would be trials, accusations, public outrage. He had served his country with honor and integrity for so many years, he couldn’t allow it to end this way.
I’m a survivor, he thought.
You’re a liar, his own thoughts replied.
It was true. He was a liar. There were people he hadn’t been honest with. Susan Fletcher was one of them. There were so many things he hadn’t told her-things he was now desperately ashamed of. For years she’d been his illusion, his living fantasy. He dreamed of her at night; he cried out for her in his sleep. He couldn’t help it. She was as brilliant and as beautiful as any woman he could imagine. His wife had tried to be patient, but when she finally met Susan, she immediately lost hope. Bev Strathmore never blamed her husband for his feelings. She tried to endure the pain as long as possible, but recently it had become too much. She’d told him their marriage was ending; another woman’s shadow was no place to spend the rest of her life.
Gradually the sirens lifted Strathmore from his daze. His analytical powers searched for any way out. His mind reluctantly confirmed what his heart had suspected. There was only one true escape, only one solution.
Strathmore gazed down at the keyboard and began typing. He didn’t bother to turn the monitor so he could see it. His fingers pecked out the words slowly and decisively.
Dearest friends, I am taking my life today…
This way, no one would ever wonder. There would be no questions. There would be no accusations. He would spell out for the world what had happened. Many had died… but there was still one life to take.
In a cathedral, it is always night. The warmth of the day turns to damp coolness. The traffic is silenced behind thick granite walls. No number of candelabras can illuminate the vast darkness overhead. Shadows fall everywhere. There’s only the stained glass, high above, filtering the ugliness of the outside world into rays of muted reds and blues.
The Seville Cathedral, like all great cathedrals of Europe, is laid out in the shape of a cross. The sanctuary and altar are located just above the midpoint and open downward onto the main sanctuary. Wooden pews fill the vertical axis, a staggering 113 yards from the altar to the base of the cross. To the left and right of the altar, the transept of the cross houses confessionals, sacred tombs, and additional seating.
Becker found himself wedged in the middle of a long pew about halfway back. Overhead, in the dizzying empty space, a silver censer the size of a refrigerator swung enormous arcs on a frayed rope, leaving a trail of frankincense. The bells of the Giralda kept ringing, sending low rumbling shock waves through the stone. Becker lowered his gaze to the gilded wall behind the altar. He had a lot to be thankful for. He was breathing. He was alive. It was a miracle.
As the priest prepared to give the opening prayer, Becker checked his side. There was a red stain on his shirt, but the bleeding had stopped. The wound was small, more of a laceration than a puncture. Becker tucked his shirt back in and craned his neck. Behind him, the doors were cranking shut. He knew if he’d been followed, he was now trapped. The Seville Cathedral had a single functional entrance, a design popularized in the days when churches were used as fortresses, a safe haven against Moorish invasion. With a single entrance, there was only one door to barricade. Now the single entrance had another function-it ensured all tourists entering the cathedral had purchased a ticket.
The twenty-two-foot-high, gilded doors slammed with a decisive crash. Becker was sealed in the house of God. He closed his eyes and slid low in his pew. He was the only one in the building not dressed in black. Somewhere voices began to chant.
Toward the back of the church, a figure moved slowly up the side aisle, keeping to the shadows. He had slipped in just before the doors closed. He smiled to himself. The hunt was getting interesting. Becker is here… I can feel it. He moved methodically, one row at a time. Overhead the frankincense decanter swung its long, lazy arcs. A fine place to die, Hulohot thought. I hope I do as well.
Becker knelt on the cold cathedral floor and ducked his head out of sight. The man seated next to him glared down-it was most irregular behavior in the house of God.
“Enfermo,” Becker apologized. “Sick.”
Becker knew he had to stay low. He had glimpsed a familiar silhouette moving up the side aisle. It’s him! He’s here!
Despite being in the middle of an enormous congregation, Becker feared he was an easy target-his khaki blazer was like a roadside flare in the crowd of black. He considered removing it, but the white oxford shirt underneath was no better. Instead he huddled lower.
The man beside him frowned. “Turista.” He grunted. Then he whispered, half sarcastically, “Llamo un medico? Shall I call a doctor?”
Becker looked up at the old man’s mole-ridden face. “No, gracias. Estoy bien.”
The man gave him an angry look. “Pues sientate! Then sit down!” There were scattered shushes around them, and the old man bit his tongue and faced front.
Becker closed his eyes and huddled lower, wondering how long the service would last. Becker, raised Protestant, had always had the impression Catholics were long-winded. He prayed it was true-as soon as the service ended, he would be forced to stand and let the others out. In khaki he was dead.
Becker knew he had no choice at the moment. He simply knelt there on the cold stone floor of the great cathedral. Eventually, the old man lost interest. The congregation was standing now, singing a hymn. Becker stayed down. His legs were starting to cramp. There was no room to stretch them. Patience, he thought. Patience. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath.
It felt like only minutes later that Becker felt someone kicking him. He looked up. The mole-faced man was standing to his right, waiting impatiently to leave the pew.
Becker panicked. He wants to leave already? I’ll have to stand up! Becker motioned for the man to step over him. The man could barely control his anger. He grabbed the tails of his black blazer, pulled them down in a huff, and leaned back to reveal the entire row of people waiting to leave. Becker looked left and saw that the woman who had been seated there was gone. The length of pew to his left was empty all the way to the center aisle.
The service can’t be over! It’s impossible! We just got here!
But when Becker saw the altar boy at the end of the row and the two single-file lines moving up the center aisle toward the altar, he knew what was happening.
Communion. He groaned. The damn Spaniards do it first!
Susan climbed down the ladder into the sublevels. Thick steam was now boiling up around TRANSLTR’s hull. The catwalks were wet with condensation. She almost fell, her flats providing very little traction. She wondered how much longer TRANSLTR would survive. The sirens continued their intermittent warning. The emergency lights spun in two-second intervals. Three stories below, the aux generators shook in a taxed whine. Susan knew somewhere at the bottom in the foggy dimness there was a circuit breaker. She sensed time was running out.
Upstairs, Strathmore held the Beretta in his hand. He reread his note and laid it on the floor of the room where he was standing. What he was about to do was a cowardly act, there was no doubt. I’m a survivor, he thought. He thought of the virus in the NSA databank, he thought of David Becker in Spain, he thought of his plans for a back door. He had told so many lies. He was guilty of so much. He knew this was the only way to avoid accountability… the only way to avoid the shame. Carefully he aimed the gun. Then he closed his eyes and pulled the trigger.
Susan had only descended six flights when she heard the muffled shot. It was far off, barely audible over the generators. She had never heard a gunshot except on television, but she had no doubt what it was.
She stopped short, the sound resounding in her ears. In a wave of horror, she feared the worst. She pictured the commander’s dreams-the back door in Digital Fortress, the incredible coup it would have been. She pictured the virus in the databank, his failing marriage, that eerie nod he had given her. Her footing faltered. She spun on the landing, grappling for the banister. Commander! No!
Susan was momentarily frozen, her mind blank. The echo of the gunshot seemed to drown out the chaos around her. Her mind told her to keep on going, but her legs refused. Commander! An instant later she found herself stumbling back up the stairs, entirely forgetting the danger around her.
She ran blindly, slipping on the slick metal. Above her the humidity fell like rain. When she reached the ladder and began climbing, she felt herself lifted from below by a tremendous surge of steam that practically jettisoned her through the trapdoor. She rolled onto the Crypto floor and felt the cool air wash over her. Her white blouse clung to her body, soaked through.
It was dark. Susan paused, trying to get her bearings. The sound of the gunshot was on endless loop in her head. Hot steam billowed up through the trapdoor like gases from a volcano about to explode.
Susan cursed herself for leaving the Beretta with Strathmore. She had left it with him, hadn’t she? Or was it in Node 3? As her eyes adjusted to the dark, she glanced toward the gaping hole in the Node 3 wall. The glow from the monitors was faint, but in the distance she could see Hale lying motionless on the floor where she’d left him. There was no sign of Strathmore. Terrified of what she’d find, she turned toward the commander’s office.
But as she began to move, something registered as strange. She backpedaled a few steps and peered into Node 3 again. In the soft light she could see Hale’s arm. It was not at his side. He was no longer tied like a mummy. His arm was up over his head. He was sprawled backward on the floor. Had he gotten free? There was no movement. Hale was deathly still.
Susan gazed up at Strathmore’s workstation perched high on the wall. “Commander?”
Tentatively she moved toward Node 3. There was an object in Hale’s hand. It glimmered in the light of the monitors. Susan moved closer… closer. Suddenly she could see what Hale was holding. It was the Beretta.
Susan gasped. Following the arch of Hale’s arm, her eyes moved to his face. What she saw was grotesque. Half of Greg Hale’s head was soaked in blood. The dark stain had spread out across the carpet.
Oh my God! Susan staggered backward. It wasn’t the commander’s shot she’d heard, it was Hale’s!
As if in a trance, Susan moved toward the body. Apparently, Hale had managed to free himself. The printer cables were piled on the floor beside him. I must have left the gun on the couch, she thought. The blood flowing through the hole in his skull looked black in the bluish light.
On the floor beside Hale was a piece of paper. Susan went over unsteadily, and picked it up. It was a letter.
Dearest friends, I am taking my life today in penance for the following sins…
In utter disbelief, Susan stared at the suicide note in her hand. She read slowly. It was surreal-so unlike Hale-a laundry list of crimes. He was admitting to everything-figuring out that NDAKOTA was a hoax, hiring a mercenary to kill Ensei Tankado and take the ring, pushing Phil Chartrukian, planning to sell Digital Fortress.
Susan reached the final line. She was not prepared for what she read. The letter’s final words delivered a numbing blow.
Above all, I’m truly sorry about David Becker. Forgive me, I was blinded by ambition.
As Susan stood trembling over Hale’s body, the sound of running footsteps approached behind her. In slow motion, she turned.
Strathmore appeared in the broken window, pale and out of breath. He stared down at Hale’s body in apparent shock.
“Oh my God!” he said. “What happened?”
Hulohot spotted Becker immediately. The khaki blazer was impossible to miss, particularly with the small bloodstain on one side. The jacket was moving up the center aisle in a sea of black. He must not know I’m here. Hulohot smiled. He’s a dead man.
He fanned the tiny metal contacts on his fingertips, eager to tell his American contact the good news. Soon, he thought, very soon.
Like a predator moving downwind, Hulohot moved to the back of the church. Then he began his approach-straight up the center aisle. Hulohot was in no mood to track Becker through the crowds leaving the church. His quarry was trapped, a fortunate turn of events. Hulohot just needed a way to eliminate him quietly. His silencer, the best money could buy, emitted no more than a tiny spitting cough. That would be fine.
As Hulohot closed on the khaki blazer, he was unaware of the quiet murmurs coming from those he was passing. The congregation could understand this man’s excitement to receive the blessing of God, but nevertheless, there were strict rules of protocol-two lines, single file.
Hulohot kept moving. He was closing quickly. He thumbed the revolver in his jacket pocket. The moment had arrived. David Becker had been exceptionally fortunate so far; there was no need to tempt fortune any further.
The khaki blazer was only ten people ahead, facing front, head down. Hulohot rehearsed the kill in his mind. The image was clear-cutting in behind Becker, keeping the gun low and out of sight, firing two shots into Becker’s back, Becker slumping, Hulohot catching him and helping him into a pew like a concerned friend. Then Hulohot would move quickly to the back of the church as if going for help. In the confusion, he would disappear before anyone knew what had happened.
Five people. Four. Three.
Hulohot fingered the gun in his pocket, keeping it low. He would fire from hip level upward into Becker’s spine. That way the bullet would hit either the spine or a lung before finding the heart. Even if the bullet missed the heart, Becker would die. A punctured lung was fatal, maybe not in more medically advanced parts of the world, but in Spain, it was fatal.
Two people… one. And then Hulohot was there. Like a dancer performing a well-rehearsed move, he turned to his right. He laid his hand on the shoulder of the khaki blazer, aimed the gun, and… fired. Two muffled spats.
Instantly the body was rigid. Then it was falling. Hulohot caught his victim under the armpits. In a single motion, he swung the body into a pew before any bloodstains spread across his back. Nearby, people turned. Hulohot paid no heed-he would be gone in an instant.
He groped the man’s lifeless fingers for the ring. Nothing. He felt again. The fingers were bare. Hulohot spun the man around angrily. The horror was instantaneous. The face was not David Becker’s.
Rafael de la Maza, a banker from the suburbs of Seville, had died almost instantly. He was still clutching the 50,000 pesetas the strange American had paid him for a cheap black blazer.