Strathmore’s elevator dropped fast. Inside the carriage, Susan sucked deep breaths of fresh air into her lungs. Dazed, she steadied herself against the wall as the car slowed to a stop. A moment later some gears clicked, and the conveyor began moving again, this time horizontally. Susan felt the carriage accelerate as it began rumbling toward the main NSA complex. Finally it whirred to a stop, and the doors opened.
Coughing, Susan Fletcher stumbled into a darkened cement corridor. She found herself in a tunnel‑low‑ceilinged and narrow. A double yellow line stretched out before her. The line disappeared into an empty, dark hollow.
The Underground Highway . . .
She staggered toward the tunnel, holding the wall for guidance. Behind her, the elevator door slid shut. Once again Susan Fletcher was plunged into darkness.
Nothing except a faint humming in the walls.
A humming that grew louder.
Suddenly it was as if dawn were breaking. The blackness thinned to a hazy gray. The walls of the tunnel began to take shape. All at once, a small vehicle whipped around the corner, its headlight blinding her. Susan stumbled back against the wall and shielded her eyes. There was a gust of air, and the transport whipped past.
An instant later there was a deafening squeal of rubber on cement. The hum approached once again, this time in reverse. Seconds later the vehicle came to a stop beside her.
“Ms. Fletcher!” an astonished voice exclaimed.
Susan gazed at a vaguely familiar shape in the driver’s seat of an electric golf cart.
“Jesus.” The man gasped. “Are you okay? We thought you were dead!”
Susan stared blankly.
“Chad Brinkerhoff,” he sputtered, studying the shell‑shocked cryptographer. “Directorial PA.”
Susan could only manage a dazed whimper. “TRANSLTR . . .”
Brinkerhoff nodded. “Forget it. Get on!”
* * *
The beam of the golf cart’s headlights whipped across the cement walls.
“There’s a virus in the main databank,” Brinkerhoff blurted.
“I know,” Susan heard herself whisper.
“We need you to help us.”
Susan was fighting back the tears. “Strathmore . . . he . . .”
“We know,” Brinkerhoff said. “He bypassed Gauntlet.”
“Yes . . . and . . .” The words got stuck in her throat. He killed David!
Brinkerhoff put a hand on her shoulder. “Almost there, Ms. Fletcher. Just hold on.”
* * *
The high‑speed Kensington golf cart rounded a corner and skidded to a stop. Beside them, branching off perpendicular to the tunnel, was a hallway, dimly lit by red floor lighting.
“Come on,” Brinkerhoff said, helping her out.
He guided her into the corridor. Susan drifted behind him in a fog. The tiled passageway sloped downward at a steep incline. Susan grabbed the handrail and followed Brinkerhoff down. The air began to grow cooler. They continued their descent.
As they dropped deeper into the earth, the tunnel narrowed. From somewhere behind them came the echo of footsteps‑a strong, purposeful gait. The footsteps grew louder. Both Brinkerhoff and Susan stopped and turned.
Striding toward them was an enormous black man. Susan had never seen him before. As he approached, he fixed her with a penetrating stare.
“Who’s this?” he demanded.
“Susan Fletcher,” Brinkerhoff replied.
The enormous man arched his eyebrows. Even sooty and soaked, Susan Fletcher was more striking than he had imagined. “And the commander?” he demanded.
Brinkerhoff shook his head.
The man said nothing. He stared off a moment. Then he turned back to Susan. “Leland Fontaine,” he said, offering her his hand. “Glad you’re okay.”
Susan stared. She’d always known she’d meet the director someday, but this was not the introduction she’d envisioned.
“Come along, Ms. Fletcher,” Fontaine said, leading the way. “We’ll need all the help we can get.”
* * *
Looming in the reddish haze at the bottom of the tunnel, a steel wall blocked their way. Fontaine approached and typed an entry code into a recessed cipher box. He then placed his right hand against a small glass panel. A strobe flashed. A moment later the massive wall thundered left.
There was only one NSA chamber more sacred than Crypto, and Susan Fletcher sensed she was about to enter it.