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.”