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.