DECEMBER 3, 2019
NASA LANGLEY RESEARCH CENTER HAMPTON, VIRGINIA
I CAN’T SAY for sure when the century-old tunnel was sealed off like a tomb.
Probably around the same time it began popping up in 8-pitch type as a nondescript feature on utility site maps hardly anyone ever sees. Crammed with high-pressure steam pipes and other mechanicals, the section of tunnel designated 1111-A was at some point given the code name Yellow Submarine.
“Never publicly or in print,” I’m explaining to NASA police major Fran Lacey, miserably scuffing behind me on the steep, gloomy stairs. “Mid- to late ’70s is about right for when this might have occurred,” I add, as if she’s listening or cares. “that’s what I get if I factor in the data and do the math.”
Crickets is her response, the same one I’ve been getting, and I turn around, checking on her, fully aware she’s not talking back. May as well enjoy that while it lasts. Except I don’t. I feel bad for her. But that doesn’t mean I’ll cut her any slack. Nope.
“In other words, in the Dark Ages, when you were coming along,” tossing in a dig whenever I can. “And way back then not even NASA had a glimmer about what was ahead. If they’d known, we wouldn’t have the problem I’m trying to make you handle sooner rather than later.”
I pause again for a response that isn’t coming. Our feet slowly thudding on concrete steps nosed with steel safety plates painted screaming yellow. Going down a few. Stopping every second or two as it gets warmer and stuffier the deeper we descend. More like steamy summer than the dead of winter, both of us clearing our throats and sweating.
“I’m guessing some dorky systems engineer or member of the intelligence community was to blame. A Beatles fan at any rate, and therefore most likely after 1968,” I continue to download information Fran couldn’t be less interested in right now.
Talking nonstop in rhythm to our descent. Feet thud-thudding. Another pause or two. Punctuated by the off-gassing of her loud exasperated sighs and coughs. Prompting me to turn around, finding her the same as last I looked, flipping me off with both middle fingers, messing with me the way she usually does. But not really. Because believe me when I say that nothing about this is funny to a legendary badass cop known for being afraid of nothing.
On permanent loan from Hampton PD, Fran oversees investi- gations for NASA Langley’s protective services. Or what’s essentially our police force of some 70 uniformed officers and a dozen special agents, all armed and federally sworn to ensure security and enforce the law on campus. In addition, she supervises NASA’s and the City of Hampton’s joint Marine, Aviation and Crime Scene Units. Plus our mobile response teams, riot squad and SWAT.
Not to mention providing executive protection for visiting VIPs. And coordinating with the military police on Langley Air Force Base, separated from our center by guard gates and an 8-foot-high fence topped with barbed wire. Suffice it to say, Fran is not someone to dismiss, disrespect or underestimate. that doesn’t mean I’m letting her off easy by offering empathy or the slightest hint about how much it secretly bothers me to put her through this ordeal. Or any. But if I’m really her investigative partner and closest ally and friend, then for me to give in to her problem would be the worst thing I could do. It would be selfish and dangerous. Worst case, it could be catastrophic. “I’ll take your profane sign language as a yes. You’re doing okay,” responding to her latest doubly offensive gesture, and it’s pointless to react personally when she’s distressed to the max.
“Shut up,” she manages to gasp, and thankfully her current unpleasantness is predictable and for the most part inconsistent with who she is the rest of the time.
But extreme anxiety, no matter how buried or quiet, rarely makes anyone more cooperative or nicer. Her mop of dark hair plastered to her scowling brow beneath her cockeyed hard hat, her safety glasses constantly fogging up. Staring at her boots, watching every tentative step as she makes her way down a claustrophobic dusty stairwell that she’s avoided like the plague in the past. And would continue to do so were it up to her. Fortunately, it isn’t. Even if she outranks me. Technically.
“The reason I know, obviously, is their iconic album by that name didn’t come out until then,” I answer what she doesn’t ask. “Yellow Submarine. We’re all living on one, a metaphor for spaceship Earth, right? Which is appropriate considering what’s down here, as you’re about to see,” I carry on as if oblivious to her fear of confined anything. Including caves, orthopedic casts, subways, seat belts, handcuffs, bunkers, submarines and most of all, tunnels, and it’s not that I’m insensitive. But as matters relate to her phobias, I’m her sponsor and never her enabler. Meaning I wasn’t happy about her refusal to shadow me along this very route when I ran a routine network analysis inside the Yellow Submarine tunnel yesterday. A very important test. In fact, critical in light of current circumstances, and Fran would have none of it. She stopped answering my text messages or calls on the subject. She ducked and dodged. I worked without her.
Excerpted from Quantum by Patricia Cornwell with permission of Thomas & Mercer. Copyright © 2019 by Cornwell Entertainment, Incorporated. All rights reserved.
Quantum by Patricia Cornwell, published by Thomas & Mercer
On the eve of a top secret space mission, Captain Calli Chase detects a tripped alarm in the tunnels deep below a NASA research center. A NASA pilot, quantum physicist, and cybercrime investigator, Calli knows that a looming blizzard and government shutdown could provide the perfect cover for sabotage, with deadly consequences. As it turns out, the danger is worse than she thought. A spatter of dried blood, a missing security badge, a suspicious suicide—a series of disturbing clues point to Calli’s twin sister, Carme, who’s been MIA for days. Desperate to halt the countdown to disaster and to clear her sister’s name, Captain Chase digs deep into her vast cyber security knowledge and her painful past, probing for answers to her twin’s erratic conduct. As time is running out, she realizes that failure means catastrophe—not just for the space program but for the safety of the whole nation.