The eighth book in the Sigma Force series, 2012
To three brothers and three sisters,
Cheryl, Doug, Laurie, Chuck, Billy, and Carrie.
After being in the trenches this past year, it seemed
fitting for us to be together here, too. Love you all.
Horn of Africa
WORDS FROM ASSASSINATED PRESIDENTS
On the existence and threat of modern-day secret societies:
We are opposed around the world by a monolithic and ruthless conspiracy that relies primarily on covert means for expanding its sphere of influence… building a tightly knit, highly efficient machine that combines military, diplomatic, intelligence, economic, scientific and political operations.
– JOHN F. KENNEDY, FROM A SPEECH GIVEN AT THE WALDORF-ASTORIA HOTEL ON APRIL 27, 1961
On life and death:
Surely God would not have created such a being as man, with an ability to grasp the infinite, to exist only for a day! No, no, man was made for immortality.
– ABRAHAM LINCOLN
NOTES FROM THE HISTORICAL RECORD
Throughout history, conspiracy theories abound. It is only human nature. We are forever looking for patterns amid chaos, for signs of the invisible puppeteer manipulating the grand scheme of lives, governments, and the path of mankind. Some of these shadowy plotters are cast as villains; others as great benefactors. Some of these secret cabals are based on historical facts; others are mere fanciful fictions; and yet even more are a Gordian knot of the two, woven so inexplicably together that the line between fact and fiction becomes a tangled tapestry of false history.
And for no other organization in history has this stood truer than the infamous Knights Templar.
In the early twelfth century, the order began as a group of nine knights, who swore to protect pilgrims on their way to and from the Holy Lands. From those humble beginnings, a great order would eventually grow in both wealth and power and spread across Europe until even popes and kings feared them. Then, on October 13, 1307, the king of France and the current pope conspired to arrest and disband the order, claiming great atrocities had been committed by the knights, including heresy. In the aftermath of that purge, legends and myths blurred the true fate of the order: stories of lost treasures abounded; tales spread of knights escaping persecution to arrive on the shores of the new World; and some reports even claim that the order still exists today, in secret and under guard, protecting a power that could reshape the world.
But let’s set aside such speculations and mythologies and go back to those original nine knights. What many do not know is that those nine founding members were all related by blood or marriage, arising from a single family. Eight of them are recorded by name in historical documents. The ninth remains a mystery and a source of much speculation today by historians. Who was this mysterious founding member of an order that would grow in such prominence in history and legend? Why was this last knight never named as plainly as the others?
The answer to that mystery is the beginning of a great adventure.
NOTES FROM THE SCIENTIFIC RECORD
On February 21, 2011, the cover of Time magazine declared: 2045, The Year Man Becomes Immortal. At face value, that might seem a wild claim, but other scientists have made similar statements. Dr. Ronald Klatz, in his book Advances in Anti-Age Medicine, wrote:
Within the next fifty years or so, assuming an individual can avoid becoming the victim of major trauma or homicide, it is entirely possible that he or she will be able to live virtually forever.
We are living in an exciting time when advances in medicine, genetics, technology, and a myriad of other disciplines are opening the newest frontier for mankind: eternity.
How will that manifest, what form will it take? Within these pages, you’ll discover that answer. The concepts raised in this novel are based on facts, on exhaustive research, going back to studies done by Soviet scientists during the Cold War. But before you turn to that first page, I must make one correction concerning the startling statements made above. They are, in fact, far too conservative in their estimates.
For not only is immortality within our reach-it is already here.
They once called her a witch and a whore.
But no longer.
She sat astride a gray destrier as the black-armored warhorse stepped gingerly through the carnage of battle. Bodies littered the fields ahead, Muslim and Christian alike. Her passage stirred the feasting crows and ravens, chasing them up into great black clouds in her wake. Other scavengers-those on two legs-picked through the dead, pulling off boots, yanking out arrows for their points and feathers. A few faces lifted to stare, then quickly turned away again.
She knew what they saw, another knight among the many who fought here. Her breasts were hidden under a padded habergeon and a hauberk of mail. Her dark hair, cropped to her shoulders, shorter than most men’s, lay under a conical helmet; her fine features further obscured by a nasal bar. Strapped to the side of her saddle, a double-edged broadsword bumped against her left knee, ringing off the mail chausses that protected her long legs.
Only a few knew she was not a man-and none knew she held secrets far darker than her hidden gender.
Her squire waited for her at the edge of a rutted road. The path wound steeply up to an isolated stone keep. The hulking structure, hidden deep within the Naphtali Mountains of Galilee, had no name and looked as if it had been carved out of the hill itself. Beyond its battlements, the red sun sat low on the horizon, obscured by the smoke from campfires and torched fields.
The young squire dropped to a knee as she drew her horse to a halt beside him.
“Is he still there?” she asked.
A nod. Frightened. “Lord Godefroy awaits you ahead.”
Her squire refused to look in the direction of the stone-crowned keep. She had no such reluctance. She tilted her helmet up to get a better view.
At long last…
She had spent sixteen years-going back to when her uncle founded the order of the Poor Knights of the Temple of Jerusalem-searching for the impossible. Even her uncle did not understand her request to join the Templars, but her side of the family would not be refused. So she had been given the white mantle of the order and folded in among the original nine, hidden away, as faceless as the helmet she wore, while the order grew around her both in number and prominence.
Others of her family, of her bloodline, continued to manipulate the knightly order from within and without: gathering wealth and knowledge, searching for powerful relics from lost crypts and ancient crèches across Egypt and the Holy Lands. Despite their best planning, they’d certainly had their failures. Just a year ago, they’d missed acquiring the bones of the magi-the relics of the three biblical kings, said to hold the secrets to lost alchemies.
She would not let today mark another failure.
With a snap of the reins, she urged her horse up the rocky path. With each passing step, the number of dead grew as the guardians of the keep put up a final and futile struggle to withstand the assault. Reaching the summit of the hill, she found the gates to the keep broken and splintered, battered apart by a massive steel-shod ram.
A pair of knights guarded the way forward. Both nodded to her. The younger of the two, fresh to the order, had sewn a crimson cross over his heart. Other Templars had begun to take up the same habit, a symbol to mark their willingness to shed their own blood for the cause. The grizzled and pocked older warrior simply wore the traditional white surcoat over his armor, like herself. The only decoration upon their mantles was the crimson blood of the slain.
“Godefroy awaits you in the crypt,” the older knight said and pointed beyond the gates to the inner citadel.
She led her destrier through the ruins of the gate and quickly dismounted with a flourish of her mantle. She left her broadsword with her mount, knowing she had no fear of being ambushed by some lone surviving protector of the keep. Lord Godefroy, for all his troubles, was thorough. As testament to his diligence, all across the open courtyard, wooden pikes bore the heads of the last defenders. Their decapitated remains piled like so much firewood along a back wall.
The battle was over.
Only the spoils remained.
She reached a door that opened to shadows. A narrow stair, rough-hewn and cut from the stone of the mountain, led down beneath the keep. The distant orange-red flicker of a torch marked the end of the steps far below. She descended, her footfalls hurrying only at the last.
Could it be true? After so many years…
She burst into a long chamber, lined to either side by stone sarcophagi, well over a score of them. Sweeping through, she barely noted the Egyptian writing, lines of symbols hinting at dark mysteries going back before Christ. Ahead, two figures stood bathed in torchlight at the rear of the chamber: one standing, the other on his knees, leaning on a staff to hold himself upright.
She crossed toward them, noting that the last sarcophagus had been pried open, its stone lid cracked on the floor beside it. It seemed somebody had already begun looking for the treasure hidden here. But the violated crypt held nothing but ash and what appeared to be bits of dried leaf and stem.
The disappointment showed on Lord Godefroy’s face as she approached the pair. “So you come at last,” he said with false cheer.
She ignored the knight. He stood a head taller than she did, though he shared the same black hair and aquiline nose, marking their common ancestry out of southern France, their families distantly related.
She dropped to her knees and stared into the face of the prisoner. His features were tanned to a burnished shade, his skin smooth as supple leather. From under a fall of dark hair, black eyes stared back at her, reflecting the torchlight. Though on his knees, he showed no fear, only a deep welling of sadness that made her want to slap him.
Godefroy drew down beside her, intending to interfere, to try to ingratiate himself into what he must have sensed was of great importance. And though he was one of the few who knew her true identity, he knew nothing of her deeper secrets.
“My lady…” he started.
The eyes of the prisoner narrowed at the revelation, fixing her with a harder stare. All trace of sadness drained away, leaving behind a flicker of fear-but it quickly vanished.
Curious… does he know of our bloodline, our secrets?
Godefroy interrupted her reverie and continued, “Upon your instructions, we’ve spent many lives and spilled much blood to find this place hidden by rumor and guarded as much by curses as by infidels-all to find this man and the treasure he guards. Who is he? I have earned such knowledge upon the point of my sword.”
She did not waste words on fools. She spoke instead to the prisoner, using an ancient dialect of Arabic. “When were you born?”
Those eyes bore into her, even pushing her back by the sheer force of his will, a buffeting wind of inner strength. He seemed to be judging whether to offer her a lie, but from whatever he found in her face, he recognized the futility of it.
When he spoke, his words were soft but came from a place of great weight. “I was born in Muharram in the Hijri year five-and-ninety.”
Godefroy understood enough Arabic to scoff. “The year ninety-five? That would make him over a thousand years old.”
“No,” she said, more to herself than him, calculating in her head. “His people use a different accounting of years than we do, starting when their prophet Muhammad arrived in Mecca.”
“So the man here is not a thousand years old?”
“Not at all,” she said, finishing the conversion in her head. “He’s only lived five hundred and twenty years.”
From the corner of her eye, she noted Godefroy turn toward her, aghast.
“Impossible,” he said with a tremulous quaver that betrayed the shallow depth of his disbelief.
She never broke from the prisoner’s gaze. Within those eyes, she sensed an unfathomable, frightening knowledge. She tried to picture all he had witnessed over the centuries: mighty empires rising and falling, cities thrusting out of the sands only to be worn back down by the ages. How much could he reveal of ancient mysteries and lost histories?
But she was not here to press questions upon him.
And she doubted he would answer them anyway.
Not this man-if he could still be called a man.
When next he spoke, it came with a warning, his fingers tightening on his staff. “The world is not ready for what you seek. It is forbidden.”
She refused to back down. “That is not for you to decide. If a man is fierce enough to grasp it, then it is his right to claim and possess it.”
He stared back at her, his gaze drifting to her chest, to what was hidden beneath hard armor. “So Eve herself believed in the Garden of Eden when she listened to the snake and stole from the Tree of Knowledge.”
“Ah,” she sighed, leaning closer. “You mistake me. I am not eve. And it is not the Tree of Knowledge I seek-but the Tree of Life.”
Slipping a dagger from her belt, she quickly stood and drove the blade to its hilt under the prisoner’s jaw, lifting him off his knees with her strength of will. In that single thrust, the endless march of centuries came to a bloody halt-along with the danger he posed.
Godefroy gasped, stepping back. “But is this not the man you came so far to find?”
She yanked free the dagger, spraying blood, and kicked the body away. She caught the staff before it fell free from the prisoner’s slack fingers.
“It was not the man I sought,” she said, “but what he carried.”
Godefroy stared at the length of olive wood in her hand. Fresh blood flowed in rivulets down its surface, revealing a faint carving along its length: an intricate weave of serpents and vines, curling around and around the shaft.
“What is it?” the knight asked, his eyes wide.
She faced him fully for the first time-and drove her blade into his left eye. He had seen too much to live. As he fell to his knees, his body wracking itself to death in ghastly heaves upon her dagger’s point, she answered his last question, her fingers firm on the ancient wooden rod.
“Behold the Bachal Isu,” she whispered to the centuries to come. “Wielded by Moses, carried by David, and borne by the King of Kings, here is the staff of Jesus Christ.”
Fourth of July:
Five days from now
The assassin stared through the rifle’s scope and lowered the crosshairs to the profile of President James T. Gant. He double-checked his range-seven hundred yards-and fixed the main targeting chevron of the USMC M40A3 sniper rifle upon the occipital bone behind the man’s left ear, knowing a shot there would do the most damage. Festive music and bright laughter from the holiday picnic filtered through his earpiece. He let it all fade into the background as he concentrated on his target, on his mission.
In U.S. history, three presidents had died on the exact same day, on July 4, on the birthday of this country. It seemed beyond mere chance.
Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and James Monroe.
Today would mark the fourth.
Steadying his breath, Commander Gray Pierce pulled the trigger.
June 30, 11:44 A.M. EST
Takoma Park, Maryland
Gray Pierce pulled into the driveway with a coughing growl of the 1960 Thunderbird’s V-8 engine.
He felt like growling himself.
“I thought the plan was to sell this place?” Kenny asked.
Gray’s younger brother sat in the passenger seat, his head half out the window, staring up at the craftsman bungalow with the wraparound wooden porch and overhanging gable. It was their family home.
“Not any longer,” Gray answered. “And don’t mention any of that to Dad. His dementia makes him paranoid enough.”
“How is that different from any other day…?” Kenny mumbled sourly under his breath.
Gray glowered at his brother. He’d picked Kenny up at Dulles after a cross-country flight from Northern California. His brother’s eyes were red-rimmed from jet lag-or maybe from too many small bottles of gin in first class. At this moment, Kenny reminded Gray of their father, especially with the pall of alcohol on his breath.
He caught his own reflection in the rearview mirror as he pulled the vintage Thunderbird into the family garage. While the two brothers both shared the same ruddy Welsh complexion and dark hair as their father, Gray kept his hair cropped short; Kenny had his tied in a short ponytail that looked too young even for someone still in his late twenties. To make matters worse, he also wore cargo shorts and a loose T-shirt with the logo of a surfing company. Kenny was a software engineer for a company in Palo Alto, and apparently this was his version of business attire.
Gray climbed out of the car, trying his best to push back his irritation with his brother. On the ride here, Kenny had spent the entire time on his cell phone, dealing with business on the other coast. He’d barely shared a word, relegating Gray to the role of chauffeur.
It’s not like I don’t have my own business to attend, too.
For the past month, Gray had put his life on hold, dealing with the aftermath of the death of their mother and the continuing mental decline of their father. Kenny had come out for the funeral, promising to spend a week helping to get their affairs in order, but after two days, a business emergency drew him back across the country, and everything got dumped back on Gray’s shoulders. In some ways, it would have been easier if Kenny had not bothered coming out at all. In his wake, he’d left a disheveled mess of insurance forms and probate paperwork for Gray to clean up.
That changed today.
After a long, heated call, Kenny had agreed to come out at this critical juncture. With their father suffering from advancing Alzheimer’s, the sudden death of his wife sent him into a downward spiral. He’d spent the past three weeks in a memory-care unit, but he’d come home last night. And during this transition, Gray needed an extra pair of hands. Kenny had accumulated enough vacation time to be able to come out for a full two weeks. Gray intended to hold him to it this time.
Gray had taken a month off from work himself and was due back at Sigma headquarters in a week. Before that, he needed a few days of downtime to get his own house in order. That’s where Kenny came in.
His brother hauled his luggage out of the convertible’s trunk, slammed the lid, but kept his palm on the chrome bumper. “And what about Dad’s car? We might as well sell it. It’s not like he can drive it.”
Gray pocketed the keys. The classic Thunderbird-raven black with a red leather interior-was his father’s pride and joy. The man had gone to painstaking ends to restore it: tricking it out with a new Holly carburetor, a flame-thrower coil, and an electric choke.
“It stays,” he said. “According to Dad’s neurologist, it’s important to keep his environment as stable and consistent as possible, to maintain a familiar routine. Besides, even if he can’t drive it, it’ll give him something to tinker with.”
Before Kenny could figure out what else to sell of his father’s belongings, Gray headed toward the door. He didn’t bother to offer to carry his brother’s luggage. He’d had enough baggage to deal with lately.
But Kenny wasn’t done. “If we’re supposed to keep everything the same-to pretend nothing’s changed-then what am I doing here?”
Gray swung toward him, balling a fist and tempted to use it. “Because you’re still his son-and it’s high time you acted like it.”
Kenny stared him down. Anger burned in his brother’s eyes, further reminding Gray of their father. He’d seen that fury all too often in his dad, especially of late, a belligerence born of dementia and fear. Not that such anger was new. His father had always been a hard man, a former oil worker out of Texas until an industrial accident took most of his left leg and all of his pride, turning an oilman into a housewife. Raising two boys while his spouse went to work had been hard on him. To compensate, he had run the household like a boot camp. And Gray, as stubborn as his father, had always pushed the envelope, a born rebel. Until at last, at eighteen years of age, he had simply packed his bags and joined the army.
It was his mother who finally drew them all back together, the proverbial glue of the family.
And now she was gone.
What were they to do without her?
Kenny finally hauled up his bag, shouldered past Gray, and mumbled words he knew would cut like rusted barbed wire: “At least I didn’t get mom killed.”
A month ago, that gut-punch would have dropped Gray to his knees. But after mandatory psychiatric sessions-not that he hadn’t missed a few-his brother’s accusation only left him iron-hard, momentarily rooted in place. A booby trap meant for Gray had taken out his mother. Collateral damage was the phrase the psychiatrist had used, seeking to blunt the guilt.
But the funeral had been a closed casket.
Even now, he could not face that pain head-on. The only thing that kept him putting one foot in front of the other was the determination to expose and destroy the shadowy organization behind that cold-blooded murder.
And that’s what he did: he turned and took one step, then another.
It was all he could do for now.
10:58 P.M. SCT
Off the Seychelles archipelago
Something woke her in the night aboard the anchored yacht.
Instinctively, Amanda slid a hand over her swollen belly, taking immediate personal inventory. Had it been a cramp? In her third trimester, that was always her first worry, a maternal reflex to protect her unborn child. But she felt nothing painful in her abdomen, just the usual pressure on her bladder.
Still, after two miscarriages, the panicky flutter in her heart refused to calm. She tried to reassure herself that the other two babies-a boy and a girl-had been lost during her first trimester.
I’m crossing my thirty-sixth week. Everything is fine.
She lifted up an elbow. Her husband snored softly beside her on the queen-size bed in the yacht’s main stateroom, his dark skin so stark against the white satin pillow. She took comfort in Mack’s muscular presence, in the masculine bruise of black stubble across his cheek and chin. He was her Michelangelo David chiseled out of black granite. Yet, she could not escape the twinge of unease as her finger hovered over his bare shoulder, hesitant to wake him but wanting those strong arms around her.
Her parents-whose aristocratic family went back generations in the Old South-had only approved the marriage with the strained graciousness of modern sensibilities. But in the end, the union served the family. She was blond and blue-eyed, raised in the world of cotillions and privilege; he was black-haired and dark of skin and eye, hardened by a rough childhood on the streets of Atlanta. The unlikely couple became a poster for familial tolerance, trotted out when needed. But that poster of a happy family was missing one key element: a child.
After a year of failing to conceive-due to an issue with her husband’s fertility-they’d resorted to in vitro fertilization with donor sperm. On the third try, after two miscarriages, they’d finally had success.
Her palm found her belly again, protective.
And that’s when the trouble had begun. A week ago, she had received a cryptic note, warning her to flee, not to tell anyone in her family. The letter hinted at why, but offered only a few details, yet it was enough to convince her to run.
A loud thump echoed down from the deck overhead. She sat upright, ears straining.
Her husband rolled onto his back, rubbing an eye blearily. “What is it, babe?”
She shook her head and held up a palm to quiet him. They’d taken such precautions, covering every step. They’d chartered a series of private aircraft under a chain of falsified papers and itineraries, landing a week ago on the other side of the world, at an airstrip on the tiny island of assumption, part of the archipelago of the Seychelles. Hours after landing, they’d immediately set out in a private yacht, sailing amid the chain of islands that spread out in an emerald arc across the azure seas. She had wanted to be isolated, far from prying eyes-yet close enough to the Seychelles’ capital city of Victoria in case there was any trouble with the pregnancy.
Since arriving, only the captain and his two crew members had ever seen their faces, and none of them knew their true names.
It seemed the perfect plan.
Muffled voices reached her. She could not make out any words, but heard the harsh threat-then a gunshot, as bright and loud as the strike of a cymbal.
It set her heart to pounding.
Not now. Not when we’re this close.
Mack burst out of the sheets, wearing only his boxers. “Amanda, stay here!” He pulled open the top drawer of the bedside table and hauled out a large black automatic pistol, his service weapon from his years as a Charleston police officer. He pointed to the rear of the stateroom. “Hide in the bathroom.”
Amanda gained her feet, bloodless and weak with terror, wobbling under the weight of her gravid belly.
Mack dashed to the door, checked the peephole. Satisfied, he opened the door enough to slip out and closed it silently behind him-but not before giving one last command. “Lock it.”
Amanda obeyed, then searched the room for any weapon at all. She settled for a small knife used to carve the fresh fruit placed in their cabin each morning. The handle was still sticky from papaya juice. With blade in hand, she retreated to the bathroom but stopped at the threshold. She could not go inside. She refused to be trapped inside such a tight space. The tiny stateroom’s head could not contain the enormity of her fear.
More gun blasts rang out-amid shouts and curses.
She sank to her knees, clutching the knife with one hand, supporting her belly with the other. Her anxiety reached the child inside. She felt a small kick.
“I won’t let them hurt you,” she whispered to her boy.
Overhead, footsteps pounded back and forth.
She stared upward, trying to pierce through the floors to the starlit deck. What was happening? How many were up there?
Then a furtive scrabbling sounded at her door-followed by a faint knock.
She hurried forward and placed an eye to the peephole. Mack nodded back at her, then glanced quickly back up the passageway. Had he found a way off the yacht-or out of desperation simply come back to defend her?
With numb fingers, she fumbled the lock open and began to pull the door, only to have it kicked wide. She stumbled back in shock. A tall, bare-chested black man stalked into the room-but it wasn’t Mack.
He held Mack’s head in his right hand, gripping it by the throat. Shiny blood poured down his forearm from the severed neck. In his other hand, he clutched an equally bloody machete. He smiled widely, showing white teeth like a shark, plainly amused by his joke.
She retreated in horror, forgetting her tiny blade.
Another figure stepped around the monster. A pale man in a perfectly tailored white suit. The only color to him was his black hair and a thin mustache above even thinner lips. He was tall enough that he had to bow himself into the room. He also smiled, but apologetically, as if embarrassed by the exuberance of his companion.
He spoke a few sharp words in some African dialect, clearly chastising his companion.
With a shrug, the other tossed her husband’s head upon the bed.
“It’s time to go,” the suited man ordered her in a genteel British accent, as if inviting her to a party.
She refused to move-couldn’t move.
The Brit sighed and motioned to his companion.
He came forward, roughly grabbed her elbow, and dragged her out the door. The Brit followed them across the short passageway and up the ladder to the stern deck.
There, she found only more horror and chaos.
The captain and his two crewmates, along with a pair of the assailants, lay sprawled in pools of blood. The attackers had been shot; the yacht’s crew hacked, dismembered by the sheer force of the brutality.
The surviving assailants gathered atop the deck or off in a scarred boat tied to the starboard rail. A handful scoured the yacht, hauling out cases of wine, bagfuls of supplies, stripping anything of value. They were all black-skinned, some bearing tribal scarring, many no older than boys. Weapons bristled among them: rusty machetes, antique-looking automatic rifles, and countless pistols.
Under the moonlight, freshened by the evening’s southeasterly trade winds, her mind cleared enough to allow despair and bitter guilt to creep in. Out here in the Seychelles, she had thought they were far enough away from the Horn of Africa to be safe from the modern-day pirates who hunted those waters.
A dreadful mistake.
She was shoved toward the moored boat, accompanied by the Brit. She had read somewhere in her father’s briefings about how a few European expatriates had taken to aiding and financing the profitable new industry of piracy.
She stared at the British man, wondering how he had managed to avoid getting a single drop of blood on his pristine suit amid all this carnage.
He must have noted her attention and turned to her as they reached the starboard rail.
“What do you want with me?” she asked, fixing him with a hard stare, suddenly glad that all the papers aboard hid her true identity. “I’m nobody.”
The Brit’s gaze lowered from her steely resolve-but not out of shame or remorse. “It is not you we want.” He stared at her belly. “It’s your baby.”
7:00 P.M. EST
Takoma Park, Maryland
Balancing a bag of groceries on his hip, Gray pulled open the screened back door to his family’s home. The smell of a baking pie, rich in cinnamon, struck him first. On his way back from the gym, he got a text from Kenny to fetch some French vanilla ice cream and a few other odds and ends needed for tonight’s dinner-the first family dinner since the tragic loss of their mother.
A glance at the stove revealed a large pot of bubbling Bolognese sauce; by the sink, a drying bowl of spaghetti in a strainer. A hissing pop drew his gaze back to the pot. Only now did he note the vigorous boil to the sauce. Unattended and forgotten, red sauce roiled over the lip, dribbled down the sides, and sizzled into the gas burner.
Something was wrong.
That was confirmed when a loud bellow erupted from the next room: “WHERE’S MY KEYS!”
Gray dropped the groceries on the counter, turned off the stovetop, and headed to the living room.
“SOMEONE’S STEALING MY CAR!”
Passing through the dining room, Gray joined the fracas in the living room. Overstuffed furniture was positioned around a central stone hearth, cold and dark at the moment. His father looked skeletal in the recliner by the picture window. He’d once filled that same seat, commanding the room. Now he was a frail shadow of his former self.
Still, he remained strong. He attempted to push out of the chair, but Kenny held down his shoulders. He was assisted by a petite woman with a brownish-gray bob, dressed in blue scrubs. Down on one knee, she held his father’s hand and urged him to be calm.
Mary Benning was an R.N. at the hospital’s memory-care unit. During his stay there, his father had taken a shine to her. Gray was able to hire her away, to serve as a night nurse here at the house, to be on hand when his father had the most trouble. The plan had been for Kenny to keep an eye on Dad during the day, until Gray and Mary could interview and hire a day nurse to cover a full twenty-four-hour shift. It would be expensive, but Director Crowe had arranged adequate compensation, a death benefit, to help cover the costs and keep Gray’s father in his own house.
“Harriet! let me go!” His father yanked his hand free of Mary’s, coming close to elbowing Kenny in the nose.
The nurse kept a hand on his knee and gave it a squeeze of reassurance. “Jack, it’s me. Mary.”
His eyes found hers, a confused look passed over his face, then he sagged as memory washed back over him.
Mary glanced at Gray. “Your father caught you pulling up with the groceries. Saw the Thunderbird. Just got a little panicked and confused. He’ll be fine.”
Kenny straightened, a stricken look on his face. He’d not really seen Dad get like this before. Shook up, he stumbled away.
The motion drew his father’s attention. His eyes got huge. “Kenny, what’re you doing here?”
Kenny didn’t know what to say, still stunned by the Swiss cheese that was his father’s memory.
Mary covered for him, not hiding the truth, only patting his knee. “Jack, he’s been here all day.”
His father searched their faces, then leaned back in his chair. “Oh, yeah, that’s right… I remember…”
But did he? Or was he only acquiescing in an attempt to feign normalcy?
Kenny shared a glance with Gray, glassy with shock.
Welcome to my world.
“I’d better get back to finishing your dinner,” Mary said, standing and dusting off her knee.
“And I’d better finish unpacking,” Kenny said, seeking a hasty retreat.
“Good idea and wash up,” his father ordered with an echo of his former bluster. “Your room’s up-”
“I haven’t forgotten where it is,” Kenny cut him off, blind to the callousness of such a remark to someone suffering from Alzheimer’s.
But his dad merely nodded, satisfied.
As Kenny stepped away, his father finally seemed to notice Gray standing there. The confusion on his face faded, but a stab of old anger took its place. It had taken his father almost two weeks to finally acknowledge and ultimately remember the death of his wife, so, to his mind, the wound was still raw. He also knew the source of that loss. That he always remembered. There had been many bad days in the intervening weeks, but what could either of them do? No words could bring her back.
A knock at the door startled them all. Gray tensed, expecting the worst.
Kenny, already headed to the front stairs, opened the door.
A lithe figure stood out on the porch, dressed in black leather and a loose motorcycle jacket over a maroon blouse. She carried a helmet under one arm.
The gloominess of the day lifted at the sight of her as Gray headed to the door. “Seichan, what are you doing here?”
His father interrupted. “Don’t leave the lady standing on the stoop, Kenny!” He waved the visitor inside. He might be losing his memory, but he knew a handsome woman when one landed on his doorstep.
“Thank you, Mr. Pierce.” Seichan entered, slipping inside, moving with the leonine grace of a jungle cat, all sinew, muscles, and long curves. She cast an appraising glance toward Kenny as she stepped past him-whatever she saw there, she found lacking.
Her eyes found Gray’s face next and visibly hardened-not in anger, more like protection. They’d barely spoken since they’d shared a kiss and a promise three weeks ago. The pledge was not a romantic one, only the assurance that she’d work alongside him to expose those who had a hand in his mother’s murder.
Still, Gray remembered the softening of those lips.
Was there more to that promise, something yet unspoken?
Before he could dwell on it further, his father pointed to the table. “We’re just about to sit down to dinner. Why don’t you join us?”
“That’s very kind,” Seichan said stiffly, “but I won’t be staying long. I just need a word with your son.”
Those almond-shaped eyes-marking her Eurasian heritage-fixed on Gray with plain intent.
Something was up.
Seichan was a former assassin for the same shadowy group responsible for his mother’s death, an international criminal organization called the Guild. Its real identity and purpose remained unknown, even to its own agents. The organization operated through individual cells around the world, each running independently, none having the complete picture. Seichan had eventually turned against it, recruited by Director Crowe to serve as a double agent until her subterfuge was exposed. Now-hunted both by her former employers and by foreign intelligence agencies for her past crimes-she was Gray’s partner and his responsibility.
And maybe something more.
Gray stepped close to her. “What’s up?”
She kept her voice low. “I got a call from Director Crowe. Came straight here. There’s been a kidnapping off the Seychelles by Somali pirates. A high-value American target. Painter wanted to know if you were up for a mission.”
Gray frowned. Why was Sigma involved with a simple kidnapping? There were plenty of policing and maritime agencies that could attend to such a crime. Sigma Force-made up of Special Forces soldiers who had been retrained in various scientific disciplines-was a covert wing for DARPA, the Defense advanced Research Projects agency. Sigma teams were sent out into the world to protect against global threats, not to address the kidnapping of a single American.
Seichan must have read the suspicion in his face. Her eyes bore into his. She plainly knew more but was unable to speak freely in front of the others. Something big was happening. The realization set his heart to beating harder.
“The matter is time sensitive,” she added. “If you’re coming, there’s a jet already fueling, and Kowalski is on his way to pick us up. We can swing by your apartment on the way out. Otherwise, we’ll be briefed en route.”
Gray glanced at the chair by the cold hearth. His father overheard their talk, his gaze fixed to his son’s face.
“Go,” his father said. “Do your job. I’ve got enough help here.”
Gray took comfort in that gruff permission, praying it represented some small measure of forgiveness by his father. But his next words, spoken with a harsh bitterness, dashed such hope.
“Besides, the less I see of your face right now… the better.”
Gray backed a step. Seichan took his elbow, as if ready to catch him. But it was the heat of her palm, more than anything, that steadied him, the reassurance of human contact-like that kiss weeks ago.
Mary had stepped into the room, drying her hands on a towel. She’d also heard those harsh words and gave Gray a sympathetic look. “I’ve got things covered here. You take some time for yourself.”
He silently thanked her and allowed Seichan to guide him toward the door. Gray felt the need to share some parting farewell with his father. The desire burned painfully in his chest, but he had no words to voice it.
Before he knew it, he found himself out on the front porch. He halted at the top step and took in a deep, shuddering breath.
“Are you okay?” Seichan asked.
He ran his fingers through his hair. “I’ll have to be.”
Still, she continued to search his face, as if seeking a truer answer.
Before she could find it, the squeal of rubber on the pavement announced the arrival of his transportation. They both turned as a black SUV came to a hard stop. The window rolled down, allowing a pall of cigar smoke to waft out. The shaved head of a gorilla followed, chewing on a stump of a stogie.
“You coming or what?” Kowalski called hoarsely.
As much as the man aggravated him, Gray had never been happier to see his brutish teammate. He headed down the steps, only to have Kenny come rushing out after him, blocking his way.
“You can’t leave now. What am I supposed to do?”
Gray pointed back at the house. “It’s your turn. What do you think I’ve been doing all this time?”
He shoved past his sputtering brother and crossed toward the waiting SUV and Seichan’s parked motorcycle.
She kept beside him, slipping on her helmet.
“Who else has been assigned to us?” he asked.
“We’ve been ordered to pick up another two teammates, local assets already in the region, with unique skills to help us on this mission.”
“Who are they?”
She offered a ghost of a smile as she snapped down her helmet’s visor. Her words echoed out from inside, darkly amused.
“I hope you’ve had your rabies shots.”
July 1, 6:32 P.M. East Africa Time
Republic of Tanzania
The low growl warned him.
Already on edge, Tucker Wayne flattened against the brick wall of the narrow street and slid into the deeper shadows of a doorway. An hour ago, he noticed someone following him, watching from afar. He had managed to lose the tail quickly in the labyrinth of alleyways and crooked streets that made up this crumbling section of Zanzibar.
Who had found him?
He pressed his back against a carved wooden door. He intended to stay lost, undiscoverable. He had been adrift in the world for the past three years, now one year shy of his thirtieth birthday. Two weeks ago, he had reached the archipelago of Zanzibar, a string of sun-baked islands off the eastern coast of Africa. The name alone-Zanzibar-conjured up another time, a land of mystery and mythology. It was a place to disappear, to live unseen, and where few questions were asked.
People knew better than to be curious.
Still, he often drew second glances here, not because he was white. The ancient port of Zanzibar remained the crossroads for people of every race and color. And after a full year traveling through Africa, his skin was burned as dark as that of any of the local merchants hawking wares in the spice markets of old Stone Town. And he certainly struck a tall figure, muscular-more quarterback than linebacker-though there remained a hardness to his eyes that made any curious glance toward him skirt quickly away.
Instead, what attracted the most attention to him was something else, someone else. Kane brushed up against his thigh-silent now, with hackles still raised. Tucker rested a hand on his dog’s side, not to calm him but ready to signal his partner if necessary. And that’s what they were. Partners. Kane was an extension of himself, a disembodied limb.
While the dog looked like a hard-bodied, compact German shepherd, he was actually a Belgian shepherd dog, called a Malinois. His fur was black and tan, but mostly black, a match to his dark eyes. Under his palm, Tucker felt Kane’s muscles tense.
Half a block away, a thin shape burst around the next corner, careening in a panic. In his haste, he collided off the far wall and rebounded down the street, glancing frequently over his shoulder. Tucker sized him up in a breath and weighed any danger.
Early twenties, maybe late teens, a mix of Asian and Indian, his eyes wide with terror, his limbs and face sickly gaunt-from addiction, from malnourishment?
The runner clutched his right side, failing to stanch a crimson bloom from seeping through his white shift. The scent of fresh blood must have alerted Kane, along with the panicked tread of those bare feet.
Tucker prepared to step out of the shadowed doorway, to go to the young man’s aid-but the pressure against his legs increased, pinning him in place.
A heartbeat later, the reason became clear. Around the same corner stalked a trio of large men, African, with tribal tattoos across their faces. They carried machetes and spread to either side of the empty street with the clear skill of experienced hunters.
Their target also noted their arrival-igniting his already frightened flight into a full rout-but blood loss and exhaustion had taken their toll. Within a few steps, the victim tripped and sprawled headlong across the street. Though he struck the cobbles hard, he didn’t make a sound, not a whimper or a cry, simply defeated.
That, more than anything, drew Tucker out of hiding.
That, and something his grandfather had drilled into him: In the face of inhumanity, a good man reacts-but a great one acts.
Tucker tapped three fingers against his dog’s side, the signal plain.
Kane leaped over the prone body of the young man and landed in a crouch on the far side, tail high, teeth bared, growling. The shepherd’s sudden appearance caused all three attackers to stop in shock, as if some demon djinn had materialized before them.
Tucker used the distraction to fold out of the shadows and close upon the nearest of the three men. In a swift capture of wrist, followed by an elbow strike to the chin, the machete ended up in Tucker’s grip. He flat-handed the man away as the second assailant wielded his blade in a roundhouse swing. Rather than leaping clear, Tucker lunged forward, entering the man’s guard. He caught the deadly arm under his own and snaked his hand fully around the limb and immobilized it. With his other arm, he slammed the butt-end of the steel machete into the man’s nose.
Bone cracked; blood spurted.
The man went limp, but Tucker held him upright by his trapped arm.
From the corner of his eye, he saw the third and largest opponent back away two steps and free a pistol. Tucker swung around, using his captured assailant’s body as a shield as shots rang out. It proved a meager defense at such close range. One of the rounds blasted through his captive’s neck, grazing Tucker’s shoulder.
Then a scream bellowed.
Tucker shoved the body aside and saw Kane latched onto the shooter’s wrist, the dog’s fangs digging deep. The pistol clattered to the street. The man’s eyes were round with panic as he tried to shake the shepherd loose. Blood and slather flew.
Only then did the huge African remember the machete in his other hand. He lifted it high, ready to hack at the dog.
“Release!” Tucker cried out.
The command was barely off his lips when Kane obeyed, letting go and dropping back on the street. But the man continued his downward swing at the dog’s neck with a savage bellow. Kane could not get out of the way in time.
Tucker was already moving.
Heart pounding, he dove for the abandoned pistol and scooped it up. He shoulder-rolled to bring the weapon up-but he was too slow.
The machete flashed in the sunlight.
A gunshot cracked loudly.
The man crumpled backward, half his skull shattering away. The blade flew away harmlessly. Tucker stared at his pistol. The shot had not come from his weapon.
Up the street, a new trio appeared. Two men and a woman. Though dressed in street clothes, they all had the stamp of military about them. The leader in the center held a smoking SIG Sauer.
“See to him.” He pointed to the bleeding young man on the ground. His voice had a slight Texas accent. “Get him to a local hospital and we’ll rendezvous back at the evac point.”
Despite the concern about the injured man, the leader’s gaze never unlocked from Tucker’s eyes. From the hard contours of his face, the close-cropped black hair that had gone a bit lanky, and the stony edge to his storm-gray eyes, he was definitely military.
The leader crossed over to him, ignoring Kane’s wary growl. He offered a hand to help Tucker up.
“You’re a difficult man to find, Captain Wayne.”
Tucker bit back any surprise and ignored the offered hand. He stood on his own. “You were the ones following me. Earlier this morning.”
“And you lost us.” A hard twinkle of amusement brightened the man’s eyes. “Not an easy thing to do. That alone proves you’re the man we need.”
He turned, but the man stepped in front of him and blocked the way. A finger pointed at his chest, which only managed to irritate him further.
“Listen for one minute,” the man said, “then you’re free to go.”
Tucker stared down at the finger. The only reason he didn’t reach out and break it was that the man had saved Kane’s life a moment ago. He Owed him that much-and perhaps even a minute of his time.
“Who are you?” he asked.
The offending finger turned into an open palm, inviting a handshake. “Commander Gray Pierce. I work for an organization called sigma.”
Tucker scowled. “Never heard of it. That makes you what? Defense contractors, mercenaries?” He made his disdain for that last word plain.
That dark twinkle grew brighter as the other lowered his arm. “No. We work under the auspices of DARPA.”
Tucker frowned, but curiosity kept him listening. DARPA was the Defense Department’s research-and-development administration. What the hell was going on here?
“Perhaps we can discuss this in a quieter location,” the commander said.
By now, the man’s partners had gathered up the wounded young man, shouldered him between them, and were headed down the street. Faces had begun to peer out of windows or to peek from behind cracked-open doors. Other figures hovered at the corners. Zanzibar often turned a blind eye to most offenses, but the gunfire and bloodshed would not be ignored for long. As soon as they left, the bodies would be looted of anything of value, and any inquiries would be met with blank stares.
“I know a place,” Tucker said and led the way.
Gray sipped a hot tea spiced with cardamom. He sat with Tucker Wayne on a rooftop deck overlooking the Indian Ocean. Across the waters, the triangular sails of old wooden dhows mixed with cargo ships and a smattering of tourist yachts. For the moment, they had the hotel’s tiny restaurant to themselves.
At the foot of the building, a small spice market rang and bustled, wafting up with a mélange of nutmeg, cinnamon, vanilla, cloves, and countless other spices that had once lured sultans to this island and had fueled an active slave-trading industry. The island had exchanged hands many times, which was evident in its unique blend of Moorish, Middle Eastern, Indian, and African traditions. Around every corner, the city changed faces and remained impossible to categorize.
The same could be said for the stranger who was seated across the narrow table from him. Gray placed his cup of tea onto a cracked saucer. A heavy-bodied fly, drawn by the sweet tea, came lumbering down and landed on the table. It crawled toward his cup.
Gray swatted at it-but before his palm could strike the table, fingers caught his wrist, stopping him.
“Don’t,” Tucker said, then gently waved the fly off before returning to his thousand-yard stare out to sea.
Gray rubbed his wrist and watched the fly, oblivious to its salvation, buzz lazily away.
Tucker finally cleared his throat. “What do you want with me?”
Gray focused back on the matter at hand. He had read the former army ranger’s dossier en route to the Horn of Africa. Tucker was a superb dog handler, testing through the roof in regards to emotional empathy, which helped him bond with his subjects, sometimes too deeply. A psych evaluation attributed such a response to early-childhood trauma. Raised in North Dakota, he had been orphaned when his parents had been killed by a drunk driver when he was a toddler, leaving him in the care of his grandfather, who had a heart attack when Tucker was thirteen. From there, he’d been dumped into foster care until he petitioned for early emancipation at seventeen and joined the armed services. With such a chaotic, unstable upbringing, he seemed to have developed an affinity for animals more than humans.
Still, Gray sensed there was more to the man than just psychiatric evaluations and test scores. At his core, he remained a mystery. Like why he had abruptly left the service, disappearing immediately after being discharged, leaving behind a uniform full of medals, including a Purple Heart, earned after one of the nastiest firefights in Afghanistan-Operation anaconda at Takur Ghar.
Gray cut to the chase as time was running out. “Captain Wayne, during your military career, your expertise was extraction and rescue. Your commanding officer claimed there was none better.”
The man shrugged.
“You and your dog-”
“Kane,” Tucker interrupted. “His name’s Kane.”
A furry left ear pricked at his master’s voice. The small shepherd lay sprawled on the floor, looking drowsy, inattentive, but Gray knew better. His muzzle rested against the toe of Tucker’s boot, ready for any signal from his partner. Gray had read Kane’s dossier, too. The military war dog had a vocabulary of a thousand words, along with the knowledge of a hundred hand gestures. The two were bound together more intimately than any husband and wife-and together, with the dog’s heightened senses and ability to maneuver in places where men could not, the two were frighteningly efficient in the field.
Gray needed that expertise.
“There’s a mission,” he said. “You would be well paid.”
“Sorry. There’s not enough gold in Fort Knox.”
Gray had prepared for this attitude, readied for this eventuality. “Perhaps not, but when you left the service, you stole government property.”
Tucker faced him, his eyes going diamond-hard. In that gaze, Gray read the necessity to speak warily, to play the one card he had with great care.
Gray continued, “It costs hundreds of thousands of dollars and countless man-hours to train a war-service dog.” He dared not even glance toward Kane; he kept his gaze fixed on Tucker.
“Those were my man-hours,” Tucker answered darkly. “I trained both Kane and Abel. And look what happened to Abel. This time around, it wasn’t Kane who killed Abel.”
Gray had read the brutal details in the files and avoided that minefield. “Still, Kane is government property, military hardware, a skilled combat tracker. Complete this mission and he is yours to keep, free and clear.”
Disgust curled a corner of Tucker’s lip. “No one owns Kane, commander. Not the U.S. government. Not Special Forces. Not even me.”
“Understood, but that’s our offer.”
Tucker glared at him for a long breath-then abruptly leaned back, crossing his arms, his posture plain. He was not agreeing, only willing to listen. “Again. What do you need me for?”
“An extraction. A rescue.”
Gray sized up his opponent. The detail he was about to reveal was known only to a handful of people high in the government. It had shocked him when he’d first learned the truth. If word should somehow reach her captors-
“Who?” Tucker pressed.
Kane must have sensed his partner’s growing agitation and let out a low rumble, voicing his own complaint.
Gray answered them both. “We need your help in rescuing the president’s daughter.”
July 1, 11:55 A.M. EST
Now the real work could start.
On the lowest level of the West Wing, Director Painter Crowe waited for the Situation Room to clear. The whole process was a carefully orchestrated dance of power: who left first, who acknowledged whom, who exited together or alone.
It made his head spin.
Painter had spent the entire three-hour-long strategy session seated outside the inner circle of the White House. The top-tier officials took posts in the upholstered leather chairs clustered around the main conference table; that included the White House chief of staff, the national security advisor, the head of Homeland Security, the secretary of defense, along with a handful of others. It was a closed meeting: no assistants, no deputies, no secretaries, only the top brass. Not even the Situation Room’s around-the-clock watch team was allowed admittance.
The secrets discussed here were restricted to as few ears as possible.
At the start of the meeting, Painter had been introduced as a representative of DARPA, which raised a few eyebrows, especially the gray ones of the defense secretary. Dressed in a conservative suit, Painter was a decade younger than anyone here, his dark hair blemished only by a single lock of white hair, tucked like a feather behind one ear, heightening his mixed Native American heritage.
No one questioned why the president had summoned Painter to this closed-door meeting. Few of them even knew about sigma’s existence, let alone its involvement here.
And that was the way the president wanted it.
So, Painter had sat silently in one of the lower-tier chairs away from the main table, observing, taking a few notes, both mental and typed into his laptop.
President James T. Gant had called everyone into the morning’s briefing to get an update on the status of his kidnapped twenty-five-year-old daughter, Amanda Gant-Bennett. It had been twenty hours since the midnight attack on her yacht. The boat’s captain had managed to get out an S.O.S. on his marine radio, even disabled the engines, before the raiders boarded the boat, slaying all on board, including the woman’s husband. Gruesome pictures of the aftermath had been shown on several of the video panels on the walls.
Painter had studied the president’s expressions as those images flashed past: the pained pinch at the corners of his eyes, the hardening of his jaw muscles, the pale cast to his face. It all seemed genuine, marking the terror of a father for a lost child.
But certain details made no sense.
Like why his daughter had been traveling under a fake passport.
That mystery alone cost them critical hours in the search for the missing girl. Responding to the S.O.S., the Seychelles Coast Guard had immediately reported the pirate attack, detailing that American citizens had been involved, but it was only after fingerprints had been lifted from the yacht’s stateroom that a red flag had been raised in the States, identifying the victims as the president’s daughter and her husband.
They’d lost precious hours because of the confusion.
And it could cost the girl her life.
James Gant stood at the door to the Situation Room and shook the hand of the last man to leave. It was a two-handed shake, as intimate as a hug. “Thanks, Bobby, for twisting the NRO’s arm to get that satellite moved so fast.”
Bobby was the secretary of state, Robert Lee Gant, the president’s older brother. He was clean-shaven, white-haired, with hazel-green eyes, a distinguished elder statesman, sixty-six years of age. No one questioned that he’d properly earned his position-even pundits from the other party wouldn’t raise the charge of nepotism for this cabinet-post assignment. Robert Gant had served three administrations, on both sides of the political divide. He’d been an ambassador to Laos in the late eighties and was considered instrumental in reopening diplomatic ties with both Cambodia and Vietnam in the nineties.
And now he served his younger brother with equal aplomb.
“Don’t worry, Jimmy. The NRO will have a satellite in geosynchronous orbit above the Somali coastline within the hour. I’ll make sure no stone is left unturned. We’ll find her.”
The president nodded, but he seemed unconvinced by his brother’s promise.
As the secretary of state exited, Painter found himself alone with the leader of the free world. The president ran a hand through his salt-and-pepper hair, then rubbed the palm over the rough stubble on his chin. The man hadn’t slept since word had reached him. He still wore the same clothes, only shedding the jacket and rolling up the sleeves of his shirt. He stood for a moment, straight-backed, lost in his own thoughts-then he finally sagged and pointed to another door.
“Let’s get out of this damned woodshed,” he said, using the nickname for the Situation Room. With the departure of his executive team, his Carolina drawl grew thicker. “My briefing room’s right next door.”
Painter followed him into a more intimate chamber. Another conference table filled the room, but it was smaller, abutting against a wall with two video screens.
The president dropped into one of the seats with a heavy sigh, as if the weight of the entire world rested on his shoulders. And, Painter imagined, sometimes it did. Only this day was worse.
“Take a seat, director.”
“Thank you, Mr. President.”
“Call me Jimmy. All my friends do. And as of this moment, you’re my best friend, because you have the best chance of finding my girl and grandson.”
Painter sat down, slowly, warily, feeling some of that weight of the world settle on his own shoulders. That was the other concern. Amanda was pregnant, in her third trimester.
So what was she doing in the Seychelles, traveling under false papers?
The president’s ice-blue eyes bore into him. The force of his charisma was like a stiff wind in the face. “In the past, Sigma saved my life.”
And they had. It was one of the reasons Painter had been summoned by the president to participate in this search.
“I need another miracle, director.”
At least the man understood the gravity of the situation. For now, the Somali pirates had no idea whom they’d kidnapped. As far as they knew, Amanda was just another American hostage. But if they should ever learn her true identity, they could panic and kill her, dump her body in the closest crocodile-infested river, and wash their hands of the situation. Or they’d hide her so well, bury her in some godforsaken hole, that any hope of rescue would be impossible until their demands were met-and even then she might be murdered. The head of Homeland had offered a third, chilling possibility this morning: that she’d be sold to some hostile government, used as a pawn to leverage some concession from the U.S. government.
So, the goal was clear: Find Amanda before the kidnappers learned the truth.
“What’s your take on this morning’s briefing?” the president asked.
“Your team has the larger picture covered. I wouldn’t do anything differently. Move a fast-response team into the region, be ready to strike at a moment’s notice. Coordinate with CIA assets across the Horn of Africa. But until we get a new satellite feed of the Somali coast, we’re operating blind.”
In cross-referencing the time of the attack with the logs of satellites passing over the Indian Ocean, they’d managed to download a fleeting view of the actual kidnapping. The resolution had been poor, but they could make out the yacht and the raiding vessel. It had fled east after the attack, heading for the African coast. But unfortunately, within an hour, the ship had passed out of satellite range, so the exact location where it made landfall was unknown. It could be anywhere along the East Africa coast, but Somalia-notorious for its rampant piracy-was the most probable base of operations. A new National Reconnaissance office satellite was being commandeered and shifted to help search for the missing ship along that rocky coastline.
But that wasn’t their best hope.
Painter continued, “Sir, we need boots on the ground there. Our highest probability for a success lies in a surgical extraction, to drop in a small search-and-rescue team under the radar.”
“Got it. If we go in all shock-and-awe on their asses, they’ll know their captive is important.”
“And they’ll bury her.” Painter regretted his choice of words as soon as they passed his lips.
James Gant’s face went ashen, but as a mark of the man’s fortitude, he waved for Painter to go on.
“The team I told you about is already in the area. I’ll continue to coordinate with NSA, NRO, and my superiors at DARPA. If the pirates’ location is discovered, my team is under strict instructions to attempt a rescue only if success is guaranteed. Otherwise, we’ll pass on the coordinates and summon in the navy’s fast-response SEAL team for extraction.”
A worried nod acknowledged his plan.
Painter continued, “The kidnappers will move your daughter somewhere safe, then interrogate her. They’ll need to obtain a phone number, a contact here in the States where they can forward a ransom demand. If your daughter is smart-”
“Then she’ll keep her identity a secret. Hopefully she’ll give them some number outside the presidential circle. Perhaps a relative or a close friend. We have to be ready for that. Make sure that recipient stays quiet, doesn’t go to the police or the press.”
“I’ll pass the word.”
Painter asked a pointed question: “Can you trust all of your relatives to remain silent?”
“They won’t say a word. The Gant clan knows how to keep secrets.”
That’s certainly true.
For the past month, Painter had been conducting a quiet investigation into the Gant family. Information had come to light during a recent Sigma mission that cast suspicions upon the family. Not that there weren’t already rumors surrounding such a high-profile dynasty. They were nicknamed the Kennedys of the South, with generational ties going back to the founding of America. And as America grew, so did this family, rooting and entwining into multiple industries, corporations, the halls of statehouses, and now a second-term presidency.
But last month, a disturbing bit of information about this Southern dynasty had come to light. Documented centuries ago, this same clan appeared to be connected to a shadowy cabal of old aristocratic families. They went by many names: the Guild, Echelon, les familles de l’étoile, the star families. All that was truly known about this group was that they moved throughout history, manipulating events, gathering power, wealth, and knowledge, often achieving this by enfolding themselves within a series of secret organizations, brotherhoods, and fraternal lodges.
They were said to be the secret within all secret societies.
But the passing centuries had not been kind to them, winnowing the lineage down to a single bloodline: the Gant clan.
Still, that did not mean the president-or his immediate kin-had any knowledge of this organization. The Gant family tree had roots and branches that spread far and wide, on this shore and others. It was impossible to say which family members were involved with the modern-day incarnation of this criminal organization-that is, if any of them were involved.
All of it might end up being a wild-goose chase as the true leaders of the Guild-for lack of a better name for them-remained as elusive as ever. But what was known for sure was that the group was deadly, resourceful, and responsible for countless acts of terrorism, global atrocities, and an inestimable number of international crimes. To consider that the president-this man seated across from him, heartsick and terrified for his daughter-was a part of that same organization seemed impossible.
The lack of solid proof was one of the reasons Painter kept his suspicions about the Gant family to himself, trusting no one with this information, not even his fellow Sigma operatives. Especially Commander Gray Pierce, whose mother had been killed recently by a rogue Guild agent. If the man learned the president had any hand in that cold-blooded murder, there was no telling what he would do. As angry as he was, he’d shoot first and ask questions later.
So the questions were left for Painter to ask. He stared back at James Gant. “Not to be indelicate,” he started, “but I still don’t understand what your pregnant daughter was doing out among the outer islands of the Seychelles. Why was she traveling under false papers?”
There was something wrong about this whole situation.
Painter pressed, knowing this matter might offer his best chance to wheedle more information about the family-and, more specifically, about the First Family. “Is there anything you’re not telling me, Mr. President? Anything you’re holding back? Any detail could make a difference between success or failure.”
This time, he purposefully avoided saying life or death.
James Gant stared down at his hands, as if trying to find meaning in the lines of his palms. “Amanda was always a wild child.” He offered Painter a wan, wistful smile. “Much like her father. She was nineteen when I first stepped into the White House, even younger when I was running for my first term. She hated the limelight, chafed against being a president’s daughter.”
“I remember she once punched a Secret Service agent.”
Gant laughed, leaning back and half covering his mouth as if surprised he could still laugh. “That was Amanda. During my second run for office, she was twenty-three, fresh out of college, and off on her own. She flourished out of my shadow, I have to say. Then she met Mack Bennett, a Charleston police officer. After they married, I thought that would settle her down.”
Painter gently directed him back to the mystery at hand. “And this trip out to the Seychelles.”
Gant lifted his empty hands and shook his head. “Not even the Secret Service knew about this unscheduled trip. Damned if she didn’t slip out from under all our noses. My only guess is she wanted some time alone with her husband, away from the paparazzi and tabloids, before the birth of my grandson. After that, the two would be lucky for a moment’s privacy.”
Painter studied the president’s face, looking for any micro-expression that would indicate deceit. But all he found was a man dissolving into grief and fear.
“If that’s all…” Gant said.
Painter stood up. “I’ve got what I need. My team should be flying into Somalia as we speak, and I must get back to Sigma command.”
“Very good.” Gant pushed out of his seat. Ever the Southern gentleman. “Let me walk you out.”
The pair left the president’s personal briefing room, pausing only long enough for Painter to retrieve his BlackBerry from a lead-lined box outside the Situation Room. As he straightened and pocketed his phone, a familiar figure appeared at the end of the hall, flanked by Secret Service.
She was dressed in a sapphire-blue twill dress, over which she tied a lace cardigan tightly around her belly. Painter noted her balled fists, the scared cast to her eyes as she found her husband.
The First Lady, Teresa Gant, hurried toward him, balanced between attempting to maintain a professional decorum and raw panic. “Jimmy… I heard from your secretary that the meeting was over. I waited for as long as I-”
“Terry, I’m sorry.” The president caught his wife, hugged her, and brushed a few loose blond hairs from her cheek. “I had a few more details to attend to. I was going to you next.”
She stared up at his face, searching for any news there, plainly afraid to question him in front of her bodyguards. No one could know about Amanda’s plight.
“Come, let’s return to the residence.” The president looked ready to scoop her into his arms and carry her to safety. “I’ll tell you everything there.”
Gant glanced at Painter.
He understood. Teresa needed her husband. At this moment, they were not the First Lady and the president. They were simply two parents terrified for their child, seeking comfort in each other’s arms.
Painter left them to their grief, more determined than ever to find their daughter. But as he headed down the hall, he could not escape the feeling that the events in the Horn of Africa were masking something far greater-and far more dangerous.
He checked his watch. Gray and his team would be landing in Somalia in the next hour. If anyone could ferret out the true intent behind the kidnapping of the young woman, it was Commander Pierce. Still, Painter felt a stab of misgiving for having sent Gray in blind, for failing to mention his suspicions about the president’s family.
He prayed that silence didn’t cost lives.
Especially the president’s daughter and her unborn child.
July 1, 8:02 P.M. East Africa Time
Cal Madow Mountains, Somalia
The truck continued its slow crawl through the mist-shrouded forest.
Amanda Gant-Bennett rode in the back of the older-model Land Rover. Modified with an open top, it must have once served as a safari-touring vehicle. A massive grille protected the front end, and four large driving lights were mounted on the roof rack. She’d also noted the two winches-front and back-along with a shovel and ax secured to the fender, ready to help free the vehicle if it became bogged down or stuck.
From the terrain they traveled, she understood the necessity for such modifications. The road was little more than a muddy track through the dark jungle. Somalia suffered from an arid climate, but the rainy season-called gu, she’d overheard-had just ended. These highlands, bordering the Gulf of Aden, received most of that rain. And what didn’t fall here as precipitation remained as thick fog.
A jarring bump threw her high. Only her seat belt kept her from flying out of the truck. She had initially thought of doing just that, of leaping free and taking her chances out in the dark jungle. But seated beside her was a heavyset guard, armed and sweating, chewing khat, a local stimulant used by nearly everyone. A second, larger truck followed at their heels, making any chance of escape impossible.
And she ultimately knew that any attempt would put more than her own life at risk.
She pushed the lap strap of the seat belt lower, below the bulge of her belly and above her hip bones. She had to protect her child. The baby boy growing in her womb was more important than her own well-being. He was the reason she and her husband had risked this flight halfway around the world.
To keep you safe…
And now her baby had fallen into another set of hands, becoming a tool to generate a larger ransom by the pirates. She remembered the Brit’s hungry eyes on her belly as she was taken off the yacht. Here, life was a commodity to buy and sell, even the new life growing in her belly.
Oh, Mack, I need you.
She closed her eyes, her heart constricting with the last memory of her husband, the fear and love shining in Mack’s eyes. She shied away from the horror that followed, his severed head tossed upon the bed where they’d made such careful love only hours earlier. But she had no time to grieve for her husband.
She drew a long, steadying breath, taking in the damp and redolent smell of junipers and wild lavender of the dense forest. Though numb with grief and terror, she had to stay strong. In the South, it was unseemly to be caught sweating in public. On the campaign trail with her father, she had learned to maintain a placid and friendly exterior-even when screaming on the inside. Instead, it was all smiles, handshakes, and warm pats on the back. Even with your enemies… especially with your enemies.
So, she continued to cooperate with her captors. Jumping when they said jump, remaining always pliant and obedient. Still, all the while she watched. It was another lesson from her father, his words echoing in her head, explaining the best way to gain the upper hand.
Keep your eyes open and your mouth shut.
And that’s what she intended to do. So far, the pirates gave no indication they knew she was the president’s daughter. They’d not even questioned her yet. In fact, they’d barely said a word. A grunt here or there, a pantomimed instruction, a few terse orders. Mostly about drinking water.
We don’t want anything to happen to your baby.
The warning had come from the man seated in the passenger seat up front, the Brit with his thin mustache and impeccable attire. He remained the only consistent presence around her-though he’d ignored her most of the day, bent over a laptop computer attached to a satellite phone and GPS navigation unit.
She studied the back of his head, trying to figure him out, searching for a weakness. He tapped at his laptop and the screen changed to a topographic map. She feigned a kink in her back to stretch forward, trying to peek at the screen, to discern some idea of where she was and where they were going. But her guard yanked her back, his hand lingering over her left breast, which was tender and swollen. She slapped his fingers away, which only earned her a lascivious leer.
Defeated, she stared sullenly out at the misty forest.
Exhaustion and fear had stretched the day’s journey into a blur. At dawn, they’d made landfall at a small coastal town, a booming shantytown of bars, hotels, restaurants, and whorehouses, all serving the pirate trade. And from the number of expensive cars lining newly paved streets and half-constructed villas along the coast, it was plainly a lucrative and thriving business. To protect that industry, militiamen swerved through the streets in Mercedes SUVs, weapons bristling from rolled-down windows, making sure no one attempted to rescue any of their hostages.
And there must have been others like her.
As their boat had entered into port, she’d spotted numerous captured vessels: fishing trawlers, sailboats, a sleek yacht, and, anchored out in the deeper waters, an oil tanker. They’d only remained in town for less than an hour. There, she was handed over to another pirate gang and put on a hot, poorly ventilated Volkswagen bus out of town.
They drove half a day through lands hammered dry and flat by the merciless sun, the featureless landscape only broken by the occasional village of dry huts. They’d stopped only long enough for her to urinate, which was often, and humiliating each time. In the distance, mountains had loomed, seeming to grow higher with each passing mile.
Soon it became clear that the broken spine of rocky peaks was their destination. Upon reaching a village nestled in the scrubby foothills, the gang changed yet again, but not before a heated argument ensued, accompanied by a machismo display of shaken weapons and hurled threats. Finally, the Brit had facilitated the exchange of additional funds, bills banded in thick bundles, and Amanda found herself transferred into this old safari vehicle headed into the misty highlands.
A metallic snap drew her attention forward as the Brit closed his laptop with an air of finality. The reason became clear. A fiery glow appeared in the forest ahead, turning the wisps of fog into crimson trails threaded through the dark-green jungle. She smelled roasting meat and woodsmoke.
With a final haul of fifty yards, the Land Rover broke into an open glade in the jungle. Overhead, camouflage netting masked the camp below, giving the space a cavernous feel. A trio of small bonfires illuminated the hidden glade, along with a few electric lamps on poles.
The Land Rover pulled to the side and parked beside a handful of other vehicles. Additionally, a trio of camels, settled for the night, raised their heads to study the newcomers.
Likewise, Amanda, her eyes huge, tried to make sense of the camp. A neat circle of military-style tents surrounded a larger structure that looked like a picturesque gabled house, raised on pilings a yard off the ground. Across the front, a quaint wooden porch held a pair of deck chairs draped with mosquito netting. It looked like the jungle home of some African missionary. Furthering that impression, a large bloodred cross decorated one side of the building.
But as the Land Rover drew to a halt, the charming illusion evaporated. The house was actually a makeshift tent-cabin, with white tarpaulin stretched over a wooden pole-frame. And the crimson cross was less religious in appearance and more medical, like something borrowed from the American Red Cross. Only this cross had strange markings along its lengths, a twisting and coiling pattern that looked vaguely familiar.
Before she could understand what nagged her, the Brit pulled open her door and held out his hand to assist her.
“Home sweet home,” he said without any sarcasm in his voice.
She climbed out, unsteady, supporting her belly, and searched around. The steady chug of a diesel generator mocked the wild beating of her heart.
Men and women climbed out of tents to eye the new arrivals. Most of those faces were black, African, but they didn’t have the starved and desperate look of the pirates. Even the weapons in view looked modern and well-kept.
What is going on here?
The other faces matched the Brit’s: white, European, professional. This last assessment came from the number of them wearing blue scrubs, like they’d freshly stepped out of a modern hospital for a smoke break.
The Brit led her through the circle of tents and toward the makeshift cabin, trailed by her guard. She climbed the steps to the small porch.
A spring-loaded door opened as they reached the cabin. A tall woman joined them, her blond hair trimmed into a short, athletic bob. She was young and fresh-faced, as if she just slipped out of a swimsuit ad and into surgical scrubs. Belying that image was the severity of her expression, especially her narrowed eyes. She took in everyone with a single steel-blue glance, barely noting Amanda. Her gaze settled on the Brit.
“Everything is ready, Dr. Blake.”
Amanda swung toward the Brit, surprised.
The man noted her consternation. “I’m sorry. I never did properly introduce myself.” He held out his hand. “Dr. Edward Blake. Ob/gyn.”
She didn’t take his hand. Instead, she stared beyond the blonde’s shoulder and into the cabin. A hospital bed rested against the far wall. Beside it stood an IV pole and a bank of monitoring equipment. On the other side, a technician lubricated the transvaginal probe of an ultrasound unit.
Dr. Blake seemed to take no offense that Amanda had refused his hand. Instead, he rubbed his palms together.
“Okay, then, Mrs. Gant-Bennett. Why don’t we step inside?”
Amanda bit back her shock at the mention of her name.
He knows who I am…
Dr. Blake motioned with his arm. “We should check on how your baby boy is doing after the long journey. We can’t let anything happen to him, can we? He’s much too important.”
Amanda backed away in horror, her worst nightmare coming true.
Not only did they know who she was, they knew what she carried.
Hands gripped her shoulders from behind and shoved her toward the open door.
Please, she prayed. Please someone help me.
July 1, 8:34 P.M. East Africa Time
“They’ll take good care of her,” Amur Mahdi promised. “At least for now.”
“Why do you say that?” Gray asked.
Seichan looked equally doubtful. She was dressed handsomely in jeans and a local guntiino, a bright length of crimson cloth, knotted at the shoulder and draped to the waist. The look must have worked, because Amur kept casting sidelong glances in her direction.
Next to her, Kowalski, outfitted in regular street clothes, simply swirled his tea, looking inattentive.
The four of them shared a table at a seaside restaurant overlooking the Somali port of Boosaaso. The open-air patio looked out onto the Gulf of Aden, the moonlit harbor crowded with massive ships bearing flags of various Arab states, along with the triangular sails of hundreds of smaller, wooden-keeled dhows.
Gray’s team had arrived at the Bender Qassim International Airport outside of Boosaaso forty minutes ago, traveling under the cover of UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency. The relief group maintained a presence here in Puntland, the northeastern state of Somalia, where most of the country’s lawless pirates operated. Boosaaso was the main crossroads for this region and the best base of operations to begin gathering intelligence.
This introductory meeting was with Amur Mahdi-a former pirate turned CIA asset. He was an older man dressed in regional attire, which included loose trousers and a sarong-like kilt, known as a macawiis. He also wore a traditional embroidered cap atop his grizzled hair. The man had lost one leg at the knee several years back, an injury that sidelined him from his former profession as a pirate.
The sight of the prosthetic limb reminded Gray of his father, who’d been similarly disabled. A twinge of guilt flared at being half a world away from him, but he fought it down and concentrated on the conversation.
The meeting had been arranged by Director Crowe, channeled through various intelligence agencies. The goal of this meeting was to evaluate the current situation in Somalia. While word was still pending on the search for the raiders’ ship via satellite, Painter wanted eyes on the ground.
Meanwhile, a pair of Black Hawks idled at a U.S. Base to the north, in the neighboring tiny East African nation of Djibouti. SEAL Team Six, under the operational orders of Joint Special Operations Command, waited to be summoned once Amanda’s location was determined.
But where was the First Daughter?
Amur explained his lack of concern for the hostage’s safety. He didn’t know about the victim being the president’s daughter, only that she was an American woman. “For the most part, Somali pirates make decent hosts. Beatings are rare, but they do occur. Otherwise, they keep their guests protected and well-fed. It does no one any good if a hostage dies. In fact, the feeding and housing of captured crews help maintain the economy of Puntland.”
Gray knew how lucrative the piracy trade was. Last year alone, Somali pirates collected $160 million in ransom. And that was only the tip of the true cost of piracy in the region. The shipping industry and governments spent $7 billion during that same time, accruing additional expenses from insurance premiums, from heightened security, even rescue missions, like the recent one that secured the safe return of an American and a Danish citizen.
“And what about the Somali government?” Seichan asked. “What are they doing about the rampant piracy?”
Amur leaned back in his chair and lifted his arms hopelessly in the air. “What Somali government? The central government fell back in 1991, throwing the country into chaos. Without anyone patrolling our territorial waters, the tuna-rich seas around here were plundered and stripped by foreign fishing fleets, stealing the food and livelihood from our local people. Is it any wonder our fishermen armed themselves, becoming their own militia, and confronted the illegal boats and crews?”
Gray had read the briefings on the flight out here. “And those confrontations eventually led to the fishermen confiscating ships and personnel and demanding ransoms-”
“More like a toll,” Amur corrected, earning a scoffing grunt from Kowalski. Their informant’s face reddened, his back stiffening with pride. Though the man had turned informant, Gray was reminded of the old adage: Once a pirate, always a pirate. Or maybe Amur’s justifications were merely a reflection of national pride.
“We deserved some compensation for our plundered seas,” he continued. “Who else is looking after us? Look at the port here.” He nodded to the bustling harbor. “This place used to be a hellhole, with no infrastructure, no hope, everything crumbling apart.”
Kowalski raised a skeptical eyebrow toward the dusty city, seeming to think the description of hellhole still fit it.
“After the government fell,” Amur continued, “we took care of each other. A local businessman started our phone system. Teachers worked for free. The police are all volunteers, too. Now we’re one of the busiest ports in the region. A boomtown, as you say. We export tens of thousands of goats, sheep, and camels across the Arab world.”
Kowalski’s skeptical eyebrow refused to lower. Gray understood as he looked out at all the new construction going on across the nighttime city, at the palatial mansions rising behind high walls. He suspected not all of that largesse came from Boosaaso’s import/export industry.
Gray had read how this city was still ranked as one of the most likely places to get kidnapped. Not exactly a high honor. Though the local government was attempting to change that. Its jails were full of pirates-but how much was that for international show? Piracy continued to be the main industry running the Puntland economy.
How were they going to make any headway in finding the president’s daughter against those economic odds? Money could free tongues-as it had with Amur Mahdi-but it also bought silence.
“And now the fishes return to our waters,” Amur said with a note of vindication and finality. “With the foreign fleets afraid to come near, our seas once again teem with tuna and our people are no longer hungry.”
Gray had to admit that much was true. Somali piracy had a positive impact on reversing the overfishing of its territorial waters. But at what price?
Amur stood up. “The night grows late. I will see what I can discover about this missing American woman. But as you know, rescue attempts over the past year have resulted in pirate deaths. It will not be easy getting information.”
Gray stood and shook the man’s hand. He read between the lines. To break that silence would require additional funds. But Gray feared if too much money was thrown into the search, it could raise the suspicions of Amanda’s captors. A delicate balance had to be struck here-but for now they had no choice.
“I understand. Do what you must,” Gray said. He shook the man’s hand and wished him good night, using his native tongue, which earned an appreciative smile from Amur. “Haben wanaagsan.”
Gray waited for Amur to leave the restaurant before motioning the others up. “We should get back to the hotel.”
They headed out as a group. Even at this hour, the streets were clogged with trucks, people, and carts. Sizzling food stands, tiny tea stalls, and makeshift shops packed both sides of the street. All around, Boosaaso bustled, hammered, rang, and shouted.
They kept to a tight knot as they traversed the crowded streets on their way toward their hotel.
Seichan spoke at his ear, her breath hot on his cheek. “You were right. We’ve picked up a tail.”
Gray stopped at a fruit stand, studying the exotic fare while searching the street behind them. He noted two figures in street clothes who ducked out of sight as he had stopped. “Two of them?”
“Three,” Seichan corrected. “The woman in the green sarong by the door of that internet café.”
Gray didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary in her appearance, but he trusted Seichan’s assessment.
Kowalski remained oblivious. He picked up a banana and sniffed at it. “Are we buying something or not?”
Gray headed away, continuing toward their hotel, drawing the tail in his wake.
“So Amur is not as loyal as the CIA claimed,” Seichan whispered.
She leaned toward him like a lover. Physical contact between men and women was frowned upon in this country, but there was a strange, heightened intimacy in being this close without touching.
“Painter suspected as much,” Gray mumbled.
The director had reviewed the various potential contacts here and selected Amur specifically because of discrepancies in his behavior in the past. It seemed the man was not above playing one side against the other, especially with big money involved.
Once a pirate, always a pirate.
Gray sauntered down the road with his teammates, not bothering to try to shake the tail. He wanted the others following his team. Amur was playing a dangerous game, but one that suited their purpose.
Because two could play that same game.
Tucker Wayne maintained a safe distance behind Amur Mahdi, keeping a city block between them.
The radio embedded in his ear buzzed. “Do you have him?”
It was Commander Pierce. Tucker touched his throat mike and subvocalized his answer. “Affirmative.”
To blend in with the locals, he had pulled a loose plaid macawiis tunic over a thin Kevlar jacket and donned a regional turban to hide his hair and further shadow his features. Not that there weren’t white faces here. It seemed the city drew opportunists from around the globe. He heard German, spanish, and French spoken alongside the continuous dialects of African languages.
Still, he kept almost entirely out of sight of his target, trusting another’s eyes more than his own.
Several meters ahead, Kane kept to the shadows, ghosting along, sticking to the crumbling wall of a palatial estate, gliding around and over obstacles. Few eyes glanced at the shepherd’s passage. Plenty of dogs-half-starved waifs, showing ribs and bony legs-roamed the streets.
A block away, Amur turned a corner and angled away from the busier zone of newer hotels and larger estates. He moved with determination into a bulldozed section of the city, occupied by cranes, piles of rubble, and metal trailers, all in readiness for the expansion of the neighboring business district.
Tucker radioed the change in direction. “He’s heading out of New Boosaaso, aiming for a rougher part of town. Definitely not going home.”
Tucker had memorized everything he could about his target, mapping out the man’s life in his head: where he lived, where he met friends for drinks, where his mistress was holed up. Amur wasn’t heading toward any of his usual haunts.
“Keep following, but maintain your distance,” Gray warned. “We don’t want him spooked.”
I know how to do my job, Tucker thought sourly as he reached the corner. This is what you hired me for-or, rather, hired us.
Kane had already stopped at the corner and glanced back. Tucker signaled an open palm.
Tucker surveyed the terrain ahead. Tall security fencing, screened by barrier fabric, lined both sides of the road, keeping pedestrians out of the construction zones. At this hour, no one else was in view. He had no choice but to wait.
If I follow, I’ll be immediately spotted, my cover blown.
For now, they had a small advantage. Gray had gone to painstaking ends to keep knowledge of Tucker’s involvement in this mission secret. They’d even traveled from Tanzania to Somalia by different planes. Gray wanted all eyes diverted and focused on his team and away from Tucker, freeing him to move independently.
At the end of the street, Amur stopped at a locked gate in the security fencing. A lounging guard with an AK-47 greeted him. They leaned their heads together, then the guard nodded and unlatched the gate. Amur vanished inside, drawing the guard with him.
What is he up to?
Tucker headed down a few meters until he discovered a gap between the fence and the sandy ground. A tall metal Dumpster helped hide the spot. He drew Kane there, then pointed to the gap, circled a finger, and touched his nose.
Crawl through, search for the target’s scent.
Tucker knew this was a task Kane could handle. Humans had 6 million olfactory receptors in their nose; hunting dogs had 300 million, which heightened their sense of smell a thousandfold, allowing them to scent a target from two football fields away.
At the end of the instructions, Tucker lowered his palm facedown, signaling Kane to stay hidden if the target was found.
Finished, Tucker slipped a hand to the shepherd’s flank, running his fingers over the black jacket that blended perfectly with his fur. It was a K9 storm tactical vest, waterproof and Kevlar-reinforced. He checked Kane’s earpiece, which allowed them to communicate in the field-then flipped up an eraser-size lens of a night-vision video camera secured near the collar and positioned it between the dog’s pricked ears.
The team needed eyes and ears in there.
Tucker pulled out a cell phone, tapped in a code, and a grainy, dog’s-eye view of himself appeared on the small screen. He leaned down and gave his partner’s nape a fast ruffle. He also shook the vest to make sure nothing rattled to betray Kane’s position in the field.
Satisfied, he knelt and cradled the dog’s head in his palms. A muscular tremble betrayed Kane’s excitement. His tongue lolled as he silently panted. Dark eyes met Tucker’s. It was one of the unique features of domesticated dogs-they studied us as much as we studied them.
“Who’s a good boy?” he whispered to his friend, a ritual of theirs.
Kane’s nose shoved forward, touching his, acknowledging their bond.
Tucker finally stood and flicked his wrist toward the gap in the fence.
Kane swung and lunged smoothly through the hole, his tail vanishing away in seconds. Tucker checked his phone. A juggling view of parked bulldozers and piles of rebar-ribbed broken slabs of concrete appeared on the small screen. The image bobbled and swung like some badly directed horror movie.
Tucker touched his throat mike. “Video’s up, commander. In case you want to watch the show.”
As he waited for a response, Tucker slipped a Bluetooth earbud into his free ear. Through it, he heard the soft whisper of Kane’s panting breath.
In his other ear, Gray responded, “Got it. Let’s see what our friend Amur is up to.”
Tucker kept to the shadows of the Dumpster and watched his partner’s progress. Fear prickled over his skin.
Be careful out there, buddy.
Kane races low to the ground, senses stretching outward, hunting for his prey. Around him, night brightens into shades of gray, frosted by muted hues. Piles of stone grow high on either side, offering sheltered pathways forward. The stir of a breeze shifts a crumpled paper cup, the movement twitching for attention but ultimately ignored.
When sight fails him, scent fills in, layer upon layer, marking time backward and forward, building a framework of old trails around him.
Bitter musk of spoor…
Acrid sting of a urine marker…
Burned oil from silent machines…
He moves through the maze, taking in more smells, drawing them upon his moist tongue, deep into the back of his throat and sinuses. His ears swivel at every hushed whisper of sand: from breezes, from the pad of his paws.
On… always onward…
He holds his nose high at a turn, tracking.
Then… familiar sweat, spicy and pungent, drifts to him, basking outward in the wake of the prey.
His legs slow.
He lowers his body, keeping to the shadowed trails.
He forces his panting to grow quiet.
Ahead, the prey approaches others. They are out of sight, but their musk betrays them. They are hidden behind a pile of metal, smelling of rust and burrowed through with the scent of scurrying things. The odor of man wafts past it all, impossible to ignore, stinking and strong.
His prey walks forward, trailed by another with a gun.
Kane knows guns-by scent, sight, and sound, he knows guns.
The hidden others show themselves at last, stepping into the open. The prey falls back, the scent of his fear spiking sharper-then it quickly fades, snuffing out again.
Among the four, lips are pulled back, showing teeth, but not in threat. They speak, making noise.
Kane creeps closer, finding a spot to watch unseen. He lies still, on his belly, but his haunches remain tense, ready to flee or charge.
For now, he stays.
Because he asked.
Kane continues to draw in the night, ever vigilant, painting the world around him in scents and sounds. He smells his own trail, going back, buried among so many others. But through it all, one trail shines like the sun in the night around him, connecting him to another, both bound together forever by blood and trust.
He knows that name, too.
By scent, by sound, by sight.
He knows that name.
Tucker spied on the meeting between Amur and his trio of compatriots, fellow pirates judging by their tribal scars and harsh manners. They gathered near a rusted stack of old iron H-beams and broken cement bricks. In his ear, he heard their harsh laughter and words spoken in a local Somali dialect. A translation program converted the conversation into a tinny computerized version.
“How long can you draw them out?” one asked.
“How much money can you get?” another added.
“Hassan, Habib, trust me.” Amur smiled, lifting his arms. “There is more going on than they tell me. For that, I can make them dance on a string at my whim.”
“So you say,” the third said doubtfully.
As proof of his word, Amur removed a wad of bills and stripped out several for each. “But first,” he said, “I must give these Americans something to chew on, to keep them hanging on my words, yes?”
The others ignored him, counting their bills and stuffing them away.
“What have you heard about this American woman?” Amur asked, drawing back their attention.
“Only rumors, Amur.” These words earned nods among the three.
Another voice spoke in Tucker’s other ear: “At this point, I’ll take rumors.”
That assessment came from Commander Pierce. It seemed the team leader was listening into the feed with as much interest as he was.
“Then what is the word?” Amur pressed.
“A friend of my brother’s uncle, up near Eil, he says a white woman came through his village. He says they were moving her into the mountains.”
“The Cal Madow mountains?”
A shrug answered him.
“That is much territory to cover,” Amur said, but he didn’t seem disappointed. He rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “If she is among those mountains, she will never be found. I can easily give that information to the Americans without truly telling them anything. And with Allah shining upon us, I should be able to tease out our relationship for several profitable days.”
“And after that?”
“Then I will no longer have a use for the three Americans. It would be unfortunate if something happened to them-unfortunate but not unusual in these treacherous lands, yes?”
Grins followed, shared all around.
“So it seems Amur is not the hospitable host he pretends to be,” Gray said in his ear. “I think we’ll have to-”
The commander’s words were cut off by a low growl.
The view on the small screen shifted as his partner retreated, clearly sensing something.
“What’s your dog doing?” Gray asked, also noting the sudden movement.
“Hold on. Something’s spooked him.”
The grainy image leaped and joggled as the shepherd bounded and circled around a steep pile of concrete debris. It looked like the dog was trying to outflank Amur and his group.
Then the view settled again.
Farther out in the construction zone, a team of six men descended toward Amur’s group. They were outfitted in black body armor and wore helmets equipped with night-vision goggles. At their shoulders, they carried assault rifles. These newcomers were no rough pirates; they clearly had military training. Their intent seemed anything but friendly.
Amur’s inquiries must have reached the wrong ears.
Not good. Not now.
Tucker watched as hand signals from the squad’s leader split the group. They spread out to either side, a pincer move intended to trap Amur’s group between them.
Unfortunately, the former pirate was not the only one caught in the trap. Tucker’s heart thudded in his throat.
July 1, 9:15 P.M. East Africa Time
“Stay put!” Gray ordered.
Seichan stood at his shoulder; Kowalski at the other. They had stopped at the mouth of an alleyway, a few blocks from their hotel, observing the feed from the shepherd’s camera. The armored commando team had swept wide, circling Amur’s group, clearly intending to let no one escape.
“Can’t do that, commander,” Captain Wayne responded. “Not until Kane’s out of harm’s way.”
Gray knew there was nothing he could say to stop Tucker. He had no authority over him, and if the man was spotted-or worse, caught-he’d jeopardize the entire mission.
“Then at least wait until I get there,” Gray pressed. “We’ll do this together.”
A long pause followed, long enough for him to worry that the man had already gone.
Then an answer came. “I’ll wait,” Tucker said. “For the moment. But no promises.”
That was as much concession as Gray would get from him.
“I’m on my way,” Gray radioed-then faced the others and pointed down the street. “You two, head to the hotel. Keep the tail chasing after you. Convince them we’ve retired for the night.”
Seichan stepped closer. “You shouldn’t be going alone. You barely know the city.”
He tapped up a street-view map of Boosaaso on his phone. “I’ll manage. Besides, we have no choice. Amur surely has other friends in the city. We need an alibi if he comes to a bad end in that construction yard. We don’t want his murder pinned on us.”
“What’re you going to do?” Seichan asked.
From the corner of an eye, he caught sight of the three-man team sent to tail them. The trio had gathered near a cloth stand, feigning interest in the stacked fabric rolls.
“At the next corner ahead, when we’re momentarily out of sight, I’ll head down a side street. You two rush to the front of the hotel. Let them see you going inside, cause some commotion. Hopefully they’ll believe I’ve already entered.”
From the furrow between Seichan’s eyebrows, she had little confidence in his plan.
He reached for her hand and gave her fingers a quick squeeze. It was a reflex move, more intimate than he intended. “I’ll be fine,” he mumbled.
If nothing else, the brief and surprising contact left her speechless.
“Let’s go,” Gray said before any further discussion could start.
They headed together down the street, sauntering at a leisurely pace. Once Gray passed around the next corner, he hurried to the mouth of another alleyway ahead. If the map was correct, he should be able to circle back and join up with Captain Wayne.
As he turned away, Seichan’s last glance remained unreadable.
Kowalski was more blunt. “Watch your ass out there.”
He planned on doing just that. Behind him, Seichan and Kowalski rushed headlong, aiming for the broad steps to Hotel Jubba at the end of the block.
At least they knew how to take orders. He prayed Tucker Wayne would do the same. But with each step, Gray hurried faster, knowing that was not likely. Tucker was as much a creature of instinct as his furry partner. The man would react before thinking.
Especially if his dog was in danger.
Kane huddles in the shadows under a protruding slab of broken concrete. Beyond his hiding place, the night around him is a complex weave of scent trails, echoing sounds, and movement. He stares unblinking at it all, allowing the landscape to build before him, as much a map of the present as the past.
The whispery crunch of a stone under boot…
The leathery tap of a rifle strap on cloth…
The heavy pant of excitement of a predator closing in on prey…
His original prey remains clustered with his pack, deaf to the danger approaching. Kane tracks the newcomers as they cut through old scent trails, even his own, creating a new one, stinking of man. It fully circles the others now.
Then draws tighter as they move in on their prey.
Kane stays in his hiding place, unmoving, placing his trust in shadows.
And one other.
Tucker crouched outside the fence, hidden behind a Dumpster, his attention fixed to the feed from Kane’s camera. Still following his original instructions, the dog remained focused on Amur’s group, who continued to discuss where to spend the money in hand, where to eat a late dinner, and how to get more payments out of Commander Pierce.
All the while, a deadly noose tightened around them all.
Tucker dared not risk calling his partner back to him. The movement would draw the commandos’ attention.
As if the dog had heard his silent worry, the view on the screen shifted as Kane glanced backward, over his shoulder. The angle turned enough to reveal a commando in black body armor closing toward Kane’s position. The shepherd remained at his post, as Tucker had ordered.
Kane thinks he’s hidden well enough, Tucker realized.
But the dog was wrong.
Night-vision goggles hid the approaching commando’s eyes. Kane’s shadowy shelter offered no protection from such technology. In a moment, the shepherd would easily be spotted, along with the foreign vest-then all hell would break loose.
Tucker glanced up and down the street. Commander Pierce was nowhere in sight, and he had to do something.
Twisting around, he dove for the fence, to the gap along the bottom where Kane had crawled through. It was too small for him, but coils of razor wire blocked the way over the top. With no other choice, he placed his phone on the ground and dug with both hands into the hard-packed sand.
All the while, he stared at the phone beside him, watching the commando draw closer to Kane. He dug faster, scooping out sand, deepening the hole, bloodying his fingers.
Finally, unable to wait any longer, he squirmed his way through the gap. The loose tunic ripped on the fangs of the fence’s lower end, exposing his Kevlar vest beneath.
He reached back and grabbed his phone.
The view of the video feed stopped his heart.
On the screen, the grainy image of the commando jerked to a stop, plainly startled. And the reason was obvious. The soldier shifted his rifle and pointed it directly toward the camera.
Directly at Kane.
9:23 P.M .
Damn that fool…
Seichan moved briskly, angrily, into the tiled lobby of the Hotel Jubba.
Kowalski followed at her heels. She hated abandoning Gray and hated that it bothered her so much, but in the end, she also recognized the necessity. The pair had succeeded in drawing their tail to the steps of the building, hopefully leaving them unaware of Gray’s disappearance.
Still, she could not relax the tense knot between her shoulder blades. Gray shouldn’t have gone out there alone. If they’d taken an extra few moments to plan, some other ruse could have been calculated to fool the ones tailing them. Instead, his action had been unusually rash, even reckless. And not just here. They’d come close to losing Tucker Wayne and his dog back in Zanzibar. Not a mistake Gray would normally make.
And she could guess the cause. A deep current of fury and frustration still flowed through his core. She recognized it in the storm-gray of his eyes, in the hard set to his jaw, in the clipped edge to his conversations. There was a manic edge to Gray that she’d never seen before, and it made her nervous. Not for herself, but for him.
Maybe it was too soon for him to be out in the field.
But they were committed, and there was no retreating from here.
Kowalski slipped out a cigar and set about lighting it. A thick pall of smoke already filled the lobby, making her eyes sting. A soccer match played on a large-screen television in the hotel restaurant, drawing in a boisterous crowd that spilled into the lobby and obstructed the way toward the stairs.
Her partner nodded back toward the hotel’s entrance. “Looks like our friends are setting up camp out there. Making sure we don’t leave.”
Seichan glanced over at the trio who had followed them. They sat at a coffeehouse that offered a view of the hotel’s front steps. Clearly Amur intended to protect his investment, ensuring no other informant intruded on his territory.
A loud cheer drew her attention back to the restaurant. The match between Brazil and Germany was heating up. A group of German patrons began singing their national anthem.
“Let’s get out of here,” she said, intending to return to their rooms.
Kowalski lingered, puffing on his cigar, adding to the pollution in the lobby. His eyes had drifted to the soccer match on the television. His legs drew him toward the machismo camaraderie of the live sportscast.
At least that should keep him out of trouble for the night.
She was wrong.
Within a few steps, he bumped into a harried waiter holding aloft a huge tray full of teacups and pots of steaming water. The tray went flying, crashing into the mass of men crowded at the entrance to the restaurant. Shouts and curses erupted as scalding water splashed over those closest.
Then a push became a shove, and a fist struck a nose. In a matter of seconds, bedlam broke out. The restaurant emptied into the lobby, escalating into a full brawl.
Kowalski backed Seichan in a corner as a bottle flew past his nose and shattered against the wall.
“What did you do?” Seichan scolded.
Kowalski grinned back at her, keeping the stogie crushed between his teeth as he spoke. “There’s a rear exit through the kitchen. Let me get this party going full swing, and you can duck back into the streets unseen.”
He locked eyes with her. She read the sharp glimmer buried within that dim exterior. So she wasn’t the only one worried about their partner.
“Are you ready?” he asked.
She nodded, which made his grin spread wider, a terrifying sight.
With a roar, he turned and leaped into the raucous fray, a veritable bull let loose among the others. In moments, the fighting rolled like a tide toward the hotel’s front doors and spilled out into the streets, spreading the commotion and chaos.
Seichan twisted in the opposite direction, slipping out a scarf and wrapping her head and most of her face. Kowalski bellowed behind her-sounding disturbingly happy, finally in his true element.
Now to find Gray.
She had Tucker Wayne’s call sign and last position noted on her own phone’s navigation system. That’s where Gray would be headed.
She burst out the rear door, leaving behind the clatter of pots and pans from the kitchen, and into the dark silence of the back alley.
Before she could take a step, a bright light speared her, blinding her.
A harsh voice with a thick British accent accosted her, punctuated by the cocking of a pistol. “Take another step, and I’ll put a bullet through your pretty skull.”
July 1, 9:24 P.M. East Africa Time
Standing by the fence, Tucker watched the rifle lower toward Kane. The grainy image on the phone set his heart to pounding. He’d never reach his partner in time.
Reacting instinctively, he yanked out his pistol, a black SIG Sauer, pointed it into the air, and fired two rounds. The gun blasts stung his ears and echoed across the empty construction site.
On the screen, the soldier’s aim shifted away as he dropped low, startled by the gunfire.
Tucker was already moving, heading toward Kane’s hiding place. On his phone, he pressed a green icon in the shape of a small ear and lifted the phone to his lips. He spoke two commands, transmitting them to the receiver behind Kane’s left ear.
The image on the screen blurred into chaos.
Tucker continued to sprint, staying low.
I’m coming, buddy.
Kane tastes blood, feels the crack of bone under the power of his jaws. He holds tight as a pained cry pierces the night. Then a booted blow to his ribs finally knocks him loose.
The night spins, but rights itself as he rolls his legs under him.
His prey crouches, holding his limb to his chest, wrist crushed, gun on the ground. Both hunters face each other-but only for a breath.
Kane dives low, snatching cloth at the ankle and throwing his body to the side, yanking the prey’s limb from under him. The other falls, head striking broken stone. Goggles knock away, revealing narrowed eyes. Kane smells his fear, still tastes the blood on the back of his tongue.
But the other is a hunter, too.
A flash of a blade in the other hand. It stabs down-but Kane is already gone, spinning away, running low into the night.
But not without a hard-won prize clutched in his jaws.
9:25 P.M .
Gray sprinted along the barrier fencing as fresh gunfire erupted from the construction zone: the chugging coughs of automatic weapons along with the sharper blasts of smaller arms.
A moment ago, as he reached the street, he’d heard the initial pistol cracks.
They had risen from a different part of the site, well away from the current firefight.
Had to be Captain Wayne.
This was confirmed when Gray heard Tucker’s radioed command to his partner. There was no sign of the man on the street, so Gray rushed toward a gate at the next corner. He found it unguarded and pushed inside, his gun already in hand.
A bulldozed road led straight toward the fighting.
He spotted bodies on the ground.
Gray ducked to the side, into the shadows of a pile of broken concrete. A commando stepped into view and kicked one of the bodies. An arm lifted off the ground, a pleading gesture. The soldier’s pistol pointed down. A single crack, and the arm fell limply.
They were killing everyone.
As quickly as the firefight had started, it ended. The last few sputters of automatic gunfire died away.
Gray subvocalized into his throat mike. “Tucker, respond?”
The answer didn’t come from his radio.
A fresh flurry of gunfire erupted to the left, away from the pile of dead bodies. The commando in view dashed in that direction.
Biting back a curse, Gray rolled around the pile of concrete and headed that way, too. Gunplay spattered out, as Tucker played cat and mouse with the hunters.
Gray struggled through the maze, straining to track the gunfire, while keeping a watch around him. At last, he spotted Tucker. The man, pistol in hand, ran along a row of parked dump trucks at the edge of the rubble field, trying to stay out of sight.
Gray headed toward him-but before he could take more than three steps, a shadowy figure appeared a few yards ahead, his back to Gray, blocking the view. It was the same commando who had been slaughtering the last of Amur’s men. The soldier spotted Tucker and fired a flurry of rounds at his target.
Ricochets pinged off the dump truck.
Exposed, Tucker tried to twist away. But a round struck him square in the chest, knocking him against the bed of the dump truck with a loud clang. He fell hard to the ground, his pistol flying from his grip.
Gray raised his own weapon, strode two fast paces, and shot the commando through the back of the neck. The soldier collapsed to his knees, then to his face, gurgling harshly as he died.
Gray stepped past him, kicking the assault rifle away from his fingertips.
Ahead, Tucker struggled to stand up, a palm on his chest.
Damned lucky the man had been wearing a Kevlar vest.
But luck only lasted for so long.
A fresh crack of a pistol came from the right, from out of Gray’s field of view. Tucker ducked as a round buzzed his ear and struck the dump truck’s huge tire. More shots rang out, blasting sand from between Tucker’s legs and by his left hand. Tucker scrabbled away, disappearing from view.
Gray hurried forward, but the shooter was still out of sight.
Then the commando burst into the open, running low, heading toward where Tucker had vanished, pistol raised forward. His other arm was clutched to his chest, his wrist held at an impossible angle, dripping blood. Judging by the wild blasts, fury fueled this attack.
Gray struggled to fix the attacker in his sights, but the target was moving too fast and heavily armored. Gray fired anyway, emptying his weapon. But the soldier was so focused he didn’t even flinch from the rounds pinging off the truck’s side, even at a shot that glanced off his helmet.
Then his target was out of sight again, pursuing Tucker.
Gray ran forward, ejecting his spent magazine and slapping in another. In a few more steps, he spotted the gunman leaning over Tucker. His teammate, one shoulder bloodied, was sprawled on his back by the truck’s cab. The armored commando held his pistol at Tucker’s face, ready to shoot point-blank.
Gray could not stop him-then a miracle happened.
The smoking barrel of the pistol lowered and pointed between Tucker’s eyes. His shoulder burned, but not as much as his blood. He stared past the gun to the eyes of the assassin. He recognized the fury there.
It matched his own.
As the gunman ran up, Tucker had spotted his broken wrist, the ripped bloodied flesh. He recognized Kane’s handiwork. This was the commando who had threatened his partner.
In the other’s eyes, he read the satisfaction of the kill to come.
It matched his own.
A fierce growl erupted from the shadows, drawing the gunman’s attention. His pistol jerked in that direction.
Using the distraction, Tucker yanked out the rifle hidden under the truck-the commando’s own weapon. He twisted the barrel forward and fired at the gunman’s face, blowing him backward.
As his body fell away, Gray appeared behind him, racing forward-then skidding back in surprise. “How… where did you get…?”
Tucker, still on his back, turned to the shadows under the dump truck. Kane crouched there, panting, his eyes glowing brightly out of the darkness. As commanded, his partner had not only taken down his opponent but also disarmed him. Tucker pictured his partner dragging the rifle by its leather strap in his teeth, ever obedient, obeying down to the word.
“Good boy,” Tucker said, staring back into those clever eyes. “Good boy.”
9:35 P.M .
Gray headed down the street toward Hotel Jubba. After he found Tucker, the pair had quickly retreated out of the construction area. They found no further resistance. With the mission completed, the remaining commandos-likely hired mercenaries-had pulled out and vanished into the night.
Whoever had employed those assassins plainly wanted Amur silenced. His inquiries must have alerted the pirates involved in Amanda’s kidnapping and triggered this swift reaction.
Now Gray and Tucker were back among the street throngs in the new section of the city, stopping only long enough to bandage Tucker’s shoulder. Luckily the bullet had only grazed his upper arm.
Tucker finished explaining what happened. “From the video feed, I saw that Kane had retreated somewhere among these dump trucks and went looking for him.”
“And you got ambushed.”
Tucker scowled and glanced down at the dog at his side. He’d stripped off the dog’s vest and held it bundled under his good arm. “I wasn’t leaving him in harm’s way, commander. And I never will. Kane looks after me with equal diligence. I wouldn’t be alive now if it wasn’t for him.”
And you wouldn’t have been in danger if you’d obeyed orders.
But Gray let that lie for now.
Tucker continued. “Once at the trucks, Kane must have tracked me down, keeping hidden, closing in on my scent.”
“And he brought you that rifle.” Gray could not keep the tinge of respect out of his voice.
“I’d ordered him to disarm his opponent. He’d been trained well.”
Gray suspected such coordination went beyond training, that it had more to do with an inexplicable bond between dog and handler, tying them together by something deeper than just hand signals and spoken commands.
Whatever the reason, they’d all made it out with only a few scrapes and scratches. Amur’s group might have been killed-silenced by the hired assassination team-but because of Kane’s help, they now knew the president’s daughter was being held somewhere in the Cal Madow mountains to the west.
Before Gray could formulate a plan of action from here, he noted the tumult outside of Hotel Jubba. Tables were overturned, stalls broken, windows shattered. Men sat in the street, nursing injuries. It looked like the aftermath of a small riot.
“What happened?” Tucker asked.
“I don’t know.”
Gray hurried to the steps of the hotel. He found the lobby equally ransacked. A televised soccer game played in the neighboring restaurant. A few men stood idly, sipping tea, amid the carnage of tables and chairs, as if nothing had happened.
Gray touched his throat mike and radioed both Kowalski and Seichan.
Tucker shared a worried look with him.
Together they mounted the stairs. Their room-a two-bedroom suite-was on the second floor. Gray led the way down a tiled hallway, softened by a threadbare Persian runner. He kept his tread quiet as he approached the door. From inside, the cheers of an audience echoed out, coming from a television, likely broadcasting the same soccer match.
Gray pulled out his pistol and grabbed the door handle.
Tucker held a palm toward Kane, readying his partner.
Gray burst into the room-only to find Kowalski sprawled in his boxers on the sofa in the suite’s common room, a washcloth full of ice held to his right eye.
Kowalski barely acknowledged them, still focused on the game.
Gray searched around the room. Nothing seemed amiss.
“Why didn’t you respond to my radio call?” Gray asked.
Kowalski stared sheepishly toward the table. His radio and earpiece rested there. He ran a hand through his wet hair. “I took a shower and forgot to-”
Gray cut him off. “Never mind. What happened downstairs?”
Kowalski heaved his legs to the floor with a pained groan. “You said to cause a commotion when we got here.”
“I meant a diversion, not World War Three.”
Kowalski shrugged. “So things got a little out of hand. I gotta say, these Muslim guys-no sex, no alcohol-they sure needed to blow off some steam.”
Gray relaxed, holstering his weapon. “Where’s Seichan?”
Kowalski lowered the ice from his face, revealing a swollen bloodred eye. “I thought she was with you guys.”
“Us? Why?” Gray’s chest tightened painfully. Kowalski’s next words only made it worse.
“She left to go find you.”
July 1, 10:22 P.M. East Africa Time
Seichan sat in a windowless cement-block basement. A single bare bulb hung above her head. The space stank of bleach and had a drain in the middle of the floor.
Never a good sign.
Her left hand throbbed from where she’d sliced the meat of her thumb on a piece of broken glass when she was forced to drop on her stomach in the back alley. They’d immediately stripped her of all communications equipment and dragged a hood over her head. Forced at gunpoint, she traveled a few blocks by foot, stumbling along-then by open truck, judging by the wind, the sound of the engine, and the jolting of the suspension. She had to cling to the door frame to keep her seat, her cut hand stinging with every bump. The gun shoved in her rib cage discouraged any attempt at escape. They’d gone no more than ten minutes before stopping, so she couldn’t be far from the hotel, but in the jumbled maze of the city, they might as well have taken her to another planet.
Once here, the hood had been removed, and she’d been ordered to strip down to bra and panties and been thoroughly searched again. Afterward, her wounded hand had been tended to, though blood still seeped down her fingertips and dripped to the floor. They’d allowed her to slip her clothes back on, but she still felt half-naked.
She tugged at the plastic slip ties that bound her to a metal chair. She tried rocking, but her seat was bolted to the concrete floor.
Resigned, she silently cursed her carelessness-placing an equal amount of the blame on Gray.
If the bastard hadn’t gone off so recklessly on his own…
But she knew she bore as much guilt. She had acted no less rashly than Gray. And that troubled her, especially since she knew the cause. She remembered that kiss in the hospital, both needing each other but for very different reasons. Her carelessness this night was born out of that kiss. Fear for his safety, worry that she’d lose him, blinded her and made her sloppy.
She should have known better than to run headlong into a back alley. Hadn’t their premission briefing warned of the rash of kidnappings in the city? The only balm to her ego was that her captors hadn’t been pirates.
The single door to the room finally opened. Two figures stepped inside. One carried a thick file folder; the other, a chair identical to her own. The seat was placed in front of her, and the man who had ambushed her in the alley sat down, resting a file on his knee. He had short sandy-blond hair, balding at the top, ruggedly handsome in his own way.
His companion-a slender Indian woman with mocha skin and smoky eyes-took a post behind the chair, stiff-backed, one hand resting on a holstered sidearm. Like the man, she was dressed in khaki pants and a buttoned blue blouse, all crisply creased, giving the casual clothes the look of a uniform.
Seichan locked eyes with her. “You were one of the three following us this evening, wearing the green sarong.”
The woman gave no reaction.
Seichan glanced between the two. She spotted an older photo of her, grainy but unmistakable, clipped to the folder. “Let me guess, you all have nothing to do with Amur Mahdi at all.”
The man answered, his British accent polite but firm. “I think I’ll be the one asking questions.” He flipped open the folder and glanced through the first few pages. “Considering your number of aliases, I don’t even know what to call you.”
“How about your worst enemy,” she said sourly.
This earned the smallest uptick of the woman’s lip-not out of amusement, but disdain.
The man ignored her comment. “Your employer committed an act of terrorism on our soil, a few years back at the British museum, orchestrated by a terrorist named-” He sifted through some papers. “-Cassandra Sanchez. A nasty piece of work, that one.”
A chill iced over Seichan. Cassandra had been a Guild operative, like herself, planted beside Painter Crowe before he was director of sigma. Seichan knew little else about that operation except the woman was dead.
Since her capture, Seichan had been struggling to determine who had ambushed her, running various possibilities through her head. She was on the watch list of multiple foreign intelligence services for her past activities with the Guild. From the man’s accent, she narrowed down the possibilities. They could be SIS-the British Secret Intelligence Service, sometimes referred to as MI6-but she caught the whiff of military about them.
“You’re SRR,” Seichan concluded.
The man straightened, staring back at her. “Impressive.”
The Special Reconnaissance Regiment was a newer division of the British Special Forces, established recently to engage in covert surveillance operations, specifically to conduct counterterrorism actions. They were also the most selective and most secretive-and the only British Special Forces unit to recruit women.
She stared at the Indian woman.
Few knew anything substantial about SRR activities. But it made sense they’d employ field operatives in Somalia. Pirates had kidnapped several British nationals over the past decade, and the lawless rural areas of this country were the training grounds for a handful of Islamic terrorist factions.
Unfortunately, she must have been swept up by their surveillance net by accident.
The man confirmed this. “We have facial recognition software hacked into the security cameras at the airport here. You were lucky it was us who found you. As I understand, the Mossad have a shoot-on-sight order regarding you.”
Seichan continued to put the pieces together in her head. “Your tail on us… it had been purposefully sloppy. You wanted us to know we were being followed.”
“And we expected you’d try to shake it, escaping out a back door-and right into our hands.” The man leaned forward. “But who are you traveling with? The two men? We’ve identified them both as former U.S. armed forces-but nothing after that. Their records are clean, spotless, suspiciously so. Are they Guild operatives, or merely mercenaries for hire, or were you using them in some manner?”
Seichan hesitated, unsure how to respond. No one knew she’d turned traitor against the Guild and now worked for sigma. Only a handful of people in the U.S. government even knew about her involvement. Her past crimes precluded her from being officially sanctioned. So if she were ever caught-like now-she would be denied. She was on her own, certain to vanish forever down some black-ops hole.
“If you continue to refuse to cooperate,” the man began-when the door exploded behind him, ripped off its hinges.
A silver object bounced into the room.
Seichan closed her eyes, wishing she could cover her ears.
The flash-bang exploded in the confined space, searing through her eyelids and deafening to the point of nausea. She gasped out as it faded, and opened her eyes. Blearily, she saw a small shape dash into the room, running low to the ground. She felt the brush of fur against her bare calf, and the cold nose exploring her bloody fingers.
“About time you got here,” she croaked out, deaf to her own words.
Gray and Tucker swept into the room, pistols in hand. The two SRR operatives were down on the floor, in postures of agony, having taken the full brunt of the flash-bang’s impact. Still, the female had enough wherewithal to aim her weapon at Seichan. Though sightless at the moment, she kept enough of her senses to free her weapon and blindly shoot in the direction of Seichan’s chair.
The muzzle flashed, and the shot sparked off the concrete floor, stinging her toes with stone chips. The shepherd leaped away from her chair, startled.
Gray swung his weapon toward the shooter.
Seichan yelled, “Stop! Don’t shoot!”
Tucker, closer, pistol-whipped the woman and dropped her to the floor, then collected her weapon.
“They’re British Special Forces!” Seichan shouted, finally beginning to hear her own words as the effect wore off.
Gray pointed to the pair. “Keep them down,” he ordered Tucker. “Until we can sort this all out.”
He turned next to Seichan, a small military dagger appearing in his hand. He rushed to her side and sliced her bonds free, careful of her bloody hand. As he crouched, he rested his palm on her bare knee, his fingers electric on her inner thigh.
“Are you okay?”
With her ears ringing, she still understood enough to nod. “I’m fine. I cut myself on purpose. Made sure I kept the wound open as I clung to the truck’s door frame on the way here. Figured it was time for that damned dog to earn his kibble.”
Tucker heard. “Leaving a blood trail for Kane to follow. Smart.”
It wasn’t smart. It was planning.
On the flight to Africa, she had studied up on their potential new teammate, ascertaining the dog’s strengths and weaknesses, as she would any partner in the field. A report she read stated that a trained dog could distinguish a single drop of blood in an Olympic-size swimming pool. She hadn’t planned on testing that sensitivity, but she was more than happy to prove it true now.
She gained her feet, still unsteady from the auditory assault, but at least she could hear. “What about the other SRR personnel?”
“We took down one outside the hotel,” Gray said with a worried look. “He’s still tied up in the back alley, out cold. Kowalski has the other secured upstairs. Took him down like a battering ram when we burst inside, might’ve broken his leg.”
“Definitely broken,” a gruff voice answered at the door. Kowalski stepped to the threshold and pointed his thumb toward the stairs leading out of the basement. “Got him gagged and tied up there. So how much trouble are we in for kicking some British soldiers’ asses?”
The answer came from the floor. The man had also regained enough of his senses to glare, teary-eyed, at them. “I think your American colloquialism is a shitload.” He stared at the assemblage in the room. “Who the bloody hell are you all?”
Gray holstered his weapon and offered out an arm to get him back on his feet. “Someone who needs your help.”
The man took Gray’s hand suspiciously, but he allowed himself to be pulled back to his feet. “This is a fine way to ask for it.”
Kowalski offered the only possible explanation. “We’re Americans. It’s how we do things.”
An hour later, Gray had everyone gathered back at their suite at the Hotel Jubba. They sat in the common room. A call to Director Crowe, followed by a flurry of communiqués between the two countries’ intelligence agencies, facilitated some candid conversation.
“The kidnapped woman out of the Seychelles,” Captain Trevor Alden said, holding a steaming teacup in the palm of his hand. “She’s the president’s daughter?”
“That’s right,” Gray said. “Amanda Gant-Bennett.”
The two groups sat on opposite couches, Americans on one side, Brits on the other. A tea service tray rested on the table between them. Kane kept near his handler as Tucker balanced on the arm of the sofa, but his nose kept drifting toward a stack of tea biscuits.
Captain Alden’s eyes shifted to Seichan, seated next to Gray. “And she works for you chaps now.”
Gray simply nodded, not bothering to go into the complicated details of their professional relationship.
Alden leaned back. “Someone could’ve informed us all of this before you got here. Would’ve saved Major Patel a great deal of hardship.”
Kowalski paced behind the sofa, near the balcony doors, where the smoke from his cigar was less offensive. “Sorry. Maybe I shouldn’t have sacked him so hard, but he got in my way.” He shrugged, showing little remorse. “But aren’t you guys supposed to wear special berets or something?”
“Not on a mission. We’re a covert team,” Alden explained. “Just the four of us-or three now, I guess.”
Patel had been shot up with morphine and was sleeping in the next room, awaiting evacuation due to his broken leg. On the sofa, the captain was flanked by his two other associates: the Indian woman-Major Bela Jain-and a black, wiry soldier, Major Stuart Butler.
Gray redirected the conversation to the problem at hand. “Captain Alden, any local intelligence you can supply us, to help figure out where the president’s daughter might have been taken, would be most appreciated.”
“No appreciation necessary. We’ve been ordered to offer our services.” Alden winced, then gently placed his teacup on the tray. “My apologies. That came out less sincerely than I intended. I have a young daughter of my own. If she’d been kidnapped…”
Alden leaned forward and offered his hand.
Gray took it and found the man’s grip firm and dry.
“You have our full cooperation,” Alden promised.
Gray found himself warming to the man. Once past the stiff British reserve, he seemed likable enough. And he had captured Seichan, not an easy thing to do.
However, from the way Seichan sat with her arms folded over her chest, fingering the tiny silver dragon pendant at her throat with her bandaged hand, she didn’t share Gray’s opinion of the SRR captain. Likewise, Major Jain barely said a word, her features hard and unreadable, her posture rigid. Gray imagined the woman’s head still ached from the effects of the flash-bang, not to mention being pistol-whipped by Tucker.
Not the most opportune way for allies to meet.
Still, they’d all have to find a way to work together.
“Do you have any clues at all to the whereabouts of the young woman?” Alden asked, getting down to business. “Where she made landfall? Who took her?”
Gray had briefly related their encounter with Amur Mahdi and the attack by an assassination squad in the construction yard. The captain was unaware of any of it, so Gray got him up to speed.
Next, he reached to the table and unfolded a topographic map of the country. Alden leaned closer as Gray ran a finger along the mountain range to the west of the city. It cut clear across northern Somalia.
“All we know,” Gray said, “is that she was likely taken somewhere up in these mountains.”
“That’s a lot of rough territory. Jungles, chasms, caves. You could spend years searching up there and only scour a tenth of those peaks. Do you have any other intel?”
“We’re still waiting for an NRO satellite to search the coastline for the raiders’ ship.”
“Needle in a haystack,” Alden pronounced grimly with a shake of his head. “And they move those ships regularly. Even if you found it, that doesn’t mean that’s where the boat made landfall.”
Gray couldn’t disagree. He closed his eyes and replayed the conversation between Amur and his men. The man’s group had been silenced for a reason. There had to be a clue there, something useful.
Then he remembered and straightened. One line of that conversation played out in his head.
A friend of my brother’s uncle, up near Eil, he says a white woman came through his village. He says they were moving her into the mountains.
Gray opened his eyes and stared at the map. “Do you know some town named eil?”
Alden nodded, studying the coastline. “It’s a small place, a tough town, pirate run.” He finally tapped the map. “Right here, by this deepwater cove.”
“One of Amur’s men said they’d heard of a white woman, a hostage, who had been through that village. If we went to that town-”
Alden cut him off. “You’d be shot on sight. And even if you did somehow survive, they’d tell you nothing. Anyone squeals there, and it’s an instant death sentence.”
Gray pictured the last of Amur’s men being shot.
Still, Alden did not seem despondent. “If they went directly from Eil to the mountains, that could narrow your search.” He ran a finger inland. “I’d suggest you call your director and ask him to have the NRO give up the satellite search for the ship and concentrate on this section of the mountains.”
He marked off a box with his fingertip.
“That’s still hundreds of square miles,” Gray said.
“What about an infrared sweep?” Tucker offered. “If the satellite can pick out heat signatures, narrow the search parameters…?”
“Maybe. But as hot as it gets here in summer, those rocky peaks retain plenty of heat throughout the night.” Alden leaned closer to the map. “But I may have a better idea.”
Alden smiled and glanced at the closed bedroom door. “I think I just found a good use for our poor Major Patel.”
July 1, 4:55 P.M. EST
Painter sat in his office, struggling with a puzzle that set his teeth to aching. Since this morning’s briefing with the president, he’d been ensconced in his windowless office at Sigma headquarters, buried several floors beneath the Smithsonian Castle, yet steps away from the halls of power and many of the country’s best scientific institutions and think tanks.
Earlier, he’d reviewed the video feed from Somalia, listened to the audio recordings. Without a doubt, Amur Mahdi had been executed in order to silence him. The CIA was already squawking about the murder of one of its local assets, even though Amur was clearly playing one side against the other. And in this case, the turncoat had gotten crushed between them.
Still, the assassination of Amur offered further support to the idea that there was more to the kidnapping of Amanda Gant-Bennett than simple piracy.
Painter was sure of it.
So far, no ransom demand had been made. There continued to be no chatter among the various regional terrorist groups, no one claiming responsibility. If they had the president’s daughter, they’d be crowing from the rooftops about it.
So what game were they playing out there?
Painter could not shake the feeling that Amanda’s kidnapping was somehow tied to the Guild. Perhaps she was being used as a pawn by a competing criminal organization to put pressure on the Gants-that is, if the Gants were indeed the true puppet masters behind the shadowy Guild.
He had a hard time balancing that with the raw fear he’d seen in the president’s eyes, the anguish and grief in the First Lady’s embrace of her husband in the hallway. Even Gant’s older brother, the secretary of state, had seemed openly sincere about finding Amanda.
But that didn’t mean other family members were not involved.
He returned his attention to the large LCD monitor on his desk. Using a mouse, he scrolled through the long list of names glowing on the screen, each of them connected by branching and crisscrossing lines marking family ties: marriages and births, even infidelities and children born out of wedlock. It mapped out the genealogy of the Gant family clan, stretching back two centuries. It was less a family tree than an interlacing matrix, so complicated it required being diagrammed out in three dimensions.
Clicking and dragging, he spun the matrix in a slow turn, a spiral galaxy of power and influence going back to before the founding of this country. And it was still incomplete. He had historians and genealogists from around the globe working piecemeal on the puzzle, to keep the project secret, building a picture of the true breadth and extent of this ancient clan. He doubted anyone had ever performed such a comprehensive analysis of the Gant clan.
He also noted lines that crossed into and out of the matrix, distant cousins marrying back into the family-not an unheard-of situation in such a powerful, aristocratic family. It seemed, generation after generation, no one wanted to drift too far from that wellspring of power and wealth.
And what a wellspring it was…
Painter had lost count of the number of inventors, scholars, statesmen, and leaders of industry that shone like stars amid the lineage. Not to mention rogues and several persons of ill repute.
But every family had its bad apples.
He frowned at the screen, seeing his faint reflection superimposed over the matrix. Was the truth of the Guild hidden here or was it all a wild-goose chase?
To remind himself of the true nature of his adversaries, Painter clicked on an image file and brought up a symbol onto the screen-or rather a nested set of symbols.
It represented the Guild.
At the center stood a tiny crescent moon and star. It was one of the oldest symbols in the world, going back to an esoteric order out of ancient Egypt. Enclosed around that, the more familiar square and compass, representing another secret fraternity: the Freemasons. And at last, circling them all, the shield of the Knights Templar, a medieval order infamous for its hidden mysteries.
“‘The secret in all secret societies,’” he whispered, repeating the dying words of a Guild associate. That was the significance of the nested symbols. It was said to represent the Guild’s path, tracing its treacherous footsteps deep into the past.
The same dying man also suspected there were more levels and tiers-other secret societies-beyond those revealed in the old symbol, secrets continuing into modern times, leading at last to what he called the True Bloodline, the ultimate masters of the shadowy Guild.
“One family,” Painter mumbled, staring at the vast lineage of the Gant clan.
To survive the scrutiny of time, the Guild had hid itself within one secret society after another. Was he staring at the same subterfuge here? Was the true heart of this shadowy organization buried within the breadth and majesty of this family dynasty?
If so, how many were involved?
He studied the three-dimensional map, sensing he was missing something, that it stared him square in the face. But whatever nagged him refused to come to light.
A knock at his door interrupted him. A tall, auburn-haired woman in dress blues stood at the threshold. Painter tapped his keyboard and wiped the Gant genealogy off the screen.
It was meant for his eyes only.
“Kat,” he said and waved the woman inside.
Captain Kathryn Bryant was his second-in-command, specializing in intelligence-gathering services for sigma.
Painter pulled his attention fully to the present, to the matters in Somalia. “Have the Brits settled down after the mess in Boosaaso?”
“Barely. But the SRR has agreed to keep things under wraps and to offer their assistance out there.”
“But that’s not the only reason I stopped by,” Kat said. “I brought someone to see you.”
She stepped aside and a familiar face, draped by blond hair, peered coyly around the corner.
“Lisa!” he said, delight filling his voice. He stood up and crossed around his desk. “I thought you weren’t getting back until tonight.”
Dr. Lisa Cummings slipped inside, dressed in jeans and a loose pale-blue blouse. She tapped her wrist. “What time do you think it is?”
As usual, he’d let the day escape him-but he wasn’t going to do the same with his girlfriend. He pulled her into a warm hug, kissing her cheek, appreciating how right this felt.
She sagged into him, expressing a similar thought. “It’s good to be home.”
They lingered in each other’s arms for another breath until finally falling away, leaving only their hands clasped together. Lisa had been gone a week at a medical symposium. He had not realized how much he missed her until this moment.
He guided her to one of the chairs and settled her there before letting go of her hand.
“I heard about the president’s daughter,” Lisa said dourly. “I remember her from one of those black-tie affairs at the White House several months ago. She had just found out she was pregnant.”
“Speaking of which…” Kat took the other seat. “Director, you asked me to gather information about Amanda’s pregnancy.”
Painter leaned back against his desk. He had a full dossier on the president’s daughter, but almost nothing regarding the baby she carried. He wanted every base covered. Something was odd about this entire affair-from the false papers to the trip to the Seychelles, and now this kidnapping.
He dared leave no stone unturned.
“First of all, her unborn child is not her husband’s,” Kat began.
Painter’s brows rose in surprise. This was news to him.
Kat explained, “Apparently Mack Bennett had fertility issues that required the use of a sperm donor and in vitro fertilization.”
“Interesting.” Painter folded this new knowledge into the case, testing various permutations, different possibilities.
Could there be some motive here? A custody issue?
“Where was this done?” he finally asked.
“A fertility clinic in South Carolina, outside of Charleston. I looked it up. Very cutting-edge. Using the latest technology. With a client list from around the world.”
“And the donor for the child?”
Kat shook her head. “Confidential.”
Painter hated loose ends-they had the tendency to unravel into a mess.
Kat read his expression. “I can make some calls, but without a court order-”
Painter shook his head. “A legal action would raise too many red flags, get others inquiring about Amanda’s whereabouts. We can’t risk that exposure.”
“Not to mention it would be a significant invasion of her privacy,” Lisa reminded him.
“And in the end, the child might have nothing to do with this,” Kat added.
Painter crossed his arms, unconvinced. “Amanda fled to the Seychelles just a couple of weeks before she was due to deliver. Traveling under false papers, like she was running from someone-or protecting someone.”
“You’re thinking it’s about the baby,” Kat said. “But why?”
“I don’t know. But some answers might be found at that clinic.”
“I could send a team to investigate.”
“Or I can go,” Lisa offered. “I’m an M.D. Simple professional courtesy could open doors easier than a commando raid.”
Painter’s lips hardened. Lisa had helped Sigma multiple times in the past. Her medical expertise, especially in regards to Amanda’s pregnancy, could prove useful-and likely why Kat had involved her today. And Painter had to admit that Lisa’s suggestion made sense, risked less exposure, but he hated to put her in danger.
“I can accompany her,” Kat offered. “Possibly posing as a potential new client.”
“But you’ve got a newborn and a toddler at home.”
“And I’ve also got a husband with too much time on his hands,” she argued. “Monk can keep an eye on Harriet and Penelope for a couple of days.”
Monk Kokkalis, her spouse, was a former Sigma operative who had opted to retire so he could spend more time with his wife and family. He’d also had one too many close calls during prior missions and called it quits.
“I don’t think your husband would want you out in the field,” Painter warned.
“It’s not like I’m traveling halfway around the world. It’s barely a day trip.”
Kat’s face betrayed her. Her eyes danced at the thought of getting her hands dirty again. After two back-to-back pregnancies, she clearly needed some fresh air, to stretch her legs with a little fieldwork. As proficient as she was in her role at Sigma headquarters, she was still a soldier at heart. She had not graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy and gained the rank of captain in order to be stuck in an office all day.
He sometimes forgot that about her.
He nodded. “I can get you a flight out first thing in the morning.”
She smiled, glancing over at Lisa, who wore a similar grin.
Painter realized the truth at that moment. The two women had played him from the outset, intending this result all along. Rather than calling them on it, he simply resigned himself to the inevitable.
“We should return to my office,” Kat said to Lisa. “Get everything in order before our morning flight.”
Lisa stood, gave him a quick peck on the cheek, and headed after Kat-but not before hanging back in the doorway with a smile that held infinite promise. “I’ll see you tonight.”
Painter watched them head down the hall. It was not an unpleasant sight. As they disappeared around a corner, the worries settled back over his shoulders.
He reached to a file on his desk and slipped out the top photo inside. It was the last picture taken of Amanda, smiling next to her husband, one hand supporting her belly, protective, proud.
Painter stared harder at the picture, noticing for the first time the edge of fear in her eyes, the way she leaned close to her husband, almost sheltering herself. Even the arm clutched around her partner’s waist clung a bit too tightly.
What were you so scared of, Amanda?
11:59 P.M. East Africa Time
Cal Madow mountains, Somalia
The needle sank into Amanda’s belly, delivering a burning sting of anesthetic. Her fingers dug into the thin sheets of the hospital bed. She watched it all, refusing to look away.
Her hospital gown had been pulled up over her stomach, exposing her swollen belly and protruding navel. A privacy sheet covered her from the waist down-not that they’d spared her from any indignities up to now.
“That should numb her well enough, Dr. Blake,” the tall blond woman said, disposing of the used syringe in a red sharps container. She had a slight German accent, maybe Swiss.
“Thank you, Petra.”
The British doctor patted Amanda’s arm. Like his nurse, he wore scrubs-but rather than the typical blue, his were old-fashioned, solid white. “We’ll be done in a few minutes, and you can get some rest for the night. I know it’s been a long day.”
The pair left to finish final preparations for the procedure.
Amanda had no choice but to wait in the bed. She kneaded her belly, reassuring herself and the child inside. She noted the leather restraints hanging from the rails. It frightened her that they hadn’t bothered to tie her down. It demonstrated their unflagging confidence in the security surrounding the cabin.
She stared at the ultrasound’s monitor, dark at the moment but waiting to be used in the procedure to come. They’d already performed a scan of her abdomen when she arrived here, recording her baby’s position, measuring the dimensions of his skull and approximate body length. She hadn’t resisted that first ultrasound. At the time, she had wanted to know the status of her child as fiercely as the doctor had.
In the end, it had brought her great relief to see the flutter of his heartbeat, his tiny curled fists, his small, sleepy movements. After a close examination of the sonogram, the doctor pronounced her boy wonderfully healthy.
But it seemed the medical team was not done with her.
Dr. Blake returned. Petra carried a tray holding a large syringe equipped with a five-inch-long needle. Amanda had already had an amniocentesis when she was eighteen weeks along, so she knew what to expect.
Petra swabbed her stomach with fresh antiseptic, then powered up the ultrasound and handed the lubed probe to Dr. Blake. With an eye on the monitor, the doctor guided the needle deep into her belly. The pain was minimal, like a mild menstrual cramp.
She looked away from the monitor as the tip of the needle approached her sleeping child. It was too disconcerting to watch. One slip and she could only imagine the damage that might be done.
In the end, all went well.
Fluid was drawn skillfully from the amniotic sac around her boy, and the needle withdrawn. She finally let out the breath she had been holding. Tears suddenly blurred her vision.
“Monitor her for fever,” the doctor ordered Petra. “Watch for any vaginal bleeding.”
Dr. Blake turned to Amanda. “There’s no need for tears. At least not now. We won’t have the genetic test results until the morning.”
Her first amniocentesis had been routine, done to rule out various chromosomal abnormalities like Down syndrome or genetic disorders like cystic fibrosis. But she knew that wasn’t all the doctors had been searching for-not then, not now.
The note that sent her running from the States had warned of something genetically different about her baby, something others wanted to possess. She didn’t understand much else, only enough to run before they came for her child.
Blake continued, “If the genetics are stable, your child will live-the very first of his kind. If not… well, we’ll worry about such matters then, won’t we?”
Again that paternal pat on her arm.
Even if the results were stable, she knew awful consequences would be in store for her baby boy. And if they weren’t, the medical team here would likely perform a late-term abortion.
She turned her head to the side, not knowing which result to hope for in the morning. Tears welled again as her hands found her belly-but she was certain of one thing. With the last breath in her body, she would die defending her baby.
I won’t let them harm you.
A bonfire in the outer camp glowed through the canvas wall, highlighting the crimson cross she’d noted earlier. Again she saw the odd, almost fanciful decorations along its spans, a twisting and coiling pattern that traversed both crosspieces. Only now-after the amniocentesis, after the worries about chromosomal abnormalities-did she recognize the structures.
They were helices of DNA.
She stared, disbelieving. Coldness crept through her body. Though she’d never seen this cross before, she had heard whispers about this symbol, marking an ancient mystery that traced back to the founding of her family, to a secret buried at its heart.
She had thought its existence a myth, a story meant to scare children.
But now she could no longer deny the horrible truth. It was what that cryptic note had warned her about, what had sent her running to the Seychelles in terror.
They’ve found me.
July 2, 10:12 A.M. East Africa Time
Airborne over Somalia
Gray adjusted the bulky earphones, muffled against the roar of the helicopter’s twin engines. He stared out the cabin window as Captain Alden pointed.
“There it is!” the British SRR officer yelled.
The aircraft swept low over a sun-blasted rolling landscape of parched fields, broken red rock, and occasional patches of scraggly trees. Herds of goats scattered from under the pummeling wash of the blades. In the distance, a mountain range thrust into the morning sky, breaking the horizon into jagged lines. But the medical transport chopper would not be flying that far.
Alden pointed to a large camp of tents and huts sprawled at the intersection of two gravel roads. The top of many of the tents bore red crosses. Parked vehicles-civilian cars and United Nations trucks-dotted the surrounding fields, along with many camels.
It was a relief camp run by UNICEF and operated by the French organization Médecins sans Frontières, known in the States as Doctors Without Borders. It lay sheltered in the foothills, halfway between the mountains and the ocean, acting as a way station for those living both inland and at the coast.
A groan drew Gray’s attention back to the rear cabin of the helicopter. Major Patel remained strapped in a stretcher on the floor, his morphine wearing off from the hour-long flight from Boosaaso’s airport to this medical enclave. The French doctors here would have no trouble casting his broken tibia and stabilizing him enough for travel back to Europe.
But that was not why they’d really come.
Patel’s condition was merely a cover to explain this inland journey.
Alden leaned closer, but used the radio built into the headphones to communicate. “I have a contact who should be waiting for us after we land. If any word of the kidnapped woman passed through the camp, he’ll ferret it out.”
Gray nodded and glanced over at Tucker and Seichan. Kowalski was up front with Major Butler, who was flying the helicopter.
It wasn’t a bad plan. The camp lay within the shadow of the Cal Madow mountains. As the only relief facility for hundreds of miles, the site was the major crossroads for the entire region, as Somalis from all walks of life, travelers, and nomads, came seeking medical help, continually flowing into and out of the place. Because of that, the camp was also a strategic and important clearinghouse for information. It was no wonder the SRR had someone posted on the inside here.
With care, Gray’s team might learn something vital about Amanda’s whereabouts-or at least, narrow the search parameters. Back in DC, Painter was coordinating a satellite scan of the neighboring mountains. Between boots on the ground and eyes in the skies, the hope was to pinpoint Amanda’s location before nightfall.
Sand suddenly swirled beyond the windows, kicked up as the chopper descended. With a final, stomach-lifting drop, the skids finally kissed the ground.
Alden hauled the cabin doors open. Sand and heat pounded inside as the roar of the engines whined away. They all exited the helicopter and were met by a medical team of four, who rushed forward to help offload Major Patel. His stretcher was carried away to an idling Jeep. Major Butler accompanied his injured partner, to make sure he was properly attended to and to spread the cover story that their group were foreign aid workers.
Tucker patted his dog’s side, reassuring the shepherd after the long, noisy ride.
Kowalski merely scowled at the grim surroundings. “Once… just once… why can’t we end up at some beach where women are in bikinis and where drinks come in coconuts?”
Seichan ignored him and stood at Gray’s shoulder. “What now?”
“This way!” Alden answered, heading off, accompanied by the last member of the British SRR team, Major Bela Jain. The captain pointed toward a cluster of thatched-roof huts.
As a group, they crossed through a parking lot of rusted trucks, skeletal sand-rail buggies, and beat-up motorcycles. Guarding them all stood an older Daimler Ferret scout car, painted United Nations white and emblazoned with their blue symbol. It looked like a minitank with a fully enclosed armored cabin and mounted with a Belgian L7 machine-gun turret. A United Nations peacekeeper leaned against the vehicle, eyeing them suspiciously as they passed.
Alden noted Gray’s attention. “Camps like this need to be protected. Raids are common, for drugs, even for water. Drought has devastated much of this region, contributing to famine and death, driving the people to the coasts or up into the mountains.”
They reached the circle of huts to find a French doctor kneeling beside a long line of Somali children. A nurse prepped a syringe and handed it to the doctor, who jabbed it into the bony arm of the first boy in line.
Gray had read how the civil war going on in the southern part of the country had displaced hundreds of thousands of civilians and their children, leading to outbreaks of cholera, dysentery, and hepatitis. But a vaccination program against measles and polio, along with the administration of simple deworming tablets and vitamins, was saving countless young lives.
“Here’s the contact I was telling you about,” Alden said, pointing to the doctor. “He hears everything going around the camp, misses nothing. He’s a great asset.”
Gray studied the French M.D., a middle-aged man with bulky glasses and sunburned nose and ears. But Gray was wrong about the focus of attention.
“Baashi!” Alden called out and waved an arm, stepping forward.
The spy at the camp winced as he was injected in the arm. The young dark-skinned boy thanked the doctor in French. “Merci.”
Pulling his tunic sleeve down, the child headed over. “Ah, Mr. Trevor. You come!”
“This is your contact?” Kowalski mumbled under his breath, plainly not pleased. “What is he, fourteen?”
“Thirteen actually,” Major Jain said softly. She stared at her superior with raw admiration. “Captain Alden rescued the boy from a group of Muslim insurgents outside mogadishu. A child soldier. Only eleven at the time, hyped on bloody amphetamines, brutalized and bearing scars from cigarette burns.”
Gray’s heart ached at the sight of the boy’s mile-wide smile as he rushed forward and hugged Captain Alden, who had dropped to one knee. It seemed impossible to balance such simple joy with the horrors Major Jain described.
Alden hooked an arm around the boy’s thin shoulders and led him back to the gathered group.
“Here are the people I wanted you to meet, Baashi.”
The boy smiled, staring around, but Gray saw the hint of fear in his eyes, a wariness of strangers. He leaned more tightly against Alden. Here were the cracks that exposed the past trauma.
Tucker’s dog squirmed forward, sniffing, wanting to get the scent of the newest addition to their pack.
Baashi’s eyes got huge. A small squeal of terror stretched out of him. “Ayiiii…”
“Kane, come here,” Tucker ordered, at the sound of the boy’s distress.
The shepherd returned to his handler’s side.
“Down.” Tucker reinforced the command with a flat-handed gesture. He sank to a knee next to his dog, but his words were for the boy. “He won’t hurt you. I promise. He’s a good dog.”
Tucker held out a hand, asking the boy to come forward.
Baashi remained frozen at Captain Alden’s side.
“Just let the boy be,” Seichan warned. “He’s clearly afraid of dogs.”
Kowalski made a grunt of agreement, even Jain’s eyes pinched with concern.
Tucker ignored them all and kept his arm up.
Seichan looked to Gray for help. He simply shook his head, remembering the man’s empathy scores. They had been through the roof. Tucker had a preternatural ability to interpret another’s emotional core. And maybe it wasn’t just with animals.
Clearly bonded to the child, knowing the boy, Alden also seemed to share Tucker’s understanding. “It’s okay, Baashi. If you want…”
The boy stared at the dog for a long breath, cocking his head, perhaps searching inside himself for that lost bond children have for all things furry and warm. Finally, he stepped clear of Alden’s legs, trembling a bit.
His gaze never shifted from Kane. “He good dog?” Baashi asked.
Tucker nodded once.
Baashi crept forward, approaching as if toward a perilous cliff.
Kane remained alert, only the tip of his tail twitching with excitement. Baashi reached out the back of his hand toward the dog. Kane stretched his nose, nostrils flaring, snuffling.
Baashi moved an inch closer-it was far enough.
A long pink tongue slipped out and licked the boy’s fingertips. The tail twitch turned into a big wag.
“He likes you,” Tucker said softly.
Baashi’s smile returned, shyly at first, then stronger. He moved near enough to touch Kane on the top of his head. The dog’s nose sniffed along the length of his arm.
Baashi giggled and said something in a Somali dialect.
“Tickles,” Alden translated.
Moments later, the boy was sitting on the ground, ruffling the dog’s fur and trying to avoid an onslaught of licks. Gray stared at them both, remembering Kane’s savage attack on the commando yesterday. Likewise, he tried to picture the boy with a rifle at his shoulder. In different ways, the two-boy and dog-were both warriors, and maybe Tucker had recognized that such harshness needed an outlet of innocence and play-and also trust.
Alden joined Gray. “Baashi is slowly coming around. The base here works with such children. They try to rehabilitate them, to bring out the scared child still trapped within the nightmares of those past horrors.” He eyed Baashi and the dog-then Tucker. “You’ve got a good man there.”
Gray had to agree.
Tucker stood off to the side, studying the distant mountains. After seeing how the handler and his dog had operated back in Boosaaso, how the shepherd had tracked Seichan’s blood trail through the myriad scents and smells of the city, Gray wondered if it wouldn’t be better to simply drop the pair into the mountains, let them hunt Amanda down by themselves, and radio back her location.
But that could take days… days he felt sure the president’s daughter didn’t have.
Cal Madow mountains, Somalia
From the shouts and calls beyond the tent-cabin, Amanda knew something was happening. She heard the coughing choke of several truck engines, accompanied by the barking of orders.
One of the African soldiers burst into the cabin, talked to Dr. Blake, then turned on a heel and dashed back out again. Blake crossed the medical ward and disappeared behind a privacy screen that hid another bed. The outline of his nurse shadowed the screen. They bent their heads together, talking softly.
Amanda strained to hear. If she could’ve slipped quietly out of the bed to eavesdrop, she would have attempted it. But stealthy was not a word that best described her current state. Still, another reason also fired that desire. The outline of the other hospital bed clearly showed someone occupied it.
She had no idea who it was. An injured soldier? Another of the medical staff who had fallen ill? Whoever they were, they’d been slipped into the tent in the middle of the night when she’d been sleeping. She woke to find the privacy screen up and the doctor and nurse going back and forth to attend the new patient.
All she knew was that it was a woman, hearing at one point a small cry rising from beyond the screen, definitely feminine. But the new patient had been silent ever since. Likely sedated.
At last, Blake appeared again and headed over to Amanda with a chart in his hands. He must have read her worry. “Nothing to concern yourself with, my dear.” He waved an arm toward the commotion going on outside. “It seems someone has been making inquiries as to your whereabouts. Practically knocking at our doors.”
Hope surged in Amanda at his words, stirring the child enough to kick. “Shhh,” she whispered, rubbing her belly.
Having traveled under false papers, she feared that no one knew she was the true target of the midnight raid in the Seychelles. She avoided glancing at the cross symbol with the genetic markings, knowing the truth. The high-seas kidnapping had not been random bad luck. It had been purposefully planned and executed.
But now… could someone be trying to rescue me?
Icy water quickly doused that momentary hope as Blake continued, “But they’ll be dealt with swiftly enough.” His eyes settled on hers. “We wouldn’t want to be interrupted. Especially with such good news in hand.”
She understood, looking at the chart he held. “You got back the amniocentesis results.”
Blake flipped through a couple pages. “Your baby tested perfectly. The genetics remain stable. Better than we hoped.” He smiled at her. “You’re about to give birth to a miracle.”
UNICEF camp, Somalia
Seichan huddled with Gray inside one of the huts at the edge of the hospital encampment. Kowalski and Major Jain kept guard outside, making sure no one overheard their conversation-and considering how loud they were arguing, that wouldn’t be a problem.
“Because beef is murder!” Jain said. “Hindus believe that God-”
“And if God didn’t want us to eat cows, he wouldn’t have made them so damn tasty-especially smothered in barbecue sauce!”
“That’s not an argument. You’d probably eat your own shoe if it had barbecue sauce poured on it. I mean look at your ass.”
“What about my butt?”
“I’ve seen cows with smaller rear ends.”
A sputtering sound followed, then, “Quit looking at my ass!”
Tucker stared toward the door. “Diplomacy at its finest,” he mumbled. “Your friend out there sure knows how to mend fences.”
Tucker had been included in the meeting inside the hut-not because his expertise was needed. It was because of the skinny black arm around his dog’s neck. Baashi had taken a real shine to Kane and what had started as terror now seemed a source of strength.
“No, I tell you again,” the boy stressed. “I heard no one speak of a white woman in the mountains. Not here. Not at all.”
A map had been spread out on the dirt floor.
Captain Alden crouched on the far side of it, next to the boy. “Okay, Baashi.” He leaned back and sighed. “I’m sorry, commander. I may have sent you miles out of your way for nothing. Word may have never reached here.”
Gray stared at the map. “It was a gamble,” he conceded.
Seichan heard the tick in Gray’s voice. Without even seeing his eyes, she could imagine the gears turning. He wasn’t giving up, not yet.
And it wasn’t just him.
“I can go out again,” Baashi offered. “Into the camp. Ask questions. Not just listen.”
“No,” Seichan snapped. The vehemence of her response surprised her.
Still, Gray backed her up. “Seichan’s right. It’s one thing just to eavesdrop and pass on what he’s heard, but to actively ask questions will put him in the crosshairs of our enemy. Remember what happened to Amur Mahdi back at Boosaaso.”
“And it’s not just the risk to the boy,” Seichan started. “It’s more than that.”
Gray gave her a concerned look, perhaps hearing the sudden stress in her voice. She gave a small shake of her hand, not wanting to continue, not trusting herself. The boy had already been used and brutalized as a child soldier. How would they be any different if they turned the boy into their spy? It was bad enough that the British SRR was using the kid as an informant.
Seichan stared at her hands and found her fingers tightly bound together. She knew how easy it was to twist such innocence to foul purposes as the strong preyed on the weak, twisting children into monsters, turning them into soldiers or scouts, or even sending them ahead of an advancing army as living mine detectors.
She forced her hands apart. Her fingers found the silver dragon at her neck. She recognized why the boy’s situation struck her so deeply, so personally. The realization made her both angry and ashamed.
She remembered little of her own childhood in Vietnam. Bits and pieces, none that included her father. And what she remembered of her mother she wished she could forget: of being ripped from her arms, of her mother being dragged out a door, bloody-faced and screaming, by men in military uniforms. Afterward, Seichan spent her childhood in a series of squalid orphanages across Southeast Asia, half-starved most of the time, maltreated the rest-until finally she’d taken to the streets and back alleys. It was there, when she was little older than Baashi, that the Guild found and recruited her. Over the course of the next year, the trainers stripped away not only her remaining childhood but also much of her humanity, leaving behind only an assassin.
I was this boy, she thought, abused and tortured into bloody servitude.
But she also knew there was one distinct difference between them. She pictured Baashi playing with the dog, carefree and happy. Unlike her, he was still young, malleable enough to rediscover his humanity.
She let her fingers drop from the dragon pendant, the memory of her mother dissolving away into faded whispers in the night and soft kisses on her cheek-but even then there had been tears, as if her mother knew she was about to lose her child.
The memory sparked a sudden insight regarding their current mission. “She’s a mother, too,” Seichan said, drawing Gray’s attention. “The president’s daughter…”
His eyes narrowed on hers-then widened with understanding. His fingers found her hand and squeezed his thanks, then remained there.
She stared down, wanting to feel more, but at this moment, all she felt was loss-for her childhood, her mother, even Gray. How could she ask more of his heart when she wasn’t sure what was left of her own?
“Amanda’s not only unusual because she’s white,” Gray explained to the others, “but also because she’s pregnant.”
Alden nodded. “Such a condition is rare in a kidnap victim. Someone might have made note of it.”
“And hopefully talked about it.” Gray turned to Baashi. “Have you heard anything about a pregnant woman being moved into the mountains near here? Someone with a large belly?”
To emphasize, Gray pantomimed a swollen stomach.
Baashi twisted his lips in thought and sat quietly for a moment, then slowly sagged. “No. I hear nothing about a big-belly woman with the pirates.”
Seichan studied the boy. He stared too hard at the map, kept his attention diverted away. Even his arm fell from around Kane’s neck.
“He knows something,” Seichan said. Tucker wasn’t the only one capable of reading emotions buried under the surface.
Especially this boy.
I was this boy.
“He wouldn’t lie to me,” Alden said.
“He’s not lying,” Seichan agreed, but angrily. “We’re just not asking the right question.”
Baashi’s gaze met hers. Fear shone there-and resistance.
How many times had the same emotions warred inside her?
Tucker came and sat next to the boy. “It’s okay, Baashi. Kane and I won’t let anyone hurt you.”
A silent hand signal followed: a flick of fingers, a digit pointed at the boy’s lap. Baashi didn’t see it, but Kane obeyed. The dog came forward and rested his muzzle on the boy’s knee.
Baashi placed his palm on the dog’s shoulders, drawing strength there.
“It’s okay to tell us,” Alden said softly. “No one’s mad.”
Baashi glanced sheepishly up at his father figure. “I no lie. I hear no stories about big-belly woman.”
“I never thought you did, my boy. But what is scaring you? What are you so afraid to tell us?”
He finally broke down. “I hear other stories. Of a demon man in the mountains. He make a place like this.” Baashi waved his other arm in a circle.
“Like the hospital here.”
Baashi nodded. “But he only look after the big bellies on the woman.”
“He takes care of pregnant women?” Alden asked, repeating Gray’s pantomime of a swollen stomach.
“Yes, but they say bad things. Mothers go there. Never come back. A very bad place.”
Tucker patted the boy on the shoulder. “You did good, Baashi.”
The boy refused to look up, showing no relief.
Gray shifted to the map. “Do the stories say where in the mountains this doctor works?”
“Yes,” Baashi said, but he still wouldn’t look at the map.
“Can you show Kane?” Tucker said.
The boy glanced from soldier to dog-then slowly nodded. “I show you. But it’s a bad place.”
As the boy reached for the map, Kowalski burst into the room. “We’ve got a chopper inbound.”
Alden seemed unconcerned. “They have medical drops all the time. Could be another patient, supplies, or-”
Major Jain shoved past Kowalski and dove inside. “Incoming! Get down!”
Gray rolled Seichan to the floor. Tucker and Alden sheltered the boy, pinning him under their bodies. Baashi clung tightly to Kane.
A sharp whistling screamed across the roof of the hut-followed by a massive explosion that shook thatch from the roof.
Jain returned to the door.
Another sharp scream of a rocket erupted.
She leaped back with even worse news. “This one’s coming straight at us!”
July 2, 5:04 A.M. EST
Painter woke to the ringing of his cell phone, a crescendo of escalating notes that set his heart to thudding hard in his chest. He lay in bed next to Lisa, their naked limbs tangled together, his hand resting on the curve of her backside.
She sat up with him, going instantly alert, trained from years of being on-call at a hospital. The sheets shed from her breasts; her eyes shone in the predawn darkness. She also knew that particular ringtone, set for extreme emergencies.
Painter grabbed his cell phone from the nightstand and answered it.
“Director, we’ve got a problem.” It was Kat Bryant, calling from Sigma headquarters. He glanced at the clock. It was barely after five in the morning.
When he’d left last night with Lisa, Kat had still been in the bunker, running logistics for Gray’s operation and coordinating the various intelligence branches. Had she ever left?
“What’s happened?” he asked.
“I’m fielding some frantic S.O.S.’s out of that UNICEF camp in Somalia, where Gray was headed. Reports of rocket fire. Some sort of attack.”
“Do we have eyes on it?”
“Not yet. I’m already working with NRO. I tried to raise Gray, but so far there’s been no response.”
Likely a tad busy.
“What about support? We have the navy SEAL team cooling its heels in neighboring Djibouti.”
“I can get them airborne, but it’ll still be forty to fifty minutes for them to reach that inland camp.”
Painter closed his eyes, his mind racing through various parameters and scenarios. If he called in the SEAL team, it could threaten the entire mission, expose his hand too early. SEAL Team six had been assigned here specifically to extract the president’s daughter-not to play Un peacekeepers.
“Do we have any idea who is attacking?” Painter asked.
“The camp has been raided twice in the last ninety days. Both drug runs. And two months ago, a doctor got kidnapped by one of the local warlords. This attack may have nothing to do with Gray or the search for Amanda.”
Painter wasn’t buying it. He pictured the assassination of Amur Mahdi. The enemy seemed to know their every move. With all of the various intelligence agencies engaged in this mission-and now the British SRR-something was leaking out.
Painter trusted his own organization, but there were too many cooks in this international kitchen-not to mention the president’s family. The leak could be coming from anywhere.
Painter had to make a tough decision. He could not lose focus. He had to preserve the SEAL team and its operational readiness for a possible fast extraction.
“Director?” Kat asked.
He kept his voice firm. “Get me eyes in the field as soon as you can, but for now, Gray’s team is on their own.”
A short pause followed, then Kat responded, “Understood.”
Lisa’s hand slipped into his. She didn’t say a word, offering only her warmth.
“Should I delay the mission to South Carolina?” Kat asked.
Painter remembered the scheduled investigation into the clinic where Amanda had her in vitro fertilization performed. He could not escape the feeling that Amanda’s sudden flight to the Seychelles had something to do with her child. First, the assassination of Amur, and now this new attack on the hospital camp-somebody intended for Amanda never to be found.
“No,” he said, glancing at Lisa. “We’ll head over to Sigma command right now. I want you both out on that first flight to Charleston.”
A longer delay followed. Painter wondered if he’d lost Kat-then she came back on the line. “Director, I’ve got a few captured still shots of the camp. From a French weather satellite. They’re not the best, but I’m sending them to your phone.”
Painter pulled the device from his ear and switched to speaker as he waited for the image to fill the small screen. Line by line, the horror of the situation in Somalia revealed itself.
The image offered a high aerial view. Few details were discernible, especially with the thick pall of smoke obscuring most of the camp. Tiny dots represented people and vehicles trying to escape the attack. Overhead, the blurring image of a helicopter hovered above the chaos, like some predatory bird, waiting to pick off the weak.
Kat’s small voice emerged over the speaker. “Did you get the sat-photo?”
Lisa peered over his shoulder, covering her mouth with a hand.
Painter struggled to keep to his original plan. It was easier to abandon Gray’s team to a bad situation when it wasn’t staring him in the face. But no matter how tough or callous, he knew his original decision was the correct one.
With a few final instructions, he signed off with Kat and lowered the phone. He stared out into the darkness.
Someone desperately wanted to stop Amanda from being found.
12:12 P.M. East Africa Time
Cal Madow mountains, Somalia
Dr. Edward Blake held the radio handset to his ear. He stood in the communications tent, crammed with gear and festooned with satellite dishes. The swelter of the day drew beads of perspiration down his forehead.
But he knew all of that sweat was not from the heat alone.
He even held his white safari hat in his other hand-not because he was indoors, but because of the presence at the other end of the line. Few personages ever intimidated him. He had been raised in an aristocratic family in Leeds, whose lineage included earls and dukes, all distantly related to the royal family. At estate dinners throughout the ages, their home had hosted famous figures of past and present, from the wartime leader General George Patton to entertainers who had been knighted by the queen. In Oxford, his roommate had been a billionaire’s son, a prince out of Saudi Arabia, a deadly man who would eventually head a Muslim fundamentalist group until he’d been caught and hung.
Still, none of that affected him or impressed him-not like now.
Edward’s fingers tightened on the handset.
The voice on the other end was computerized, masking the identity of the speaker. Edward had no idea to whom he spoke-but he knew the power behind that cloaked voice. It was somehow appropriate the voice was computerized, because he knew he was speaking to a vast machine, a powerhouse that had moved throughout the ages, destroying all in its wake and retooling the chaos to suit its ends.
And Edward wanted to be more than a cog in that vast machine; he intended to drive that massive engine. It had been luck that landed Amanda on his doorstep-his egg-harvesting clinic, one of many in this region, had been chosen to facilitate this matter-but it would take his skill to turn that good fortune into an opportunity to move up the ladder.
To achieve that, he needed success.
“The problem is being addressed,” Edward promised. “The Americans will never reach the mountains in time.”
“AND THE FETUS?” the voice asked.
“The DNA is stable. As we all hoped.”
He dabbed the sweat from his brow with the back of a sleeve. At least that was good news. Plans could move forward-behind schedule, yes, but still salvageable.
Edward continued, “As to that other matter, I can perform the C-section immediately. Get things ready.”
“VERY GOOD.” Though the voice was flat and affectless, Edward imagined the satisfaction behind those inhuman inflections.
“And what of the mother?” Edward asked, suspecting this was a touchy matter.
The answer came without hesitation. “SHE’S NO LONGER OF USE. HER DEATH WILL SERVE A GREATER PURPOSE.”
The voice moved on to exacting detail about how preparations and procedures would continue from here. One last item concerning the mother was addressed.
“BURN HER BODY. IT SHOULD BE UNRECOGNIZABLE.”
The sweat down his back went cold. The pure callousness both appalled and excited him. What would it be like to move through the world with such utter disregard for morality-driven only by purpose?
The call finally ended.
Lost in preparations, he vacated the communications tent, strode through the sun-speckled glade of the camp, and up the steps to the makeshift medical ward. He tried his best to wear such a mantle of amoral drive as he stepped through the door and let it clap shut behind him.
Petra glanced up, shifting a fall of blond hair, her face open and questioning.
Edward looked beyond her to the hospital bed at the back of the ward. Amanda stared at him. He must have failed to fully don that cold mantle; something must have still shone in his face. The patient pulled her legs up, an instinctive desire to protect her child.
But it’s not your child that needs protecting at the moment…
Edward turned to Petra. “Get everything ready. We’re doing this now.”
July 2, 12:15 P.M. East Africa Time
UNICEF Camp, Somalia
With the blast still ringing in his head, Tucker pulled the dazed boy to his feet. Kane shook off dust and pieces of thatch. Smoke and sand floated in the air. The air reeked of burned flesh and flaming fuel.
The rocket had hit outside the hut, collapsing a corner of the clay-brick structure. A large blackened crater opened a few yards away. Bodies lay strewn at the edge, tossed and torn like so many rag dolls.
Tucker found his breathing growing heavier, flashing back to prior firefights in Afghanistan. He pulled the boy’s face into his chest, not wanting him to see. Baashi didn’t resist. Though deafened, he still felt the boy crying in terror, felt his wracking sobs.
Captain Alden groaned and rolled onto his rear end. Blood covered half his face, but it appeared to be only from a scalp wound. He must have caught a piece of the blast debris.
“Get him out of here!” Alden yelled, flopping his arm weakly toward the door.
Others rose out of the smoke, shedding rubble, bearing cuts and abrasions. Gray stumbled forward with Seichan.
Kowalski helped Major Jain to her feet. She wobbled slightly but found her footing. “You okay?” he asked
She shook free of him-teetered sideways, then grabbed his arm again. “Maybe not.”
When the Indian woman spotted her captain, she still tried to go to him, concern on her face. Alden waved her off. “Go with them, Jain. Help get them clear.”
“What about you?” Gray grabbed the map from the floor and passed it to Baashi. They still needed the boy to pinpoint the secret medical encampment rumored to be up in the mountains. Even rattled, the commander never lost sight of the mission objective. “Captain, you need medical attention.”
Alden grinned through the gore. “Then I guess I’m bloody well at the right place, aren’t I, commander?” He teetered back to his feet. “Besides, I’ve got two men here. I’m not leaving them until I know they’re safe.”
Or dead, Tucker added silently.
Punctuating that dour thought, another blast rocked deeper into the camp. Kane flinched, ducking lower.
Gray grabbed the captain by the upper arm. “You’ll do your men no good on your own.” He dragged the Brit out the door. “Come with me.”
Alden looked ready to argue, but Major Jain backed Gray up.
“Commander Pierce is right, sir.”
“Maybe we can argue later!” Kowalski shouted at them by the door. “Chopper’s swinging back this way!”
“Out of here! now!” Gray ordered.
The captain reluctantly followed. They rounded the hut and moved out among the field of parked vehicles.
Tucker guessed where the commander was taking them. He would’ve done the same, to utilize every resource to survive.
Gray led them straight to the minitank, painted white and emblazoned with the Un world logo. The Daimler Ferret armored car still sat where they’d seen it earlier. The peacekeeper posted beside it had climbed into the turret, manning the machine gun. The weapon smoked from prior shots, but the helicopter was currently beyond range on the other side of the camp, although it wouldn’t take long for the chopper to circle back around.
Gray called to the peacekeeper as a handful of refugees fled to either side of them. “You’re a sitting duck up there, soldier! You need to get this vehicle moving, help defend the camp.”
The man, dark-skinned and helmeted, yelled back in a French accent. He was young, likely not even twenty. Fear frosted his words. “I am alone! I cannot shoot and drive, monsieur.”
Gray turned to Alden. “Here is how you can best help your men. Put this tank in motion. Draw the chopper’s attention and take that bastard down.”
Alden understood. “I’ll do what I can to cover your escape.” The captain pointed to a pair of sand-rail buggies fifty yards away. The skeletal dune runners looked perfectly suited for this rough terrain. “If there are no keys, they’re easy to hotwire. Just jam something sharp into the ignition and twist to get them started.”
The captain’s next words were for his fellow soldier. “Stay with them, Jain. Get them all clear, and I’ll see what I can do from here.”
The major looked exasperated, but she knew how to take orders and nodded.
Gray shook Alden’s hand as they parted ways. “Be safe.”
“You do the same.” The captain stopped long enough to give Baashi a fast hug. “Do what they say!”
“I… I will, Mr. Trevor.”
The captain nodded and climbed into the armored car.
Gray hurried them forward, ordering them to secure their radio earpieces in place.
Ahead, the sand-rail cars were little more than engines strapped to roll cages with some seats bolted in place. They had no windows, fenders, or doors. But Tucker had played with them back in the dunes near Camp Pendleton. Their advantage was a low center of gravity and high flotation tires perfect for skimming over sand and hopping over obstacles.
Kowalski must have had a similar experience and rubbed his palms together as they reached the vehicles. “Which one’s mine?”
Machine-gun fire erupted behind them. They all leaped forward and split on the run, dividing between a smaller two-seater, which Gray and Seichan commandeered, and a larger four-seater with a bench in the rear.
Jain reached the driver’s seat first, but Kowalski wasn’t having any of it.
“I’ll drive!” he yelled.
“Listen, boyo, I’ve had plenty of tactical driving-”
“And I didn’t just get a concussion. So move it, sister!”
She looked ready to bite his head off, but she was still wobbly on her feet. She finally relented and abandoned the driver’s seat to Kowalski. He discovered a screwdriver already jammed in place in the steering column, serving as a key. Judging by the roar next to them, Gray started his vehicle with no more difficulty.
Jain took the passenger seat up front, leaving the rear bench to Tucker and the boy. Kane crouched between them, panting, flinging a bit of drool in his adrenaline-fired excitement.
“Hang on!” Kowalski yelled, grinning way too big.
The buggy leaped forward like a bee-stung horse-just as an ear-shattering explosion flung a nearby truck into the air.
Another rocket blast.
Tucker twisted around. Behind them, the helicopter roared out of the camp and aimed toward them. An M230 chain-gun on the chopper’s undercarriage chewed across the sand-chasing after them.
But they weren’t defenseless.
The Ferret armored car raced into view, as fleet-footed on its large tires as its nimble namesake. It crossed into the path of the attack helicopter. From the minitank’s turret, the machine gun chattered, firing up at the bird in the sky.
Captain Alden manned the weapon himself, shrouded in gun smoke and swirls of dusty sand. The minitank skidded around to face the diving helicopter head-on. Rounds cracked into the chopper’s windshield, driving the bird to the side as the pilot panicked.
The armored car spun a full circle and took off, driving wildly through the parked vehicles. The chopper twisted in midair and took off after them, like a hawk after a fleeing rabbit-or, in this case, a fleeing ferret.
Tucker settled back around, looking forward. Kowalski hit a ridge at full speed and jumped the buggy into the air. The driver hollered his joy. Tucker and Baashi flew into the aluminum half-roof over the bench seat. Tucker managed to get hold of Kane’s leather collar as they crashed back down.
The dog growled angrily, ready to bite someone.
Tucker couldn’t blame him. He glared at the back of Kowalski’s stubbly head, suddenly wishing he were back with the rockets and chain guns. It would be safer than this backseat.
No wonder Gray had fled to the other buggy.
He was no fool.
Maybe this wasn’t so smart.
Gray’s buggy twisted sideways down a steep hill, made treacherous by loose shale and slippery scree. He broadsided a patch of brittle bushes at the bottom of the slope and crashed through them.
Seichan ducked away as thorns and broken branches exploded through the open roll cage.
Once clear, she yelled at him, “Make for the gravel road we saw from the air!”
“That’s what I’m trying to do!”
He had set off overland initially, thinking the road would be too obvious an escape route if the helicopter decided to give chase. He’d already spotted other cars, trucks, even camels fleeing up that road, driven all in the same direction by the attack. He didn’t want to be trapped in that traffic jam if there was a firefight.
His original plan was to travel as far as they could, then cut back to the road. But the hilly terrain proved tougher than it looked, broken up into rocky hummocks, sudden cliffs, and thick patches of bushes and trees. Ahead, it looked even worse as the land pushed up toward the mountains.
Risky or not, the road had to be safer than this.
With that in mind, he drove the car up the next rise to get a better view and gain his bearings. In the rearview mirror, he spotted Kowalski following him. And farther behind him, an ominous column of oily black smoke marked the horizon.
Let’s hope that’s the helicopter.
“There!” Seichan pointed.
He turned his attention forward. A quarter mile away, the road looked little better than a dry riverbed winding across the bitter terrain. It disappeared into the higher hills and scraggly lower forests.
Kowalski skidded up next to him.
Gray touched his throat mike as he nosed his vehicle down the far side of the rise. “Kowalski, we’re heading back to the road. We’ll make better time there.”
“Too bad,” his partner responded in his ear. “It was just getting fun.”
From the white-knuckled grips of his passengers, Gray doubted they’d describe his driving in such a positive light.
Though the dune runners were made for spinning, jumping, and turning-all necessary skills to traverse this torturous terrain-it still felt like riding a jackhammer on top of a cement mixer. And the last quarter-mile journey back to the road was no gentler on his kidneys.
At last, he fishtailed his buggy onto the gravel, which, after the off-road trek, felt as smooth as a freshly paved highway.
He sped gratefully down the road, which climbed in sweeping switchbacks up into the mountains. Over the next hour, he kept a hard pace, passing the occasional slower truck.
The forest slowly grew thicker and taller as they gained elevation. Rounding a sharp turn, he came close to a head-on collision with a camel. The creature dodged around the buggy with a bleating complaint. Gray noted the empty saddle and the bundle of gear tied to it as the beast continued downhill.
Worried, he slowed his buggy to a stop.
Kowalski flew around the corner with a rumble of his engine and a throaty grind of gears. He came close to rear-ending Gray, but swerved to a halt in time.
Gray cut his engines and signaled Kowalski to do the same.
In the silence, Gray strained-then heard a distinct pop-pop-pop.
He pictured the empty saddle.
“Ambush,” he said.
Seichan immediately understood, too. “Someone set up a roadblock ahead. They’re sweeping up after the helicopter.”
Gray nodded. Any refugees who attempted to flee into the mountains were being gunned down ahead. But another cold certainty settled in his belly. It had been nagging him since the first rocket blast. He had hoped the air attack had been orchestrated by local insurgents or warlords. Drugs and medical supplies were as good as gold here, especially in the war-torn south. But this ambush on the road into the mountains removed any uncertainty.
This was about Amanda Gant-Bennett.
“This is too bold a move for pirates,” he said. “The chopper attack, now this roadblock. They’re not trying to hide their actions any longer. They’re pulling out the big guns and making a final stand.”
“What are you getting at?” Seichan asked.
“This isn’t defense. This is an endgame.” He turned to Seichan. “They wouldn’t move so openly, so brazenly, unless they saw no further need to keep their mountain enclave secret.”
Realization dawned in Seichan’s eyes.
“Either they’ve moved Amanda already-” she started.
Gray finished, “Or she’s dead.”
Amanda tugged against the padded leather cuffs tying her to the hospital bed. Minutes ago, they’d placed an IV catheter in her right arm and given her an injection that fogged the edges of her mind. A saline bag slowly dripped next to her.
She wanted to panic but couldn’t.
More than the drugs, what kept her calm was the steady beeping of a fetal heart monitor. The nurse had strapped a sensor belt around her belly. It communicated wirelessly to the bedside device.
My baby’s fine… my baby’s fine…
It was her mantra to keep her sanity.
Especially with all the commotion in the room. Blue-smocked medical personnel came and went, busy behind the privacy screen of the other bed. Elsewhere, soldiers hauled out equipment under the direction of Dr. Blake.
Movement to the side drew her muddled attention to Petra. The nurse hauled a portable anesthetic machine to her bedside.
At the sight of the clear mask hanging from the hoses, Amanda fought against her cuffs, but she was already too weak.
Dr. Blake came over and touched her wrist. He raised a syringe filled with a milky fluid. “Don’t worry. We won’t let any harm come to your baby.”
She was unable to stop him as he inserted the syringe needle into her IV line and slowly pushed the plunger.
Petra lowered a mask toward her face.
She twisted her head away. Across the room, she watched one of the medical staff push aside the privacy screen. At long last, she saw who shared the ward with her, who lay in the other bed.
Horror swelled through her.
She screamed as Petra grabbed her head and forced the mask down over her nose and mouth.
“Now, now, it’ll be all over in a few seconds,” Blake promised her. “Three, two…”
Darkness closed around her, narrowing her view of the world to a pinpoint.
Then it was gone.
July 2, 1:55 P.M. East Africa Time
Cal Madow mountains, Somalia
Gray paced the shoulder of the road while the sun baked the gravel into a shimmering mirage. He and the others kept to the shadows of the neighboring forest. It sang with the buzz of cicadas and the calls of songbirds. Farther up into the highlands, green forests beckoned, draped in mists, like a sliver of Eden. Emphasizing this, the occasional breeze carried down the scent of wild-growing jasmine.
He clutched a satellite phone in his hand and weighed the risks of opening an encrypted communication channel to Sigma command. From the series of attacks-both in Boosaaso and here-intelligence was clearly leaking to the enemy.
And right now, his team had a thin advantage.
No one knows we’re still alive.
Gray wanted to keep it that way. But more than that, what would be gained in the end if he reached out to sigma? What support could they offer? To mobilize an adequate response would risk exposing both their survival and their location. Even SEAL Team six, awaiting word in neighboring Djibouti, could not be activated. Such an overt force had a limited window to get in and get out safely. It was up to Gray’s team to first pin down the whereabouts of the president’s daughter.
If Gray attempted to call the States and if word should reach her captors that his team was closing in on her position, the enemy would be more apt to act rashly, to kill her on the spot.
Knowing what he had to do, Gray shoved the satellite phone back into his pack.
We’re on our own until we find her.
With that settled, he waved Seichan over to him. She approached with Baashi, a hand resting on his shoulder. Gray noticed how protective she was with the boy. He had never seen her bond so quickly to another person.
Gray knelt in front of Baashi. “Can you show us on the map where the other hospital camp is hidden? The one with the bad doctor?”
The boy looked down at his toes and shook his head. “I no can’t.”
Baashi looked scared. Gray imagined the gunfire must have spooked him, likely triggering memories of other firefights he had been in as a child soldier. Kane could probably help soothe those rattled nerves, but Tucker knelt with his dog at the edge of the forest, suiting his partner up in a Kevlar vest. The pair readied themselves for a reconnaissance mission, to get some eyes on the ambush ahead and ascertain what sort of force lay between them and the mountains.
Farther away, Kowalski and the SRR woman, Major Jain, had returned to the last switchback, blocked the road with their two buggies, and turned away any vehicles trying to use the road to get into the mountains. Jain knew the native dialects well enough to persuade them to take a different route, though Gray suspected Jain’s pistol and Kowalski’s rifle did most of the persuading for them.
Gray had to admit the British major was an asset and, considering how she handled Kowalski, matching him toe-to-toe, she was one tough soldier.
They would need that ahead.
Gray returned his attention forward. The best chance for Gray’s small team was to slip past that enemy line unseen. They didn’t have the manpower for a full frontal assault.
But once past that roadblock, Gray needed to know where to go-and fast. The clock was ticking down for Amanda. He was sure of it.
He leaned closer to Baashi and coaxed those large dark eyes to face him again. “We won’t let anyone harm you, I promise.”
The boy’s face hardened, offended. “I no afraid.”
“Of course you’re not. I know Captain Alden is very proud of you. So then why don’t you show me on the map where the secret camp is located?”
Baashi sagged, crestfallen, and admitted the reason for his reluctance. “I no have the map.”
Gray hid his shock, not wanting to scare the boy. He had given Baashi the topographic map back in the hut, so he could study it. “Where is it?”
Baashi’s eyes looked wet with pending tears. He waved toward the way they’d come. “I no have it. Blow away.”
Gray realized the boy must have lost it during the rough trek here.
“It’s not his fault,” Seichan said. “If the rattling had gotten any worse, I might’ve lost a filling or two myself.”
She was right, and Gray knew where the true blame lay. He’d not been thinking when he’d trusted the map to the boy. Baashi looked so much older than his few years, aged by his rough treatment. But Gray also knew this wasn’t his first mistake during this mission.
The hard glint to Seichan’s icy eyes suggested those errors hadn’t gone unnoted.
“But I show you,” Baashi said, brightening. He tapped a thumb against his skinny breastbone. “No map-but I map. I take you there.”
Seichan fixed Gray with a resolute stare. “We can’t put the boy in such danger. We don’t even know what lies ahead.”
He nodded and glanced to Tucker and Kane. “We’ll wait to see what they discover. We’ll only move forward if there’s a safe path around this ambush.”
Tucker knelt in front of Kane. He pointed into the forest and touched a finger to his lips. From here, they needed the utmost stealth.
He roughed up the fur of the shepherd’s neck and stared Kane in the eyes. “Who’s a good boy?”
The dog touched his nose to Tucker’s.
That’s right-you are.
Tucker felt the others’ eyes upon him. He didn’t care, unabashed by the display of affection.
“Let’s go,” Tucker commanded and held up five fingers, instructing Kane to keep five meters ahead of him.
Together, they moved into the deeper shadows of the forest. Kane slipped away, vanishing with the barest rustle of leaf. Tucker followed, stepping carefully, letting his dog take the lead, becoming an extension of his senses.
In his earpiece, he heard Kane’s quiet breath, along with the whisper of birdsong and creak of branches. He kept one eye on the shielded screen of his phone that gave him a survey of the upcoming terrain from a dog’s point of view.
They slowly but steadily paralleled the road through the forest.
Kane’s night-vision camera stripped away shadows, making sure they didn’t stumble upon any sentries hidden in the forest. But more than the night vision, Tucker trusted his partner’s nose.
When Kane slowed, so did Tucker. When the dog circled wide, Tucker kept the same wide berth. Though separated by several yards, they moved in tandem, like a choreographed ballet.
All the while, Tucker radioed soft instructions via Kane’s earpiece, keeping the dog following the rough turn of the gravel road.
Through the sensitive microphone on Kane’s camera, harsh voices suddenly reached Tucker’s ear.
“Slow,” he subvocalized to his partner. “Creep. Left.”
The view through the camera dropped low; forward movement became a step-by-step approach back to the road.
The trees grew thinner.
Three trucks-all Land Rovers-appeared ahead, blocking a choke point where the roadway had been blasted through a steep ridgeline. Soldiers paced in front; more stood on the hoods. Other men rolled vehicles to the side of the road or dragged bodies, leaving bloody trails.
The entire force wore black vests, helmets, and carried assault rifles.
Same as the crew who had assassinated Amur Mahdi.
Tucker counted at least fifteen men.
“Down,” he instructed Kane. “Stay.”
He touched his throat mike and reported to Gray. “Commander, do you see this?”
“Affirmative. We aren’t getting through that logjam without a major firefight. Can you find another path around them?”
“Do my best.”
He left Kane to guard his back, to maintain his post by the road. Earlier, while en route here, he had heard the faint tinkling of water through his dog’s microphone. He crept through the woods slowly, heading away from the road, searching for the source. It did not take long to discover a thin stream of water trailing along a sandy gully.
It flowed only a foot wide and a few inches deep, runoff from the highlands, the last vestiges of the rainy season trickling away, so small it would never reach the arid plains below.
Still, he dipped his finger into it, remembering an old adage of his survival-training instructor: Where there’s water, there’s a way.
He headed upstream, hoping for that to be true.
Within fifty yards, the feeble wash reached the steep ridgeline that blocked the way forward. There he bore witness to the power of water, even a flow as anemic as this one. Centuries of wet seasons had slowly eroded a cut through the sandy rock. It was narrow, dropping through a series of short falls, and easily climbable, giving them ready access to the highlands above.
Focused upward, he failed to note the figure kneeling by the pool at the base of the cataracts, filling a canteen, a rifle resting beside him.
Tucker had forgotten his other survival-training instruction.
Never let your guard down.
2:13 P.M .
The heat of the day, even in the shade, wore on Gray. He kept a watch on the phone screen, viewing the feed from Kane’s camera. The assault team remained a quarter mile up the road. He watched them mill, heard their harsh laughter. But at any time, they might send a scout or one of the trucks down this way.
They needed to be gone before that happened.
He checked the clock on the corner of the small screen. Tucker had been gone for ten minutes. No word. That was long enough. He raised his fingers to activate the radio mike at his throat.
Before he could speak, a rustle drew his attention back to the woods.
Seichan raised her pistol.
Tucker shoved through some bushes and into the open. His eyes had a wounded, tired look. “Found a way,” he said. “Let’s go.”
Gray quickly gathered the others. He and Seichan flanked Tucker as they hurried into the forest. Kowalski and Jain followed with Baashi between them. The woman had an arm around the boy, intending to keep him safe.
“Any problems?” Gray asked Tucker, sensing something troubled the man.
“Only a small one,” he said sourly.
They reached a tiny creek and followed it uphill, moving as quietly as possible. The waterway led to a steep ridge, eroded throughout by a series of cataracts.
“Who is that?” Jain asked, pointing the muzzle of her rifle at a soldier gagged and hog-tied-out cold-sprawled beside a small pond at the base of the falls.
Seichan moved warily closer, searching the remaining woods.
“He’s alone,” Tucker said dully. “Came for water. But someone could come looking.”
“Why didn’t you just kill him?” Kowalski asked. “Hide his body?”
Tucker mumbled. “Almost did kill him. Caught me by surprise.”
Seichan dropped to a knee and examined the soldier, then glanced at Baashi. Her voice held a sharp edge. “He’s only a boy.”
Gray got a better look at the soldier’s face. He looked even younger than Baashi.
“I jumped him,” Tucker said, breathing harder. “I moved fast, barely thinking. Didn’t want him to alert the others. Had my arm around his neck, ready to snap it like a twig-only then saw he was a child. Still, I squeezed him until he passed out.”
Tucker stared down at his arms in disbelief and shame.
Gray remembered the fly Tucker had spared back in Tanzania, blocking his hand from swatting at it. The man clearly had enough of killing, any killing-unless it was in self-defense or to protect others.
To the side, Baashi stared at the boy on the ground, unblinking.
Did he see himself lying there?
Baashi looked at Tucker-and took a step away, scared.
That fear, more than anything, wounded the man.
“C’mon,” Gray said. “He’ll be fine. Someone will find him, but we don’t want to be anywhere near here when that happens.”
Tucker radioed his dog as the others climbed the steplike cataracts through the ravine. Gray waited beside him.
“You had no choice,” Gray said.
“We always have a choice,” Tucker answered bitterly.
Kane came silently into view, rushing forward, not gleefully but subdued. He sidled next to his handler, rubbing against his legs, as if sensing Tucker’s dark mood. Tucker patted him, reassured him.
Gray suspected some of that went both ways.
He had worked with military handlers and their dogs in the past. They had a saying-It runs down the lead-describing how the emotions of the pair became shared over time, binding them together as firmly as any leash.
Watching Tucker and Kane, he believed that now.
The two consoled each other, supported each other, found reserves of strength that could only be forged by such a deep connection.
Finally, Tucker stared over at Gray; so did Kane.
He nodded back at the pair.
They were ready.
They were soldiers.
All three of them.
And they had their mission.
July 2, 8:01 A.M. EST
Painter found himself back in the Situation Room. His boss, the head of DARPA, General Gregory Metcalf, had summoned him to this early-morning meeting. The other attendees gathered in the president’s private conference room.
General Metcalf was already seated. He was African-American, a graduate of West Point, and though in his midfifties, he was as sturdy as a linebacker. The general leaned his head toward his superior, the secretary of defense, Warren W. Duncan, who wore a crisp suit and whose stark gray hair looked oiled and combed into rigid submission.
The three remaining members of this intimate summit were all of one family. Two were seated opposite the military men. The First Lady, Teresa Gant, looked like a faded lily in a beige twill dress. Her dark blond hair had been piled neatly atop her head, but strands had come loose and hung along the sides of her face, framing eyes that held a haunted look. Next to her, resting a large hand on hers, was her brother-in-law, the secretary of state, Robert Gant, sitting stiffly, defensive. His steely gaze upon Painter hid daggers.
And the greeting from the final member of the group was no friendlier.
President James T. Gant stalked the far side of the table. With his usual crisp directness, honed from his prior years as the CEO of various Gant family enterprises, he laid into Painter.
“What is this about an attack on some hospital camp in Somalia? Why is this the first I’m hearing about it?”
Painter had suspected this was the reason for this sudden call to the White House. The intelligence communities were already abuzz in regards to this attack, further complicated by the involvement of British Special Forces. Painter had hoped to keep a lid on this smoking powder keg for at least another couple of hours, to keep its connection to Amanda’s kidnapping secret.
That wasn’t to be.
Warren Duncan put a nail in the coffin. “I heard from the British Special Reconnaissance Regiment. They said they had men in the field there, that they were assisting some covert American team.”
James Gant pointed a finger at Painter. “Your team.” He swung around, unable to hide his disgust. “Show him, Bobby.”
The president’s brother tapped a video remote and brought up a live satellite feed from the UNICEF hospital. The camp was a smoky ruin, pocked by mortar craters. Survivors rushed about, seeking to aid the injured, or kneeling over bodies, or trying to put out fires.
President Gant shoved an arm toward the screen. “You said to avoid shock-and-awe, to keep Amanda’s kidnappers from knowing they’d acquired a high-value target-my daughter!” This last boomed out of his barrel chest, making him sound like a Confederate general rallying his troops to a fight.
And, plainly, this was going to be a brawl.
With Painter as the punching bag.
“That looks like shock to me, director,” Gant said. “And I’m certainly not awed by such a ham-fisted operation as you’re running. Not when my daughter and unborn grandson are at risk.”
Painter bore the brunt of this tirade without breaking eye contact with the president. The man needed to vent, to lash out. He waited for the fire to die back, enough to let reason slip past the panic of a frightened parent.
“What do you have to say for yourself?” Gant finished, running fingers through his salt-and-pepper hair. His voice cracked on the last couple of words.
That was his opening. He kept his response just as blunt and direct. “Mr. President, the kidnappers know they have your daughter. I suspect they’ve known from the very beginning. For some unknown reason, she had been targeted for abduction.”
His statement both deflated the president and flared the fear brighter in his eyes.
“From this attack,” Painter continued with a nod to the wall, “and other incidents, it’s clear Amanda’s kidnappers have forgone hiding their knowledge. The boldness of this assault suggests two things.”
He ticked them off on his fingers. “One. The enemy must be spooked to act so brazenly, which suggests my men are closing in on her true location. Two. Amanda’s best hope for recovery lies with that same team.”
Support came from a surprising source. Painter’s boss cleared his throat. “I agree with the director, Mr. President,” Metcalf said. “We have no other assets available. Even the fast-response SEAL team in Djibouti needs a hard target-something we don’t have. As much as this operation has blown up in our collective faces, we have no other viable options for securing your daughter.”
Okay, it was lukewarm support, but Painter would take that from his boss. After bumping heads, the two of them had a professionally respectful but uneasy relationship. And Metcalf was savvy enough in Washington politics not to stick his neck out-at least, not out too far.
“But how do we know your team is still out there?” Gant asked, getting a nod from his brother at the table. “They might all be dead.”
Painter shook his head. “They’re not.”
“How can you be so certain?”
Painter stepped forward, took the remote, and tapped in an encrypted code. He’d preestablished the feed with one of the Situation Room’s watch team. On the wall-mounted monitor, a grainy video appeared, stuttering, full of digital noise.
“I apologize for the reception. I collected this feed via an ISR plane cruising at thirty-eight thousand feet above Somalia.”
Teresa Gant stirred enough to ask, “ISR?”
Her brother-in-law answered, “Intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance. Basically, ears in the sky.”
“From there, I patched through the NRO satellite in geosynchronous orbit.”
Warren Duncan sat straighter. “This is live?”
“Maybe a six-second delay. I acquired the feed only half an hour ago.”
The president squinted a bit. “What are we seeing?”
The view was low to the ground, racing along a dirt track. Fleeting images of trees and leafy bushes flashed past at the edges.
“From the GPS coordinates transmitted, we’re seeing a road through the highland forests of the Cal Madow mountains.”
On the screen, the view zoomed up to a pair of legs, then the face of a small black boy. Audio was even worse, cutting in and out.
“… here… over by… hurry…”
The boy fled from the camera, racing away with the exuberance of youth.
“Who’s filming this?” the defense secretary asked.
Painter allowed a moment of self-satisfaction. “One of my newest recruits.”
3:08 P.M. East Africa Time
Cal Madow mountains, Somalia
Kane chased after Baashi.
“Come see!” the boy exclaimed and skittered to a stop. His arm pointed toward the jungle, to a rutted track that cut off the main road.
If you could call it a road, Gray thought.
His team had been hiking into the highlands for the past forty-five minutes, leaving the ambush miles behind. They had returned to the gravel road after giving the murderous choke point a wide berth.
Gray kept a continual ear out for the growl of truck engines behind him as he set a hard pace into the heart of the mountains. Slowly over time, the gravel under his boots gave way to dirt, then, once into the misty highlands, to nothing more than tire tracks worn into the sandy silt.
Soon, the arid lowlands were a forgotten world. Here, verdant high meadows rolled down into valleys filled with misty forests of junipers and frankincense trees. And all around them, like broken dragon’s teeth, jagged peaks thrust toward the sky.
“That Shimbaris,” Baashi said, pointing to the highest peak in that direction. It looked like a toppled skyscraper covered in emerald forest. “They say the bad doctor in Karkoor valley. That way.”
He thrust his arm again toward the rutted track off the main road.
Tucker crouched at the turnoff, picking up clods of freshly turned dirt. “Been recent traffic through here. Mud tires.”
“The Land Rovers at the roadblock,” Gray said, meeting his eye.
They were on the right path.
Gray turned to the boy. “I want you to stay here, Baashi, off the road, hidden entirely out of sight. You don’t come out until you see one of us.”
“But I help!” he said.
“You’ve helped enough. I told Captain Alden I’d protect you.”
Seichan pointed a finger at the boy’s nose. “And you promised him you’d listen to us, right?”
The two of them sounded like scolding parents-and got the usual sullen teenager response. Baashi sighed heavily, crossed his arms, expressing his disappointment with every fiber of his being.
With the matter settled, the boy went into hiding, out of harm’s way, while Gray and the others headed down the shadowy turnoff, a tunnel made by a canopy of woven branches. They’d not taken more than a few steps when Major Jain called from the rear.
Gray turned; the British soldier still stood at the edge of the main road in the sunlight. She held a hand up, then pointed it toward her ear.
Gray cocked his head, listening. He first heard Kane, rumbling deep in his throat, sensing something, too. Then in the distance, echoing off the surrounding peaks, the deeper groan of truck engines.
“Company coming,” Kowalski said.
Jain ducked off the road and into the shadows to join them.
Tucker grimaced. “Must’ve found the boy I tied up.”
“Or they’ve had enough killing for one day,” Kowalski said.
“Or they’re looking for more,” Jain added.
Kowalski grimaced. “You had to say that, didn’t you?”
She shrugged. “No matter how you cut it, boyo, we’re bloody screwed.”
Gray couldn’t argue with her, but they had no choice. They had to forge ahead, find Amanda, and do their best to survive.
“Let’s go.” Gray pointed his arm forward. “Tucker, I want Kane’s eyes and ears ahead of us. I’ve had enough surprises for one day.”
Tucker gave a curt nod and went to his dog.
They hurried down the road, staying at the periphery. The forest to either side offered better protection, but the dense growth would slow their progress, make too much noise.
Right now, he needed to put some distance between them and the approaching trucks.
“We can’t do this on our own,” Seichan said, striding fast next to him. “A guarded camp ahead of us, mercenary soldiers behind us-not great odds.”
Gray had already come to the same conclusion. He had to trust his gut that Amanda was here, that there was a reason for such lethal and overt reaction to their presence in the mountains. He shifted his shoulder pack and removed his satellite phone.
It was time to call in the cavalry.
That meant reaching Washington.
Gray dialed up Sigma command, hoping the quantum encryption built into the phone would keep the call from reaching the wrong ears. After a long moment and a series of passwords, he heard a familiar voice.
Gray let out a hard breath of relief. “Director, I believe we’ve found where Amanda was taken. I’m not sure she’s still here, but as a precaution, we should mobilize SEAL Team six to my coordinates, so they’re ready when-”
“Already done,” Painter said, cutting him off. “I got approval from the defense secretary a few minutes ago. The SEAL team is en route to your position with orders to engage only if the president’s daughter is positively identified. They’re about forty minutes out.”
Forty minutes? That may be too late.
Confirming this, the roar of engines in the distance grew steadily louder. Amanda didn’t have forty minutes.
A disconcerting question rose in Gray’s mind. “Director, how do you know our position?”
“We’ve been monitoring your progress for the past half-hour.”
Gray searched around him, then saw Tucker send his shepherd running ahead, hugging the forest’s edge.
Tucker must have left his dog’s camera running since the roadblock.
“It was Kat’s idea,” Painter explained.
Of course it was. If anyone had the brains to find them without raising an alarm, it was Kat Bryant. She had proved countless times to be an elusive and crafty spider when it came to the intelligence web.
“Kat set up a passive search algorithm, set to the wireless frequency of the dog’s camera. Nothing that would trigger any alarm bells. We could watch over your shoulders without giving away your location.”
Gray was grateful for the covert support, but it also made him vaguely uneasy. In the future, he’d have to make sure to circumvent that ability if he wanted total privacy.
“Audio is bad, though,” Painter finished. “Cuts in and out, so keep that in mind. We can see you, but not always hear you.”
Ahead, Tucker came running back toward him.
That had to mean trouble.
“Have to sign off,” Gray said.
Painter’s voice went hard. “I can see why. Go. But be-”
Gray cut him off before he could warn him to be careful.
It didn’t need to be said-shouldn’t be said. It was like wishing an actor good luck instead of break a leg.
Tucker came up, breathing hard. “Another Land Rover is blocking the road ahead, counted six men around it. Another handful in the camp.” A worried frown creased his face. “Look at this.”
Tucker held up his phone, displaying a dog’s-eye view of the facility.
A large tent-cabin, raised on pilings, stood in the middle of a cold camp. Around it, ash pits marked old bonfires. Garbage, rusted stakes, oil stains, along with a few collapsed tents, abandoned in haste, were all that was left of a large campsite. A few shreds of camouflage netting still draped from the trees at the forest’s edge, but that was it.
“Looks like most of the camp bugged out already,” Tucker said. “I’d say no longer than an hour ago.”
Gray felt the pit of his stomach opening to despair.
Were they already too late?
“But I did see shadows moving inside that cabin,” Tucker offered. “Someone’s still there.”
Seichan overheard. “Maybe they left their victim here, fearing reprisals, and scattered.”
Gray grasped at this thin hope.
Kowalski joined them. “So, what are we doing?”
Jain stood at his shoulder, bearing the same question on her face.
They needed a plan from here.
He ran various scenarios in his head. “We can’t risk panicking the remaining soldiers. We also don’t want to needlessly expose ourselves to the enemy combatants if Amanda has already been moved. We’ll do her no good dead.”
“Then what?” Kowalski asked.
Gray turned his focus upon Tucker. “We need to see inside that cabin.”
July 2, 3:24 P.M. East Africa Time
Cal Madow mountains, Somalia
Tucker lay on his belly with Kane at the edge of the forest. Forty yards of open space stretched between his position and the cabin. With men milling at the entry road and three more soldiers scavenging the grounds ahead for anything of value, any attempt to cross here would be readily spotted.
Even a dog on the run.
Tucker stared through his rifle’s scope, studying the terrain. A lone soldier pushed a dented wheelbarrow past his field of view, stopping occasionally to pick something out of the discarded debris.
The radio scratched in his ear. It was Kowalski, reporting in from his post down the road, acting as rear lookout. “Company has arrived. Trucks-three of ’em-are reaching the turnoff.”
Gray responded on all channels. “Kowalski, rally back to our position.”
The rest of the team-Gray and the two women-had crept forward through the forest and lay in wait several meters from the lone Land Rover that guarded the ruins of the camp. They all waited for Tucker’s signal. If Amanda was in the tent, they’d ambush the vehicle, trusting the element of surprise and the cover of the jungle to overcome the enemy’s superior odds. If Amanda wasn’t here, they’d all retreat into the woods and regroup.
Gray spoke with a note of urgency. “Tucker, now or never.”
“Still, not clear,” Tucker whispered under his breath.
Thirty yards away, the man with the wheelbarrow picked up a sleeveless DVD, judged it, then flung it away with a flip of his wrist.
It seemed everyone was a critic.
Keep moving, asshole.
“Tucker,” Gray pressed, “the other trucks are turning and heading this way. You’ve got two minutes, or we have to start shooting and hope for the best.”
Tucker stared at the AK-47 slung over the soldier’s shoulder as the man continued sifting through the debris.
I’m not going to send Kane out just to be killed.
Tucker flashed back to that painful moment in Afghanistan. He again felt the pop of his ears as the rescue helicopter lifted off, felt the rush of hot air. He had been clinging to Kane, both bloodied by the firefight, by the exploded ordnance. But Tucker had never taken his eyes off Abel, his partner’s littermate, who’d knocked them both clear before the buried IED detonated. If Kane had been Tucker’s right arm, Abel was his left. He’d trained them both-but he’d never readied himself for this moment.
Abel raced below, limping on three legs, searching for an escape. Taliban forces closed in from all directions. Tucker strained for the door, ready to fling himself out, to go to his friend’s aid. But two soldiers pinned him, restraining him.
Tucker yelled for Abel.
He was heard. Abel stopped, staring up, panting, his eyes sharp and bright, seeing him. They shared that last moment, locked together.
Until a flurry of gunfire severed that bond forever.
Tucker’s grip tightened on his rifle now, refusing to forget that lesson. He had a small black paw print tattooed on his upper left shoulder, a permanent reminder of Abel, of his sacrifice. He would never waste another life like that, to send another dog to certain slaughter.
“I need a distraction,” he radioed back fiercely to Gray. “Something to pull attention away from here. Kane’ll get shot before he can get halfway to the cabin.”
The answer to his desperate plea came from an unexpected location-from directly behind Tucker.
“I do it,” said a squeaky voice with the strain of forced bravery. “No want Kane shot.”
Tucker rolled around in time to see Baashi dart away into the forest. Cursing under his breath, he radioed Gray. “Baashi followed us. Heard me. I think he’s going to do something stupid.”
Kowalski responded, “See him. I’ll grab him.” Then, seconds later, defeat tinged his voice. “Kid’s a friggin’ jackrabbit.”
A shout cracked across the forest, coming from the direction of the narrow road. “ISKA WARAN!” Baashi called out. “HA RIDIN!”
Tucker pictured him approaching the Land Rover, hands in the air.
A rapid exchange followed in Somali.
Jain translated via the radio. “He’s telling them his mother is sick. He came a long way from his village to see the doctor here.”
Tucker’s fingers tightened on the stock of his rifle. The three soldiers adrift in the camp moved toward the gate, drawn by the commotion. For better or worse, Tucker got his distraction.
He reached and gave Kane a warm squeeze on his ear. They didn’t have time for their usual good-bye ritual.
With a twinge of foreboding, he flicked his wrist, leaving a finger pointing toward the cabin.
Kane took off like a shot, dashing low across the open field.
“DAAWO!” Baashi called out.
“He’s asking for medicine,” Jain said.
He got something else.
A savage spat of gunfire burst forth.
Seichan watched Baashi dance backward, dirt exploding in front of his toes. Laughter followed from the soldiers gathered in front of the Land Rover, enjoying their sport.
A hard man with a jagged scar splitting his chin and turning his lower lip into a perpetual scowl waved the others to silence and sauntered with the haughtiness of a reigning conqueror. He had his helmet tilted back, his flak jacket open. He rested a palm on a holstered pistol as he approached Baashi, who cowered, half-bowed under the other’s gaze.
“Jiifso!” he commanded. “Maxbuus baad tahay!”
Major Jain hid on the other side of the road with Kowalski. The British soldier translated, softly subvocalizing into her radio. “He’s telling Baashi to lie down, that he’s his prisoner.”
Baashi obeyed, dropping to one knee, placing a hand on the ground, groveling in submission.
The soldier grinned, made meaner by his scarred lower lip. He pulled his pistol out.
He’s going to execute the kid-but not before terrorizing him.
Seichan remembered another man, another weapon. He had held a knife at her naked throat, his breath on her neck, twice her weight, thick with hard muscle. They sent him against her when she was seventeen, a training exercise. A sadist of the darkest ilk, a perverse predator, he wouldn’t just kill her; he intended to degrade and savage her before taking her life. To survive, she had to submit, to tolerate his touch-only long enough to secure his knife when he let his guard drop for a hot breath. She had gutted him in the end-but she still remembered the ruin of that day, the utter degradation of the powerful over the weak, and, worst of all, what was destroyed forever in her.
She wouldn’t let that happen to another.
Seichan shifted her SIG Sauer pistol toward the soldier. Gray crouched at her side where they hid, meters into the forest, shielded by a thicket of bushes. He touched a finger to her shoulder, warning her not to shoot, not yet.
Metal glinted as Baashi’s other hand, half-hidden by his thin body, slipped a military dagger out of the back of his pants. It looked as long as the boy’s forearm.
The sight shocked her, proving her earlier assessment. She and the boy were the same.
I was this boy.
But Baashi was going to get himself killed.
Seichan steadied her aim, feeling Gray’s fingers tighten on her shoulder, ordering her not to act. She obeyed, but it left her body trembling with rage-and not a small amount of shame.
What is taking Tucker so long?
They needed confirmation from him-or, more precisely, from his partner.
Kane abandons bright sunlight for darkness as he ducks through heavy posts and under the raised wooden structure. It is cooler here. For a breath, he is blind as his pupils dilate and adjust to the darkness. Still, his ears prick, stretching senses deep into the shadows. He takes it all in, to fill the darkness with meaning and substance.
The creak of wood above…
The beat of boot heels on planks…
The drip-drip-dripping farther back…
He tastes the shadows with tongue and nose. Waste and spoor, oil and sludge. Farther back, a sharper taint that sets his hackles to rising. Fetid, with the promise of meat. He follows the trickling sound, sniffs where it falls in fat droplets from above.
But that is not why he’s come.
He has been given a scent, trapped in a wad of cloth, smelling of sweat, and salt, and oil, and a feminine musk. He was sent on the hunt for it. He lifts his nose toward the planks above, where the blood seeps. He sniffs, drawing in the richness there, expanding trails in all directions, so many.
But through it all, a single thread matches, connecting here to that wad of cloth. He has found what he hunted.
He points his nose to the scent and voices his success-not the howl of wildness buried in his bones. That is not his way. He lets flow a soft whine, deep in his throat, proclaiming his victory.
He hears words in one ear that melt through him. “Good dog.”
He breathes in his satisfaction and lowers to his haunches; only now do his eyes fill in the spaces left bare by scent and sound.
Out of the darkness, a pair of red lights shines back at him, tiny and sharp. They come from devices attached to large barrels, reeking of rusted metal and bitter oil.
His hackles shiver, sensing danger.
At the edge of the forest, Tucker lived half in his skin, half in another.
He had heard what Kane heard: creaking and boot steps. And he saw what Kane saw: fluid seeping through the planks from above. But was it blood, oil, water? He couldn’t say for sure.
Then Kane pointed his nose, followed by a soft whine.
He radioed it to Gray. “Kane found Amanda’s scent at the cabin. She was there.”
And maybe still is.
“Understood,” came the response, tense. “Clear a path and get in there. I’ll join you as soon as I can.”
As Gray finished, the image on the small screen swung to the side. The gritty night vision of Kane’s camera revealed two large barrels, spaced at equal distance in the crawlspace under the tent-cabin. He read the word kerosene stenciled on one of them. Worst of all, attached to their sides, two glowing transmitters illuminated explosive charges.
Panicked, he touched his throat mike. “Commander-”
Gunfire cut off the rest of his warning.
Seichan fired, clipping the scarred man in the left knee. He toppled with a scream of surprise. Gray strafed the soldiers gathered on their side of the Land Rover. Kowalski and Jain did the same on the other.
Seichan dashed out of hiding to protect the boy, who had dropped flat as the firefight commenced. She strode to the downed soldier, while firing two rounds at another commando sheltered behind one of the Land Rover’s open doors. The scarred monster on the ground swung his pistol at her, but she put a bullet through his throat, collected his weapon, and fired both guns at the truck, pistols now blazing in both fists.
“Get off the road!” she hollered at Baashi.
He leaped like a frightened doe into the sheltering forest.
A commando got behind the wheel of the Land Rover, cranked the engine, and hit the accelerator. The truck barreled toward her.
She stood her ground, aimed both guns, and fired a single round from each.
Left, to shatter the windshield.
Right, to put a round through the driver’s eye.
She stepped aside as the truck’s momentum carried it toward her, veering drunkenly at the last second and crashing into the woods.
The firefight lasted another ten seconds-and ended as abruptly as it started. Soldiers sprawled, limp and unmoving on the road.
Gray cleared the forest, holding a hand over his left ear, listening, likely to Tucker. He glanced toward the tent-cabin with a grimace of worry. He pointed his other arm down the road.
The loud rumble of trucks drew her attention around. Brakes squealed. Those coming had heard the gunplay.
“Keep them off our backs for as long as possible,” he ordered-then took off into the campsite on foot.
Seichan stared down the forested tunnel. Her group had the element of surprise before. That was no longer the case. And the enemy had three times their force, vastly outnumbering and outgunning them.
Kowalski and Jain joined her, sharing concerned but determined looks.
Seichan glanced over her shoulder as Gray disappeared from view. She hoped the president’s daughter was still here, still alive. Either way, they were committed now. She waved the others back into hiding.
“You heard Gray,” she said. “We hold our ground here.”
It had better be worth it.
3:28 P.M .
Tucker dropped the last of the three soldiers in the camp, the one with the wheelbarrow. The kills felt cowardly, but he had no time for delicacy; all he could do was grant them clean head shots.
But he knew there was at least one other enemy, remembering the creak of boards from inside the cabin. Whoever was holed up there had surely heard the attack-but what would they do?
Gray appeared to his left, pistol in hand, running for the lone structure. Tucker had managed to get word to him as the firefight ended, warning of the fiery bomb hidden under the tent.
Tucker took a fast glance at his phone’s screen. A bobbling image showed Kane still struggling to yank away the first glowing transceiver from the explosive charge. Tucker had lost precious seconds trying to get his dog to understand, directing Kane via radioed commands. Even as close as they were, there were limits to their communication.
Tucker had to do something. He burst out of hiding and sprinted toward the cabin, too. He was closer, but Gray had a head start. They should reach the door at the same time.
He lifted his phone. On the screen, Kane yanked his head and the bright glow of the transceiver died.
Kane turned to the other charge, shining brightly in the dark. He took a step toward it-when the light began to blink rapidly.
Illuminated digits flared into existence on the device.
Cursing, Tucker skidded to a stop. The bastard inside had activated the charge, set to a timer. Rifle blasts drew Tucker’s attention from the screen. The last soldier slammed out of the cabin door, weapon at his hip, firing wildly, trying to make a break before those seconds ran out.
Gray dropped flat, sliding on his belly, pistol pointed forward, gripped in both hands. He fired three fast rounds.
The gunman tumbled headlong down the steps from the raised porch. He landed hard, but from the placement of Gray’s rounds, all to the face, he was surely dead before he even hit the ground.
Tucker stared at the tiny screen as Kane closed in on the second barrel.
The dog would never be able to work the transceiver free in time, and with the device activated, any attempt to remove it could set it off prematurely.
“Kane!” he yelled, not bothering with the radio. “To me!”
Gray scrambled to his feet and looked over at him.
Tucker pointed toward the crawlspace between the pilings. “It’s set to blow! Twenty seconds.”
The two men sped toward the tent.
Kane flew into view, tail high, and ran to Tucker’s side. The group reached the porch steps together, pounded up, and shoved through the spring-loaded door.
The makeshift medical ward looked as stripped and vacated as the rest of the camp: upended boxes, stray pieces of hospital gear, a toppled privacy screen. The place had been abandoned in a hurry. They must have suspected time was running out for them.
But the ward had not been entirely emptied.
At the rear, a hospital bed rested against the back wall. It was not vacant. A blond woman lay under a thin blanket, an oxygen mask over her face, her limbs secured with leather straps. The bedding over the mound of her belly was stained red, soaked through. More blood ran from under the blanket and pooled on the plank floor.
Gray rushed forward, yanked away the mask, then ripped back the covers. He exposed what had been so chastely hidden.
Tucker fell to his knees in horror.
They were too late.
July 2, 8:30 A.M. EST
The anguish in that single word, that long, sustained note of pain and grief, echoed off the walls of the small conference room. The First Lady swung away from the screen, covering her face as if to make the sight go away.
Her husband stood stiff, frozen, staring unblinking at the screen.
No one said a word-Teresa’s cry encompassed everything.
The last image remained fixed in Painter’s eye, when Gray pulled back the bedsheets. Someone had operated on Amanda, sliced her open from rib to pelvis, exposing the ruins of her empty uterus. They’d performed a C-section, stolen the baby, and left Amanda’s dead body behind like an empty husk.
On the screen now, Painter watched Gray swing away, grabbing up Tucker from the floor. The image bobbled wildly as the two men and the dog fled the cabin. He understood their haste. They’d all seen the barrels of kerosene, the glow of the explosive charge, and the timer counting down.
An image of running legs, a distant forest-then a bright blast that sent everyone tumbling forward. A fireball rolled overhead. The second barrel of kerosene rolled off to the side, jettisoned clear by the blast wave, leaving behind a trail of oil before it vanished out of view.
The audio feed frazzled, then went silent.
A moment later, Tucker’s face appeared as he checked on his dog. His mouth moved, but there was no sound. In the background, Gray got up on his hands and knees, hurriedly shrugging free his shoulder pack, which was on fire. He threw it aside and rolled in the dirt to put out the smoldering back of his shirt.
Painter should have felt relief-but he was not there yet.
Teresa burst out of her seat and into her husband’s arms. It was not to seek comfort. Her fists pummeled his body, sobs shook through her, weakening the effort. Tears flowed down her face.
“This is your fault!” she yelled into his chest as James Gant pulled his wife tight to him. “All our fault… they… they cut my baby open!”
She sagged in her husband’s arms, pressing her face into his chest, still shaking her head, trying to dismiss what she saw.
He held her up, looking over the crown of her head at Painter.
Anger burned through the raw grief in his stony eyes, directed at Painter, at sigma.
The president’s brother stood and gently coaxed the grieving parents toward the door. “Go, Jimmy,” Robert urged. “Take care of your wife. We can handle matters from here.”
Gant didn’t resist. The pair, still wrapped together, bonded by unimaginable grief and horror, slipped out of the room, gathering Secret Service men in their wake.
The defense secretary, Warren Duncan, placed a hand on Robert’s shoulder. “Sir, why don’t you go, too? Family should be together during times like this.”
Robert’s normally gentle and even tone turned acerbic. His gaze passed over Painter, scorching him with his bitterness. “Someone in the family should bear witness to the end of this fucked-up mission.”
Painter’s boss closed his eyes and gave the smallest shake of his head, utterly embarrassed and defeated.
On the screen, the dog’s-eye view showed a pair of trucks careening into the campsite, guns silently blazing from their side windows.
Despite the futility of the operation, it wasn’t over.
3:34 P.M. East Africa Time
Cal Madow mountains, Somalia
“Go for cover!” Gray hollered.
He ran with Tucker and Kane away from the blasted ruins of the cabin. Black smoke swirled across the camp as flaming debris littered the ground and continued to drift down in flaming bits of tent fabric. The thick pall of smoke offered them enough cover to make a break for the forest as two Land Rovers skidded into the camp from the road.
Automatic fire sprayed from windows, mostly directed back the way they’d come, aiming for the others hidden in the forest. A furious firefight continued back there; likely his team had managed to ambush the third vehicle from the roadblock, but that battle was still far from over.
Before Gray, Tucker, and Kane could reach the shelter of the forest, their retreat was spotted. Gunfire ripped toward them. Kane yelped and sped faster. Tucker gave chase-but not before Gray grabbed the man’s rifle out of his fingers.
He swung it toward the Rovers and fired, cracking one of the side windows and forcing the shooter to duck.
“Go!” Gray yelled to Tucker. “Make for the others!”
Gray ran to the side, drawing fire. One of the Rovers fishtailed in the sandy soil and sped back toward the road, intending to go to the aid of the embattled third truck. The last Rover circled the smoking ruins of the cabin, coming around to face Gray head-on.
Then a new noise cut through the peppering blasts.
The gunplay lulled for a breath as the others heard it, too.
The thump-thump of a helicopter grew louder.
Gray searched the skies, knowing it was too soon for the SEAL team to arrive-and he was right. A familiar military-gray chopper rushed across the treetops, coming from the direction of the main road. It was the same attack helicopter that had laid waste to the UNICEF base.
It seemed all of the hens were returning to roost.
A whistling rocket screamed from the chopper’s undercarriage, blazing a trail of fire and smoke. It streaked down and slammed into the hood of the Rover headed toward the forest. The truck flipped end-over-end-then exploded as it landed.
Gray crouched, stunned.
Overhead, gunfire chattered from the open door of the chopper’s rear cabin as it rushed past. A familiar figure hung out the door, pointing his weapon below.
Captain Trevor Alden.
Gray remembered his last view of the British soldier, manning the turret of the Ferret armored car, guns blazing. He must have somehow forced the chopper down and commandeered it for the British Special Forces. Then he’d come looking for them.
A decision the captain might still regret.
The second Rover, which had braked to a stop with the arrival of the helicopter, believing them allies, gunned its engine and raced across the camp. The chopper had to swing around, twisting in midair to bring its rockets to bear.
A soldier popped out of the Rover’s open sunroof, hauling and balancing the black tube of a grenade launcher on his shoulder. At such close range, the shooter could not miss.
Gray lifted his rifle, but the Rover zigzagged crazily across the fiery camp. He’d never hit the soldier holding the launcher. But he found something that wasn’t moving.
The second barrel of kerosene, blasted free by the explosion, lay on its side in a pool of leaking oil. The Rover, its driver focused above, sped toward it-or at least close enough. Gray couldn’t trust firing into the barrel itself. Despite what had been portrayed in movies, such shots seldom caused an explosion.
Instead, he needed to light the barrel’s wick.
Cocking his eye to the scope, he fired into a neighboring smoking section of floor planking. The wood exploded and rained fiery slivers across the pool of kerosene. Flames flared where they landed and chased across the oil’s surface, aiming for the leaking barrel.
The Rover then sped across and blocked his view.
Had he timed it-?
The explosion blew a fireball into the sky and shoved the truck to the side. Flaming oil blasted through the open windows, setting fire to everything.
Screams rang out.
A door fell open, revealing the hell inside.
Then the stockpile of grenades exploded within the cabin, shattering apart the Rover.
The helicopter dove away, churning through the smoke.
Straightening back up, Gray realized-after his ears stopped ringing-that all the gunfire had ended. He turned and saw Kowalski and Seichan enter the camp from the road, shouldering the thin form of Jain between them. The trio must have dispatched the last truck on their own, but not without a cost. The major limped on one leg, the other bled fiercely.
“She’s shot!” Kowalski bellowed.
Jain frowned up at him. “I’m fine. It’s your bloody body odor that might kill me before this little scratch.”
Still, Alden must have witnessed the injury to his teammate.
The chopper tilted to the side and sought a safe place to land.
Tucker also returned from the forest with his dog. Gray noted the eye of the camera facing him. His satellite phone was likely melted to slag inside the ruins of his smoldering shoulder pack.
The sting of the burn along his back flared as he searched the debris. He needed to communicate with Painter. This couldn’t wait. But the director had warned him that the audio pickup was crap on the dog’s video feed. Gray could not let this next message be misconstrued.
He found a piece of tent fabric, burned at the edges, and used the tip of a charred stick to write a short note.
He prayed it reached Painter.
8:44 A.M. EST
Smoke obscured most of the view of the fiery camp. There was little else to see on the video, especially as the helicopter landed, stirring up a whirlwind of debris.
Painter wasn’t the only one to realize the same.
The defense secretary still stood beside Robert Gant with a hand on the man’s shoulder. “Go,” Duncan said. “This is over, Bobby. Join your family. They need you now more than we do.”
Robert continued to stare at the monitor, but Painter suspected he didn’t see anything, lost in the depths of the tragedy.
Finally, a rattling sigh escaped him. He stared at Painter, but the fire there had snuffed out in his eyes, leaving only a dull grief. He looked a decade older than his sixty-six years. He simply patted Duncan’s side and exited without a word.
But the defense secretary was not done. He pointed at Painter’s boss, his voice stone-cold. “I would have a word with you, General Metcalf. In private.”
“I understand.” Metcalf cast Painter a withering glance.
The two men exited, but not before Duncan poked a finger into Painter’s chest. “I want a report on my desk within the hour.” He waved to the monitor. “And a copy of this feed. I want a full accounting of this tragedy… every detail on how this all went to hell.”
The two men exited, leaving Painter alone in the conference room.
On the monitor, the smoke cleared. Gray’s face swelled into the camera. His lips moved, but the audio was still down. Then Gray stepped back and lifted a bit of burned fabric into view. He had written something on it.
As Painter read the scribbled words, he stumbled forward in disbelief. He caught himself on the edge of the table.
How could this be?
He stared toward the door, ready to run out, to call the others back. He even took a step in that direction-then stopped, his mind working furiously, running various permutations through his head.
He covered his mouth with his hand.
There remained too many variables, too much unknown and unexplained. The truth revealed on the screen was too valuable to release without thought. But it was also a cruelty beyond words to remain silent.
Still, he slowly turned to the table, picked up the remote control, and switched off the monitor. He would have to edit away this last bit of video before he handed it off to Warren Duncan.
He stared at the dark monitor, judging if he was capable of doing this. But his job was to make the hard decisions, no matter who got hurt. And this was one of the hardest.
He pictured Teresa dissolving into despair and grief; he heard again her scream of denial, her railing against what could not be true.
In the end, the First Lady had been right.
Though the monitor was off, Gray’s last message still burned in his mind’s eye.
God, forgive me.
No one must know.
July 2, 3:48 P.M. East Africa Time
Her senses returned like a bright light that slowly pooled outward, watery at the edges. She felt as if she were a swimmer rising from the depths of a black sea. Faces hovered over her. Voices spoke, muffled and indistinct. Her throat hurt, her tongue was dry, which made it hard to swallow.
“… Coming around,” a familiar voice said in a German-Swiss accent.
She made out the severe blond bob, the icy eyes.
The horror of her situation swelled through her again, sharpening her senses as she surfaced into the cold, hard reality of the moment.
Another face leaned over her. A bright light flashed into her eyes, stinging, searing into the back of her skull. She shied away, turning her head.
She lay in a shallow box, cushioned all around. She heard the drone of jet engines, felt the vibration of flight.
“Pupillary response is good,” Dr. Blake said. “She’s tolerating the sedation well. What about the fetus, Petra?”
“Heartbeat and oxygenation continue to remain within normal parameters, doctor. With the wireless transmission from the fetal monitor around her midsection, we’ll be able to assess her condition from a distance after we land.”
“How long is the flight?”
“Another three hours.”
Dr. Blake’s face pulled away. “No need to revive her fully, then. For now, keep her lightly sedated with a propofol drip. We can send her deeper once we’re in final approach to land.”
“We should also allow at least fifteen minutes to secure the royal diplomatic seals around the coffin.”
Amanda turned her watery focus to the pillowed sides of the box. Fear spiked through her.
“You’re right, Petra. Even with all the palms and wheels greased by our benefactors, we don’t want any trouble going through customs with the casket. Luckily everyone now believes she’s dead.”
Blake continued, “So no one will be looking for her. With everyone off our backs, we’ll finally have the time to deliver this baby safely. In another couple of hours, it will be good to wash the stink of the jungle off and return to a proper medical lab.” Footsteps retreated. “I’m going to the cabin bar. Can I get you a drink?”
“Water, with a sliver of lime.”
“Always the professional, Petra,” he scolded with an amused tone. “Stop fretting. We’ll have the package delivered by nightfall. Then maybe you’ll relax.”
Petra’s face loomed larger, her breath smelling of cinnamon and cigarette smoke. “I’ll relax once we have her fetus on the vivisection table at the lab.”
“I keep forgetting that’s your specialty, my dear. I thought I was skilled with scalpel and forceps… but you put me to shame with your ability to tease a body into so many perfect anatomical sections.”
“That’s the easy part,” Petra said, straightening up.
“Of course.” A small laugh accompanied his words. “Where you truly shine is how you keep those sections alive.”
What did they mean? What were they talking about?
Amanda tried not to picture such a horror, but it filled her head anyway. She wanted to clamp her hands over her ears. She had known her baby was under threat-it was why she had fled the States-but she never imagined anything as horrific as this. It went beyond her worst nightmares.
I don’t want to hear any more.
Her silent plea was answered.
The creak of hinges rasped to the left. A dark shadow rose and fell heavily over her, shutting out all light and sound. The lid of her coffin had been closed.
Amanda shuddered in the blackness, praying that this casket truly became her coffin, that she’d suffocate before they landed. Better that than allowing her baby boy to suffer the atrocities planned for him.
… how you keep those sections alive…
Those dismaying words haunted the darkness-along with an all-consuming question.
Where are they taking me?
Cal Madow mountains, Somalia
“She was definitely being held at the camp here,” Gray said, holding the satellite phone to his ear, reporting in to Sigma command. “Tucker’s dog confirmed Amanda’s scent before all hell broke loose.”
His choice of words was appropriate. He stared at the smoldering wreck of the cabin, at the fiery remains of the two Rovers. His other teammates were making sure no other enemy combatants remained a threat. Captain Alden’s helicopter rested across the way, engine idling, rotors turning slowly. A British medic from Alden’s rescue crew worked on Jain’s leg.
Kowalski looked on, concerned. Despite the differences in size and gender, the pair were two peas out of the same pod. A scary proposition. A female Kowalski.
Gray had retrieved the satellite phone from the big man’s pack. He didn’t know if Painter had received his frantic handwritten note and wanted to follow up as quickly as possible.
“But why do you want to keep Amanda’s survival a secret?” Gray asked, questioning again the need for such a cruel deception. “I understand the fear of an intelligence leak. But to keep the president and his family in the dark… it must be killing them.”
“It is, but the administration-if they suspect she’s still alive-will insist on bringing all forces to bear in finding her. And look how that turned out this time around. For Amanda’s sake, we’ve got to restrict this knowledge to as few ears as possible.”
Gray took a deep breath. It was a ballsy move on the director’s part, but it made brutal sense, especially in light of his own suspicions. He shared them with Painter. “Director, I’m almost certain that events here were purposefully staged to make it look like Amanda was killed.”
“Why do you think that?” Painter asked.
“The woman in the bed. She was blond, the same size and body shape as Amanda. From the distension of the uterus and belly, she was obviously once pregnant, possibly an equal number of weeks along. But more incriminating, when I removed the oxygen mask, I saw her mouth was a bloody ruin. Someone didn’t want Amanda’s dental records pulled to identify the charred remains.”
Painter remained silent, digesting the information.
“Even the rushed C-section suggests the same conclusion,” Gray said. “I think they feared any fetal remains might not match those on record from Amanda’s prenatal exams.”
Painter’s voice grew hushed at the horror of it all. “So they cut out the baby.”
“Exactly. And disposed of it to cover their tracks. I also smelled an accelerant soaked into the bed. I think that’s what the last soldier was doing here, prepping the remains. They wanted to assure the body was burned so thoroughly that no DNA could be extracted. But we caught them off guard before they could complete their task.”
“Why would Amanda’s kidnappers go through such effort?” Painter asked, but it sounded more like he was pondering the question, thinking out loud.
Still, Gray answered. “They obviously wanted to throw off anyone still looking for her. If the world thinks she’s dead, the hunt ends here.”
“True. But I fear our enemy is even smarter than that.”
“What do you mean?”
“Think about it. They knew you were closing in, forcing their hand. They had to move her, but they turned the situation to their own ends. Staging Amanda’s death-but also achieving another goal.”
Gray’s mind raced alongside the director’s line of reasoning. He knew everything that had befallen Painter at the White House. He suddenly understood. “The enemy was able to blame Amanda’s death on our operation.”
“At least partially.”
As Gray considered who might have such an end goal, his blood went cold. There was only one organization harboring such a vendetta against sigma.
“Director, are you suggesting the Guild is somehow involved in Amanda’s kidnapping?”
Gray felt his vision narrowing, picturing his mother’s casket lowering into the cold dirt.
“Commander Pierce, we don’t know that for certain. But either way, it gives Sigma a black eye-if not a fatal blow.”
Gray knew that had been an ultimate goal of the Guild for years. They had tried multiple times to destroy sigma, once even leading an assault upon their headquarters.
He closed his eyes.
Have I played right into their hands here, done their work for them this time?
“What are we going to do?” Gray asked.
“Your mission objective remains the same. To find Amanda. That’s all that matters at the moment.”
Gray choked down the anger that flared inside him. He forced his fingers through his hair, triggering a twinge of complaint from his blistered back. The director was correct. He had to stay on mission, which meant answering one all-important question concerning Amanda.
Where to begin looking for her?
Painter voiced the same question. “Were you able to get any clue from inside the cabin, anything that might point to where they were taking Amanda?”
Gray stared at the smoking pile of debris. “We didn’t have any time. She could be anywhere.”
Painter let out a long sigh-not in defeat but in renewed determination. “Then we start from scratch. We’re not giving up. I’ll see what I can do at my end. You and Captain Alden canvass any locals in the area. Someone must know something. In the rush to evacuate, something might have fallen through the cracks.”
Gray agreed. The enemy clearly hadn’t expected his team to arrive at the camp so quickly-if at all.
“Pierce!” The call came from Tucker.
He turned and found the man waving to him from the road that exited the camp. Tucker stepped aside to allow a small figure to run into view. It was Baashi. Gray had last seen the boy diving into the forest after almost getting shot.
Seichan had gone out to look for him.
She appeared steps behind him, dragging a prisoner with her, clutching him by the shirt collar as he stumbled alongside her.
Gray spoke into the phone. “Director, I’ll call you back in a few minutes. We may have caught a break.”
Signing off, he strode over to the group. Captain Alden headed over there, too.
Seichan met Gray’s eyes as he reached her. “I found Baashi leading this kid back out of the forest, heading our way.”
Baashi vigorously nodded. “I tell him you all good.”
Tucker looked pale. “It’s the same boy I jumped earlier by the creek.”
Gray saw he was right. It was the child Tucker had strangled and hog-tied. So the bound boy had been discovered by the enemy. No wonder the crew had hightailed it back to camp.
“Kid must’ve fled during our attack on the third truck,” Seichan said. “But Baashi tracked him in the woods and convinced him we were okay.”
From his wide, scared eyes, the new boy must be wondering if he’d made the right decision.
“Mr. Trevor!” Baashi burst out brightly and ran to meet the British captain as he joined them. He patted Alden on the chest and spoke to the other boy. “This the man I tell you about.”
Seeing the confused look on the captive’s face, Baashi repeated what he said in Somali. Then he stepped over like an excited tour guide and patted Kane, too, ending with “He good dog.”
Gray sidled next to Alden during all of this. “See if Baashi could ask the boy if he knows where Amanda was taken.”
“I’ll do my best.”
Gray had to wait while a fervid series of exchanges commenced. It involved a lot of back-and-forth and not a few suspicious glances cast his way. Finally, the boy seemed to relent. Pointing this way and that, he spoke briskly in Somali.
Alden eventually straightened and rejoined Gray.
“It seems, like with Baashi, people are willing to speak more openly around a child. He overheard some of the medical staff at the camp talking, making preparations to move the young woman to an airfield used by drug-runners. He says he heard them speak of flying to Dubai. But I don’t know if that’s just a stopover or a final destination because he also said they’re planning to go to heaven.”
To go to heaven? What did that mean? Was it some sort of suicide pact?
That didn’t sound like the enemy-and certainly not the Guild. Alden must have read his confusion and shrugged. He had no better explanation.
Still, Gray’s mood lightened. “At least, Dubai gives us a solid place to start looking. To hopefully pick up her trail again.”
Alden stared over at Jain, on a stretcher, one pant leg cut away. “Good luck, commander. I’ll see to the boys here.” He motioned to Baashi and the other kid. “In the meantime-”
The thumping of a helicopter cut him off, drawing his attention skyward.
“I believe that’s your SEAL team,” the captain said. “A bit late to the bloody party, but they can help secure the area. I’d suggest you and your team borrow that helo of mine. Clear out before too many questions get asked.”
“Before that,” Gray started, “about Amanda…”
Alden winked at him. “I heard she died here. A real tragedy.” So the good captain had already perceived, as Painter had, that Amanda’s best chance of survival lay in everyone continuing to believe that lie. “That’s what I’ll be reporting to my superiors.”
“Thank you,” Gray said and shook the man’s hand, grasping his forearm with the other.
“No thanks needed, mate. If it wasn’t for your quick thinking, there would’ve been more casualties at that UNICEF camp, including possibly my own men.”
With matters settled, Gray drew his group together and hurried toward the idling chopper. He wanted to be out of here before the SEALs clamped things down. The SEAL team was under orders to retrieve the charred body, to return the supposed remains of the president’s daughter back to the States-not a duty he would wish on anyone.
He called Painter again, reported what he’d learned, and coordinated logistics on their next move.
“We’re pulling up stakes here,” Gray said. “Any intelligence Kat can gather while we’re en route would help us hit the ground running once we’re wheels-down in Dubai City.”
“Understood. I’ll put a team on it. But I’ve got Kat working another angle.”
Gray paused as everyone loaded into the helicopter. Tucker lifted his dog. “What other angle?”
As Painter explained his worry that all of this bloodshed and terror somehow involved Amanda’s unborn child, Gray pictured the brutality of the cesarean performed on the anonymous woman, her body charred beyond recognition.
In his gut, Gray knew the director was correct.
This was all about the baby.
As he signed off and strapped into his seat aboard the chopper, another concern nagged him. It also centered on Amanda and her child. Gray couldn’t escape the sense that Painter had been withholding something from him. The director’s decision to keep Amanda’s survival a secret from her own parents never sat right with him. Painter was certainly a master chess player and could be coldhearted and tough when he had his back against the wall-but never this callous. His explanation felt forced, like there was something he didn’t want to share about Amanda or her family.
But what could it be?
With a roar of its engines, the helicopter slowly rose from the ruins of the camp, stirring smoke and ash, leaving the horrors below.
He might not know what gambit Painter was playing-but he knew one thing for certain.
This was just the beginning.
Much worse was still to come.
11:00 A.M. EST
Robert Gant stepped through the air lock and entered the Class 1000 clean room, a stark white chamber with glass walls that looked out into the rest of the genomics lab. Staffed only by three researchers, the entire facility lay in an industrial area on the outskirts of Alexandria, virginia, and was listed as a private DNA test lab.
But that was not its purpose.
Its true function had been etched into one of the glass walls of the clean room: a frosted cross, decorated with spirals of DNA along its crosspieces.
“Show me,” he said, using the deep baritone that served him well in the past as a U.S. ambassador and now as secretary of state.
He allowed some of his irritation to ring out. He’d left Jimmy and Teresa to their grief to attend to private family business, but he wanted to keep this visit as short as possible.
The researcher, Dr. Emmet Fielding-decked out in white coveralls, gloves, boots, and hood-drew him to a laboratory table. A sealed crystal cylinder, about the size and shape of a hockey puck, held a murky aquamarine fluid. Beside it on the table rested a titanium sculpture that looked like a clawless crab supported by six articulated legs. Its flat metal carapace measured a foot across, reminding Robert of the land mines that still peppered Southeast Asia, where he’d spent the bulk of his ambassadorship.
Fielding lifted the cylinder from the table and held it in the palm of his hand. “This is the latest generation,” he said proudly. “Half a million neurons harvested from human fetal cortical tissue to form this new brain. And, once implanted, it will communicate via five thousand micro-electrodes. A fourfold improvement from the last generation.”
And a huge advance from where this all started.
This was Robert’s pet project. He had learned of the first tentative steps taken by the University of Reading in England back in 2009. A researcher in neuro-robotics discovered that a handful of neurons, collected from the cortex of lab rats and grown in a culture medium, could be wired into a small wheeled robot, and through electrode stimulation, it could control and operate the tiny vehicle, learning over time as new synapses formed to avoid objects and work through mazes. Shortly thereafter, another scientist, at the University of Florida, upped the ante, wiring twenty-five thousand rat neurons to a flight simulator. Over time that tiny brain learned to fly a jet flawlessly through mountains and thunderstorms.
Years later, utilizing the family’s financial and technological resources, Robert had moved that bar much higher. Initially, the research had been folded into a larger project, one going back decades, investigating the fusion of man and machine as a means of extending life-a goal sought by the Bloodline for centuries.
But this research into cyborg technology proved to be a dead end. It became clear that it would never be a feasible means of sustaining or prolonging life, especially with the more promising advent of stem-cell research. At that point in time, the Bloodline turned its eye in a new direction, forsaking the macro world of robotics for the micro world of genetics.
But even Robert didn’t have full access to that newest venture.
Instead, he’d been left to oversee this older project. Neuro-robotics still showed the potential to be a lucrative new weapons technology for the military. If rat brains could fly jet planes years ago, why not something more ambitious for the battlefield of the future?
“Let me give you a demonstration of the hexapod,” Fielding said.
The researcher opened the titanium carapace of the metal crab, exposing the microelectronics inside. He seated the neural cylinder into the electrode base at the heart of the pod and secured everything in place. Next, he carried the device to a neighboring chamber in the clean room. It had been set up as a test maze-but this was no ordinary flat puzzle. This labyrinth filled the entire ten-by-ten chamber, rising through fifteen levels of tunnels, chutes, and spirals.
“I ran the hexapod through this maze once already today. Now watch.”
Fielding inserted the crab-like machine through a lower slot, sealed the door, and used a Bluetooth device to activate it.
Tiny green lights flared along a groove that ran around the periphery of the hexapod’s carapace. Titanium legs stretched and tapped.
Robert leaned closer, unimpressed. “Why isn’t it-?”
The creature shot away, dancing on its six legs, gaining speed until it was a silvery blur. It sped through the maze with unerring accuracy, no doubling back to correct a wrong turn. It had remembered the complex path through the maze perfectly.
“I’m estimating the new brain’s neural intelligence is about that of your average canine,” Fielding said proudly.
A half-minute later, the hexapod reached the exit platform near the top, skidding to a stop.
Robert grinned. “Impressive.”
Fielding matched that expression, thrilled at the rare praise. He reached to the door and unlatched it. Before he could swing it open, the hexapod rammed forward. It burst out and latched its legs onto the researcher’s forearm. The sharp-pointed legs dug into his flesh. Blood seeped through his white coveralls.
“Motherf-” Fielding yelled and hit the Bluetooth controller, powering down the hexapod.
Still, he had to return to the table and manually pry each leg out of his arm to get it to release.
“The aggression of this newest generation is also through the roof,” Fielding said, wincing and nursing his bloody arm as proof. “I’d say we’ve engineered the equivalent of a limbic region of the mammalian brain, the lizard intelligence buried beneath the cortex, driven by base needs for survival.”
“For a battlefield weapon, that’s not an undesirable trait.”
“And speaking of battlefields, you promised a field trial of the latest hexapods. That’s why I came all the way down here in person.”
“Of course. I have a monitor set up over here with live feed from the Lodge. Everything’s ready. They’ve been waiting for the green light.”
Robert followed Fielding to a fifty-two-inch HD monitor. The screen was subdivided into sections, each offering a different bird’s-eye view of a remote and isolated patch of woodland hills hundreds of miles away.
The centermost square showed a small concrete bunker sticking out of a meadow, like a giant anthill. A metal door sealed it shut.
“If you’re ready?” Fielding said.
“Get on with it,” Robert snapped.
Fielding spoke into a cell phone. Moments later, the metal door burst open and a woman was shoved outside. She wore a hospital gown and nothing else. She stumbled to her knees, shielding her eyes against the midday sun. Robert absently wondered how long it had been since the young woman had seen actual sunlight.
From the way she jumped and glanced back to the door, someone must have barked at her.
“They’re telling her to run if she wants to live.”
Robert frowned, not appreciating the sadism. This was an experiment, not a bloody sport, and should be conducted as such.
The subject took off for the forest at a dead run.
“There!” Fielding pointed to movement through the grasses, a dozen arrows, aiming for the fleeing woman. A pair split off, zipping away faster, intending to flank her. “Look how they’re pattern-swarming. I employed a new wireless communications system and linked the individual hexapods to one another, allowing them to function as a group or pack. Look how quickly they’re learning.”
Robert watched-half-aghast, half-excited.
The woman made it to the edge of the woods, but she must have heard the hunters. She looked over a shoulder, and the horror of what she saw tripped her feet. She fell to her knees, her mouth open in a silent scream.
Then the hunters reached her.
It did not take long.
Fielding held his chin in one hand, appraising the trial. “The new battlefield modifications of the pods seem to be working as engineered. The circular blades, the razored leg flanges… all performed flawlessly. I may want to tinker with the digging spades, see if I can get them to burrow better.”
“I’ve seen enough,” Robert said, straightening and stepping away.
Fielding followed him. “With your approval, I’d like to move the testing forward into the larger quadruped line.”
“That would be fine.”
Fielding pressed him. “But I’d need a few more test subjects. Something more challenging.”
Robert pictured the macerated remains of the woman on the screen. “I’m sure we can find them somewhere.”
HEAVEN AND HELL
July 2, 11:56 A.M. EST
Charleston, South Carolina
Captain Kathryn Bryant had come to sell her body.
She stepped off the crosstown bus into the steamy swelter of a Charleston summer. Her worn sneakers crunched in the gravel at the shoulder of the road. She pulled on a pair of cheap sunglasses purchased at the airport against the glare of the sun, but they did nothing for the heat.
Ninety degrees with ninety percent humidity.
I thought Washington’s summers were bad.
In a feeble attempt to compensate, she’d gathered her long auburn hair into a ponytail and wore a ball cap to shade her face. She also wore a pair of light shorts and a nondescript loose blouse, no bra, finishing her appearance as a down-on-her-luck woman looking for a little extra money.
The bus pulled away with a choking cough of diesel fumes. She followed in its wake.
The North Charleston Fertility Clinic rose two blocks ahead, the complex covered a full city block, set amid a small park of towering oaks and palmettos. The rest of the neighborhood was a mix of commercial businesses and trailer parks. She was not unfamiliar with the area, having spent a few months while in service at the naval Weapons station, which hugged the Cooper River three miles away.
As she headed toward the clinic, she slipped out her cell phone to keep a promise. The phone was a disposable, tied to her alias. She connected her call through Sigma to ensure it couldn’t be traced. If anyone tried to pull the LUDs, the phone records would only discover a call placed to a local pawnshop.
The line clicked and a gruff voice answered, “So you’re still alive?”
Her husband, Monk, did his best to make it sound like a joke, but she heard the undercurrent of tension in his voice. He hadn’t been thrilled she’d taken this assignment, but he understood the necessity.
“For the moment,” she replied with a smile. “I’m just heading toward the clinic.”
“You give them hell.”
Her smile widened. “That’s the plan.”
She pictured Monk at their apartment, balancing one of their babies on his knee. He was not what most women would consider handsome, with his shaved head and stocky but muscular physique, but he still could make her melt with his smile and she’d never met a man with a bigger heart, a heart that only grew larger with each addition to the household.
“Did you give Harriet her second bottle?” she asked.
An exasperated sigh followed. “Yes, dear. And I went to Costco and got the Pampers. You go save the world. I’ve got things covered here.”
She had hoped her call would erase that edge of apprehension hiding behind his jovial banter, but it only seemed to make it worse.
“Monk, I’m almost at the clinic. Give Penny and Harriet a kiss for me.”
“Done. And I’ll save what I’ve got for you until you get home.”
“Ah, always my gallant knight,” she said sarcastically-but it was forced. Because he was her knight… and always would be.
His voice grew husky. “Just get back here safely.”
“You’d better. I’m holding you to it.”
After she hung up, the world seemed slightly less bright. A twinge of guilt plagued her as she pocketed her phone.
What am I doing here? I should be at home.
Still, she could not discount the electric thrill that coursed through her as she reached the grounds of the clinic and turned her attention to the task at hand. It happened with every mission. She had a duty, and she was good at what she did. And knowing her family was safe-and always would be with Monk-helped steady her. He was her rock, even hundreds of miles away.
With renewed determination, she crossed along the tall stacked-stone fence of the clinic and stepped through the wrought-iron gates, entering a garden oasis set amidst the surrounding commercial parks. A path led alongside the entry road, winding through manicured hedgerows, small burbling fountains, and perfumed beds of blush-pink roses.
Someone had gone to great expense to make the clinic feel warm and inviting, a veritable Garden of Eden, where dreams of infertile couples could not help but come true. No wonder this place drew celebrity clients and people from around the globe-including the president’s daughter.
Then again, the complex was owned by a subsidiary of a Gant family enterprise, one dedicated to biotech and genetic engineering. The clinic, established in the early eighties, was the end result of much of that research, offering the latest innovations to the public. The clinic also employed its own research protocols, drawing reproductive scientists from as far away as Japan. The place continued to be at the forefront of fertility studies and stem-cell research.
Over the past eighteen hours, Kat had investigated the clinic extensively-from its staffing and clientele down to its latest tax filings. She knew everything about the clinic: where they got their bed linens, the average weight of their hazardous waste material per day. The deeper she delved, the more certain she grew that the reason for Amanda’s kidnapping lay hidden somewhere within the four buildings that made up this facility.
This conviction came not from anything she uncovered-but from what she didn’t. After a full decade gathering global intelligence, she had developed a nose for when something was being hidden from her. During her investigation, she had reached too many dead ends that made no sense, certain matters that didn’t balance in her head. Worst of all, she stumbled across an impenetrable corporate firewall at one point, employing encryption algorithms that were military-grade. Even if she could, she feared smashing through it. The act alone could set off too many alarm bells, alerting the powers that be at the clinic that someone was sniffing at their door.
So she opted for a more direct approach.
She reached the parking lot and spotted the rental car, a silver Audi A6 sedan. Lisa Cummings had beaten her here, but her friend hadn’t had to navigate through two bus transfers from the airport to reach the clinic. They had come separately, each with her own mission.
Kat climbed the steps to a wide porch that fronted the main building. It looked nothing like a medical facility. The façade was typical for Charleston: a Georgian stone mansion with wrought-iron railings, three floors of balconies, and a gambrel roof covered by mossy-fringed slate tiles.
She stepped through the doors into an air-conditioned main lobby, refreshing after the hot bus ride and short walk. A reception desk beckoned. She approached it, noting out of the corner of her eye that Lisa sat in the waiting area, a space as sumptuously furnished as would be expected from the exterior, decked out in velvets and overstuffed cushions.
Lisa matched the décor in a handsome St. John platinum dress with a drawstring waist. Her blond hair hung loose and shone under the soft lights; her makeup was flawless. She came posing as the private doctor for a select Washingtonian clientele, coming to interview the clinic for possible referrals for her patients. She had an appointment to meet with the head of the facility in a few minutes.
Lisa was conducting this cursory investigation from the top down.
Kat was taking the other extreme.
“How may I help you?” the receptionist asked. She was a small woman with large eyes, made even more prominent by her harsh eye shadow.
Kat moved closer to the desk, pressing against it, leaning a bit too forward as if trying to keep the conversation from being overheard. “I heard… someone told me… that you all are looking for donors.”
The receptionist’s brows pinched in irritation.
Kat pushed even closer, glancing surreptitiously over her shoulder, raising an embarrassed blush to her cheeks. “You know. Looking for a woman’s eggs. I heard you pay good money.”
The receptionist sat straighter, her voice growing hushed, if not a touch condescending, made worse by the patronizing tone of her Carolina accent. “Hon, that’s handled elsewhere. This is for patient intake. If you’ll stand over there…” she waved a manicured hand away from the waiting area, toward a corner. “I’ll have one of the staff assistants come fetch you and bring you to the donor facility, if that’s all right?”
Kat nodded and slunk back. “Thank you.”
The woman made a noncommittal noise and picked up the phone.
As Kat retreated to her corner, she met Lisa’s gaze. At the moment they were divided by a cultural and financial gulf. Lisa represented the end buyer; Kat embodied the product to be sold. There continued to be much ethical and moral debate about the sale of human ova. Once a price tag was put upon such a commodity, it became tied to the power of supply and demand-and the inherent abuse.
In much of the Third World, entire villages now sold kidneys or became surrogate mothers, selling rental space in their wombs. It was called the red market-the wholesale buying and selling of body parts-and it was a booming business, both legally and illegally. She had read a report of Bolivian murderers who sought out victims to sell their fat to European beauty supply companies. In China, prisons were harvesting the organs of dead inmates, gutting them out, with whispers that some prisoners were being purposefully killed for profit. And in one case in Nepal, a dairy farmer had turned from delivering milk to supplying blood. He captured local hikers, imprisoned them in his barn, and repeatedly drained his new livestock of their blood, keeping them forever at the edge of death.
Worst of all, such a marketplace moved in only one economic direction: from the poor to the rich. It was an unfortunate side effect when a price tag was placed on organs. Inevitably, flesh moved only up the social ladder, never down.
Movement across the room drew Kat’s attention. A mahogany door opened and a rugged-looking man in his midforties stepped into the waiting room. He had jet-black hair, stood six feet tall, and was decked out in a knee-length white lab coat over expensive navy-blue trousers, a crisp white shirt, and a crimson tie. His smile was overly broad as he approached Lisa, who stood to greet him.
“Welcome to NCFC,” he said and shook her hand.
It was Dr. Paul Cranston, head of the clinic. Kat knew everything about him, even his social security number and where his passport had last been stamped: New Zealand.
He led Lisa out of the waiting room and into the inner sanctum of the facility. As that door closed, another opened. A man, likely a hospital orderly, stood at the threshold of a doorway neighboring the front desk. He looked like a pit bull in scrubs. The receptionist beckoned to Kat.
She stepped forward.
“If you’ll follow me,” the man grunted, not bothering with her name.
She hurried forward but stopped at the reception desk to grab a business card. She fumbled and purposefully knocked the holder off the counter and onto the reception desk.
“I’m so sorry,” she said, reaching over to help collect the scattered cards.
The receptionist sighed heavily and picked a few cards off the floor by her chair. Kat used the moment to slip the ballpoint pen palmed in her hand into the receptionist’s cup. It held a tiny camera that recorded audio and video passively to a micro SD chip. A small antenna allowed burst transmissions of the saved data with the pinged call from a cell phone.
She had four more pens in her purse, with the goal of strategically placing them in key locations throughout the facility-or, at least, where she could reach without raising an alarm. If given the chance, it would be easy for a confused girl to get lost in here and wander where she didn’t belong.
But first she had a role to play.
“Just go,” the receptionist said and pointed to the side door.
Kat apologized meekly and followed the orderly waiting for her. He led her out of the world of gardens and velvets and into a sterile environment of vinyl floors and stark white walls. Here was the hospital hidden behind the façade: sparse and utilitarian.
They eventually reached and entered a short enclosed walkway that connected the main building to a more drab structure at the back of the grounds. As she marched, she noted each of the four clinic wings was connected in a similar manner. It seemed there was no need to leave the air-conditioned splendor for the summer heat. She also eyed the windowed walls to either side. The glass was thick, appeared bulletproof.
Then again, the clinic’s clientele were often celebrities or foreign dignitaries. Maybe the extra protection was necessary.
Still, a chill that had nothing to do with the air-conditioning swept through her. The space felt less protective than it was imprisoning.
They entered the next building, and Kat was taken to a small examination room, one of a long row of them in this wing. The orderly handed her a series of forms to fill out, secured on a clipboard.
“Fill everything out. Someone will be in to talk to you in a few minutes.”
He left, looking as bored as when he’d first collected her.
She began to fill out the forms when she heard a small click at the door. Stepping forward, she tested the handle.
She frowned, fighting back a flicker of panic. Securing the door might be protocol, to maintain confidentiality. Either way, she was committed. She’d have to keep playing her hand-but something was definitely wrong about this place.
She hoped Lisa was faring better.
“As you can see, we do all of our work in-house,” Dr. Paul Cranston said, stopping before a window that looked into a sealed in vitro fertilization lab.
Lisa studied the space with a critical eye. The room was state-of-the art, with enclosed workstations equipped with laser oocyte scanners and Narishige micromanipulators for egg fertilization. Nothing was substandard, from Makler counting chambers to automatic sperm-analyzers, advanced warming blocks, and cryogenic chambers.
Her guided tour had already included the surgical suite, used for both egg collection and embryo implantation. The clinic’s high-tech operating theater would put most hospitals to shame. Even the neighboring recovery rooms were private spaces that could have graced the pages of Architectural Digest, with fine linens, subdued lighting, and tasteful decorations.
Clearly this tour was meant to impress.
And it did.
“We are a one-stop shop,” Cranston finished, offering a beaming, self-effacing smile. “From sperm and egg collection, to fertilization and implantation. We do all of our own patient monitoring, but we’re certainly happy to work in collaboration with a primary care physician.”
Lisa nodded. “I’m sure some of my clients would prefer the anonymity of care outside the DC circles.”
His eyes lingered a bit too long on her. Plainly, he desired to know more about whom she represented, but he knew better than to inquire directly. Lisa’s ironclad cover had been built to draw the personal interest of the clinic’s head, and obviously succeeded. She had been given the grand tour, along with the full-court sales press.
“Why don’t we return to my office? I can supply you with brochures detailing each level of service, including fact sheets containing our success rates, and, of course, I’ll be happy to answer any other questions.”
“That would be perfect.” She checked her watch in a move to urge him to hurry along. “I won’t take up much more of your time.”
His office was up a level from the workspaces. It was like walking into a mahogany library, with bookshelf-lined walls, trophies, and framed diplomas, including one from Harvard, his alma mater. Like the rest of the tour, the room was also designed to impress. Huge arched windows overlooked the parklike grounds with views to the other three buildings that made up the complex.
Cranston circled around his desk, where a prepared binder was already waiting for her atop his leather desk blotter. He handed it toward her, but she ignored it, focusing her attention out the window. She also kept a keen eye on his reactions. Besides a medical degree, she had earned a master’s in physiology. She understood bodily responses and could read them as accurately as most lie detectors-but unlike those detectors, she also knew how to manipulate those responses for a desired result.
Now to get to work.
“What happens in those other buildings?” she asked.
He lowered the binder and followed her gaze outside. “The wing directly behind this one is for donor evaluation and collection.”
Lisa eyed the three-story structure.
That must be where Kat is.
“The other two buildings are strictly for research,” he said. “We run reproductive studies for a dozen different universities, including as far away as the University of Tokyo and Oxford.”
She turned her back to the window. “I’m assuming that any biological specimens, eggs, or embryos from my patients wouldn’t be used for such purposes without their consent.”
“Of course not. We have a robust donor program that supplies such material. Let me assure you, Dr. Cummings, our research programs and patient services are completely separate. There is no crossover.”
“Very good.” Lisa returned to the chair in front of his wide desk and sank into the seat, shifting her purse into her lap. “Now let me be frank with you, Dr. Cranston.”
“Please call me Paul.”
She smiled, giving him that much. “Paul, I must be honest that I have been considering other facilities. It’s come down to here or a clinic outside of Philadelphia.”
He kept an even demeanor, but she did not mistake the flicker of desire-to poach another client was even better than merely to win one. That was the bait.
“But I assure you,” he continued, “you’ll find no other facility with the level of technological advancement, the latest tools, and the professional staff to oversee each stage of the process.”
Cranston definitely wanted her imaginary high-profile client list-but how badly?
First to let some slack in the line, intended to unnerve him. “I understand and appreciate that, Paul, but Philadelphia is also much closer to DC. I must take that convenience into account. My clients’ time is very important.”
He looked crestfallen. “I can’t argue with that.”
Now to dangle hope. “But your clinic has one distinct advantage. Beyond your stellar medical reputation, you have an unmatched social reputation, an excellent pedigree, if you will.”
The edges of his eyelids grew more strained at the mention of Amanda.
“Several of my patients are well acquainted with the First Family,” she continued. “They know of the delicate situation regarding the president’s daughter and how matters were handled at your clinic. In many ways, Washington is a small town.”
She offered him a modest smile.
He echoed it-the desired effect.
“One patient of mine in particular is faced with a similar situation: an infertile husband. She asked me to specifically inquire into your donor program. To put it bluntly, using my patient’s words: ‘If it’s good enough for the president’s daughter, it’s good enough for me.’”
She rolled her eyes, feigning amused disdain. “In certain Washingtonian circles-whether it’s the latest purse or the season’s designer fashions-name brands are all that matter. And this even extends to the choice of medical facility and, in this case, even the preference of donor.”
He gave her an understanding nod and steepled his fingers under his chin. “There is, of course, no way to divulge who was the male donor in this situation. But I can guarantee you that each of our donors must pass the most thorough and exacting background check and evaluation. Each is ranked on several criteria: physical appearance, IQ, medical history, ethnic background, and many others.”
“And if someone wanted to pick a donor of, let us say, equal criteria as the president’s daughter…?”
His smile grew steadier, as he discovered a way to win her over. It was human nature: to almost have something in one’s grasp, then suddenly lose it, only made the desire to win it back that much stronger. It was why gambling was so addictive.
“I’m sure that could be arranged,” he said. “We’d hate to lose you.”
I’m sure you would.
“Wonderful.” She rewarded him with a genuine smile of delight. “And would it be possible to obtain a list and description of such donors, something tangible I can present to my client? As they say, the proof is in the pudding.”
Cranston swung to his computer. “Certainly. If you can give me a few minutes…”
She settled back into her chair. Painter wanted that shortened list of donors, a way to narrow down the number of potential biological fathers for Amanda’s unborn child. But he also needed a way to turn the anonymity of those donors into real names.
That meant gaining access to clinic records.
As Cranston worked, Lisa snapped open her purse and pretended to check her phone. She pressed a button on it as instructed by Painter, then slipped the thin device into the seat cushions of her chair, using her purse to hide her actions. The phone had a wireless micro-router built into it, allowing Sigma to link and hack into the clinic’s server. Painter had tried to explain it in more detail, but electronic engineering was not her specialty. All she knew was to follow his instructions: wait until Cranston had logged into the computer and used his password, then activate the wireless router and leave it running nearby.
She clicked her purse closed.
Her work here was done.
It seemed too easy, but then again, it was supposed to be.
Painter had described the mission here as a soft infiltration. Rather than a full-frontal storming of the gates, Kat and Lisa’s only goal was to leave a trail of electronic bread crumbs: listening devices, cameras, wireless taps. Most of the tools had been engineered by Painter, made for easy concealment and minimal signature.
But anything can be detected, given enough time, Painter had warned.
So the second part of this mission was not to loiter.
And she obeyed that now.
In short order, she had everything she needed from Dr. Cranston, including the binder of brochures and information. He walked her back to the lobby, left her with promises to keep in touch, and she soon found herself back under the swelter of the midday sun.
She headed over and climbed into her Audi sedan, a luxurious rental to match her cover. Though her part of the mission was complete, a knot of tension remained in her neck. The plan was for Kat to meet her back at their hotel in downtown Charleston. She would be relieved only when they were rejoined. From there, the electronic devices could do all the spying for them.
She swung her sedan out of the parking lot and onto the street, still worried about Kat, feeling guilty for abandoning her partner.
Her only reassurance: Kat was a pro.
Nothing fazed her.
What the hell is going on here?
Pacing the small exam room, Kat checked the clock on her disposable phone. It had been over an hour since she first walked through the clinic’s front door. She should’ve been in and out by now. She had completed the sheaf of paperwork and handed it to the same orderly who marched her here and locked her in the room.
He’d told her to sit tight, that the initial approval process could take some time. And that it wasn’t all paperwork. A doctor will be in to do a pelvic exam and ultrasound in a few minutes. You will be paid a small stipend now in order to draw your blood and collect a urine sample. Within five business days, you will be informed by phone whether you’re selected as a donor.
This was all related in a bored monotone, as if he’d repeated the same speech a hundred times each day. And maybe he did. Through the walls, she heard other men and women coming and going, doors opening and closing along the long exam hallway.
She had hoped to get a cursory tour of the donation center, to plant another pen camera here, maybe even attempt to reach the other two research buildings. That didn’t seem likely unless she was bolder.
She stepped to the secured door. She had a lock pick incorporated into the sole of her right shoe, and a folded combat blade hidden in her left. But her escape out of a locked room would be hard to explain if she was caught later. There was an easier way.
She knocked loudly and raised a plaintive lilt to her call. “Hello! I need to use the bathroom! Can someone help me, please?”
It didn’t take long for the door to be unlocked.
She expected to see the same orderly as before-but instead it was a white-smocked doctor, a svelte woman with gray eyes. The orderly hovered behind her, holding a tray with a rack of vacuum tubes for blood collection and an array of syringes.
The only warning of trouble: one of the syringes was full.
Before she could react, the doctor stepped forward and jammed a black wand against her stomach. The snap of electricity was loud in the small space. Agony shot through her body, centered on her belly, contracting her abdominal muscles. Her limbs betrayed her, and she toppled to the side, a slim edge away from a full convulsion.
Anticipating this, the doctor caught her and lowered her to the floor. The orderly closed the door and came around her other side, syringe in hand. Even through the electric pain, she felt the needle jab in her neck.
Her vision began to immediately close down.
Kat fought against it, wondering how her cover could have been blown. She’d been so thorough to craft her alias as a shiftless transient with no familial or local ties, nothing that could be easily verified or tracked back to her.
Unfortunately, that proved her undoing.
“She seems in better than average shape,” the doctor said to the orderly, examining Kat as if she were a prized pig at a county fair. “Unusual. Feel this muscle tone. I don’t see any track marks on her arm or signs of chronic drug use. You’re sure she met the standard protocol?”
“Everything checked out, Dr. Marshall. She just moved here. No job. No family. Changed cities three times in the past year before coming here. Gainesville, Atlanta, now Charleston. No one to miss her.”
Kat’s world folded and closed over her.
Their conversation followed her into oblivion. “Then it’s perfect timing. I received a message from the Lodge a short time ago. They’re demanding more research subjects.”
Kat felt her body lifted by the muscular orderly.
“The Lodge?” he asked. “Do you know what they do up there?”
“Trust me, you don’t want to know.”
July 2, 10:20 P.M. Gulf Standard Time
Dubai City, UAE
Gray stood before the hotel windows and stared out at the jeweled nightscape of Dubai’s skyline, an emerald oasis perched between the desert and the blue sea. Towers and cloud-scraping spires blazed with lights, rising from a modern mecca of huge malls, hotels, and trendy residential complexes, all wired and connected by ribbons of flowing neon of every fathomable hue. The panorama looked less like a city and more like a glowing circuit board buzzing with the electricity of the entire region.
It seemed impossible that five hours ago he’d been in a country devastated by war, famine, and drought; a land ruled as much by pirates as any government.
Now he floated above a miracle.
Grown at a blistering pace, Dubai had risen like a mirage out of the desert, with the crown jewel being Burj Khalifa, over two hundred stories high, the tallest skyscraper in the world, appearing like a thin mountain pinnacle at the edge of the sea. Architects from around the world continued to compete to construct the most awe-inspiring designs, seemingly with one common theme: the defiance of nature and its elements. Within the city, one could lounge on a sun-baked beach, and an hour later be snowboarding down the slopes of the world’s largest indoor ski resort. And if one wanted the best of both worlds, the newly opened Palazzo Versace hotel had its own refrigerated beach to keep tourists cool while sunbathing.
But the greatest of the nature-defying projects lay beyond the beaches: Dubai’s famous man-made islands. Their hotel neighbored Palm Jumeirah, an artificial archipelago in the shape of a palm tree, so large it could be seen from space. Its trunk grew out from the mainland and burst forth with sixteen fronds, all circled by a crescent-shaped breakwater. Another two such islands were being constructed along the coastline, multiplying the amount of Dubai beachfront tenfold.
Gray had read of other projects still in the works for Dubai: a twenty-seven-acre underwater hotel called Hydropolis; a German-designed floating palace made entirely of ice, fancifully named the Blue Crystal; and, even farther out to sea, the partially completed deep-sea island of Utopia, shaped like a starfish and sheltered by a breakwater crescent, intended both as a tourist destination and a corporate enclave, due to its unique isolation.
Here in Dubai, nature held no sway against the lofty dreams of man.
“You gotta try the shower, Pierce.” Kowalski came out of the bathroom, a towel wrapped around his waist. “They got jets that hit you in all the right places-and a few wrong ones.”
It seemed the dreams of some men weren’t as lofty as others’.
Gray turned his back on the cityscape. With his shoulders still blistered and sore, a shower held no appeal at the moment.
Maybe a long bath.
The group shared a two-bedroom suite. Kowalski and Gray had one room; Seichan, the other. Tucker and Kane staked out the couch in the common room, equipped with a pool table, a wet bar, and a flat-screen television. Gray heard a BBC broadcast playing out there.
“I’m going to see if Tucker wants to lose a few bucks playing pool,” Kowalski said and headed toward the door, hauling on a robe and letting his wet towel fall to the floor.
Gray stepped toward the bathroom.
There wasn’t much else they could do except to continue waiting for an intelligence report from Sigma command.
Painter was gathering data on flights into and out of Somalia, comparing all routes that could bring Amanda and her kidnappers to Dubai. He was also checking passenger manifests, searching custom records, specifically looking for faces that matched Amanda’s, in case someone tried to sneak her through with a fake passport. He also had a team scouring security footage from Dubai International Airport.
Gray didn’t hold out much hope. His team had already spent an hour at the airport, tracking all the exits and baggage areas, checking to see if Kane could pick up her scent.
Maybe she never came here-or came and left.
But Gray didn’t think so and couldn’t exactly say why. It was more than a gut feeling-like something that beckoned at the edge of his awareness, something he was missing.
In the bathroom, he turned on the tub’s tap, tested the water, and, once satisfied, he slowly peeled off his shirt. Pieces stuck to his shoulders, pasted in place by his blistered skin. With a groan, he tugged the shirt off, stripped out of the rest of his clothes, and climbed into the tub.
It was wonderful agony to sink into the steaming heat.
He left the tap running, letting the waterline climb up his belly. He leaned forward, hugging his knees, carefully stretching the stiffened skin across his shoulders.
“Dear God, Gray… your back looks horrible.”
He twisted half-around to face the open door. Seichan stood there, her gaze not shying from his nakedness. He was too tired to be self-conscious. They’d both seen each other at their best and worst. What was a little bare skin?
He turned off the flowing tap. “I’m fine. What is it?”
“You’re not fine. Why didn’t you tell someone your burn was this bad? I’m getting the med pack. Here.” She stepped forward and passed him the satellite phone. “Call from sigma.”
He took the phone. “Director?”
“Gray, I just wanted to give you an update, while I have a spare moment.”
He sat higher in the tub. “Any leads?”
“No, I’m afraid not. We’ve searched every record and videotape from Dubai International. I can find no evidence that Amanda ever passed through there. I’ll keep monitoring the airport and inbound manifests, but I’ve also expanded the search for flights out of the city. We have to take into account that she may have already been moved.”
“If that’s the case, we’re not likely to ever find her.”
At least not alive.
“I’ll keep looking,” Painter said. “But for now, we’ll keep your team on-site. Even if she has shipped out, it might not have been far, and I want you and the others close by.”
Gray signed off as Seichan returned. She took the phone, set it aside, then tapped the edge of the tub. “Up here. Back to me.”
She opened the combat med kit and pulled out a tube of burn cream and Water-Jel tactical dressing.
“I don’t need you to-”
“I could get Kowalski to do it. But I don’t think either of you would like that.”
He sighed heavily, pulled out of the bathwater, and balanced on the lip of the tub. She patted his skin dry with great care. From the corner of his eye, he caught her reflection in the mirror. She rubbed the cream between her palms and placed them against his heated skin.
The balm’s cooling agent sank deep into his flesh, outlining each of her fingers. A small moan escaped him.
“Am I hurting you?”
“No,” he said, more huskily than he intended.
Her hands spread outward, washing away the worst of his pain. He stretched his back, loosening his shoulders even further. His breathing grew heavier, deeper as she worked. His eyelids drifted closed.
She remained silent. He heard only her breath, sighing in and out. Fingers rode up to his neckline and down his spine. He found himself leaning back into her touch-and not just because of the cooling effect of the balm. In fact, warmth was returning to his skin, but not from the burn. It rose from a fire deeper inside. His body responded, but he didn’t bother to hide it, not that he could.
He heard the need in her voice that matched his own.
He reached back and caught one of her hands. He held it, poised between pulling her closer or pushing her away, trapped between heaven and hell. Her fingers, soft and silky, trembled in his palm, like a bird fluttering to escape.
Not this time.
His hand tightened on hers, making a decision at last.
He chose heaven.
As he drew her arm around him, twisting to face her, their lips brushing against one another-then he suddenly knew the truth. He froze with shock.
“Gray? What is it?”
He tilted back, his eyes widening as his certainty grew.
“I know where Amanda is.”
“You should keep walking,” Dr. Blake said, supporting her by the elbow. “It can help the baby get into a better position.”
Amanda shambled down a featureless white hallway. She had no idea where she was, nor the time of day. She’d woken in a windowless hospital room four hours ago. The medical team had performed another ultrasound on her, along with a pelvic exam, removing a sponge-like object from inside her.
Dr. Blake had explained, We inserted a synthetic osmotic dilator while you were sedated, to gently help open your cervix. It’s an old-school technique but still effective in preparation for labor.
It was only then she had learned they were inducing her, forcing her to deliver her baby early. She protested, but the protests fell on deaf ears. All she got for her trouble was a patronizing reassurance that she was well enough along and that there would be little risk to the baby or herself.
That failed to relieve her. She remembered what she’d overheard during the flight: the plans for her child to be dissected like some lab animal. She had to find a way to stop them.
As she walked, she supported her belly with one hand, as if trying to hold her baby where it was safe, willing her body not to surrender. But ten minutes ago, a prostaglandin gel had been applied vaginally, the first step toward inducing labor.
I won’t let them have my baby.
Ahead, she saw a wide window on one side of the hallway, bright with light. She hurried forward, breaking free of Blake’s grip.
Maybe there is a way out. Or some sign of where I am.
And deeper down lurked darker thoughts, of throwing herself out a high window, of plummeting to her death rather than letting them torture her baby boy.
She reached the window and fell back in horror. The light did not come from the sun but from the stark halogens of a biological clean lab. She flashed back to a similar facility in Charleston, where her in vitro fertilization had been performed. Like back home, this lab had multiple workstations and microscopes. It was all polished stainless steel or nonporous surfaces.
But what made her weak in the knees was the research project facing her-literally. A disembodied human head hung before her, bolted to a stanchion above a rack as tall as a man. A foot below that horror, a nest of plastic tubing suspended a human heart. A pacemaker-like device had been wired into the dark muscle and sat atop the tissue like a silver spider. The heart contracted every couple of seconds, jumping slightly in its webbing. And below that, a set of pink lungs hung in a glass vat, the disembodied tissue bellowing in and out, hooked to a ventilator. Other body parts loomed in murkier jars farther down, but she shied away from them, fearing what she would find.
Instead, she found her gaze transfixed on the victim’s face. His mouth had been taped shut; his eyelids drooped at half-mast. The stump of his neck was sealed in a tight bandage that trailed bloody tubes and tangles of wires, all flowing to a desk-size machine behind the rack.
It was as if someone had stripped the man down to his component parts, separating them each for some macabre study.
She could no longer look and swung away, running into Dr. Blake’s chest. He caught her in his arms.
“What is all of this?” she cried.
“We’re saving lives,” he answered calmly. “Continuing a Russian research program started back in the forties. They were using dogs back then, discovering how long they could keep body parts alive via artificial means. Even seven decades ago, using the crude tools available at the time, the researchers were able to keep the severed heads of their subjects vital for days, animated enough to respond to sound, to attempt to bark, to twitch their ears.”
Amanda shook her head, aghast at such a thing.
“Ah, but you see, Amanda, as gruesome as that may sound, those early experiments eventually led to the development of the first ventilator and the first cardiopulmonary bypass machine. A leap forward in technology that saved thousands of lives over the next decades.”
“But this…” Amanda waved a hand weakly toward the window.
“This is just as important and groundbreaking. The animal model could only take medical science so far. And with the accelerating advances in nanotechnology, microsurgery, neuroscience, cardiopulmonary medicine, and pharmaceutical sciences, there is no limit to what we’re on the threshold of accomplishing. What we’re doing here-experimenting with longevity studies of major tissues-promises not only to save lives but to extend them as well.”
She heard the exaltation in his voice. He openly worshipped at the altar of cold science, where morality had no sway. He believed as fervently in the truth of his convictions as any preacher, and, like any devoted disciple, sought to convert the nonbeliever.
But she wasn’t about to drink that particular Kool-Aid.
Movement in the lab drew her eye back to the horror show inside. A figure-gowned in a one-piece hooded clean suit-stepped from a rear chamber, carrying a tray of surgical tools. The worker noted the audience at the window and looked over.
Above the white mask, Amanda recognized those cold, watery eyes.
At the same time, she remembered Blake’s praise for his nurse’s ghoulish skills, a talent to be applied to the child in her womb. She stared between Petra’s face and the disembodied head. Did they intend to do the same to her boy?
Petra’s earlier words rang in her ears.
I’ll relax once we have the fetus on the vivisection table at the lab.
Amanda stared at the tray of sharp stainless-steel tools.
Blood drained to her legs, making her swoon.
Why? she cried inside. How could her child be important to these grisly “longevity studies”? What were they looking to find in her baby boy?
Petra crossed and dropped the tray atop a workstation. Steel clanged on steel, as sharp as a gunshot.
The eyelids of the corpse popped open.
Dead pupils stared back at Amanda.
She screamed-letting all the day’s horrors crash out of her. She fell to her knees, felt something give way deep in her belly, hot fluid washed down her inner thighs.
Dr. Blake dropped beside her, cradling her under one arm. “Her water’s broke!” he called to Petra through the glass, then turned his attention back to Amanda. He patted her leg. “It won’t be long now.”
Amanda closed her eyes, knowing at last where she was.
I’m in hell.
“She’s in heaven,” Gray said, speaking to the group gathered in the suite and to Painter back in Washington.
With the satellite phone on speaker, he stepped again to the large window that overlooked the city and beachfront. Far out, near the horizon, a glow shone against the midnight sea, like the reflection of the moon. But it wasn’t a reflection or the moon, but another celestial body.
Gray fogged the glass with his breath and drew on the window with his finger.
A five-pointed star.
“The new island of Utopia out there is in the shape of a starfish.” Gray faced the others, as Painter listened on the line. “The boy back in Somalia said that Amanda was being taken to heaven. Maybe he misinterpreted utopia, translating the name as best he could as a heavenly place. Or maybe he heard the destination of the kidnappers was shaped like a star, a piece of the heavens.”
“Or maybe you’re grasping at straws,” Kowalski said.
Seichan stood with her arms crossed, similarly unimpressed.
Gray remembered their brief intimate moment in the bathroom. In that fleeting instance, the worries of family and mission responsibilities faded. He existed in the simple purity of touch and possibility. With his mind cleared, the nagging puzzle stuck in his head broke through the muddle of his awareness. The answer burst forth fully formed, shining with the certainty of truth.
But maybe he was the only one convinced.
Even Painter put a noncommittal spin on his revelation. “It’s something I can look into. Maybe by morning-”
“We can’t wait until morning. Amanda could be moved again or harmed. We need to take advantage of the hours of darkness left to us.”
“You’re talking about putting a lot of resources to bear on a hunch,” Painter argued. “You could burn your cover, expose the fact that you know Amanda’s still alive, all for nothing.”
“I know I’m right,” Gray said.
“How can you be so sure?” Seichan said.
Gray returned to the window. “Because of the breakwater around Utopia, the same as can be seen out the window surrounding the palm islands.”
He fogged the glass again with a hard breath and filled in the rest of his map of Utopia, drawing in a crescent breakwater around the starfish-shaped island.
“A moon and a star,” Gray said, poking at the symbols.
A gasp rose from Seichan.
Tucker shrugged. “I don’t get it.”
Gray glanced at him, remembering the man knew nothing about the Guild. “It’s the root symbol for a shadowy organization, one that’s committed acts of terrorism around the world. The director already suspected this group might be behind Amanda’s kidnapping.”
“Now you tell me,” Kowalski grumbled. “If I’d known that, I would’ve sat this one out.”
Tucker still shook his head. “The crescent and the moon. You can find that emblem on most Arab national flags. The Emirates is an Islamic country. The design of the islands might simply be representing that Muslim symbol.”
Painter agreed. “He’s right, Gray. But you’ve convinced me enough that the island is worth investigating. I’ve ordered a team to assemble an intelligence brief on the place. I already pulled a picture off the Web, photos showing the towers under construction on the main island. Impressive. Several are already occupied by businesses, with the remainder of the spaces nailed down by corporations from around the world. From what I’m seeing, security is tight around that island.”
“That’s why I wanted to head out there tonight. Go in dark.”
“No good.” It sounded like Painter was reading from a report. “They’ve got a radar-monitoring system that circles the entire island. They’ll know you’re approaching from a mile away.”
“Then we can get as close as we can and use scuba gear to-”
“I may have a better way,” Painter said, letting out a long sigh. “There’s someone in the area I can reach out to. His name came up during the initial intelligence sweep of Dubai. A deep-sea salvage operator. He’s got a pair of submersibles, possibly something we can use to ferry your team to Utopia. He’s been doing survey and engineering work on the seabed for an underwater hotel being constructed offshore.”
“Hydropolis,” Gray said, remembering the latest addition to the Dubai waterfront.
From the sound of the director’s voice, Painter was still not too keen on involving a third party, especially this person.
“Director, if you don’t trust this guy…”
“It’s not that. He can be trusted. He’s performed many high-security clearance projects for the government, even for the military.”
“Then what’s the matter?”
Again that heavy sigh. “He’s Lisa’s ex-boyfriend.”
Kowalski turned away, mumbling under his breath, “Oh, that’s not going to be awkward.”
July 2, 4:34 P.M. EST
Charleston, South Carolina
“And Jack’s agreed to help?” Lisa asked.
She stood by the open balcony door on the second floor of Harbourview inn, a historic building in the heart of downtown Charleston that overlooked the river and a waterfront park.
“He did,” Painter said. “Even agreed to keep this midnight mission a secret from the rest of the crew of the Deep Fathom. He’ll be taking the sub out personally.”
She closed the French doors, returning inside to the air-conditioned luxury. Her room was appointed with a four-poster bed and period pieces, and featured an exposed redbrick wall and working fireplace, a richness of accommodation to help bolster her cover.
She hadn’t thought about Jack Kirkland in some time. She had been fresh out of UCLA medical school, working under a National Science Foundation grant to study the physiological effects of deep-sea work on the human body. Jack had been the captain of an eighty-foot salvage ship, the Deep Fathom, manned by a team of scientists and treasure hunters. The two had a brief, fiery relationship that burned out as fast as it started. It was all physical, but not from lack of trying-lots of trying, multiple times a day. She smiled at the memory. Though almost a decade had passed, it felt like a lifetime ago.
What happened to that bikini-clad, bronze-legged girl?
A pang of melancholia swept through her.
Painter redirected her to the present, stoking the worries that had died down by the distraction of his call. “And Kat’s still not back?”
“No.” She checked her watch. It was almost five o’clock. She’d been back at the hotel for over two hours and expected Kat to join up with her shortly thereafter. They weren’t supposed to communicate with each other until reunited at the hotel, to keep their distance from each other.
“And you’ve not heard anything from her?” she asked.
“Not a word, but when you called an hour ago, I pinged her recording devices. The pen camera in the reception area is still operational, but offered no clue to her whereabouts. The other devices in her possession were never activated. And the remote hacking device you planted continues to transmit data. So far they’ve not found it, and we’ve been gathering reams of data.”
“Anything about Amanda?”
“I got the profiles you e-mailed, but we’ve hit a wall when searching for Amanda’s medical file-a firewall. I have a skilled engineer trying to sap a way under that digital barrier, but it’s delicate work to keep from raising alarm bells. Still, if Kat had been caught, I doubt our surveillance devices would still be operational. They’d sweep the place clean.”
“So then where is she?”
“I don’t know. The clinic doctors could be running tests, or maybe she got nabbed by in-house security for trespassing and it’s taking extra time to talk her way out. Or maybe it’s as simple as traffic. She does have to take the bus back to the city.”
Lisa let his words calm her. Due to construction delays, it had taken her an hour to wind her way across town to reach the hotel. And Kat would have to change buses twice to get here.
Maybe Painter’s right…
Still, she couldn’t escape the feeling that something was wrong.
“Wasn’t the original plan to rendezvous at the hotel at six o’clock?” Painter asked.
“That’s true. But why hasn’t she at least reported in to you if she’d left the clinic?”
Painter’s reply took too long. “I don’t know,” he finally admitted. “We’ll keep monitoring what we can. We’ll give Kat until six o’clock to break silence before we make a move.”
Lisa knew that would be an agonizingly long hour for her.
Painter spoke in her ear-not talking to her this time, but to somebody who must have stepped into his office. Though he lowered the receiver away from his face, she still heard his voice sharpen. “Send me everything,” he ordered, then returned to Lisa. “Kat activated a second pen camera. Technicians are downloading the camera’s SD card and sending the contents to my computer.”
A knock on the door drew her attention. “Someone’s at the door,” she said.
In her ear, Lisa heard a commotion over the phone-then Painter swore brightly. “Lisa, don’t answer it! Get out of there!”
Wood splintered as someone kicked the door.
Panic spiked. She twisted away.
Another kick sounded behind her.
The door crashed open.
Kat let her hand drop away, accidentally dragging her purse off a metal table beside her gurney. The contents spilled across the floor, but she was too weak to stop it from happening. It had taken all her effort to lift her arm and groggily reach into her bag, fumble for one of the surveillance pens, and press its disguised clip to activate the camera inside.
No video would be recorded inside her purse, but audio would still be picked up. The same could be said for Kat in her current drugged state. Her vision remained a blurry pinpoint; her stomach churned queasily. But she could hear well enough to know someone came running into the small room, drawn by the clatter of her upended bag.
“Looks like she was going for her cell phone.”
A shadowy shape dropped next to her bed and began scooping up the contents of her purse, shoving them back inside. It sounded like the orderly from earlier.
The next voice supported that supposition. Judging by the frosty New England accent, it had to be Dr. Marshall, the woman who cattle-prodded Kat into convulsing submission. “Roy, I thought you said she’d be out for another ten to fifteen minutes.”
“From the dosage, her body weight, she should’ve been. I just stepped out to grab a fresh gown before stripping her for the intake exam.”
“Didn’t I warn you she was fit, robust. She’s not like the usual malnourished, strung-out subjects that land here. You should have anticipated that, Roy. She might have injured herself.”
“Sorry. It won’t happen again.”
Judging by the gist of the conversation, they remained unaware of Kat’s true identity, blind to her connection to sigma. But where was she? Her head lolled around, trying to get some bearing as to her location. She innately sensed that not much time had passed. All she could tell was that they’d moved her to another room, likely within the same facility. The space looked sterile. Too many bright surfaces pained her eyes, and the air definitely had the antiseptic smell of a hospital.
Painter’s instinct had been correct about the fertility clinic. Something was wrong here. But what? Why had they drugged and kidnapped her?
“I’m not ready for her exam yet,” Dr. Marshall said. “So you might as well take her to her cell.”
“Let her shake off the rest of the sedative,” the doctor finished. “She’ll be easier to work with if she’s not as limp as a rag doll. Besides, the sooner she learns to behave the better.”
Dr. Marshall still held her cattle prod, tapping it against the gurney, emphasizing who was the boss.
The orderly, Roy, hauled Kat onto the gurney and drew her out of the room and down a poorly lit corridor. Though there were no windows, she sensed she was underground, in a basement level.
Roy stepped to a locked door and used a key card hanging from a lanyard around his neck to open a set of swinging doors. Stepping to the head of the stretcher, he wheeled her through and into a large circular ward, painted a soothing light blue with tables scattered around and a television playing silently in the background. A set of double doors lay directly opposite, painted a warning shade of red. Likely it was locked as securely as the doors into the ward.
The orderly swung her gurney to the side. She noted the living space had bookshelves, a showering facility, and, all along the periphery, small rooms-cells-a dozen in all, each sealed by metal-framed glass doors.
A single woman stood framed in one of the doorways, behind glass, dressed in a blue smock, her hair shorn to a crew cut, her face expressing fear and sorrow. She placed a palm against her glass door, either as a sign of solidarity or to warn her off.
But there was nothing Kat could do.
At least not yet.
She leaned her head to the side and studied the red steel doors, only now noting the raised symbol spanning that exit. It was a cross, adorned with stylized representations of helical DNA. She sensed that whatever secrets were hidden at this clinic, the answers lay beyond that threshold.
But right now she had another door to worry about.
Roy reached a vacant cell-there seemed to be many-and used a master key to unlock the door and haul it open. Next, he shouldered Kat up into his arms. Dr. Marshall’s descriptive use of the term rag doll was appropriate. She couldn’t keep her feet under her; her arms felt cast in cement.
The orderly hauled her to the unmade cot in the room and tossed her on top of it. “Stay out of trouble this time.”
Kat had enough strength to watch him leave. As he shoved the door shut and wheeled away the stretcher, she spotted her purse atop the gurney. She pictured the surveillance device inside.
Dear God, let someone be listening.
“We’re still not picking up any audio or video,” a technician reported.
Another analyst called from across the room. “I’ve got security feed from Harbourview coming up over here.”
Painter pointed to the tech. “Keep monitoring all of Kat’s surveillance devices.” He stepped toward the analyst. “Show me that feed from Lisa’s hotel.”
Painter crossed sigma’s communications nest, moving the eye of a hurricane with him. He had other intelligence analysts and agents laboring across the banks of computers and monitors that formed a semicircle across the back of the room. To his left, an adjoining windowed office looked into the space.
It was Kat’s command center, her nest within the nest. A single monitor glowed in that dark space, illuminating the young face of her chief analyst, Jason Carter, who hunched over a keyboard working on a separate project.
Out here, chaos reigned as Painter sought answers to the fate of Kat and Lisa. He kept one ear fixed on the flow of information in the room while his left hand held a Bluetooth earpiece in place, awaiting any more audio from Kat’s surveillance device. A pair of wall monitors displayed the video from the two pens she planted. One showed the reception area of the North Charleston Fertility Clinic. The other was dark, receiving no video.
Painter had heard the initial conversation that was downloaded after the second pen was activated. It sounded like someone had drugged and kidnapped Kat and was now holding her prisoner.
But after that, nothing.
The feed had fallen unnervingly silent for the past twelve minutes.
At the moment, he didn’t know if Kat was still at the fertility clinic or taken somewhere else. They tried to track her disposable cell phone but ended up hitting a blank wall. Either reception was being blocked, or her phone’s battery had been stripped out.
He was ready to contact the Charleston law enforcement, have them storm the clinic, but to what end? Kat might not be there, and if she was, her captors would likely kill her before warrants could be issued. Such an effort would also lay bare sigma’s continuing investigation into Amanda and the Gant family.
That must not happen.
His mind raced through countless stratagems, while his heart pounded in his throat, fueled by yet another fear, another unknown.
Where are you, Lisa?
When he received Kat’s transmission, he’d been on the phone with his girlfriend. When he recognized that Kat was in trouble, his anxiety shifted immediately to encompass Lisa-especially when, seconds later, an analyst burst into his office to inform him that the hack into the clinic’s computers had suddenly got severed.
He got a brief warning out to Lisa-then heard the crash of a door in the background and the line went dead.
“I’ve got the hotel feed now.” The agent pointed to a monitor in front of him. A stuttering image flickered, silent, showing three assailants in a hallway, all wearing ski masks.
So they knew about the cameras.
One knocked on the door, shook his head, then another stepped back and kicked the door in. The three rushed inside, vanishing out of view. Without a camera inside the hotel room, there was no telling for sure what transpired after that.
As he watched, Painter found himself holding his breath. He had to force himself to breathe. Panic would not serve either Lisa or Kat.
After Lisa’s phone went dead, he had immediately called hotel security and reported the break-in. The head of security called back within five minutes. It had been the longest five minutes of his life.
When he finally heard back, he was relieved with the report but far from settled: We chased the intruders off, but the hotel room was empty. We found a purse and a cell phone and luggage. No occupant.
Painter watched the same scenario play out again on the screen. A two-man security detail came racing down the hall, but the three assailants dashed out, one shooting at the approaching guards, forcing them back. The three then took off, disappearing down a stairwell.
A neighboring analyst swung around in his chair. “Director, I have Harbourview security again.”
“Patch them through.” When he last spoke to the hotel, they were still searching the premises for Lisa.
His earpiece clicked, and a gruff voice could be heard shouting orders, before centering back to Painter. It was the head of security.
“I’m sorry to report, sir, that we’ve found no sign of your girlfriend anywhere in the hotel. I’ve interviewed staff and guests. No one saw any woman being manhandled off the property.”
Painter felt the smallest flicker of relief. If Lisa wasn’t in the room or spotted by the hall cameras or staff, then she must have escaped out the window.
The man on the line came to the same conclusion. “The police are on the scene, but it appears to me that she fled.”
“Thank you. If you hear anything or learn anything-”
“You’ll be the first I call.”
Painter pictured Lisa running scared through the streets-no money, no phone-doing her best to keep ahead of the hunters and not knowing whom to trust. She needed to reach a public area, get access to a phone. Then he could facilitate her rescue. He already had field operatives flying into the area. There’d be boots on the ground in Charleston within the hour.
Hopefully, by that time, he’d have more information on Kat’s whereabouts, too. Painter glanced at the technician assigned to monitoring Kat’s surveillance equipment. He got a shake of a head in return.
Still no new feed from Kat’s second camera.
With an extra moment to think, Painter paced the length of the communications nest. He began putting together the most likely scenarios. Somehow Lisa’s cover got blown after the discovery of the wireless router hidden in the head clinician’s office. And since Kat’s cameras were still functioning, her cover must still be intact.
No one connected them together yet.
It was the only silver lining in this black cloud-but he’d take it.
Still pacing, Painter turned to find his way blocked by Jason Carter. The young man was rail-thin, former navy like Kat, only twenty-two years old. According to Kat, the tow-headed kid was some sort of savant as an intelligence analyst. He also knew his way around computers. He’d been kicked out of the navy for breaking into DoD servers with nothing more than a BlackBerry and a jury-rigged iPad-or so the story went. Still, Kat had snatched him up, in the aftermath, for sigma.
Jason’s face was paler than usual. He blamed himself for accidentally alerting the clinic during his attempt to hack the last firewall, and for exposing Lisa. He was also deathly worried about Kat. The young man worshipped at her feet.
To keep the kid distracted and focused elsewhere, Painter had assigned him to finish the intelligence brief on Utopia.
“Director, there’s something you should see.” He lifted an arm toward Kat’s office.
Painter followed him and closed the door. He could still smell a whiff of jasmine in the air, a ghost of its former occupant.
Jason led him to a large computer monitor. Upon it spun a 3-D rendering of the star-shaped island of Utopia. The surface of the man-made superstructure bristled with towers, clustering up each leg, rising in height from the tip to the center, like the spines of a starfish. And in the middle rose the tallest of the spires, appearing like a molten pyramid whose tip had been stretched taffy-like into the sky to the height of five hundred feet.
“Where did you get this schematic?”
“Made it myself.”
“That was fast.”
Jason shrugged. “Before all hell broke loose, you had me already doing a search into the various corporations and businesses involved with Utopia. I just pulled the architectural schematics from each building, paired them with their GPS locations on the island, and had it all rendered in 3-D. The hard part was showing the levels of completion of each phase of the various towers. I shaded the completed projects in gray. The other, ghostlier sections denote floors or phases of construction either unfinished or still in the planning stages.”
“Impressive. Can you forward this schematic to Commander Pierce’s team?”
“No problem, sir, but that’s not why I wanted to talk to you.” He waved to the screen. “This was all busywork while I waited for my data to compile on the various businesses invested or renting space in Utopia. Let me show you.”
He tapped a screen and the grayscale schematic burst forth with tiny patches of color, in every imaginable hue, filling in office floors and apartment spaces. “Each color represents a different company with vested interest in Utopia,” Jason explained. “Two hundred and sixteen in all.”
Painter gaped at the view. Gray’s team faced a daunting task to hunt through that corporate maze for Amanda.
But, apparently, Jason was not done. “You also had me search business records and financial reports to discover the true owners involved.”
Painter nodded. He had assigned Jason to strip away the shell and dummy corporations, to expose the various front and holding companies, all to discover who was truly investing time and money in Utopia.
To reveal the real peas under all those fake shells.
“That took some work,” Jason said with a proud grin and hit a keystroke. “Now watch.”
On the screen’s schematic, the various dots and splashes of colors began to change, blinking through a cascade of shades, then settling and blending together-until most of the screen glowed one uniform color, a deep crimson.
“Once the shell game settled out,” Jason said, “I discovered seventy-four-point-four percent of the island is actually owned by a single parent company.”
Painter felt the cold creep of dread in his gut. He could guess the answer. “Gant Corporate enterprises.”
Jason glanced up at him, his eyes surprised. “How did you know? What does the president’s family-?”
Painter cut him off and leaned closer. “Rotate that schematic to get a bird’s-eye view of the island.”
Jason manipulated a toggle to swerve the view up and over the star-shaped island, to look down upon that crimson corporate tide. The kid whistled appreciatively.
“Amazing,” Jason exclaimed. “The pattern forms a perfect cross atop the island.”
“A Templar cross,” Painter mumbled, picturing the symbol he’d studied only days ago, the mark of the Guild.
Doubt evaporated inside him.
The Gants are the Guild.
And Gray’s team was sailing blindly toward their newest stronghold.
July 3, 1:20 A.M. Gulf Standard Time
Dubai City, UAE
Gray led the others down a long dock that cut through the center of a massive marina. A full moon and the blaze of Dubai’s skyline turned night to day here, while jazz music tinkled across the water from an open-air nightclub. A soft breeze blew gently off the sea, cooling the warm night and smelling of ocean salt and diesel fuel.
The tiny harbor lay at the tip of the man-made island of Palm Jumeirah. They were to meet their escort at a berth in a remote section of the marina, where fewer eyes were likely to pry.
To Gray’s left, the giant trunk of the artificial palm-shaped island stretched two kilometers to shore, sparkling in the night with hotels and residences, divided by an eight-lane motorway. He hadn’t appreciated the sheer magnitude of this archipelago until here on its shores. Each engineered palm frond was a mile long, lined by villas and mansions. And to his right, across the water from the marina, stretched the seven-mile-long breakwater crescent, turned into a playground of hotels and water parks. And two more palm projects were in development, each bigger than the next; the largest would be seven times the size of Palm Jumeirah.
Another of Gray’s party was also fixated by the enormousness of everything in Dubai.
“I guess size does matter,” Kowalski said, gaping at the mega-yacht docked at the upcoming berth. It had its own helicopter tied down at the stern, and it wasn’t even the biggest boat here. “Somebody’s compensating for something, if you know what I mean.”
Seichan strode alongside him. “We all know what you mean, Kowalski-it’s why none of us have commented on those cigars you keep sucking on.”
He took out his stogie and frowned at her. “Whatcha talking about?”
Tucker bent down and unclipped Kane from his leash. The shepherd, freed at last, trotted ahead, nose in the air, tail high. The dog had been confined to a leash while in Dubai, not the most dog-friendly city, but out here in the marina at this late hour, no one was around to complain.
His handler hung behind them, lost in his own thoughts.
Gray followed Kane down the dock. The number of empty berths grew as they neared the end, leaving the opulence and grandiosity of modern Dubai behind. Moonlight shone off the dark water ahead, no longer competing with the reflected dazzle of the city’s towers and playgrounds. A slight breeze took the edge off of the warm night. Looking out to sea, with stars twinkling and with the call to prayer echoing hauntingly from the shoreline, it was easy to get transported back to another time, to the medieval era of Ali Baba and lost desert kingdoms. Despite the excesses and extravagances of Dubai, the ancient world still glimmered through the cracks, a shimmering mirage of past glories.
“About time you all got here,” a voice called out of the shadows of the next berth. The only evidence of his presence was the smoldering tip of a cigar. The figure stepped into a pool of light cast by a pole lamp. He wore a pair of black Bermuda shorts, flip-flops, and an unbuttoned white shirt.
On edge, Gray searched to make sure the man was alone. Kane seemed to have no such qualms. The dog ran forward and greeted the newcomer warmly, bouncing a bit on his front legs.
“Stay down, Kane,” Tucker warned.
“I don’t mind him at all.” The man leaned over and gave the dog a vigorous rub. “Reminds me of my old dog Elvis. He was a shepherd, too. German, that is. What’s this boy?”
“Kane’s a Belgian shepherd,” Tucker said. “A Malinois.”
“Hmm. War dog, I’m guessing.”
“That’s right. Army. Retired.”
“If you don’t mind me asking, what was Kane’s rank?”
Kowalski glanced at Tucker. “Wait? Major Kane? Your dog outranked you?”
Gray knew that wasn’t unusual. A military dog always ranked one level higher than its handler, so any abuse was a court-martial offense. Not that Tucker would ever harm his partner.
Straightening, the man thrust a hand toward Gray. “Jack. Jack Kirkland.”
Introductions followed all around.
Their escort stood over six feet, with salt-and-pepper hair. From the scarring down one side of his body, he’d seen some action in the past. The man also carried his rugged, ageless masculinity with a boyish grace-even Seichan was struck by it.
Gray had never seen her so enthralled. He heard her giggle at something the man said. Seichan never giggled. It slightly pissed him off. A reaction that caught him by surprise. In a matter of minutes, the man had charmed everyone on his team.
Or almost everyone.
Kowalski shook his hand. “What’re you smoking?”
Jack glanced at the cigar balanced in his fingers. “Cuban. El Presidente.”
“Oh, man…” Kowalski stared at his own stogie, disappointed.
“I’ve got a whole case aboard the Ghost.” Jack nodded his chin in the direction of the dark berth. “I’m sure I wouldn’t miss one if it happened to grow legs and walk away.”
Jack headed off in that direction.
Kowalski stayed put. “That guy really gets me.”
Gray shook his head.
Okay, now I’ve lost everyone.
Seichan sidled up to Gray, brushing his shoulder and leaning closer. “Wow.”
That one word pretty much summarized the man.
Gray sighed and followed Jack toward the berth. No wonder Painter was so hesitant to drag this guy back into his life. If I were Painter, I wouldn’t want Jack within a thousand nautical miles of Lisa.
At least, the man was wearing a wedding ring.
“Here she is,” Jack said, stopping ahead. “My new pride and joy. The Ghost.”
Gray didn’t see anything moored in the neighboring berth.
Jack leaped from the dock, as if to plunge into the water, but he landed on a firm surface. Only then did Gray appreciate the docked vessel as it rocked under the man’s weight. Even still, it was hard to discern its presence against the dark water.
The submersible’s bulk remained below the waterline. Only a conning-tower-like hatch protruded above the surface and a fraction of its upper deck. What made it so hard to discern, what made it blend so well with the water, was that it appeared to be sculpted out of glass.
Jack tapped his toe against the clear surface. “Her shell’s made out of a new borosilicate polymer, strong as steel yet with a low refractive index, perfect for underwater viewing. And the deeper you go, the harder the glass becomes. Up to a point, of course. I’m not planning on testing that limit today.”
“I see why you call it the Ghost,” Seichan said.
“She’s my new love-comes with all the bells and whistles a guy could want.” He ticked them off proudly. “The latest sonar and communications equipment, fly-by-wire joystick, electronic buoyancy controls, expanded air supply. But what really gets me purring is her sexy curves. I designed her after the old X-1 mini-submarines. Sleek, fast, and seductive.”
Kowalski snorted at the hyperbole. “Do you need a moment alone with her?”
“Do you still want that cigar?” Jack countered.
Kowalski hung his head a bit. “Sorry, I should know better than to insult another guy’s girl. She’s sexy. Very, very sexy.”
“That’s more like it,” Jack encouraged with a huge, bawdy grin. “C’mon aboard. Let’s get you all settled. We have a bit of a jaunt to reach Utopia, but then again, whoever said getting into heaven was easy?”
Ignoring the man’s joviality, Gray stared toward the horizon, unable to shed his dark mood, knowing Amanda was not having this much fun.
The next contraction wracked her body.
Amanda sobbed, tears streaming down her heated face. Waves of nausea swept through her. Sweat soaked her gown to her skin. The worst of the pain was dulled by the miniepidural they’d given her, but not all of it.
“Dilated eight centimeters,” Petra reported from between her legs.
“Right on schedule.” Dr. Blake stood at her bedside, evaluating a labor monitor. “That was a good contraction. But I’m pushing another bolus of pit.”
Pit was slang for pitocin, a labor-inducing drug.
He injected the medicine into her IV line, then turned his attention to Amanda. He took her hand, which was strapped in place to the bed, and gave her fingers a squeeze.
“Would you like some more ice chips?”
Fury cut through her. She dug her nails into the tender flesh of his wrist. “Fuck you,” she spat at him. She never swore, but it felt good to do so now. “You goddamned monster.”
“I’ll get you some ice chips,” he said, unfazed by her outburst. He gently but firmly freed his arm, then patted her hand. “Everything’s going well. You’re doing great.”
Other medical staff worked at the periphery, monitoring vitals, trading out dirty linens that she’d soiled, dragging in equipment. A pair off to the side were preparing a radiant warming crib in anticipation of the newborn’s arrival.
Blake returned with a tiny paper cup full of crushed ice chips. He lifted it to her lips. But she turned her head away, refusing to cooperate in even this small measure.
She willed her body to resist, too.
I won’t let them have my boy.
But nature-fueled by strong drugs-could not be stopped. Minutes later, pressure again rose inside her abdomen, a storm front rising from deep inside her, as relentless as the tide. She squeezed her eyes shut, knowing what was coming.
No… please, no…
Her plea fell to ashes. The next contraction tore through her. She screamed-not so much in pain as knowing she was losing this last battle.
“Push!” Blake said, but he sounded far away.
She fought against it, but her body was no longer her own, transforming into a primitive machine, one forged in the evolutionary furnace of survival. Willing or not, all her flesh drove toward one function: to procreate, to move her genes forward into the future. She had no will but to obey.
Abdominal muscles contracted in a crushing heave.
Pain became purpose.
“The baby’s crowning!” Petra called out, her voice ringing in triumph.
Lost deep in the violence of birth, Amanda cried out to the world, surrendering to the inevitable, driven now by the most basic of all maternal needs.
Someone save my baby.
1:44 A.M .
Seated inside the Ghost, Gray swiveled his chair to face the curved glass wall of the submersible. A pool of light cast by the sub’s headlamps illuminated the dark waters around the vessel as it coasted away from Palm Jumeirah. The sandy seabed flowed a few feet below his toes.
The effect was unnerving. The clear borosilicate shell allowed a full spherical view of the surrounding waters. Like floating in an air bubble, he thought, which wasn’t far from the truth.
The Ghost was little more than a tapered glass cylinder strapped into a hydrogen-cell-battery propulsion drive. Ancillary electrical, mechanical, and engineering systems acted as an exoskeleton around the living quarters.
Curious denizens, drawn by their light, would dart up, stare googly-eyed at the strange sight, then flash back into the blackness.
He could imagine what they saw.
The vessel reminded him of the neon tetras he once raised as a kid. He’d lie on his bed for hours, staring as the tiny fishes darted back and forth inside his aquarium. Tetras were best known for their iridescent blue and red racing stripes, but Gray had always been fascinated by their translucent skin. Their spine, ribs, even their quivering tiny hearts were exposed for the world to see. At the moment, he felt similarly naked, like he’d been swallowed up by a giant version of a glassy tetra.
Still, he had to admit the panorama was stunning.
One passenger was not as impressed.
“This is so wrong,” Kowalski said. He was seated across from Gray; the big man had one palm against the glass window, another on the ceiling. He stared between his legs. “How long is this going to take? What if we run out of air?”
Gray recognized the space was cramped, especially for someone of Kowalski’s bulk. Jack piloted the craft from a single seat up in the nose. The four chairs in back left little room to maneuver. Even Kane had to balance on Tucker’s lap, panting at the view, ears high, trembling all over.
Seichan sat behind Kowalski and reached a reassuring hand to touch his shoulder. “Calm down. We’ve got plenty of air.” She patted his back. “I’d be more worried about us springing a leak.”
Kowalski swiveled in his seat, searching around the cabin with wide eyes.
Gray gave her a scolding look. All they needed was a panicked bull in their midst.
“How much farther?” Kowalski moaned.
The answer came from up front. “We have to cross the entire World to reach your destination.”
Jack tapped a button on a touch-screen interface. A heads-up display appeared above his controls, glowing against the window. It depicted a map of the surface, showing hundreds of tiny islands forming silhouettes of the seven continents.
Gray recognized it as another of Dubai’s projects. The World was one of the city’s latest endeavors: three hundred mini-islands off the coast, each offered for sale to private buyers. But financial concerns and problems with sand erosion threatened the development. The islands remained mostly deserted, with the sea reclaiming some.
On the display, a red blip marked their progress as they navigated through this man-made archipelago.
Beyond the window, a dark hummock of one of the tiny islands loomed. As they circled past it, a large ray, disturbed by their passage, shook out of the sand and sailed away from the light and back into the gloom. Other sea life appeared, growing more abundant as they glided through the shallows and wound past the small isles: hermit crabs scuttled along the sandy floor, pink anemone and green sea grass waved, a lone barracuda torpedoed past them, and schools of fish flashed and swirled in shimmering silvers and dazzling colors.
Tucker suddenly swore. Kane barked.
Gray turned to see a shoal of hammerhead sharks come lancing out of the darkness and shoot past overhead. They all inadvertently ducked. There was no real threat, but it was a sobering reminder of the dangers ahead.
After a few more silent minutes, they left the World behind.
The deeper seas beckoned.
The Ghost sailed out into the blackness, slowly sinking into the depths as the coastal shelf fell away. As they dove, the watery glow of the moon died overhead. The only lights now were their own.
And even that had to end.
“Going dark,” Jack warned. “You’ll find your goggles under your chairs.”
Before Gray could find his, all the exterior lamps clicked off. Blackness crushed around them. Kowalski gasped. The small lights from the control console were the only illumination inside the submersible, and even those went dim.
Gray’s fingers discovered the strap for his night-vision headgear and tugged them free. He pulled the goggles over his head and settled them in place. The world beyond the sub reappeared again, lit now by the infrared LED emitters along the nose of the vessel. The goggles were able to perceive this spectrum of light, turning the world into a grayscale shadow of its former brightness.
“Don’t want to ride up to Utopia with our lights blazing,” Jack said. “Even with the sub submerged, someone might see us coming. Luckily, we don’t need lights. I incorporated this naval IR system to accommodate for night dives. Makes for less of a rude intrusion into the dark world of our deep-sea denizens.”
Or when you need stealth, like now.
The plan was to sneak under the island’s security net. The surface radar defense system was meant to discourage pirate ships, like those in Somalia, from reaching the island’s coast undetected. Additionally, armed security guards watched the docks and shorelines, and a small fleet of jet boats patrolled the waters around the island.
Painter and Jack had already worked out an alternate entry point-but first they had to reach it.
The Ghost traveled another twenty minutes, soaring swiftly with the quiet burble of its engines. Jack worked his pedals and joystick to glide them along the seabed, riding over teeming reefs and across stretches of open sand.
Positioned ten miles from shore, Utopia had been built in waters eighty meters deep. It was an engineering marvel, the first deep-sea artificial island. The heads-up display continued to track their path away from the coast, mapping a bird’s-eye view of their passage. At the top of the screen, the tip of one leg of the star-shaped island poked into view and slowly stretched downward as the Ghost closed in on its destination. More of the island appeared, revealing its unique shape.
But its shape was the least unique feature of the island.
As they neared the tip of one corner of the star, a massive concrete pylon appeared out of the darkness, twenty yards wide. A forest of such towers lay farther ahead. This was the secret behind the engineering of Utopia.
It wasn’t so much an island as a massive fixed platform with a landmass sitting on top of it.
Gray had read the history of Utopia. Its engineering was not new or groundbreaking, but based on technologies developed many years ago, patterned after the Hibernia oil platform constructed off the coast of Newfoundland in 1997. The same engineers and construction company had been hired as consultants for this Dubai development.
In many ways, Utopia was an easier project. The Hibernia platform had been built in deeper waters and constructed in seas prone to rogue waves, Atlantic winter storms, and floating icebergs. The waters here were calmer, and the environmental threats less severe. On top of that, this location had been chosen for Utopia because of a natural coastal ridge. The outcropping had been reinforced and built up with boulders and compacted sand to form a protective crescent, stretching four miles wide.
Within those sheltering arms, Utopia was slowly constructed. Like Hibernia and other oil platforms, the island was basically a gravity-based structure, meaning the more weight on top, the more stable and secure it became. So, while Hibernia was taller, Utopia was wider, the equivalent of twenty such platforms connected in a honeycomb cluster to form a star-shaped base. Atop this massive foundation, whose upper surface lay submerged to the depth of five meters, the same engineering techniques that built Palm Jumeirah were employed here: laying down a thick base of massive boulders on top of the platform, then flooding and covering it with dredged sand and compacting it all to the hardness of concrete.
And within five years, a new island had risen out of the sea.
“Now comes the tricky part,” Jack said.
He guided the Ghost into that Brobdingnagian forest of massive steel-reinforced concrete pylons that supported the island. The columns rose from the seabed, set amid piles of boulders and mountains of ballast. He slowed their pace to a crawl.
Gray craned his neck, staring up through the clear roof. In the distance, he could make out the bottom of the foundation platform. He imagined the crushing weight overhead, pictured the stack of corporate towers topside.
This time, Seichan didn’t tease him.
The sub suddenly rolled, heaving to one side.
Jack swore, fought his controls, and righted them. “Sorry about that,” he said. “Currents are tricky under here. In fact, one of the auxiliary power sources for the island is a series of tidal turbines, driven by the daily ebb and flow of the ocean. That same flow makes maneuvering through here a thorny bitch.”
They continued on for five more excruciatingly long minutes. The star-shaped island was two miles wide, but they only had to delve a quarter of that distance under its bulk. Still, that journey was nerve-wracking enough.
“Sonar says we’re here.” Jack pointed up.
Everyone searched in that direction. Far overhead, a tiny star shone in the darkness. Jack aimed for it, spiraling around one of the columns as he headed up.
As they rose, the star grew larger and brighter, revealing itself at last to be a crack in the foundation platform. A handful of such breaks had been engineered into the project, serving as pressure-relieving points. In turn, the city planners had taken advantage of those construction necessities and turned them into various urban design features.
“I’m turning off the IR emitters,” Jack said. “You can take off your goggles. You should have plenty of ambient light to see.”
Gray pulled his night-vision headgear off. The black-and-white world brightened into shades of aquamarine. The pool of light overhead bathed them in its glow.
Jack set the sub to hovering in one spot. He dumped ballast to adjust their buoyancy, and the Ghost floated smoothly upward, rising through the crack in the foundation platform, a six-meter-thick wafer of concrete and steel. Once through, those industrial walls tilted back, sloping into sandy beaches.
The sub slowed its ascent and glided forward until sand once again swirled a few feet under Gray’s boots. Jack studied a small monitor on his control console. Spying over his shoulder, Gray caught a glimpse of the world topside as Jack employed a digital periscope.
“Looks clear,” the pilot concluded.
The burble of the engines faded to nothing-then a few seconds later, the sub’s nose gently ground into the beach.
“That’s as far as I go,” Jack said, twisting around. “The top hatch is poking a couple of inches out of the water. You should be able to reach the shore without getting more than your boots wet.”
That proved not to be the case. By the time Gray reached solid ground, he was soaked from the knees down. Seichan fared no better. Tucker disembarked last, assisted by Kowalski. The pair worked together to get Kane out of the sub.
Gray had his team assemble beneath a grove of palms planted at the edge of the dark pond. It was hard to believe what lay hidden beneath that placid surface: an industrial hell of pylons, boulders, and ballast. It stood in stark contrast to the world above.
Kowalski joined them. His gaze swept the landscape surrounding the pond, his face shining with awe.
Gently rolling hills spread outward, covered in manicured lawns and dotted by other stands of palm trees. Beyond the parklands, towers and spires rose, forming a palisade of glass and steel. Some of the buildings were dark, girdled by cranes, under various phases of construction. Others thrust brilliantly into the sky, windows aglow, their exteriors flooded by lamps, amply demonstrating signs of life and occupation.
Closer at hand, the rolling park was broken by patches of close-cropped greens, feathered with numbered flags. Elsewhere, silvery patches marked moonlit sand traps.
“We beached in a friggin’ golf course,” Kowalski said with a shake of his head. “You gotta hand it to the Arabs for working with what they got.”
Gray returned to the pond, which served the island in multiple ways: as a landscape element, as a water hazard, and as a structural-design feature.
Jack remained aboard the Ghost, leaning half out of the hatch. He pointed a thumb toward the middle of the pond. “I’ll be hovering just under the surface, but I’ll keep a watch for you with my scope. If you can’t make it back here, you’ve got my signaling device. Set it off and I’ll find you.”
“Thanks.” Gray patted his shirt pocket, indicating he had it.
Jack hesitated before ducking away. His expression turned a touch embarrassed, like he wanted to ask something but held back.
“What is it?” Gray asked.
Jack sighed. “Maybe it’s not my place… but how’s Lisa doing?”
Gray had already spoken with Painter back in Dubai, so he knew the dire situation with Lisa and Kat. Worry for his friends remained a knot in his gut. But that wasn’t what Jack was inquiring about. Gray read the real question in his eyes.
Is she happy with her life?
Gray answered that question as honestly as he could, but in regards to what Jack had asked directly-how’s Lisa doing?-he thought it best to lie.
“She’s doing great.”
July 2, 5:46 P.M. EST
Charleston, South Carolina
Get somewhere safe… off the street, but stay in public.
The instructions rang in Lisa’s head. Agony lanced up her leg with every step down East Bay Street. She tried her best to hide her limp, baking under the late-afternoon sun.
When Painter had shouted his warning over the phone to get out of her hotel room, she’d not hesitated. She ran four miles every morning, did yoga most nights, and her brother, who climbed mountains for a living, had taught her a few mad skills.
Panicked, and needing her hands free, she had dropped her cell phone, twisted away from the door, and dashed to the balcony. She heard the splintering crash as the door burst open behind her-but she was already moving through the French doors and vaulting over the wrought iron. She caught one hand on the railing and swung around. With her legs dangling free, she lowered herself hand-over-hand down the second-story balcony ironwork. Once at the bottom, she let go and dropped the rest of the way to the sidewalk.
Even wearing sensible shoes, she landed hard enough to jam her left ankle. A glance up showed a masked assailant staring down at her. He raised a pistol, but she dashed forward under the balcony, out of the line of fire. Shouting erupted above-then gun blasts.
There had been no plan, except to put distance between her and the hotel. She had a choice of fleeing out into the neighboring waterfront park or into the narrow maze of historic homes with their quaint porches, filigree woodwork, and colorful gardens. She chose the latter, not trusting the open spaces of the park. Plus, tourists and locals crowded the streets, shops, and coffeehouses of the area. She instinctively knew to keep to public spaces.
It took her another twenty minutes to calm her heart, to let the adrenaline seep from her brain enough for her to think. Still, she kept peering behind her-not that she knew whose faces to be watching for or how many were searching for her. Anyone could be a threat. With no money, no phone, she didn’t know anyone in the strange city to trust. So she reached out to the one person who could help.
She borrowed a phone from a patron seated in a patio coffeehouse and called Painter. She couldn’t say who was more relieved to hear the other’s voice, but Painter stayed stern, authoritative. He ordered her to get off the street, out of direct sight, fearing her attackers might be closing a net around the district and looking for her.
But stay in public…
That meant she needed an indoor space: a bar, a restaurant, a hotel lobby.
A commotion drew her attention down a cobbled-brick alleyway off the main thoroughfare. A clutch of women in handsome gowns and men in tuxedos gathered a short distance away, laughing and hugging their hellos. It appeared a wedding reception or engagement party was under way at a restaurant back there, and from the richness of the attire, from the haughty edge to their genteel Carolina accents, the event had the air of old money.
She hid her limp, touched her hair to assure herself she was presentable for a restaurant of this caliber. She hoped the affair was in a private room and that she could still get a seat in the main dining room or bar.
A small gas lantern flickered above the sign.
Reaching the restaurant, she excused herself as she slipped through the partygoers-as she hoped, they were all filing upstairs to a private room. She stepped up to the host’s station.
“Excuse me. I’m afraid I don’t have a reservation. But I was hoping I could still get a table.”
The host, a slender man with a soft manner, smiled. “That shouldn’t be a problem this early in the evening. If you’ll give me a moment.”
Lisa stepped away, but she remained standing. She was afraid if she sat down, she’d never get back up again. Her leg throbbed all the way to her knee. To distract herself, she read a small sign about the restaurant, how the building dated back to 1788. Over the centuries, it had served as a warehouse, a tavern, and even a brothel. It stated that George Washington had once attended a grand dinner party here-hopefully not when it was a brothel.
Still, with such a pedigree, it was no wonder the upper crust of Charleston chose this place for special events. Laughter and music echoed down from above.
Another few stragglers of the party pushed into the lobby. From the amount of lace and piles of coiffed white hair, they were clearly a few of the grandes dames of Charleston high society.
“If you’ll follow me,” the host said to Lisa, drawing her attention away, “your table is ready.”
One of the older women glanced in her direction, eyeing her from the lofty height of her class position-then leaned to another and whispered. Other eyes stared toward her, judging her.
Suddenly self-conscious, Lisa smoothed a hand down her St. John dress and stepped away from them, joining the host.
He leaned conspiratorially toward her. “It’s cotillion season. They’re having a small debutante ball upstairs.”
Lisa glanced up, picturing a party of chiffon and diamonds, the official debut of a young woman to her high-society peers. Balls like this functioned in the past as an antiquated dating service, to present an eligible daughter to available bachelors within a select upper circle.
Basically, a high-society livestock show.
“It’s a very exclusive affair,” the host said as he led her to the table. He raised one eyebrow toward her. “Some grandniece or second cousin of the president.”
Lisa felt better. Surely, no one would dare intrude here. Crossing into the main dining room, she did her best not to hobble. Still, something must have shone in her face, maybe the sheen of her skin, something in her eye.
“Are you all right, ma’am?” the host asked as they reached the table, pulling a chair for her.
“I’m fine.” She offered him a smile, but it felt stiff on her face. “Just a long day of shopping.”
“Of course,” he said graciously, but his gaze flicked around her a bit, likely noticing her lack of a purse. “Were you expecting someone else?”
She checked her watch. Hopefully so. Painter had told her to find a spot and call him. He had a security detail already headed downtown to extract her. She picked up the menu-hopefully they’d also square her bill. She needed something stiff in a tall glass, no ice.
“I believe my party is running late,” Lisa said. “And I’m afraid I’ve forgotten my cell. Is there a house phone I might use?”
“I’d be happy to bring you one.”
“Perfect. Thank you.”
She sat back, soaking in the quiet chatter of the early dinner crowd. The restaurant had a colonial charm with its wood-beamed ceiling, oiled plank flooring, exposed brick walls, and a fireplace tall enough to climb into without ducking.
The host returned with a cell phone. She passed on a drink order to her waiter-a single malt whiskey. “The Macallan, please. The sixty-year-old.”
Expensive, but as a doctor, she prescribed it for herself anyway.
And this is definitely going on Sigma’s tab.
She dialed Painter’s secure line-not only to inform him about where she had holed up; she was also anxious to hear any news about Kat.
The connection clicked through. “Where are you?” he immediately asked.
She told him, including the address.
Painter sighed in relief. “The team is fifteen minutes out. Stay put.”
“I’m not going anywhere.”
The waiter arrived with her drink. The whiskey trembled in the crystal as she held it. She took a sip to steady herself, letting the aged liquor evaporate along her tongue, heating all the way down.
“I’m safe here,” she said, attempting to reassure both Painter and herself. “I’ve got a drink, and I’m surrounded by people. The elite of Charleston.” She heard the tinkle of music flowing from the cotillion upstairs. “In fact, there’s a party going on here. Some distant relatives of President Gant. Then again, you probably can’t turn a stone over here in Charleston without finding someone related to that family.”
Painter’s next words came too fast, choking a bit. “Did any of them recognize you?”
An amused snort of disbelief escaped her. “Of course not. Why would anyone in the president’s family-?”
“Are you sure?”
The panic frosting his voice passed to her. She stared up toward the wood beams, hearing the thump of music, the trickle of laughter. She remembered the grande dame’s eyes glancing her way, the sudden whispers.
“Painter, what’s this about?”
“I want you to get out of there-right now.”
Lisa stared at the expensive drink in her hand. “I don’t have any way to pay. If I bolt now, I’ll cause a commotion, draw more attention to myself.”
And she wasn’t sure she could bolt, not with her ankle. Now that she’d been sitting a few minutes, even shifting her left leg sent shooting stabs of pain all the way to her hip.
She lowered her voice. “What aren’t you telling me? I can barely walk… I need to know what I’m facing.”
A short silence stretched. She imagined Painter rubbing a finger along that line between his brows, debating how much to say or calculating his next step. Over the years, that crease had gotten deeper as he sat in the director’s office-and all that rubbing wasn’t going to make it go away.
“Tell me,” she said, tired of all the half-truths and secrets.
He finally spoke, talking fast. “I haven’t told anyone this. Not Kat, not Gray, not anyone at sigma. Not even you. It was just a dangerous suspicion before, but a few minutes ago, I got what I believe to be substantial verification.”
“About the Guild.”
Lisa went cold. She knew Painter had been concerned that Amanda’s plight could be tied to that deadly cartel. Did he have proof now?
Painter spoke his next words carefully, as if testing them aloud for the first time. “I know who is running the Guild.”
“It’s the president’s family.”
The shock took an extra moment to break through her. Surely Painter was joking. Her mind struggled to put all of the pieces together in her head, trying to comprehend how that could be true. She came to only one conclusion.
“That’s impossible,” Lisa said, her voice faint.
“That’s why I didn’t tell anyone-not until I knew the truth. I’ll explain more once you’re back in DC.” His next words hardened with warning. “But, Lisa, now you understand. I need you out of there, as silently as you can.”
Despite her fear, she fought against a stab of anger at him for keeping this secret from her-and not just from her. “What about Kat?”
“Don’t worry about her… just get out of that restaurant.”
Promising to do just that, she snapped the cell phone closed. She looked up toward the ceiling, still struggling to believe. She had to trust Painter was right. Readying herself, she downed the rest of the whiskey in a single gulp-a waste of such a fine single malt, but she needed the fortification.
She pushed gingerly back to her feet. One hand clasped to the back of her chair. There was no hiding her limp any longer. She hobbled back to the host’s station.
“Ma’am, are you sure you’re okay?”
No. Not in the slightest.
“I’m fine,” she lied and lifted the house phone. “Reception’s bad in there. Is it okay if I step outside to finish my call?”
“Of course. Let me help you.”
“No need.” She hurried toward the door and back out onto the street. She took a few steps, but the uneven cobbles proved too challenging. Her hobble became a fall.
A man lunged to her aid, his arms caught her.
“Thank you…” she began to mumble-then stared up into the face of Dr. Paul Cranston, the head of North Charleston Fertility Clinic.
A gun pressed into her side.
Another two men came up behind her.
The doctor smiled. “Ah, Dr. Cummings, it’s high time we finished our previous conversation.”
He motioned to the others. Strong fingers clamped on to her upper arms, hard enough to cause bruising-but a little manhandling was the least of her worries.
She glanced back up to the bright lights of the second-story window, heard a piano playing.
Cranston made a scolding noise. “I can guess what you’re thinking, but fear not, you’re not that unlucky. That side of the family knows nothing important, except how to spend money and sniff their noses at common folk. No, we’ve been following you since the hotel. I had men positioned outside when you made such a bold escape.”
Lisa stared back at him.
“We hoped you’d lead us to whomever you’re working with,” Cranston said and pulled a pen from his pocket.
It was Kat’s surveillance device. They must have found it in the lobby, but clearly they still didn’t know who left it.
“A shame,” he said and led her away. “Looks like we’ll have to do this the hard way. But difficult or not, we’ll find your partner.”
The buzzing shears rode past Kat’s left ear. Long locks of auburn hair tumbled down, falling past her shoulder and sliding to the floor to join the mound of hair already piled around the chair.
Still cotton-mouthed from the sedative, Kat sat on the seat in the center of the circular ward, with only a sheer hospital gown between her and the cold metal. With her wrists cuffed behind her back, she had to tolerate the humiliation-and that was surely the goal here, to break her down.
The other prisoner-a doe-eyed young woman in her midtwenties-watched from behind the glass door of her cell, offering her silent support. She and Kat were the only ones here. The rest of the cells appeared empty. The facility was clearly running low on raw material.
Kat remembered Dr. Marshall mentioning something about a lodge.
They’re demanding more research subjects.
Clearly, that was one of the purposes of this place, to supply human guinea pigs for various projects, collecting women who had no past, no families, who could easily vanish. And likely this was not the only such facility in the world. She imagined there were many other collection sites hidden around the globe.
But to what end? What was going on here?
From the corner of her eye, Kat studied the red steel doors and the embossed genetic cross.
Something important was happening at this particular clinic.
And she knew any answers lay hidden behind those doors.
Earlier, Kat had been forced to strip naked in her cell while Dr. Marshall performed a thorough physical, assisted by the orderly, Roy. Afterward, Marshall had vanished with a tray of vacuum tubes full of Kat’s blood.
Kat’s fingers curled into tight fists as Roy sheared the last of her hair away. They might have taken her clothes and most of her dignity, but she bided her time to win it back.
“All done,” Roy said, running a palm along the stubble of her scalp, raising a slimy chill over her entire body. “Always like it when you’re freshly shaved.”
Kat whipped her head away. “Go to hell.”
“Feisty,” he said with a laugh, glancing toward the locked door, likely looking for Dr. Marshall.
Clearly, the man spent most of his day being browbeaten and ordered around by the female clinician. He seemed to take pleasure in taking out his frustration on those left to his tender care.
His hand reached to the weapon attached to his belt. It wasn’t an electric cattle prod like Dr. Marshall’s means of punishment, simply an extendable baton. He’d used it on Kat once already, smacking her across her calves when she was too slow in getting undressed.
Her skin still stung.
Kat had noticed welts on the other inmate’s arms and legs.
Roy snapped his baton off his belt and, with an expert flip of his wrist, extended the weapon to its full length, likely compensating for shortcomings elsewhere.
“There’s not going to be any trouble, is there?” Roy sneered in her ear.
She gritted her teeth and hung her head.
“That’s more like it.” He rested the baton on her shoulder as he leaned down and undid her cuffs. “Stand up. Keep your hands behind you.”
She obeyed, her head spinning slightly from the aftereffects of the drugs. Cold air blew through the slitted back of her hospital gown as she turned to face Roy. She kept her hands behind her.
Roy reached the tip of his baton under her chin, forcing her head up. “That’s more-”
Kat whipped her arm around and grabbed the baton, yanking it toward her. Roy, caught off guard, got pulled closer. She swung her other arm wide, silver flashing in her fist. She drove the knife into his throat, below the larynx, severing the trachea.
Roy’s eyes stared at her, stunned, gurgling, unable to scream-but she understood his silent question.
She answered him in a hiss. “Because this cat has claws.”
Kat twisted the combat dagger hard. Blood sprayed a full yard across the spotless vinyl floor. In seconds, he bled out, and she let his body tumble to the floor.
She wiped the blade on his clothes and folded it closed. When Roy had first tossed her into the cell, waiting for the sedatives to wear off before stripping her and taking away her clothes, she had fought through the fog, freed her left shoe, and removed the folded combat dagger concealed in the sole. She left the lock pick hidden in her right shoe; unfortunately, her cell door did not offer access to the keyhole outside. As she put her shoe back on, she hid the blade under a fold of the blanket.
Later, when they had stripped her, examined her, and poked her full of needles, she waited until she had a moment alone, while putting on her hospital gown. Through the opening in the back, she slipped the folded dagger between her buttocks and held it clamped there-not the most seemly way to conceal a weapon, but sometimes a lady has to do what a lady has to do.
Then she had to wait for a time to get Roy alone.
She knew she would have only the one chance.
Taking advantage of the moment, Kat worked fast and stripped Roy of his keys, electronic pass card, and baton. She rushed to the other cell and unlocked it.
The young woman came staggering out, staring at the ruin of Roy’s body. “Thank you… my name’s Amy.”
“C’mon,” Kat said, encouraging her.
She hurried across the ward toward the pile of her clothes and quickly pulled on her shorts, blouse, and shoes. She pocketed her dagger and handed the baton to Amy.
Amy squeezed the weapon in her fingers and glanced toward the exit. “There are armed guards down the hall. I don’t know how we’ll get past them.” She noticed Kat staring at the red steel doors on the other side of the ward. “They… they took my sister through there two weeks ago.”
“Then that’s where we’re going,” Kat said.
She wasn’t leaving without finding out what was going on here.
Amy remained at Kat’s side, looking ready to follow her lead.
“Grab the key card,” Kat ordered. “We’re going to find out what happened to your sister.”
Amy gave a sharp nod of acknowledgment.
Kat used the moment to grab her purse, which had been set aside with the rest of her clothes. She snapped it open and pulled out the surveillance pen she’d activated earlier. She tucked it into her blouse pocket with the camera end poking out.
If I don’t make it, I want some record of all of this.
Together, they sprinted to the other side of the ward. As they reached the doors, Kat took the keycard from Amy and passed it over the electronic reader. A heavy shift of gears rumbled. A red light blinked brightly overhead, likely wired to an alarm at that guard station outside. As secure as this place was, someone knew this vault was opening.
How long until they came to investigate?
Before her, the heavy doors parted wider, accompanied by a soft sigh of pressurized air.
Kat stared inside-as Amy began screaming.
“Interview everyone at that damned restaurant.”
Painter paced the communications nest at Sigma headquarters, holding his earpiece in place as he directed the security detail in Charleston in the search for Lisa. The team had finally arrived on-site.
He turned next to one of the analysts seated at a console. “How long on getting that feed from the local street cameras?”
“Five or ten minutes.”
He turned his back in frustration.
Lisa, where did you go?
After ordering her to leave the restaurant, he had expected a return call within minutes, alerting him to her location so his security team could sweep her up. But as time stretched with no word, panic had set in.
“Director,” another technician said, pointing to a dark monitor. “I still can’t get anything more from Captain Bryant’s pen camera. The one planted in the clinic’s reception area. Either it’s been discovered or the battery has drained.”
Painter nodded, acknowledging the information. He spoke to the head of the security team. “Split off two men. Send them to the fertility clinic. I want a full report on the status there.”
“Yes, sir. Also, we finished questioning the restaurant staff. They confirmed a woman matching Dr. Cummings’s description had arrived. She ordered a drink-then suddenly, with no provocation, fled the building. The host saw her talking to three men outside, said she left with them. According to his statement, she informed him that she had been expecting guests.”
Painter closed his eyes. Lisa had been expecting his team.
It made no sense.
“Widen the search grid,” Painter said. “See if anyone saw where they went.”
Blood pressure pounded in his ears-but he still heard the deep bass of the voice at the door.
“Director Crowe… a word.”
He turned to find his boss, the head of DARPA, General Metcalf, standing at the threshold. The man wore the same suit as this morning, still looking fresh and expertly creased. The same could not be said of the general’s face. He looked worn, his eyes red, his jowls sagging.
“We need to talk.”
That statement never ended well. Underscoring the seriousness, Metcalf rarely stepped into Sigma headquarters. He preferred e-mail, faxes, and conference calls. His presence here did not bode well.
Painter clenched and unclenched a fist. He didn’t have time for interruptions, but he had no choice. “We can use Captain Bryant’s office.”
He led Metcalf to the windowed space off the communications nest and chased Jason Carter out of Kat’s chair. The young analyst was continuing to work on a private project for Painter.
“Give us a few minutes,” Painter told the kid. Once alone, he faced Metcalf. “What’s this about?”
“I’ve been in meetings with the secretary of defense and the joint chiefs. The president made a brief appearance.”
Painter heard the drums of war beating in time with his heart. “And?” he asked, sensing what was coming.
“We’re shutting Sigma down.”
Painter shook his head, not in insubordination, just disbelief. He expected a strong negative reaction from the commander in chief, but not this, and certainly not this soon.
“When?” he asked.
Metcalf wore an expression of regret, but his voice never wavered. “You’re to cease all operations immediately.”
Painter felt sucker-punched. “Sir, I’ve got agents in the field, many in dangerous situations.”
“Call them back. Turn any of those situations over to local authorities or up the military chain of command.”
“And if I refuse… if any agents resist…?”
“Any further actions will be considered unsanctioned, disavowed, and criminal charges may be pressed, depending on a case-by-case inquiry.”
Painter took a deep breath and stared at the men and women working furiously in the nest beyond the window. From the corner of his eye, he noted the project Jason had been working on-the genealogical map of the Gant family spun slowly there, a spiraling galaxy of power, as cold and relentless as any celestial movement.
Painter knew the truth in that moment.
The Guild had won.
“Shut it down,” Metcalf ordered. “Pull everyone out of the field.”
July 3, 2:18 A.M. Gulf Standard Time
Off the coast of Dubai
Gray crouched with his team at the edge of the dark golf course, hidden in the shadow of its clubhouse. The moon had set while they crossed the greens, hurrying from one patch of palms to another. Despite the dark night, the lighted floors of several of the neighboring towers acted as shining beacons, casting a stark illumination across the rolling lawns.
According to the pre-mission briefing, most of the island’s security patrolled the shorelines and docks, but they could not discount a stray guard spotting them.
But now they had another problem to address as he lowered the satellite phone. Moments ago, he had checked in with Painter, confirming they’d reached Utopia. And in hindsight, maybe he should never have made that call.
“What’s wrong now?” Seichan asked, reading his face.
“We’ve been ordered to cease all mission objectives and return to the States,” Gray told the others. “Apparently, the powers-that-be in DC need a scapegoat for the death of the president’s daughter.”
“And that would be us,” Kowalski mumbled sourly.
“Painter is working on an appeal, but he has to officially instruct us to pull up stakes here.”
“But Amanda isn’t even dead,” Tucker said. “Why doesn’t the director tell the president that?”
Gray had already explained Painter’s reasoning back in Somalia-how Amanda’s best chance for recovery lay in a surgical strike, to hit the enemy while they believed no one was looking for her.
Still, this decision sat wrong with him. Gray believed the president’s family had a right to know, and now they were all suffering the fallout. Gray also sensed that Painter wasn’t telling them everything; that he was holding something close to the vest.
But whatever it was, it would have to wait.
They had a decision to make.
“Maybe Painter will inform the president as a part of his appeal process. But what is he going to tell him? We don’t know for sure that Amanda is still alive. All we know is that the charred body at the camp was not his daughter. So we have to make a choice: to retreat back to the Ghost or to move forward. If we defy these direct orders and aren’t successful, we may face criminal charges. And even moving forward, we’ll have limited support.”
Gray stared around the small group.
Seichan shrugged. “I’m already a wanted fugitive. What’s one more crime?”
“And I was never an official member of Sigma anyway,” Tucker said. “Nothing says Kane and I have to follow those orders.”
Gray turned to his last teammate.
Kowalski sighed. “My pants are already soaking wet, so what the hell…”
“Then let’s figure out where to start our search.” Gray gripped his phone and brought up a detailed 3-D rendering of the island. He rotated it to show the outline of a cross. “These are the businesses and properties with possible ties to the Guild organization.”
“Wait,” Seichan said. “How does Painter know that?”
Gray glanced up at her, crinkling his brow. In the rush of information, he never thought to ask that question.
Seichan must have read that realization in his eyes. She shook her head, silently scolding him for yet another oversight. Gray tightened his fingers on the phone, irritated as much at the mistake as at Seichan catching him.
Pull it together…
“Go on,” Seichan said.
“If Amanda is on the island, she’s likely to be found somewhere within the properties highlighted.”
“That’s a lot of territory to cover,” Tucker said.
“That’s why we’ll start here, the most likely target, and spiral out from it.” Gray pointed to the center of the cross.
“X marks the spot,” Kowalski mumbled. “What the hell, we are looking for a pirate’s buried treasure.”
Gray straightened. “And let’s hope it’s still there.”
He lowered his phone and started toward the center of the island, toward the shining central axis upon which this star turned. And it was turning-the tower, not the island. The floors of the spire, each rhomboid in shape and slightly offset from the next, formed a massive corkscrew-but the most amazing aspect of the engineering was that each story rotated independently of the others, creating a dynamic structure, powered by wind turbines and solar panels. It was mesmerizing to look at, shifting slowly, melting into new shapes, meant to mimic a shimmering mirage.
“Burj Abaadi,” Tucker said, naming this central hub of Utopia. “The Eternal Tower.”
The fifty-floor skyscraper had been built in only eighteen months, constructed in conjunction with the island’s creation, the two projects rising together out of the sea.
Gray sensed that if anything were hidden on this island it would be there, at the heart of Utopia. There was only one way to find out for sure.
He turned to Tucker and Kane.
“Time to go to work.”
Tucker led the way-or rather Kane did.
The shepherd ran a full block ahead along a deserted avenue that cut down one leg of the star. He heard his partner’s panting breath in his left ear and kept one eye on the video feed, watching for any signs of armed guards or the rare resident of Utopia.
He and the others stuck as much as possible to the shadows as they headed the quarter-mile to their destination. Palms lined both sides of the road and along a center median. Several stretches of trees were still in massive boxes, waiting to be craned into place and planted.
The entire island had that same surreal feeling-like a child’s model of a city, where pieces sat to the side, waiting to be fitted and glued into their proper spot.
But as they traveled closer to the star’s center, the cityscape became less fragmentary. Buildings grew taller, more polished, shining with lights. Evidence of life began to appear: an occasional golf cart or car in an empty parking lot; a tiny grocery store with stocked shelves; a neon sign glowed in the window of a Korean restaurant.
Still, Tucker suspected only a skeleton number of people actually populated the island, and most of those were likely connected in some manner to the Guild.
To Tucker, that terrorist outfit still sounded like something out of a dime-store novel. But then again, he had dealings in the past with many different mercenary-for-hire groups, private military companies with equally colorful names: saber, Titan, GlobalEnforce. And while he didn’t subscribe to conspiracy theories, he knew that the military-industrial complex was rife with corruption and collusion, generating scores of shadowy organizations that merged armed forces, intelligence services, political ambitions, and even scientific ventures.
So what was one more?
Earlier, Kowalski had pulled him aside and told him what had happened to Pierce’s mother and hinted at previous altercations with this organization. So, no matter what this new enemy was named, Tucker and the others were trespassing on their home turf-and he intended to watch his step.
And that applied to his partner, too.
“SLOW,” he radioed to Kane.
The jumbling view on his phone steadied as the shepherd’s lope became a deliberate pace. Turning, Tucker motioned the others behind a parked yellow Hummer. A tow rig behind the truck held a sleek watercraft and offered additional shelter. In another block, the avenue dumped-like the other four spokes of the star-into a central park that surrounded the twisting spire of Burj Abaadi.
The Eternal Tower rose like a glowing sculpture into the night sky, each floor slowly turning, making it appear as if the entire structure were gently swaying in the wind off the sea. Only the bottom five stories were stationary, encompassing the building’s lobby and maintenance levels, including its power station that collected energy generated by the horizontal wind turbines positioned between each floor.
“Shouldn’t we be closer?” Gray asked.
“No need,” Tucker said. “That park ahead is full of shadows, with lots of trees and hiding places. Don’t want to stumble upon a guard by mistake. Leave this to Kane.”
Seichan agreed. “He’s right.”
“Works for me,” Kowalski said, running his fingertips longingly along the sleek side of the yellow jet boat.
Outvoted, Gray nodded for Tucker to continue. The man sent Kane forward with a single command.
Kane stalks slowly forward, remaining in shadows. He moves against the breeze flowing from ahead, letting the scents wash over him, catching what he can with his upturned nose.
He smells salt and wet weed from the distant waves and sand.
Closer… he is hit by the crisp bite of cut grass… the trickle of sweetness from petals opening to the night.
But through it all, a rank undercurrent flows… reeking of sweat and oil and ripeness of body.
He hunts each scent, drawing in its heady, foul richness. He stays in shadows, behind bushes, along the edges of benches. He tracks each one down until he hears the satisfying whisper in his ear.
Then moves on.
He creeps deeper, tail low, haunches tense, ears pricked to every tick, tap, and creak. The smell of man fades behind him, carried away by the wind, leaving spaces for new scents.
Then he stops.
A trickle of thrill stirs his hackles. He tests again, nose higher, taking that odor deep inside, tasting it, recognizing it. He moves again, tracking its trail through the air.
It rises from a truck-he knows trucks and rides and hanging his head into hard winds. But now is not that time. He dashes across an open stretch and into the shadows beneath the truck, a darkness reeking of oil and grease.
He slips out the other side, twisting, stretching his neck. He circles and paces, making certain.
Then whines his triumph and points.
“Good dog,” Tucker radioed back.
Pride spiked through him-and a raw affection that ached.
They had all watched Kane’s hunt, huddled around his phone’s tiny screen. His shepherd had spotted four guards stationed out in the grounds-then he snuck up to a pickup truck parked crookedly in the circular drive fronting the entrance to Burj Abaadi.
“He’s found Amanda’s scent there,” Tucker said. “She’s on the island!”
“Can you get Kane up into the bed of that truck?” Gray asked.
“No problem.” It was never hard to get Kane to take a ride. He sent the command. “UP IN THE TRUCK!”
The dog immediately backed a yard-then, with a burst of speed, he launched from his haunches and flew over the side and landed in the rear bed, skittering slightly to avoid hitting what lay there.
Kane danced around it, sniffing intently.
Seichan leaned closer. “Is that an open casket?”
Gray pointed out the bits of tape along the edges. “That’s how they moved Amanda. No wonder she was never spotted at the airport. They crated her here, likely under diplomatic seals.”
Kowalski looked over his shoulder. “Yeah, but where is she now?”
They all stared up at the fifty-story tower, spinning slowly in the night. They all recognized the truth.
The hunt was just beginning.
But were they already too late?
2:32 A.M .
The tiny boy rested on Amanda’s bare belly, quiet now.
The furnace of her body, stoked to a fiery dampness by the delivery, kept him warm. A small blanket covered him, but a tiny fist protruded, no bigger than a walnut.
Amanda stared, consuming him with her eyes. With her arms bound to the sides, she could not hold him. That was the worst cruelty. Even giving her this moment with her child was necessity, not compassion. She had read all the baby books. The newborn was placed facedown to encourage the draining of any fluid; the skin-to-skin contact encouraged her body to release its own natural oxytocin, to help with the final contractions to push the placenta free.
Her body had performed its ageless duty.
Spent, exhausted, she tried to stretch this moment for an eternity.
“My baby boy,” she whispered, tears streaking through the sweat of her heated face; she wanted him to hear his mother’s voice at least once. She willed all her love, christening him with the name murmured in the night with her husband, Mack, his broad hand resting on the bump of her stomach.
“My little William.”
But, sadly, the child was not her husband’s, at least not genetically. She knew some of the truth, saw the medical records in the terrifying note that sent her fleeing in terror out to the Seychelles. Still, Mack had loved the baby as much as she did. It shone in his face, even after the truth was known.
He loved you so much, William.
New tears flowed, for the family that was never to be.
Voices intruded, but she never took her eyes off her child.
“Petra, make sure you collect at least five milliliters of blood from the umbilical cord. We’ll need the sample serum-typed, in addition to the standard tests. I’ll also want to harvest some umbilical stem cells.”
Amanda listened, realizing the truth. They were already parsing her child into parts.
“Dr. Blake, the radiant bed is ready,” Petra called from the side. “I’ve prepared the vitamin K and the eyedrops. Did you want to perform the APGAR assessment?”
“No. You can do it. I should pass on word about the delivery as soon as possible.”
Blake shifted from the foot of the delivery bed to Amanda’s side. He reached to scoop up the child.
“No, please,” Amanda begged. “Another minute.”
“I’m sorry. It’s better this way. You did beautifully.”
She strained forward, a sob breaking out of her hoarse throat. “Nooo…!”
Ignoring her plea, he lifted William from her belly, taking away his warmth, leaving a hollowness that she knew would never go away.
Blake walked her boy toward a tiny bed under harsh lights-and the nurse with cold eyes. Amanda pictured the shining tray of silver dissection tools.
Her sobs turned into wracking cries. She rocked within the limits of her restraints. Still, she never took her eyes off her boy.
My little William…
Dr. Edward Blake stood by his desk, bone-tired and bleary-eyed. A deep-cushioned chair beckoned, but he remained standing. He didn’t want to be relaxed, not during this call.
“Yes, everything went smoothly,” he reported. “The genetics continue to remain stable. After we run the baselines, we’ll be testing the stability of the helix assembly under various environmental rigors and stresses.”
That was the purpose behind Petra’s macabre work in her lab: to separate out various vital organs-brain, heart, lungs, and others-to keep those tissues alive indefinitely, so that rigorous tests could be performed upon them. Amanda’s child was destined for that lab.
“I believe we have reason to be optimistic about this boy,” he finished.
“OPTIMISM IS IRRELEVANT,” the speaker countered, the voice digitally flattened and tweaked to an arctic severity-though Edward suspected that iciness wasn’t all computer-generated. “ONLY HARD FACTS MATTER.”
He swallowed. “Of course. We’ll start generating actionable data within the day.”
“TISSUE SAMPLES SHOULD BE HARVESTED AND COURIERED STATESIDE AS SOON AS POSSIBLE.”
“Understood. I received the list. My assistant is already prepping stem and skin cells. We’ll have intestinal and alveolar biopsies within the hour, and cortical and spinal sections by day’s end. But I do have another question.”
Silence encouraged him to continue.
“The mother… was there a final consensus on what to do with her?” Edward could guess the answer. A massive graveyard had been dug into the jungles outside of his Somalia camp.
“SHE MAY STILL PROVE TO BE BIOLOGICALLY USEFUL. AS OF NOW, WE DON’T KNOW IF THESE RESULTS ARE BROADLY REPLICABLE OR IF THERE IS SOMETHING UNIQUE ABOUT HER GENETICS.”
Edward was surprised at the depth of his relief. He pictured Amanda’s tender love shining through the sweat and tears, the strength in her eyes when he took her baby away. That blend of toughness and maternal protection must have touched him more than he imagined.
Or maybe I’m simply tired, getting too emotional.
“Should we confine her here?” he asked hoarsely. “On Utopia?”
“NO. OUR PLANS REQUIRE HER TO BE SHIPPED BACK TO THE STATES.”
Surprised, Edward absorbed this and ran various scenarios through his head. He had lightly sedated Amanda for the short hop from Somalia, to facilitate her passage through customs. But a trip to the States was a longer journey, with a much higher risk of exposure.
“How do you plan on moving-?”
He was cut off. “SHE’S INTENDED FOR THE FERT/INC LAB.”
Edward had to rest a hand on his desk. He’d visited the Fertilization and Incubation Lab only once-and once was enough. He immediately understood what was demanded of him.
“WE’LL EXPECT HER PREPPED AND AT THE DUBAI AIRPORT BY EIGHT IN THE MORNING,” the speaker finished.
“Consider it done.”
The line went dead before he got out his last word. They didn’t need to hear his acquiescence. It was taken for granted.
He remained standing for two long breaths. The relief he felt at Amanda’s reprieve drained away.
Better she had gotten a death sentence.
He tapped an intercom. “Petra, we’ll need the surgical suite readied.”
Her tinny response followed. “For what procedure?”
He told her, picturing again what he’d witnessed at the Fertilization and Incubation Clinic, that flawless representation of scientific purity, where morality held no sway, a world where only methodology and outcome mattered.
He felt bile churn in his gut.
July 2, 6:39 P.M. EST
Charleston, South Carolina
Kat stepped across the threshold.
Amy followed, shadowing behind her, quiet now after her initial cry of shock and dismay. The large steel doors shut behind them, closing on their own with a pop of pressure.
Kat knew they didn’t have much time until their escape was discovered.
With the doors sealed, the ambient light remained low, tinged slightly red, reminding Kat of working in a control room of a submarine during her years in navy intelligence, where the unique lighting preserved night vision. Or maybe the subdued illumination was meant to blunt the horrors residing in here.
A long hall stretched ahead, splitting two rows of tanks full of a pinkish gelatinous fluid. Thin translucent drapes that lined the front of the rows failed to hide what rested in those tub-size steel vessels. Kat stepped to the side and parted one of the curtains.
“Don’t,” Amy moaned, clutching her stolen baton in both hands, but she still followed, clearly needing to stay near Kat-not for protection, merely to remain near a flicker of humanity in such an inhuman lab.
Kat had noted the sign hanging above the hallway.
Here lay that purpose given flesh.
A naked woman floated shallowly in semi-viscous fluid, a gelatinous bed to prevent bedsores and to keep tissues moist. Her abdomen swelled with gravid promise, navel protruding, close to parturition. Her breasts hung loosely, never to suckle the life growing within. The patient’s head hung over the edge of the tub, eyes taped shut, neck arched back, as if waiting for her hair to be shampooed. But there was no hair. The bald scalp shone in the weak light, revealing sutured scars and wired electrodes snaking into the skull. Other tubes violated mouth and nose, all running to a rack of monitoring, ventilating, and liquid-feeding equipment.
“What have they done?” Amy asked in a horrified whisper.
Kat stared down the long row, at the other women resting in identical tanks, posed in the same frozen posture of torture, all in various states of fetal gestation. She understood what she was seeing. The women here had been reduced to no more than living brainstems-with only one clear function.
“They’ve turned them into mindless human incubators,” Kat said, trembling between impotent rage and bone-deep sorrow.
She gaped, unblinking, bearing silent witness.
This is where I would’ve ended up.
Amy wore the same mask of revulsion.
Kat shied from imagining herself here, unable to balance this monstrous act with the simple wonders and mysteries of her own pregnancies, of carrying those tiny lives inside of her. She staved off the paralysis of horror by remembering her babies’ first cries, the suckle of a tiny mouth on a tender nipple, the grip of little fingers, so demanding, so needy.
She pictured the other four buildings of the clinic complex, of the levels of research and development performed here: the cutting-edge retrieval and cryopreservation techniques for ova and sperm, the advancements in in vitro fertilization procedures, and the latest innovation in embryo culture and transfer. Many of the greatest reproductive and genetic scientists from around the globe worked here or had in the past. How many, if any, knew what trickled down from their groundbreaking research, seeping like toxic waste to pool here with poisonous purpose?
Kat swung away, knowing she had only half the answers to the mysteries here. She knew where to find the others.
“C’mon,” Kat said, sensing time running short.
She returned to the central alleyway between the rows. She had noted glass-enclosed offices at the back and headed there, striding quickly, with Amy in tow. As her mind raced, she considered various exit strategies. There was not likely to be a back door out of this lab, not with what this facility was hiding down here. The only escape was back the way they’d come, through those red steel doors and past that gauntlet of armed guards.
She searched as she strode to the end of the room-for a weapon, for some other means of escape.
She wasn’t the only one searching.
Amy gasped behind her. “Denise…!”
Without turning, Kat reached an arm back and grabbed Amy’s wrist before the young woman could dart to the side, toward one of the shrouded tanks. Amy had come along with Kat to discover the fate of her sister.
“That’s not her,” Kat said, drawing Amy closer. “That’s just a husk, a shell. Your sister died when she was taken through those doors.”
Amy resisted for a couple of steps, then surrendered-knowing Kat was right. They hurried together, each needing the warmth of the other.
The hallway ended at a line of three glass-walled offices, all facing the horror show. Other hallways branched to the left and the right, likely leading to smaller labs, storerooms, and mechanical spaces.
Kat noted the names etched on the three doors. She memorized them, intending to hold the persons accountable if she ever got out of here. But she moved to the centermost and largest of the three. The name on the door read NANCY MARSHALL, M.D., D.Sc., PH.D., A.B.O.G. It seemed the more abbreviated letters followed a name, the less humanity remained.
Through the glass door, Kat spotted a computer glowing with a screensaver depicting a slowly spiraling helix of DNA. She found the lock unfastened and hurried inside, crossing to the computer.
She reached to wake the monitor up, then paused, noting something odd about the screensaver. The glowing, high-definition image detailed a thick double helix of DNA, slowly spinning, all color-coded, mapping out nucleotides, codons, and chemical bonds. She leaned closer, studying a strange abnormality: a third strand of protein wound within the double helix, entwined into the genetic matrix like a snake in the grass.
Biology and genetics were not her specialty-but she knew someone at Sigma who could better analyze this data. Reaching to the mouse, she woke up the computer. A standard desktop appeared. She needed to secure as much of the data stored on that hard drive as possible and transmit it back to DC, but she also knew she didn’t have time to crack whatever passwords locked this system from the outside world. There was no way to e-mail or send files electronically. The firewalls around this complex were fierce and military-grade.
She would have to improvise and hope for the best.
Reaching to her breast pocket, she removed her surveillance pen. The camera’s video and audio were recorded to a secure digital SD card linked to a cellular transceiver-but the data could also be manually ported over if necessary via a built-in USB connection. She twisted the pen, shedding the camera features, leaving behind the two-terabyte storage card linked to a USB adapter.
Working fast, she found the USB port in the desktop’s tower and shoved the drive in place. Her intent was not to download the card’s content, but to upload files to it, hoping they’d eventually reach sigma. With the guts of her pen exposed, Kat noted the cellular transceiver glowing a pinpoint green. It remained active, but was anyone picking up the signal?
She straightened as a new icon blinked onto the screen’s desktop, representing her flash drive.
A rumble drew her attention around. Amy stood at the open office door, staring back to the far end of the lab. The steel doors had begun to slowly open, unsealing and cracking with a sliver of light.
Dr. Marshall’s sharp bark carried through: “Find them!”
Kat returned to the computer.
No time to be picky about which files to grab.
Using the mouse, she dragged the image of the computer’s hard drive and dumped it all onto the thumbnail for the SD flash drive.
Files immediately began transferring.
That’s all she could do for now.
“What the hell was that?”
Painter stared over at General Metcalf. He’d never heard the man swear, seldom saw him lose composure. The pair stood before the bank of monitors in the communications nest. Minutes ago, the technician monitoring Kat’s surveillance pen reported new feed coming from her second device. This was the first video transmission since the pen had been activated. They’d picked up some initial audio, snatches of conversation, but nothing afterward.
Then suddenly the screen had bloomed to life.
The first few minutes were a jumbled confusion until the camera settled on a set of red metal doors with a cross symbol emblazoned on them.
Metcalf had just been leaving when the monitor sprang to life, exciting the technician. The general accompanied Painter to observe what was picked up. Together, they viewed in growing dismay as Kat surveyed a dark lab, revealing rows of women in tanks. Then she continued to some offices at the back of the room.
“Did you get those names?” Painter asked the technician. “The ones on the office doors?”
After that, the monitor went dark once again.
“Is that everything?” Metcalf asked. “Where was this footage taken?”
Painter knew he had to come clean-about everything. He drew the general back into the side office. Once inside, with the door closed, he explained, “Captain Bryant was investigating a fertility clinic in South Carolina, the same facility where Amanda had her in vitro fertilization performed.”
But it hadn’t been just Kat conducting that investigation. Lisa had gone down there, too. Fear for her stoked brighter, but he had to stay focused.
Metcalf turned toward him. “What fertility clinic are you talking about? Who authorized-?”
Painter cut him off before he worked up a full head of steam. He needed to shock the man into listening-for all of their sakes. “Amanda may still be alive.”
As he expected, those few words knocked the man back a step.
Painter continued, not letting the general recover. He needed to present the entire picture before Metcalf started to put up mental roadblocks. Only the complete story could win this stubborn man to their cause.
Painter started at the beginning, with Amanda’s kidnapping and his belief that it was tied to the unborn child she carried. They ended in front of Kat’s office computer. Painter showed him the cross atop the island of Utopia, realizing just then that it matched the symbol on the red steel doors.
What did that mean?
Metcalf sank into the desk chair, his eyes fixed to the screen. The general was a tough man, a skilled player in the ways of power and politics-some would say even an opportunist-but that was a requirement to function in the Beltway politics of DC. Painter also knew the general to be a shrewd strategist, capable of putting logic before emotion.
He hoped that proved to be the case now.
“And all of these properties are owned by the Gant family, the president’s family?” Metcalf asked, staring at the island. “And you’ve already received confirmation that Amanda was taken there.”
Behind that glaze of shock, Painter saw the gears churning through all the evidence.
Finally, Metcalf shook his head, not in disbelief, more like defeat. “Dear God… if you’re right…” He placed a palm on his forehead and stared Painter square in the eye. “Even if the Gants are the puppet masters behind the Guild, how could the president involve his own daughter with something like this?”
The general glanced to that dark monitor in the other room, obviously picturing the horror show from a moment ago.
“James Gant may not know,” Painter explained. “We don’t know which of the Gants are in that inner circle, the True Bloodline. That’s why I’ve been playing this game so cagily. I have a gut feeling that inner circle is not without internal friction or dissent.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Something sent Amanda running to the Seychelles, almost like she was tipped off. Like someone was trying to protect her.”
“Or maybe they purposefully tricked her into fleeing in secret so she could be nabbed out of the public eye.”
It was a more cynical hypothesis, one Painter hadn’t even considered, proving yet again that Metcalf was an expert chess player.
“You’ve built a case against the Gants,” Metcalf conceded, “but it’s far from solid. None of this is strong enough to confront them, especially the administration. If we tried, we’d end up tipping our hand too soon, exposing that we’re onto them. The backlash would burn us down. And that Bloodline would bury itself even deeper. There’s only one solution.”
Painter understood. “We need Amanda.”
Metcalf met his eyes, confirming this. Any hope for Sigma to rise from these ashes depended on recovering and securing the president’s daughter-and surely the Bloodline knew that, too.
A knock at the door drew both their attentions. It was Kat’s chief analyst, Jason Carter. Painter motioned him forward, but the kid only stuck his head through the door.
“Director, we’re receiving new data from Captain Bryant’s device.”
Painter stared past the young man’s head. The monitor was still black. “Is it new video… or just audio again?”
“Neither. They’re digital files.”
Painter’s eyes pinched with momentary confusion-then realized what Kat was doing: downloading information off one of the lab’s computers.
Clever, Kat… very smart.
“Start forwarding those files to me,” Painter said.
Jason nodded and ducked back out.
Metcalf waited with Painter. “I wish you hadn’t told me any of this,” he said. “I’d certainly sleep better not knowing. For that matter, why did you tell me? Why trust me? Who’s to say I’m not on the Guild’s payroll?”
It was a good question-and Painter had only one answer.
“Because you’ve been a thorn in sigma’s side from the beginning.”
“You mean I’ve been an ass.”
Painter didn’t argue with his wording. “But you’ve also had our back, sir, when we’ve truly needed it. And besides, I can’t do this on my own. Not any longer. I need an ally, someone to hold the wolves at bay if we’re to have any chance of recovering Amanda.”
“You’ll get it-but there’s only so much I can do. After what happened in Somalia, Sigma has a big target on its back. And you know Washington… once they smell blood in the water…”
The feeding frenzy begins.
The intercom buzzed. “Director, the initial files are up on your desktop.”
“I’ll leave you to this,” Metcalf said, standing and letting Painter take his seat. “This castle’s about to be stormed, and I’m better off manning the gates and fortifying the ramparts.”
Painter knew his statement was more than a metaphor. Sigma headquarters lay in the bunkers beneath the Smithsonian Castle, within the shadow of the White House-even now, the battle lines were being drawn between them.
As Metcalf left, Painter turned his attention to the computer, to the files gained at such risk. He worried about Kat… and even more about Lisa. Still, he sensed that all the mysteries, the true pulse of the Bloodline, lay in the life or death of another woman.
Gray, you must find Amanda.
July 3, 2:44 A.M. Gulf Standard Time
Off the Coast of Dubai
Gray held the man’s neck in the crook of his arm, the flat of his hand against the side of his head. A twist and a sharp crank on the chin shattered the guard’s cervical vertebrae. The strangled body fell limp.
He lowered the guard to the lawn and began stripping off the man’s helmet, vest, and shirt. The gear was identical to that worn by the commandos back in Somalia, offering further proof that Amanda had been moved here.
In his earpiece: “Done.”
That was Seichan. She had taken down her man.
As Gray strapped on the dead soldier’s helmet, he glanced at the phone in his hand. On the screen, a dog’s-eye view revealed a lone guard posted beside a park bench. Kane moved nearer, drawing the man’s attention, while Tucker closed in from behind with a blade. As silently as the others, he dispatched the last guard that stood between Gray’s team and the twisted spire of the Burj Abaadi, the Eternal Tower.
“Move in,” Gray radioed.
He ran low through the remainder of the nighttime park, still wary in case Kane had missed any hidden guards. But no alarm was raised as he reached the edge of the grounds.
As he waited for the others, he looked up at the sheer majesty of the slowly turning tower, each floor revolving independently of the others. He imagined the view must be breathtaking from up top, the scene eternally changing, spanning from the panoramic brilliance of Dubai’s skyline to the dark mystery of the starlit sea.
Still, something bothered Gray as he stared upward.
Something about its ever-changing shape…
A rustle drew his attention back to the ground. The others converged from different directions. Seichan and Tucker came similarly outfitted in stolen gear. Kane kept out of sight, slinking wide upon a signal from his handler.
As they gathered to him, Gray studied the front entrance to the Burj Abaadi. He expected there would be cameras watching the steps and lobby, possibly other guards inside. The disguise was a feeble one, but the ruse could buy them an extra few seconds of surprise if needed.
Kowalski finally pushed past a grove of palms, struggling to pull a small vest over his wide shoulders. The helmet sat on top of his head like a crown. “My guy was pint-size,” he explained.
Gray pointed his rifle at the big man. “Drop all of that and put your hands on your head.”
Kowalski frowned. “What the hell, Pierce?”
Seichan sighed. “Just act like a prisoner.” She waved toward the lobby stairs. “For the cameras.”
Understanding slowly sank through Kowalski’s thick skull, widening his eyes. He shed his stolen gear and laced his fingers atop his head.
With a final few instructions, Gray marched Kowalski forward, flanked by the other two. From the corner of his eye, he caught a blur of shadow, easy to miss unless watching for it. Kane vanished into the bushes at the base of the building and crept from there toward the same stairs.
Bright lights lit the steps, but the lobby was dark, with only a few pools of subdued illumination inside. It looked deserted. Maybe their disguises weren’t necessary. The guards in the park had certainly been easy to take down. Gray had even caught his target sleeping.
The enemy plainly must have thought themselves safe out on this island-especially since they suspected no one was looking for Amanda.
Gray marched with the others up the stairs. They kept their faces lowered from the cameras. Gray motioned for Tucker to run ahead and check the tall glass doors that led into the lobby. The man ran forward and tugged. The door swung open, unlocked. Tucker looked relieved. It saved them the trouble and exposure of using the minipellets of C-4 to blast the deadbolts, or larger pyrotechnics if necessary.
The only one disappointed by the ease of entry was the team’s explosives and demolitions expert. “Aw, man,” Kowalski groused. “I was all set to blow some crap up.”
Gray poked him in the back with his rifle. “Keep moving.”
Kowalski stumbled across the threshold. Gray and the others crowded in behind him.
The lobby soared five stories high, drawing the eye up. In the center rose a grand spiral staircase, made entirely of glass and sparkling in the wan light with Swarovski crystals and figurines depicting sea creatures. It wound up from the grand entry hall, spiraling around the central axis of the tower and continuing ever upward.
The only illumination came from a ring of huge pillars, also made of glass. They formed massive vertical aquariums, glowing with an inner soft radiance that slowly shifted along a spectrum of hues.
Initially, Gray thought the aquariums were empty, merely bubbling on the inside, catching and multiplying the glow. Then his eyes adjusted, and the bubbles became palm-size jellyfish, swarming and drifting within the giant pillars.
The wonder of the moment was interrupted by a harsh call.
A towering, beefy figure rose out of hiding from behind a security desk and stalked forward, rubbing a knuckle in one eye. Somebody else had been caught napping. The man shoved a black beret on his head, clearly the leader of this African contingent.
A second figure crawled from behind the desk and stood. A dark-skinned girl of thirteen or fourteen, slim, frail-limbed, wearing a soldier’s uniform. She wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. The leader’s pants were unbuttoned.
So the man hadn’t been caught sleeping.
Fury roiled up inside Gray. He knew many of the village children nabbed by the warlords of Somalia weren’t all turned into soldiers, like Baashi, but instead were brutalized as sex slaves.
The monster’s gaze remained fixed on Kowalski as he stalked across the wide lobby, clearly mystified by the sudden appearance of this prisoner. The ruse would only last another couple of sec-
The leader froze, half-skidding on one foot, his hand lunging for his holstered pistol.
Seichan whipped her SIG Sauer out.
“Don’t shoot!” Gray snapped-the noise of a firefight, even a single shot in this crystal echo chamber, would surely draw any other guards and alert the enemy hidden within.
The leader freed his sidearm, under no such restraint.
But Gray had seen the flicker of movement from Tucker’s wrist, heard a whispered command over the radio.
Kane burst out of the shadows behind the man and barreled forward. The girl squealed, dancing to the side. The dog hit the man in the ankle, hamstringing him and flinging him into the air. He flew high-then landed hard, his head striking the marble floor.
His pistol slid away into the shadows.
Tucker was already moving, charging forward, blade in his fist. He slid on his knees, passing Kane, whose momentum carried him in the opposite direction. Tucker reached the downed man, raised his dagger, then simply lowered it.
“Neck’s broken,” Tucker said.
“So we each got a soldier,” Kowalski said, lowering his arms, rubbing his shoulders. “I gotta get me one of those dogs.”
From the shadows to the side, the young girl reappeared. She held the lost pistol in both hands, pointed at Tucker. Her face was a mask of terror.
Tucker dropped his dagger and raised his palms. “It’s okay…” the man intoned softly.
The girl spat something in Somali. They didn’t have a translator, but it sounded more angry than scared. She steadied her pistol, her finger finding the trigger.
Then the girl suddenly jerked back a step-coughed blood. She dropped the pistol, her fingers scrabbling for the silver blade sticking out of her neck.
Gray turned to the source.
Seichan had a second throwing dagger in her fingers, ready if needed.
The girl slumped to her knees, then toppled forward.
Tucker gave out a soft cry of dismay. He lunged forward, going to the child’s aid, but it was no use. “What did you do?”
“What needed to be done,” Seichan said, her eyes glassy and cold.
Tucker stared across at her. “She was just a child.”
“No, she wasn’t,” Seichan whispered under her breath. “Not any longer.”
Logically, Gray knew she was right. The girl would likely have shot and killed Tucker, and the noise would have jeopardized everything. And a sad truth of the matter: some brutalized war orphans never recovered, never healed, becoming no more than animals in children’s bodies.
Still, his heart ached at the death, echoing Tucker’s anguish.
Seichan merely headed across the lobby. “Let’s find Amanda. That’s what we came here for.”
Still, he noted her fingers trembled as she tried to return the unused blade to its wrist sheath.
“Seichan’s right,” Gray said and pointed to Tucker. “Get your dog. We need to pick up Amanda’s trail.”
Tucker glowered at Seichan, but he obeyed.
As dog and handler worked in tandem, sweeping through the lobby, Gray moved to the security desk. There he found a bank of monitors. It appeared the desk was wired to the lobbies on each floor. He began hitting each button, bringing up one view after the other, looking for any evidence of habitation. Reaching the penthouse lobby on the fiftieth floor, he came up empty. Every lobby was dark, offering a dim view of marble elegance, fine rugs, and the continuation of the spiral stair.
Everything looked deserted, untouched.
“Over here,” Tucker called quietly. “I think we found something.”
Kane sniffed furiously at one of the doors along a curved bay of elevators.
Gray crossed toward him, collecting Seichan along the way.
She stood off by herself, staring into one of the aquarium pillars, her face unreadable. As he reached her, she nodded to the glowing and swirling pillar of jellyfish in front of her, reading the sign.
“It’s a giant hybrid of Turritopsis nutricula.”
He shook his head, not understanding.
“At the end of this species’ life, the adult jellyfish reverts back to a juvenile state. This cycle repeats over and over again, starting fresh each time.”
She stared over at the bloodied girl. Her eyes were damp with tears, possibly seeing herself lying there. Did she wish for such a chance-for both of them-to be reborn, to start again pure and untainted, to have their childhoods back?
“The process makes the jellyfish immortal,” she whispered.
He nodded, understanding this unusual marvel of nature.
No wonder it’s the mascot for the Eternal Tower.
But Seichan had a different viewpoint about life everlasting and mumbled it aloud. “It’s so horrible.”
Gray didn’t comment as she turned away. He followed silently with her and allowed her to work through her grief, to process it. He did keep close to her side, letting fingers brush along the back of her hand, the one that had thrown the dagger.
He expected her to pull away, but she didn’t.
They joined Tucker and Kane.
Kowalski stood nearby, neck craned, staring up, following the coil of the crystal staircase through the heart of the eternally spiraling tower.
Gray followed his gaze.
Again nagged by something.
Something about the shape…
6:47 P.M. EST
The DNA molecule slowly spiraled on the computer screen, a dance of code that mapped out the human body in all its glory-but this fragment of genetic material was unlike anything Painter had ever seen diagramed. A third strand snaked within the heart of the typical double helix.
“What do you make of it?” Painter asked, using the mystery here to keep him distracted from his worries about Kat and Lisa.
“It’s a triple helix,” Renny Quinn said, his voice flush with awe. “The Holy Grail of genetics.”
Renny leaned his large fists on Kat’s desk to stare closer. Sigma’s resident biogeneticist had been summoned to help Painter sift through the huge volume of data coming from that lab’s servers. The man was of Irish descent, with a ruddy complexion and dark auburn stubble over his scalp and cheeks. He was also a former college boxer-which included a fair amount of bare-knuckle brawling, a habit that got him discharged from the army rangers.
Afterward, Sigma grabbed him. Renny proved the stories true of men with big hands-but in his case, it meant he had a huge brain. And Renny was going to need it to slog through this mountain of data.
The files from Charleston arrived disordered and unclassified, much of it in raw code. Kat must not have had time to pare the data down to the most essential files. Instead, what arrived was the definition of a data dump-a load far more than the SD card in her pen could handle. A lot of the files came corrupted, others not fully decrypted. As a consequence, it could take days, if not weeks, to decipher, decode, and repair the damaged files.
Still, it didn’t take a computer engineer to ascertain that most of the files dealt with advanced genetics and reproductive studies, all tracing directly or indirectly back to this one image.
“A triple helix of DNA,” Painter said, staring at the monitor, as perplexed as he was intrigued.
“Actually…” Renny leaned over and dragged a finger down two of the spiraling backbones. “These strands are deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA. The third-this snake wrapped around the tree of life-is peptide nucleic acid, or PNA.”
Renny tapped the new helix. “This strand is artificial. Man engineered this, not God. What we’re looking at is the result of cybergenetics, the merging of biology and technology.”
“Is that even possible?”
“Not only possible. It’s been done. A team over at the University of Copenhagen have already managed to insert a PNA strand between two DNA strands. In a test tube, of course. But the only obstacle to moving their research to the next stage is a simple hurdle.” Renny nodded to the screen. “That triple helical assembly isn’t stable in water. Build a raincoat around that strand and the whole world changes.”
Painter frowned up at him. “What do you mean?”
Renny explained. “Our entire genetic code is built on four chemical bases: guanine, adenine, thymine, and cytosine. G, A, T, C. From that four-letter vocabulary, all life is formed.” He cocked an eye at the spiraling molecule. “But PNA is not restricted to those four letters. Can you imagine what could be created with more letters of the alphabet? We could rewrite mankind.”
Despite Renny’s obvious excitement, Painter imagined only horrors.
“But far more importantly,” Renny pressed, “this cyberstrand of PNA can be designed to specifically turn on and off certain genes. PNA has already been used to cure a form of muscular dystrophy in lab mice. But that’s just the beginning. The potential is limitless. We’re talking about blocking cancer, treating hundreds of genetic diseases, even extending life.”
Renny stared longingly at the computer. “If DNA holds the key to life… then PNA is its lock pick. For whoever holds that tool in hand, nothing would be impossible.”
Painter’s dismay grew darker, picturing the lab in Charleston, the women floating in tanks.
Jason tapped at the open office door and saved him from having to ponder worse. “Director, I’m sorry to interrupt, but we just finished receiving an extremely large file from Charleston. I thought you might like to see it. The folder’s name is HISTORY AND ORIGINS.”
Painter sat straighter, happy to forgo any more biological discussions for now. He wanted to get to the root of everything and that file name sounded promising: history and origins.
Jason dashed some of that hope. “But, sir, the folder is badly corrupted. We’re working on it, but I can forward what we have so far, a couple odd pictures and documents.”
“Do it,” Painter said.
Jason pointed to the computer. “Already done.”
No wonder Kat loves this kid.
Painter swung to the keyboard and clicked open the first few uncorrupted documents. A drawing filled the screen.
It showed a trio of men, in colonial attire, with their arms clasped together: gripping right hands above their heads and left hands below. In both of the upper corners of the sketch, a three-headed snake coiled.
“What is this?” Painter mumbled, not expecting an answer-but he got one.
“That’s the Holy Royal Arch,” Renny said, sounding equally surprised to know the answer.
Painter turned to him. “How do you know that?”
“Because I’m a member of the guild.” Renny must have read Painter’s stunned look. “Not that Guild. I’m talking about the masons. My family has been members going back to our time in Ireland.”
Painter pointed to the screen. “And this?”
“Don’t know a whole lot about it. What’s drawn there is the ritual of three-times-three, a sacred number in freemasonry. It’s a part of the initiation into the Royal Arch Degree, but plenty of mystery surrounds that exclusive degree, like its exact origin. It’s said to be tied back to the Knights Templar. The three-times-three ritual… in other words, nine… represents the original nine founding members of the Knights Templar.”
Painter stared at the screen. What is this drawing doing on the servers of a genetics lab?
Despite the oddity, he had a suspicion of the answer-but only because of the previous discussion with Renny. Painter studied the three men entwined together, the three-headed snakes. It was eerily similar to the three-stranded helix, three wound together as one. Even Renny had used the term a snake wrapped around the tree of life to describe the triple helix.
Painter read the annotation at the bottom of the drawing, stating the source: a book titled Duncan’s Masonic Ritual and Monitor, printed back in 1866.
How could a book dated almost a century and a half ago be referencing-at least symbolically-a triple helix?
Painter was reminded of the file folder’s name.
History and Origins
Sensing the importance here, he wanted the rest of this folder decrypted as soon as possible-if it was possible.
Jason suddenly dashed back to the door with grim news. “Director! We just lost connection to Charleston. The feed from Captain Bryant’s device suddenly ceased in midtransmission.”
Painter sat straighter. “The pen’s battery? Did it die?”
“No, sir. This time we were monitoring the charge levels. It was still good.”
Painter’s heart sank, knowing there was only one explanation left.
Jason stated it aloud. “Someone must have discovered her bug and disabled it.”
But what did that mean for Kat?
July 2, 6:48 P.M. EST
Charleston, South Carolina
Kat slipped silently into a side room off the dark lab hallway. Before disappearing inside, she caught a peek of Dr. Marshall at the far end, storming out of her office, surrounded by a cadre of security guards.
“Split up! search every closet, storage space, and lab on both sides!”
Kat closed the door quietly, struggling with the handle due to her greasy palm. The room was lit only by the glowing screensaver of a computer monitor. Again it depicted that strange triple helix. Kat hoped the files she’d been downloading had reached somebody at sigma.
As her eyes adjusted to the gloom, she noted the neighboring wall contained shelves of five-liter glass jars, reflecting the meager light. Dark things lurked and floated inside. Kat caught the barest glimpse of curled tiny fingers. She turned her back, not wanting to see more, not after witnessing the horrors out in the main room, the women in the tanks. These jars likely held the end product of that research.
Kat still held her folding combat blade, dulled now from all the hacking and sawing. She’d had only two minutes to ready herself for the siege ahead, barely enough time to get Amy hidden and out of harm’s way. In her head, calculations continued to run as a mental timer ticked down.
Seven tanks… 300 psia/tank… estimated volume of laboratory space…
She heard doors opening and slamming, men shouting orders, working swiftly down the hall toward her position. She had left a door open farther back-but the guards would reach her first.
She closed her eyes, taking several deep breaths. She used the extra seconds to smear more of the gelatinous fluid over her face and shaved scalp, leaving a thick film. Her clothes and the rest of her body were equally slathered and dripping with the hydrophilic gel-the same pinkish material that was filling the monstrous tanks in the main room.
Footsteps pounded up to her hiding place. She faced the door as it was ripped open. A guard-then another-came charging inside, with pistols pointed at Kat.
“Drop the knife!” one of them screamed.
She obeyed, lifting her hands to the top of her head.
The other yelled out the door. “Found one of them!”
“Bring her to me,” Marshall ordered.
The guards manhandled her out the door and into the hallway. She did not resist and allowed herself to be led at gunpoint toward the pool of light radiating from Marshall’s office.
The woman stood with her hands on her hips. She ground a boot heel against the vinyl floor. Kat heard a crack and saw a bit of black plastic go flying across the floor.
They’d found her surveillance pen plugged into their network.
Marshall faced her, her cheeks livid, her eyes fiery. She already had her palm resting on her cattle prod. Kat expected to be punished, needed to be punished.
“Where is the other girl?” Marshall demanded.
Kat made sure never to break eye contact, not to betray Amy’s hiding place with the flicker of a glance.
“I’ll make you talk…” Marshall stalked up to her and jammed the prod at her belly.
Kat twisted at the last second as blue sparks spat from the black wand’s end. Pinned by the guards behind her, she still caught a glancing shock on her hip. Electric fire lanced along her side, crippling her left leg into an agonized spasm, forcing her into a painful crouch.
Kat ground her teeth against the pain-and in frustration.
Pushing up with her good leg, Kat lunged and caught Marshall’s wrist. One of the guards tried to pistol-whip her, but Kat dodged enough to take the blow to her shoulder.
Kat struggled with her quivering leg, grabbing a handful of plastic curtain that hid the tanks to keep her upright. She still had a grip on Marshall’s wrist and shoved her cattle prod high. The metal tip struck the curtain rod overhead.
Then the world became fire.
The detonation blew Kat backward, sent her flying through the air. Overhead, blue flames chased across the ceiling after her-and spread outward. She covered her eyes with her arm, picturing that fire racing down the hallway toward the farthest room, a storage and mechanical space holding all manner of pressurized gas tanks that serviced the many labs of the complex, including seven large tanks marked with the symbol H2.
Odorless, fourteen times lighter than air, highly explosive.
She had hacked through the lines earlier, bleeding the massive tanks into this enclosed space, knowing the gas would stay high, and be undetectable to the nose.
Kat landed on her back on the floor and slid, the heat blistering overhead, broiling all beneath. The only thing that kept the skin on her body was the thick hydrophilic gel that covered her. The same watery properties that kept the patients in the tanks moist and free of bedsores offered her some meager insulation.
The same couldn’t be said for the others.
Screams cut through her blast-muffled ears.
Bodies flailed, clothes on fire, faces burned away.
In that split second during the explosion, Kat had watched Marshall’s hair ignite, turning into a swirling nimbus of flames.
A fitting end for a woman who played God.
Kat struggled up, choking from the smoke, from the heat, from the lack of air. Her tearing eyes turned the view into a watery hell. All around, fires danced, plastic draping melted in blackened flows, and charred equipment sparked and sizzled.
She gained her feet and took a stumbling step backward.
Another figure rose from the floor two yards away, climbing from behind the shelter of a tank. Her scalp was burned and cracked, pouring blood.
Marshall lifted her arm, holding one of the guards’ pistols in her hand, and stumbled around the tank.
Kat tried to get to shelter, but her legs betrayed her. She fell on her side, supported by one arm.
Marshall came another step forward, the pistol pointed at Kat’s face. Her gaze showed no glee at the kill to come, only a pained necessity, a last act of revenge.
But it wasn’t she who got that revenge.
From the tank next to her, the naked body rose, sitting up like a corpse from a grave.
Marshall turned toward the movement-her deadened eyes suddenly going bright with terror.
An arm pulled out of the gelatinous muck, drawing out a long black baton. The weapon swung with the heavy grief of a sister in mourning. The hard metal cracked Marshall across the bridge of the nose, shattering through bone.
The doctor dropped.
Kat realized then: This is a more fitting death for a woman who played God.
Amy climbed out of the tank and hurried to Kat and helped her back to her feet. “I thought you were dead.”
“I thought I was, too.”
Earlier, Kat had dragged Denise-Amy’s sister-out of her viscous crib, replacing her sibling there instead. Kat had stripped Amy of her hospital gown and made sure the girl was sunk deeply into the tub, well coated with the insulating gel. Afterward, Kat had scooped handfuls of the same and covered herself, too-then carried Denise’s thin body to the storage room.
Kat had wanted Amy hidden in plain sight, knowing no one would look too closely at the occupants of those tanks. She also wanted the girl close to the exit-not trapped down the fiery hall.
Confirming that wisdom, a massive explosion ripped from that direction, spraying shrapnel and shattering glass.
Kat pictured all the other pressurized tanks back there, overheating, leaking gas, catching fire. She also envisioned flames chasing through the gas tubing and conduits, spreading to other floors, other buildings.
“Let’s go,” Kat gasped out hoarsely.
She retrieved the pistol from Marshall’s limp fingers, and together they fled through the smoke and fire and back through the red steel doors. In the ward, alarms blared, and sprinklers overhead sprayed fiercely. Kat stopped long enough to grab another gown for Amy and hurried out the doors. Down the hall, they discovered the guard station empty.
No one tried to stop them as they fled up out of the fiery bowels of the building and onto the ground floor of one of the rear buildings of the campus. The view outside showed the rest of the facility succumbing to the spreading flames. The summer sun was still up, but it looked like dusk outside as smoke obscured the gardens. Across the way, fire danced behind other windows. An explosion blew out an upper section of the main building, showering bricks and broken roof tiles.
It was all coming down.
Kat grabbed Amy’s arm and hurried her through the exit and out into the parklike grounds. Other researchers fled for the gates to the street, looking shell-shocked.
Kat followed them, doing her best to keep her pistol hidden.
In the distance, sirens echoed.
Kat and Amy ran down the entry road and out the gates, chased by more blasts and deep-throated explosions. Debris rained down around them; smoke rolled thickly now, making it hard to see.
They fled farther down the street, trying to break clear, to get some distance away from the conflagration. At last, they reached a clear section of road. They both panted, hands on knees.
Sirens grew louder, converging all around as emergency crews responded from throughout Charleston.
Kat straightened and pointed toward the blue lights flashing through the smoke. “You should-”
The crack of a pistol echoed.
Amy fell back, sitting down on the road. She reached a palm to her chest as blood bloomed through her gown.
Kat twisted and dropped to a knee, swinging up her weapon.
An SUV sat on the side of the road, a back window open.
She fired wildly at the dark car.
Lisa dropped low in the backseat as the windshield cracked and shattered. She was pinned between two burly guards. In the front, the driver and Dr. Paul Cranston crouched.
“Christ!” the shooter next to her said. “She’s got a gun.”
Lisa covered her head.
After nabbing her off the streets of downtown Charleston, Cranston and his men had returned to the fertility center, confident after their hunt-only to be greeted by a loud explosion as they turned into view. The concussion rattled the SUV’s windows. Smoke curled up from one of the back buildings. Flames began to spread-then more blasts as the place ripped apart.
Cranston had them retreat a block, to observe the incineration and destruction of his hard work, unable to look away.
He hissed from up front. “Take her out, goddamn it. Before she escapes. If she gets loose…”
While surveying the aftermath from a safe distance, Cranston had spotted a pair of women running out of the smoke, both shaven-headed, one in a hospital gown. He recognized them immediately. They’re from the lower lab! He’d ordered them shot, gunned down like rabid dogs. But it seemed one of the women had teeth.
The gunman next to Lisa returned to the open window, shoving out one arm, his weapon pointed. Another spat of gunfire peppered the side of the truck. The man swore but held his post.
Lisa risked a peek. She saw the woman with the pistol drag the wounded girl toward the shelter of the thicker smoke. Sirens screamed now, and the flash of emergency lights grew brighter through the haze.
Then the woman glanced over her shoulder, back toward the SUV.
It was the first time Lisa got a good look at her face. Recognition rocked through her-even with all her friend’s hair shorn away.
“Got her,” the shooter said with deadly satisfaction.
Lisa lunged and hit the man with her shoulder. His pistol fired, his aim thrown. Lisa got her head out, saw Kat unharmed-and she intended her friend to stay that way.
Her other guard yanked her roughly back.
Cranston raised enough to peer into the backseat. He fixed Lisa with a knowing gaze. She immediately read the understanding there.
“So that’s who you were working with,” Cranston said and ordered his men to secure Kat.
The gunman balled a fist in Lisa’s hair and dragged her out, using her body as a human shield.
Kat had found thin shelter behind a recycling bin.
Cranston called from up front. “Drop your weapon! Come out! or we’ll put a bullet through the back of your friend’s head.”
“Don’t!” Lisa screamed at her friend.
The fist in her hair shook hard, ripping follicles.
She watched in despair as Kat threw her pistol out-then stepped into view.
“Go get her,” Cranston ordered the other guard. “I want some answers. But don’t hesitate to shoot her if she gives you any trouble.”
Kat must have sensed the same and came along willingly, her fingers laced on top of her head.
“What about the other one?” Cranston asked when the guard returned with Kat.
Kat and Lisa made their reunion in the middle of the backseat, trapped between the pair of armed men.
“I’m so sorry,” Lisa whispered.
Kat’s face was a hard mask of rage-but not directed at her. Kat’s hand found hers and squeezed, holding so much promise in that small gesture.
Reassurance, forgiveness, and a guarantee of revenge.
Emergency vehicles began to appear, whipping past their parked vehicle, sirens ablaze and lights blinding.
“Where now?” the driver asked, as he started the engine.
Cranston stared toward the burning wreckage of his clinic. “Out of the city… it’s a little too hot here now.” He turned from the fire and smoke. “We’ll take them for a ride in the country. To the Lodge.”
From his post in the communications nest, Painter watched the fiery footage from South Carolina. It was a live feed, shot by one of the two men he’d sent out to investigate the North Charleston Fertility Clinic.
His team had arrived on-site fifteen minutes ago. A chaos of fire crews fought the blaze. Towering arcs of water sprayed from trucks and ladders. Paramedics, along with other first-response teams, serviced burn injuries and smoke inhalation. Other victims had lacerations and bruises from flying debris and glass.
Four bodies had tarps over them.
Painter expected there would be more.
Would Kat or Lisa be among them?
When the security detail first reported in, Painter had hoped the destruction was Kat’s handiwork, but it could just as easily have been a fail-safe measure. Someone had found Kat’s bug, and the Guild was notorious for its scorched-earth policy. He’d seen it himself multiple times in the past. If anyone got too close, the Guild would burn all bridges that might lead to them-to their secrets. It didn’t matter the cost, consequences, or lives.
He turned to find Jason Carter at his shoulder-again.
“I want you to see something,” the kid said and drew him to a monitor where another analyst worked. Though the seated man was a decade older, Jason rested a hand on his shoulder like an encouraging father. “Linus and I were working on a research project for Kat before she left.”
“We’ve been working on it for about three months,” Linus added.
What’s this about?
Painter’s patience was thread-thin, but he waved for them to continue.
“I asked Linus to test our new protocols in the search for Captain Bryant and Dr. Cummings,” Jason said. “I hope that was all right.”
“Of course.” At this point, he’d take any help. “What were you testing?”
“A new surveillance-and-tracking system similar to current facial-recognition programs-but instead of faces, we applied it to motor vehicles. Once on the road, the wear and tear on an automobile creates a unique pattern, as individual as any person’s fingerprints or facial features.”
“Is this going somewhere?” Painter asked.
Jason rushed ahead. “I took the liberty of gathering the database from your security team in Charleston. You asked them to collect video from the traffic and security cams around that restaurant.”
“And nothing came up.”
“Right. So I had Linus collect similar data from the cameras in North Charleston-gathering video footage from all the vehicles passing through that neighborhood. We took all that information and ran it through our new vehicle-recognition program.”
Jason squeezed Linus’s shoulder. He brought up side-by-side images on his monitor. It showed two partial views of a nondescript Ford SUV.
Jason continued, “I think our targets were purposefully avoiding traffic cams. It’s not hard to do if you know which intersections are monitored.”
And they would know that, Painter thought. It’s their home turf.
“We got these images off a couple of bank ATM cameras. The picture on the left was taken three blocks from the restaurant where Dr. Cummings vanished. The second crossed a bridge about four blocks from the clinic.” Jason faced him. “They’re the same vehicle.”
Painter countered skeptically, “There are a lot of Ford SUVs on the road.”
“Not that match the exact same pattern of wear and tear. But I wanted to be sure. That’s why I called you over.” Jason patted Linus again. His partner zoomed into the second image and set the footage in motion. “Like I said, the image is grainy, but we enhanced it the best we could.”
Painter leaned closer.
The expanded view peered through a back window. The shadowy figure of a man could be seen-and beside him a woman. Though the features were far from clear, she was definitely light-haired, similar profile-but it was more the way she carried herself, the way she moved, that made Painter’s breath quicken.
Hope surged in him.
“I wasn’t sure,” Jason said.
“What about Kat?” Painter asked.
Other figures were in the car, but they were just indistinct blurs.
“I can’t say for sure,” Jason admitted. “And unfortunately we never did get a clear take on the license plate. If they’d gone through a traffic cam…”
It was unfortunate, but it was also a start.
And, more important.
He took a deep breath, not letting his relief overwhelm him, knowing matters could change at any moment. Painter only had to look at the neighboring monitor, at the fiery ruins of the clinic, to remind himself again of the Guild’s scorched-earth policy.
The bastards would not leave loose ends.
And right now that was the definition of Lisa and Kat.
The same could be said of Gray’s team. They were penetrating the latest Guild stronghold, on the trail of the president’s daughter.
Painter watched the last of the clinic buildings crumble into flame and smoke. It was a fiery warning for Gray, too.
July 3, 3:13 A.M. Gulf Standard Time
Off the coast of Dubai
“They took Amanda into this elevator,” Tucker said.
Gray stood with his hands on his hips. He watched Kane sniff along the floor, the shepherd’s tail wagging vigorously. He didn’t doubt the dog’s nose, but he still hesitated.
The lobby bay had a dozen elevators banked in a semicircle. He stared up, following the spiraling curve of the translucent staircase. Both the elevators and the stairs ascended the central shaft of the Burj Abaadi. Each floor revolved around this stable core.
“Fifty floors,” Kowalski said. “At least we don’t have to climb each one.”
“But we’ll need to stop at each one,” Seichan said. “Have Kane see if Amanda’s trail continues out onto any of those levels.”
Gray’s three teammates looked to him for their next step. Even Kane stopped his sniffing to glance in his direction. Gray ignored them for a moment longer.
Something doesn’t make sense.
Gray had studied each of the floors on the security cameras. He saw no evidence of life up there. But he had to trust Kane. The dog had gotten them this far. Settled, he reached and hit the call button for the elevator.
The doors opened immediately. They all stepped inside the posh lift, appointed in rich exotic woods and crystal lighting.
“So should we start at the top and work our way down?” Tucker asked. “Or the other way around?”
“Neither,” Gray said, an edge of certainty hardening inside him as he bent down toward the elevator’s controls.
He pointed to the rows of buttons lined along a flat touch-screen display. Illuminated numbers designated each floor. As he watched, each numeral slowly transformed and rotated through various characters in other languages: Chinese, Japanese, Arabic.
Definitely trying to appeal to the global traveler here.
“I don’t get it,” Kowalski said. “If we’re not going up, then where are we going?”
Gray watched the lowest button glow in Arabic.
Then it shifted to the English equivalent.
“There’s a lower level,” Seichan said.
Kowalski looked to his toes. “Wait. How could there be a basement on a floating island?”
Gray knew this tower had been built in conjunction with the island’s construction. The bedrock upon which the foundation of this tower had been placed was the immense platform holding up Utopia. That concrete-and-steel stage lay approximately ten meters under them, leaving plenty of space for a basement here.
“Must be a service level for the tower,” Seichan said.
“And maybe more,” Gray added, pressing the button.
The letter flashed green, and the cage dropped silently, so smoothly it was hard to tell they were moving at all.
“Be ready,” Gray warned.
Weapons appeared in hands. Tucker signaled his dog, who lowered his haunches, readying to spring.
It felt like the elevator dropped much farther than just one floor, but at last, the doors opened. Gray took a shooter’s stance and quickly inspected a small, utilitarian lobby, dimly lit and drab. He searched for any guards, but it appeared empty.
He stepped out cautiously, leading the way. Hallways branched off, with color-designated lines painted on the floor, likely to direct the hotel staff toward kitchens, laundry facilities, maintenance closets, and storage spaces.
It looked like a maze down here.
Gray waved everyone forward. “Tucker, have Kane hunt for Amanda’s trail. She could be anywhere.”
Tucker set to work with his partner.
Gray noted that two other elevators flanked this one. It seemed only three of the twelve elevators came down to this level. He had Kowalski hold their door open, in case they needed a fast exit.
A tall set of windows along one wall drew Gray’s attention. He moved closer and stared into a cavernous neighboring space. The room was encased in concrete and climbed two stories high. Inside sat a row of massive turbine generators, looking like oversize metal elephants. Control panels covered another wall.
“The building’s power plant,” Seichan said, joining him.
Gray remembered Jack Kirkland’s description of the tidal turbines that powered this building. This must be them.
Tucker came back after only a minute. “Nothing,” he said.
Gray turned around, surprised. “What?”
Tucker shrugged. “Kane checked all of the hallways leading out from here. Found no sign of Amanda.”
Impossible. She has to be down here.
“Have him check again,” he ordered.
“I’ll do it, but it’s a waste of time. I’ll vouch for Kane’s nose.”
“He’s right,” Seichan argued. “Coming down here made sense, but that doesn’t mean it’s the only path. There are fifty other floors. The longer we wait…”
The more danger Amanda faces.
He sighed heavily, conceding to the logic, but not happy about it. “Back upstairs, then.”
The others piled inside the elevator.
Gray paused at the threshold, staring at the two doors that flanked this one.
“Hold on.” He stepped over, pressed the call button, and summoned the other two elevators.
“What are you doing?” Seichan asked from inside the cage, as Kowalski continued to hold the door open.
The other two elevators arrived. Gray inspected both cages. He returned to the others and studied the touch-screen display in their lift.
“What?” Seichan pressed.
“All three of these cages reach the service levels, so why did Amanda’s captors use the middle elevator? Human nature says they would have just gone to the one closest to the lobby.” Gray pointed to the first set of doors. “I checked those other two. This control panel is two inches longer than the others.”
“So?” Kowalski asked.
Seichan bent down and studied the lower section of the touch screen. “You think there are other buttons here, hidden ones.”
He nodded. “Leading to restricted levels that only this elevator can reach.”
Seichan searched the edges of the screen. “But I don’t see any keyholes or slots for pass cards to activate those levels.”
Gray hit the lobby button, sending the cage back up, demonstrating. “The screen is touch-sensitive.”
Seichan got it, her eyes smiling. “It could be keyed to a fingerprint.”
Gray stepped back into the lobby as the doors opened. “The soldier who Kane took out. He looked like he was the head of the security escort from Africa. He might have been granted access below.”
Gray turned to Kowalski.
The big man rolled his eyes and sulked out, mumbling under his breath, “Why do I get all the dirty work?”
He returned a minute later, wiping a blade on his pants. He held out his hand. “I brought both. Just in case.”
Resting on his palm were a thumb and a forefinger.
Kowalski also carried the dead man’s beret and tugged it on his head. “That guy was more my size,” he said and pointed toward the ceiling of the cage. “In case of any more cameras. I’m not playing prisoner again.”
Gray took the severed thumb, pressed it against the empty space below the LL button, and kept it there. He held his breath-then a new button bloomed to life under the thumb.
If he had any doubt before, it ended as that odd symbol appeared. Gray flashed to Somalia, to running across the abandoned camp toward the tent cabin. He remembered the same marking had been painted on the outside of the jungle hospital.
A crimson cross with tiny finial decorations along its crosspieces.
The cage fell again, dropping much deeper now.
Kowalski’s face had a sick tint to it. “How far down did these pirates bury their treasure?”
Gray pictured the giant concrete pylons that supported the island. The outer ones were twenty meters across, but the centermost pylon, the one directly under Burj Abaadi, was far larger. He knew that it was not uncommon for the support pillars of oil platforms to have caissons engineered in them, hollow pockets used for storing oil.
So why not here, too? But instead of oil, an entire base could be hidden inside a pillar this huge.
Gray knew Amanda was down there. His doubt centered on a larger concern. It weighed heavily as they dropped like a rock toward the heart of the island.
Is she still alive?
Dr. Edward Blake watched the sheen of hatred fade from Amanda’s eyes as he injected the last of the propofol into her IV line. Her lids slid to half-mast, her breathing deepened.
Her last words had been a curse, a promise of revenge.
I will see you both in hell.
But it was an impotent threat.
Amanda, the person, the loving mother, would be gone in a few more minutes. All sentience would be wiped away, leaving behind nothing but the most basic of functions.
“You should scrub up,” Petra said.
His nurse was already gowned and adjusting a monitor that showed Amanda’s CT scan. The young woman lay on a surgical table, draped from the neck down, her bald head gleaming under the surgical halogens overhead. Small blue markings decorated her scalp, like so much scientific nomenclature tattooed in place. The markings delineated the multiple drill sites and electrode insertion points.
Petra prepared the stereotactic system for the pending surgery. It integrated his surgical workstation with an intra-operative MRI and microscopy setup for visualization. She secured Amanda’s head inside a fluid-filled alignment cuff, a vast improvement from the older head frames that had to be screwed into a patient’s skull.
After working in the mountains of Somalia and having to deal with tools that seemed antiquated in comparison, Edward felt a surge of childish joy at having such fine equipment to play with. The station in Somalia had served its purpose for the past few years, allowing him to harvest eggs, embryos, and collect viable or promising subjects for the various other reproductive labs around the world. But he had always had larger ambitions. It was pure happenstance that Amanda Gant-Bennett had landed on his doorstep versus one of the many other reproductive facilities and egg-collection centers in India, Malaysia, Australia, or countless other points around the globe. It allowed him the opportunity to shine in the eyes of his superiors, to climb higher up that ladder.
So far, besides a few hiccups, matters had been proceeding smashingly. Amanda’s death had been framed as an unfortunate encounter with Somali pirates; the child had been delivered and secured in the new high-tech research lab here; and after this last bloody bit of work, Amanda would be shipped off, no longer his problem, leaving him in peace to dissect and test the new research material.
The newborn slept in a small crib down the hall, waiting his turn.