Authors: James Rollins
Tags: #Mystery, #Thriller, #Suspense, #Contemporary, #Science Fiction, #Adventure, #Historical
According to interviews, it was a young woman. She had tossed a backpack full of C4, wired with detonators, then fled into the woods. The National Guard, local police forces, and agents from Salt Lake City’s FBI field office were attempting to seal off the area, but the mountainous terrain, rugged and thickly wooded, posed a challenge to finding her, especially if she knew the area.
To make matters worse, eyewitnesses reported that the woman was Native American. If true, that would mean even more political tension.
Painter caught his reflection in the monitor and searched for his own ancestry. He was a half-blooded Pequot Indian, on his father’s side, but his blue eyes and light skin came from his Italian mother. Most never pegged him as Native American, but the features were there, if you looked hard enough: the wide, high cheekbones, the deep black hair. But as he aged, those Indian traits shone more strongly.
Lisa had commented on it only last month. They had been spending a lazy Sunday in bed, reading the paper, finding no reason to get up. She had leaned on an elbow and traced a finger down his face. “You’re keeping your tan longer, and these sun crinkles are deepening. You’re getting to look a lot like that old photo of your father.”
Not exactly something you wanted to hear when lounging in bed with your girlfriend
She had reached and fingered the single lock of white hair behind his ear, tucked like a snowy feather against the field of black. “Or maybe it’s just that you’re letting your hair grow out. I could almost tie this into a warrior’s braid.”
In fact, he hadn’t been growing his hair out. He just hadn’t had a chance to get it cut for a couple of months. He’d been spending more and more time at Sigma Command. The covert facility lay buried beneath the Smithsonian Castle on the National Mall, occupying what had once been bomb shelters during World War II. The location had been picked for both its convenient access to the halls of power and for its proximity to the Smithsonian Institution’s many research facilities.
It was where Painter spent most of his days. His only windows on the world of late were his office’s three giant monitors.
He turned away and crossed back to his desk, contemplating the implication of a homegrown terrorist, one with a Native American background. He seldom gave his own heritage much thought, especially after spending most of his youth in a series of foster homes. His mother, suffering from depression, had stabbed his father to death after seven years of marriage and the birth of their son. Afterward, Painter continued to have some contact with his Native American roots, fostered through the extended family of his father’s tribe. But after such a hardscrabble and chaotic upbringing, he’d grown to place more emphasis on the
part of his Native American ancestry.
A knock on his open office door interrupted him. He glanced up to see Ronald Chin, Sigma’s geology expert, standing in the doorway. “Thought you should see this.”
Painter waved the geologist inside, almost expecting him to have to duck through the doorway. Chin stood just shy of six feet, missing that mark only because he kept his head shaved to the skin. He wore a gray lab jumpsuit, zippered half down to reveal an Army Ranger T-shirt.
“What is it?” Painter asked.
“I was poring over some of the reports and came across something that could be important.” He placed a file atop the desk. “It was from a debriefing of a National Guardsman on the scene, a Major Ashley Ryan. Most of the questions centered on the identity of the bomber, along with events leading up to the blast. But Major Ryan seemed mighty agitated about the blast itself.”
Painter sat up straighter and reached to the file.
“If you look at page eighteen, I’ve highlighted the key passages.”
Painter opened the report, flipped pages, and read what was marked in yellow. There were only a handful of exchanges, but the major’s last statement sent a chill through his blood.
He read it aloud.
“ ‘The ground . . . it looked like it was dissolving away.’ ”
Chin stood with hands behind his back on the far side of his desk. “From the beginning, I thought there was something odd about that blast. So I consulted Sigma’s demolition expert. He came to the same conclusion. For a detonation strong enough to break through bedrock and crack open a geothermal spring, the concussive blast radius should have been tenfold larger.”
A gruff voice interrupted from the doorway. “That’s right. Not nearly enough bang.”
Painter turned to the doorway again. Apparently Sigma’s new resident bomb expert had come to support Chin’s assessment. The man leaned against the door frame. He stood half a foot taller than Chin, and outweighed his teammate by a good forty pounds, most of it muscle. His dark hair was stubble, but he still slicked back what little was there with gel. The man wore the same coveralls as Chin, but from the bared chest, it looked like he was wearing nothing underneath.
In his right hand, he kneaded a fistful of clay.
Painter grew concerned. “Kowalski, is that the C4 from the weapons locker?”
The man straightened with a shrug, suddenly looking sheepish. “Thought I’d run a test . . .”
Painter felt a sick lurch in his stomach. Joe Kowalski was ex-Navy, hired by Sigma a few years ago. Unlike others, he was more of an adoptee than a recruit. He had been serving as muscle and team support, but Painter sensed there might be more to this guy than met the eye, a vein of sharpness hidden beneath that dull exterior.
At least he hoped so.
Painter had reviewed the man’s dossier since he’d joined Sigma—evaluating his aptitude and skills—and eventually assigned him to a field of study for which he seemed best suited: blowing stuff up.
Painter was beginning to regret that decision. “I don’t think any explosives tests will be necessary.” He tapped the file on his desk. “Have you read this field report?”
“I skimmed it.”
“What’s your take?”
“Definitely wasn’t C4.” He lifted his fist of explosive and gave it a squeeze. “The explosion was something else.”
“Not without examining the blast field. Collecting some samples. Otherwise I have no clue.”
He had to give Kowalski credit. It was a passable evaluation.
“Well, someone knows the truth.” Painter leaned back in his desk chair and glanced to the screen with the frozen image of the bomber. “That is, if we can find her.”
Kai hid in a dense thicket of mountain willows alongside a cold stream. She knelt, cupped the clear water, and drank. She ignored the nagging concerns of giardia or other intestinal parasites. Most of the flow here was fresh snowmelt. As thirsty as she was, she’d take her chances.
After drinking enough to wet her mouth and take the edge off her thirst, she covered her face with icy-wet palms. The cold helped her focus.
Still, even with closed eyes, she could not get the image out of her head. As she had fled the burial cave, she had glanced back in time to see the flash of brilliance, hear the thunderclap. Screams and cries chased her into the deeper woods.
Why did I drop my pack?
John Hawkes had sworn the C4 was safe. He’d said she could fire a bullet into one of the explosive charges, and nothing would happen. So what went wrong? Already scared, she came up with one frightening possibility. Had someone from WAHYA witnessed her flight out of the cave and telephoned in the detonation command?
But why would they do that, knowing people were around?
No one was supposed to get hurt.
She hadn’t had any time to think. For the past two hours, she’d been running headlong through the woods, as fleet-footed as any deer. She kept hidden from the air as much as possible. She’d already spotted one helicopter as it skimmed past a ridgeline. It looked like a news chopper rather than law enforcement, but it still sent her diving for the thicket.
During the remaining hours of daylight, she had to put as much distance as possible between herself and any pursuers. She knew they’d be looking for her. She pictured her face being broadcast across the nation. She was under no illusion that her identity would remain a secret for long.
All those cameras . . . someone surely got a good picture of me.
It was only a matter of time before she was caught.
She needed help.
But whom could she trust?
“Director, it looks like we finally caught a break.”
“Show me,” Painter said as he stepped into the darkened room, lit only by a circular bank of monitors and glowing computer screens.
Sigma’s satellite com always reminded him of the control room on a nuclear submarine, where the ambient light was kept low to preserve night vision. And like a sub’s control room, this was the nerve center of Sigma Command. All information flowed into and out of this interconnected web of feeds from various intelligence agencies, both domestic and foreign.
The spider of this particular web stood before a bank of monitors and waved Painter over. Captain Kathryn Bryant was Sigma’s chief intelligence expert and had grown to become Painter’s second-in-command at Sigma. She was his eyes and ears throughout Washington and a savvy player in the internecine world of D.C. politics. And like any good spider, she maintained a meticulous web, casting strands far and wide. But her best asset was an uncanny ability to monitor each vibrating filament of her web, filter out the static, and produce results.
Kat had called him down here with the promise of a breakthrough.
“Give me a second to bring up the feed from Salt Lake City,” she said.
She winced slightly, placed a palm on her belly, and continued to type one-handed on a keyboard. At eight months along, she was huge, but she refused to go out early for maternity leave. Her only concession to her condition was that she’d abandoned her usual tight dress blues for a casual loose dress and jacket, and allowed the curls of her auburn hair to drape past her shoulders, rather than pinning them up.
“Why don’t you at least sit down?” he said, and pulled out the chair in front of the monitor.
“I’ve been sitting all day. Baby’s been doing a tap dance on my bladder since lunch.” She waved him closer. “Director, you need to see this. From the start of the investigation, I’ve been monitoring the local news programs over in Salt Lake City. It wasn’t difficult to hack into their computer servers and look over their shoulders as they readied their evening news broadcasts.”
“Because I figured it’s damn easy to hide a cell phone.”
He glanced quizzically at her.
She explained. “From the number of people who witnessed the attack, the odds were good that someone got a picture or video of the bomber. So why no footage?”
“Maybe everyone was too panicked.”
the bomb, but not before. If you start with the proposition that a photo
taken, why wasn’t it turned in to the police? I followed that line of reasoning. Greed is a strong motivator.”
“You think someone hid footage of the bomber to make a few bucks.”
“To be thorough, I had to assume that. It would be easy enough to hide a phone during the chaos. Or even e-mail the footage and erase the record. So I canvassed the broadcast logs for tonight’s local news in Salt Lake City and came across a file at an NBC affiliate labeled ‘New Footage from the Utah Bombing.’ ”
Kat hit a button on the keyboard, and a video started playing, another view of the same scenario he’d watched over and over. Only this time, the bomber was caught in full view, exiting the cave, still carrying the backpack. She was moving fast, but for a fraction of a second, she stared fully at the camera.
Kat deftly captured the image and froze it. The image was grainy, but she certainly looked Native American, as the eyewitnesses had reported.
Painter leaned closer. His heart began pounding harder. “Can you zoom in?”
“The resolution’s poor. I’ll need a minute to clean it up.” Kat’s fingers flew over the keyboard. “I thought we should be ahead of the curve on this. The broadcast is slated for the top of the six o’clock hour in Salt Lake City. I happened to read a draft of the accompanying copy. It’s very inflammatory. Coloring the attack as a possible resurgence of Native American militancy. In the same broadcast folder, they posted archival footage of Wounded Knee.”
Painter bit back a groan. Back in 1973, members of the American Indian movement waged a bloody siege with the FBI in Wounded Knee, South Dakota. Two people were killed and many others injured in the firefight that ensued. It took decades for the tension between the tribes and the government to subside.
“Okay,” Kat said. “Program’s done rendering the sample.”
The image reappeared, a thousand times crisper. Kat manipulated the computer mouse to fill the screen with the girl’s face. The detail was amazing. Her dark eyes were wide with fear, her lips parted in a panicked breath, her ebony hair billowing out and framing distinctly Native American features.
“She’s certainly a looker,” Kat said. “Somebody must know her. It won’t take long to put a name to that pretty face.”
Painter barely heard the words. He stared at the screen. His vision narrowed, fixed upon that frozen image.
Kat must have sensed something wrong and turned to face him. “Director Crowe?”
Before he could respond, his cell phone rang. He pulled it out. It was his personal BlackBerry, unencrypted.
Must be Lisa checking about the barbecue party.
He put the phone to his ear, needing to hear her voice.
But it wasn’t Lisa. The caller’s words came rushed, breathless. “Uncle Crowe . . . I need your help.”
Shock choked him.
“I’m in trouble. So much trouble. I don’t know—”
The words suddenly died. In the background, he heard the growl of a large animal, followed by a sharp, terrified scream.