Authors: James Rollins
Tags: #Mystery, #Thriller, #Suspense, #Contemporary, #Science Fiction, #Adventure, #Historical
At last, he heard the rattle of the chopper’s chain guns.
What the hell . . . ?
Shock and disbelief froze him for a breath.
They were being fired at.
With a yank of the reins, he swung Mariah around.
A shout burst from his lips. “Hold tight!”
May 30, 5:14
“Still no luck tracing your niece’s cell,” Kat announced as she stepped into Painter’s office. “But we’ll keep trying.”
He stood behind his desk, checking the contents of his packed briefcase. The jet was set to take off from Reagan National in thirty minutes. It would get him to Salt Lake City in four hours.
He studied Kat’s face. A single crease across her forehead expressed her worry. He shared it.
It had been over half an hour since his niece’s frantic call had suddenly cut off. He’d been unable to raise her again. Had she dropped out of cell reception? Had she turned off her phone? Kat had attempted to track the cell’s trace but clearly was having no better luck.
“And there’s still no word of her being captured out in Utah?” he asked.
Kat shook her head. “The sooner you get out there, the better. If there’s any news, I’ll call you midflight. Kowalski and Chin are already waiting topside for you.”
He snapped closed his briefcase. Before the desperate call, he had planned on putting a team out in the field in Utah. He wanted someone from Sigma on hand to determine the true nature of that strange explosion. Chin was the perfect choice—and Kowalski could certainly use some field time as a member of an investigative team.
But with that one phone call, matters had become personal.
He picked up his briefcase and headed toward the door. For the moment they were keeping knowledge of his niece to as few people as possible, maintaining a need-to-know basis. Kai already had a large enough target on her back.
As an extra precaution, Painter purposely neglected to inform his boss, General Metcalf, the head of DARPA. That slight was done to avoid a lengthy explanation as to
Painter was heading out into the field. Metcalf operated strictly by the book, an inflexible posture that continually tied Painter’s hands. And considering the personal nature of his trip, Painter figured it was easier to ask for forgiveness from his boss than to get permission.
Plus he and Metcalf had not been on the best of terms of late, mostly due to a private investigation Painter had started six months ago, an investigation into a shadowy organization that had plagued Sigma since its inception. Only five people in the world knew about this secret research project. But Metcalf was no fool. He was beginning to suspect something was up and had begun to ask questions that Painter would prefer not to answer.
So maybe it was best to get out of D.C. for a while anyway.
Kat followed Painter into the hallway.
As they exited his office, a man stood up from a seat in the hall. Painter was surprised to see Kat’s husband, Monk Kokkalis.
Given his craggy features, shaved head, and boxer’s build, few suspected the sharp intelligence hidden behind that brutish exterior. Monk was a former Green Beret, but he’d been retrained by Sigma in the field of forensic medicine, with a secondary specialty in biotechnology. The latter came from personal experience. Monk had lost one of his hands during a prior mission. It had been replaced by a wonder of prosthetic sciences, employing the latest in DARPA technologies. Outfitted with all manner of countermeasures, it was half hand, half weapons system.
“Monk, what are you doing here? I thought you were running shakedown tests on that new prosthesis of yours.”
“All finished. Passed with flying colors.” He lifted his arm and flexed his fingers as proof. “Then Kat called. Thought you might need an extra pair of hands in the field. Or at least a hand and one kick-ass new prosthetic.”
Painter glanced to Kat.
She kept her face fixed. “I thought you could use someone with more field experience joining you on this trip.”
Painter appreciated her offer, especially because he knew how much Kat hated Monk being away from her side, especially now that she was about to give birth to their second child. But in this case, Painter refused for a more practical reason.
“Thanks, but with the escalating tension out on that mountain, I think a smaller, more surgical team might be best.”
As he watched the crease in Kat’s forehead relax, he knew he’d made the right call. While he was gone, he fully trusted Kat to fill in as the temporary director of Sigma—and he knew that with Monk nearby, she would remain focused. Her husband was both her anchor and the very water that kept her afloat. Monk slipped his arm around his wife’s waist, resting his palm on her full belly. She leaned into him.
With the matter settled, he headed down the hall.
“Be careful out there, Director,” Monk called to him.
Painter heard the longing in the man’s voice. It seemed the offer to accompany him might not have solely originated from Kat. Likewise, Painter’s decision to leave Monk behind was not entirely for Kat’s benefit. While the man was certainly
anchor, he served that same role for one other, a teammate who was having a very tough few months.
And Painter suspected it would get worse.
Commander Grayson Pierce did not know what to do with his mother. She paced the length of the medical exam room.
“I don’t understand why I couldn’t be there when the neurologist questions your father,” she said, angry, frustrated.
“You know why,” he replied calmly. “The social worker explained. The mental acuity tests they’re running on Dad are more accurate if family members aren’t present.”
She waved away his words as she turned and headed back across the room. He noticed her stumble, her left leg almost giving out. He shifted forward in his seat, ready to catch her, but she recovered her balance.
Leaning back into the plastic chair, Gray studied his mother. She had lost weight over the past couple of months, worn down by worry. The silk blouse hung from her thin shoulders, sagging enough to reveal one bra strap, a lack of modesty she normally would never have tolerated. Only her gray hair, done up and pinned back, remained perfect. Gray pictured her fussing over it, imagining it was the one bit of her life still under her control.
As she paced away her worry, Gray listened to the muffled exchanges going on in the exam room. He couldn’t hear any words, but he recognized the sharper notes of his father’s irritation. He feared an explosion from him at any moment and remained tense, ready to burst into the next room if needed. His father, a former Texas oil rigger, was never a calm man, prone to outbursts and sudden violence during Gray’s childhood, a temper exacerbated by an early disability that left the proud man with only one good leg. But now he was even more short-fused as advancing Alzheimer’s eroded away his self-control along with his memory.
“I should be with him,” his mother repeated.
Gray didn’t argue. He’d already had countless conversations about this with them both, trying to encourage moving his father into an assisted-living facility with a memory unit. But such attempts were met with stonewalling, anger, and suspicion. The two refused to leave the Takoma Park bungalow that they’d lived in for decades, preferring the illusory comfort of the familiar to the support of a facility.
But Gray didn’t know how long that could be sustained.
Not just for his father’s sake but also his mother’s.
She stumbled again on a turn. He caught her elbow. “Why don’t you sit down?” he said. “You’re exhausting yourself, and they should almost be done.”
He felt the frail bird bones of her arm as he guided her to a seat. He’d already had a private talk with the social worker. She had expressed concern about his mother’s health—both physical and mental—warning that it was common for a caregiver to succumb to stress and die before the actual patient.
Gray didn’t know what else to do. He had already employed a full-time nursing aide to help his mother during the day, an intrusion that was met with more resentment than acceptance. But even that was not enough any longer. There were growing issues with medications, with proper safety in his parents’ older house, even with meal planning and preparation. At night, any phone call set his heart to pounding, as he suspected the worst.
He had offered to move into the house with them, to be there at night, but so far that was a Rubicon his mother refused to cross—though Gray believed her refusal was motivated less by pride than by a feeling of guilt about imposing upon her son in such a manner. And with all the rough water under the bridge between father and son, maybe it was for the best. So for now, it remained a private slow dance between husband and wife.
The exam room door opened, drawing back his attention. He sat straighter as the neurologist entered the room. From the doctor’s stern expression, Gray anticipated that the assessment was grim. Over the next twenty minutes, Gray learned how grim. His father was sliding from the moderate stages of Alzheimer’s toward more severe symptoms. From here, they could expect to see trouble with his ability to get dressed on his own, to use the toilet. There would be more issues with him wandering and getting lost. The social worker suggested alarming the doors.
As this was discussed, Gray watched his father sitting in the corner with his mother. He looked a frail shadow of the domineering man he once was. He sat sullenly, scowling at the doctor’s every word. Every now and then a breathless “bullshit” escaped his lips, spoken so quietly only Gray heard him.
But Gray also noted his father’s hand clutching tightly to his mother’s. They held on to each other, weathering as best they could the doctor’s prognosis, as if by force of will alone they could resist the inevitable decline and ensure that neither would ever lose the other.
Finally, with a rush of insurance paperwork and prescription revisions, they were set free. Gray drove his parents back home, made sure they had dinner for the night, and returned to his own apartment by bicycle. He pressed himself hard, pedaling quickly through the streets, using the exertion to clear his head.
Reaching his apartment, he took a long shower, long enough to use up all the hot water. Shivering as the water turned cold, he toweled off, slipped into a pair of boxers, and headed into the kitchen. He was halfway toward the refrigerator and the lone bottle of Heineken left from the six-pack he’d bought yesterday when he noted the figure sitting on his La-Z-Boy recliner.
He spun around. Normally he wasn’t so unobservant. It wasn’t a good survival trait for a Sigma operative. Then again, the woman, dressed all in black leather and steel zippers, sat as still as a statue. A motorcycle helmet rested on the arm of the chair.
Gray recognized her, but it did not slow his spiked heartbeat. The small hairs along his arms refused to go down. And with good reason. It was like suddenly discovering a she-panther lounging in your living room.
“Seichan . . .” he said.
Her only greeting was an uncrossing of her legs, but even this small movement suggested the power and grace stored within her whip-thin body. Jade-green eyes stared at him, taking measure of him, her face unreadable. In the shadows, her Eurasian features looked carved out of pale marble. The only softness about her was the loose flow of her hair, longer now, below her collar, not her usual severe bob. The left corner of her lips turned slightly up, amused by his surprise—or was it just a trick of those shadows?
He didn’t bother asking how she’d gotten into his locked apartment or why she presented herself in such an abrupt and unannounced manner. She was a skilled assassin, formerly employed by an international criminal organization called the Guild—but even that name wasn’t real, only a useful pseudonym to use in task-force reports and intelligence briefings. Its real identity and purpose remained unknown, even to its own operatives. The organization operated through individual cells around the world, each running independently, none having the complete picture.
After betraying her former employers, Seichan was left with no home, no country. Intelligence agencies—including those in the United States—had her on their most-wanted lists. The Mossad maintained a kill-on-sight order. But as of a year ago, she now worked for Sigma, recruited unofficially by Director Crowe for a mission too secret to be on any books: to root out the identities of the true puppet masters of the Guild.
But no one was fooled by her cooperation. It was driven by survival, not by loyalty to Sigma. She had to destroy the Guild before it destroyed her. Only a handful of people in the government knew of the special arrangement with this assassin. To help maintain that level of secrecy, Gray had been assigned as her direct supervisor and sole contact within Sigma.
Still, it had been five weeks since she’d last reported in. And then it had only been by phone. She’d been somewhere in France. So far, all she’d been hitting was dead ends.
So what is she doing here now?
She answered his silent question. “We have a problem.”
Gray did not take his eyes off her. While he should be concerned, he could not discount a spark of relief. He pictured the beer bottle in the fridge, remembering why he had needed it. He was suddenly glad for the distraction, something that didn’t involve social workers, neurologists, or prescriptions.
“This problem of yours,” he asked, “does it have anything to do with the situation in Utah?”
“What situation in Utah?” she asked, her eyes narrowing.
He studied her, searching her face for any sign of deception. The bombing had certainly stirred up Sigma, and Seichan’s sudden appearance struck Gray as suspicious.
She finally shrugged. “I came to show you this.”
She stood up, passed him a sheaf of papers, and headed toward the door. Clearly he was meant to follow. He stared down at the symbol on the top page, but it made no sense to him.