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.

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“‘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.”

“Very good.”

“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.

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