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.”