“Then we can get as close as we can and use scuba gear to—”

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“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.

“That’s right.”

From the sound of the director’s voice, Painter was still not too keen on involving a third party, especially this person.

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“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.”

20

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.

4:46 P.M.

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.”

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.

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