When they had the time.

Advertisement

He spun the jet boat back toward the blockade. They’d given the trio of pursuers a wild ride, weaving in and out of the line. The carbon-fiber hull had a few new holes in it, but Seichan had shot the same number of men.

She had proved her marksmanship had not dulled since he first met her. Of course, back then she’d been an assassin for the Guild, shooting at him.

Gray aimed their jet boat for the larger patrol cutter, a hundred-footer, plainly the command center for the fleet. He was confident that no eyes were looking toward where he’d hidden the others. He had planned on coming out here alone, expected to be captured, maybe killed.

And that hadn’t changed.

-- Advertisement --

Only Seichan had offered another plan—to gain something from their sacrifice. This entire mission had started from an act of piracy; perhaps another act of piracy could end it.

Half of piracy involved bloodshed and destruction.

From the sinking of the island, from the trail of bodies, they’d already accomplished that well enough.

The other half of piracy was the theft of treasures.

That is what they’d come here to do.

Gray raced toward the patrol cutter, heading dead-on, a maneuver the smaller ships had not expected. Caught off guard by the sudden suicidal move, the smaller boats were slow in closing the gap. Seichan further discouraged them. She stood, one knee on her seat for balance, her two arms raised out to either side, black SIGs in each hand. She laid down a deadly barrage of fire to hold that gap open long enough for Gray to slip past their line of defense.

Nothing stood between them and the lead ship of the fleet.

It was a fast-response-class cutter, typically holding a crew of twenty, painted stark white. And, like most modern patrol vessels, it featured a stern launch-and-recovery ramp, made for deploying pursuit boats, even while under way.

That was their target.

The ramp was currently empty, as the entire fleet had been called to duty to build the blockade around the island.

Gray aimed for that ramp with the last of his fuel and opened the throttle.

Crew members ran to the stern of the ship, flanking the ramp. Automatic weapons pointed. On deck, a 25 mm stabilized caliber gun mount swung toward them. Additionally, a patrol guard manned the round black disk of an LRAD—long-range acoustic device, used as a sonic nonlethal shield against pirates, a useful tool in these waters.

There was no way to assault that ship.

They had only one choice.

“Ready?” he asked.

“I’m out of bullets anyway,” Seichan said.

Gray throttled down, killing the engines—then stood up, joining her. He laced his fingers atop his head. She made a broad display of tossing her pistols overboard, then took the same position, hands on head.

“We surrender!” he called out.

The jet boat’s momentum carried them to the stern ramp and nosed them halfway up. Weapons tracked them on both sides.

A commotion followed.

The captain of the boat appeared at the top of the ramp. His dark features and heavy shadow of beard marked his Arab heritage. He was flanked by a thin, mustached man and a hard-muscled woman with a stern blond bob.

“On your knees!” the captain said, pointing a pistol.

They obeyed.

The captain barked an order in Arabic. Four men came racing down the ramp and dragged the boat the rest of the way up, then tied the craft in place, ensuring they didn’t try to flee. Another two boarded and pulled their arms down, cuffing them behind them.

Only then did the captain and the others come forward.

The thin man approached on Seichan’s side of the vessel, commenting in a stiff British accent. “She would be a perfect research subject, don’t you think, Petra?”

The blonde crossed over to Gray. “Careful, Dr. Blake. That one’s not for you. At least not yet.”

Petra leaned toward Gray. “Or this one. We thought hunting you or one of your colleagues would be harder. That makes me suspicious.”

She lunged a hand at his neck, fast enough to catch his throat. He reflexively tried to pull away. A ghost of a smile appeared, amused by the surprise in his expression. Her other hand moved equally swift. A needle jabbed into his throat. A burn, like acid, spread as she pushed the plunger.

He coughed at the intense pain.

Petra straightened. “No, we have special plans for this one.”

“What plans?” Blake asked, but his question had a faltering note, as if he didn’t want to know the answer.

“He’s a skilled sniper,” Petra began.

Gray fought to listen, but the acid burned through his consciousness. The world constricted, her voice drifted back down a long tunnel.

“Forty hours from now—”

Her final words trailed to a whisper as he slumped to his side, sprawling next to Seichan. His vision narrowed to a pinpoint. Through that tiny hole, he watched Seichan shift her knee, switching off the camera attached to Kane’s abandoned vest, hiding the fact that she had been recording the conversation before the others grew any wiser.

He prayed someone was listening—someone had to be listening.

This was the pirate bounty they’d risked so much to steal.

The most valuable treasure in the world.

Information.

As Gray faded to black, those last disturbing words followed him into oblivion:

“Forty hours from now, this man will assassinate the president of the United States.”

THIRD

HUNTING GROUNDS

32

July 3, 1:04 P.M. EST

Washington, DC

Painter waited for the storm.

He stood in the central hall that cut through the lowermost level of their command bunker. Here Sigma hid its deepest secrets. He stood outside a room that only a handful of people had entered in the past five hours. His muscles knotted as he kept his post.

He wanted to pace away his anxiety—needed to pace.

It had been almost a day since he heard any word concerning Kat and Lisa, and even then, it had only been some grainy footage caught on a bank ATM camera.

Not a word or sighting since.

It ate a hole through his gut, through his spirit.

But he had a duty that could not be forsaken.

At the end of the hall, the elevator chimed and opened. The first two people to exit were members of the Secret Service. They both eyeballed Painter. One came down the hallway; the other remained behind and waved President James Gant out of the elevator.

Two more agents followed behind.

General Metcalf accompanied the president. “This way, sir.”

Gant’s gaze locked onto Painter. A black cloud darkened his aspect: the fury in his eyes, the flush on his face, the hardness to his every move. Even his stride was angry. Painter hoped he could get a word out before getting punched. And he wasn’t entirely sure he wouldn’t still be slugged afterward. But the risk had to be taken.

The fate of the country depended on the next few minutes.

The press corps believed the president was attending a private meeting with the director of the Smithsonian. Even Gant thought he was here on Metcalf’s behalf to listen to Painter give an impassioned plea to save Sigma from the ax. The president had only agreed to come here after intense backroom negotiations by Metcalf. The general had to call in many political chits to get these five minutes of the commander in chief’s time.

Gant checked his watch as he crossed those final steps.

Apparently, time was already ticking down.

“This is a courtesy,” Gant said, his Carolina drawl thick with disdain. “Because of General Metcalf’s long, distinguished career. That’s the only reason I’m here. And this is the last courtesy I will extend to you.”

“Understood, Mr. President.”

Gant balled a fist. “So speak your piece and let’s be done with it.”

Painter instead turned to Metcalf. “What about the Secret Service agents?”

“Thoroughly vetted,” Metcalf answered. “All four. You’ll need them for what’s to come.”

Gant looked between the two of them. “Need them for what?”

Painter stepped back. “Before I speak, Mr. President, I need you to see something.”

Turning, Painter crossed to the door behind him. One of the Secret Service agents followed him. Painter opened the way and let the man go inside first to inspect the room. When he came out, his face was paler.

“Clear,” the agent stated, then stepped aside.

Painter held the door and nodded to Gant.

Glowering and straightening his tie, the president strode into the room.

Painter followed, shadowed by another agent, while the others took posts in the hall.

Gant stepped woodenly to the hospital bed. He stopped at the edge, his posture ramrod-stiff—then he collapsed to his knees, half-falling across the mattress. His shoulders shook. Then sobs wracked out of him.

If Painter had any lingering doubts about the man’s authenticity, they vanished in that moment.

“My baby …” he cried. “She’s alive.”

Amanda Gant-Bennett lay quietly on the bed, still under a light sedation. She wore a blue, flowered hospital gown. Intravenous fluids, along with two antibiotics, ran into a central line. Equipment monitored oxygenation, heart rhythm, and blood pressure. She wore a cap over her head. Beneath that, a bandage covered the surgery site where the cranial drill had been expertly removed by a neurosurgeon. A drain remained in place due to the length of time the burr hole had been left open. CT scans had showed the drill had penetrated the superior sagittal sinus through the frontal bone, but the cerebral cortex remained untouched. Secondary trauma had resulted in a tiny subdural hematoma, but that appeared to be resolving on its own.

With rest and time, she should fully recover.

Two other people occupied the room: Amanda’s neurosurgeon and Tucker Wayne. Neither man had left the young woman’s side since she arrived five hours ago. Her path back to the States had been a circuitous one. Jack Kirkland had transported her to the Deep Fathom, where medical personnel on board his ship had stabilized her en route to Abu Dhabi. There, Painter had called on the assistance of someone he trusted, someone who had powerful influences in the area: the oil baroness Lady Kara Kensington. She had arranged a private corporate jet while Painter prepared false papers.

-- Advertisement --