Anger burned at the edges of his dismay. He logically knew why the director had kept such a secret from him. Gray might have taken the man out immediately, jeopardizing everyone around him. And, ultimately, the foreknowledge of that traitor in the White House would not have changed Gray’s mission objectives.

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Apparently, such knowledge was “need to know” only.

And Gray wasn’t on that list.

Still …

You should have told me.

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“ONE MINUTE,” the voice warned. “YOU WILL WAIT FOR OUR SIGNAL—THEN FIRE.”

Gray secured the magazine in place and returned to his post at the aperture. Shame and anger burned through him. He didn’t know if the voice had been lying about those gas canisters—or if they’d be blown up anyway. Either way, Gray knew he couldn’t take that chance.

James T. Gant had to die.

He stared through the rifle’s telescopic scope and lowered the crosshairs to the profile of the president as the man turned to the side. He double-checked his range—seven hundred yards—and fixed the main targeting chevron of the rifle’s sights upon the occipital bone behind the man’s left ear, knowing a shot there would do the most damage. Festive music and bright laughter from the holiday picnic filtered to him. He let it all fade into the background as he concentrated on his target, on his mission.

In U.S. history, three presidents had died on the exact same day, on July 4, on the birthday of this country. It seemed beyond mere chance.

Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and James Monroe.

Today would mark the fourth.

Then the president leaned down, forcing Gray to follow him. The man ruffled the fur of a dog sharing the platform with him. Gray tensed, recognizing that shepherd.

Kane.

Gray zoomed out to watch James Gant straighten and shake the hand of Captain Tucker Wayne. The man must have recovered his uniform. His dress blues were decorated with the medals and awards from his tours in Afghanistan. It was appropriate that Tucker should be standing there on the dais, a war hero and his dog being thanked by a grateful commander in chief.

But Gray knew why Tucker and Kane were really there.

All the earlier anger at Painter’s secrecy dried up, leaving behind only relief and respect. The director must have received the recorded video from Dubai and understood—but what did he want Gray to do?

Gray searched the stage. Painter must have put Tucker up there for a reason. The former army ranger was not a regular member of Sigma, only a hired hand, so no one was likely to recognize him. But what was the message Painter was trying to send to Gray?

Then he knew.

It wasn’t just Tucker on that stage—but also Kane.

Gray shifted his concentration to the dog. The shepherd stood quietly, tail out, nose pointed up. Gray had seen that particular pose a few times before, when the dog had found the source of a scent.

Kane was pointing, like any good hunting dog.

Gray followed his gaze to a red balloon behind the podium, not far from the president’s head. Gray fingered the telescopic sight to zero in on that balloon.

It twisted in a slight breeze, revealing a small Greek letter in a darker shade of red, barely discernible unless you were looking for it.

Σ

He smiled and made some final adjustments to his weapon.

In his ear, he got the order he needed: “FIRE.”

Steadying his breath, Commander Gray Pierce pulled the trigger.

34

July 4, 12:00 P.M. EST

Washington, DC

No shot was heard—only the popping of a balloon.

Even that noise startled everyone on the podium.

Not Tucker.

He had been waiting for that signal. He used the distraction to press the button on the transmitter in his pocket. Small squibs, hidden under the president’s white polo shirt, exploded. Packets of the president’s own blood erupted out his back in a violent blast and seeped heavily over his heart in front.

The First Lady screamed, catching some of the spray on her face.

The Secret Service enveloped the president immediately, gathering him up and whisking him off the platform. Tucker got knocked to the side; Kane danced out of the way.

Another cordon of agents formed a living shield to protect the fleeing president. More crowded around the First Lady and rushed her in another direction.

Tucker tapped his leg, gathered Kane to his side, and rushed after the president’s group. Chaos exploded across the picnic grounds, the sudden violence catching everyone off guard. People yelled, kids were hidden under the bodies of protective parents, a barbecue got knocked over, setting fire to a tent. But a majority of those in attendance were military or former service members. Most had probably been under fire.

They made room for the flight of their wounded commander in chief; some even added to the body shield to protect the fallen president.

The president’s entourage reached the parking lot and the motorcade. As planned, the USSS Electronic Countermeasures Suburban, used by the Secret Service to stop any airborne attacks, ejected its arsenal of infrared smoke grenades, creating a thick pall to protect the president in his final flight to the waiting ambulances.

In that momentary confusion, a pair of Secret Service agents who were in on the ruse hauled the president into one of the emergency vehicles. Tucker climbed into the back. Kane jumped in after him.

The neighboring ambulance erupted with flashing lights and sirens and took off. The WHCA Roadrunner, the mobile command and control vehicle, sent out the false instruction, drawing the rest of the secure-package motorcade to follow the decoy. Armored vehicles gave chase, while local law enforcement blocked streets.

Staring out a window, Tucker watched an armored presidential limo race through the smoke with additional escorts, bearing to safety the First Lady, who must be beyond distraught, watching her husband shot right in front of her. They needed her to be the grieving wife for the cameras during the next few hours.

It was cruel, but no one could know of the subterfuge today.

Especially the enemy.

Amazingly, Painter had orchestrated a deception of this caliber after a single day of planning. He recruited only those he fully trusted, reaching out to a handful of people in various intelligence branches, but mostly he kept this entire operation in-house.

One of the Secret Service agents helped the president take off his buttoned polo. Gant wore a pained expression. The reason became clear as his bloody undershirt was stripped off and the exploded remains of the squibs removed. A blistered blast burn decorated the spot under his shoulder blade.

“Sir,” one of the Secret Service agents started, worried.

He was waved away. “I’m fine. Better than a bullet through the head.”

Another agent started the ambulance and set off, running dark, no flashing lights, no sirens. They headed in the opposite direction from the motorcade. The decoys were racing to George Washington University Hospital, where another team waited to continue the deception. In the story to come, it would be reported that the president was undergoing an extensive emergency surgery to repair his lung, that his chances were poor. They didn’t want to risk a second attempt on his life, so they would make it sound bad. But such a ruse could not be maintained for long without the threat of exposure.

So they set a six-hour time limit.

Six hours to bring down a shadowy cabal that had survived centuries.

Painter’s voice filled one ear. “Report.”

“The package is secure,” Tucker sent back, knowing their voice channel was kept secret by a modified version of the CCEP type-1 encryption algorithm developed by the NSA to keep presidential communications secret. “What about Commander Pierce?”

“We’re working on that right now.”

With advance knowledge of the sniper attack, Painter had set up a ring of tiny high-frame-rate, slow-motion cameras around the stage, all fixed on that balloon. Those cameras should have recorded the bullet’s passage and allowed immediate processing of the trajectory. A three-dimensional laser modeling of the park permitted the analysts at Sigma command to quickly trace the path of that bullet back to its source.

They needed Commander Pierce secured as soon as possible—not only for his safety but also to obtain whatever knowledge he had regarding the moves of the enemy, including the whereabouts of the president’s grandson.

Tucker felt a pang of regret, unable to escape the guilt of leaving Amanda’s child behind. He intended to do whatever he could to correct that mistake.

The first step toward that goal: find and secure Gray.

Without that man’s information, all of this subterfuge would accomplish nothing. In six hours, it would be announced to the world that the president had miraculously survived his surgery, and the thin advantage of the moment would evaporate.

He knew Painter didn’t expect to uproot the Bloodline completely by these actions, but he had one clear goal, the same one as Tucker: to find and recover Amanda’s child and expose everyone involved in this current bloody affair.

Even with such a defined objective, the odds were exceedingly long.

And without Gray, there were no odds.

Painter came back on the line. “We have his location. A utility bunker of an office tower. Seven hundred yards away.”

Tucker sighed in relief.

He locked eyes with the president. “We found him, sir.”

James Gant nodded, wincing. “We’d better not lose him.”

12:01 P.M.

Gray watched the hatch fall open.

He still held the sniper rifle in his hands. He had witnessed the explosive chaos following his single shot. As he watched, he held his breath, concerned the sarin gas would still be released, killing everyone in the park. When nothing happened, he suspected that threat had been a lie, after all. He saw Tucker race off with the president, rushing him to a secure location.

He understood the situation immediately.

They were faking the president’s death.

A risky move on the director’s part, but Gray understood why that risk had been taken. It spoke volumes about their desperation. They were likely backtracking a trajectory already, looking to find him, hoping he could supply additional information.

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