The president was drawn by the activity.
“Can you zoom in and get a street address?” Painter asked Jason.
It was Gant that answered. “No need. I know where that is. That’s within my family’s estate. Fleury-la-Montagne.”
Before Painter could react, his cell phone vibrated. He answered it and was patched through to the unit commander in Arlington.
“Director, we found something here.”
Painter’s heart—already beating hard—sped faster. “What?”
“I took a photo. I’ve already dispatched it to you.”
Painter ordered Jason to retrieve it.
The commander explained while they waited. “We found it scrawled on the floor near the entrance hatch. Mostly invisible to the naked eye, but it glowed under an ultraviolet scan of the chamber. I think it was written with a smear of C-4.”
“Yes, sir. I scraped up a tiny dab with a toothpick. From the feel, from the chemical taste, I believe so.”
Jason interrupted. “I’ve got the photo.”
It appeared in the top corner of the monitor.
Three letters glowed with a soft phosphorescence against the dark concrete.
“RLG,” Painter mumbled aloud. “What does that mean?”
Again it was the president who answered, his voice pale with shock. “Those are my brother’s initials. Robert Lee Gant.”
Painter twisted to face him. They both knew some of Gant’s family members had to be involved with this mess, but neither of them suspected anyone this close to the First Family.
Gant stared over at his daughter, likely thinking the same—only for him, this dagger dug much deeper and straight into his heart.
“We can’t be sure about your brother,” Painter offered.
“I can,” Gant said faintly.
Gant pointed to the lower part of the computer screen. It still displayed the GPS map. “Bobby was headed to the family estate for the holiday, to avoid the Fourth of July crowds in DC. He left two days ago to do some hunting.”
Gant looked drawn and pale, his voice grim. “No one really uses that French name any longer. Everyone just calls it the Lodge.”
July 4, 1:04 P.M. EST
Blue Ridge Mountains
“His color is good,” Lisa pronounced.
She stood before the neonatal incubator. Her gloved hands gently rolled the newborn onto his side, and she listened to the back of his thin chest with her stethoscope. His heartbeat was as rapid as a bird’s, but strong, his pulse-ox readings normal.
She let him roll back on his own. Huge blue eyes, framed by a hint of eyelashes, ogled up at her, his lips pursed hungrily.
Edward Blake stood at her shoulder, watching her examination.
Petra was off in another lab, running the latest DNA analyses, using samples of the boy’s blood and skin, along with cells gathered from a mucosal swab.
“We should get another bottle.” Lisa snapped off her gloves. “He’s been suckling well on his own since we took out his NG tube and PICC line. Let’s keep him moving in that right direction. But all in all, he’s rallying beautifully.”
“That’s all because of you, Dr. Cummings,” Edward said.
It wasn’t false praise. Yesterday, she had found the child circling the drain. She had spent a full hour studying his labs, his radiographs, even his genetic analyses. She had stared with amazement at the triple helix formations on an electron micrograph: two natural DNA strands wrapped around an engineered foreign protein, PNA.
Peptide nucleic acid.
That little microscopic strand of PNA was the source of so much misery, horror, and abuse.
And it wasn’t doing the boy any good, either.
Edward had explained about the unraveling going on in the boy’s body, how these triple-helix compounds were breaking down. But the question still in the air was why. Did the boy get sick and that started to unravel the helices? Or did the unraveling make the boy sick?
The only way to know for sure was to stabilize the child and see if the unraveling stopped on its own.
Lisa had come up with a suggestion, after noting the slight spike in eosinophil levels in the boy’s lab work. Eosinophils were the white blood cells that modulated allergic inflammatory processes. They also reacted to parasitic infections, but stool tests had already ruled out that possibility.
The more likely source for this allergic response was the PNA strands. Peptide nucleic acid was a protein like any other, capable of being an allergen as surely as dust or dander. With the breakdown of the triple helices, the freed PNA was being washed out into the cytoplasm, then shed free of the cells.
Petra had shown her a picture of a worm-like PNA molecule squiggling out of an intestinal cell. This rush of engineered protein into the bloodstream and interstitial tissues triggered the mobilization of eosinophils, the body’s defense against such foreign invaders. This allergic anaphylaxis tipped the child into shock.
Recognizing this threat, Lisa had recommended a low-dose therapy of antihistamines and intravenous steroids to knock down that allergic response, to give the child’s body a chance to flush out the foreign allergen and stabilize again.
It worked out beautifully. She had kept a vigil beside the neonatal incubator all night, assisted by Edward as needed, and, hour by hour, the child improved. They were able to slowly unhook him from fluids, oxygen supplementation, and even the feeding tube.
Only one question remained: did it do any good?
Did the boy’s rallying health succeed in returning stability to the triple helices? She knew that was Edward’s hope. They both awaited Petra’s answer.
As Lisa fed the child with a bottle, Edward retired to a computer workstation in a neighboring cubicle. Both were lost to their own worries. Concern for the child’s well-being had staved off her terror for the past day, gave her something to focus on. She knew Kat was somewhere in this lab complex, but where was her friend holed up? For that matter, where was this lab?
So far, both Petra and Edward had treated her with a modicum of respect, appreciating and needing her help. She remembered those digitized words, a cold warning: Prove your usefulness, and you both continue to live.
With the child doing better, Lisa’s usefulness was about to come to an end.
She remembered who had assigned her to this job in the first place, picturing his kind face, his soft words.
Thank you, Dr. Cummings, for agreeing to help my grandnephew.
Anger raged inside her against that cool, calm demeanor of Robert Gant. She knew how much pain and suffering and loss it cost to bring this special child into existence, to this place and time. Still, she could not blame the child for such atrocities. The boy might have been born out of blood and heartbreak—but he was still an innocent.
The child finished suckling, the bottle was empty. Those big eyes drooped, heavy with milk-sodden drowsiness. Lisa let him drift into slumber, oblivious to the horrors beyond the clear plastic walls of his incubator.
She turned to Edward and limped over to him, favoring her aching ankle. Up on the wall, a camera tracked her path, swiveling to follow her. She wondered if Robert Gant watched her or merely some bored guard.
Exhausted, Lisa was beyond subtlety or subterfuge. “Edward, what are you trying to accomplish with these triple helices?”
He swung around on his desk chair. “Ah, I can’t speak to the goal of my financial benefactors. All I know is my purpose in the grand scheme of things.”
“And that’s what?”
He raised an eyebrow, belying the hubris that followed. “To forge the key to life itself.”
He gave her a tired smile, and, surprisingly, she echoed it.
“As lofty as that might sound, PNA is that key,” Edward explained. “It unlocks the full power of DNA and places the blueprints of life into our hands. With PNA, genomics experts can engineer strands that can turn specific genes on or off, unfettering mankind from its biological limitations. But it also allows new genes to be introduced, new code written onto the PNA and inserted into a fertilized egg. In the end, God will no longer evolve man—we will.”
Edward stared toward the child in the incubator. “But all that will come later. For the moment, we have only one goal engineered into this first strain of PNA, a simple thing really.”
Lisa felt a sick turn to her stomach. “What goal?”
Edward’s eyes never left the sleeping boy, the doctor’s expression a mask of wonder and also sadness.
Lisa couldn’t hide her shock.
“Do not be so surprised, Dr. Cummings. This child is not the first immortal born into this world.” Edward finally turned to her, letting her see his sincerity. “They walk among us already.”
Five hours left.
Painter had returned to his own office, leaving the president with his daughter below, guarded by his Secret Service contingent. They were under the five-hour mark until James Gant would come out of hiding and pretend to be recovering from major surgery. Everything to maintain that ruse was already in place.
He found Kowalski sitting inside, his feet propped up on Painter’s desk, his arms folded over his belly, snoring.
Painter shoved his legs off.
The man snorted awake. “We ready?” he asked.
“As we’re ever going to be.”
Painter grabbed a holstered SIG Sauer from a cabinet. The rest of the strike team’s gear was waiting at the airstrip, a jet warming up. As he secured the shoulder harness and holster in place, his eyes caught on the picture of Lisa on his desk, smiling softly, hair glowing in the summer sun, lips parted slightly. His love for her was a tangible thing, not a thought or a feeling, but a weight in his heart, a pressure in his chest, a stirring of heat in his veins.
At that moment, he knew the truth.
I need to buy a ring.
Motion at the door drew his attention. Tucker stood there, shadowed by Kane.
Painter gave his holster harness a final tug, cinching it snugly, and faced the man. “Captain Wayne?”